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Hi! I'm Emma. I like to write.





The blanket is warm. It's an old one, soft and comfortable, with the fleece worn away in patches. There's a stain down one edge, the faded honey-gold of a cup of tea gone tumbling. Outside, the rain beats against the windows. There's the faintest edge of chill seeping though the old wooden frames, a gentle bite that makes the puddle of warmth by the fire all the more inviting. Thunder rumbles ponderously in the distance.

Put your slippers on and pour the kettle. I've a story to tell you.

News and Updates

3rd October
Have a bit of a spooky story about an evil plushie, inspired by a conversation on the guild board.

21st August
Biggest story yet! The 24,000 word, ten chapter story that was my project for August. Enjoy Chasing Treasure!

27th July
A couple of minor tweaks in the layout; nothing major, but hopefully this will cut down on loading time. And put all the speech marks back in, dangit. How many times? /rage

Requests

A short story A self contained story for your character. Please provide a character reference or a prompt (which can be the customisation!) for me to base the story off.

A character introduction A short piece for your pet suitable for a pet lookup or as the opening section of a petpage. It sets the scene for the reader and introduces your pet.

A character design Aimed at pets, but can be for any character. Give me a starting prompt or theme (again, fine to use customisation) and I'll give you a character that fits it!

example | example
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Requests are open!

Sitely



My Other Sites


Credits
Stories

Being a collection of short stories and character pieces. If you request a piece,
this is most likely what you'll get.
Series

Being a longer story spanning several instalments, or several short stories or pieces grouped together.

Where We Are

Following my own story through Neopia, from the first day I arrived and was strong armed into the create a pet office.

Welcome to Neopia
But I don't want a pet!
Hi! So, you've just moved somewhere completely new, no money, no house? Here's a baby.
The Day After Lutari Day
"Is it a petpet?" Bannok asked, leaning over me to see it.
In which the family expands.
Bedtime Stories
I reminded myself of this at one o'clock in the morning. I love my pets. I do.
In which Bannok and Samitan have a fight in the middle of the night, of course they do.

Chasing Treasure

Bannok and Samitan are simple souls. They sail. They bicker, as all brothers do. Bit of looting, bit of theft, bit of breaking and entering - all in a pirate's life. But they've got themselves in over their heads with this one and there's far worse than treasure hidden in the map they're following.

Chasing Treasure is loosely connected to Where We Are. A "What if Bannok and Sam where actually pirates" story, because they always wanted to be.

Chapter 1: Trombones and Tuxedos Chapter 2: Fast as you Can Chapter 3: Into The Teeth Chapter 4: Sunken Treasure Chapter 5: Danger from the Depths Chapter 6: Drop your Guard Chapter 7: Eyes Wide Open Chapter 8: Hand on your Sword Chapter 9: Head Held High Chapter 10: Spring the Trap Epilogue

Neopian Lands

The lands of Neopia and the pets therein, a character exploration.

Meridell
Meridell is built for strength.
The Haunted Woods
The Haunted Woods are unfriendly and unwelcoming; the Haunted Woods are bad.
Altador
Altador is a city of heroes lead by a king who is a good man. Your history books will attest to this.

Catharsis Map Challenge

For a guild challenge: write (and draw) descriptions for new lands, fantastical creatures, and faraway cities. Worldbuilding run riot, yo.

The Bone Eater Desert
The salt plains to the north are dry, desolate, and inhospitable. They form the bone eater desert; the people who live here survive out of sheer bloody-mindedness.
The Floating Islands of Nehira
On the backs of giant turtles, far above the clouds, are the floating islands. Waterfalls pour off the turtles' shells, rainbows arch between the islands, and dragons are in the air.
Karock-Kah Ohr
The City of the River People is a sprawling, gluttonous hive over the murky lake, surrounded by the twisted metal skeletons of trees long since dead.
The Enchanted Isle
The fae folk are tricky and cruel; beneath the veil of beauty and magic, their isle is a treachourous place with a bloody history.
Western Ice Floes
On the surface, the ice floes seem barren. But under the surface, the twin cities of Yor Kith and Yor Knaith are thriving metropolises.
Neter-Khertet
Land of the spirits and the shifting desert, battleground for the eternal war between the sun and the moon. Neter-Khertet is not for the faint of heart.
Poetry

A collection of poems written either for guild challenges or for various neopets related themes.
The Rag Bag

Odds and ends - unfinished stories, scraps, and bits of descriptive work that didn't fit anywhere else.
Plushie
It starts with a party. Streamers, cake, a brightly coloured pinata and a fountain of sweets falling out of it - the usual things. He was happy, laughing, his hair sticking up every which way and his trousers covered in mud. Little Jenny from down the road brought him a balloon shaped like a shark, one of those fancy ones on a stick from the man in the park, and he spent most of the afternoon chasing people with it.

He opens his presents with delighted, gleeful shrieks, sheets of red and blue falling around him in discarded carnage. The monster truck distracts him so much he has to be reminded to open the rest. He shouts out his thanks for each one he comes across, and the huddle of mothers in the corner smile indulgently at him. In your mind, you're cataloguing the damage - finger paints from Mrs Ludlow, that's got to be payback for the toy drum you got her daughter two months ago, and that crafting kit will go in the cupboard to be regifted, there's no way he's got the patience to work through that. The book is an interesting choice - Swallows and Amazons? A bit old fashioned, but he likes his adventures just fine and it'll do him good to read something with more words than pictures for once. You nod approvingly at Mrs Adams, and she raises a haughty eyebrow back.

"My Sophie's already read them, of course," she murmurs to you, false humility layered thinly over her pride. "But Sophie's always been a precocious child." You smile back as blandly as you know how.

The plushie is added to the pile with no more or less care than anything else, and he's too polite to turn his nose up at the soft pastel colours but you can read it in his expression all the same. It looks second hand, one eye replaced with a button and the cotton-thread smile stitched on a bit lopsided, but you don't begrudge the gifter - there's a lot of kids in town and they're still at the age when they invite everyone they know to their parties. Not everyone can keep up with the present demand.

The next present is a plastic dinosaur, and naturally it's set to attacking the shark balloon. You hover, ready to sweep in and rescue the bowls of hula hoops in case the battle spreads to the food table. The plushie slips out of your mind.

---

The plushie sits on the windowsill, next to the child sized cricket bat that never gets used and the power ranger action figure that was apparently the wrong colour. It's there in the evenings when you tuck him in and it's there in the mornings when you steal his blanket in one swift tug and remind him, again, that he's going to be late for school.

It's in his hand in the middle of the night when he stands in the doorway and sniffs and says he had a bad dream. You stumble your way out of bed and keep one eye closed against the painfully bright light on the landing, and you lead him back to his room and sit with him until he falls asleep. You wait a few minutes more just in case, and stare at the bedside light for far too long as your sleep addled brain tries to remember which setting is the dimmer nightlight setting.

The plushie is still in his hand when you stub your toe on the way back to your own bed and bite your cheek to muffle the angry curses.

---

You watch him for the next few days, but it was just the one night and just the one bad dream. You let him keep the nightlight (you suspect he turns it on anyway when you leave the room) but just for now, you remind him. He's a big boy now, he grew out of needing his nightlight months ago.

He nods and smiles and shoves his cornflakes in his mouth and tells you for the fourth time about the substitute teacher they have because Mrs Dunn is having a baby, an actual, real life baby, so she can't be at school you see because she's having a baby. You nod and smile back at him and remind him to swallow first, speak second. He asks - through another mouthful of cornflakes - if he'd be allowed to skip school if he had a baby too?

You sigh and reach for the napkins to wipe his chin.

---

Work throws a curveball at you. The client's claiming you haven't followed the brief, he's distraught that his great launch will be ruined by your wilful dismissal of his requests, he wants it fixed and he wants it fixed yesterday.

It's a superhuman feat of will, or possibly divine intervention, that prevents you from dumping your coffee over his head. You need that coffee. Still, your voice is a touch strained as you point out that he approved the prototype with much enthusiasm (there were four exclamation marks in the email, you have it saved in his client folder) and that he's had the final product for close to two weeks now. Surely he could have pointed out any amendments at either of those points, and not 72 hours before the system is supposed to go live?

He's been busy, of course. He hasn't had time to do these things - that was why he hired you in the first place, he thought you were some measure of competent and he could trust you to get the job done. But no, he understands, if there's no time to fix it then it will have to do as it is - but he isn't paying full price for it, you hear? Nowhere near, and you're lucky he's willing to pay anything at all.

You down the coffee. It burns your throat, far too hot to drink, but you're too angry to care.

And later, when it's eight nine ten o'clock at night and your son still hasn't asked for his bedtime story, you're too busy and still too angry to care about that either. You do check in on him on your way back from a bathroom break, but he's asleep, the gentle glow of the nightlight reflecting off the plushie's shiny button eye in his arms.

You spare a moment to be surprised; you'd been so sure the pastel colours weren't his thing.

Then the coffee maker beeps at you and it's eleven twelve one o'clock, you thought you heard something upstairs but it's two three four o'clock and he knows not to bother you when you're working late unless it's a life or death situation.

Maybe it was, except that you were busy and you were angry and as the sun crested the horizon and the birds began to sing, you were too tired to care.

---

The client doesn't pay full price. He takes the amendments you made (which weren't amendments at all, the lier, they were a whole extra leg of the project that he should have paid through the nose for, but you're living paycheck to paycheck and what court of law would ever stick up for you?) and he tells you that he's happy to recommend your services and you're allowed to display the project in your portfolio. He boasts about the size of the launch, the exposure you're sure to get, as though it's something you'll be grateful for.

You spend that night on ebay, taking photos of the clothes you don't wear that often and trying to write listing descriptions that don't sound too desperate. You waste an hour on a spreadsheet as though pretty formatting will make the numbers more palatable, and you mentally scratch nutella off the shopping list in favour of generic red jam that's half the price and none of the taste.

You expect him to kick up a fuss at that. He loves nutella, more than anything - more even than the fancy chocolate cereals he's already had to give up in favour of cornflakes, and you're pretty sure that tantrum could've been heard from Japan.

He nods when you explain, solemn and serious but miraculously not sad.

"You aren't angry?" you ask, bracing yourself for the other shoe to drop.

"No," he says, and you are too busy being relieved to push it any further. You put the last of the nutella in a sandwich in his lunch box and drive him to school, remembering at the last minute to take the plushie out of his backpack before he walks off with it.

---

Little Jenny comes round that weekend, asking if she can come and play. You let her in with a smile and promise her father that you'll have her home by four. She chatters happily around a biscuit as you pour her a glass of juice and you make appropriate noises at appropriate places but don't pay much attention. You do pick up that there's supposed to be a sports day at school next week and she's in the relay race, and that makes you frown; had you heard of a sports day coming up? You didn't think so.

You resolve to ask about it later, but for now you lead her upstairs with two juices and a packet of own-brand tea biscuits balanced on a tray. The bedroom door is closed, so you knock awkwardly with your elbow and announce that you've brought a food and a friend.

It takes a while for the door to open, enough that you half expect him to have gone back to bed and fallen asleep since you saw him that morning. You wouldn't be surprised; he's been looking a bit peaky recently. You've been slipping satsumas into his lunch box and stocking up on tissues for when the inevitable cold will hit, but so far, thankfully, nothing has come of it.

He does come to the door in the end, eyes flicking from your food tray to Jenny with an unnervingly blank expression, but it's gone soon enough and replaced with a smile. Jenny's answering grin is exuberant enough for the both of them, and you leave them to it.

It's only ten past three when you drop Jenny off back at her house, and you apologise again to her father that your son made her cry. He waves it off; "Boys will be boys," he says, and, "As long as it's not a habit then I see no harm done."

Still, your voice is stern when you get home. He stands through it sullenly, head bowed and half hidden behind his hair. He refuses to answer your demands about what happened and in the end you give up. There's nothing gained by shouting and he's not responding to anything else.

It worries you, but more because it's a new situation that you don't know how to deal with. No child is perfect, you know that, you've been so lucky that he's such a good kid. It's probably just because he's a bit ill. You start rearranging work projects in your mind in case you need to keep him home from school on Monday, and collect the undrunk juice and uneaten biscuits from his room.

---

You don't keep him home on Monday, but his teacher sends him home all the same. It's the substitute, and she seems a bit too shy to properly tell you what he did, but you gather that he's causing trouble all the same.

"You going to tell me what's going on?" you ask him, making eye contact in the rear-view mirror as you drive him home. He brandishes the plushie at you, and you drum your fingers against the steering wheel in exasperation.

"You know where I am when you feel like talking," you tell him.

---

He doesn't talk for the rest of the day, nor that week. You do keep him home the next day in case he's sick, and you even force a spoon of calpol down his throat as though that will cure his lack of appetite. He swallows the medicine in stoic silence and returns to his room.

A week turns into two. The next disaster happens at work when it becomes clear that the client had passed on the wrong requirements from his boss, but on the plus side you get paid a bonus for sorting that one out. It almost makes the all nighters worth it.

It's only on those all nighters that you realise it's not just the nightlight that's on at two thirty in the morning. He's definitely asleep, even if it doesn't seem a restful one, so you flick the lights off and mutter to yourself about the electric bill.

The lights are back on when you pass the room next. You talk to him the next morning at breakfast - cornflakes, again, because the bonus isn't paid till Thursday - but he doesn't listen.

He doesn't eat, either, just stirs his cornflakes into a mushy soup.

Your strict instructions to not waste electricity trail away, and you fire an email off from your phone under the table to cancel your plans for the day.

He's silent in the waiting room. Stares at the doctor, vacant and bored, his eyes reddened from lack of sleep. He's pronounced in full health, if a bit lacking in sleep, and he's unhelpful when you try and prompt him to explain to the kind lady why he's not been sleeping well.

"Something's not right," you insist, but the doctor is firm. Physically he's fine. She refers you to a child psychologist, and you quail somewhat at the bill.

You reopen the spreadsheet when you get home, trying to stretch the bonus to cover the psychologist.

"Unnecessary," he says, clipped and sharp, and it takes you a second to realise it's him. He's standing oddly, shifting in place as though unused to his limbs, tipping his head back and forward on his neck to get a feel for the weight of it. The plushie swings from his arm. He's holding it by the neck, fist wrapped around it in a strange parody of a choke hold, and for one fantastical second you imagine that the plushie's trying to escape.

"The psychiatrist," he clarifies at your lack of response. "Her services won't be required." He smiles, cold and satisfied, and turns the raggedy plushie over in his hands. It stares back at him, felted mouth open in a terrified scream, and you feel the sudden urge to snatch it away from him, keep it safe. He slides one thumb under the button eye and twists it, an idle movement belayed by the gleeful cruelty on his face.

"Everything is as it should be," he purrs, foreign and alien not your son, and the button snaps off.

He walks away and you aren't too busy to care, now, nor too angry, but you find yourself unable to follow him all the same.



You are currently reading Short Stories

Next entry:
The Forgotten Shore
We're from Krawk Island, sonny boy. We don't play nice when there's loot to be had.
In some disreputable corner of a tavern, an old Zafara has a story to tell.
Chasing Treasure
Chapter 1: Trombones and Tuxedos
"Land ho!" Sam cried from his perch in the bow of the ship. "It's the palace alright – I've never seen a tower that high!"

"Well, what did you expect?" Bannok asked, adjusting the helm a degree or two to starboard to catch the shifting wind. "Royal pets. Always got to outdo each other, building bigger palaces and throwing fancier parties." The timbers of the Silver Arkmite creaked as she swung around, the salt-soaked ropes slapping against the mast as the sails filled. "Sammy, the main sheet," Bannok ordered, gesturing with a tilt of his head.

"Aye, Cap'n." Sam darted down the ship to secure the rope, tying it off in an easy, practised motion. His gaze stayed fixed on the shore and the gleaming spire of the palace. "I wonder what it would be like," he mused. "Parties and fancy clothes and all you could ever eat. Must be nice."

Bannok snorted. "Politics and courtiers and stone walls everywhere you look. Sure, sounds wonderful."

"Yeah, but think of the food, Bannok. If I was a prince, I'd demand sixteen – no, seventeen fish pops for breakfast. With custard, fish pops and custard."

"Fish pops aren't breakfast food," Bannok protested. "And even if they were, you can't eat them with custard. That's just – ew, no."

Sam ignored him, staring off into the distance in a dreamy, food induced haze. "And I'd have cake for pudding every day, and coconut steaks. Faerie pancakes with an entire jar of honey on each one." He glanced back, pulling a face at Bannok's unimpressed expression. "Oh, come on. Don't tell me you like eating breadfish and hard tack every day."

"I'd rather eat hard tack than be trapped in a palace." He said it with such finality that Sam's ears drooped. The young lutari rested his chin on his paws, staring moodily out to the shore.

Bannok rolled his eyes. It was a stupid game, but there wasn't much else to do with the weather so calm. It wouldn't hurt to indulge his brother for now. "Cloud puffs. If I was a prince, I'd eat cloud puffs."

In less than a second, Sam was grinning again, ears up and mouth watering as though he could taste the feast he was envisaging. "Easter neggs and ice cream," he countered excitedly.

"Asparagus."

"Asparagus? You could eat anything in Neopia and you eat vegetables?"

"Vegetables and salad, Sammy. Food of kings."

"Salad," Sam declared, puffing his chest out, "is petpet food. Princes do not eat salad."

The Silver Arkmite sailed on, the playful bickering between the two as familiar a sound as the breaking of waves against the hull or the occasional flap of canvas as the wind gusted against the sails. She was a small ship, but elegant, her deck a rich golden brown and her triangular sails bleached white in the sun. The kyrii at her helm cut a striking figure in his navy coat, every inch of him a captain from the leather buckles on his boots to the salt-mussed white fur which ran down his back and into his tail. His younger brother, Sammy, the eternally hungry, was a lutari, sleek and streamlined and as at home in the water as he was on land. Or better yet on board, or up the mast, or leaning over the prow and watching the wild delfin play in the bow wave.

So the pair of them came into port, Bannok vainly trying to convince his brother that princes did not eat their weight in chocolate every night as a midnight snack, and Sam maintaining that as far as he was concerned there was no other reason to be a prince, even as he leapt onto the docks with a rope eased the Silver Arkmite into her berth.

"Ten neopoints to watch yer ship, guv," a scruffy bori offered as they disembarked. "Keep it safe as houses, no ropes gone astray, no scratches in the paint, no nuffin', honest's the word."

"People nick ropes – in the royal harbour?" Sam asked, disbelief clear in his tone. "You're bluffing."

The bori bristled. "I ain't! I wouldn't never. It's honest work, what with the thieves' guild winning the latest skirmish and all."

"You expect me to believe the thieves' guild cares about a bit of spare rope – "

"Sam, enough," Bannok quietened him, putting a steadying paw on the irate lutari's shoulder. He fished around in the pocket of his coat and withdrew a handful of coins. "Here," he said, tipping them into the bori's waiting claws. "I expect her to be pristine when we get back, mind."

"As you say, guv," the bori promised happily, and scampered off to watch for the next pets to moor up to the dock.

"Bannok," Sam whined, not bothering to hide his annoyance. "That's the stupidest scam to fall for. Ever. The Arkmite doesn't even have paint to get scratched!"

Bannok shook his head and dragged Sam off with a long-suffering sigh. "Ten neopoints won't break the bank for us, but it might be the difference between supper or nothing for him. Let him have them."

"Stupid, soft-hearted sap," Sam muttered under his breath, but followed willingly enough.

"Sammy. I heard that."

"So, where are we going?" he asked, the swift change of subject accompanied by a sunny smile that fooled no one. "I thought the map piece was somewhere in the palace; this road leads into town."

Bannok's ears twitched once in annoyance, but he let it slip and turned his focus to the plan. "It is in the palace. Somewhere." He frowned, turning the facts over in his mind. The map piece they were looking for was the fifth of nine pieces that, pieced together, marked the location of the White Horn's treasure hoard, one of the most powerful pirate lords of the last century. No one knew who he was, or even what species. Some said that he was a uni, got his nickname from the foot long horn sprouting from his forehead. Others claimed he was a kougra or a draik, or even a lenny, armed with a great battle horn that with one blow could deafen his enemies and make even the hardiest pirate foe quake in their boots.

Whoever he was, he'd been rich, and he'd left the map to his treasure scattered in pieces across Neopia. Bannok and Sam had found the first piece by sheer luck, tucked amongst the scrolls and sea charts of a shady second hand dealer in Altador. They'd not recognised it at first, not realised the importance – Bannok had almost thrown it away until Sam had asked to keep it as a curiosity. The second piece had come from an old sailor, a greying yurble who walked with the rolling gait of a pet not used to dry land and drank as though the grog would never run dry. He'd told them the story and pressed the map piece into Bannok's paws; Keep it safe, he'd said. I'm too old for this, too tired to fight if they come looking, and these bones won't stand for running any more. We hid it for a reason, lad, you remember that. Keep it hidden. Keep it safe.

A cryptic warning like that – it was a red flag to a kiiyak. In barely a month they'd tracked down the third piece and liberated it from the pirate themed gallery it had been stored in. The fourth they won in a high stakes game of chance, aided by a couple of loaded dice and an air faerie that owed them a favour. Or rather, Sam won and Bannok watched; the younger pirate cheated like he was born to it and could produce aces out of thin air when he needed. Bannok had long given up trying to play himself - he was always too fair and lost far more than he ever gained - and contented himself with fretting when Sam bet their ship on the turn of a card, Sammy please, are you sure you know what you're doing, we really really need that ship don't you dare lose it or I will throttle you with your own tail, I mean it Sammy, your own tail.

And now, here they were. Piece number five was somewhere in the castle, disguised as one of the artworks according to their research. Problem was, a castle that size? Paintings everywhere. It would take several nights to check each one. He and Sam were good at sneaking, but not even they could break into the same place multiple times over. Not without getting caught.

Hence the plan.

"It's the anniversary of the town's founding," he explained to Sam. "There's celebrations all week – a carnival down the main street during the day, and a party at the palace every night."

"So what, we sneak into the party?" Sam shook his head, lips turned down. "I don't know, Bannok. It wouldn't be that easy. They'll have guards up, checking that the guests don't wander where they aren't supposed. And we can't go every night; these parties are a one night only gig for the normal folk."

"So we don't go as guests. They'll have hired extra staff – I'll find a kyrii, persuade him his week will be better spent in the tavern, and take his uniform."

"Yeah, sure, kyriis are everywhere," Sam grumbled. "You got a lutari in mind for me to impersonate?"

Bannok smiled, unable to keep it from turning into a gleeful smirk. "Not as such," he admitted. "But, I happen to have it on good authority that one member of the royal orchestra has fallen mysteriously ill and taken himself to faerieland for the week to enjoy the healing springs' hospitality."

Sam gaped at his brother with dawning horror. "You didn't," he protested weakly.

"You mean I didn't bribe the chef's boy to be a bit liberal with the poison jelly?"

Sam moaned, covering his eyes with his paws. "Please tell me you didn't." Bannok smiled sweetly back at him.

"You mean I didn't forge a letter from Queen Nabile and send it via express yooyu courier to the palace, expressing her sympathies and offering the services of her own personal trombonist for the duration of the celebrations?"

"I don't even play the trombone!"

Bannok shrugged, unrepentant. "You play the saxophone," he said. "Trombone, saxophone, they're the same thing, right? Now come on Maestro, you're expected at the palace in three hours and we need to buy you a suit. And a trombone." He strode on into town with a spring in his step, whistling a cheerful tune and far too pleased with himself.

"I hate you," Sam told his retreating back. "Hate."

"Love you too, brother," Bannok replied with an airy wave. "Chop chop, mustn't keep the royal orchestra waiting."

---


Sam pulled at the collar of his suit and scowled. Bow ties were the worst thing ever. Who decided that choking yourself was the thing to do? Rich people. Ugh. Sam genuinely cannot understand them.

The trombone he and Bannok had 'purchased' (read: loaned and left an anonymous IOU note) was the best the town had to offer, but still not as good as Sam wanted. He was an artist, he had standards, ok? One of the key standards was that his instrument have a reed like, say, a clarinet or I don't know a bleeding saxophone Bannok you prat. He managed (just about) to produce a decent sound from the trombone instead of a pathetic, dying whine, but he was glad that trombonists were usually given accompanying parts instead of solos.

Still, he caught sight of his captain swanning around the back of the hall in his frilly waiter's uniform (actual lace frills! This made Sam's entire month) and stifled a smirk. In comparison, the suit wasn't quite so bad. Not that he liked it. Because he didn't. Bow ties. Cufflinks. Ugh.

Whoops, time to play. Lungs at the ready, fingers go somewhere and hope for the best, three-two-one BLOW. (Ow. Where's the volume control on this thing?)

---


"Caviar, sir?" Bannok murmured as he held out the silver tray. It was worth more than what he and Sam spent in a month. The delicately filled vol-au-vents were topped with chives and gold leaf, each piece arranged just so. He kept his face impassive and nonjudgemental as the guests took one - or sometimes two - and ate them with none of the savouring such rich food deserved.

"Caviar," a particularly elegant aisha said with a moue of distaste. "How... boring."

"Oh absolutely," her companion agreed. He made an exaggerated show of washing down the one he'd just eaten with a mouthful of champagne. "Unimaginative, isn't it? But then, one shouldn't expect too much, my dear. I believe the town still relies on fishing for its economy, doesn't it?"

"Fishing? Goodness, in this day and age?"

"Well someone must, and let us be thankful at least that it isn't us."

"Yes," a bori chimed in, his watery eyes focussing on Bannok with a sympathetic look. "Good of them to take one for the team, I suppose."

"Magnanimous of you," Bannok said with a small bow. He turned away without waiting for an answer and added under his breath: "you pompous git."

A faerie xweetok to his left arched an eyebrow at him. "I beg your pardon?" she asked in an accent that could cut glass. Her antennae quivered in his direction.

"I'm sorry, ma'am?" Bannok blinked, feigning ignorance. He swung the silver plate forwards like a shield. "Caviar?"

"No." She wrinkled her nose to emphasise the refusal. "The presentation disagrees with me. I suppose Lord Baeyren really will hire anyone who comes to his door these days." She cast a disparaging glance over Bannok's borrowed outfit that set his fur bristling. "Pity," she said, and whirled away in a cloud of pink chiffon. Bannok bit his cheek to stop himself from gaping after her in outrage. Had Baeyren deliberately gone searching for the rudest, snobbiest guests to invite?

"Chin up," one of the other waiters advised with a wry smile. "The first day's always the worst. It's a giant one-upmanship competition, they get over themselves soon enough."

"If they got over themselves in the next five minutes I'm not sure it would be soon enough," Bannok muttered. He swept his gaze over the party, taking in the lavishly decorated room. Baeyren had gone all out for the anniversary. The hall was so covered with silk hangings in the town's signature gold and blue colours that the walls were barely visible. Tapestries depicting the story of the town's founding adorned what little was not hidden under swathes of silk, and a life sized ice sculpture of the first king and his beloved queen took pride of place in the centre of the room. How the various royal and noble guests could find fault was beyond him.

"It's not so bad," the other waiter insisted. "You should try working kitchens. I'd rather take a sharp word from one of this lot than be in range of chef's ladle, I'll tell you that for free."

"I'll take your word for it then." Bannok tipped his head in a friendly nod and went to brandish his val-au-vents at more unappreciative guests.

He caught Sam's eye several times throughout the evening and made meaningful glances at one of the side doors, but Sam was only ever able to grimace back and gesture helplessly at the conductor. Bannok bit his cheek to hide a scowl as he collected a new tray - this one had tiny castle shaped jellies on it, of all things - and turned the problem over in his mind. He'd been counting on Sam being able to slip away during the ball to look for the painting. A trombone was hardly a central instrument in an orchestra; surely he'd be given a break or two? Unfortunately not, it seemed. Sam had scant few minutes to down a flask of water between pieces, let alone sneak off to search for the map piece.

It was, as Sam told him that evening, an unmitigated failure.

"Because someone stuck me in an orchestra," the lutari was saying (had been saying for what, the last half hour or so?) "With an instrument I can't play, mind you, in a party for a town renowned for its folk dancing accompanied by full score orchestra, you know?"

"As it happens, I do know," Bannok grumped.

"And it gets worse!" Sam continued as if Bannok hadn't spoken. He flopped onto the bed in an inelegant sprawl, limbs hanging off each end and his tail hooked around the bed-post for balance.

"Deary me, how it could it possibly get worse?"

"No snark. Serious time, Bannok. They're running dances in the town square for the next three days and the orchestra has to be there for all of it."

Bannok sat up, his ears sitting flat against his head in dismay. "They what?" he asked.

"Three days, all day, sun up to sun down." Sam's voice dropped into a more sombre tone. "And at sun down it's straight in here to play for the party. No time off, no chance of slipping away."

This was, as Sam had surmised, a disaster. "What about meals?" Bannok tried.

His brother shook his head. "We get twenty minutes in the common hall. They're working us hard here."

Bannok ran through it in his mind, trying to think of a way out - but Sammy wasn't daft. If he said there was no chance, there was no chance. "That leaves night time then. At least we're inside the palace, that's got to count for something."

"I'm inside, you mean. In the musicians' quarters. Which you aren't supposed to be in and will get thrown out from if you're caught."

"Caught?" Bannok scoffed. "Please Sammy, have some respect. We'll work nights - I'll scout the security tomorrow while you're playing in the square, meet me by the back staircase when the party ends." He swung himself out the window without waiting for an answer, spared a quick glance to check that no one was watching, and dropped silently to the ground.

"Oh sure," he heard Sam muttering back in the room. "Work from dawn to midnight, then work some more. It's not like it's hard to learn a new instrument on the fly or anything. Who needs sleep?"

Bannok suppressed a grin. Sammy could complain all he wanted, but he'd managed just fine with the trombone. Bannok wouldn't have set it up otherwise; it was one thing to mess with his younger brother but an entirely different thing to endanger a heist. Besides, the challenge was good for him.

He glanced up at the imposing towers, lit from behind by the silver moonlight. Tomorrow. They'd begin their search for the map piece tomorrow night.



You are currently reading Chasing Treasure

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Chapter 2: Fast as you Can
Chasing Treasure
Chapter 2: Fast as you Can
Midnight came. Midnight went.

Half past midnight came and went.

At seventeen minutes to one, Sam appeared, bow tie hanging untied around his neck and shirt sleeves rolled up to his elbows.

Bannok dropped from his perch in the rafters, interrupting Sam's lazy saunter. He stood with arms crossed and one eyebrow raised, waiting. Sam, the idle menace, grinned at him.

"Yo!"

"Yo?" Bannok repeated incredulously. "Almost forty minutes late, and you open with yo?"

Sam shrugged, unrepentant. "Yeah, sorry about that. After party in the musicians' quarters, hard to get away from. You manage to scope out some good options for us then?"

Bannok glared. "No thanks to you, layabout. Planning to quit pirating and become a full time musician?"

Sam set his jaw mulishly, sensing the brewing argument. "I might. Someone went to all the effort to forge me this fancy recommendation letter from Nabile, seems a shame for it to go to waste. The trombone's not half bad once you get around the fact that you're blowing raspberries down a metal tube. Are we going to loot and pillage or what?"

Bannok huffed, frustrated. "Just... Fine. Never mind. The third floor's got some good ones. East wing mostly, but there's a few in the west wing I'm dubious about - they might be too old. Hard to tell without closer examination."

"Lead the way, Cap'n," Sam offered with an exaggerated bow.

"Pest."

"The best pest."

By the time they reached the east wing, the argument, like so many other trivial arguments between the brothers, was forgotten. It was inevitable; they had different personalities. Different personalities clashed. Bannok had Sam and Sam had him and between them they had a ship and a sense of adventure, and Bannok was the responsible one that kept a level head and made sure it worked. Sam... Sammy was Sammy. He'd known no other life, and he'd grown up with wanderlust in his bones. He flitted from place to place and he gambled and won and tried his hand at magic tricks and won that too. He picked up languages that Bannok could only stumble through, learnt to play a saxophone just for something to annoy his older brother with, charmed the gold coins off everyone wherever they went.

So they clashed, sometimes. Bannok planned and Sam took risks and so long as they didn't disagree on anything major, everything was golden. It worked for them.

"These are our best bet, I reckon," he said, pointing out four paintings down the hall. Three were of grand, sweeping landscapes, the sort that painters loved to populate with soft brush strokes and girls in fussy dresses. The fourth was a portrait, a young white gelert with her hair done up in a complex set of braids. It didn't look like something an old pirate king would have commissioned, but it was of the right time, and the artist had painted a model boat onto the mantel piece in the background. It seemed fitting.

"Want to go over them together, or you take two and I take the others?" Sam asked, already squinting at the nearest landscape.

"Split. Take the left; I'll do the girl and the cammylian forest, yeah?"

"Deal."

They worked in companionable silence, checking the paintings for any unusual hidden compartments. The intel they'd gathered had put the painting as a decoy for the map; a false back to the frame, they assumed. Either that or the map was incorporated into the painting itself, but none of them that Bannok had seen would fit that theme. So - false back, painting hung over a safe, hidden compartment inside a thick gilt frame. Anywhere a scrap of parchment could be hiding.

The cammylian forest revealed none of those. Neither did Sam's kau pasture, though it did show itself to be boring and uninspired, according to him. "You notice, every kau here has the same pattern of spots? Like, not every kau is spotted. And not every spotted kau has a wonky splodge on their left shoulder. Lazy, this. Shoddy."

"So now you're branching into the visual arts, are you?" Bannok teased good naturedly. "Music not enough to satisfy your artistic palette?"

"What can I say? Talent such as mine can't be kept quiet. I've got nothing on the seascape either - any luck with your gelert?"

Bannok huffed. "Don't think so. There's something here, I'm sure - that ship in the background? It's a dead ringer for the White Horn's ship, the Gallant Steed. This has got to be the one, but it's clean as far as I can tell."

Sam hmmed. "It might not be a complete loss. We know the White Horn had connections here, yeah? So, maybe this is just one of those. Some other connection."

It was as good a theory as anything. Bannok pushed the feeling in his gut aside - the painting was a bust. The east wing was a bust. And the night itself was a bust; it was gone two in the morning.

"You playing in the square again tomorrow?"

Sam visibly brightened, his yawn turning into a happy grin. "Yeah! It's reeling tomorrow - you ever heard a reel played in full brass? It's major epic stuff."

"Yeah?" Bannok returned the smile with one of his own. "Maybe I'll come down to dance. It's been a while since I've seen you play in a group. No offence, but the stuff they have you doing in the fancy parties is complete rubbish."

"I know, right? What is it with rich people? Uncomfortable clothes, not enough food, boring music. I take back ever wanting to be rich, it does something to your head."

"I thought you wanted to eat your weight in fish pops every morning?"

"That's a point. Can I have the fish pops without being rich?"

"Sure. You're stealing them though."

"Bail me out when I'm caught?"

"Not on your life."

---


The west wing turned up nothing either, and nor did the third alcove from the left in the main gallery that Sam's tuba playing friend had told him about. It was the last night of the celebrations. They had to find the map tonight.

"It's got to be here." Bannok ran his hands through his hair in frustration. The gelert smiled demurely back at him from her wooden frame, and he could almost swear she was mocking him. "There's nowhere else it could be. We've just missed it, that's the only explanation."

"We've checked this stupid doodle four times," Sam complained from his seat on the floor. His tipped his head back to knock against the wall. "There'll be a secret gallery somewhere, more paintings we haven't found."

"No, it's this one. I know it's this one." The age of the painting, the model of the Gallant Steed in the background, even the illegible signature in the corner that trailed off into a slanted X - everything matched up.

Sam threw his hands up in frustration. "We don't even know who she is!"

"La Dauphinne Amelie de la Mer," a soft voice cut in. Sam and Bannok scrambled away from the painting, hearts racing. It was a xweetok that had spoken - the same haughty xweetok that had insulted Bannok that first night. She was staring at the painting wistfully, paying no attention to the would-be thieves.

The pause dragged. Sam and Bannok shared an awkward glance - had she realised what they were doing?

"My lady?" Bannok eventually tried, hiding a wince when her ear flicked towards him.

"The gelert," she elaborated, though she didn't move her gaze. "Amelie. She was lost to us a few years ago; Baeyren had this commissioned in her memory."

"I thought Lord Baeyren was a kougra?" Sam blurted. Bannok flapped a hand at him to be quiet, but the xweetok had already turned to look at them. She was far less imposing without her towering hairstyle and over-the-top gown, but even so she seemed elegant and distant.

She nodded. "He is. The princess Amelie was his niece - by adoption, though she was no less beloved for it." Her gaze sharpened, and Bannok's breath caught. "Take care how you treat her. His Lordship will not stand for her memory to be disrespected again."

A swirl of green silk and floral perfume and the xweetok was gone, leaving the two pirates stunned and wary.

"She seemed... nice?" Sam offered, breaking the silence with his typical bluntness.

Bannok grimaced. "Don't let it fool you. She's a complete snob when she's with the rest of her rich friends." He turned back to the painting. Whether or not the xweetok knew what they were doing, they couldn't afford to miss this opportunity. "Amelie has to be related to the White Horn. We'll open it up. Maybe there's something on the inside of the frame we've missed."

"Aye Cap'n."

The painting itself wasn't large, perhaps a foot and half in each direction, but the frame was heavy. Between them they wrestled it to the floor and laid it face down.

"It's solid," Sam said, rapping his knuckles against the frame. "Nothing in here."

Bannok flicked open a pocket knife. "If it's not there, that leaves only one place." He worked the thin blade under the edge of the frame, gently easing the canvas free. "Almost there..."

"Hey!"

"Curse it," Sam spat. "She called the guards on us. That sneaky -"

"No time!" Bannok yelled, dragging Sam to his feet and into a stumbling run. The last of the painting tore free from the frame, leaving it to clatter to the floor behind them. He rolled the canvas into a sloppy parcel and shoved it into the pocket of his coat. The guards were shouting, running after them in a clatter of armour and swords.

"Left!" Sam shouted as they neared the end of the gallery. Bannok skidded round the corner, shouldering the doors open in the same move. A window flashed past and he swore as he realised which way they'd gone.

"The way out was right!"

"My trombone's left!"

"Are you serious? You're going to get us caught because you sent us back for your trombone?"

Sam's reply was lost as they reached the staircase, only to find another pair of guards advancing up it.

"Thief! Treason!" they shouted. Their swords were the golden ceremonial ones they'd been wearing from the parade, but Bannok didn't want to take the chance that they were any less sharp than their standard weapons.

"Split!" he yelled to Sam. The lutari flicked his tail in acknowledgement and dived forwards. Bannok left him to it, trusting Sam to make his own way out. He had bigger problems in the form of the angry tonu from the west wing that had caught up to him and was in full charge.

Sparing a glance for the two guards going after Sam he swung himself over the balcony and landed with a thud on the marble bannister. Somewhere above he heard Sam throwing insults at the guards and their bellows of rage in response, but he had no time to laugh. The tonu was already on the stairs - and worse, that was a mynci scaling down the wall to cut him off from below.

Bannok ran, his boots slipping on the marble bannister with every step. The mynci was almost at floor level, he'd have to be quick, just needed to find the right place to - there! He leapt for the window, fingers digging into one of the many silk hangings for grip on the narrow sill. The window was stained glass, Brightvale's finest, but Bannok didn't have time to admire the beauty. He wrapped the silk around his fist for protection and punched the glass as hard as he could. It splintered but held firm. He risked a glance over his shoulder. The tonu was directly below him, glaring but unable to reach, and the mynci was...

Where was the mynci?

Bannok swung at the window again and this time the panel shattered. He kicked the glass aside and ducked his head to step through, but he hadn't been fast enough.

"Hold it right there, thief," the mynci snarled, bringing his sword up to rest against Bannok's throat. "Back inside. Hands where I can see 'em."

Bannok moved slowly, lifting his hands and turning his back to the broken window. The sword hovered mere millimetres from the fur on his neck.

The mynci nodded in grim satisfaction. "Now, you gonna come quietly or you gonna come in chains?"

"I was rather hoping I wouldn't come at all," Bannok answered pleasantly, and pushed himself backwards out the window. The mynci cursed and grabbed for him a second too late. Bannok hit the grass hard and rolled, crushing what might once have been a rather lovely arrangement of starflowers as he did so. He pushed himself up and into a sprint, ignoring the flare of pain from the shoulder he'd landed on. Back left corner of the gardens, he reminded himself. He'd scouted it when they first arrived - the gate's hinges had rusted through, but it was so overgrown that it hadn't been replaced. Get to the back left corner, get out the gate, keep low by the river bank. He'd be home free.

He heard the heavy clunk of the doors opening behind him and put on speed. Amended his plan a step; first lose the guards, then get to the back left corner, out the gate and home.

---


When Bannok dragged himself to the Silver Arkmite at last it was past four in the morning and the sky was beginning to lighten in preparation for the dawn. He was cold, covered in river mud, and exhausted. The ache in his shoulder had spread down his entire left side. The very last thing he wanted to see was his younger brother lounging in the rigging with a half-eaten tart in one hand and his blasted trombone held between his knees.

"Look what the angelpuss dragged in!" Sam greeted with a cheery wave. "All go as planned, then?"

"Not a word," Bannok growled. "However you managed it, I don't want to know."

"As my captain commands," the lutari agreed, not bothering to hide the grin from his voice. "Chef gave us some leftovers - they're in the galley if you want them."

Chef. The same ladle-wielding chef that had ruled the palace kitchens with fear and an iron fist. That chef.

"Chef likes me," Sam added helpfully.

"Don't want to know," Bannok repeated, and stalked below deck to find a clean change of clothes and a cloth to wipe the gunk out of his hair.

When he emerged, mud-free and feeling himself again in his own clothes, Sam pushed a plate of leftovers towards him that was more icing and jam than actual food.

"Chef might not like me once he realises exactly which leftovers I took," he added as an explanation. "But I didn't figure we'd be going back."

"Not any time soon, no." Bannok pushed the plate aside, too tired for such sweet food at the moment. He retrieved the painting from his pocket and spread it out on the table. "This is it, then," he said grimly and stared at Amelie as though he could tell her secrets from her infuriating smile.

His eyes caught on the torn edge where he'd ripped the last part of the canvas free from its frame. It was fraying already - but unevenly, the back far more frayed than the front. With a frown, Bannok flipped the corner over.

"It's double thickness," Sam breathed. "He's hidden the map between the two pieces of canvas. Sneaky, sneaky pirate."

The join was almost impossible to see around the edges where Bannok had cut the canvas away; it was only visible where it had torn. He slid his knife into the gap and worked it down the side. When he tipped the picture up, a scrap of folded parchment fell out onto the galley table.

"That's the map piece?" Sam asked dubiously.

Bannok shook his head, not trusting himself to speak. He opened the parchment and read the words inside with something akin to despair.

Sorry, Little Ami. I need it more than you.

There was no signature.

He pushed the parchment away from himself and dropped his head into his hands.

"It's a bust," he spat. "Someone got there first."

"They what?" Sam snatched the message and read it for himself, his eyes growing wide. "They - someone else is after the treasure. When did they get this? Which other pieces do they have?"

"I don't know." Bannok frowned, trying to remember something. "Didn't the xweetok say that Amelie had been disrespected before?"

Sam nodded, grim. "Someone else must've disturbed the painting - I'll bet that's when they took it. But without knowing how long ago it was, we don't know if they're still searching. Maybe it was when the White Horn first disappeared, maybe they've given up?"

"It was the Comte de Rochefort, just over two months ago."

Sam leapt up with a muffled curse, dagger out and at the ready. Bannok just turned his head sideways, too tired to be surprised.

"How did you get in here?" Sam demanded.

The xweetok - because it was the same ruddy xweetok - arched an eyebrow. "The hatch was open," she said, as though it were obvious. Bannok doubted that; Sam may be prone to bouts of idiocy, but locking the door was second nature to both of them. He considered calling her on the lie.

"What do you want?" he asked instead.

She smiled, a gentle curving of the corner of her mouth. "I want the treasure," she said honestly. "I've been tracking the pieces. You have two that I can confirm, and I suspect at least one more, no?" Bannok wasn't inclined to answer that; she didn't expect him to. "The Comte has two, including the piece he stole from Amelie. I know of three more."

Bannok's hackles rose. She knew far too much for his liking. Was she being truthful in what she knew? And if she did know where the final three were, why hadn't she gone after them?

"An impressive achievement," he said, allowing a hint of dismissal into his tone. "But counting numbers won't get you the treasure."

"No," she agreed. She paused, glancing between the two of them as though weighing them up, then tilted her head forward. "I want one piece of the treasure. We work together, we take it before the Comte does, and you can have the rest."

Sam snorted disbelievingly. "You'll give us all of it?"

"Except for one piece."

"Yeah, and what's that piece?" Sam challenged.

"Does it matter?" she answered coolly. "You and your brother will have the White Horn's wealth - one piece will hardly make a difference."

Sam opened his mouth with a scathing retort, but Bannok kicked him under the table.

"Why should we trust you?" he asked.

Sam shot him a scandalised look, but the xweetok nodded as though this was expected. "I have one piece of the map. You may have it as a sign of my good intentions."

Bannok was too tired for this. It was dawn, he'd been up all night. Been chased all night by a pair of frustratingly determined guards, the guards that this exact xweetok had set on them. He didn't like her. He didn't trust her. He didn't want her on his ship. But at the same time... His instincts told him she was being honest, more or less. She wanted something from the treasure, and it was in her best interests to work with them rather than against them. Even if she was just using them as hired muscle and a free lift, they'd run out of leads - they needed the knowledge she had.

His gaze fell on Amelie's painting and the parchment that had been hidden in it. His mouth tugged down into a grimace. If she was right, if it really was the Comte going after the same treasure as them... The Silver Arkmite was small fry compared to him. They'd need every advantage they could get.

"Alright." He locked eyes with the xweetok, trying to get a read on her. "Alright. Give us the map piece you have and help us with the pieces we still need, and when we find the treasure you can take your one piece." He ignored Sam's strangled choking and kept his focus on her. "Deal?"

For a tense moment she returned his stare with one just as intense, both of them trying to work out if they were about to be double crossed. Sam looked between the two with dawning horror. "You're not actually going to -"

"Deal?" Bannok pressed.

The xweetok nodded. "Deal." She smiled, a much warmer one than she had before, and held out a hand. Bannok took it. Her handshake was surprisingly strong for her delicate build; it made him think he'd made the right choice.

"Welcome aboard, miss..."

"Niettah," she supplied. "Just Niettah."

"Bannok," Bannok introduced himself. The amused quirk to her eyebrow told him that she already knew, and he found himself somehow unsurprised by that.

They both ignored Sam's muttered portents of doom in the corner.



You are currently reading Chasing Treasure

Next chapter:
Chapter 3: Into The Teeth
Chasing Treasure
Chapter 3: Into The Teeth
They made sail under the last fringes of darkness, the rosy hue of dawn leeching into the sky above them. Bannok gripped the helm with white knuckled fingers and focussed on staying awake and vertical. Sam could handle the rest of the ship himself, and Niettah - so long as she wasn't getting in the way, that was all Bannok needed.

He spared her a glance once they were far enough out of the harbour that he could relax a bit. She was perched on a corner of the deck, her legs crossed at the ankles and her tail sitting neatly curled beneath her. She watched Sam checking the sails with an expression of polite disinterest, but Bannok would put money on her studying everything the lutari did with great care.

Sam thought she was going to sell them out the first chance she got.

Sam also thought that Fyora was biding her time before revealing her plan for world domination and that fish pops were one of the core five food groups that made up a balanced diet.

Bannok shook his head; she'd given them her piece of the map as promised, and she'd told them what she knew of where the other pieces were hiding. He might not trust her as a person, but he trusted that she wanted her one piece of treasure and would work with them to get it. That was enough.

That had to be enough; they didn't have much of a chance to take down the Comte by themselves.

"Cap'n?" Sam asked, swinging himself down to land next to Bannok with a soft thump. "We're sticking mighty close to the coast if we're headed for the Teeth."

With a shudder, Bannok jolted himself back into reality. "Villarica first," he said. Said, not slurred - he was tired, but he wasn't that tired. "There're some things I wanted to pick up before we go into the Teeth."

"Yeah, like a brain?" Sam mumbled.

"Sam."

"Sam what? It's the Teeth, Bannok. The ship sinkers. The graveyard at sea."

Bannok counted to ten for patience and pressed a hand against his ribs to quell the aching. "Yes," he said, once he was sure he wasn't going to shout it. "And one of those ships was carrying a piece of our map. So unless you've found another way of retrieving sunken treasure, we'll be going to the Teeth."

Sam's tail lashed in frustration. "But it's the Teeth," he repeated, as though the added emphasis would make Bannok finally see sense.

"So you've said," Bannok snapped. "Several times. But we don't have another lead, so we're following this one."

Sam subsided, his face falling into a hurt expression. Bannok sighed, regretting his outburst.

"Look," he said, voice dropping lower. "I'm not going into this blindly. There's a guy in Villarica - call him an old friend. He's been through the Teeth before."

Sam darted his gaze over to Niettah conspiratorially and hunched his shoulders. The effect was about as unsubtle as that screaming techo at the Altador cup. "Will he help?"

Bannok nodded. "But not," he added with relish, "until the evening. Harry doesn't believe in mornings." Which gave them most of the day once they'd reached Villarica to drop anchor and sleep. Bannok already felt remarkably well disposed towards the man.

---


Harry, it turned out, was a woman - a tall, broad shouldered kougra with half an ear left and a permanent kink in her tail from one too many breaks badly set.

"You're Bannok?" she greeted, looming over the table he'd claimed. He nodded, hiding his surprise, and pushed forwards the tankard of grog he'd taken the liberty of ordering for her.

"Don't trouble yourself," she said, sinking into the seat opposite him. "I don't drink."

"Ah," Bannok stuttered, wishing he had Sam with him. He was never very good at the whole talking thing. "My, uh, my apologies ma'am - "

She cut him off with a frown. "None of that. I ain't never been no ma'am and I ain't never start. Now. Word is you're sailing the Teeth. Yes?"

"Yes." Bannok swallowed the ma'am that would have followed through sheer force of will.

"Ok." Harry leaned back in her seat, arms crossed. "Bannok." She stared at him for a long moment. Bannok resisted the urge to squirm in his seat like a guilty child. "I knew your ma, you know."

His heart skipped. "You did?"

"Mmm. I don't know you, but I know your ma ain't raised no fools. So." She rested her elbows on the table and fixed Bannok with a milky-eyed glare. "Whatever you're after, I want no part in it. If it goes south, I ain't responsible. Better folk than you have fallen to the Teeth. Yes?"

He wanted to ask about his mum, ask how Harry knew her. Something told him though that this wasn't the time. Somehow it never was the time. "Yes," he said instead.

Harry smiled, though it came across as more of a grimace. Then: "Delfins."

Bannok blinked. "Delfins?" he asked.

"Aye. Critters see with their ears. Echo-something. They get you through the Teeth, easy. Only things that can navigate that wretched hole."

Bannok nodded, a single slow tilt of his head. "Delfins," he repeated. "Ok, delfins. We can do that."

Harry snorted. "Sure," she said doubtfully.

---


The Teeth. A patch of shallow sea in the shadow of an unremarkable stretch of coastline some way south of Altador. At high tide, it looked calm, safe - almost inviting, sheltered from the wind as it was by the headland. It was only when the tide was low that the jagged rocks and twisted, grasping dangers of the Teeth became visible. The rock field was littered with shipwrecks. They lay in fallen, rotting mounds, hulls torn open and masts shattered as the shifting tides ground them to pieces against the rocks. Rich picking for scavengers, if any dared to go looking. Few did.

Bannok kept his eyes trained on the delfins. The pair were tied to the bow on loose harnesses, their chattering and whistling the only sound in the eerily still waters other than the quiet splash of their paddles. The Arkmite was anchored as far from the Teeth as Bannok could reasonably justify; the canoe they were using now had been hired from one of Harry's contacts. She'd assured them that the light-weight craft was more stable than it looked and easy enough to right if they capsized it. It hadn't actually been that reassuring.

"Steady on the port side," he murmured as the delfins veered around a hidden obstacle.

"This would be so much easier if you'd let me swim the whole way," Sam groused as he adjusted his strokes.

Bannok ignored him. The Teeth had Sam on edge, and his insistence that they were walking blindly into a trap had him several strides beyond the edge. The sooner they found the map piece and leave this place the better for all of them.

"Captain." Niettah tilted a gestured with her head to one side. Bannok followed her gaze, taking a moment to pick out what she'd spotted. A shadowed mass, too smooth and rounded to be one of the rocks, and a stump of sea-weed covered wood, standing proud of the water - maybe part of a mast?

"I see it," he confirmed. "Sam?"

"Way ahead of you." He laid his paddle down with a soft thump and stripped off his jacket in the same motion. With an almost silent splash he slid into the water, surfacing almost immediately after with a grimace. "Nothing," he said. "I may as well be swimming through mud here. It's pitch black."

"Here." Bannok untied one the delfin's leashes and passed it down. Sam looped it around his wrist and snorted.

"Do you know how embarrassing this is? A lutari needing a petpet's help to swim. Never let this story get out, I'll be a laughing stock."

"We'll be sure not to laugh too loudly," Niettah said dryly. Sam shot her a glare and, with one last look at the mast to orientate himself, ducked under the water to follow the delfin.

"Any chance of you two actually getting along?" Bannok asked. He didn't really expect a positive answer.

"I-" Niettah cut herself off. Paused, swallowed, started again. "I can try," she finally said, though she sounded frustrated.

Bannok sighed. "Don't worry too much about it. He's... difficult to get along with."

Niettah turned to him, her mouth tugged down in an unhappy frown. "He seemed to make friends easily enough at Baeyren's," she said.

"They weren't invading his ship. And they were friends with Sam the royal trombone player, not Sam the pirate - it's different."

She nodded, a spark of understanding lighting up her features. "I apologise," she said simply. "It was not my intention to make him feel threatened."

Bannok paused. For all his charms and easy rapport, Sam liked to keep people at a distance. It had been just the two of them for so long, them against the world. Bannok had half forgotten what it was like to be friendly and open without a hidden agenda, a con to pull off, a secret to hide; Sam had never known it.

It pained Bannok, sometimes, that Sam viewed everyone they met as a potential enemy in waiting. But on the other hand, his brother's wary suspicion and cynical distrust had saved them from more than one sticky situation - and in the end, Sam had him. As long as they stayed together, what more did either of them need?

Still.

"Threatened?" he asked, keeping his voice intentionally light. "An odd conclusion for a noble woman to come to, isn't it?"

Niettah snorted inelegantly. "Hardly noble," she corrected, the slightest sneer of disgust slipping into her tone. "You can't have thought the Lady Antionette was real, did you?"

"The Lady Antionette?" Bannok repeated with a grin. "Is that what you've been calling yourself? It suits you, your pink floofiness."

She stuck her nose in the air with an exaggerated sniff. "I should have you in chains for such an insult."

"Please," Bannok scoffed. "Like you could find a lock that would hold me."

The delfin still tied to the bow of the canoe started whistling, spinning in a series of tight circles. Bannok sat forwards, ears perked up as he scanned the water for Sam's return. He tabled the questions he still had for Niettah - there would be time later to find out how she'd seen through Sam so easily.

A small fountain of bubbles, and Sam broke the surface. He shook his head to clear the water from his ears and passed up the second delfin's leash.

"Any luck?" Bannok asked hopefully.

"Not sure. It's big - three masts, I think. I'd say it was one of them square riggers the navy favours, but I couldn't find any cannons. It's been there a while though. Whole sections have rotted away - the cannons could easily have sunk deeper and we'd never know."

Bannok glanced at Niettah. They were running on her description of the ship they were looking for, she'd best be able to tell if this was it.

"Was there a bow sprit?" she asked, brow furrowed as she thought.

Sam shrugged. "If there was, it's long gone. There's something there though, might be a figurehead. Something with a tail, maybe."

Niettah nodded. "A fountain faerie," she said, and Bannok's heart leapt.

"Yeah," Sam grinned. "Yeah, could be. Easy. We finally got the right one?"

She returned his grin with a smaller but no less excited smile of her own. "It seems likely."

Sam's grin faltered suddenly, as though he'd just realised who it was he was sharing his victory with. He shot Niettah an uneasy glance and turned to Bannok instead.

"What do you say, Captain?" he asked. "Shall we go for it?"

Bannok shifted forwards, already readying the delfins to go. "Lead the way," he said, and Sam whooped as he turned to do just that.



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Chapter 4: Sunken Treasure
Chasing Treasure
Chapter 4: Sunken Treasure
As Sam said, the wreck was old. The rot-blackened wood of the hull was riddled with damaged and missing sections, and those that remained were almost more barnacle and seaweed than wood.

"You're sure the map would have survived if it was stuck down here?" Sam asked dubiously.

"It was sealed, if I remember correctly," Niettah answered. "The navigator was transporting it, but he wasn't trusted with it - he wouldn't have been able to open the seal."

"And we will be?"

Niettah blinked with faux innocence. "I'm sure we'll find a way," she demurred.

Sam snorted. "Convenient." He frowned at the wreck. "Some navigator to send his crew straight into the Teeth. You'd have thought he'd know better."

Bannok hmmed at that, thinking of the legends he'd heard passed down. "The White Horn's lot were never famous for their brains," he said. "Thugs and hired muscle, most of them."

"And in what universe is it fair that thugs get that rich and famous when we're sent traipsing round the world for their leftovers?" Sam complained. Bannok shrugged; the stories didn't relate the secrets of the White Horn's success, only that he had been successful. No one could get that powerful that fast or hold an empire that long without some sort of secret.

"Finding their leftovers isn't going to happen by itself," he said. "Rope together and let's go."

They left the canoe moored with enough leeway to move with the tide. The remaining rope went to tieing themselves together into a line, Sam leading followed by Bannok and Niettah. The delfins went out the front with Sam. The tides were fast here; it was too dangerous to risk one of them getting swept away in one of the currents twisting between the rocks.

Even with the security of the rope it was slow going. The parts of the ship that were exposed by the low tide were slippery and prone to breaking; underwater was completely opaque and impossible to see. Sam had it better than the other two but even he was reduced to navigating by touch and feeling the tugs on the ropes from the delfins in front of him.

"So," Sam drawled when they'd made their precarious way to the bow of the ship. "Any ideas how we're actually going to find this mysterious map case?"

"Grid pattern," Bannok said, gauging the width of the wreck. "I'll go down the centre, you two take either side - we sweep our section for anything unusual. You find something, pull on the rope and the rest of us will stop. "Niettah, any idea what this case looks like?"

"None, sorry."

"Anything unusual then," Bannok confirmed. He hoped that the case was waterproof, but even then the wreck had been here a long time. Things were not looking good for the map being legible once they'd recovered it.

They worked as quickly as they dared down the upper deck. Sam took the lower side, part submerged, and at various points tried to persuade the delfins to scout things out for him. By the end of the first pass they'd found two cannon balls, various bits of decomposing rope, and a small colony of peos that the delfins had tried to chase and nearly dragged the three of them off the ship in doing so.

Bannok grimaced. The cannon balls meant that there had been cannons at one point. The fact that they were missing now meant they'd probably fallen from the ship and sunk into the deep water between the Teeth. No one was sure how far down it went - no one dared sail over to do a survey. If the map had followed the cannons down, they'd have no choice but to send Sam diving and hope the sea floor wasn't too far down. It was a prospect that filled him with dread.

"Below deck?" Sam asked once they'd confirm that the top level was clean.

"Below deck," Bannok agreed. "Niettah, how long can you hold your breath?"

She made a face. "Two minutes, tops?" she offered. "I'm not at my best underwater."

"Two minutes is fine. You'll be the last one in - stay near the exit, make sure we can follow the rope to you and get out." It would be far too easy to get turned around in the pitch blackness and get trapped underwater. Bannok shuddered at the concept. As at home as he was at sea he'd seen its dangers too many times to ever be complacent about the risks.

"Understood, Captain."

It was eerie underwater. No sight, and the only sounds were the shifting groans of the wreck and the occasional whistle from one of the delfins. The creaks from the rotted wood in particular echoed, amplified by the surrounding darkness. They sent chills down Bannok's spine and he hoped, irrationally, that no ghost pets had taken residence in the Teeth. Not that he had anything against ghost pets - he knew, intellectually, that it was just a paintbrush colour - but still. He'd rather not meet one in quite such a spooky setting.

Two sharp tugs from Sam's end of the rope jolted him out of his thoughts. He was running near the end of his air. He gave an answering tug down the rope and felt his way along the wall back to Niettah at the entrance, surfacing to take a greedy breath.

"What've you got?" Niettah asked once Sam joined them. The young lutari was too excited about his find to remember that he didn't like her and answered with enthusiasm, speaking almost too fast to hear.

"A chest, some sort of chest - everything around it's covered in seaweed but it's spotless. I don't think there's even any rust on the hinge."

Bannok frowned in thought. "Some sort of sealant, perhaps? Wax?"

"Or a fire faerie's blessing," Niettah added. "With the right spell that can keep water at bay for a while - but it would be a stretch for it to last this long."

"Either way, it could be the map, right? Help me get it loose? It's stuck fast on something - I can't budge it."

Niettah stayed by the entrance again, making sure Bannok and Sam could make it back to the surface. The two brothers went forwards through the dark, Sam making a beeline for the chest as soon as he had his bearings again. It was wedged in a corner, piled underneath a load of old barrels that had rotted down to a seaweed covered heap. As Sam had said though the chest itself was clear - just tangled in the weeds growing around it.

They gave it a few tugs together before Bannok reached for his knife. Between the two of them they managed to dislodge it, alternating between sawing at the weeds and kicking the chest free. The force of it sent the whole ship creaking and swaying. It shifted on its perch, rocking forwards for a long moment before settling back down. Bannok let out the breath he'd been holding in a stream of bubbles, his eyes wide saucers and his heart racing.

He gripped Sam's shoulder, pulling them towards the entrance. Sam pressed a thumbs up against his palm and they retreated, ears wide for any more sound of the ship destabilising. It didn't move, but the drawn out groans were enough to keep them on edge until they were back treading water.

"All well?" Niettah asked with thinly veiled worry when all three could breathe again.

"Fine," Bannok assured her. "Just getting the chest free disturbed it a bit."

"Can we open it now?" Sam interrupted. He'd dragged the chest up onto one of the flatter rocks and was crouched by it, fidgeting impatiently.

"Yeah, if we can." Bannok swam over with a couple of powerful strokes and hauled himself out onto the ledge. "Best to know now if we need to go back down again."

Niettah hmmed, examining the chest with narrowed eyes. "I doubt it," she said. "This is some fancy spellwork to keep the chest protected - I'd be surprised if there was more than one chest with this level of magic on it."

"Let's hope," Bannok agreed. The chest looked perfectly normal. About as long as his arm, narrow but quite deep with bronze caps over the corners and what looked like gold inlay in the lid. There was no lock, just a panel with a series of symbol wheels in a row. Some were strangely familiar but others made no sense to Bannok. Below it was a collection of circles and dots connected by the occasional diagonal line.

"I don't suppose you've got the code?" Sam asked. Niettah shook her head. "Drat. There's only four wheels - how many combinations is that to try?"

"It's highly likely," the xweetok stopped him dryly, "that the wrong code will set off a trap of some sort. The White Horn was rather well known for them."

"Huh."

There was a contemplative pause as they considered the chest again. Bannok stared blankly. Puzzles were not his forte. He was so stumped that it took him a good minute to realise that Sam was singing to himself, of all things.

"Sam," he began. "What."

The lutari tapped the cirlces below the symbol wheels. "This," he said. "Call me crazy, but I'm ninety eight percent certain that this is the music for happy birthday."

"It's what?"

"No, that makes sense," Niettah said, eyes flicking between the wheels. "These here," she pointed to the last wheel, "They're pictograms. Running, sleeping, eating - it's the months."

"It's a date?" Sam perked up. "Yes - that's the crescent moon on the twenty dubloon piece, and that one's got to be the five. They're numbers."

"But if it's a date, there're four wheels for the day number," Bannok said. Sam and Niettah just nodded at him.

"Obviously," Sam said. Bannok did not quite see how it was obvious. But then, this was why he did the sailing and Sam did the numbers.

Niettah took pity on him. "They add up. Like if you were paying for something in dubloons, these would be the coins you'd need. Nineteen dubloons is a ten, a five, and two twos."

"A silver cross, a silver skull, and two bronze crosses," Sam agreed. He sat back on his heels, arms crossed. "But it doesn't help if we don't know the date."

"Nineteenth day of Hunting," Niettah said. "Amelie's birthday."

Bannok frowned at that. "Amelie again?" he asked. "You're sure?"

"It's worth a shot. She was... important to the White Horn."

"She'd have been a kid when he disappeared though," Sam said. "Like, really tiny. Baby almost."

"Yes," Niettah said simply.

Sam and Bannok shared a glance. There was something here, something deeper. Bannok's eyebrow quirked and Sam's nose twitched in silent conversation; they'd leave it for now - no point pressing Niettah if she didn't want to talk. Save it for later when Niettah was less on guard.

"Right then, Little Ami," Sam muttered, recalling how the unsigned parchment in her painting had addressed the gelert princess. "Let's hope you're as important as all that."

He spun the dials. First the crosses and skulls for the day, then the crude bow and arrow for the month of Hunting. He held his breath, looked up to the other two, and pressed the lock in.

A dull click, a rusty creak. The chest opened.



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Chapter 5: Danger from the Depths
Chasing Treasure
Chapter 5: Danger from the Depths
"What on earth are these?" Sam asked, nose twisting in disgust. "It's a scrap box of broken things." He pulled one of them out, holding it with the tips of two fingers, and held it up for inspection.

It looked like it might, once, have been a battledome weapon - a ray gun, perhaps? The general shape was there, and the familiar trigger system. The weapon had been stripped down to little more than a skeleton, twisted wires forming the empty barrel and a jumble of cobbled together parts making what could, generously, be described as a grip. It lacked any mechanism to make the ray itself - not even a spark of faerie magic. Just the barrel, the handle, and a tiny hammer attached to the trigger.

"That's it?" Bannok asked, face falling. "No map? No treasure, even?"

Sam grimaced. "There's like twelve of these. Different shapes and stuff but I doubt any of them work."

"Have you checked the lid?" Niettah asked, leaning over to peer inside the chest. "May I?"

Sam shoved the chest at her with a flapping motion. She ran her fingers under the hinge of the lock feeling for a catch. There - left back corner, almost impossible to detect, a smooth metal pocket with the faint buzz of faerie magic. She slipped a claw under the edge and smiled when the cover slid easily back.

"Got it," she said. She held the map piece out, the parchment pressed and crease-free. The fire faerie's blessing had done its job; while all the other map pieces they'd found had been faded and falling apart, this one was as crisp and bright as though it were new. For a moment the three of them stared at it in awe.

"We did it," Bannok breathed.

His brother laughed. "Hells yeah we did! Beat the Teeth and everything!"

"We haven't beaten them yet," Bannok cautioned, but he was grinning despite himself. "We've still got to get back to The Arkmite. Get the delfins - we'll stow this and go."

"Yeah, they're right - hang on, they're just... Uh." Sam looked up with wide eyes. "Um."

"Sam."

"Um."

"Sam, no."

"You didn't have them when you came up with the chest, if that helps," Niettah chimed in. Sam paled further.

"I think I let go of them to pick it up. But the rope was tied on I swear!"

Bannok growled. "We'll go back for them. Niettah, can you stow the chest in the canoe? With any luck they'll be where this idiot left them. And you," he whirled on the idiot in question. "You'd best hope you can navigate us down there in the dark without them."

Sam's attention snapped back from where he was squinting suspiciously at Niettah. "Aye, Cap'n," he squeaked. He hesitated, unsure whether to say something or not.

"Out with it," Bannok ordered.

Sam's shoulders hunched. He lowered his voice and glanced over at where Niettah was securing the chest into the bow of the canoe. "They were tied on. I'm not making this up, Bannok. They couldn't have just slipped loose by themselves."

He sighed. "Sam, these things happen. I'm annoyed but I'm not mad at you. Let it go."

"But what if it's not 'these things happen'?" Sam insisted. "Because it's awful convenient, isn't it? She's got the map, we've got to go down into the Teeth without the delfins -"

"Not everything's a conspiracy theory," Bannok interrupted, but he was uneasy all the same. Sam had been against trusting Niettah from the start, particularly when she sent them into the Teeth. And the fact that they had the map meant she hadn't been lying, but...

If Sam was right, then it would be all too easy for her to lose them here.

"Ready?" he called, raising his voice to her. She waved, stepping lightly over the rock, and Bannok tried not to look shifty as he watched her. Honest ally or thieving betrayer? She didn't look like someone who'd turn on them, but she was good at acting. She'd been a convincing snooty noblewoman; looks didn't mean everything.

"Ready," she said, once she'd reached them, retying the rope that linked them around her waist.

Bannok nodded. "Stay close," he said. There wasn't much else he could say, really. Short of sending Sam down by himself and staying on the surface to watch her, there was nothing else they could do. And although Sam would agree to go down by himself, Bannok wouldn't let him. It was too risky.

They inched their way back into the water. It was the same inky black as it had been before, but the lack of whistles and chirps from the delfins made the silence seem oppressive and threatening.

Still, swimming blind or not, Sam was good in the water and they reached the rotted entrance to the ship with ease. Bannok tugged the ropes that connected him to the other two and was relieved when the answering tugs came back.

Inside, the delfins were all too easy to hear. Their frantic whistles were piercingly loud, echoing around the cabin. Sam chirrup-clicked back, a soothing lutari rumble that travelled well underwater, and made a beeline straight for them.

All told, they were underwater for maybe two minutes before they broke the surface again. Bannok and Niettah clung to the side of the sunken ship while Sam treaded water, struggling to calm the petpets.

"All ok?" Bannok shouted, raising his voice over their panicked calls.

"No!" Sam yelled back. "They're not listening to me, they're - ow!" The petpets were swimming around him in tight circles, trying simultaneously to bury themselves in his fur and swim away at speed. Sam extracted his hand from where it had got caught in the rope, still making the soft clicking sounds in the back of his throat. "They're terrified!"

"What of?" Niettah asked.

Bannok began working his way along the ship, using the rope to literally pull Sam through the water after him. "Does it matter? We're not sticking around either way."

"It matters!" Sam yelped. The delfins whistles rose to a fever pitch as the ship started creaking alarmingly. "Sloth in a sparkling tutu, it matters!"

The wreck shuddered, jerking forwards and teetering over the edge of its rocky perch. Bannok ignored his brother's odd choice of curse and focussed on the important thing. "Sam, get over here! Now!"

His reply was lost as, with a final, defeated groan, the ship toppled. The wooden beam of the mast hit Bannok across the chest as it fell. Pain shot through his shoulder from where he'd hurt it escaping from Baeyren's guards and forced out an involuntary gasp. Icy water flooded his lungs. He scrabbled desperately for a grip on the seaweed-slick wood, but his limbs were uncoordinated and numb. His head swam. Dizzy, black spots began dancing across his vision. A heavy band wrapped around his chest and crushed.

With a choking heave, Bannok broke the surface. He was distantly aware of Sam shouting something, but his focus was narrowed to the desperate need to breathe. Sam's hands were on his shoulders, his tail wrapped around him for added support - around his chest.

"Sammy," he gasped. "Can't breathe."

Sam's tail loosened a fraction, still gripping tightly but with enough space for Bannok to take blessed gulps of sweet, sweet air.

"- a trap," Sam was babbling. "I knew it was, I told you - can you swim yet? We need to go Bannok now please I knew we couldn't trust her -"

"Sam, what -"

"Move!" Sam screamed, shoving Bannok to the side and almost crushing his bad shoulder. A second later something huge crashed down into the water where they'd been, a giant tentacle curling around them.

"What the hell was that?" Bannok yelped. A guttural roar answered him and he turned to face it with wide eyes. Kraken. Half pulled out of the water on one of the rocky teeth, scarred, angry, unfeasibly huge - it was a kraken.

"We are so dead," Sam moaned. One of the delfin's whistled a fearful agreement.

Bannok gritted his teeth. "Not yet. Where's Niettah?"

"Where do you think?" Sam laughed bitterly. "She's ditched us. Set up the delfin, summoned the kraken, skidaddled with the map."

Bannok cursed. He should have seen it - Sam had been telling him from the start. He should have listened.

They narrowly avoided another flailing tentacle and Bannok put it aside. There'd be time for self-recriminations when they weren't in immediate danger of being drowned.

"Come on," he said, swimming at an awkward sideways crawl with his good arm. The delfins streamed past him, straining at their leashes to reach the relative safety of the rock he was aiming for.

"Why, what's the point?" Sam asked, but he began swimming all the same. "Kraken gets us on the rock, kraken gets us in the sea - what's the difference?"

"Shut up and swim!"

They hauled themselves out onto the rock, the delfins swimming in agitated circles in the water around them. Bannok staggered into an unstable standing position, his left arm hanging limply from his wounded shoulder and his chest still burning from where the wooden beam had struck him. Sam stood at his side, his chin jutted forward in stubborn fatalism. The kraken reared up in front of them, tentacles raised.

"You going to get in your last 'told you so', Sammy?" Bannok asked wearily. Sam huffed out a grim laugh.

"Yeah, why not? Niettah's bad news. Told you so."

The delfins whistled. The kraken roared. Sam fisted his hand in the wet cotton of Bannok's shirt. Bannok shut his eyes.

There was an almighty bang from behind them, like a cr ack of thunder - or a cannon firing. Bannok's eyes shot open as the kraken roared in fear, flinching back into the water. A second bang, louder than the first, and the kraken sank into the water and fled.

Its final roar echoed and the water churned in the wake of its retreat, but after the fury of the kraken everything seemed oddly quiet.

Bannok turned, stunned, to the source of the noise that had driven the monster off. Niettah stared back, the broken skeleton ray gun in her raised hand. She cocked an eyebrow and gave him a challenging smirk.

"You!" Sam snarled. Bannok caught his arm to stop him diving forwards. "You dirty backstabbing liar -"

"Sam, she saved us!"

Sam shook his hand off, still growling. He caught sight of the raised weapon and hesitated.

"You abandoned us," he accused, but he sounded more hurt and confused than angry now.

Niettah lowered the weapon and swallowed. "I know," she said. "I'm sorry. I had to get to the weapons before it attacked - there wasn't time."

"But you left us behind," Sam protested.

"She saved us," Bannok corrected. He felt ashamed for doubting Niettah earlier - particularly given how bedraggled she looked. Her dress had been shredded to all but rags, falling open over her waist to reveal a jagged cut. She must've got it when the kraken dislodged the ship.

"Oh," Sam said. He looked a bit lost. Bannok could understand; Sam had spent so long trying to convince himself that Niettah was the enemy. He was struggling to get his head around the new situation.

"But - how?" he asked, gesturing at the sorry-looking ray gun. "How did you know?"

Niettah held it up, running her fingers over the small hammer at the back. "I didn't," she confessed. "Not for certain." Bannok strangled a noise of protest at that, and she glanced at him apologetically. "I was fairly sure - I've seen amplifiers like this before, and I figured that scaring krakens away works at krawk island, so." She shrugged, her explanation trailing off.

"Amplifiers?" Bannok asked.

"The ray gun. The hammer hits the gong, the barrel magnifies the sound - I expect it's supposed to produce a shock wave, but this is either a prototype or damaged from the sea."

Sam perked up. "You can make weapons out of musical instruments? Can you, I mean - " He gritted his teeth, fighting through instinctual distrust. "Will you show me?"

Niettah smiled, relieved and happy all at once. "Yeah," she said. "Back on the ship, I'll show you everything I know."



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Chapter 6: Drop your Guard
Chasing Treasure
Chapter 6: Drop your Guard
Bannok prodded gingerly at his bad shoulder. It wasn't bleeding - wasn't even that badly hurt, on the surface - but the whole thing was a blue-black mess of bruise. He was only grateful that the swelling was being kept under control by the tight bandage he'd wrapped around it. His ribs, though. One of those was cracked at least, maybe broken.

He swung his arm forward, testing the range of motion, and grimaced when pretty much everything complained at him.

"That's from the kraken?" Niettah asked quietly. Bannok blinked up at her in surprise - he hadn't heard her come in.

He grinned. "You look like a proper pirate now," he told her, dodging the question. The simple dress she'd worn before had been little more than threads by the time they'd got back to the ship, nothing of it worth saving. She was dressed now in some of Sam's spares, Bannok being too tall and too broad for any of his to fit her. Not that Sam's were perfect - the brown trousers were a touch too tight, the blouse overly large and loose. The sleeves were practically hanging over her hands.

"Here," Bannok said, digging through the collection of torn cloths they used as bandages. "If I had pink I'd give it you, but I hope that red will suffice?"

"That joke was old before you told it," Niettah said, but she took the strip of cloth with a nod of thanks and wound it several times around her waist to keep the worst of the billowing under control. "Your shoulder?"

Drat. He needed to work on his ability to change the subject.

"It'll be fine," he assured her, rolling his arm in a circle to demonstrate. The spike of pain it brought was barely debilitating. Only temporary agony. "I'll heal."

She frowned at him, moving forwards and stealing a bandage from the pile. "You'd heal faster with a potion," she said. "I don't suppose you'd take a detour to the healing springs?"

Bannok snorted. "To faerieland? We're pirates. Like I said, I'll heal." He didn't stop her from untying his own sorry attempt at binding up his shoulder and redoing it, even though her bandages were far tighter and more restricting than his had been.

She looked like she was going to say more, so he cut across her. He'd been a pirate for years; the freedom of it was worth the occasional ache and scrape. He didn't need any sympathy - or worse, pity - for what was his own choice.

"Where's Sam?"

The look she gave him said that she knew exactly what he was doing, but she let it slide. "With the chest. He's still trying to fix the amplifiers, I think." She tied off the last knot and tugged the bandage straight, shooting him a stern glare when he tried to shift it somewhere less constricting. He held his hands up in defeat (or one hand, at least; she'd tied the other down so he could lift it to chest height but no further).

"Best see how far he's got," he said, levering himself up and slipping his coat back on. "If we leave him too long he's likely to blow the whole ship in the name of experimenting."

When they approached him though, the lutari had pushed the amplifier guns aside and was poring over the new map piece.

"All good, Sammy?"

The lutari grunted a distracted hello and turned the map through ninety degrees. Bannok nudged his shoulder. "Oi, genius. Care to share?"

"Not got anything worth sharing," Sam huffed, holding out the map. He tapped a finger on a series of smudged marks along one edge. "Just these."

"Looks like water damage, that's all. Or age." Bannok shrugged. "Same as the other pieces have."

"I know, but the map was sealed, Bannok. It's in mint condition. Perfect, peachy, pristine, pure as the driven snow - "

"Get to the point, Sam."

"Point is, there's no water damage." Sam pushed the map forward again. He was right; every line, every word was crisp and clear. Except for that one side.

"And," Sam continued, reaching for the discarded barrel of the amplifier gun. "Look - the same marks." He ran his finger down the twisted wire of one side. Bannok squinted; there were vague shapes, yes, but the same shapes as on the map?

"Maybe," he allowed. "Worth looking into - but later. We need to return the delfins."

"Aw, really?" Sam's face fell. "But Finn and Delilah like it here!"

"You named them? What am I saying. Of course you named them."

The lutari grinned. "Yeah, because Delilah is like Del, so you get Del and Finn which sounds like -"

"I got that, thank you." Bannok shook his head as he turned to go on deck and ready the Arkmite to make sail. "You've got to be the worst person at naming things. Ever."

"Ok, so Del and Finn are a bit of a stretch, but Oliver and Josephine are hardly unreasonable."

"Reasonable people don't name their instruments, Sam. Saxophones and trombones don't need names."

"And which of us has played in a royal orchestra? Hm?"

"Sam."

"Hmmmmmmmmm?"

Bannok rolled his eyes in mock exasperation, but he couldn't deny that he was relieved. The friendly bickering was a thousand times preferable to the tension that had been between the two of them over the last couple of days.

---


"Bye Delilah," Sam said mournfully, wiggling his fingers at the pair of petpets. "Bye Finn. Parting is such sweet sorrow, but you must be strong."

The tuskaninny they belonged to shifted in his seat. "Look," he said gruffly. "If they're meanin' that much to you, I could be persuaded to put them for sale or summat."

"You could?" Sam visibly perked up, turning to Bannok with wide, hopeful eyes.

"Well, for a price." The tuskaninny nodded eagerly, clearly warming to his subject. "These are the delfins that beat the Teeth, you know? Quality merchandise, me. Don't be comin' cheap now, does it?"

"Thank you," Bannok cut in hurriedly, "for your kind offer, but I think they'll be better of with you."

"A'right then," the tuskaninny agreed, hands raised to show he wasn't going to press the issue. He adopted a sad expression that sat ill on his rough features. "Shame an' all, the fellas liking you so much. These things happen, but still. Right shame."

"The delfins and I share a deep and spiritual bond," Sam said, nodding furiously along with the tuskaninny's words. "It's an aquatic thing, you wouldn't understand."

Bannok's response was a dry: "Lovely," as he grabbed Sam by the arm and forcibly steered him away. "Next time you form a bond, do it with something cheap, would you?"

"Yeah yeah," Sam grumbled. He shook his arm out of his brother's loose hold and glanced around the crowded wharf. Impromptu market stalls had sprung up, the vast majority of them on fold-away tables or even wheelbarrows and carts. Sailors wove among the vendors and street hawkers with practiced ease, passing crates of fish up to a wagon, rolling barrels down centre aisle. It was a loud, chaotic mess, the sort of hub of life where fortunes could be won and lost on the roll of a dice and where the entire market could pack up and vanish the moment an authority figure was spotted.

Not that the Defenders cared much about some backwater black market port, but still. It was the principle of the matter.

Sam frowned as he spotted Niettah, waiting by the ship. She'd been backed up against the side of the hull by another pet - a kyrii, it looked like, taller than Bannok and with straggly braids in his mane.

He elbowed Bannok and jerked his head towards the interloper. "Hey, should we do something?"

Bannok looked over and cursed under his breath. "I knew bringing her here was a bad idea."

"She wants to be a pirate, she's got to learn these things."

Bannok shot him a dark glare. "She's not going to be a pirate," he denied. "She belongs in a palace with fancy people and fancy dancing, not in a place like this with us."

Which was... An interesting response. Sam was certainly intrigued. He'd never heard Bannok be anything but dismissive of the noble lifestyle; this abrupt turnaround required investigating.

But potentially not right then, when Niettah had taken yet another step backwards and the kyrii had responded by leaning one arm against the ship to block her escape. Although, maybe Bannok did have a point; even dressed in Sam's ill-fitting clothes, Niettah stood out. They didn't get faerie pets often in pirate haunts. Or pets as clean as Niettah was.

Bannok had already started pushing his way through the crowd to rescue her, and Sam hurried to catch up.

"Should've got her a sword," he was muttering under his breath. "Should've left her below deck, should've kept her where it was safe."

"Isn't that her decision?" Sam pointed out. "I mean - whoa!" He was slammed roughly to one side and went sprawling on the floor.

"Watch it," the lupe that had walked into him growled. Sam flattened his ears against his skull and curled one lip in a snarl of his own, but the lupe just snorted. "Pipsqueak," she sneered derisively.

"Oh, goodness," a second voice said. Sam found himself being manhandled upright and held in place while he was brushed down. "Oh, you poor thing, I'm so sorry for that."

"I'm sure it was my fault," Sam protested, trying to escape. The elephante's grip was like iron though, as well meaning as it was.

"Mercy, look at your coat - oh, that's going to stain," she continued, her face a mask of horror. She turned towards her companion with a reproachful stare. "Kay, how could you?"

The lupe scoffed, crossing her arms in a clear sign of disinterest. "Like he said, his fault. You done?"

Sam tried to see past the elephante to catch sight of Bannok or Niettah. He hoped Bannok hadn't waited; if the other kyrii backed Niettah up any further she'd be in the water by now - and as they'd discovered at the Teeth, she wasn't the strongest of swimmers.

"But you simply must allow us to apologise," the elephante babbled, reaching up to tug Sam's shirt straight. He ducked under her arms and backed away as quick as he could manage in the crowd.

"No need," he called back as he retreated. "Apology accepted, please go away now, nice doing business with you." The elephante reached after him, more exclamations of dismay on her tongue, and he turned and bolted for the ship.

Honestly. Some people were so weird.

He reached the ship to find Niettah standing with her tail curled primly around her legs and Bannok doubled over with laughter. There was no sign of the second kyrii.

"Okay?" he said unsurely. "Did I miss something? Where'd the other guy go?"

Bannok started laughing again, so it was Niettah who pointed at the water with a rather smug grin. Sam leaned over and blinked in surprise when he saw the wet and bedraggled kyrii hanging from one of the mooring ropes.

"You pushed him in?" he asked Bannok, nonplussed.

"Not me," Bannok gasped out, pointing at Niettah.

"You did?" Sam stared at Niettah. She was a slender scrap of a thing - the kyrii must've been three times her size, easy.

"Full-on shoulder throw into the water," Bannok said. "Best thing I've seen all day. And you should've heard him squeal - music to my ears, I swear."

Sam blinked, distracted. Music to my ears. Music to...

"It's music," he breathed, fishing in his pocket for the map. "The marks, they're music - where did I - what."

His pocket was empty.

"Sam?" Niettah asked, watching him with a worried frown. "What's wrong?"

He checked his other pocket with trembling fingers. Nothing.

"Sam?"

"The map," he croaked. Then, realisation hit him and he spun around, frantically scanning the crowd for the lupe and the elephante that had run into him earlier. Nothing. "They took it," he snarled. "They took the map!"

"Who?" Bannok demanded, all traces of laughter gone.

"I don't know! Two people. Girls. Two girls, this really mean looking lupe and an elephante - they ran into me, just now." Sam dug his fingers into his palm in frustration. It was the oldest trick in the book, the first basic trick that a thief learns. For crying out loud, it was a trick that Sam himself used often enough. If he hadn't been distracted by that stupid kyrii bothering Niettah, he never would have fallen for it.

"You think they knew what they were after?" Niettah asked.

Bannok nodded, face pinched with worry. "They must've done. A piece of parchment isn't your usual pickpocket fare. Someone tipped them off that we were had it; they must've been waiting for us to come back."

"Who, though? You were the first people I told. No one knew I'd joined your crew, I made sure of that."

Sam scoffed at her naivety. "Bannok's friend Harry," he rattled off, the suspicion coming easily to his mind. "Or the tuskaninny we got the delfins from. One of Baeyren's guards putting out a general description of the two of us. Some kind of tracking spell on the note we took from Ami's portrait. Anyone."

Bannok held up a hand to stop him. "It doesn't matter who," he said. "Can we trace them?"

"No," Sam admitted. The failure stung, both in losing the map and in not seeing it coming. Watching their back and distrusting everyone around them was his job. Whoever it was - and wasn't it convenient that Harry just happened to know a guy with delfins to lend them? - had lied and Sam hadn't caught it.

And of all the map pieces to take, they took the one that was going to cr ack the code of those strange marks around the map. He tried to picture it in his mind, to see how much he could remember. It was a fool's hope; that level of detail was beyond him.

On the other hand...

"No, we can't trace them," he said slowly. "But I think I can guess where they've gone."

Niettah was the first to catch on, her gaze sharpening. "You know where the treasure's hidden?"

"That piece had a fairly recognisable coast line, yeah," Sam agreed. "I don't know where exactly, but it's on an island and I know the one we're headed for."

Bannok clapped a hand on Sam's shoulder with a predatory grin. "Ready the ship, Sam. We're going hunting."



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Chapter 7: Eyes Wide Open
Chasing Treasure
Chapter 7: Eyes Wide Open
It took them three days to reach the island. They could have gone faster, perhaps, but after losing two map pieces to the Comte's crew (if the lupe and elephante had in fact been working for the Comte, which seemed likely) Bannok was being cautious. Sailing under cover of night, stocking up on supplies from several sources - never enough at once to betray the fact that they were setting out on a long journey.

Comte or not, someone had arrived before them. There was a ship anchored in the bay. It was too dark to hope to identify it, but the low silhouette and the extra cannon ports crammed into the hull were unmistakeable. It was a ship built for speed and battle, with none of the royal markers of a navy ship; a classic pirate ship.

Bannok gave the bay a wide berth, careful not to alert the other ship of their presence. They made anchor hidden in the shade of the next headland over.

"So what now?" Niettah whispered. "Is this the point where we storm the ship and have a pitched sea battle?"

The other two looked at her oddly.

"What books have you been reading?" Sam asked. "There's two of us, in case you haven't noticed. Sorry - three. And we don't have any cannons."

"We go in quietly," Bannok said. "One person. First priority is to find the map, maybe even find the other pieces as well. Second priority is sabotage. Disable the cannons, cut the rudder, anything that will stop them following us." He fixed Niettah and Sam with a stern look. "No heroics, no drama. In, out, and leave before they realise we're here. Yes?"

"Sure," Sam nodded. "I can do that, easy."

Bannok steeled himself. "No," he denied. "Sam, you stay here with Niettah. Watch the ship, make sure they don't steal from us while we're stealing from them."

Sam's mouth dropped open in shock. "What?" he yelped, the sound too loud in the otherwise silent night. Niettah shushed him but he ignored her. "It's a stealth mission. Stealth missions are my thing, Bannok."

Which was true. Bannok could do well enough, but Sam was on a whole other level, and had the added advantage that he could disappear underwater at any point. There were very few people who could catch a lutari at sea if he didn't want to be caught. In any other case, Sam would be the obvious choice.

But not this time.

"It's too dangerous. If that's the Comte, then I don't want to risk any of us on this; more than likely we're walking into trap. But we don't have a choice."

"We have a choice," Sam hissed. "The choice is to send you to get yourself captured and have to fight your way out, or to send me to sneak in and sneak out and rob them blind while I'm at it."

Bannok shook his head again, keeping his voice steady and level. "They knew we went to the Teeth," he explained. "They probably know we've followed them here. If it does come down to fighting our way out then I stand a better chance of it." He carefully didn't mention the bad shoulder; Sam hadn't seen it, and hopefully Niettah wouldn't bring it up. Besides, it was well enough to move. It just hurt. He'd fought with worse before.

"I thought the plan was to leave before they realise we're here at all, for which you need me."

"Sammy," Bannok said, one step away from begging. "I need you here to work out the code on the maps. And if we need the code, then they do too - which means they need you, and sending you to their ship is giving them exactly what they want."

Through all of this Niettah had been hovering to one side, shifting uncomfortably as the two brothers argued. "If you know it's a trap," she began, hesitant to interrupt, "why are you going on the ship at all?"

"Like Sam said, we're a tiny ship. We've got no cannons, and there's only three of us." Bannok frowned, running the possible scenarios through his mind, but he kept coming back to the same thing. "We can't fight them, not without messing something up on their ship to give us an advantage. We can't stay here waiting, either. It's a small island, they're going to notice us soon enough. And we don't have the supplies; chances of finding fresh water here are too low."

"So we move now," Sam picked up grimly. "They know we're coming, but they don't know when. Take the maps, run. Lie low and come back when they've got bored and moved on." Niettah raised an eyebrow at that, but Sam shrugged. "We've done it before. Pirates aren't known for their patience, and they don't expect people to do the cowardly thing." He smiled, though it was hardly a happy one. "Works to our advantage."

"Sorry," Bannok felt compelled to add. He didn't quite know what Niettah expected when she joined up with a pair of pirates, but the truth was that they were survivors. A long way from the heroes people liked to write about, that she'd probably read about.

"No, I understand," she said with an easy nod. "It makes sense. It's what I'd do." Bannok blinked, surprised. He supposed he shouldn't be though - he remembered her uncanny understanding of why Sam was so suspicious of her. The fluffy-headed Lady Antoinette she'd played back at the palace was turning out to be far more of an act and far less reality than Bannok had thought, he had to remember that.

"Fine," Sam bit out. "If we're all being so sensible, then Bannok swims to the other ship and we stay here in the lovely toasty warm while he gets soaking wet and cold."

Bannok couldn't help but laugh, partly in relief and partly at Sam's attempt to needle him. "I'm not going to swim," he said. "We never gave back the canoe, remember? And see if you can figure out the map puzzle, would you?"

"Yeah yeah," Sam waved him off. "Go and steal stuff."

---


Sneaking aboard the other ship was both easier and harder than Bannok had envisaged. He'd taken the canoe as close as he'd dared and swum the last part, a hollow tube acting as a basic snorkel so he could keep his head underwater. The pair of swords at his waist weighed him down, but he dared not leave one behind. He'd already had to leave his pistol behind as it was; the gunpowder would never have stayed dry. He had one of the amplifier guns with him instead, but although Sam and Niettah had tried to fix it, neither could be sure it would work. It was a last resort at best.

Still, Bannok thought as he hauled himself up the side of the ship, he'd expected more of a guard than this. Had he been right? Was he walking into a trap?

"Only one way to find out," he breathed, and swung himself over to land on the deck. He rolled, cushioning the landing into something near silent and getting out of the open in one movement. Once secure in the shadow of the mast he waited, holding himself up on his elbows and trying to calm his racing heart beat.

One breath. Two breaths. Three.

Silence. He'd made it onto the ship without being seen; all that was left now was to retrieve the map and go, maybe sabotage a few things along the way. He took a moment to get his bearings; from his hiding place, he could see two hatches, one laid flat into the deck and the other leading into the main cabin. He left the main cabin and slunk to the first hatch in the bow instead.

It was locked, but Bannok had been picking locks for long enough that it didn't present too much of a problem. He slid his belt knife through the gap between the hatch and the deck and worked the catch free. It rattled quietly as it came loose and Bannok froze. His gaze flicked up to the crows nest where he expected the watch to be, but he saw nothing.

The lack of people about was becoming suspicious.

He pressed his ear against the hatch and fought the urge to go back to the Arkmite. One hand rested on the swords at his waist and he reminded himself that he knew full well this a trap. Whenever they sprung their ambush, they wouldn't find him unprepared. All he had to do was get the map first so that when the fighting started he could concentrate on getting himself out.

Hearing no sounds from the room under the hatch, Bannok eased it open and lowered himself inside. He landed in a crouch, one sword already drawn and his eyes scanning the room for any pirates.

No one.

Looked like he'd found the storage room. There were barrels and crates lined up against one wall, carefully stowed canvas sacks against the other. A chest built into one corner was glowing with faerie magic and protections. The cool box, Bannok assumed as he made his way for it. He trailed a finger across the top to confirm it and nodded when he felt the telltale roughness of ice crystals.

Well. He was here to sabotage, wasn't he? The pirates wouldn't get very far without supplies, and the faerie spells keeping the food cold were easy enough to disrupt. He kept an ear out for footsteps and pried the silver crystal at the centre of the chest free. It dropped out with a whisper of magic and the glow on the chest faded.

"Perfect," Bannok grinned, slipping the crystal into his pocket.

Footsteps outside the room made him stiffen for a second. He spun on his heel, searching for a hiding place and darted behind one of the canvas sacks. Not a second too soon - the door to the room opened almost as soon as he'd hidden himself.

He peered out between two of the sacks. It was a zafara, one of the pirate crew. He went straight for the crates, digging around in one and emerging with what looked like a bottle of some sort.

"Spies and traitors," the zafara muttered to himself. "Pah." He spat on the floor in disgust and hefted the bottle with one hand. "No way to run anything. The White Horn would be ashamed if he could see us now."

Bannok's breath caught. The White Horn? If the zafara had been part of the White Horn's crew, then what did that mean - was this the Gallant Steed, the White Horn's famous ship? Was the Comte somehow connected to all this?

And that talk about spies and traitors. It confirmed what he and Sam had suspected, but it didn't answer the question of who was the traitor. Was it Harry? The kougra had seemed friendly enough, but she was the only other one who could have known what they were doing. Or was there someone else they'd missed entirely?

Still muttering, the zafara made his way out of the room. Bannok crept after him, hiding in the shadows and using the sharp sounds of the zafara's own boots to disguise his soft footsteps. He peered surreptitiously into the rooms they passed, searching for anywhere the map might have been hidden. So far though these seemed to be the bunks; he saw hammocks, more storage rooms, one or two larger rooms. Nothing that may have been the captain's quarters.

"Hey boys," the zafara said, turning into another room. A shaft of flickering candle light fell on the spot Bannok had been standing in just a second before and he hurriedly crouched down behind the door.

"And girls!" one of the voices inside called.

"Stuff it, Kay," someone else laughed. "You ain't no lady."

The first voice - Kay, Bannok assumed - sneered an unlady-like response to uproarious cheers and approval from the others. Bannok looked down the corridor, trying to judge where would be the best bet to continue the search, when the zafara spoke again.

"So, which part of Krawk Island are you going to rule over?"

What? He crouched further behind the door, straining to hear over the din.

"Me? I was thinking the forgotten shore. I mean, like, there must be a tonne of treasure waiting to be found."

"Governor's mansion!" someone else declared. "You can keep your smelly sand, I'll be living it up in the high life."

"Oy Vapad, keep dreaming!" a third voice jeered. "Rochefort's having that. If he doesn't bang it up too much in the attack, knowing him."

"Bang it up?" There was the sloshing of some liquid, a tankard of some sort clanging down on the table. "Mate, once we have the horn back we'll do more than bang it up a bit. We'll flatten it. Drop the whole island to rubble if we have to."

Bannok's blood ran cold.

"You and your ruddy horn," the third voice said. "That thing's a myth and you know it. We're wasting our time here - nothing wrong with a bit of old fashioned cannon fire. We could take Krawk Island with a few well planted explosives, no need to go chasing faerie stories like this."

A chair pushed back from the table and a hush fell over the group. Bannok held his breath, ear pressed against the wood. He didn't know what was worse, the idea that the Comte's crew - because this was the Comte's crew, if it was Rochefort aiming for the governor's mansion - was trying to conquer Krawk Island, or the idea that they had some secret weapon to do it with.

"The White Horn isn't a myth," an old, gravelly voice said. "We hid it for a reason, and you would do well to remember. The Comte is a foolish man to want what his father has set aside."

There was a pause. Bannok could almost hear the pirates trading awkward glances, none of them willing to be the first to speak up after that pronouncement. The old pet snorted once. "And you are fools for following him," he finished. Heavy, uneven footsteps marked his movement, and Bannok scrambled out of the way as the door swung open.

It was skeith, his once-vibrant scales faded and worn, his face set in a permanent grimace. He looked down at Bannok, easily seeing through his attempts to hide. Bannok prepared himself to fight, but the skeith merely rolled his eyes and jerked his head to one side. Cautiously, Bannok fell into step beside him.

"Little Ami sent you?" the skeith asked. Whatever Bannok had been expecting to hear that wasn't it, but he schooled the shock off his face and nodded. "Good." They walked a minute more in silence. Bannok almost choked on the questions he wanted to ask, but he stifled them. He didn't know what 'little Ami' would have told him or not (and wasn't she supposed to be dead? Or 'lost to us', as Niettah had put it?) and he couldn't afford to blow his cover like that.

"You have my assistance," the skeith finally said. "Rochefort's ambition will see his father's legacy in flames. I want no part of it."

"Rochefort is the White Horn's son?" The question slipped out before he could stop it and he bit his tongue as soon as he'd said it. To his relief, the skeith only smiled grimly.

"The White Horn was the weapon, lad. Always the weapon. The man... There were several. But yes, Rochefort's father was one of them. The last of them." He barked out a dry, scraping laugh. "Somehow I'm not surprised Ami left that out."

"No," Bannok agreed, hoping it was the right thing to say. "I'm not either."

They'd reached the main hatch leading back out onto the deck and Bannok hesitated. He could hear voices on the deck. However friendly the skeith was being, whether he trusted the skeith or not, he couldn't afford to be seen on deck.

The older pet looked over at him and nodded in understanding. "Get what you came for, lad. I'll be around." With one last nod goodbye he stepped out onto the deck.

"The others got bored of your portents of doom, old man?" one of the two pets on deck called in snide greeting.

"It's the right of the young to ignore the wisdom of the old," the skeith answered calmly. "And it is the misfortune of all to suffer the mistakes they bring."

Bannok turned away from them. If he was right, then one of the two on deck was the captain - the Comte Rochefort, son of the last of the White Horns. White Horn wielders? It was a lot of information to take in. Amelie was alive - or at least, the skeith believed she was - and somehow working against the Comte, and Rochefort was planning to invade Krawk Island using the White Horn itself, the weapon that his father had gone to such great pains to hide that he'd split the map into nine pieces and scattered them across the globe.

A lot of information. But it meant one thing for sure: they needed to stop Rochefort from reaching the treasure and finding the White Horn. Bannok left the skeith to weather the captain's insults and headed back into the ship. He had to keep looking for the map pieces - and he was pretty sure he'd seen the navigator's chart table on his way here.

---


No maps. The navigator did have some notes though, and Bannok took the time to memorise them as best he could. It seemed that Rochefort had narrowed the treasure down as being under one of the islands many mountains; he just didn't know which. And, before he'd stolen the sixth map piece off them, he hadn't known which island either.

But with the map pieces that Bannok and Sam had already collected, combined with Niettah's one piece and the information from the navigator's notes... Bannok had a pretty good idea which mountain the treasure was under. He just needed to get himself back to the Arkmite without being seen.

He went back out of the storage room, preferring to haul himself up out of the front hatch rather than risk the captain spotting him by the main entrance. Retracing his steps took him back past the room where the other pirates had been drinking before. The room now was silent and empty, the door hanging open on its hinges; Bannok could only hope that the pirates had retreated further into the ship and weren't all gathered on deck where it would be hard for him to sneak past.

He passed the barrels and chests and the cool box - not cool for much longer, now that Bannok had stolen the crystal that powered it. Climbing up to the hatch required a bit of shifting things around to create a pile tall enough for him stand on, but it was easy enough, even allowing for his bad shoulder. He eased it open just enough to confirm that the coast was clear and swung himself out, then lowered the hatch on his finger tips to cushion the sound. One last check to make sure the canoe was where he'd left it, and he prepared to lower himself overboard.

A raggedy cheer from the stern caught his attention and he turned to look. Soon the other pirates joined until until the whole crew were shouting, stomping their feet and beating their fists against the air - it seemed as if every pirate on the ship was gathered to watch.

Bannok glanced past them at what they could be cheering for.

He froze. Horror swept over him.

The Arkmite. The Arkmite was sailing steadily towards them, turning into the wind to moor alongside.

Bannok had been right; it had been a trap all along. Just not a trap for him.



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Chapter 8: Hand on your Sword
Chasing Treasure
Chapter 8: Hand on your Sword
Bannok felt numb. He joined the throng of jeering pirates and almost didn't care if he was seen. Everyone's attention was on the Arkmite, on Bannok's captured ship.

Questions whirled through his head. How had they done it? How had they known they were there - when had they had the chance to send anyone out to take the ship? Had they been lying in wait the whole time?

And more importantly, where were Sam and Niettah? He could only hope that they'd escaped, but it was a slim chance. He'd taken the only canoe with him and though Sam would have been just fine to slip into the water and avoid capture, Niettah couldn't swim that well. And Sam would never have left her, for all their disagreements in the beginning.

Which meant that either both of them had got out or both of them were on the ship, maybe captured, maybe in hiding. Bannok tried to subtly look over the pirates around him, weighing up his odds. He had two swords, one bad arm - aching, from hauling himself up onto the ship, but still usable - and an experimental amplifier gun that may or may not work. If Sam was still free, if the two of them could get back to back, they'd be able to fight their way out.

The Arkmite was almost alongside now, and Bannok craned his neck to see how many of the pirates were on board. He'd counted eight of them in the crowd with him, plus the captain, but it looked like there was only one more on the Arkmite. Ten against three; he'd had worse odds. Although it was worrying that both Sam and Niettah had been taken down by just one person; he'd have to be careful.

The lone figure on the Arkmite threw a rope with practised efficiency and darted forward to drop the sails. Bannok held back in the shadows as the pirates made short work of tying the rope on and steadying the Arkmite. He could see one person lying in an unconscious slump on the deck - Sam, he thought, but he couldn't be sure. That wasn't ideal, but there was only one person tied up which meant that Niettah was free.

The pirate that had sailed the Arkmite over pulled Sam up to sprawl over their shoulder. It hindered their movement; Bannok readied himself to leap forwards and free his brother, his swords already half drawn from their sheaths. Just a couple of seconds more...

She stepped into the light. The flickering lamplight threw her features into stark relief; the confident smirk, the array of weapons slung over her waist, the easy way she manhandled Sam and the careless way she dumped him at Rochefort's feet.

Bannok couldn't believe it. He couldn't - it was a trick. It must be a trick.

"Antoinette," Rochefort greeted in a pleased baritone. He swept his hat off in a dramatic bow and raised her hand to his lips.

"My dear Comte," Niettah all but purred in response. "It's been a while."

Rochefort laughed, deep and booming. "The whelps gave you no trouble, I assume?"

She swept her gaze over the crowd, easily picking Bannok out among the other pirates. He searched her eyes for some sign that she was acting, that this was some kind of trick. He found nothing but cold determination. "Not at all," Niettah said, each word striking through Bannok like daggers. She stared straight at him and smiled, a slow curl of triumph that chilled him to the bone. "They didn't suspect a thing."

She flicked her gaze back to Rochefort and Bannok sucked in a startled breath. He hadn't realised he'd been holding it.

"I apologise for the delay," Niettah said, every word crisp and cultured and nothing like her usual lilting accent. "This one -" she pushed Sam forward with her foot, and Bannok had to bite his cheek to stop himself yelling out - "was working out the last bit of the puzzle for us. I had to wait for him to cr ack the White Horn's miserable code before I brought him in." She held out a thin stack of parchments. The map pieces. Bannok didn't have to be able to see them to know it. She must've been after them the whole time.

Sam's head lolled back on the deck. Bannok could easily guess how the betrayal had happened. Sam, poring over the maps they still had and completely engrossed in the challenge they presented. He'd have asked Niettah to keep watch, and his guard would have been down because they trusted Niettah now. Both of them did. Because Bannok had disregarded Sam's instincts and told his younger brother that Niettah was a friend.

That mistake had cost him dearly. For what it's worth, Bannok silently promised his brother, I won't make it again. You and me against the world; no more trusting other people.

"Excellent," Rochefort grinned. "Ever the professional, my dear." He gestured expansively towards the island with one hand, the other settling around Niettah's shoulders. "I see no reason for us to delay any further," Rochefort continued. "Shall we?"

Niettah dipped her head into a shallow bow. "No time like the present," she agreed.

Rochefort laughed again and gestured two of the pirates forwards. They grabbed Sam, dragging him upright to hang limply between them, and made for one of the rowing boats. Bannok debated rushing forwards and stopping them, but he knew he'd fail. One of him against ten of them, the odds were too stacked against him. Particularly with Sam as vulnerable as he was.

His best hope was to take down the pirates on the ship once Sam was out of the way, then track them down to where the treasure was. Hopefully Niettah wouldn't realise he knew where it was; if he hadn't seen the navigator's notes, he wouldn't have a clue.

It was an almost physical ache to watch them lowering Sam into the rowing boat and leaving with him. Every fibre of his being rebelled against leaving his brother alone.

Soon, he promised feverishly as Rochefort, Niettah and the two other pirates rowed towards the island and the treasure. I'm coming, Sammy.

He did a quick head count of who was left. Six pirates - one of them was the skeith from earlier that may be an ally. Then again, after even Niettah turned out to be a traitor, he wasn't putting much faith in it. The others included an elephante, a laughably small kacheek that Bannok was instantly wary of, a pair of identical looking hissis (twins, perhaps?) and the zafara he'd followed out of the storage room.

He reached for his swords. He could take one, maybe two of them out in the first surprise attack - but after that it would be a free for all. He studied each one, singling out the most dangerous to go down first. The elephante, perhaps? She was the largest of the pets - but the skeith, if he did decide to fight, could be a serious threat. And the kacheek; he had Bannok on edge. In his experience, someone that small was at least four times as vicious to make up for the lack of size.

The steel slid free of the leather sheath with a gentle shnng. Bannok balanced a sword in each hand, testing the grip. His left arm was weak from the injured shoulder. It would have to do.

The elephante and the kacheek were standing almost next to each other. He crept into position behind them, swords raised, and took a breath to centre himself.

One. Two.

He leapt. The swords drove forwards with unerring accuracy, his full weight behind them. The elephante went down with a wounded cry.

"Ambush!" the kacheek yelled. He slid under Bannok's sword, one hand balancing himself against the deck. The other came up with a pistol, safety off and hammer cocked. Bannok swore and twisted himself to the side, dodging the bullet by millimetres.

The quiet whistle was all the warning he was given; he spun on his heel and raised both swords in a block. His wound screamed in pain but he grit his teeth and forced himself through it. The zafara's sword was hovering scant inches from his face. He couldn't afford to let the block slip.

"Fancy one here, lads." The zafara leaned forward, putting his entire weight onto Bannok's swords. "Thinks he can take us all, does he?"

One of the hissis crept up behind. Bannok darted aside, unbalancing the zafara and sending him tumbling into the hissi. A flying kick, a flash of blue fur, an explosion of pain in his shoulder; the second hissi had targeted his bad arm. His fingers fell open, numb and shaking, and his sword clattered to the deck. He brought his other sword up in a hasty parry and dodged back.

"Keep him still, wouldja?" The kacheek raised his arm in an almost lazy aim, one eye closed as he sighted down the pistol. The second hissi darted forward, wings flared to cage Bannok in. He couldn't dodge - she was moving too fast to block - he jabbed with his elbow, hard. Caught her across the chin, knocked her off balance, but her flailing tail sent him sprawling against the deck.

He gasped for breath, lungs burning. The elephante was limping forwards, dragging an unfeasibly large weapon with her. The angry anticipation on her features told Bannok that he could expect no mercy from her, not after the wound he'd given her. The zafara was down for the count, but both hissis were regrouping and moving to flank him. The kacheek stood dead centre, reloading his pistol for another shot.

Desperately, he sought out the last member of the crowd: the skeith. The old pirate was leaning against the mast, arms crossed and seeming almost bored. He raised an eyebrow at Bannok, and Bannok nodded back in grim recognition. He'd get no help from his tentative ally, but at least the skeith wouldn't interfere.

"Brain in the game, if you please," the male hissi mocked, sliding closer. Bannok took a breath and stood in the ready position, his one remaining sword held across his body. He turned, hiding his other hand from view.

"Why, are you going to play?" he shot back, stalling for time. His hidden hand withdrew the amplifier gun from his belt. "I was wondering when you'd stop messing about."

Both hissis reared back at that, spitting fury at the insult. The elephante raised her oversized gun to rest on her shoulder. Time up; Bannok brought the amplifier gun up and got ready to throw himself out the way if it didn't work.

"What kind of junk is -"

The gun fired with a deafening lack of sound. Bannok's ears rang from the oppressive silence and he nearly dropped the gun in his shock. He shook his head, dazed, and tried to clear the spots from his vision.

The pirates had frozen. It was the only way to describe it; there was a thick layer of ice over the whole deck. It covered everything in angular crystals, encasing each of them in a jagged, icy statue. He could even see the bullet from the kacheek's pistol caught by the ice, and the metal of the elephante's bazooka had warped under the pressure.

"That's quite a weapon you've got there, kid," the skeith said, his gruff tone piqued with interest. "Wherever did you get a thing like that?"

Bannok flashed a confident smile, hiding how shaken he was. "Tools of the trade," he offered flippantly. "Top secret and all that. I'm sure you know how it is."

"No," the skeith said simply. He shrugged and turned aside, dismissing the strange weapon. "I want nothing to do with Ami's secrets. Whatever war she wages against her brother is her own doing; my only concern is that Rochefort not be allowed to use the White Horn."

"And you think it will be better with Ami?" Bannok pressed.

He got a rough snort in response. "If Little Ami wanted to rule the world, I'm quite sure she wouldn't need such an inelegant weapon to do so." With a final wave, the skeith disappeared below deck, leaving Bannok alone with one unconscious zafara, four ice statues, and a healthy fear for the Dauphinne Amelie de la Mer, wherever she may be.

But one mystery at a time. He raised the amplifier gun, careful to keep it pointed away. "How on earth did you do this?" he asked it, turning the weapon over in his hand. Something glinted from within the wire cage of the barrel. He drew it out with two fingers and held it in the palm of his hand.

"The cooling crystal?"

It was - or it had been - the central power cell of the cool box from the storage room, the spark of faerie magic that had kept the food cold. Now it was cracked and dull, the magic spent in one dramatic shot. Bannok looked at the amplifier gun with new respect; if it could ramp up a simple cold spell into an all-out ice weapon, he could only imagine what it would be able to do with some proper battle magic in it.

That would come later though. For now, he needed to get to Sam.



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Chapter 9: Head Held High
Chasing Treasure
Chapter 9: Head Held High
Sam came to slowly, dragging himself into a foggy, pain filled conciousness. His head throbbed, a dull ache radiating out from the base of his skull. His arms hurt when he tried to move them, aching from being tied too tightly behind his back for too long. His wrists chafed from the coarse ropes.

"What?" he moaned, groggy and disorientated. "What happened?"

"You're sure this is the smart one?" someone mocked in a familiar voice. Sam struggled to place it, but his head felt like someone had stuffed it full of cotton wool. He couldn't think.

"It's a relative term," a second voice replied, and that one Sam could place. Niettah.

His eyes shot open as the memories came back in a rush. Niettah had betrayed him. He hadn't even seen it coming - one moment he'd been working on the maps, had been caught up in the problem and about to solve it, and the next...

The next moment, Niettah had used the blunt handle of his own dagger to knock him out. She hadn't even apologised, hadn't seemed at all guilty about it. Just a cool, calm professionalism.

The blurred shapes around him came into sharp focus. Either side of him were two pets he assumed were members of the enemy pirate crew. One of them, he recognised - it took a second to place her, but she was the rude lupe that had knocked him over back in the port. She smirked at him when she noticed his recognition, a smile that held far too many teeth to be anything but threatening.

The other he didn't recognise. A lenny, tall and spindly but with iron bracers wrapped around the feathers on each wing. His beak was scratched and a livid scar ran from the corner of his eyebrow down almost to his neck. Sam shuddered. He considered himself an adequate swordsman, but he didn't rate his chances of fighting his way out of this mess.

There were two others in the gloomy cave. Niettah stood off to one side, her expression closed and aloof. She tilted her head towards Sam as one might towards a vaguely interesting petpetpet in the dirt. He set his jaw and looked past her, determined not to give her the pleasure of seeing how much her betrayal hurt. His gaze fell instead on the last pet, an elegantly dressed gelert with a ridiculous feathered hat and a sharp coat that sat firmly on the gaudy side of the fence. Where those rubies in the buttons? And gold filigree on the hems? He scoffed at the wasteful opulence.

"Not to your taste?" the gelert rumbled in a cultured baritone. He had to be Rochefort; no other pirate that Sam knew of had such an over the top sense of fashion. "My apologies, how remiss of me. Antoinette, darling, would you sort our guest out?"

Antoinette? Who on earth was - oh. Antoinette, Niettah, yeah, Sam could see the connection there. He fought the urge to bare his teeth at her as she approached; only the lupe and the lenny either side of him made him watch himself.

She reached for the rope tying his hands together and cut it with one swift movement of her dagger. Sam shook the feeling back into his hands as best he could, hiding a wince at the strain in his arms. Rochefort smiled indulgently at him, as though waiting for something.

"What, you wanted a thanks?" Sam snapped. The lupe punched him in the ribs, a lightning fast blow that sent him sprawling on the floor.

"Manners, whelp," she snarled at him.

Rochefort sighed, sending her a disappointed look. "Kay, my dear," he chided in a long suffering tone. "The poor lad's had a confusing day. And we have been awfully rude. Allow me to introduce myself." He took his hat off in a practised flourish that sent his sparkly coat flaring out behind him. "I am the Comte Rochefort de la Mer, the captain of the Gallant Steed and heir to the title of the White Horn."

"Enchanted, I'm sure," Sam snarked. Rochefort continued as though he hadn't spoken.

"The charming xweetok to my left is the lovely Lady Antoinette as I'm sure you know, and may I also present to you the delightful Katharine and the unfairly handsome Ulric the Fourth."

The fourth? Seriously? Who actually called themselves "Ulric the Fourth" and expected people not to laugh in their face? Sam reminded himself of the knuckledusters and scars and amended his thought. Ulric the Fourth could call himself Princess Sparklefeathers and he doubted many people would have the guts to disagree.

"Call me Katharine and I will end you," the lupe informed him lightly. Ulric grunted, which Sam took to mean 'call me anything at all and I will worse than end you', which, hey, he appreciated the warning at least.

"Noted," he said dryly. His ribs smarted from her punch; he didn't doubt she would.

"Excellent!" Rochefort beamed. "Now, Sammy -"

"No. Big no."

"We're all introduced and we're all friends, so may I be the first to officially welcome you to the crew?"

Sam stared at him. He looked between the other three, waiting for one of them to laugh in his face and reveal the joke, but none of them did. Ulric was bored, Kay looked murderous (though Sam suspected that was her default expression) and Niettah was just blank. He focused back on Rochefort's smiling, open features.

"You're mad," he breathed out. Kay hefted her fist again - claws out this time, oh good - but Rochefort held up a paw to stop her. "You actually think I'm going to join you?"

"Come now, Sammy," Rochefort said reproachfully. If he wore glasses, Sam would expect him to be peering over them.

"It's Sam."

"Sammy, you're a smart lad. Your little pirate operation was all very fine and well, but it was hardly paying well now, was it? No riches, no treasure. By all accounts, this horde was it for you, wasn't it? The big payoff that would make everything worth it?"

He swept an arm to encompass the cave's contents. Sam kept a wary eye on Kay and Ulric but darted his gaze over the cave. He had to stop himself from doing a double take; it was filled with... With everything. Treasure. Knick knacks, paintings, jewels. And between everything, overflowing every chest and tumbling between every marble statue, was a sea of gold.

"This... How?"

"The amassed treasure of no less than thirteen successive bearers of the White Horn," Rochefort proclaimed. "It is my inheritance and my birthright as the fourteenth. I must thank you for such diligence in piecing the map together for me; it would have been a tiresome waste of resources to pick them all up myself."

"Go jump off a cliff," was Sam's less than eloquent response to that. This time, when Kay swiped out with her claws, Rochefort didn't stop her. Sam winced at the thin lines of pain on his cheek and the feel of blood dripping down his chin, but he didn't regret his words.

"Sammy, please," Rochefort sighed. "You are being tiresome. Would it be so bad to join my crew?"

"Somehow I don't think your crew like me so much."

Kay grinned. "Right in one, fish-boy."

Rochefort waved him off. "It's how Katharine shows love, pay no mind to her. But very well; let me propose a trade. I will grant you one chest of gold - or emeralds, if you prefer? They would suit you marvellously - and safe passage to... wherever it is you come from. A generous offer, no?"

One chest of gold, given how overflowing the cave itself was? Sure. Generous. "What do you want in return?"

For a second, Rochefort dropped his affected manners. The stare he favoured Sam with was steady and assessing. It was like being stripped bare, like an invasion of some sort. Sam stuck his chin forwards and fought the urge to squirm under the full weight of it.

Then, as quickly as it had come, the intensity was gone and Rochefort was back to his usual foppish self. Sam shivered at the change. He was sick of people not being who they seemed to be. After this, he vowed, he'd never trust anyone again. Except Bannok. Forget reasonable suspicion - he was going for full blown paranoia.

If he got out of this. And somehow found Bannok, wherever he'd managed to wind up. He considered asking, but on the off chance that his brother had avoided detection so far he didn't want to draw attention to him.

"What do I want?" Rochefort said, pretending to consider the question. "Why, I'm a simple gelert, Sammy."

"Still not Sammy."

"It wouldn't even cost you anything. All I want is that tune you've got in your head." He smiled again, encouraging Sam to share with him in his good mood. "That's all. You can just hum it if you want."

"The tune?" Sam asked, thrown. At any moment he had several tunes in his head, some more annoying than others. Kumbayah was a recurring favorite, but he doubted it would suit Rochefort's taste.

"Yes, the tune." Rochefort stood to one side and swept his hand out in an expansive gesture at one of the piles of gold. At the top was a marble plinth, and sitting on top of that, a grand horn. It was a french horn, curved into a circle stretching three feet across - far larger than it should be. The gleaming metal was a polished white gold that shone even in the dim half-light of the cave. "The tune encoded in the map pieces, the tune that will activate the White Horn," Rochefort explained. He favoured Sam with a raised eyebrow as he turned back to face him. "Do keep up, Sammy."

The question 'what will you do with it' was on the top of Sam's tongue, but he didn't ask. Paranoia, he reminded himself. Assume he'll lie. Assume that he'll use it for something too awful to contemplate.

"I didn't manage to work it out," he said, injecting just the right amount of thwarted greed into his voice. "The notes, sure, but they're meaningless without knowing what key it's written in."

"Lie," Niettah said calmly.

Sam bristled. "It's not," he denied. "Major key, minor key - what if it's completely transposed? It makes a massive difference."

She didn't even blink or nod. It was like she was carved from stone, she was that unfazed. "A difference that you worked out."

"I have to agree with Antoinette here, Sammy," Rochefort said with a slight frown. "She wouldn't have brought you in if the puzzle wasn't solved." He gestured to Ulric, little more than a tilt of his head, and Sam found himself held in a choke hold with a sword against his throat. "Perhaps you could try again?"

The new found paranoia warred with the old, deep-seated need for self preservation. He could give a false code. How bad could it be? He flicked his eyes over to Niettah, standing impassively behind Rochefort's right shoulder.

Very bad. If Niettah called him on the lie - and the paranoia insisted that she would - then it could be worse than bad.

So, if he gave the truth? Would Rochefort honour his promise and let Sam go? Let Bannok go?

Unlikely. The decoded tune was the only valuable thing Sam had. Though he'd never met Rochefort or his crew before personally, the Comte's reputation preceeded him. He was not known for being merciful.

Which left the third option. Staying silent. Or at least, staying silent long enough to formulate and enact an escape plan, or long enough that if he did give a false answer Niettah wouldn't see through it straight away.

Staying silent it was. He raised his chin and locked eyes with Rochefort, daring him to do his worst. He squashed the panicked thought that he might have misjudged his own value here. If Rochefort didn't care about the tune, the secret to unlocking the White Horn's power - if Sam had gambled that wrong then everything would fall apart, but he didn't think he had.

He hoped, at least.



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Chapter 10: Spring the Trap
Chasing Treasure
Chapter 10: Spring the Trap
Sam grit his teeth and held his tongue, bracing himself for Rochefort's anger.

"Really, Sam," Rochefort said with a moue of distaste. "Must you force me to be uncivilised about this whole thing? I do so hate the mess."

"Wait," Niettah said, staring at a point somewhere over Sam's shoulder. "He won't talk from that - but there's another way." Sam's relief at Rochefort's plans being halted was quickly replaced with dread. It only got worse when Niettah continued speaking. "Third ledge down, behind the rock. You'll find a blue kyrii. Wounded left shoulder and I believe cracked ribs, though I wasn't able to tell for certain. He should be easy enough to bring in."

Bannok. No, nononono -

"Kay, Ulric," Rochefort said with an indulgent smile. They didn't need any further instruction; Ulric dropped Sam in a boneless heap and left him hacking and coughing for breath on the floor.

"Niettah," he begged, searching for any sign of the kinship they'd built. "Please, not Bannok - you can't."

"It's nothing personal," she assured him in the same detached tone. "Just politics."

Somewhere unseen in the crags and rocks that lined the cave he heard the sound of fighting. Against Kay and Ulric he'd bet on Bannok any day - but when they had the drop on him? And his shoulder; Sam had noticed it was bad. The cracked ribs he hadn't known about, but the shoulder itself was pretty hard to miss. He crossed his fingers behind his back and offered prayers to every faerie he knew, but he wasn't hopeful.

When Kay and Ulric returned with Bannok's bruised form dragging behind them, Sam somehow was too despairing to be surprised.

"It's a waltz," he said hoarsely, his eyes fixed on his brother. "Three time, minor key. The Princess' waltz - you know it?"

"I know it," Rochefort said with a satisfied smile. He patted Sam's cheek condescendingly. "There, now. That wasn't so hard?"

The flare of anger Sam expected never came. He just felt numb.

"You'll let us go?" he asked. "Both of us?"

"Mmm. Perhaps. Kay, a hand?"

Of course. Of course it wasn't that simple but - Sam had played his cards. He'd given up the secret of the code, and he'd been too panicked to even think of a good lie. Kay dropped Bannok without a backward glance and Sam scrambled forward to support him.

"Hey," he whispered.

Bannok snorted in response. "How'd you like the rescue so far?"

Sam laughed wetly. "Four out of ten. Could try harder."

"Yeah, well." Bannok was silent for a moment, glaring up at the stoic Ulric. The only sound in the cave was the metallic clattering as Rochefort and Kay retrieved the horn from its marble plinth.

"He's going to take down Krawk Island," Bannok said finally. "Rochefort. The horn is a weapon, he'll use it to rebuilt the White Horn's empire, and Krawk Island will be the first to fall."

Sam's mouth hung open. Taking over Krawk Island - it was the home of piracy. It was the only truly neutral ground, the smuggler's haven and the place to fence loot with no questions asked. It was... It was impossible to put into words what Krawk Island meant to pirates, what it represented. For Rochefort to attack it?

"He's actually mad," Sam said, reiterating an earlier statement. "He's - he can't - can he?"

"Mad?" Niettah asked, standing just the other side of Ulric. She twisted her nose in distaste, the only sign of emotion Sam had seen from her since he'd woken up in the cave. "Incurably so."

"You dare?" Ulric hissed, hefting his wing. Niettah moved faster, her hand flashing out with the glint of a dagger in her fist. Ulric dropped like a stone.

Sam continued his gobsmacked fish impression, staring at the enormous lenny's downed form with incomprehension. Bannok though just groaned. "Is there anyone you haven't betrayed?" he asked bitterly.

"Yes," was the simple answer, then Niettah was dragging them both upright. She didn't elaborate on who she might not have betrayed. Yet. Sam felt that the 'yet' was an important addition.

"The horn is a trap," Niettah explained in a hushed whisper. "As soon as Rochefort sounds it this whole place will cave in. We need to run."

"We?" Sam snarked, but he was already turning to go, Bannok's good arm slung over his shoulder. "What makes you think we'll trust you again?"

She shrugged. "Trust me or not. Rochefort won't let you go either way; this is your only chance. Take it."

Somewhere in the depths of the cave the first, melancholy notes of the Princess' waltz sounded. The walls groaned, the ceiling itself seeming to flash with hidden runes.

They ran.

In the dim light of the cave it was almost impossible to see where they were going. Niettah had grabbed one of Rochefort's torches and was holding it as far above them as she could, but the light flickered and the shadows jumped and moved like living things. Sam stumbled more than once over the uneven ground, struggling under Bannok's weight.

"Move!" Niettah shouted and Sam dived. A giant stalactite crashed into the ground where he'd been a second ago, the force of it knocking him forward. Bannok steadied him, and with Niettah darting ahead to find a way out that wasn't blocked by the cave in, they ran on.

"Right, here," Bannok gasped out. "There's a passage - it's the way I came in."

She raised the torch. The passage was barely more than a fissure in the rock, but Bannok led them into it with confidence. "It's short," he promised. Niettah followed him without question, but Sam hesitated. He didn't mix well with small spaces.

There was a loud cr acking sound as the rock beneath his feet began splitting open.

"Sam!" Bannok roared, and Sam grit his teeth, closed his eyes, and leapt forwards.

The rock pressed in on every side. He turned, sliding through with one shoulder first, but he could feel sharp edges digging into his ribs with each step. He felt blindly in front of him with one hand, his breaths coming shallower as the space grew smaller, he couldn't breathe, he wasn't going to make it through, he was going to be trapped in here forever -

Bannok took his arm and heaved. With a final stumble and a scrape of the rock against his back, Sam was free.

"You're out," Bannok assured him. "You're ok, you're out, just breathe."

"I hate tunnels," Sam gasped, leaning on Bannok and waiting for the world to stop spinning.

"I know. I'm sorry."

Sam shook his head, waving off the apology - it couldn't be helped, and they were out now. The damp walls of the cave were replaced with towering palm trees and hanging vines, and he could smell the sea on the wind.

Behind them, the stone mountain rumbled ominously, trembling as its insides fell apart.

"You think Rochefort will get out in time?" Sam asked. He wondered if the gelert would do the sensible thing and run or if he'd try to save the treasure.

"Probably," Niettah grimaced. "He's annoyingly good at surviving like that." She turned to Bannok. "You got your ship back, I assume?"

Bannok stared at her levelly, his cool gaze giving away none of his thoughts. Niettah returned it just as calmly.

"Who is Ami?" Bannok finally asked. Sam blinked; Ami? Little Ami, the gelert from the painting? Had he missed something here?

Niettah smiled, seemingly pleased that Bannok had worked it out.

"The Dauphinne Amelie de la Mer," she said. "The daughter of the last and greatest of the pirates to wield the White Horn. His chosen heir."

"Rochefort's sister."

"Yes."

Sam's mind raced, putting everything together. The map piece in Amelie's portrait, the fact that it was her birthday that was the key to the chest they took from the Teeth, even the tune that unlocked the White Horn, the Princess' waltz.

"Amelie was meant to find the treasure," he said. Except no, that wasn't right, because the treasure was a trap. And Niettah had known the treasure was a trap which meant most likely... "The treasure was the bait, and you were supposed to lead Rochefort to it. This whole thing was set up so that Amelie could get rid of her brother."

Niettah nodded. "He never liked that his younger sister inherited everything. He has been... difficult. But for what it's worth, I'm sorry that you two got caught up in all this."

Sam snorted. "It's not worth jack."

"Then perhaps this will be." She retrieved a pouch from her waist and threw it. Bannok caught it one handed, eyes wide as he felt the weight. "Compliments of the Dauphinne," Niettah said. "It was a pleasure working with you."

Bannok tipped the pouch out into his hand. The gleaming gold of a pile of hundred dubloon coins glinted in the sun.

"There must be thousands in there," Sam breathed reverently.

Bannok laughed. "We're rich, Sammy. Cloud puffs and faerie pancakes, you'll be able to eat your entire weight in fish pops. Rich!"

A thunderous crash sounded from the caves behind them and shook the two back into the present.

"But only if we get out of here before the mountain falls on us," he amended, pouring the coins back into the pouch and tying it onto his belt.

Sam scanned the trees, searching for the best way to get back to the beach. He frowned when he noticed someone missing.

"Where's Niettah?"

Bannok shook his head tiredly. "Who knows? She left. I guess she's got her own way off the island. Leave her, Sammy. We've got more important things to worry about."

Sam moved to support his brother, careful not to jostle his bad shoulder. "Like how we're going to spend everything. I was thinking a visit or two to Kelp restaurant, yes?"

"Or, here's a thought, we could be careful with it and not spend it all in one go."

"Ah come on, where's the fun in that? I've always wanted to spin the Wheel of Extravagance."

"Sam, no."

"Sam yes, I think you mean."

They limped towards the beach, the mountain crumbling behind them and burying the vast treasure hoard of a dynasty of pirate kings. The Silver Arkmite beckoned, and the whole world beyond that.



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Epilogue
Chasing Treasure
Epilogue
It was spring. The cherry blossoms were in full bloom, a thousand delicate pink flowers floating on the gentle breeze. The water in the pool was mirror-still, the lilies lying calm and undisturbed on the surface.

Two pets sat under the shade of the trees. The one was a faerie xweetok, clad in a simple green dress. The other was a gelert, her silvery-white fur seeming almost to shine in the morning sun. A biyako draped itself over the gelert's lap, striped chest rising and falling with a rumbling, contented purr.

"My brother lives," the gelert said.

The xweetok dipped her head. "He does."

"Pity."

They lapsed back into an easy silence, broken only by the gentle tok of the bamboo fountain.

"The two brothers?" the gelert asked.

The xweetok smiled, gentle and fond. "They are competent, but principled. With careful handling they would make excellent agents."

"Principled." The gelert turned the word over, considering it as though it were a foreign concept. "How... novel."

"They are not so bad," the xweetok assured. The gelert hmmed in response, lazily scratching the biyako behind one velvet ear.

"The horn?"

The xweetok shifted in her seat. "Missing," she admitted.

"And the other one?"

The xweetok reached into the loose folds of her dress and withdrew a simple whistle, roughly carved and worn from use. It was short, one end broken as though it had once been longer, and the spiral form and dull ivory colour were reminiscent of a uni's horn.

The gelert laughed, a gentle and delicate sound that belayed the cold satisfaction in her eyes.

"My brother can keep that worthless bauble with my pleasure," she purred. In her hand the whistle shivered, a frisson of magic flashing down it.

The White Horn had chosen a new mistress.



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Chapter 1: Trombones and Tuxedos
The Bone Eater Desert


The land to the north is bleak. There was once a great sea here, an ocean stretching over the horizon that teemed with life. Once, there were small fishing villages ringing the bay, seals pulling themselves out on the rock to bask in the sun, children chasing drifts of sea foam on the breeze. The seals left when the waters receded. The fishing villages litter the landscape like broken husks. There's no more foam, and no more children to chase it.

It's salt plains now, endless salt plains. They seem to shimmer in the sun, bright enough to blind any foolish trespassers. When the air is clear the salt plains mirror the sky - there's no horizon any more, or if there is, you can't see it. The biting winds carry black sand from the west, whipping over the plains without mercy. You get caught in that, you're done. There's no shelter on the plains, and the sand will leave your bones bleaching in the sun.

And it's dry. Achingly, painfully dry. The jagged hulls of the fishermens' boats stand proud and whole, too dry to rot. Occasionally one of them will crumble into salty dust, the stretched skins unable to stand up to the relentless wind. There's no moisture in the air, no clouds in the sky. No features on the land, other than the snaking lines of black sand across the white salt, and the odd fissure where the crust has buckled and cracked. Nothing lives here, not buried in the salt or drifting above the ravenous winds.

(They say the winds are alive, great horses with diamond hooves that thunder against the salt plains. Or dragons, pearly dragons with milky eyes that have no legs and can never land. Ghosts, people whisper. Listen, when the night is clear - you can hear the echoes of the lullabies the fishermens' wives used to sing.)



This is our home. This is where we were exiled to, and where we stuck our staffs in the ground and dared the wind to tear us down. We live in the rock beneath the salt, in domed caverns dug into the walls of the great fissures. We are short and wizened, our teeth worn down by coarse food and coarser air. We hide our faces to protect us from the glaring sun and wear bones over our hearts to ward off the ghosts in the wind. We dig, down and down and further still until we find water - down until we find heat, the life blood of the earth pulsing through the rock.

There's a cave, we won't tell you where, that's lined with crystals. Walk around the edge. Take care; if you fall, there's nothing below you. The air is still and heavy; we're close to the spirits here, you can smell it. It's warm, hot even, almost uncomfortably so. The spirits don't approve of the biting cold in the surface world.

In the centre of the cave the ceiling bows down under the weight of the spirits above. It reaches to the blackness below, a long, bulbous node growing spindly towards the point. There are crystal bridges, angular and geometric. The tops are worn smooth. Come with me. Cross the bridge, don't look down. There's dragons over the plains but worse in the depths of our cave. Now. Look up.

This is our city, shining crystal and staggering heat, clinging to the base of a freezing desert and hanging over an endless abyss. These are our people, who live on lichen and barter salt for livestock to survive. These are the wooden staffs our ancestors brought in exile; these are the crystal staves we carry in their honour.

Have you seen enough? Have you your stories of the faceless men from the north? Come; you trade for salt and you shall have it. You think we care that you keep your finest cloth for the rich dogs in the south? Give us your scraps, give us your scorn, but keep your pity. We are born in crystal and grown in salt and black sand; we are raised by the ghosts in the wind. Your pity means nothing to us.

Geographical formation

The Salt Plains occur over a subduction zone. In the past, the area had been a wide bay dotted with volcanically formed islands. Hot vents under the sea released rich minerals into the water and caused diverse and thriving marine ecosystems. Approximately two hundred years ago the plates slipped against each other, causing huge earthquakes as the lighter plate to the south was forced up over the heavier plate to the north. The upheaval caused the sea to retreat, leaving the mineral-rich deposits it contained over the plains and giving them their characteristic bleakness. The land was left with great cr acks and gorges through it from the earthquake, and many of the islands - now standing as stacks on dry land - crumbled.

The rock composition of the area is volcanic, primarily hard granite and basalt. The hot vents now release poisonous gases into the atmosphere which, combined with the lack of soil, prevent any plant life from growing in the area other than lichens. Underground, empty volcanic chambers cause massive cave systems, many of which contain giant crystals from the volcanic mineral deposits. Some of these chambers connect to the now distant sea and contain water, though it needs a lot of treatment before it can be used as drinking water. The pools retain strong colours - mostly blue - from the impurities they contain.

While the underground caverns are hot, the surface world is bitingly cold. Winds build up around the poles and, with no vegetation and strikingly few land features to impede them, reach incredible speeds. They are primarily responsible for the dry climate, though it is so cold that any water around would most likely be frozen if it were on the surface. In the height of summer, the night is barely an hour long - and even then the sky remains light. In winter, it is dark for the vast majority of the day. When the wind and the sandstorms it brings are absent, the stars and the dancing auroras in the atmosphere provide the only light.

The Faceless Men

The people who inhabit the plains were sent here in exile, approximately one hundred and fifty years ago. The salt plains - known to them as the Bone Eater Desert for the deadly winds - were seen as a delayed execution, but instead have provided a harsh but stable existence. The many interconnected caves and lava chambers provide shelter and protection, with further homes being carved into the rocky walls of the great gorges and fissures. Water was found at the base of one of these fissures and carefully filtered through porous pumice rock to make it drinkable; further water sources have been found by mining down through some of the deeper chambers to create wells. Ash and biological matter are hoarded in some of the mid level caves where mosses, lichens and succulents are able to grow; the vegetation is too tough for human consumption but is able to sustain livestock.

The people live off their livestock. These are primarily goats and mountain sheep, tough, hardy animals able to navigate the steep rocky landscape of the gorges. They do not go up to the surface world except during transit when they are brought to the plains from the more fertile lands to the south. The herds provide meat, milk, hair and skins, as well as bone and horn for tools or building materials. Without clay to make pottery or reeds to make baskets, the people rely on skins for containers and storage as well as warmth and clothes.

However, life is not truly sustainable here - the people rely on trade. They work in the summer to gather salt from the plains and in winter to mine crystals, both of which they trade for a continuous supple of livestock and for cotton or linen cloths that are impossible to make out of hair or wool. They wrap these clothes around their heads and faces to protect from the glare of the sun; the material is fine enough for them to see through without exposing their skin to the salt and sand laden air. Every inch of them is covered when they venture to the surface, as exposure causes them to loose water through their skin which could easily dehydrate them. The livestock they have very rarely breed - life is too harsh and the water is a slow acting poison to them - so the continuous fresh supply of animals is vital for the population's survival.

Beliefs and Culture

The people of north have no name for themselves other than "Us", but take pride in the way that the 'faceless men' unsettle their southern neighbours. They have a great dislike of outsiders borne in part of the sting of exile and in part of their dependence and reliance on trade. They are convinced that the merchants take advantage of them and give them the worst products for the most extortionate prices, and delight in making the trading process as unpleasant as possible for them. One particular favourite is to bring the merchants, swathed in multiple layers to protect against the cold of the surface world, down to their great city in one of the hottest caverns. The heat and the sulphuric gases sometimes combine to make the merchants faint, with the vertiginous heights rarely helping matters.

Within their own people they have a strong belief in spirits and in particular in their ancestors. Their ancestors - particularly the first group sent into exile - are revered for learning how to survive in the harsh landscape that would destroy most people. The spirits are believed to reside in the crystal lined caves where the slightest light is reflected and magnified through the crystals, and the varied mineral deposits and natural gas outlets produce vividly coloured flames. The dead are left out in the wind to preserve their bodies, but it is of vital importance that a person is not left there else they become one of the ghosts in the wind; they must be brought below and thrown into the deep cave beneath the city. This is believed to be the entrance to the spirit world through which the ancestors pass and come to reside in the crystals, but is forbidden territory for the living.

Stories, songs and intricate bone carvings are dedicated to the ancestors. Such activities pass the time in the long nights of winter where the coloured flames are the only source of light and large groups gather around the fire to share these stories and songs. Those in need of their ancestors protection speak wrap their bone carvings around crystal staves - any solid crystal approximately as long as their forearm will do, but they are very particular about choosing the right crystal such that they can carry their ancestors with them from the caves to the fissures and surface world.

City of the Spirits

What the people call their city is, in fact, uninhabitable - they live along the gorges and fissures, but their city is in the great crystal cave that the ancestors reside in. As one of the deepest caves it is one of the warmest and very close to water sources; this, combined with the network of crystal bridges and the stone honeycombed with small chambers, made the crystal cave the ideal place for the first generation to colonise. The city itself was set in a rock formation hanging down from the ceiling in the centre of the cave, accessible via arching crystal bridges from the walls and the tunnels to the surface. The hollows in the rock have been carved out into smooth rooms with elegant, sweeping columns in glistening blues and pinks that catch the light and reflect it in a dazzling display. The crystal walkways around the edge of the city that connect the rooms are worn smooth and lined with intricate details and sigils calling for protections and blessings on the city.

Unfortunately, the cave itself is filled with natural gas. It's not enough to be immediately fatal, but enough to cause sickness over time and, in areas where it is of naturally higher concentration, enough that there was a risk of flash fires to anyone trying to work the rock and crystal. Eventually the people decided that the deaths and sicknesses were caused by the cave being in the realm of the spirits and abandoned it as a place to live. They maintain it as a shrine, and continue to carve beautiful and elegant arches into the crystals for their ancestors to enjoy - but are careful not to linger too long else they catch the spirit sickness.



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The Floating Islands of Nehira
On the backs of giant turtles, far above the clouds, are the floating islands. Waterfalls pour off the turtles' shells, rainbows arch between the islands, and dragons are in the air.
The Floating Islands of Nehira

Collaboration with Shade (lucky_pichu016)

Nehira is a storm-torn land, one where the sun's light barely reaches through the clouds and is frequently overshadowed by thunderous forks of lightning. However, if you were to rise above the heavy storm clouds you would be greeted with the famous Floating Islands. Here the sky is clear and the howling winds of the storms are replaced with gentle breezes and warming sunshine; the islands are considered by many to be a place of unrivalled tranquillity and peace.

The title 'Floating Islands' is, in fact, a misnomer. The Nehiran Islands do not float - they fly. Each island is carried on the back of a sky turtle, a great behemoth reaching several hundred meters in length and several thousand years in age. How these giants stay airborne is a mystery to even the greatest naturalists, but they have only ever been seen in the air, and only ever over Nehira.

The shells of these sky turtles are far from the smooth shells of their smaller, marine cousins. They are instead jagged, rising from their backs as craggy mountains. Water pools in the dips and crags of the shell, topped up by the frequent storms in the area. It flows down the shell in streams and waterfalls before pouring off the edge in a series of continuous, rushing falls. The water rarely reaches the ground, dissolving instead into thick mists and spray; on a sunny day a plethora of rainbows are thrown up by the falls and arch between the islands.

Sky whales make their home in the churning storm clouds and can frequently be found playing in the waterfalls around the turtles' flippers. They rarely venture up to the islands themselves as adults, but the young calves can be found amongst the larger pools. Come the winter months, many of the whales make the long trek overland to the seas in order to return to the water and breed. The migrating whales keep to cloud cover as much as possible to avoid dehydration, and may occasionally descend to a river or pool in hot weather.

Around the water on the turtles' shells grow thick mosses, anchored on the rough keratin of the turtles' shells. In turn, these mosses die and rot and become soil. Fruit trees grow in this soil, their seeds carried there by passing birds, and their sweeping branches support vines and trailing fronds of hanging plants. In spring and summer these form thick curtains of blossom around the lakes and waterfalls, and brightly coloured ribbons of flowers tumbling over the edge of the shells.

The trees are home to the Nehiran Islands' flying squirrels, the islands' most populous species. They glide happily amongst the trees and even between islands, riding on the wind currents. They come in a variety of colors, though all of them have light-colored underbellies that allow them to blend in with the clouds when viewed from below.

The islands are also home to a myriad of colorful birds. Despite sharing the same food source, the two species happily coexist thanks to the islands' lush forests and plentiful supply of fruit and seeds.

Though this combination of pools, fruit trees, moss and flowers is common to the turtles, there are several islands with distinct features. ImHur, 'The One Beloved of the Shadows', has a dark obsidian shell that the mosses were never able to colonise. OsAyir, 'What has been Unmade', suffers from a broken shell - a great tear over her left shoulder. The flipper is scarred and lopsided, and twisting, th orny trees have grown up between the cracked plates of her shell. The fruit they bear is red and pulses in time with her heart; the birds refuse to eat it. InZhu, 'She who Shines from Within', is thought to be the oldest of them. Her shell is a delicate grey shot through with cr acks of iridescent white that give her her name. The white shell reflects the rainbows, shimmering with blues, pinks and yellows. InZhu is considered to be one of the most beautiful of the turtles, rivalled only by AnFisa, 'The Calm of a Thousand Apricot Blossoms'. AnFisa is a relatively small turtle who has been so colonised by apricots that in the spring he is a veritable bouquet of delicate pink flowers, a thousand petals drifting around him the breeze. Come summer time when the apricots ripen he is a haven for the many birds of the islands, and is never without the bright flashes of colour from their wings.

Finally, the rarest and most famous of the islands' inhabitants are the white dragons. These are mysterious creatures who act as guardians of the Nehiran Islands, keepers of their eternal safety and tranquillity. Each dragon possess a lavish coat of thick, silky fur, which keeps them warm at high altitudes and camouflages them amongst the clouds. Despite being wingless creatures, they glide effortlessly through the air around their designated island during the day. During the evening they can be found nesting in the islands' rocky mountains or lazing in the waters. Though typically serious in nature, they can sometimes be seen playing in the waterfalls and darting in and out of rainbows with the sky whales.

They possess a strange aura that, when coming in contact with the creatures, makes one feel perfectly at ease. Their horns, which vary between a single horn, rams horns, antlers, etc., are said to possess healing powers and turn golden with age. Old folklore claims that these dragons used to live on the earth, but human emotional pollution led these empaths to take refuge permanently amongst the clouds.



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Karock-Kah Ohr
The City of the River People is a sprawling, gluttonous hive over the murky lake, surrounded by the twisted metal skeletons of trees long since dead.
Karock-Kah Ohr


The burning rain falls on skeleton trees
Dark rivers bring poison to all
The living metal betrays us in the end
So we will craft our bones anew
Flowing through the centre of the thick band of forests spanning the continent, the Karock-Kah Ohr (literally the waters of metal qualities, or the Metal Waters) is a river dividing the Blood Jungles of Laythren to the north from the Private Birch Wood to the south. It forms an area of mostly temperate climate but high humidity and consists of two distinct parts - the highlands to the east where the river runs fast over rocky ground, and the meandering, sluggish valley to the west where the river feeds into a great lake system. The land surrounding both the river and the lake system are heavily forested.

These forests, however, are formed of twisting, jagged metal. The tarnished skeletons of mangrove trees spread out into the lake, sinking copper roots into the murky water. Along the banks of the river these skeletons have grown so thickly that it is all but impossible to pass through; in winter, heavy fog freezes into droplets against the metal and makes the area treacherous to cross. What little remains of the soil is littered with black copper oxide powder and green copper carbonate hydroxide - malachite crystals. In some places the river banks have caved in, leaving the exposed copper root systems standing proud from the surrounding earth.

The metal comes from rich seams of copper ore in the eastern highlands. The river itself is acidic due to the presence of sulphuric acid in the rains, and dissolves the copper to form a copper sulphate solution. This solution is drawn into the trees through their root systems and separated again to form sulphuric acid and copper. The acid enters the tree sap, where it is used by the tree as a deterrent against grazing animals, and the copper is exuded through the bark as waste to form a thick exoskeleton on the trunk of the tree. The sulphur is finally converted to a gas and reenters the atmosphere through the trees' leaves, where it is blown eastwards again to fall on the copper ore as acid rain.

The trees closest to the river have become strangled and choked by their copper skeletons, but the process is still ongoing in those set further back. The copper spreads from the ground upwards, beginning as a pinkish sheen on the bark of the youngest saplings and developing into a clear band of metal as the tree ages. This encourages the trees to grow very tall very fast before developing branches, giving them as much time as possible before the copper interferes with their leaves and fruit. To be in range of the ground dwelling animals that eat it, the fruit hangs down on long thin vines, sometimes up to tens of metres long on the oldest trees. The fruit is as rich in copper as the rest of the forest, colouring it a range of blues, dark greens and blacks from the metal and its compounds.

The copper in the water and in every part of the trees also has a great affect on the animals that live in the forests surrounding the Karock. Mammals and warm blooded birds are at greatest risk as the copper deposits in their bones and joints; the only wild surviving mammalian species are the Barshau. These heavy-set quadrupeds have flat hoof-like feet, enlarged shoulders to support the weight of their head, and a deeply sloping back ending in a stubby tail. Their skin is loose and sits over their joints in folds allowing the Barshau to move despite the heavy copper coat they develop over their lifespan. The Barshau are key to the survival of the forest; they use their bulk and their multiple tusks to tear off the copper from the trees and break up the soil in preparation for new growth. They graze in this way under an increasingly heavy armour plating until their bones lock and they are unable to move; their metal coated skeletons can be found standing in place long after the Barshau itself has died.

Reptiles fare better - being cold blooded, the copper only builds up on their skin and not around their bones. Some, like the spitting cobra, shed their exoskeletons with their skin. (The spitting cobra takes up acid into its venom and shoots poison through its fangs; they are accurate over distances of thirty feet or more and always aim for the eyes). Others, like the fruit-eating Chuk-Chuk lizard, use thin flaps of skin to direct the copper into feather-like blades that enable the Chuk-Chuk to glide short distances. They and other small lizards are the only fliers in the forest; the metal weighs down any birds and restricts them to the ground. The largest of these birds is the Geyr Dhun, the terror bird. Standing at approximately two metres tall the terror bird has long, thickly muscled legs with lethal claws, and a long neck supporting a bone-crushing beak. The beak is curved, allowing the Geyr to hook under a Barshau's armour plating and literally rip it off - only the oldest and strongest of the Barshau are safe from a hunting Geyr. Their feathers are loose and disordered with the quills separated, similar to an ostrich. The copper builds up on these feathers in needle-sharp spines that the Geyr will occasionally thin out to prevent itself becoming too weighed down.

Life in the water brings its own challenges. The copper sulphate acts as a pesticide; there is very little life upstream, but grasses and reeds are able to grow among the mangrove skeletons in the lake. Crustaceans thrive here, building up malachite on their shells and claws, but fish struggle. One of the most successful species is a knot-reed eel that secretes a thick mucus from its skin, preventing any copper from acc umulating on their bodies.

And finally, living on the water in the remains of the mangrove forest - man. The only mammal species other than the armoured Barshau to survive in this acidic, skeletal environment.

Karock-Guhn Schweh

The Karock-Guhn Schweh, the City of the River People, is a monstrous, sprawling mess. It spreads from the banks out over the lake, built out of the twisted, repurposed metal of the skeleton trees. Underneath the city run the great farms where cages of knot-reed eels are lowered into the water to saturate the reed crop with mucus and keep it free from copper. Dug into the banks are the forges where the copper is melted and reshaped, mixed with other elements such as tin to make the stronger more durable bronze. Standing tall in the centre of the lake are the great lightning trees, tall copper rods that fan out into branches to channel electricity from the lightning storms into the city's network.

The Guhn are no less affected by the copper than any other animal. As a mammal, they are more at risk - it collects in their joints, on their tongues, in the soft tissue of their hearts. The metal on their lips and tongue in particular has restricted their language, putting the soft sounds of "s" and "l" beyond their reach and leaving the Guhn with a harsh and guttural vocabulary. The Guhn have taken a practical approach to this, developed through many generations of trial and error: they upgrade themselves. It began just with limbs, metal legs when the original ones became too unwieldy to walk on. It developed into prosthetics, replacement joints, leather skin grafts. It's now advancing into mechanical lungs, glass eyes that actually see, a selection of screwdrivers and blow torches hidden in robotic fingers.

Because, the Guhn reason, why should they put up with the slow copper rot when nature has given them everything they need to avoid it? Yes, they need to harvest the lightning, and occasionally harvest too much and fry a few malachite-crabs with the discharge. Yes, mining for the tin leaves scars on the landscapes - but copper isn't actually that strong, they need the bronze to form their bones, and the tin shouldn't be there if it wasn't for using. Yes, sometimes the trees don't survive when they peel off great sheets of metal from the trunks for their houses and smelters - but that's fine, the Guhn can use the wood as well. They can use the spines from the Geyr Dhun, the blades from the Chuk-Chuk, the acid from the spitting cobra. Innovation is the name of the game, and frankly it's embarrassing to not have upgraded yourself at least a few times by the time you reach your majority.

The Schweh itself reflects this ideal perfectly. It's ugly, cobbled together, and frequently cannibalises itself for parts - but it is the very cutting edge of technology. The Guhn create machines that automate their farming for them, machines that automate their mining, machines that do nothing except make more machines. They harness Barshau and use them to clear space in the trees, they keep cobras as pets and use their acid for etchings. Everything is there to be used, and the Guhn will use everything.

Their search for ever more resources makes them venture further and further afield. The tin miners to the east, the knot-reed collectors to the west, the timber loggers riding their Barshau to the south. And to the north? Well. There are elves in the woods to the north, unfriendly, territorial beings that have no tolerance for poachers in their woods. But there are also the Huan-Gor, the leather trees - the elves call them something else, the bleeding trees? - which are the Guhn's only source of tannin. With tannin, they make leather, an often vital component in their copper and bronze cyborg parts. So, the Guhn create new machines, ones that can fire the Geyr's spines at deadly speeds, and they train Chuk-Chuks to run ahead of them and set off the elves' traps, and they keep on poaching.

One final thing that they poach from the elves' is their children. The Guhn replace each part of themselves as soon as it wears out - often before, if the fancy strikes them - and live very long lives because of it. But they are more machine than man; children of their own are hard to come by and therefore rare and treasured. The elves have no such difficulties, but their children - they just leave them in the woods! Abandon them. It's abhorrent to the Guhn, and they risk ever more wrath from the elves in their efforts to find and save the children - even, sometimes, children that have yet to be abandoned.

(Besides, the Guhn mutter to themselves in the depths of their thundering, clanking city, the children are better off with us. We're improving them. Upgrading them. Maybe we should upgrade the adults. We could teach them, give them electricity and technology and machines. We could cure their illnesses. They still die of old age!

Perhaps,
the Guhn whisper back, Perhaps. But they won't like it. They'll fight. It'll be war.

Give us time,
Karock-Guhn Schweh decides, and in the bowels of the city where the lake water runs black, the machines start making machines that have nothing to do with farming and woodcutting.)



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The Enchanted Isle
The fae folk are tricky and cruel; beneath the veil of beauty and magic, their isle is a treachourous place with a bloody history.
The Enchanted Isles


The fae have always been a myth. A legend, stories to frighten children into staying on the path and staying hidden behind their mothers' skirts. They are shadowy creatures, dark and spiteful; they play tricks, weave traps, bring chaos and ruin. Never make a deal with a fairy, they say. Never look them in the eye, never eat any food they offer you, never listen when they sing (the song will whisper through your dreams and croon in every waking thought; it'll consume you, fill your mind and your heart until you are little more than a thrall for the fairy queen).

The stories tell of the lands of the fae, the enchanted isles. Lush meadows hazy with dew drops, the gentle music of a waterfall into a lily-coated pond, glades in the golden wood where the dust motes dance in the sun. The flowers are always in bloom, tumbles of silken petals over the tree roots, carpets of nodding daffodils across the fields. The sky is blue, the breeze drifts lazily through the air, the sunrise paints the clouds in pastel shades.

Lies, of course. The fae are never truthful; why should their homeland be any more so? Mossy beds cover jagged pits, the sweetest roses hide the sharpest thorns, the ripening berries are fat and juicy with poison. You can see it, sometimes, that flicker out of the corner of your eye. There's some part of you that knows the faerie veil and knows to look beyond it to the shadows and the brewing storms and the sour taint of rot in the murky forest groves -

The veil falls back, and a young fawn chases rabbits through the clover-fields. Butterflies spiral overhead and the sound of birdsong floats through the trees. A feather-touch of fairy glitter on your eyelids, and the isles are enchanted once again. You should have heeded your legends; you'll not leave once you enter these treacherous lands. The fae are a possessive and greedy people, they will not let their toys be so easily lost to them.

Be thankful then that the isles are sealed. Be thankful for your ancestors, for the generations of slaves that plotted and waited, for the workers that built the fairie's sweeping palaces and the ladies' maids that sewed their glittering gowns. Be thankful that to you, the fae are mere stories, ghostly warnings told around flickering camp fires. Be thankful, because there was a time when the fairies called themselves queens and called themselves lords, and man took his rightful place beneath their jewel studded boots.

So it was for years. Man was born to work, to till the fields and plaster the walls. The fae are capricious, idle beings, far more suited to the gossip and scandal of court than to anything approaching honest labour. They worked the men like cattle and discarded them once they'd lived past their worth.

This was their first mistake.

The discarded men fought to survive; they had no pride and they had no morals, save that man was friend and fae were foe. The discarded men created a magic of their own devising, nothing like the elegant swirls of the fae's illusions - this was harsh, rigid, carved in desperation and in stone. These were old men, broken women, these discarded slaves with nothing to their name and nothing to lose. They fed their lives into their magic and it held strong.

And the fae… indulged them. It would not last, but it was amusing enough to watch, the mud men playing at being more than they were. The fae carried seven conspiracies to breakfast and left with a dozen secrets in the curve of their smile; the mud men were shouldering their way through one barely-hidden plot. The slaves murmured and ducked their heads when they thought they were being watched, and the fae laughed at them behind elegant, ring-laden hands.

It was their second mistake.

Their third was to trust in their beauty, in the shimmering splendour of their cob-web wings, the silky seduction of their siren song. The fae had no army because an entire army would fall if one fairy asked. Pretty heads and pretty words and pretty pretty lies, one look and you were lost in the thrall of a merciless master.

The men carved their magics into their eyes and blinded themselves. They came with iron and they came with salt, and the fae shrieked and spat in vain. The men wrought a chain, cold iron to burn a faerie's wings, and they wrought a curse in every link. They laid it around the island and summoned the ocean to flood the crystals pools and cleanse the land from the oily deceptions of the faeries' touch.

And so it stands, the rusting links of the faeries' cage. Oh, it's not perfect, no - the fae travel through starlight, through reflections, through dreams, but they are not as resourceful as their discarded slaves. Their isle falls to ruin (to beautiful, mesmerising ruin) without their legions of workers and their power dwindles the further they stray from their queen, but they have enough left for traps and tricks, enough for chaos and despair. Man has forgotten the fae but the fae will never forgive man.



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Western Ice Floes
On the surface, the ice floes seem barren. But under the surface, the twin cities of Yor Kith and Yor Knaith are thriving metropolises.
Western Ice Floes
Towering icebergs in jagged, wind-carved stacks; shifting, creaking, groaning pack ice that splits and shatters as the currents move; the turgid slurry of ice and water in the cr acks between the sheets. These are the things that make up the ice floes to the west. There is no land, no respite from the merciless cold and wind.

Life above the surface here is sparse. The odd moon-bird drifts on the night clouds. Bressel seals haul themselves out onto the ice to whelp in the short summers. A floe whale uses its armoured dorsal fin to break up the pack ice and keep its breathing hole clear. These visitors to the surface world are few and far between.

Below the ice, it's a different story. The pack ice reveals itself to be giant fans of blue coral, spreading out over the surface of the water to absorb as much sunlight as possible. The main trunks and roots of the coral sink down to the ocean floor in sweeping arches and columns; in places the coral is so thick it forms a honeycombed cave system. These form an ideal home for the many species of fish and sea serpents, and sheltered areas for young seals to play.

The main species of seal in the area is the bressel seal. These behemoths are the largest predator in the open waters and can grow up to four meters or more in length. They continue growing throughout their lives and have never been known to die of old age. Instead, they are limited by their teeth - when food is scarce they break off parts of the coral to eat the polyps inside, and this can wear down and break their teeth. The seals aren't able to replace lost teeth and starve to death without them.

Snowflake starfish are far more suited to eating the coral. They are tiny, blue-white creatures that drift on the currents like a gentle snow storm. Once they land on a coral structure they move over it like a plague and can strip it of polyps with terrifying efficiency. The empty coral shell they leave behind forms the basic building material for the twin cities of Yor Kith and Yor Knaith.

Yor Kith and Yor Knaith are cities of elegance, refinement and high society. They are built out of the coral, using both the milky white stems and the clear bluish fans to form domes and giant spherical pods that trap air inside them. A series of complex enchantments cast over the city allow it to breath, drawing oxygen from the surrounding ocean and releasing it in a steady stream of bubbles.

Yor Kith is a peaceful city in relatively shallow waters. It receives a small measure of natural light, but supplements this with the blue-green glow of magic. The founding people were the Marirrs, a tall semi-aquatic race capable of breathing water for short periods of time. They thrive best in the cold and can withstand the great pressures of the sea, making them deceptively strong for their willowy frame. Unlike mermaids they have legs rather than a tail, but they do have brightly coloured scales on their torsos, shoulders, cheeks and ears. They don't wear clothes but instead have long, flowing fins hanging down from their waists. In water, these close around their legs to form a 'tail' that helps them swim.

Despite their abilities to survive in water, the domes of Yor Kith are setup to mimic a surface garden, complete with flowers, courtyards and trees, albeit slightly twisted from their original designs. The plants are created and sustained by magic; they have a tendency to glow in the dark. The pods of Yor Kith on their long stems are the homes of the wealthy; here you can find the universities, grand manor houses, and the imposing ice houses of the senate. Enclosed bridges arch between them to ensure that the Marirrs need not mingle with the common folk in the larger domes on the sea floor.

Life in these lower domes is... Different. Yor Kith may have been founded by the Marirrs, but its wealth and safety have attracted refugees and entrepreneurs by the hundreds. You can find men, dwarves, elves, even fae in the lower domes, living on top of each other and jealously squabbling for a means to survive. The Marirrs themselves find these other races distasteful. They concern themselves with the affairs of the lower dome only to ensure that the poor stay poor and are in no danger of bothering the 'decent citizens' of the spires above. The lower folk in turn resent the Marirrs and everything they represent. If it weren't for the Marirrs magic keeping the city breathing and the looming shadow of Yor Knaith, there would have been a revolution long ago.

Yor Kith may be the home of the senate, but Yor Knaith is the military base of the Marirrs. The fortress is built in one of the deep trenches where the only light is from bioluminescence and the latent magic boosts the sea creatures to unnatural sizes. Faintly glowing sea horses large enough for a man to ride; sea serpents that could swallow a floe whale whole; the lurking leviathan held dormant under generations of Marirr spells. Legends say there are bressel seals that have learnt to scavenge rotted flesh and so can survive long after their teeth have gone. These monster seals have never been fully recorded, but in theory there is no limit to the size they could reach.

Yor Knaith itself reflects this harsh environment. It is far more angular and tightly clustered; no elegant spires rise above the city. They would be too much of a target. The air is carefully recycled as well; bubbles would attract too much attention. Few other species can survive the extreme pressures of life this deep so the population is almost entirely Marirr. The rare dwarf or fae is treated with suspicion by some, but on the whole is accepted just the same as any other soldier would be. The laws of the city are crude and rarely enforced - the elegant customs of the senate are a long way from Yor Knaith.

For all the distance, Yor Knaith is fanatically loyal to its sister city. The Marirrs are tolerant (barely) of the other races that flock to their city, but they have no interested in sharing their politics or their magic with the outside world. The refugees do the dirty jobs and the manual labour that the Marirrs don't care for, but should the surface world show any more intrusive interest in Yor Kith... Well. Yor Knaith is waiting, and curious surface dwellers will be far easier to dispose of than leviathans and sea serpents.



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Neter-Khertet
Land of the spirits and the shifting desert, battleground for the eternal war between the sun and the moon. Neter-Khertet is not for the faint of heart.
Neter-Khertet
Written in collaboration with Sohini (annaisme2006)

Enter the country of Neter-Khertet with caution.

Named after the underworld, Neter-Khertet is a land where everything breathes, yet death runs amok. Where shifts of day and night are struggles for dominion. Where men are caught in the war of light and dark, fire and water, death and life.

It is a land torn by battle between opposing forces, between demons that stand only for the other's ruin. Half the battle is waged by Khet, the demon of the Sun. His forces are allied with death, for if you wander into the desert under his rule, that is what you may easily face. The other side is that of Kauket, the demon of the Moon. She is allied with life and its properties.

These demons' weapons come from the living forces in Neter-Khertet. Luckily for them, there are plenty of those in the land.

The sun spirit is an eagle, a giant fire bird that creates sandstorms with each beat of its flaming wings. The eagle has no feet and cannot land; he flies eternally, and his fires scorch the landscape. The sun's cry is the sound of the howling wind, the despairing wail of the dead, the harsh shriek of madness.

The sun's feathers are a brilliant, brunished gold that ripples and changes with each moment. However, there are three feathers on the back of his head that are dull - one crimson like the shifting sand, one black like the river of the dead, and one white for the blazing fire. Legend goes that the moon chases the sun across the sky and tries to take these feathers from him, for without them he will surely fall before her power.

The moon spirit has dark skin and silvery, softly shining hair. Sometimes she appears as a young maiden, sometimes as an old woman; sometimes she is a man and sometimes she is a young boy. Just as the moon's visage in the sky changes each night, so the moon itself can change.

What remains the same is that her hair is bound. The cord is whisper soft and flows like water, but it doesn't break and it has no knot to untie. She has not revealed the meaning of this, but her preists believe that she will unbind her hair when the sun spirit finally sleeps - and perhaps then it will do more than gently shine?

Everything lives and breathes as spirits in this country. Not every spirit is of the same calibre; some earth spirits are older than time, stemming from the core of the world and holding it together. Others — flame or droplet sprites — are weaker, easier to capture. And that is what man's life has come to mean in Neter-Khertet: the capture and use of spirits for survival.

An Ongoing War

The country of Neter-Khertet was born of battle between life and death, between the Moon and the Sun. Kauket, the demon of the Moon, rules during the night. Daylight brings strength to Khet, the demon of the Sun.

The start of each day in Neter-Khertet is a call to arms, another assault on the forces of life. Khet recruits spirits of death, light and fire to declare war on Kauket and the forces of life, water and air. The result of this battle is an elemental upheaval, amidst which live the denizens of Neter-Khertet. The earliest settlers struggled to survive in such harsh conditions but over time, they have developed tricks and strategies, most of which rely on an ancient runic language.

Runes

The most secure method of survival has thus far been the use of runes. Cities are widely infused with symbols and signs of this language, used for everything from protection to decoration. The everyday citizen is trained in the basics, so she can capture a frost spirit on a particularly warm day, or use a flame spirit to light a lamp. The more complex uses, however, are strictly limited to rune-keepers. These are official members of a council, elected to maintain order. Their uses of runes protect from the damage done by the demons' war; they counter Khet's turn to necromancy by designing graves into elaborate snares to trap the dead, and face Kauket's use of storms by creating reinforced borders around the cities.

The rune-keepers' ancestors were the ones to negotiate a tentative state of truce between the natives and the spirits of Khet and Naunet; whilst they are forced to watch the battle of night and day — power wrenched from one to the other again and again — the Sun and Moon demons overlook their strategic learning and use of a runic language to harness the power of smaller spirits. The rune-keepers become more proficient in the art of utilising runes every day, but are also trained to be restrained and peaceful. For if recklessness leads to the spirits breaking free — or if the demons ever find the keepers interfering with their war — havoc will devour the whole country.

The most potent runes require the most energy to use. They are employed to trap the oldest spirits like Menat, the spirit of protection, which fortify the cities and provide the energy needed for the increasingly odious task of deciphering and utilising the runic language. Those spirits are caged in the centre of the cities, where the runes' power is strongest. The further you venture towards outer boundaries, the more powerful spirits get. The more likely that little flame spirit in your lamp will break free and turn on you, or that particularly warm patch of sand will swallow you up.

Black market runes
Although the use of runes is risky business, a budding trade of black market runes is spreading through certain parts of the country. The rogue rune-makers, whilst not as powerful as the council rune-keepers, have fewer constraints upon them as well. This means more possibilities but also more of a threat. Because who knows if that scruffy guy in the tavern has tamed that air spirit enough? Or if that grain spirit is actually poisoned at its core?

Cities

Ptah
The ancient capital, home of the rune-makers, prison of the mighty Menat. Ptah is built for strength, shored up with thick stone walls against the desert, and the center of the human's power. It is the only fixed point in the desert, sinking its roots deep beyond the sand and into the solid bedrock beneath the Neter-Khertet.

Menat is the spirit of a mountain swallowed by the desert sands until only the tip was visible. Legend went that the stone spirit fell in love with a flower and knelt over it to shelter it from the harsh sun. Under his protection the flower grew into a blossoming tree, the most beautiful of all things in the desert - until the jealous sun sent a dragon to steal Menat's flower from him. Menat wept, and his tears fell on the dragon's fire and drowned it, and the dragon fell to the ground in death. The sun sent the sand spirits in anger to avenge his fallen dragon, but Menat would not move from his flower's grave. The sand spirits buried Menat under a giant sand dune, but still he would not move. Finally the sun took pity on the greiving mountain and bade his sand spirits cease, and to this day Menat marks the only part of the desert that the great sand blizzards will not touch.

Whether Menat's sad tale is truth or fiction, Ptah, built atop the rocky tip of a buried mountain, is the safest place in the desert for any living thing that needs to escape the wrath of the sun. The runic bindings on Menat power some of the most complex spells in the country and the rune-makers here are the strongest (and the wealthiest) in the land.

Domos
Red-domed Domos, the fire city in the desert, is built of crimson sandstone. They lie to the east, towards the land of the rising sun, and bear witness each day to the sun demon Khet clawing his way into the sky and banishing the moon for the day. Domos is low-lying and lacks city walls; they have learnt to bow before the sun and hide from his spirits rather than risk standing against him. At the heart of their city is bound the spirit Sesen, a lotus flower spirit that specialises in mirages. Each morning, Domos invokes the runic wards built with Sesen's power and sinks into the sand like a lotus flower sinking beneath the water. They remain hidden here under layers of illusion until Khet gives up his search in frustration and rises into the sky.

Nwt
Unlike Ptah and Domos, Nwt is not built of stone and has no guardian spirit bound in its foundations. It is instead a trading town, built along the dune road from Ptah to the world beyond the desert. It relies upon the protections that Ptah has laid into the road, but these are limited. Runic magics work on the road itself and spirits can be tamed, but a mere four paces either side and you are beyond the reach of Ptah's magics and at the mercy of the wild desert spirits.

Nwt, therefore, is a very tall and very thin city, built to be at no point more than four paces from the protected dune road. Reeds and wood form a tall scaffolding-like structure, just wide enough for a shallow room and a narrow path across the front of it to the next room along. Ropes and ladders hang off every level of the city and the inhabitants have no qualms about swinging out over nothing to jump down a level or two. During the day, the lower levels are filled with traders, merchants and rune-makers (black market, of course, you'd never get the official ones this far out into the wilds). The upper levels are the workshops of craftsmen, apprentices and weavers - the embroideries produced here are world famous. At night huge sheets of silk are hung to create private areas for families to sleep in. Pungent incense is left burning throughout the night to keep away the wind spirits that would attempt to blow the city over for fun, but the greater danger comes when the dune road shifts - if it moves too far in the night, Nwt will be left outside its protected magics and be completely vulnerable to the spirits.

Landmarks

The River Naunet
Sweltering under the midday Sun, do not trust the gleaming river in the distance. Promising relief, the elusive Naunet, which curls its way through the country, will have vanished by the time you make your way over. Over time, the natives have honed their tracking abilities and enlisted the aid of droplet and cloud spirits in order to capture this shrewd life-sustaining force. One untimely gesture that alerts her to your whereabouts, and you might go another day without water. As a force of life, Naunet is calmest at night, whilst her ally Kauket rules.

Hauhet
This pass, named after the spirit of the winds, connects the major cities of Neter-Khertet. It is safest at day, when you can easily see and avoid traps disguised as shade. However, it also means having to risk the dangers of death that thrive under Khet. The rule of Kauket brings some protection from the heat, and you are more likely to find a source of water on your journey. But you will also need a fire spirit to pave your way, and the runic spells controlling it will only weaken the further you go from city bounds.

This pass is the simplest way to travel between cities without losing your way in the sprawling dunes. But its biggest disadvantage lies in its patron spirit's volatile mood. Hauhet may lead to the city of Ptah one day, to Dromos the next. So if you choose to take this path, bring a token to appease the spirits and hope luck is on your side.

Survival

Watch where you step. One of first lessons the children of Neter-Khertet are taught, and the very words they are compelled to remember the rest of their lives.

Anyone who knows the desert knows one thing: there is no relief. Sunlight brings an all-consuming heat, scorching footfalls and a scratchy dryness in your throat that never really goes away. Khet ensures there are no shadows to rest within; any that you come across during the day are traps to ensnare any spirit of life. Khet's ally, light, plays tricks with your vision so that even in broad daylight, you cannot trust your eyes.

Night creates its own pitfalls. As a creature of life, man may look to Kauket for protection, but the Moon demon prioritises the battle above all. In her war against the Sun, she drives temperatures from searing to icy in minutes. Rogue sandstorms become difficult to see, and is that a harmless shadow cast by Kauket, or a pool of consuming darkness left behind by the Khet? There is no telling until you venture closer to check. And by then, it may be too late already.

A Final Warning

One thing is for sure: day or night, the shadow spirits lie awake for an unsuspecting traveller, a simple misstep. And that is the least of your worries. So by all means, welcome to Neter-Khertet. Just make sure to watch your step.



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Next entry:
The Bone Eater Desert
The salt plains to the north are dry, desolate, and inhospitable. They form the bone eater desert; the people who live here survive out of sheer bloody-mindedness.
Koi Day
There's a scent on the wind,
A splash of gold in the water,
There's a ripple spreading over the ocean.
There's a hush on the waves,
Whispers round corners,
There's a rumour starting under the sea.

The kelp has been polished
The maractite's gleaming
There's banners hung over the caves;
The tables are dressed
Fancy food steaming
The band's been preparing for days.

The ocean is waiting
Maraqua is ready
The people are raring to go;
The big day is coming -
Keep that cake steady!
- where are the chairs for the show?

Gracious, it's starting -
Oh mercy, the dancing -
Has anyone seen my shoes?
This food is delicious! -
Here, pass me those dishes -
And heavens, just look at those views!

It's music and laughter,
Balloons in the rafters,
And chaos spread out on the floor.
Join in and be happy,
It's Koi Day now, laddy!
So cheers and get ready for more!




Demon


The night is dark, the shadows deep
The air is chilled - I cannot sleep

I dare not sleep, nor rest my eyes
For fear of voices whispering lies

And in the night, her eyes grew red
We mean no harm, the voices said


The morning comes, and with it news
Of peace thus far, but trouble brews

In darkened corners, empty halls
Forgotton haunts where silence falls

And danger lurks within her head
It's not so bad, the voices said


The dark is stirring, the monsters rise
You'd flee this place if you were wise,

The rotten taint, the vacant stare
The vacuous grin and baleful glare

Why won't you leave? she cried, she begged
We'll never leave, the voices said.

And in the night, her eyes grew red
Her shoulders shake, she bows her head

The voices laugh, the shadows spread
And now to hunt, the demon said.




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Baby Blue
A request for Bao the baby lupe.
Baby Blue


There's a puppy down by the sandy bay,
A puppy of palest blue.
And he hasn't a care in the world today,
With the sun and the sea and the wind at play,
Just a puppy alone in the sandy bay,
With his coat of baby blue.

There's a puppy about on the rocks tonight,
The rocks by the smuggler's cove.
The stars in the sky are shining bright,
The moon on the sea is a pearly white,
He'll play with them both for all of tonight,
As they dance through the smuggler's cove.

There's a puppy hid in the sheltered glade,
Hid in the grass and leaves.
He's watching the day as it starts to fade,
The sunlight lost in encroaching shade,
Now darkness falls on the puppy's glade,
And the puppy, the grass and leaves.

There's a puppy at play as the end draws nigh,
A puppy of palest blue.
He plays with the rain in the weeping sky,
He'll play forever 'till the day he'll die,
Not a care in the world that the end draws nigh,
Little puppy in baby blue.



There's a lupe on guard with a serious face,
A lupe of faded blue.
He goes through life with a measured pace,
No time for play or the thrill of the chase,
Not for the lupe with the serious face,
And his coat of faded blue.




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Next entry:
Beloved
Challenge - write a poem without repeating a single word.
Beloved


On this ever changing world of endless space
It seems mere thoughtless shame to waste
One single minute, much less two,
Which I could spend adoring you.

Let dead things lie in sodden earth,
Cold damp coffins for their berth –
But while we live, we'll dance 'til dawn,
Make short these nights and long the morn,
Fill empty months with idle play
Until that final, fated day
When all is darkness
            ended
                        gone.

So tarry not! There's miles ahead –
Though spring into summer swiftly treads.
Time yet remains; it'd be unwise,
Squandering such a wondrous prize,
Too quickly over - lost, forgot.

Take my hand, hold me dear,
As Death at last comes creeping near.
Don't weep, oh love, please dry your eyes,
Ours were happy, joyous lives!
Peace awaits; through golden halls
Sun-filled heaven softly calls –
Go now; sleep, Beloved.

Rest.


What's left, old man?
Autumn's rotting, foggy dirge
Winter's freezing, biting scourge
Stretch out alone.




Do the gods laugh, I wonder


Do the gods laugh, I wonder,
To see us mortals fear them so?
To see us kneel and quail and beg and plead
To see us hungry, thirsty, wracked with need
Squatting like beasts and cowering low –
While they sit back and enjoy the show.

Shall we laugh, I wonder,
When the gods are in our reach?
The stars are naught but burning suns
Their twinkling magic a matter of sums
That we our youngest children teach –

Kneel, then, oh Gods, kneel down and plead;
Shall we show mercy when you're in need?

But oh, we mortals feared you so.




Wardrums


Can you hear the old drums beating?
All the scattered leaders meeting
Bow their heads in wary greeting –
In their hearts they call for war

Can you hear the treaties breaking?
Peace is gone; the earth is shaking
neath the boots of men it's quaking;
This time boys we'll win for sure

Can you hear the children crying
For their fathers slowly dying?
Brothers lost in endless fighting -
Still the leaders push for more

And all the while in perfect time
The drumbeats sound throughout our minds;
Men may fail and men may fall
But steady are the drums of war




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Koi Day
Written for the poetry competition for Koi Day 2016
The Forgotten Shore


Hey. Hey, you. Over here.

Sit, sit. You want a drink? Of course you want a drink. Why else would you come to a place like this? Don't be so suspicious. It's grog. Fruitmallow, if you're being particular. You can't tell me you came to Krawk Island and didn't ever have no grog.

Oh please, don't look so nervous. I just want to tell you a story, you know? These folks, none of them are interested. None of them want to listen. Think they're more important than that. But you, you'll give an old Zafara a few minutes of your time, eh? Sit back down laddie. Night's young. Plenty of time yet.

I said, sit.

Now. Picture this. It's halloween. It's dark. Group of us, two mates, someone's kid brother, and me, makin' our way down to the Forgotten Shore. We had a plan, see? Dig it up. Take the lot. We had enough of one chance a day, elbow to elbow with the whole of neopia and all them nosy busybodies makin' sure you don't dig a second shot. Forgotten Shore? Pah. Ain't nothing forgotten about it.

But Halloween, all the pets are out trick or treating. Sheets with eye holes and pumpkin candy-buckets, the whole package. Ain't nobody down by the shore on Halloween.

Ain't nobody there. We had a plan, and the plan said ain't nobody there.

Not on Halloween, see.



The trek down to beach was treacherous in the dark. The sand shifted constantly over the dunes, barely kept in place by the whip-thin reeds that lined the bay. Jagged rocks edged in, lying in wait beneath the thin sand like hungry teeth. One misstep and you're tumbling down. You hit the beach if you're lucky, if not - well. You think this shore would be forgotten if the seas were easy? The kraken's the friendliest thing out there

During the day, the beach thronged with pets. Baby pets, elderly pets; faerie pets and grim mutants from the depth of the haunted woods. Everyone wanted a shot at the fabled treasure. They made a steady procession, a living, jabbering stream of bodies swarming over the dunes. You fought your way through the crowd, staked out a patch of dirty sand, and dug. If you had a spade, great. If not, you used your paws, claws, wings. Whatever you had. And if you struck gold, you grabbed it, fought for it, booted aside the greedy hands that crept towards it. Made sure that no one else could take it before you stuffed the coins down your shirt or dragged the chest out of the scrabbling mob.

We're from Krawk Island, sonny boy. We don't play nice when there's loot to be had.

But at night? The sand glinted white in the moonlight, smooth and pristine under swirling tendrils of fog. The winds and shifting tide had wiped the slate clean. All that was left to show of the day before were a few mounded clumps of sand. The odd discarded spade. An opened treasure chest with nothing inside but salt on the hinges. At that moment, the air was still, and even the wssshh-shunk of the waves on the sand seemed muted.

"Creepy, innit," the Krawk grunted.

"Go home if you're scared," the Kyrii in front of him snapped. "Don't need wimps slowing us down."

The Krawk rumbled, a deep, guttural sound echoing out of his barrel chest. "Come again, midget?"

"I said - "

"Shut it," I spat at the both of them. "Jax, put your teeth away. We ain't impressed."

Jax held his snarl for a moment longer, scaly lips pulled back over curved fangs and his yellow eyes narrowed in contempt. He snorted, and turned back to the beach.

"He's right though," the final member of the group piped up. "It's just a touch desolate without all the pets, isn't it? Just imagine what it would have been like to be among the first ones to find it, back when they put the map together. Climbing over the top of the dunes and it was just there, miles and miles of untouched beach just waiting to be explored." He bobbed his head, eyes shining. "Just think!"

"No one cares, Kid." The Kyrii shoved his younger brother forward a step and positioned himself more firmly between the small Wocky and the hulking figure of Jax.

"Don't call me Kid," the Wocky grumbled. He kept it quiet, under his breath, but not quiet enough. Clearly, self preservation didn't run in the family.

The Kyrii darted a nervous glance over at Jax. "So, Boss," he said, turning to me. "We going to start digging, or what?"

I raised an eyebrow. "Dig by the dunes? Go on then, if you want." He bristled at that, the crest of his mane spiking up slightly as he fought for a grip on his temper. I smirked. "The rest of us won't be wasting our time." I resettled the canvas sack over my shoulder and strode off down the beach, tendrils of fog parting and reforming around my ankles with every step. The heavy, lumbering footfalls told me that Jax was following.

You don't come across many like Jax these days. He's a hulking, looming mass of scar tissue and muscle. Stained bandana pulled down low to cover a ruined eye. Tarnished silver clamped over his arms. Crude tattoos scratched into his scales. He's a walking cliche, but he's a walking cliche that'd take on the entire tavern in a brawl if I told him to, which makes him alright in my book. But Kid? And Nash, Nag, whatever his uptight brother was called, they weren't Krawk Islanders. You could tell, easy. Almost like a siren overhead advertising them as targets.

Me an' Jax were going to rob them blind once we'd done with all the digging.

"I don't get it," Kid whispered. The words carried too loud and too harsh in the silence. "Why not dig by the dunes? That's where we always dig."

"Exactly," Nag hissed back. "That's where everyone digs, so there's no treasure left. Now stop embarrassing me and keep up." There was the soft clatter of metal as they gathered up their tools, then a stumbling and scuffing as they ran to catch up.

Jax snorted, something that may have been a hacking cough or a quiet bark of derisive laughter. "Amateurs."

"Easy pickings," I murmured back.

We continued in silence for a minute, maybe two. The dunes were faded and hard to make out from this distance. The beach went on for a good few miles yet, but I was wary of overshooting. It was only a short stretch of shoreline that had shown any success rate, and it would be foolish to miss it. Besides, there were stories about this part of the coast. Older than the treasure chests, less truth in them than in a pair of bilge dice, but still. Hard not to be suspicious when this much treasure goes unclaimed for so many years. Makes you wonder why it was abandoned in the first place.

I jabbed my shovel into the sand and shucked the loot sack off my shoulder. "Here. We dig two trenches, running parallel. No more than a couple of feet deep. Kid, you're with Jax; Nag, with me. You find something, it goes in the bag. Clear?"

Nag coughed. "It's uh, it's Nash," he corrected. I stared at him, unimpressed, until he started to fidget. "Um, and, I could dig a trench with Kid...?"

A vein throbbed on Jax' temple. Easy pickings or not, he was going to lose his temper if the two civilians didn't learn to keep quiet and take orders.

"Kid's smallest. Jax's biggest. We're not here for a family fun day, princess." I threw a garden spade at him, the warped wood of the handle making a satisfying thunk against his paw. "Dig," I ordered.

And, thank Fyora, the Kyrii did. His technique was going to give him a stinking back ache if he didn't get himself to the healing springs in the morning, but he kept pace surprisingly well. Not bad for a skinny twig of a Kyrii with far too much hair product in his mane. Even if he did start gibbering like some over-happy newbie the first time his shovel struck the half rotted wood of a treasure chest. I half expected him to open the chest there, but he put it aside almost reverently. Started digging again with a single minded focus, movements clipped and economical. It was… Unsettling.

Kid, on the other hand, was a lost cause. I wondered idly how long it would take Jax to snap and 'accidentally' bury the enthusiastic Wocky in a mound of sand. He'd probably be more use there than his flailing attempts were at the moment - oh, look. Kid's just thrown a spadeful of sand in Jax' face.

"That's it," Jax snarled. In one fluid movement he knocked the spade out of Kid's quivering paws and hauled the Wocky up to eye level. Kid's paws dangled a good three feet off the floor. He scrabbled desperately at Jax' arm, tiny claws ineffective against the Krawk's weathered skin.

"I'm sorry," he babbled, eyes rolling until the whites showed. "I didn't mean to - it was an accident, I won't - "

"Put my brother down!" Nag roared. He lept out of the trench, garden spade held up in front of him like some fancy shenkuu fighting staff.

"Or what?" Jax sneered. He held Kid out to one side, his arm level and showing no sign of strain from the Wocky's weight. His other arm swung forwards, claws glinting in the moonlight. Even half buried in the trench, he was level height with Nag, and three times as broad. He grinned, a mouthful of fangs bared in threat.

"I trained at the academy until they couldn't train me anymore," Nag said, his voice low and heavy. Trying to be the big bad guy. Cute. "And now I train at Mystery Island everyday. My battledome record is flawless."

Jax laughed, hacking, almost choking. He turned and spat on the sand, derision written in every movement. In his fist, Kid hung limp as possible - a scrap of trembling blue fur with his tail tucked under. Maybe he had some measure of self preservation after all, but something else caught my attention.

"You battle, Nag?" I asked. Voice light and casual, leaning on my shovel with one elbow. He flicked an ear back to me, but didn't take his eyes off Jax. "Because, there's a minor issue with that. See, battling - it takes equipment, you know? Weapons. Shields. Healing potions. The usual set, isn't that how it goes?" Both of Nag's ears were turned in my direction now. I smiled, close lipped and tight. Pushed aside the old wives tales about this place, and focussed on the conversation. "You see where I'm going, Nag? You told us you didn't have nothing. Broke out of the pound with only the clothes on your back, isn't that what you said? Some daring rubbish about fighting your way out to protect your darling brother, wasn't that it?"

Jax had cottoned on. His grip on Kid loosened, though he didn't lower his arm. Nag, he stood uneasy and his knuckles were white around the wooden spade handle, but I don't think he understood.

"You lied to us, Nag," I purred. "There's nothing poor about you. You've got equipment, but it's not in your pockets. It's back at home, isn't it? Nice, comfy neohome with a nice, comfy shelf full of shiny weapons and codestones for tomorrow's training session." He shifted his stance, one foot forward and the other back so that he was half turned. It allowed him to keep an eye on me, sure - but Jax was the one he should've been facing. All he'd done was weaken his position. Typical mistake from a pet that only ever fights nice, neat, one on one duels in the arenas. Something in me relaxed at that. There was nothing special about Nag; he was just a greedy con who thought too highly of his own sk.ills.

"So?" Nag shot back. "What difference does it make? I still want the treasure, I still came and worked for it. Besides, you're pirates. Don't go calling me a liar like you're some kind of hero." He tilted his head to glare at me. Jax took the chance to throw Kid into his brother, a graceful arc that sent them both sprawling. Kid scrambled to his feet straight away, claws out, tail fluffed and standing vertical. I could get to like him, if he ever learnt how to keep quiet.

"I ain't fighting a battle pet," Jax said. The tone was insulting, but I could tell he was shaken. Those of us without the fancy equipment, we got by on our fists. What you saw was what you got; Jax was as wide as he was tall, no hiding there. But battle pets? They had tricks. Faerie magic, some of them. Weapons that could take one of us normal folk down in one shot, and even the low level pets could have eight times the endurance they should thanks to the lab ray. It wasn't natural. It wasn't fair, either, but there's nothing to be done about that.

"And we aren't sharing the treasure, either," I finished. I took a step to the side and gestured back towards the dunes. "So if you'll be on your way, we won't take up any more of your night."

Nag gaped. "You can't do that!" he hissed, head twitching to try and keep us both in his line of sight. "We helped you dig - at least one of those treasure chests is ours!"

I sighed. "Nag, Nag my friend."

"It's Nash."

"Nag, what you seem to be forgetting is that you," I flicked my paw at him dismissively, "have a lot to lose. A house, a fat little nest egg in your bank account, a baby brother - who knows where he'd end up if you got separated in the pound? You need to follow the rules, Nag. There's consequences if you break them. And one of those rules is that you can't visit the forbidden shore more than once a day, you know?"

"You've broken as many rules as I have. And you said we wouldn't get caught."

I shook my head, tutting softly just to see how far I could push Nag's anger. My smile was slippery and just a touch too broad. "If you'd only been honest with me," I said. "But really, can you afford to take the risk?" I let my eyes flick down to Kid, lingering just a second too long to be casual.

Nag growled deep in his throat. Took a step towards me, the spade hefted up to shoulder height. A tiny paw on his knee stopped him. "Nash…" Kid's voice trailed off. He looked a mess. Sand in his fur, sweat soaked and exhausted from digging, eyes big and pleading. Seriously, if I could harness this, teach Kid a few things and get him to work for me. I could do great things with someone like that at my command. Shame about his brother.

Nag deflated. "Fine," he bit out, as though the word hurt him to say. "We'll take one treasure chest and go."

Jax started looming again, but I waved him down. We had seven, and time yet to keep digging. I could be magnanimous, even if it went against my nature. Besides, that treasure chest, the little box of whispering darkness buried in the sand that made the fog sit up and dance - it gave me the creeps. Nag could have it with my good will.

"One chest," I agreed. It was a sorry pile of scrap that was rotten through. The rusted hinges were holding on to the black wood by the barest splinters. If there was anything inside, I'd be surprised if it survived the water damage. I pushed it out of the pile with the end of my spade and kicked it across the sand.

Nag nodded. His face smoothed out, the anger leaching away. What was left was blank and expressionless; in the pale moonlight, he looked like some hyper realistic marble statue. He stepped over Kid and bent to pick the chest up, pausing just as his paw touched the lopsided lid.

There was a long, tense moment of silence. Jax shifted his weight forwards and braced himself against one knee. He ran his knuckles over the worn spikes on his boots. Battle pet or no, Nag was trying his patience.

"Nash?" Kid asked.

"Will you let me dig?"

It was a question, but it didn't sound like one. There was no inflection, no rising tone. He had frozen, crouched in front of the chest, eyes fixed on it and completely unmoving.

The fur stood up on the back of my neck.

"Take the chest and go, Nag," I snarled, hiding my nerves with anger. He didn't move.

"I would very much like to dig."

"Nash," Kid pleaded. "I want to go home."

Nag didn't even blink.

"I would very much like to dig."

And this? This right here? This was way above my pay grade. "Jax," I barked. Jabbed my head towards the frozen marionette crouching by that forsaken chest. "Remind Nag where the way home is, would you?"

Jax rolled his shoulders, the tattered edges of his shirt rippling over his biceps. "With pleasure, boss," he grunted. The tooth-filled grin was back. The claws were back. Jax stepped forwards with a confident, rolling stride that made Kid shrink back with a squeak cut off mid breath.

Nag didn't move.

"I would very much like to dig," he repeated.

"Too bad," Jax snarled, and charged.

Kid screamed.

It was over in a spray of sand and the sharp cr.ack of knuckles.

Nag rose from his crouch, the chest cradled delicately against his chest. He stepped over Jax's downed form and walked towards the trench.

"I am going to dig now," he said placidly. His lips were curled into a polite smile. His stance was a stiff mimicry of relaxed and unconcerned, like a robot pet trying to pass as normal. The fog curled possessively over his shoulder.

Panic took me. I was aware, in a vague, detached sense, of scrambling out of the trench, the shovel held in front of me like a pathetic shield. Kid crowded behind me. His shaking claws dug into my leg and he gripped hard enough to hurt, but at that point I had bigger things to worry about.

"Please do," I choked out, my dry throat rasping against itself. Nag turned his head toward me in a precise ninety degree turn that shouldn't have been physically possible. He kept walking forwards, stepping down into the trench without needing to look where he was going. "Thank you," he said.

I backed away, fast. Nearly tripped over Kid. Pulled myself along the sand to Jax.

"Jax," I whispered, keeping my eyes on the trench. Nag had put the chest down and started digging with his paws, ignoring the discarded tools next to him. He moved through the sand at a frightening pace. "Jax! Buddy, you there?"

He was still breathing. He didn't seem hurt, so just hope the healing springs will fix him. Drag him up the dunes, how hard can it be? He'll have woken up by morning, he'll be able to walk to the boat for the rest of the trip. It'll be fine.

Kid buried himself against my side and whimpered.

"Jax!" I snapped. I flinched as I said it, shooting a terrified look over to Nag - but the Kyrii ignored me and just kept digging. When I looked down again, Jax' eyes were open. A bit unfocused, but open. I breathed a sigh of relief. "Jax, come on buddy, we've got to get out of here."

Jax sat up stiffly. I fretted for a moment that he'd been hurt worse than I thought.

He turned to where Nag was carving through the sand, looking almost penseive. It wasn't like him. Jax was the brawns, I was the brain - always had been. "Jax?" I prompted.

"I would very much like to dig," he answered in a flat monotone. I stared, blank incomprehension filling me because - because Jax was -

"No," I denied. "Jax, snap out of it. Now, Jax, that's an order!"

He didn't even look at me as he stood up.

"I would very much like to dig."

Someone was crying. Someone was crying, noisy, hiccoughing sobs.

Jax reached out and plucked Kid away from me, dangling him from one fist in a twisted parody of his earlier action. Kid. Kid was the one crying, and for a moment, I tried to reach for the tiny scrap. But. Kid's sobs dried up. He hung limply in Jax' hand. Not afraid like he was before, just calm. He sniffed, once, and was still.

Then, "I am going to dig now," Kid said, high pitched squeak sounding cold and threatening.

They turned their blank eyed stare on me and I ran.





And there. That's it. That's my scary tale, exactly one year ago today on Halloween. Spooky, eh? Spooky.

Folk here think I'm cursed. Won't come near me. Won't talk to me. Haven't been able to tell that story to anyone, would you believe it?

Oh, lighten up. It's just a story. You think there'd be so many pets going to the Forbidden Shore every day if it was true? Hush your stuttering, you're on Krawk Island. Can't be stuttering around over a measley little story.

Makes you wonder though. Coz they were looking for something, see? Something's buried in the sand and we found a part of it on Halloween. Or maybe it found a part of us, stole it and didn't give it back, you know? But they were looking for something, and they didn't find it in time.

No, don't get up. You've done so well. No one else will talk to me, see, and the sun's almost set so I've got to go soon. Back to the beach, and you'll be coming too. It's Halloween again, see.

And I would very much like to dig.



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Next entry:
Ghost
He lies half slumped in the corner, unmoving and silent.
A character piece for Jarazed the grey ixi.
Ghost


He lies half slumped in the corner, unmoving and silent. His clothes are ragged, torn; the hems are blackened and burnt. His boots are worn through at the soles. He is unseen, beneath the notice of the owners and the pets and the groups of friends laughing at inside jokes.

They walk past, heads bent together, delighting in their lives and in their worlds – or head up, eyes scanning the street and the signs and the sellers with their wares. Their gazes slide over him and past him. They put him out of their mind and move on.

Occasionally, this is not so. Once, this had never been so – once he had been a figure of respect, the brightest mind, the most promising new hope. Once, he had led an investigation that would change the world; once his work had been important and he had been recognised wherever he went.

But that was once, and this is now. Occasionally, now, he is noticed. Occasionally a baby kacheek in a pink coat will tug on her owner's arm and ask, Who is that pet? Why is he sitting there? Doesn't he know that it's raining and cold?

The owner will turn; her eyes will be stubborn, refuse to pick out the pile of dirty cloth and tangled ginger hair. He is not there, they tell her; He is beneath our notice. But the baby kacheek will insist, as babies are wont to do, and the owner will look again.

For a moment, she will see. For a moment, she can see both the grey ixi and the wall he is leaning against. The ixi lifts his head, and she will see that his eyes are red and his face is scarred and he is pale as death and spirits and polished bone –

Come along, she will say, taking her pet by the hand and drawing her close. Her gaze has slid over and past him, and he is out of her mind. Come, the owner will say, Let's get you inside and out of this rain.

And the baby kacheek will protest, but she will follow, and only look back once to see the strange ixi with his red eyes watching them as they go.



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Next entry:
The Ocean Steals
No pet is born maraquan.
A piece for Volareis the Maraquan Gelert, based on some of the darker mermaid tales.
The Ocean Steals


The ocean is a wondrous place. Sunlight filters down through layers of blue and green, and the oceans teem with life of all shapes, all sizes – and all sources. The waters are rich, the sea beds fertile. With so much to offer and so much to keep, it is hard to see how the ocean could want anything more.

And yet...

No pet is born Maraquan. Oh, there are the aquatic pets, certainly; the peophins, the jetsams, the flotsams – they thrive in the sea, depend on it for their life and their happiness. But not the gelerts. Not the lupes, nor the unis and aishas and boris and all the pets born for the land. Not the eyries or the pteris or the shoyrus that are born for the air.

And the ocean sees, and the ocean watches. The ocean teems with life but not with that life, and the ocean is home to such a variety of creatures, but not to those creatures. The ocean envies. The ocean wants.

The ocean steals.

And we who are stolen are loved by the ocean, and cared for, and cherished – the precious children it was never supposed to have. We are treasured, and guarded as jealously as any draik watching over his hoard. We are free to roam the waves and dive beyond where the sunlight reaches, but we cannot ever return to the land, for the ocean loves us so and cannot bear to lose us. Our cage is walled with the sweet sea breeze and the crashing of the waves against the cliffs; our cage is lined with calm bays and sandy beaches.


I loved the ocean once, when I was young and played in the sand and leaped over the rocks. When I could walk and run and tumble and fall, I rejoiced at the freedom to swim and float and twist and turn. When I was young and I was carefree, the ocean whispered in my ears and in my dreams. It filled my waking thoughts and it consumed my heart until every moment away from it was agony and every hour spent with it sheer bliss.

The ocean took my soul and made it salt water. It took my legs and made them a tail, took my fur and made it scales. It took my voice and made it the sound of the wind, the waves crashing against the rocks, the eerie silence of the ocean deep. It took my paws and made them weak, so that I could not walk on them for the pain, and they bled easily on the sand and on the shore.

But I was young, and I marveled at all that had been done to me. I played in the waves and I dived and I soared and I was magnificent and I was free.

Winter came, and brought with it the storms. I hid below the waves, and the ocean sheltered me, but I was afraid and I began to long for the safety of a house, a fire, a home. The ocean smothered these wishes, sang me lullabies and cradled me in the seaw eed fronds.

Spring came, and brought with it the flowers. I sat on the rocks and gazed at them; I watched the butterflies and yearned to chase them, saw the fields and yearned to roll in them. The ocean chided me for these things, and sent me shiny shoals to chase and the sandy sea bed to roll in.

Summer came, and brought with it the sun. I pulled myself out onto the beach and lay in it until my sides were dull from the sand and my skin was cracked and dry from the heat. I thought of ice cream, of laughter, of lazy days and friends and rich summer fruits. The ocean called me back and soothed my wounds with cool water, but it could give me no ice cream or friends or fruit, and it had taken my voice so that I could not laugh.

Autumn came, and brought with it the harvest. I dragged myself over the rough grasses of the sand dunes to see the leaves turn fiery red and burnt orange, and I stayed there for days until my limbs ached with tiredness and my belly with hunger. I remembered the smell of bread, of baking apples and fresh cut hay. I remembered my mother and her flour covered apron, my father and his mud stained boots. I remembered kicking the dead leaves to hear them rustle, and jumping in puddles to watch them splash.

The ocean shimmered behind me in the sun, beautiful and wondrous and cold like diamonds, and I was grateful that my heart was consumed by the waves and the tide, for otherwise it would have broken. I was thankful that my soul was salt water, for otherwise it would have died.

Winter came again, and I hid in the kelp and felt safe. Spring came again, and I played with shoals and felt happy. Summer came again, and I bathed in the cool waters and felt calm. Autumn came again, and I swam in the ocean and felt at home.


I have remained in the ocean ever since, and never again tried to leave my gilded cage.



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Next entry:
Cupcakes and Fire
I like cupcakes! And setting things on fire!
A request for Alibu the baby usul, for the prompt given above.
Cupcakes and Fire


"...I like cupcakes! And setting things on fire!"

There was a stunned silence.

"Well," Geraldine said in a somewhat faint voice. "Thank you for that - " she surreptitiously checked her register " - Alibu. That was a very... interesting introduction to yourself."

The powder pink usul nodded, a single haughty movement. The effect was somewhat spoiled by the way she thrust her fist in the air, the crumpled note paper clutched victoriously in her paw, and cheered for herself. "Hurray!" she squeaked, cheeks blown wide in a grin.

"Yes," Geraldine agreed, still a tad nonplussed. "Hurray indeed." She cleared her throat and shook herself, trying to regain control. "Right then Alibu, if you could take a seat next to... Ah, thank you James. Alibu if you could sit next James, he'll show you where we've got to in our set reading. Alright?"

"Thank you Miss Hunny," Alibu said, and skipped down the centre of the class to her new seat.

Setting things on fire? Really? But she was such a sweet pet...



James, it turned out, was a bookish blue pteri with thick, milk-bottle glasses and an encyclopedic knowledge of all things battledome. He also had the rather unfortunate habit of paying attention in class, head down and pen scratching away furiously in his notebook. Alibu tagged along at break, hoping the pteri would get more interesting, but no. More notebooks.

"Knock it off, four eyes," a rather brash young lutari scolded. He stole the notebook and thwapped James over the head with it in one fluid movement. "You don't keep a lady waiting if you know what's good for you."

Alibu raised an eyebrow. "A lady?" she said primly. Well, if the title fits...

The lutari grinned. "A candy-bauble like you? Lady sounds about right." She sputtered, narrowing her eyes at him. James shifted nervously in the background. "But, listen," the lutari continued, steam rollering over her objection. "Word is that you're that crazy chick that likes cupcakes and fire. It true?"

Alibu nodded cautiously. She didn't want to be 'that crazy chick', she'd just wanted to make an impression. She hoped she hadn't ruined any chance of a social life.

Sam's grin turned decidedly devious. He thrust a paw forward, almost punching her with the force of it. "Excellent. I'm Sam, you've already met James. Now, tell me everything you know about fire motes..."

James groaned and buried his head in his wings. "My dad will ground me if I get detention again," he moaned softly into the feathers.

Alibu smirked and shook Sam's hand. "Well then," she said briskly. "Best not get caught."

"Oh Fyora, there's two of them!" James wailed, but Sam laughed delightedly and swung an arm around her shoulders.

"You and me," he declared, "we're gonna go far."

Alibu couldn't help but agree. This school year was going to be fun.



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Next entry:
Only Logical
Fact: Rath didn't like people. He liked machines.
A request for Rath and Viette of the Rayout Pirate crew. Characterisations are my own.
Only Logical


Fact: Rath was tall. Taller than most. And muscled. Like, a lot muscled.

Fact: Rath's default expression was an aimless glare. Not angry at anything in particular, just... glaring. In general.

Fact: Rath didn't like people. He liked machines. He liked making things work and fixing things. He liked cogs and gears and puffs of steam, smears of oil and the steady thrum of an engine turning over. Not people.

Logical conclusion: small children should avoid Rath. For their own safety as much as for Rath's sanity.

Small children, apparently, did not follow the rules of logic. It was exceptionally awkward of them.

"Go away," Rath tried again, emphasising his scowl with a threatening heft of the semi-functional sword at his waist. (It was large and bulky, and had a tendency to overheat when used for more than 18.3 seconds - but when he was finished with it, it would be have a pure plasma blade suspended inside a force containment field and be able to cut through four feet of solid steel like butter. And, if he got the crystal balance right, it would come in one of four colours and emit a pleasing hum with every movement. It was a thing of beauty - or would be, once he got it working.)

The child stuck her bottom lip out in a stubborn pout and scowled back at him between strands of ludicrously pink hair. "Shan't," she said. "You said you'd be my friend."

Rath blinked. Not liking people came with the unfortunate corollary of not understanding people. Or what to do when forced to interact with them. "Go away," he repeated helplessly for the third time. "Please."

"No," the child said. She grabbed one hand in hers and started marching imperiously down a side street. Rath followed, slightly baffled and unsure how to refuse. "Friends don't abandon friends," she told him. "Ever."

Rath added it to his fact list, but failed to see the relevance. "Friends usually know each other's names," he tried.

"Fair," the child allowed. "I'm Viette. You're Rath. It says so on your leg." Rath glanced down at his leg - the left one, the one he'd lost in an incident involving a clock as big as a ship and a generous haul of explosives. Someone had scratched a message down the side of the metal replacement he wore: Don't take Rath's leg. He hops fast when he's angry.

It was probably Kero. The captain had a great sense of humour, Rath was told, but he'd never understood it.

"So now we're bestest friends 'n you can't say nothin' otherwise," Viette finished. Her tone was triumphant, but there was something hesitant in the slump of her soldiers. Rath looked at her tiny hand in his large one, and felt how thin and bony it was. Her clothes were stained, dirty rags - but there were patches of brightly coloured material messily tacked on and even a shiny hair clip pinned to the front.

"Ok," he said, turning the idea over in his mind. Viette jerked, staring up at him wide wide, hopeful eyes. Rath nodded. "Friends," he said, and reordered himself around this new information.

Fact: Rath and Viette were friends.

Fact: Friends don't abandon friends.

Logical conclusion: Viette was staying.

Infer: If Viette was staying, Rath needed to return to the market for more supplies. There was a spare hammock in his room anyway - the various blinking, beeping machines tended to put the rest of the crew off, not to mention Rath's less than sunny demeanour - but Viette should have a new blanket at least. And clothes. Her current outfit was unhygenic.

He nodded, satisfied. "We need spinach and lemons," he told her. "You lack vitamins."

"Spinach?" Viette asked, scrunching her nose up. "How are you going to cook it?"

"In water," Rath answered. How else would you cook food? Vegetables boiled. Meat boiled. Eggs boiled. Simple.

Viette patted his hand sympathetically. "You poor thing," she said, an overly dramatic look of horror fixed to her face. "Good thing you've got me, hey? Now chop chop - we'll need some garlic and sultanas for the spinach, and some feta, can't forget that. Should we buy filo pastry or do reckon we've got time to make our own? Oh, and the lemons - what are you feeling? Could keep it simple, make a lemon posset - oooh, or a syllabub, that'd be nice. Or cake? I've got a mean lemon drizzle recipe if you like sweet things..."

Rath allowed himself to be dragged along to the market, nodding occasionally when his miniature companion turned to him for opinions. She was... interesting. She showed every emotion, and she reacted - not logically, but with levels of consistency. When she was happy, she smiled. When she was sad, she smiled wrong. Broken.

Rath liked fixing things.

When the crowd got too thick and she couldn't reach the stall, he lifted her to sit on his shoulders. She squeaked and grabbed at his hair, and he couldn't see her smile but from that angle but he could hear the softness in her voice when she said thank you. When the merchants tried to swap the cheaper ingredients and charge her the full price, Rath growled at them and used his bulky height to loom until they saw the error of their ways. When Viette fell silent and stared longingly at the pretty silk scarves and the prettier lady that sold them, Rath worked out what she wouldn't ask for and bought her one. It was orange. It clashed horribly with her hair. Viette squealed in delight and hugged him and declared it "The most perfect thing that was ever created."

Friends, Rath decided, were not so bad. He took one of his facts, and amended it slightly.

Fact: Rath didn't like people. Rath liked machines and small children with pink hair and happy smiles.

Fact: Viette had pink hair, and some of her smiles were happy.

Logical conclusion: Rath would make sure that all of Viette's smiles were happy ones and do everything possible to banish the sad smiles.

It was only rational.



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Next entry:
Healer
Of course, moral principles are fine for those as can afford them.
A request for Connie the faerie eyrie, for a healer who only treats good people.
Healer


The sun is setting. Soon, the temperature will drop and the winds will pick up - and with them, the sand storms. Connie doesn't know which is worse, the biting cold or the stinging of sand against her feathers. They're both bad. Faerie pets aren't made to survive the Lost Desert without shelter.

But shelter - well, that's a different matter. She got chased out of the last town. Some fancy prince or other broke his tail and demanded she heal it and she'd... Let's just say she hadn't liked the way the prince treated his servants. Her healing powers, her choice who she used them on. Simple as.

Of course, moral principles are fine for those as can afford them, but right at the moment she's facing the third night in a row with no food, no water, no protection from the baking heat of the day and the cruel winds at night.

"Just think," she mumbled to herself. "I could have stayed in Faerieland and never seen a sand dune in my life. Joyous, that would be." She snorted. "Demeaning, more like. 'Oh Connie, my tail hurts! Oh Connie, I've got achy head! Oh Connie, I can't be asked to pay for the cure, so just give it me for free!' Bah!" She spat on the ground and stalked on. Lazy. Misers. Bullies. The faeries gave their healing freely to all who came but Connie - Connie couldn't stand them.

"Rather here and in the right than there and in the wrong," she told herself, the words rhythmic with repetition. She stared around the empty horizon and the encroaching darkness. "Rather here..."

In three miles, she'll find a camp. Colourful tents and silk laden caravans, a flickering fire and an old zafara with a pipe telling ghost stories. There will be a xweetok, sitting towards the back, whose leg was crushed years ago by one of the caravans. Connie will watch, Connie will judge, and Connie will heal her. There will be an aisha, sitting to the other side. The aisha will be hungry and her hands will shake, and her vision will be permanently blurred. A jar of warm ointment would cost 10,000 neopoints, if that, but she can't afford it.

Four years ago, the aisha stole a meowclops from its owner and sold it on the black market. Connie will smile, thin lipped and cold, and pretend that that blurred vision is beyond her ability to heal.

In three miles, Connie will leave the camp with a stolen skin of water and a pack of dried jerky hidden under one wing. She'll march into the barren desert and tell herself that she'd rather be here and in the right than aywhere else and in the wrong.

For now, she resettles the heavy cloth around her shoulders to block out the worst of the cold, and trudges on.



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Next entry:
Above the Sky
She is six the first time she sees the stars.
A rather philosophical piece for Siwele the cloud peophin.
Above the Sky


She is six the first time she sees the stars.

Mummy, she asks, tugging insistently on her mother's tail fin. Mother, what are those?

Fish, her mother replies. They jumped out of the waves and got stuck in the sky, and now they have to stay there.

Fish, she repeats, and stares up at them with a frown. They don't look much like fish.



Daddy, she says when she is eight. What makes the sun so bright?

It's a whirlpool, he explains to her. It sucks all of the light out of the world and swirls it together into one place, and that's the light we see.

She flicks her tail to make the water spin, and wonders what stops the sun fading away into bubbles.


She gets distracted by the ravine when she is nine, by the shimmering, stuttering lights of the deep sea creatures. The serpents are ribbons of light and the great rays are flying discs speckled with beauty, and she swims as deep as she dares go to follow them down.

The sea is black and cold, oppressive silence pressing in on her. Her eyes strain against the dark and her ears flick uselessly against her head, sweeping the empty water for signs of life. She has lost the great ray, and the serpent was too quick for her to follow. The bubbles that she blows are shatteringly loud, but they fade too soon into nothing.



Her father scolds her when she returns, but his eyes don't hide his relief that she is safe. Her mother frets and worries and combs non-existent tangles out of her mane. She promises not to go back.



She is ten when she breaks her promise, and her father drags her home. He doesn't scold her, not this time. You worried your mother, he says coldly. He doesn't say, I am disappointed. He doesn't have to.

She shrinks into herself and glares stubbornly down into the deep.


She is fourteen when she has learnt how to break her promises without getting caught. Learnt how to sneak out, how to casually brush off where she's been with just enough trivial misdirection, how to pretend that the latest shell necklaces have so filled her mind there are no thoughts of anything else.

She swims down again, down until there is no direction and no light. Nothing but the bubbles to tell her which way is up. She swims down as far as she dares, then down one more stroke for luck.

She always comes back.


What is above sky? she asks once. What is below the sea?

Why do you care? her friend asks with a yawn. No one knows. There's nothing there.

She stares up at the sky. It looks a lot like the sea, she thinks.


She is seventeen when she swims down for the last time. If she'd known, she'd have said goodbye. Taken her time. Savoured the peaceful cold and the endless, encompassing silence.

But she doesn't know. She swims down, down as far as she dares and down beyond that, down until the bubbles she blows dissolve into nothing before they have a chance to float away.

The sea grows thin, the silence loud and roaring in her ears. Her mane drifts in a current that shouldn't be there, one that tugs playfully at individual strands and sends ripples across her fur. The dark is broken by a thousand little creatures, glowing crustaceans and flashing fish, the sinuous curve of the serpent and the elegant spread of the great ray.

She is cold, a biting, stinging cold that is nothing like it should be. She blows bubbles again, resolved to follow them back up to safer land - but no bubbles appear. She flicks her tail and surges upwards, but only lists to the left and drifts further down. Panic grabs her and she screams, but there is no sound and her throat burns.

The roaring silence gets louder.

The fragmented pinpricks of light fall away as the serpents are too quick for her to follow and she has lost the great ray.

The water gets thinner and colder.


What is above the sky? What is below the sea?


She is woken by the dawn, fiery tendrils of light setting the clouds on fire and painting the sky with vivid golds and rosy pinks. Her throat feels raw; it sratches against itself with every breath she takes. Her lungs ache from the unfamiliar air.

She blinks, and tiny crystals of ice fall from her eyelashes. Beneath her stretches the world, the ocean glittering like so many pearls and the towering mountains reaching grasping fingers up to steal the clouds. Above her are the stars, retreating now in the face of the sun and the day it brings but still visible - just.

They looked so small from the ocean, but from here she can see the serpent's curve and the great ray's wings. She wonders, if she looked up far enough, she'd see the home she left behind, but then the last fringes of the night are gone and the day shines bright in their place.

She looks down again at the ocean below and the land and the clouds, and wonders if it will be as easy to swim through the wind as it was through the sea.


She is seventeen when she flies for the first time, and she laughs even though it hurts her throat. The clouds fall away below her and kick up in great plumes behind her, and the wind catches her mane and tugs at the strands, and there is nothing silent in the wind rushing past her ears, nothing cold in the sunlight blazing overhead.

She's home.



You are currently reading Short Stories

Next entry:
Stormship
The old timbers of the ship creaked in protest.
There's something not quite right about this particular storm on this particular sea.
Stormship


"Batton th' hatches!" the voice called from the crows nest. "Storm's comin', mighty quick!"

"Sioban!" her father commanded, already moving his lumbering bulk to secure the sails. "The chests, girl - now!"

She was already on it, darting down into the hold to secure their precious cargo. Fine silks, delicate embroidery, the handful of gossamer gold thread that was carefully reserved for special commissions - they didn't like the salt in the air at the best of times. The storm would destroy them.

"Where're the oil sheets?" she yelled up to the deck, frantically lashing the chests down so that they wouldn't crash into the sides of the hull. She heard the muffled shout of her father's response, but couldn't make out the words. "What?"

A touseled head poked over the top of the ladder down. "He said they're in the side locker," her brother said. "Port side, third one down."

"Gottit," she said, nodding her head in thanks. The rain was falling harder now, each freezing raindrop slashing down and bringing four more in it's wake. Thunder rumbled ominously and far too close. "Stop holding the hatch open - get in or get out but don't let the rain in!"

Her brother rolled his eyes but retreated back on deck. The hatch lid thudded down, and the hull was plunged in darkness. Sioban gave herself a breath, two breaths, to adjust to the darkness, then darted to the bank of lockers down the side. "Third one down," she mumbled to herself, running her hands over the the latches to count them. The locker opened easily enough under her touch and she groped inside for the first of the oil cloths to wrap the chests in.

A sudden lurch sent her tumbling, her head slamming into the lid of the locker. The chests groaned, straining against the knots she'd tied. "What - " she gasped out. The ship jolted again, the thundering crash of the waves hitting it broadside echoing around the hull.

The old timbers of the ship creaked in protest.

"It'll hold," Sioban said, dismissing the danger. They had sailed through worse storms than this. She was more worried about losing their cargo than anything else. She pulled out the first of the oil cloths and spread it over the closest of the chests.

From the darkness of the bow, there came a high pitched giggle.

Sioban scowled. It sounded like one of her cousins. The twins, most likely.. Annoying. But family all the same. "Didn't your mama teach you not to play with the anchor chain in bad whether?" she called into the blackness.

Silence. She shook her head and started to work on the next oil cltoh. They'd learn - through listening or through making mistakes, it didn't matter to her.

A third wave hit the ship and she braced herself, legs planted wide and elbows locked against the heavy wood of the chest. A flash of lightning illuminated the hold, the image reflected in the brass lock on the chest.

There was something behind her.

Sioban spun. Her hand dropped to the knife in her belt. Her eyes scoured the darkness.

A laugh from the side, cold and thin and echoing in a way that shouldn't have been possible.

"Show yourself!" Sioban snarled. She shifted lower into a fighting stand, lifting herself onto the bals of her feet and rolling easily with the storm-tossed ship. Something skittered across the corner of her vision, too close for comfort -

She lashed out, but her fist didn't connect. "Coward," she spat, her lip curled into a sneer. Her hand gripped the knife tighter. It didn't hide the way her hands were shaking.

The bow of the ship dipped alarmingly, accompanied by a dull crash as the water broke over the side. Sioban bent her knees and compensated without thinking about it, but the chest that smashed into her from behind sent her sprawling. She cried out as it trapped her against the side of the hull, her ankle all but crushed beneath it and throbbing with every movement.

The rope she'd used to tie the chest down flopped uselessly over the other side, the knot shorn through. "What - " she struggled to say, but the word caught in her throat. Every breath felt like fire. Her ribs burned. Her eyes refused to fous. She was panicking, and she didn't know to stop.

The wood beside her head ruptured, three holes in a shower of splinters. With roar of twisting timbers, the holes grew, dragged out sideways like -

like -

it laughed, mocking and cruel -

the water exploded into the ship and she was crushed and fighting to breathe and her ankle was still trapped and she fought but couldn't get free -

Like claw marks. The holes in the ship looked like claw marks.



You are currently reading Short Stories

Next entry:
Plushie
The plushie sits on the windowsill.
He was a happy child, your son, but he changed and you were too busy to see.
Meridell


Meridell is built for strength. The castle walls are thick, the windows narrow slits, and the doors heavy wood with iron bolts. It was not too long ago that Meridell was at war with Darigan, and even if the rest of Neopia has put it behind them, Meridell is not so quick to forget.

They are not at war now though. Now, their land is rolling farmland dotted with mills and watched over by sleepy eyed kacheeks. Now, the town is en fete, streaming with bunting in red and blue (and never purple). Now, the houses are newly thatched and there are fresh reeds strewn across the floor of the castle and thick oak logs in the fires to keep the old stone warm. The market on Wednesdays is a veritable riot of noise and color and life, bustling and thriving in a way that Meridell never could before.

But the castle walls are thick as ever, double walled with at least two feet of rubble between for added strength. If Skarrl gets twitchy he's still likely to throw all the guests in the moat and call them invaders, to lower the portcullis behind them and drop one clawed hand to the sword still strapped at his waist. The houses are sturdy and newly thatched, yes, but even the new houses are still built as though they may be raised to the ground at any time and need to be rebuit again before the end of the week. The armoury is fully stocked and the petpets are trained to bark at strangers, and in the grassy fields the children whack a kass for fun without fully understanding the terror he caused.

That's ok.

Brightvale looks on from its vaulted ceilings and library, fat and gluttoneous with dusty records, and behind their painted plaster they remark that life is simple in Meridell - and that rubbish dump, can it really be hygenic? I heard that pets actually ate the leftovers they found there. Brightvale armoury consists of cloaks and scrolls and complex battle plans that take too much time to understand and too much luck to pull off. Brightvale tables are delicately presented with confits and infusions in delicate gold rimmed cups. Meridell's rickety wooden boards groan with potatoes and gruel because Meridell remembers what it was like to have not even that. Brightvale's fruits are multi coloured and exquisitly sweet, and Meridell counts potatoes again and again like a nervous habit, just to make sure there are still enough to go round.

Brightvale nods sagely over nonsense wisdom and Meridell promises fortunes for those who can make the king laugh, because the king remembers when his people's spirit was all but broken and the sound of laughter was a precious thing.

Brightvale can scoff. That's ok.

Meridell's children don't remember the war and Brightvale's old pets never knew it, and Meridell are the ones who made it so. We are proud of that.



You are currently reading Neopian Lands

Next entry:
The Haunted Woods
The Haunted Woods are unfriendly and unwelcoming; the Haunted Woods are bad.
The Haunted Woods


The Haunted Woods are scary. The Haunted Woods are dark. The Haunted Woods are unfriendly and unwelcoming; the Haunted Woods are bad.

An eternal fog clings to the damp ground, pooling lethargically between the trees. The branches are spindly, grasping; their twisted fingers beckon and the withered leaves quiver with anticipation. The shadows stretch deep beneath the faltering moonlight. In the day, they lurk amongst the roots and the hidden corners, watchful, waiting. Patient. The sun will go down, your torch with splutter and die. The shadows have no need for haste.

These are the haunted woods. This is the magic woven into every huff of panicked breath, every stifled cry and misplaced footstep. The trees are never in the same place twice; they herd you, follow you, whisper warnings only when it's too late. The clouds hang low and thick, the rain is cold. It trickles down the back of your neck and soaks through your inadequate shoes.

These are the haunted woods. Come. Come further.

Come and see the ghosts and the ghouls, the zombies, the werelupes. Come see the denizens of the dark, the living and the undead and those who are not quite both and not quite neither.

These are the haunted woods.

These are the pockets of warmth and light, the flickering bonfire and the raucous laughter surrounding it. These are the stories and the history, the warmth of a patched blanket and a rough-hewn bowl filled with grandma's stew. This is the zafara with a spyder for a petpet; this is the spyder that chases its hind legs and always turns a circle before bed.

This is the town lit by flickering candles, a thousand stars brought down from the sky. This is the baker and these are her crumpets; this is the tailor, and this is the gold thread for his latest creation. This is the printing press and these are the stories; this is the latest romance and this is story of the littlest scorchio that wanted to fly.

This is the creak and the groan of the fairground and these are the echoing laughs of the clowns. This is the sound of a thousand cream pies and the raucous giggles of a thousand pets throwing them with glee; this is the pop-pop-pop of the cork gun gallery and the cheers of delight from the scratch card stand.

This is the fog and these are the shadows; this is the place that light and happiness turned their back on and forsook.

We are the pets who didn't care. We are the pets who made our home in the damp and cold and made it bright and made it warm. We are the pets who walk past the graveyard and tell it not today; we are the pets who waltz through the hungry trees and part the mists with our steps.

We are the Haunted Woods.

Won't you come and see?



You are currently reading Neopian Lands

Next entry:
Altador
Altador is a city of heroes lead by a king who is a good man. Your history books will attest to this.
Altador


Altador slept for a thousand years, you know. Altador slept, its greatest heroes nothing but stone statues, the entire town at a faerie's mercy. A faerie - just the one. A dark faerie, yes, but still. What kind of city can be brought low by just one faerie?

Or did you not question it? Did you not find it strange? The Betrayer was a huntress - she slew the beast that would have slain your king, so the story goes. They took a head each and walked back to town, and they founded a city of heroes.

Heroes. Do gooders. Farmers and dancers; reformed tax men and reformed thieves. Look at us, they say. We are just like you who are just like us. The people cheer. They are fed on a diet of bread and circuses, they look on their great city with pride, they see everything that Altador has wrought - and they cheer. Your council are symbols, nothing more. Pretty baubles to barter your loyalty, worthless sentiments of solidarity with your farming brothers and your dancing sisters.

But your Betrayer, she was a huntress. She had patience. She sought weakness, and knew how to use it. She went in without mercy and she went in to win.

Your king was a hunter. Your king was raised in a city of corrupt leaders; you think he didn't learn from their mistakes? He travelled - it says this in your books, in your history - and he studied governance, and he concluded that all rulers of all places are corrupt and greedy and weak. But your king was a hunter; he had patience, he sought weakness, he went in without mercy and he went in to win. Weak, he was not.

When your city was founded, your king gathered a council who would be untouchable. Who could blame heroes of corruption? Who would suspect a king who surrounded himself with such councillors? (Which of those councillors would dare speak out against that king?) He built the city brick by brick; he was there, he was seen to do it. Your king gathered his council and his image like armour and he made himself invulnerable with it.

The people are tired, the Betrayer said. The people are hungry; let me use the powers I have. Let me help.

Your king denied her. He built the city brick by brick until his armour was complete.

Altador grew wealthy. Altador's heroes were blessed with long life, and its people nodded and said this was right. Altador prospered.

Again, the Betrayer spoke - We have much, she said. Should we not share it? Should we not take our wisdom and our medicine and bring it to those around us, should we not help?

Your king denied her. What cares had he for those outside his lands? He was king and he was beloved; he was wealthy and given long life; he was thought to be a good man. He was too careful a man to risk that.

And look at him now. He is the hero once again, the suffering victim betrayed by his oldest friend. Oh, but she was a dark faerie - it was only further evidence of his fairness that the king trusted her to begin with. Besides, Altador gives us bread; it is a generous city. Altador gives us circuses, hosts our annual yooyuball tournaments, gives us celebration and greatness of our own.

(Altador grows richer with every passing year, and no other land dares host yooyuball tournaments. Altador is loved and Altador is good and no one dares to question how it fell. Altador is powerful but not feared, and ruled by a king who was once a hunter and knows how to be patient.

Did you never ask the Betrayer who's idea it was for Altador to sleep?)


Altador is a city of heroes lead by a king who is a good man. Your history books will attest to this.

(Your history books were erased by magic far greater than you have known. Your history books were recovered piece by piece and declared your king to be that good man.)

Did you never question it?



You are currently reading Neopian Lands

Next entry:
Meridell
Meridell is built for strength.
Welcome to Neopia


"But I don't want a pet," I insisted for the thousandth time, trying to dig my feet into the floor.

"Oh, come now," Eileen, the motherly Wocky who ran the nursery scolded, giving me a reassuring pat on the arm. "Everyone has a pet in Neopia!"

"Not me," I muttered with a sullen pout. The two large Boris either side of me ignored my protests and continued dragging me down the corridor.

Maybe this was a mistake, I thought to myself. I was new to Neopia – only just finished filling in my account opening forms, in fact. It was a beautiful winter's morning, cold and crisp, and I wanted to go and explore this new land I'd found myself in. I wanted to go and play in the snow, or see the ancient ruins of Maraqua I'd heard so much about, or taste one of the many delicacies I'd seen in the shops.

Instead, I found myself pushed none too gently forwards into a large incubation room. "Gee, thanks," I said to the two Boris with a scowl, rubbing my shoulder. Eileen flitted past me and started checking on the eggs carefully.

"We've got almost every species in Neopia here," she explained, "All in the four common colours, red, yellow, blue and green – the basics, if you will."

"Almost every?" I asked, staring round at the rows and rows of eggs. Some were large, some were small enough to fit in your pocket. Some had dark, leathery shells, others were pale and delicate; there were smooth shells, rough shells, patterned and plain.

"The rarer pets are too difficult for us to get a hold of," Eileen said, making her way back to me with a large file folder. "Some only have eggs once a year, you see, and others not even that. But enough of them; do you know what pet you want, or would you like to look through here first?" she asked, presenting me with the file folder.

I opened the folder and glanced down at the information. There were photos of the pets, descriptions of habitats, even a couple of warnings – Skeiths, apparently, had a tendency to eat furniture, and Kikos preferred fresh water lakes to the sea.

I flicked through it listlessly, but my mind was still made up. I didn't want a pet at the moment. I didn't even have anywhere to live or money to buy food – how could I possibly be able to look after a pet?

"Nope," I said, closing the folder with a decisive thud.

"No?" Eileen queried. "None at all? There must be one pet you like!" She gave me a hopeful look.

"If I say no again, will you let me go?" I asked. The Boris by the door cr.acked their knuckles loudly, and Eileen continued to look at me hopefully. I sighed. "Do you mind if I just look around?"

"Oh, not at all!" she said happily. "Let me know when you've found someone," she added, all but pushing me towards the eggs.

"Yeah, yeah," I grumbled. The first set of eggs I came to were labelled Yellow Ixi, each one with a small bar chart showing how fast or strong the pet was. "How can they know if you'll be fast or strong before you're even born?" I asked the eggs. They shook a tiny bit in their soft cotton wrappings, but didn't answer.

I moved on. The next aisle had long tanks of water with small, jelly like eggs resting on the sandy bottom. Quiggles, the caption read. And the tanks opposite them, dark egg purses hidden amongst sea we.ed fronds; Peophin eggs.

I almost missed the small nest next to the tanks. It was woven from rags and large leaves, and half covered with a towel, tucked away in the corner as though someone had put it down and forgotten it. I looked around to see what shelf it might have come from, but this aisle was only for water pets – there was nothing like the small pale blue egg.

"So what are you then?" I asked it, picking the nest up carefully and looking for a label. It was a mistake – after barely a few seconds, the base of the nest disintegrated, and I only just managed to catch it before something disastrous happened. "Sheesh," I panted. "You almost gave me a heart attack!"

The egg shuddered in my hands, and I paused. I could feel my heartbeat in my palms, but I could swear there was something else… Yes, soft and gentle, a heartbeat from inside the egg. I stared at the egg with trepidation as it shuddered again.

"Don't hatch," I begged it, looking around wildly for help. "Eileen!" I called in something of a panic. Even the Boris would have been a welcome sight as the egg shuddered harder. "Please don't hatch?" I tried, but it was too late, and with a soft cr.ack the shell split open, and the pet inside tumbled into my hands.

I don't know how long I stood there with that ball of damp blue fur in my hands. It was soft, so incredibly soft for all that its fur stood up in wet spikes, and it was just so small. Its paws were large, and its ears were larger, but its body was tiny and so delicate that some part of me was terrified of moving in case I broke it. It yawned, gurgling slightly as it took its first breath of air, and started snuffling around my palms with its eyes still tightly closed.

"You called, dear?" Eileen asked, approaching from the other end of the aisle. I nodded, unable to speak. "Have you found a pet you like then?" I gestured to my hands, and she looked. "Oh!" she gasped. "Oh dear, I am sorry," she apologised, and I wondered whatever for. "Here, give him to me and I'll put him somewhere out of your way," she said, reaching for it – him, reaching for him.

I took a step back, bringing the tiny pet closer to myself protectively. "He's my pet," I said, as stubbornly as I'd insisted only a short while ago that I didn't want any pet at all.

"Really, dear?" Eileen asked hesitantly. "He's rather small for a Kyrii – he was supposed to have been moved a few days back. If you like Kyriis though, then we have many others you can look at."

"No thank you," I answered. "I'll stick with this one." I thought back to the file folder. Had I seen anything on Kyriis? I didn't think so. It must have been one of the pages I'd skipped.

"Well, if you're sure," Eileen said. I nodded decisively. "Bring him to the front then, and we can get the paperwork sorted for you."

I filled in the forms at the front desk, signing ownership forms and a contract stating I wouldn't abandon him until he was at least a week old and able to survive in the pound. I stroked the fuzzy, pale fur down his back, and silently promised the tiny Kyrii that he would never be abandoned in the pound, not while I was still in Neopia.

"Just the name then," Eileen said, pointing the last blank space on the form. "What'll it be, dear?"

My mind went blank. I stared at the nameless ball of fur, still stroking him absently as I tried to think. He snuffled, wriggling about to bury himself further into my jumper.

"Dean?" I tried, but it didn't feel right. Tarka was wrong as well, he needed a softer name. Something like…

"Bannok," I said quietly.

"Bannok it is then," Eileen said, writing it down with a flourish. The forms were sealed and filed and it was done; I had a pet, a blue Kyrii, and he was called Bannok.

I was quiet as the Boris led me outside again, and only managed to nod in reply to Eileen's farewell. I stood in Pet Central, in a brand new world with Bannok cradled against my chest. I had no house, the barest handful of neopoints, and no idea how anything worked.

"This is going to be an adventure, eh?" I said to Bannok. He yawned, then blinked his eyes open for the first time. They were warm and brown and slightly misty and as perfect as the rest of him. I couldn't help but smile.

"Hello, Bannok," I whispered. "Welcome to Neopia."



You are currently reading Where We Are

Next entry:
The Day After Lutari Day
"Is it a petpet?" Bannok asked, leaning over me to see it.
In which the family expands.
The Day After Lutari Day




It was the day after Lutari Day, and we were taking the day off to enjoy a trip to the beach. Bannok, my young and eternally curious Kyrii, was beside himself with excitement. One moment he was dashing around the rock pools and exclaiming over every shell and colourful seaweed he found, the other he was paddling at the edge of sea, demanding that I, "Look, Mummy, look! It's up to my knees!" shortly followed by, "It's at my waist! Mummy, it's at my waist! You're not looking, Mummy!"

I waved appreciatively from my seat on the beach towel to assure him that I was indeed watching his impressive foray into the water (and, in fact, keeping quite a close eye on him. Bannok and I lived in Brightvale, and beyond the odd splash in one of the rocky creeks that skirted the forest, Bannok had never been swimming before. I was sure he knew not to go too far out, but – well. I worry too much.) It was a cool, shady day, and the beach was deserted. With his thick fur to keep him warm and the endless energy that small children possess, Bannok wasn't bothered by the chill, but I was happy to stay a bit more wrapped up with the towels and my book. Callum, Bannok's petpet, clearly agreed with me; he was curled by my side with every inch of himself as far from the sand as it was possible to be without levitating above it. I'm not sure the vacana was overly fond of the beach, truth be told.

"Did you see?" Bannok asked, running up towards me. "I went out so far – I bet you could barely see me, I was that far away!"

"I saw," I assured him. "Did you have fun?" I rummaged around the beach bag for another mat for Bannok to sit on.

"Lots! Are you getting the ice cream?"

I paused, and checked my watch. Half twelve... It was a bit early, but we could have lunch now. "I've packed you a sandwich for lunch," I said, laying out the mat.

"But Muuuum, we're at the beach!" Bannok protested.

I raised an eyebrow at him. "And?"

"And beaches are for eating ice cream, everyone knows that!" he said, giving me a look that I'm sure every parent is familiar with. It is equal parts the look of one being denied something entirely reasonable, and one pleading for something they know is really rather outrageous. It hovers just on the edge of put-on hurt with, on a good day, the slightest shine of tears just beginning to gather.

I sighed. Maybe someday they'd invent a faerie ability that rendered you immune to such things, but until then Bannok had me wrapped around his little finger, and he knew it. "Sandwich first, then there's an ice cream for pudding," I said.

"Yay!" The tears were gone in a second, and Bannok bit into his sandwich happily. Callum rolled his eyes, well used to his master's antics. "Hush you," I mumbled at him, unwrapping the tangella slices I'd packed for the petpet. "You'd understand if you ever had kids." Or foals. Whatever baby vacana are called. Callum snorted in disagreement, but took his fruit nonetheless.

There was an easy quiet, broken by various munching sounds as we continued our lunch. I found myself staring blankly out to sea, my mind wandering. As ever, my thoughts turned to Bannok; since his rather sudden arrival into my life, they had rarely had chance to leave him.

I had not planned to adopt a neopet, it kind of just happened. I had not really planned anything, just wandered into Neopia and opened an account without quite realising what I was getting myself into. It hadn't been easy, at first – I was terrified of doing wrong by Bannok, by that tiny ball of blue and white fur that was entirely dependent on me for everything. We had been frequent visitors of the Soup Faerie, without whose kindness and patient sympathy I would most likely have been unable to cope those first few weeks, living in the Neolodge and trying to work out which way was up and how to get around this crazy land.

Now, I considered myself a competent Neopian. There was a lot I still had to learn, and a lot still to see – although I was fairly familiar with the more mainland areas, this was our first visit to Mystery Island, and I'd never been to some of the more exotic places such as Moltara – or even Terror Mountain! But all in all, I was competent. I knew my way around Brightvale, I could put together a decent dinner out of the local cuisine (and had learnt the hard way to keep the windows closed when cooking with faerie food), and for the most part, Bannok and I were doing well.

"Mummy?" Bannok asked, breaking me out of my reverie. "Are you going to eat that, so we can have ice cream?" he said, gesturing at my half eaten, forgotten sandwich.

"Sorry Bannok, Mummy was just thinking," I apologised and resumed eating.

"'Bout what?"

"Well," I said, swallowing a bite of sandwich, "about how big the world is, and about how lucky I am to have such a brave Kyrii like you to live with me in it.

"Muuuum," Bannok said, wrinkling his nose. "You're being silly. And girly."

I laughed. "That's what Mums do, Bannok." At least, that's what I do – I can't speak for the rest of us. Some owners I'm convinced are superheroes in disguise; I have my hands full enough with Bannok and Callum, I can't imagine how people cope with four pets. Or even 20, if side accounts are included!

The rest of the day passed quite quickly; Bannok's ice cream melted all over him and required an emergency bath in the sea to rinse his fur out. He then roped me into building a sand castle with him, getting sand all over himself in the process and needing another dip to clean up afterwards. I carried him up the beach in a towel to try and keep his fur sand-free after that, and stood him up on the rocks to dry off. Despite my best efforts, his feet were still sandy when I came to put his shoes back on, so I put them in the beach bag on one shoulder and carried Bannok in the other arm. He babbled on excitedly for a bit about all the things he'd done and the fact that his sand castle would be there for eternity, but it wasn't long before he was yawning more than talking.

"Go to sleep, sweetie," I said gently.

"But Mum, I want to see the boat!" he protested sleepily.

"I'll wake you up when it comes," I promised, kissing him on the forehead.

"Kay," Bannok mumbled, eyelids already drooping. Within minutes he was fast asleep, his head on my shoulder and his hands balled into fists in my shirt. I resettled him slightly on my hip, smiling softly.

We walked along for a time in silence, Callum trotting contentedly along the rocks beside me. He seemed pleased to be going, and just as determined as ever to avoid the sand, often taking the long way around over the rocky outcrops that lined the beach rather than step down onto it. I knew better than to offer him a lift – the vacana was far too proud to put up with such an indignity.

We were nearly at the end of the beach when Callum stopped. He began sniffing curiously around a particular rock pool, stretching his neck out over the still water.

"Found something?" I asked quietly, mindful of the sleeping pet in my arms. Callum huffed, blowing his long fringe out of his eyes. I began walking back towards him, wondering if someone had dropped something in the pool.

"What is it then?" I said, kneeling down carefully to have a look. The rock pool water was dark but clear, and shallow enough that I could see the various stones and shells nestled in the sand at the bottom. There didn't seem to be anything strange there as far as I could tell. "Are you seeing things, Callum?" I asked. The vacana snorted derisively at me, and I grinned in return.

"Well, come on," I said, levering myself back to standing while taking care not to dislodge Bannok. "I'm not sure how often the boats run back to Neopia Central, but I'd hate to miss the last one." Callum huffed reluctantly, still staring into the lake, but obediently began following me.

I had barely taken a step away from the pool when the water exploded – that's the only word I can use to describe it. Callum skittered sideways, bleating in distress as water splashed in all directions, and I very nearly went over on the slippery rocks trying not to stand on him. Something small and red shot out of the water towards me and clung to my ankle, sharp claws digging into my skin until I thought they might draw blood.

"What –" I started in shock, but I was cut off as my new passenger began wailing, it's surprisingly loud voice rising almost to a shriek as I tried in vain to shake it off. Bannok jolted awake, eyes wide as he flattened his ears down against his head and flailed his arms in fright.

"Mummy, Mummy, what happened?" he yelped, squirming and twisting to try and find the source of the ear splitting noise.

"Bannok, careful!" I pleaded, struggling not to drop him. The small creature on my ankle had wrapped itself so firmly around me that I couldn't put my foot down without standing on it. I hopped backwards, praying to Fyora that Callum wasn't directly behind me and trying desperately to stay vertical. I didn't last long – as the rocks gave way to the beach, I tumbled over backwards and hit the sand hard, instinctively clutching Bannok to my chest to protect him against the fall.

For a moment, everything seemed blissfully calm and silent. As the ringing in my ears faded I became aware that Bannok was kneeling next to me on the sand, shaking my shoulder.

"Mummy, Mummy, get up, Mummy," he was saying in a quiet, hiccoughing voice that sounded on the edge of tears.

"I'm up," I groaned, levering myself onto my elbows. My head spun a bit and I had to blink a few times to clear away the dots dancing in front of my eyes, but other than that, I seemed ok. Shaken, but still in one piece. "You ok, love?" I asked, turning to Bannok.

"I'm ok," he assured me. I noticed with a vague sort of annoyance that his fur was covered in sand again. "What happened?"

"I'm not quite sure," I answered. I couldn't hear the – whatever it was that had been in the rock pool, and wondered briefly if it has got scared and run off. My theory was shortly disproved as I tried to sit up fully and felt a weight against my side, pulling down on my shirt. I looked down, and there it was; small, red and soaking wet, curled into an almost spherical shape on the loose fabric of my shirt. It stared up at me with liquid, honey golden eyes, the only part of its face visible above its tail.

"What are you then?" I asked softly, reaching carefully down for it. I half expected the creature to turn tail and run, but it pushed its head eagerly into my hand. I almost thought I heard it purring.

"Is it a petpet?" Bannok asked, leaning over me to see it. His words made me think of Callum, and I looked around with a flash of panic – but the vacana was fine, sitting on top of the beach bag and watching from a safe distance.

I gently scooped the small bundle up and onto my lap. "I don't know," I answered Bannok. "He might be."

"Or she," Bannok corrected me, staring at it in fascination. The possible petpet stared back at him just as curiously, whiskers twitching. It mewed imperatively when I set it down, its head shooting forwards faster than I could see to catch my sleeve and drag my hand back.

"Or she," I agreed, resuming my careful stroking. It closed its eyes, and this time I was sure; whatever it was, it purred. It had fur, I could see now, though it was short and very slick due to being wet. It looked rather catlike in form, though its ears were tiny and its legs far shorter than any cat I had seen. Its paws ended in wicked looking claws, as I had noticed earlier when it was clinging to my leg, but they were now very demurely curled underneath it, half hidden by its thick red tail.

"So what are we going to do with you then?" I asked it, not expecting an answer. It blinked slowly at me, continuing its rumbling purr.

"Can we keep her?" Bannok asked hopefully.

"We can't just take it – her," I corrected at Bannok's reproachful look, "home with us. What if someone comes looking for her?" Although, it was odd; we hadn't seen another soul on the beach all day, so it seemed unlikely that the strange little creature had just wandered off and got lost. "Or what if she's a wild petpet?" I tried, though her obvious friendliness suggested otherwise.

"But Mum, she likes us!" Bannok protested. "And I promise, I'll look after her and feed her and everything – you won't even know she's there!"

"And what will poor Callum think of being usurped?" I asked, raising an eyebrow.

"I can look after them both!"

I sighed, putting the little red creature down on the sand so that I could stand up. It meeped in annoyance and squirmed out of my hands; before I could blink, it was back on my lap, curled up in exactly the same position as though it had never left. I tried again, but it hooked its claws into my shirt, crawling (rather painfully) up my chest to settle determinedly under my chin. Bannok giggled delightedly.

"Look," I told it, tilting my head so I could see it. "If you're going to stay up here, that's a really inconvenient place to be." It ignored me, burying its claws further into my shirt. I rolled my eyes exaggeratedly, making Bannok giggle again, and stood up. Surprisingly, the creature stayed put, spread across my front like a thick scarf. Its eyes were closed and it was still stubbornly purring.

"We'll have to stop at the petpet shop on the way home," Bannok said, shooing Callum off the bag and dragging it over to me. "And the neohome store, and we'll need some food too. What do you reckon she eats? Would she eat green stuff like Callum does, or I can give her some cake – I bet she loves cake!"

"Bannok, slow down," I said. "We don't know that we're keeping her – or him. We don't even know that she's a petpet!"

"But Mummy, she'll be cold if we leave her out here!" Bannok protested, gesturing emphatically at the deserted beach. "And, and lonely!" I felt her – it – tensing on my chest, the fur on its back standing up a bit as it did so.

"We're not leaving her here," I reassured them both. "She can stay with us tonight, but tomorrow morning we need to take her in to town and find out what she is and whether someone's looking for her. Now, hand me the bag Bannok and let's go home, hey?"

"Kay," Bannok mumbled. I slung the bag over my shoulder and reached down with my other hand to hold his paw.

We walked along in quiet for a couple of minutes, Callum once again choosing the rocks over the sand. Once it was clear that we weren't leaving it behind, the furry red creature relaxed enough to crawl up to my shoulder and settle there, tail spread across the back of my neck. I wondered if it was a petpet, and if so what kind – there was a petpet shop on Mystery Island, called, ironically, the Rock Pool. I had heard though that they specialised in aquatic petpets; dartails and ghotis and other such petpets. It was possible that our foundling had escaped from there, but it seemed unlikely. For one thing, we were at the other end of the island.

"Mummy?" Bannok said in a small voice.

"Mhmm?" I asked. I already had a fair idea as to what was on his mind.

"Are we really going to give her away?"

I paused, trying to work out how I was going to say this. "We don't have much choice if she's a petpet, Bannok," I said gently. "The Petpet Protection League is very strict about only letting pets have one petpet, and we can't get rid of Callum, can we?"

"No," Bannok said dejectedly, head down and eyes fixed on his feet. We had approached the harbour now, and though the coconut JubJub who ran it waved a friendly greeting, the boat was nowhere in sight.

"Looks like we've got a bit of a wait then," I said cheerfully, trying to lighten the mood. I lifted Bannok up to sit on the edge of the quay, and took out a towel to brush the sand off him. "Left foot, Bannok," I said, reaching for it with the towel. He obediently lifted his foot and held it still as I brushed the sand off and buckled his shoe up, then did the same for the other one. Shoes on, he got up and wandered down to the other end of the quay, sitting on the farthest out part with his feet dangling over the water.

"Well, this has ended on a downer, hasn't it?" I asked rhetorically. The little thing that may or may not have been a petpet mewed curiously, pushing its head against my cheek until I raised a finger to stroke it. "Here's hoping you're not a petpet," I said quietly. "I don't think anyone would be happy to have to get rid of you, least of all Bannok." It purred in agreement.

I debated for a moment whether to go up and join Bannok or not; Callum was with him, the stoic vacana sitting next to him and staying a far safer distance from the edge of the quay than Bannok was. They seemed like an odd match, those two – Bannok being usually so full of energy and liking nothing more than to get properly muddy (much to my chagrin), and Callum being one of the most persnickety and long suffering petpets I have ever come across. But they wouldn't be separated for the world, and I knew that Bannok would never give up Callum for a new petpet.

Just then, the boat appeared over the horizon. The coconut JubJub bustled up to me carrying a rattling, metal box.

"Tickets, please!" he said cheerfully.

"Oh – we got return tickets this morning," I said, opening my bag. "Hang on a sec... There." I fished the two slightly crumpled tickets out of my purse and handed them over to him.

"Thank you, thank you – and one more, or are you buying the third as a single?" he said, flipping open the lid of the box.

"Third?" I asked blankly, not comprehending.

"For the young Kyrii with the petpet – he is with you, no?" the JubJub asked. "It's 25 neopoints for a single ticket, please."

"Right," I said, handing over the neopoints, still trying to work out why I needed a third ticket. "Wait, could you tell me –" I began to ask, but he had already deposited the coins in the box and gone back to his hut.

"All aboard!" the Kougra called from the boat, and I noticed that his current load of passengers had already disembarked. Bannok was, of course, sat right up in the bow, already swinging his legs in excitement. "Come on, Mummy!" he yelled.

I gave up wondering – 25 neopoints wasn't going to break the bank, and I didn't want to hold the boat up by going to ask. "Have you got Callum?" I asked Bannok as I stepped down into the boat. He nodded, pointing at the covered section at the back of the boat. I could just see the vacana through the window, sat on one of the seats in there.

"Just the three of you, then?" the Kougra asked jovially. I nodded, and he released the rope with quick, practiced movements. "Right-o, on to Neopia Central!"

"I don't suppose you could stop in at Brightvale, could you?" I said.

"Sure thing, any preference whereabouts?" the Kougra replied.

"South side, please – we're near the Faerieland Road." He nodded his affirmation, then kicked the engine into gear. I went to put the bag inside with Callum and give the petpet a stroke, then moved up towards the bow to sit with Bannok.

Strange – the Kougra had also thought there were three of us. It made no sense; we were four in total. Maybe he hadn't seen Callum? But then why would the JubJub at the harbour charge us for three tickets, since petpets travelled free? Could it be that the little red petpet sat on my shoulder was not a petpet – was, in fact, a pet?

It was getting dark by the time we arrived home, and Bannok was nearly dead on his feet. I half thought he might lie down on the front door step and go to sleep in the time it took me to unlock the door.

"Come on, sleepy head," I said fondly. "Let's get some tea in you, then I think it's off to bed."

"But Muuum," Bannok protested. He managed to avoid the classic 'I'm not sleepy,' lie interrupted midway by a yawn, but just barely. I dumped the beach bag by the door and headed straight to the fridge; it wasn't the time for cooking, but I had some alphabet soup in there that would do nicely. I'd eat my own dinner a bit later on.

"No buts," I said firmly, pouring the soup into a pan on the hob. An inquisitive mreep from my shoulder reminded me that I had an extra mouth to feed tonight. "I'm out of soup," I told my passenger, not sure whether my words were understood or not, "but there's plenty of omelette in the deposit box if you'd like?" It snuffled hopefully, leaning down to sniff the heating soup. I laughed, and went to get another plate and some omelette. "I hope you like eggs," I told it. "Bannok hates them, so there's always plenty going spare.

There was something very comforting about having a warm weight on my shoulder as I busied myself putting tea together; kettle on for a cuppa, buttering some bread for Bannok to dip into his soup, giving the omelette a quick once over in the frying pan to perk it up, scattering some bomberries into Callum's bowl of petpet food. I had to prod Bannok a few times before he noticed that his bowl was in front of him, but the little red thing (who really needed a name – or at least a gender – if it was going to stay) needed no prompting, practically leaping down onto the table to devour its omelette.

"Hungry, were we?" I asked it. Its head was too far buried in its dish to answer, but I could just hear it purring. I smiled into my cup of tea, noting that I'd need to add a high chair of some sort to my shopping list – it couldn't keep eating on the table like that...

"Whoa, slow down," I told myself, shaking my head. I still didn't know if we were keeping it – and besides, if it was a petpet then it was only fair that it ate on the floor with Callum. If I found a way around that Petpet Protection League rule, that was, though I knew it was there for a good reason. Still, I wasn't convinced that it was a petpet – but on the other hand, who ever heard of just finding a pet abandoned on a beach? And such a young pet as well!

The curiosity was too much – I had to know. I looked over my shoulder at the neighbour's house, and nodded in satisfaction when I saw that their lights were on. Two pets lived there, and though their owner was rarely around they were friendly and usually happy to babysit Bannok for an evening.

"I'm just going next door," I told Bannok. "Keep an eye on everyone for me?" He nodded into his soup without looking up. I ruffled his hair as I passed him on the way to the door, but he was too tired to do more than shake me off with an annoyed squeak. The other two were both too engrossed in their food to acknowledge me leaving.

It was getting a bit chilly outside, and I hesitated for a second before deciding against taking a jacket. I was just heading next door, after all. But after a few minutes wait on their doorstep I began to regret my decision.

"Come on," I muttered, ringing the doorbell again. "I know you're in..." Sure enough, there was a clattering of feet on the stairs and then the door swung open.

"Hello!" Paddy, the spotted Zafara who was the younger of the two living there greeted me. "Sorry, had my music on. What's up?"

"Hey, Paddy," I said. "How're things going?"

He grimaced. "Not too bad. I've got a six thousand word paper due in next Thursday which... well, I'll get it done."

"Paddy," I admonished. "Have you at least got a plan for it?"

"Yeah no, it's fine. I've got like half the introduction written, and six thousand is more like an upper limit than a target, so it'll all be good." He nodded along to his words as if by being positive he would make them true. I shook my head disapprovingly, but I was grinning as I did so.

"And you'll do it the night before but get an amazing grade and make the rest of your class jealous, as usual," I predicted. He grinned roguishly back at me.

"Anyway, what did you come round for?" he asked.

"I was wondering if you'd be able to look after Bannok for a couple of hours, but if you're busy with your paper then I can ask Rob?" I said, referring to the faerie Xweetok that Paddy lived with.

Paddy hesitated. "Rob's like completely shut himself in his room working on stuff," he said. "I'm not even sure he comes down to eat or anything, so he's probably a no."

"Oh, that's a shame," I said, frowning and trying to think of anyone else in the neighbourhood who I knew well enough to leave with Bannok.

"And, like, I should be working too but I kinda need a break..." Paddy continued.

"You'd babysit Bannok?" I asked hopefully.

"Well..."

"There's an Altadorian sun cheese in the fridge, and a bag of chips in the freezer," I wheedled.

"Ack, no one can ever turn down cheesy chips," Paddy relented, and I cheered inwardly. "When do you want me to come over?"

"Thanks Paddy!" I said happily. "He's just finishing up dinner at the moment, so maybe ten minutes or so? Oh, also – I'm headed to the Library, do you want me to pick up any books for your paper?"

"Nah, but thanks for the offer," he declined. "I've got like loads out but I'm still reading through them at the moment." He stepped back into the house and lifted a hand to close the door. "Be round in a bit then for babysitting."

"See you then!" I said cheerfully. I practically skipped the few steps back to my house I was so excited to find out what species of pet or petpet the little red creature was. "Shoot!" I said, coming to a halt. "I forgot to tell Paddy that it wasn't just Bannok to babysit." I deliberated momentarily about going back to let him know, then shrugged – it wouldn't make much of a difference.

As I approached the front door I heard yelling and a high pitched squealing coming from inside. My heart leapt to my throat – I'd left them alone for less than five minutes, surely nothing could have happened? I fumbled with the key in the lock in my hurry to open the door, and nearly slammed it off its hinges in my panic.

"Bannok!" I called. "What's happen – ack!" The little red creature practically flew at me, latching itself onto my shirt in a single leap and chattering angrily at me. "Hey, calm down," I tried to say soothingly, but it only squawked loudly and scampered up to my shoulder to hide its head under my hair.

"Mummy!" Bannok said in relief when he saw me. "I didn't do it, I swear!"

"I – what – " I paused, trying to collect myself and slow my heartbeat. "Didn't do what, love?" I asked in as calm a voice as possible. "And why are you holding the broom?"

Bannok blushed, and immediately dropped his broom. "It was the petpet!" he explained hurriedly as I closed the front door behind me. "She noticed you were gone, and, and, she was crying – and then she went mental! And, and she was jumping everywhere and I tried to stop her but she threw the plate at me!"

"She threw the plate at you?" I asked incredulously. Bannok toed the floor guiltily.

"Well, not quite – but she made me knock it off, it's not my fault. I promise!"

"Look," I said, crouching to be eye level with Bannok. "I'm not angry about the plate, and I know it's not your fault. I just want to make sure you're alright, and no one got hurt, okay?"

Bannok nodded soberly. Over his shoulder I could see the pieces of broken plate gathered into a somewhat haphazard pile, and Callum sat in his basket with his head under the pillow trying determinedly to ignore the world. That at least was fairly normal.

"Right then, let's clear up. Did you manage to finish your tea?" I asked Bannok. He nodded. "That's good then. Run upstairs and get ready for bed; Paddy's coming over in a bit, so I'm going to put on some food for him."

"Paddy's coming?" Bannok said, perking up considerably. "Do I have to go bed, Mummy? Can't I stay up with him for a bit?"

"We'll see," I said. "It depends how good you are – he's got a lot of work to do, so you'd best be quiet if you are going to stay up."

"I'll be good!" Bannok promised, heading up the stairs to do his teeth. I smiled fondly after him, and set to cleaning up the kitchen.

"Oh, and you," I said to the ball of red fur on my shoulder, "You're going to be coming with me if you make this much of a fuss by yourself." It meeped sleepily and yawned at me, curling up almost completely hidden under my hair with its tail slung across the back of my neck. Somehow I don't think it minded that much.

It wasn't long before Paddy came over, and he and Bannok were both settled in the living room. Paddy's cheesy chips were cooking in the oven and as a special treat Bannok had a mug of hot chocolate – topped with mini marshmallows, of course. Even still, the little Kyrii was fighting yawns, and I doubted he'd be awake for long. I was feeling a bit tired myself, but the cool evening breeze woke me up on the walk to the bus stop. On my shoulder, the little red creature shivered a bit in the cold, wrapping my hair around itself like a blanket. I stood the collar of my shirt up as much as I could to give it some warmth, but luckily we didn't have to wait too long before the bus came.

"The castle, please," I said, handing over a few coins to the driver. He took them with a nod, then flicked his reins at the whinnies, and with a clatter of hooves the carriage was off again. There weren't many people around at this time of night, so luckily it was a fairly short trip up to the castle.

"Last calls at eleven, pet," the driver reminded me as I disembarked. "Or quarter past from by the armoury, you know the stop?" I nodded my thanks, and made my way down the stone paved path to the library, passing a few hopeful souls waiting in line for the throne room to impress King Hagan with their wisdom.

The Brightvale Library was grand, with high, vaulted ceilings and a royal purple and gold carpet down the main hall. Curving back either side of the entrance were stair cases made of a dark coloured wood and covered with gold carpet and golden gilt on the bannisters; rumour had it that all wood in Brightvale Castle was finest quality sapient pearwood, a species of tree closely related to the Brain Tree. The stair cases lead to a stone balcony with marble rails around, dotted with statues of Neopia's great thinkers and lined with tapestries of the Brightvale Standard. At the far end of the hall was a large circular window filled with every colour of stained glass – the pride of the Brightvale Glazers.

The library itself was in a room off the main hall, through a double pair of doors with a golden crest emblazoned on the front. It was a peaceful, tranquil place with sounds being muffled by the thick green and gold carpet and the various leafy plants dotted around the room. The ornately carved book shelves were interspersed with low tables lit by glittering crystal chandeliers; towards the edges of the room were desks with built in ink wells and long weewoo-feather quills laid neatly next to them.

And to think – this was my local library! There were times I found living in Neopia harder than I expected, but there were things that more than made up for it – and the library was among the best of them. I could quite happily live here if given half the chance, spend my life curled up in an alcove beneath a stained glass window with an endless supply of books.

"Mreep?" the little red creature on my shoulder asked questioningly. I shook myself out of my reverie.

"Sorry," I murmured quietly to it, raising a hand to stroke its head. "I tend to get a bit distracted in here." It purred softly in response."

I wandered around the library deliberately trying to look as lost as possible. It was the only successful way I had found of finding Lore, the orange scorchio who was the librarian here; the library was so large that he could be anywhere among the miles of shelves. And yet somehow, he always managed to appear wherever he was needed.

"Welcome to the grand library of Brightvale!" Lore said, right on cue. "How may I be of assistance?"

"I'm looking for a reference book," I said, "I'm trying to identify someone who may be a pet, but I'm not quite sure – could be a petpet."

"Oh – Book of Ages?" Lore asked, leading me further into the library. "It's got an entry for every notable Neopian from all the lands of Neopia, far more complete than that Neopedia they have in Neopia Central."

"Not quite, I think. Do you have one that identifies pet and petpet species?"

"Well," Lore said, frowning a bit. "One would usually go to the rainbow pool for such a thing, no?"

"Yes, it's a possibility," I said, choosing my words carefully. In truth, Neopia Central was too far to go at this time of night and I was too impatient to wait until tomorrow – but that wouldn't go down well with the prickly scorchio. "But I wanted to be absolutely certain, and everyone knows that Brightvale's library is better than anywhere else."

Lore almost visibly swelled with pride. "Well, yes, of course it is. Come on then, this way." He gestured down one of the aisles. "Brightvale has the originals, of course; the oldest books that they copied the rainbow pool records from, you know. Ah, and here they are." He pulled two old tomes down from the shelves and carried them over to one of the low tables for me.

"Now, you know the rules?" he said before he put them down. "No detailed reading cover to cover without first requesting anti-vanish protection, keep it out of the sunlight, and absolutely no removing it from the library, hm?"

"Absolutely," I said, nodding. The librarian was quite draconically protective of his books; they were layered ten feet deep in ancient magic to stop them disappearing once read, but he took no chances.

"Excellent then. Let me know if there's anything else I can help you with," Lore said cheerfully, and vanished somewhere into the ether of the library.

"Right then, my furry friend," I mumbled, settling myself down in a kneeling position on the plush cushions that surrounded the table. "Let's find out what you are, eh?" The little red thing ignored me, but I hadn't really been expecting a result.

I started with the petpet book, as it was on top. There was one petpet in there that looked plausible, the lutra; unfortunately it was naturally blue, and only able to be painted pink or white. To be on the safe side, I checked the maraquan painted versions of every petpet, but no luck – and by this time the sun had dipped below the horizon and I was reading by a flickering gas lamp that Lore had brought round.

I reached for the book on pets with a sinking heart. I might not be an expert, but I'd lived in Neopia long enough to recognise most of the species, and none of them matched – and the size as well! Pets varied in size, it was true, but they were rarely small enough to fit in your pocket unless they were only a few days old. And – well, that couldn't be the case; it was illegal to abandon a pet that young.

I flipped listlessly through the pages, only skimming the illustrations and not bothering to read the texts. None of them looked right. I reached the last page and almost closed the book on auto pilot before I noticed.

Lutari, the page said. "Lutaris are alert, friendly creatures that enjoy playing games outside," I read out loud to myself. "They are excellent swimmers and spend much of their time in the water... Yes, this could be it!" I said excitedly, then immediately covered my mouth as though I could take the words back. I waited for a minute for Lore to turn up and kick me out for being loud, but it seemed that luck was on my side.

I glanced down to check the colours available, and my heart skipped a beat when I saw not only red – of course; it was a standard colour – but baby, and the picture of the baby Lutari could have been a photograph of the little pet asleep on my shoulder it was such a close match. I read the rest of the page with gleeful excitement, grinning as each new fact lined up. Lutaris were very attached to their owners, had an immense fear of being abandoned – no wonder the poor thing had panicked when I'd gone next door earlier today! – and, best of all, Lutaris were only ever born on Lutari day – the 19th day of the month of Eating. Today was the 20th; it fit perfectly.

"So that's it, then" I said happily to the newly identified Lutari on my shoulder. "You're a baby Lutari, which means that there's no petpet protection league to say that you can't stay with us." It lifted its head sleepily and yawned at me. I took the hint and collected the books to put back on the shelf; time for both of us to head home. Tomorrow I'd go into Neopia Central to complete the registration process, but we were done for tonight; time to go back and relieve Paddy of his babysitting duties.

The next day dawned bright and sunny, and I found myself humming as I flipped the faerie pancakes. Bannok was still dead to the word; he'd stayed up past his bed time with Paddy last night as always happened when the Zafara babysat, and I was letting him have a bit of a lie in today. I'd let the baby Lutari sleep in my room last night, in one of Callum's old petpet beds. He hadn't stayed there of course, and was currently curled up into a tight ball on my pillow – or so I thought.

"Oi!" I said as I turned around and caught the Lutari red handed in the act of stealing a pancake. It froze for a second, looking at my with big puppy eyes – then, almost faster than I could see, shoved the entire pancake in its mouth in one bite and scampered under the table to eat it. "Little monkey!" I said, moving the rest of the pancakes back onto the counter where I could keep an eye on them.

Luckily I was spared the danger of leaving the hungry pet alone with the pancakes to go and wake Bannok up as he shambled in a few minutes later in his pyjamas. Callum was not far behind him, looking far better groomed and ready for the day.

"Morning, love," I said cheerily, putting a plate of pancakes down on the table with a pot of blackened honey. "Sleep well?"

"Yeah – I had the best dream, Mum!" he said excitedly. "Do you want to hear it?"

"Tell me then," I said, absently swatting the Lutari away from Callum's bowl of bran and fruit mix.

"Well," Bannok said around a sticky mouthful, "in my dream I was in the Defenders of Neopia, and I was like Judge Hog but I could fly like Lightning Lenny and I was amazing, and I saved Jhudora's life from falling off a cliff and everyone cheered!"

"You saved Jhudora's life?" I asked, sounding suitably impressed. "I bet she was pleased!" Bannok nodded furiously. "Yes, alright – here you are," I said to the hungry Lutari who seemed on the verge of exploding if he didn't get his breakfast soon. He fell on the plate of pancakes before I could even drizzle honey on them, practically engulfing his food.

"Uh huh," Bannok said. "She said I was the bestest neopet ever for saving her from mean old Illusen!"

"She's not that old, Bannok," I reprimanded gently. "And she was lovely to you when we went to see her last month, remember?"

"Yeah, but she's mean to Jhudora, so I don't like her," Bannok said with finality. I smiled into my tea, and used my fork to bat the young Lutari away from my pancakes.

I'm not quite sure how we managed to leave the house in one piece; once Bannok learned that we were going to formally adopt the little red newcomer into our family he was beside himself with excitement, and could barely stand still long enough to get dressed. Brushing his mane of white hair was optimistic at best; I finally admitted defeat and just pulled a hat down over it until Bannok calmed down a bit. His excitement was contagious it seemed – the Lutari was haring about like a thing possessed, trying to be helpful by dragging every item of clothing Bannok owned out onto his floor and almost eating the tube of toothpaste before I caught him.

Finally though we left, Bannok bouncing along beside me with the Lutari in its now customary spot on my shoulder. We left Callum behind for the day, and he seemed glad of the peace and quiet.

"Can I name her, Mummy, please?" Bannok asked, tugging on my hand. "Please please please?"

"We don't know that she's a she yet," I reminded him.

"But if she is, can I name her? And if she's a he, can I still name her then?" Bannok pressed, refusing to be swayed. I was distracted for a minute counting out the fare to the carriage driver, and Bannok seemed to take that as assent.

"Tilly," he said as we wove our way towards some seats at the back.

"Mossy," as the carriage clattered towards Neopia Central.

"Oooh, can we call her Lightning Lenny?" as we stopped in Kiko Lake.

"Or, or, Bannok-ina!" as we passed through the gates into the market place. I had given up even mm-hmming at this point, and was slightly more concerned with making sure the young Lutari in question didn't fall from its precarious perch. It was fascinated by the world going past the open window of the carriage, and was standing with his hind legs on my arm and his front paws on the edge of the window, head darting backwards and forwards as it tried to take everything in.

"Jhudora!" was Bannok's latest suggestion as we headed towards the Pound – I wanted to make sure that we wouldn't be taking the baby Lutari away from another owner before I formally adopted it.

"Wouldn't that be confusing for Jhudora, if your sister was called the same thing as her?" I asked Bannok. He frowned, thinking about it.

"Maybe," he said finally, drawing the syllables out. "But Jhudora's really clever, so I don't think so."

"What about Samantha?" I suggested. Bannok made a face immediately.

"That's a girly name!" he protested. "She's going to be a cool sister, not a pink and girly one!"

"Well, maybe she will be pink and girly," I said, holding the door open for Bannok as we entered the Pound. "But still, I quite like Samantha. Or Sam."

"Sam's a boy's name, Mum," Bannok said. "And Samantha's girly and she won't be girly so she can't be called that!"

I laughed. "I'm sure she – or he – will grow up to be whatever she wants to be," I said, reaching up a hand to the little Lutari on my shoulder. "And I don't know, Sam could work for a boy or a girl, hmm?" The Lutari purred its approval as it stroked its head against my finger. I grinned – Sam it was.

"Oh, that's just typical!" an angry voice said to my left. I looked over my shoulder, not expecting the person to be talking to me, and was surprised to be hit by a fully fledged glare from the girl who had spoken.

"I'm sorry?" I said in confusion, wondering if I'd bumped into her by accident.

"You!" she said, pointing dramatically. "You're just like all of them, wanting a limited edition pet on the day it comes out then trying to get rid of it before it's even a few days old!"

"Oh, that's not – " I said, trying to explain her misconception.

"And what's worse is you can't even pound Lutaris!" she continued. "So you're stuck with a pet you don't want and how is that at all fair to it, huh?"

"I, uh," I said, trying to keep up with the situation. "What do you mean you can't pound Lutaris?" I settled for asking.

The girl rolled her eyes. "Lutaris run away if you try and pound them, everyone knows," she explained. "They only ever have one owner, and that owner's for life!"

"Oh," I said, thinking furiously. If Lutaris could only ever have one owner, then either I was Sam's first owner or she – or he – had run away from her previous owner within the first day... Either way, I was fairly certain that I didn't need to check if Sam had a previous owner any more.

"Thank you, you've been very helpful," I told the girl, taking Bannok's hand and turning to leave the Pound. She stared after me for a bit, then humphed and went back to her family.

"Where are we going now?" Bannok asked. "Don't we have to adopt her from the Pound like you said?"

"Turns out I was wrong – we need to go to the Create a Pet office, I think," I explained.

"Hello, dear!" the Wocky at the desk greeted us as we entered the building. "Oh – don't tell me, it's... Bannok, isn't it?"

"Yes," I said, taken aback. "How did you know?"

"Oh, I was here when he was born, dear!" she said. "Don't you remember old Eileen?"

"Eileen!" I said, thinking back to that day. "Of course, how could I forget?"

"Don't you worry yourself – everyone does," she said with a dismissive wave. "So are you here to add another pet to your family then?"

"Not quite – I was hoping to officially adopt Sam here," I said, lifting the baby Lutari down from my shoulder. "And, I wondered if you could tell me if she's a boy or a girl?" I asked. Sam squirmed in my hands, claws out and scratching as it tried to get back up to my shoulder.

"Well then, let's have a looksee, shall we?" Eileen said, reaching for Sam. She scooped it up, and immediately it was calm in her hands. I looked on jealously as she turned it over onto its back, stroking its tummy softly.

Bannok tugged on my sleeve. "Was I really born here, Mummy?" he asked, looking around at the sterile white walls.

"Yes, you were," I said, ruffling his hair under his hat. "I'll tell you about it some other time."

"Well, dear," Eileen said, depositing Sam back in my hands. "Your little Lutari is a healthy baby boy, that's for sure!" Sam shook himself, then scampered back up my arm to my shoulder. He settled himself with his head tucked very firmly under my hair and humphed.

"What? No!" Bannok said, standing on tip toe to peer over the edge of the desk. "She's my sister, she can't be a boy!"

"I'm sorry dear," Eileen said with a motherly smile, "but it turns out your sister is your brother! Isn't that fun?"

"I suppose," Bannok said doubtfully. "But I wanted her to be my sister!"

"It's not that bad Bannok," I said soothingly. "Sam's going to be a really cool brother for you!"

"Ah yes," Eileen said. "Unfortunately the name 'Sam' is not available; I could add some numbers on the end of that for you if you'd like?"

"Not numbers, I think," glancing at Sam on my shoulder. He humphed again, still clearly put out about being handed over to Eileen. "How about... Sammy?" Eileen shook her head. "Samuel?" No, not that either. "Samwise? Samian? Samitan?"

"Samitan I can do!" Eileen said. "Would you like me to put that down?

"Yeah, I think so," I said, looking at Bannok and Sam's tail for approval. Bannok smiled excitedly and... Well, Sam didn't seem inclined to agree or disagree, but at least he wasn't overtly disapproving. "Samitan it is then. And, can you put his date of birth as yesterday? That's when we found him."

"It's a bit unorthodox, dear," Eileen said doubtfully. "All Lutaris are born on Lutari day, you see."

"Bannok, puppy eyes," I said out the corner of my mouth, bending down to lift him onto the counter.

"Please?" Bannok said, pulling out all the stops. I'm pretty sure his eyes would have engulfed his face if they got any larger.

"Well, all right then," Eileen said with a smile at Bannok and inked it into the forms. She stamped her official seal on with a flourish, and it was done.

"There you go," she said, handing me the forms. "Congratulations to you and Samitan!"

"Thank you very much!" I said, smiling, tucking them safely into my bag.

"Not at all, dear," Eileen said, waving us good bye as we left the building. I couldn't stop grinning as I reached down for Bannok's hand.

"Come on then, family – let's go shopping, eh?"

"Aww, Mum!" Bannok groaned in response, and I couldn't help but laugh.



You are currently reading Where We Are

Next entry:
Bedtime Stories
I reminded myself of this at one o'clock in the morning. I love my pets. I do.
In which Bannok and Samitan have a fight in the middle of the night, of course they do.
Bedtime Stories


There are many things I love about my life in Neopia. I love the adventure, the huge variety of lands. I love the food - it makes everything back home seem uninspired, you know? I love that there's magic everywhere, that there are faeries and magic potions and the odd book of spells lurking behind the door. Most of all though, I love my pets, the two bundles of fluff that keep life interesting and give me reason to smile each day.

I reminded myself of this at one o'clock in the morning. I love my pets. I do.

"Muuuuum!" Bannok wailed, jolting me awake. I scrabbled frantically at the bed to stop myself falling out and blinked at the darkness. The sound of hiccoughing sobs came from down the corridor, and my heart fell. "Mum!"

"I'm coming!" I yelled back. I grabbed a dressing gown from the back of the door on my way out and tried to put it on without getting my arms too badly tangled in the sleeves. It took me three tries. I don't function well when I first wake up, not without at least two coffees to start the day.

The sobs were getting louder, and there were two of them crying now - Samitan must be awake as well. Sure enough, when I stumbled into their bedroom they were both there, sitting on top of their quilts and glaring daggers at each other.

"Sammy kicked me!" Bannok accused as soon as he saw me. He pointed one hand dramatically at his younger brother, the other cradling his stomach. I scanned him worriedly, but he didn't seem hurt - probably just startled.

"I didn't mean to," Samitan hiccoughed miserably and hugged his stuffed gathow closer to him.

"You kicked me!" Bannok repeated, and Samitan started wailing again. I fought the urge to put my head in my hands and go back to bed. You love your pets, I told myself. You can deal with this.

"Boys!" I said sharply. They fell silent, two pairs of shiny, tear filled eyes fixed on me. "Thank you. Now, Bannok - tell me what happened."

"I was asleep," he said, "and then Sammy kicked me and I woke up." He gave an exaggerated sniff and made his eyes as big as they would go. "He kicked me really hard, Mummy."

"It wasn't!" Samitan protested. "You're just being a baby."

"Sam," I said, as soothingly as I could. "Did you kick your brother?" He shuffled. Ducked his head and tried to avoid my gaze. "Sam?"

"Yes," he mumbled finally. "But, but I didn't mean to."

"Ok. What do you say when you hurt someone by accident?"

He was all but hiding beneath his gathow now, but the words were clear enough. "'m sorry."

"Ok." I let out a puff of air, relieved that the crying had stopped and they seemed to be calming down. "Ok. Sam, what were you doing in Bannok's bed?" There were words in his answer, I'm sure, but I couldn't make them out. "Come again?" I said, ignoring my urge to yawn.

He snuffled a bit, but repeated himself louder. "Was a nightmare."

"Oh," Bannok breathed out. He shook himself and slipped out of bed, hurrying across the room on padded feet to curl around his younger brother. "Why didn't you say so, doofus?"

"I did," was the emphatic answer. "But you ignored me. You snored at me!"

I sat on the edge of Samitan's bed, resting a hand on his head. "I think that Bannok may have been asleep, darling," I said. I wanted to ask him about his nightmare - he'd gone through a spate of them about a year ago, but I thought he'd mostly stopped having them. I knew better though; he wouldn't talk about it with Bannok there. Besides, now that they were settling again, I wanted to get them back to sleep and try to minimise any tiredness in the morning. "Do you want a bed time story?" I asked.

Two heads popped up, wide grins spreading across their faces. "Story!" they chorused, scooting up to make space for me against the headboard. I settled in with an armful of fluffy blue kyrii curled up against my side and a purring baby lutari curled up on my lap - with his gathow, of course, firmly tucked under one paw.

"Ok then fellas," I grinned. "What story are we going for tonight?"

"Pirates," Samitan insisted. Bannok made a face.

"You always ask for pirates," he complained. "Can we have a story about Jhudora? Or! Can we have a Haunted Woods story, Mummy?"

Samitan twitched in my lap. Ah. I'd taken the boys to the Haunted Woods at the weekend - Bannok was utterly enamoured of everything spooky at the moment, and even Samitan had been excited. He'd seemed quiet after, and I know he hadn't liked the puppet show at the gypsy camp, but at the time I honestly thought he'd been fine. Guilt stabbed through me - how could I have missed that he was shaken up enough for nightmares?

"Bannok, poppet," I said carefully. "How about we let Sammy choose this one, hey?"

The kyrii glanced down at his brother with a thoughtful look. "Ok," he said finally. "But not pirates."

"Something on a boat then," Samitan said. Bannok nodded, and they both settled in comfortably. I wracked my brain - Samitan always asked for something to do with the sea, it was getting hard to think of new stories. Oh! I remembered an old story my mother had told me, something about a fisherman and his cat. I couldn't remember it completely, but I had enough of the story to make up the rest.

"Right then, you two. This is the story of the old fisherpet and his gathow. You ready?"

"Was he a lutari?" Samitan jumped in. "A pirate lutari? With a gathow like me?" He waved his stuffed toy excitedly, almost whacking me on the chin with it.

"He was a lutari," I agreed, gently pushing the plushie away. "But he wasn't a pirate lutari. He was a red lutari, with red fur and red ears and little yellow spots on his paws."

"A red lutari," Samitan murmed in awe, turning his paws over to study his own spots.

"Was he also called Sam, by any chance?" Bannok asked dryly. I stifled a smile - he could pretend all he liked, but I remembered when he was younger and he'd loved stories about kyriis just as much as Sam loved stories about lutaris.

"No, he was called Ben. Old Ben the lutari, with his gathow called... Sarah. Ben and Sarah lived in a small fishing village near Shenkuu -"

"They should live near Krawk Island," Samitan interrupted. "Krawk Island is the best place for lutaris."

"Am I telling this story or are you?" I asked with mock archness, raising an eyebrow at him. He settled down with a pout and Bannok giggled. "Hush," I told him before Samitan could bristle. "Ben and Sarah lived near Shenkuu, because Shenkuu makes the best sushi and gathows love sushi."

"Blue doesn't." Samitan gripped his plushie tighter. "Blue likes waffles. And hot chocolate. Can Blue have some waffles?"

"Maybe later," I said. "Now shush, you, and listen to the story.

"Now, Shenkuu is very far north - it's just across the sea from Terror Mountain, which, as I'm sure you know, is right on top of the world and is as far north as you can get. Sometimes, that far north, the great snowickles in the sea get into arguments with each other and cause terrible storms. They have such bad manners, the snowickles! Once they start arguing, they can go on for days and never stop."

"Doesn't their mummy get cross with them?" Bannok asked curiously.

"Snowickles are petpets," I explained. "They don't have mummies like you and Sammy, they have pets to look after them - like you look after Callum. But the wild petpets don't have anyone to look after them, so no one teaches them not to argue, you see?"

"Oh." Bannok frowned, trying to turn that over in his mind. I hid a wince; I recognised that particular thoughtful frown. I'd have to schedule a library trip tomorrow - Bannok had his researching face on. He opened his mouth and I braced myself for a barrage of questions about wild petpets, but luckily all he asked was, "Can I get Callum? I bets he'd like the story too."

I wasn't sure of that myself. Bannok's vacana was curled up on his petpet bed in the kitchen, I suspected, and probably happy to stay there. "If he's awake," I allowed. "But if he's asleep you have to leave him there, alright?"

Bannok was out of bed in a flash, paws tapping against the carpet as he ran for the stairs.

"How come Callum has to stay downstairs?" Samitan asked. "Blue stays with me."

I blinked, caught out by the question. How do you explain to a small child that the stuffed toy he thinks is his petpet is actually just a stuffed toy? Not at half past one in the morning, was the answer. Maybe never. Sam loved his gathow to pieces; he'd got into enough trouble at school about other pets saying she wasn't real. "Blue sleeps better when she's with you," I said eventually. "She didn't want to sleep downstairs with Callum."

Samitan mulled that over, then nodded decisively. "Callum snores," he agreed. Bannok took that moment to tumble back into the room, one rather grumpy vacana bundled in his arms.

"I brought Callum! You didn't start again without me, did you?" He tipped the petpet onto the bed and settled himself back under the quilt. Callum, bless him, just shook himself and curled up on Bannok's feet with long suffering sigh.

"Not yet," I promised. "Everyone ready?" They nodded - Callum closed his eyes and went back to sleep - and I picked up the story again.

"One day there was an enormous storm. The great storm snowickles caused trouble all along the coast, for all the fishing villages around Shenkuu. None of the fishermen could leave to go fishing because if they tried, the snowickles threw their boats in the air and tipped them out into the sea. The village ran out of sushi and fish pie, it even ran out of fish cake - soon it all had left were fish pops, and not many of those at all!"

Samitan gasped, horrified by the prospect of running out of food, and gripped Blue tighter. I nodded at him. "It was a desperate situation! But Ben was a lutari, you see. Even if the great storm snowickles threw him in the sea, he'd be able to swim back to shore. So Ben set a candle in his window so that he could see his way home and went down to his boat. He was going to catch enough fish to feed the whole town."

"But what about Sarah?" Bannok asked. "She can't swim."

Samitan stuck his tongue out. "She can too. Gathows love swimming."

"Some gathows like swimming." I grimaced, thinking of the many times I'd had to put Blue through the washing machine after she'd 'gone swimming'. "But Bannok's right, Sarah doesn't like it all. So when Sarah came with him, Ben tried to send her back into the warm house. But Sarah wasn't going to leave her pet to go alone, so she sat in the front of the boat and refused to move. Ben gave her his hat to stay dry under, and promised he'd try as hard as possible to avoid the snowickle so she wouldn't get thrown in the sea.

"So Ben sailed out as carefully as he could, sneaking behind the snowickle's backs and throwing his nets in the sea when it wasn't looking. But disaster! The snowickle saw them!" Both of them squeaked at that, staring in wide eyed horror. "It came roaring over to them, determined to throw their boat in the air and dump them out in the water. Ben rushed over to hold onto Sarah so he could keep her above the water, but she had a different plan. You see, if Ben was trying to keep her dry, they'd loose all the fish - and there'd be no more sushi and no more fish pie. Only fish pops!" Bannok moaned, clutching his stomach in sympathy.

"Sarah looked straight at the snowickle, and when it came close, she bopped it on the nose." I demonstrated, first on Bannok then on Samitan, tapping my finger against each of their noses. Samitan huffed out a chittering laugh. "The poor snowickle had never been bopped on those nose before. It didn't know what to do! So it stood there, staring at Sarah and her Ben. And Ben crossed his arms and said, as sternly as he could, 'It's past your bed time, little snowickle.'"

"Do the voice, Mummy," Bannok demanded. "You have to do the voice."

"And sing!" Samitan chimed in. "If it's the snowickle's bed time, then Ben should sing him a lullaby."

"In the voice. Sing in Ben's voice."

"Yeah!"

"No," I protested, squashing the urge to laugh. "Ben can't sing -" or rather, I couldn't sing in Ben's voice - "but Sarah can."

"You still have to do the voice," Bannok grumped, and I ruffled his fluffy mane.

"Bossy," I told him playfully. "But ok." I cleared my throat and tucked my chin in, then growled in as deep a voice as I could manage, "'It's past your bed time, little snowickle.'" Bannok grinned, and Samitan wriggled in glee. "'It's time to go to sleep.' But the snowickle didn't want to go to sleep, and got ready to jump on the boat and splash everywhere. So, Sarah went up to the front of the boat, and she started to sing."

I paused to resettle both pets more comfortably, then began one of my - and their - favourite lullabies. "Hush a-bye, don't you cry, go to sleep my little baby..."

It didn't take long before Bannok was yawning and even the ever-excitable Samitan was struggling to keep his eyes open. By the time I'd finished the song he was snuffling gently into the quilt, fast asleep.

"And so the great snowickle fell asleep," I whispered with a soft smile, stroking one hand over his short fur. "And Ben and Sarah sailed back into town with all the fish they could eat." I lifted the quilt and slid out from underneath it, moving slowly to avoid waking him. He rolled over as I tucked him in, and I pressed a soft kiss to his forehead.

"Come on then, sleepyhead," I said quietly to Bannok, lifting him into my arms to take him to his own bed. "It's past your bed time."

"'m not a sno'ickle," he grumbled.

I laughed quietly. "Night night, love." I smoothed his mane down behind his ears and retrieved his pillow from where it had fallen on the floor. "Sweet dreams."

"Night, Mum."

I paused at the door way, one hand on the light switch, and looked back at the vacana sitting patiently on Samitan's bed. "You coming?" I asked him, but the petpet snorted and settled back down. I grinned. "Keeping the nightmares away from them, hey?" Callum flicked an ear at me and closed his eyes. I shook my head with a fond smile and turned the lights off, pulling the door to behind me as I left.

There are many things I love about my life in Neopia, but there are none I love so much as my mad little family. Even at half past one in the morning.



You are currently reading Where We Are

Next entry:
Welcome to Neopia
But I don't want a pet!
Hi! So, you've just moved somewhere completely new, no money, no house? Here's a baby.
James Underscore Twelve
... And the no good, very bad, horrible day


James Underscore Twelve was having a bad day. No, scratch that. James Underscore Twelve was having a monumentally horrendous day, the sort of day that probably deserved capitalising to emphasise how completely and utterly wrong it had gone.

He was wet. His feathers were sticking every which way and in dire need of a preen. His tail was covered in mud. He was sat on a small mound of earth in the middle of a rather large lake surrounded by a dark and treacherous forest that had no right being in Brightvale, and he was seventeen different kinds of lost.

To make it worse, he was hungry – he'd spent lunchtime holed up in the library of Brightvale Neoschool, both too caught up in his books and too fed up with his classmates to go to the dining hall for food. They'd taken up the annoying habit recently of proclaiming him everything from a bookworm to a coward and teasing him mercilessly about the heavy rimmed glasses he'd started wearing, and, well, James wasn't quite as thick-skinned as he'd like to be.

"I want to go home," he insisted to a passing lady blurg. It waved its feelers in something that may have been sympathy (but probably wasn't) and scurried under a leaf. "That's all very well, but I don't live among dead foliage," he told it crossly. "I live in a house. A nice house. It's got a fire and three bookcases and everything a pteri could want, and my dad makes a mean hot chocolate. With marshmallows, all the best chocolate has marshmallows with it."

He trailed off, eyes glazing over as he stared into the shadowy gloom of the forest. He'd never wanted anything so much as wanted to be at home right at that moment, tucked up in his blanket nest with a good story and a steaming mug of liquid comfort. "What if I never make it home?" he asked morosely, then again, louder and faster as the idea took firm hold –What if I never make it home?"

With the minimum of flailing, he scrambled to the edge of the tiny island and scanned the forest. What for he didn't know – the whole reason that he was in the middle of the lake in the first place was because the forest was too dark and close to see anything at all (that and just a little bit, maybe the most miniscule amount, really not worth mentioning – it was terrifying. He didn't think he was the coward that the larger pets at school had labelled him, but seriously, dark unknown forest with scary trees and scary shadows and scary everything else? Terrifying.)

"I've got to get out," he told no one in particular. "I've got to – my dad, he'll be worried – it's going to be dark soon – I've got to get out!" His words came faster, tumbling over each other in a panicked, frantic mess as he turned in almost a full circle. Still, he saw nothing; no sign, no path, not even a patch of clearer sky to tell him where to go.

The looming clouds over head were drawing closer, hanging low and saturated like so many fat barbats clinging to a cave ceiling after too large a meal. The weak sunlight seemed almost to flicker as it was crowded out of the sky, leaving James cowering fretfully in a murky half-gloom. Somewhere on the muddy pile in the middle of the lake and log shifted, sinking into the stagnant water with a groaning, gurgling sigh; it was the last straw for James. The frightened pteri shrieked, leaping into the air and flapping madly to stay aloft on his sodden wings. He flew madly, no concept of which direction he was going – he could barely see the forest below him, let alone search for any signs of the path he had taken before.

"I want to go home," he chanted breathlessly, the sound of his voice the only comforting sound and the wind howled past him and buffeted him almost out of the air. "Please, I promise I'll be good, I'll never do a dare again, I'll never be late home after school, I won't, I just want to go home, please I want to go home!"

The dull roar of the oncoming rain, a dark rumble of thunder, and the sudden flash of purple tinted lightening as the sky tore into pieces – these were the last things James was aware of before he spun too far left, his mud covered tail and tattered wings leaving him unable to right himself in time to avoid the branch whipping towards him. With a sharp slap that reverberated around his skull and a blow to the chest that drove all the air from his lungs, James crashed into the tree.



James would like to say he came to slowly. Perhaps the world swam into fuzzy awareness, perhaps he blinked once or twice to clear the sleep from his eyes before sitting up and calmly assessing his situation.

Perhaps, if he was lucky, he'd hear his hated alarm beeping from the bedside table and smell the delicate and wondrous fragrance of bacon wafting up to his attic room.

Of course, perhapses were for the world of what if, and James (unfortunately) resided in the world of what is, and a what is was usually a fair sight worse than a what if in James' experience.

In the world of what is, James jerked away like a werelupe that had spotted a chia on the full moon, and immediately bent double with his head cradled protectively in his wings.

"Sloth's spiky green hair, my head," he moaned pitifully. He pressed his flight feathers against his eyes until brightly coloured sparks danced across his vision, scrunching them as tightly shut as he could against the bright purple morning sunlight.

Wait a minute… James ran that last sentence again, turning the words over in his mind. "Something's not right," he muttered, still keeping his eyes covered. "Something's… not…" He gasped, tearing his wings away and staring at the deep magenta scenery around him in horror.

"My glasses!" he wailed, feeling around the hollow of the tree he'd slept in. "Where are – I was wearing them last night – come on, I'm going to be in so much trouble if I go home without them, they've got to be here!" He squinted, trying – and failing – to bring the sprawling mass of tendrils and unnatural leaves into focus. Concern for his missing spectacles had so over taken his mind that their decidedly pinkish hue didn't register as anything out of the ordinary; he pushed aside glowing green flowers and in his frantic search and only noticed the purple sparkles they emitted with a vague annoyance as he waved them aside.

Finally though, he conceded defeat. The flattish part of the tree that he was perched on was small, and he'd searched it top to bottom – nothing. At least, not his glasses; there were tiny heart shaped mushrooms, lazily drifting clouds of neon green smoke, and the ever present fuschia vines, which in any other situation James would have been quite fascinated by.

"I'm going to be eating omelettes for a month," he moaned, and flopped down with his back against the trunk. "They were nice glasses, as well." His dad rarely shelled out on fancy customisation, but just this once he'd broken open the bank account and splashed out on genuine Xandra's Disguise glasses. Nice and big, with the wooden rims that James had thought were so cool. Of course, the coolest glasses in the world probably wouldn't have stopped the teasing at school – even if he'd turned up in the gold tinted shades that Tyrius sometimes wore, the ones that attracted nothing but admiring glances and approving nods.

But then, Tyrius was popular. He was a draik, and a battle pet, and his owner took him the to the NC mall every other weekend for the latest overpriced fashion bauble. And he was daring, that the was the main thing. He talked back to the teachers with a lazy, confident drawl, and he skipped class without a care for the detention that followed.

James wasn't daring. He wasn't popular, either, but he figured that came with the territory of being called James Underscore Twelve and still the same basic blue he'd hatched out of his egg as when his Dad first created and named him. James was… Well, not daring, but he hadn't thought he was a coward. Scared of the dark, yes, but wasn't everyone? Obedient in class – well, he just wasn't the sort to make a fuss. He didn't particularly want a detention, so it was just easier to do as he was told. And maybe he preferred books to people, because a book never snapped at you if you didn't understand, and a book never expected you to do anything you didn't want to – but still. He wasn't a coward.

In fact, he was so much not a coward that he'd taken the ruddy dare to prove it, and gone searching through this Darigan-blasted forest for a faerie that he wasn't sure even existed. That had been the dare; there were rumours that some of the old faeries – the fading ones, that you had to combine before they'd give you any blessing – were still flying free in the forest. If he could find one and bring it to school, then they'd finally admit that he wasn't a coward, or so they said. He even had the bottle in his bag still, and wasn't that just typical that he'd lost his glasses but somehow kept an empty faerie bottle that was no use to anyone.

James was broken out of his thoughts by an agitated chattering coming from somewhere near his left foot. He levered himself up with effort, his limbs painfully stiff after the night spent outdoors, and squinted. It appeared to be a small, purple creature – a petpet, most likely – with clawed wings and a smear of green that was probably its feet, and (James squinted further, tilting his head in an effort to make his fuzzy vision clearer) an expresion of extreme distress painted across its large head.

"Hey there little fellow," he said soothingly, holding out a wing in its direction. "It's ok. Where's your owner, huh?" The petpet flittered out of reach, its chattering increasing in intensity. "Woah woah, calm down. I'm not going to hurt you, I promise." James didn't know how much of his words the petpet understood, but he kept his tone even and calm. It seemed to do the trick – with one last scolding chirrup, the petpet landed on his wing and sidled up to him.

"There we go, that's not so bad now, hey?" he cooed to it, stroking one feather down the surprisingly soft fur on its back. "Let's have a look at you, shall we?" He lifted his wing up until the petpet swam into focus.

"Holy wow," he breathed, trying hard to control his reaction lest he startle the shy thing. "You're a – a bartamus. I'm holding a bartamus. I'm actually holding – do you know you're worth, like, twenty million neopoints?" he asked it in a conversational tone. "That's more than my house. I holding something worth more neopoints than everything I've ever owned. A bartamus. I – wow." He blinked at it in a shock, staring for a long moment until the bartamus snorted questioningly at him.

James shook himself. "Right. Yes. Well then, Barty – can I call you Barty? I'm calling you Barty – you're coming home with me. Mmhmm." He stood up, carefully perching Barty on his shoulder, and took a few steps to the edge of his ledge. "And home," he continued his cheerful, one-sided conversation, "should be approximately that-a-way – no – what?"

Finally, the purple scenery registered. James rubbed his eyes for a second, fighting the urge to gape at the miles of magenta, fuschia and pink foliage spread out at his feet. Barty growled playfully and leaped after a glowing green tendril of smoke, tumbling among maroon branches without a care for their unnaturalness.

"Barty," James said, his voice sounding faraway to his ears. "I think we're lost."



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Thief
The beginning of a much longer story about a thief and a necromancer. In my head this was awesome. It never got much further than this.
Thief


Dawn had broken not so long ago, bringing a faint golden sheen to the mist covered fields. The sky was tinged a delicate pink, and as the clouds parted, a ray of sunlight fell on the old oak, glinting off the frost covered leaves. Somewhere, a pair of songbirds began the morning chorus.

To the traveller, the daybreak was nothing special. He'd seen a dozen like it on their journey, after all – and before that, a thousand more from his home town. No, the dawn was mundane, the peace and tranquillity almost boring.

That is, until the peace was broken.

"'Scuse me, yer Lordship, but this ain't no freeway y'know," a rough voice said.

"I beg your pardon?" the gelert asked, raising an eyebrow. "I had not heard that the Duke had brought in a tax on common pathways," he continued, his tone filled with distaste for the grimy skeith blocking his path.

The skeith in question smirked. "The Duke ain't done nuthin'," he said, "But there's a tax all the same and yer ain't gettin' past with payin' it."

The gelert frowned. "A thief," he accused harshly. The skeith sketched a bow, and held out a clawed hand impatiently. "And why shouldn't I turn you in?" the gelert asked haughtily.

"An' where yer gonna do that?" was the reply. The skeith gestured at the surrounding, empty landscape. The action made his ratty waistcoat ride up some; the gelert swallowed nervously as he saw the array of pistols and sharp pointy objects the skeith carried underneath it.

"How much?" he said bluntly, knowing better than to antagonise the thief and risk losing his health along with his possessions.

"Modes' sum," the skeith said, casually examining his claws. "Say... 'arf a ton, and we'll call it friends, yeah?"

Half a ton – that was fifty gold! "You can't expect me to carry that much on me!" the gelert protested indignantly.

"Yer think? Shame," the skeith grinned, reaching for a weapon.

"I – wait!" He reached a paw into his robes, drawing out something that sparkled in the morning sun. "it's gold," he said nervously, "Fine crafted, from the city – and the gem alone's worth the better part of a ton." He sweated slightly as the skeith considered, then could have cried in relief as the thief nodded and sheathed the dagger.

"Toss it," he growled. "I ain't trustin' yer not to kick me down an' run, so throw it me." Nodding, the gelert threw the piece of jewellery, eyes almost involuntarily tracing its flightpath.

He was almost shocked when it was intercepted halfway. The figure landed lightly on the raised bank the other side of the path, crouched low and tail outstretched for balance.

"Yer stinkin' pile of snot covered dung!" the skeith cursed. The figure stood with a wide, unrepentant grin.

"Yeah yeah, a curse upon my ancestors," she said – both her voice and her face, once the sun caught it, revealing her gender. She raised a hand a waved the fingers mockingly at the skeith. "Run along now," she said in an overly sweet voice. The skeith growled, and stepped forwards, and the gelert almost shouted out a warning – there was no way that tiny slip of a xweetok would last in a fight!

But it turned out the warning was unnecessary. The skeith suddenly paled, eyes wide with fear, and the next moment he'd turned and bounded off the path. The gelert looked back at the xweetok bemusedly, but saw nothing that could have scared the skeith off. He shook his head, returning to more immediate matters.

"Thank you, young lady," he said pompously, fishing in his purse for a couple of bronze coins. He flicked them to her with a nod. "And if you'll just hand back my trinket, then I'll be on my way."

"Huh?" she said, inspecting the coins. "Why would I do that?"

He faltered. "You're not... helping me?"

She looked at him as if he was stupid. "Well duh," she said after a pause. "You tossed it, I caught it." With a final chink of metal on metal, she snapped her hand shut around the jewellery and the coins. "Ta ever so," she said sweetly, then scampered down the other side of the bank and vanished, leaving the gelert fuming impotently in her wake.



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Samitan page introduction
Samitan


Ahh, Brightvale. A place of learning, of calm and tranquility. Lennies reading to each other in the shade of the great chestnut trees, Aishas curled up in the grassy fields as they work through their sums. The university on your left, the library on your right, and - yes, just ahead, there's the neoschool. Full of future scholars, hard at their studies, no doubt.

Wait, this isn't right. There seems to be something of a commotion at the school. Shouts, chairs crashing over, some small child wailing about her knee - and good grief, is that a saxophone?

Heavens above, it is. And yes, that's a baby Lutari earnestly playing it (he's actually quite good, isn't he? Given that he's only about as tall as the instrument himself, it's pretty impressive) from the roof of all things. What possessed him to go up there?

Ah. From the enraged and slightly panicked shouts of the frazzled Acara you assume is his teacher, it would seem that the budding blues star is called Samitan, he's pulled four of these stunts this week alone, and he's in deep trouble if he doesn't get down from there right away and deal with the herd of Kiiyak's he's let loose in the cafeteria.

Maybe you should walk on. There's probably some peace and quiet to be found in Meridell instead.



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Volareis page introduction
Volareis


That's it. You're officially lost. You thought going left at the rocks would take you back to Maraqua, but now you're certain that you should have gone right at the kelp forest - or was it down? You can't remember, and everything looks the same underwater.

Maybe you should ask someone. Like that pet, over there - what is she, a Maraquan Gelert? Looks like it. She's at home underwater, that's for sure, her long tail drifting out idly behind her as she swims in lazy circles. Her skin - fur? scales? it's hard to tell - is a deep blue-purple, covered in shifting, swirling patterns that seem almost to shimmer in the gloom. Her hair, long and loose and floating about her in a cloud of dark strands, would look almost black save for the glints of rich green where the light catches it. Her eyes are similarly green, but brighter, glowing nearly, watchful and predatory and cold and dead and for a moment a chill runs down your spine -

No, stop it. You're being silly. Look, she's playing with the fish; lesser spotted fish, three of them. They're looping around her paws and under the translucent green fin on her tail, darting up to the lights on the ends of her ears and away again just as quick. How could you have thought she was dangerous? Look, she's even bringing her ears forwards for them, dangling the luminescent tips just in front of her -

A flash of needle teeth, and only two fish remain. She regards you thoughtfully with her glowing green eyes, as though wondering if you too would fall for her pretty lights and her clever traps.

Back, Maraqua is definitely somewhere back the way you came. You should go and find it.



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The Wild Pets
I want to read a story about the wild pets. What do they think of us owners? What do they think of our pets? I doubt it would be a glowing saga of our virtues.
Wild Pet


You know what I want to read? I want to read about the wild pets, about Hanso and Jeran and the Ixi Bandit and the hundreds of pets without owners. Where did they come from? What do they think of the users, what do they think of the pets who have users?

I want the story of a wild pet who can't take it. I want her to be young, idealistic - to have had grand ideas about how she would see the world.

And I want it to go wrong. She travels the long way, on foot - by boat, on the clanking, rattling carts through Meridell's endless fields. She sleeps where she can; maybe she's an Ixi, folds her legs underneath her and sleeps in the shades of trees. In the rolling hills behind Brightvale, this was fine. In the rolling hills there were trees, gentle breezes, huddled clusters of thick bushes to shelter from the infrequent rain. But here, on the road, her teeth are rattled from the bumps and rocks and her neck aches from trying to hold her head still. She gives up the carts as a lost cause and walks, and on the way she meets the pets with the owners. The pets who have just come from Tyrannia to fetch their omelette, only stopping in Meridell long enough to try a joke with the king - with the king! - then they'll swing by the Ice Caves and pick up a negg or two if the Snowager's asleep.

And she just. Walks. Mile by mile, step by aching step, sleeping in the shade of the trees. She gets mud on her fur because - Meridell. There's mud everywhere. She gets hungry and she needs to eat, but the bushes have been picked clean because someone somewhere thought there was money to be made. The pets go past again, the cycle for the next day. Because dailies, you know? The pets with owners, they travel the world in fifteen minutes and think nothing of it. Some free jelly. A toy from the tombola man on Mystery Island. A dubloon from the ghost of Coltzan himself.

When she reaches Meridell, she's tired. She's hungry. She's more than hungry - she's aching with it, cramping with the pain of it, but what can she do? She doesn't have money. She tries asking, but all she gets is scorn - doesn't she know that pets can be hungry, can be starving, for years and never starve?

She doesn't know. She doesn't think it's true, not for her.

Someone takes pity on her. The soup faerie in Neopia Central, the omelette in Tyrannia, the giant jelly that doesn't exist. These places will give you food. Or try the money tree, or look for free trades at the trading post, or stay at the Neolodge for just one night.

Where? She asks. Where are these places?

In Neopia Central, on Mystery Island, in hotels throughout the globe.

But here, she cries, she begs, where is there food here - and there's the rubbish dump, or King Skarrl, he sometimes hands out food if you tell him a joke he likes.

King Skarrl turns her away. She doesn't have an owner. He doesn't have time to entertain her. She thought she was supposed to be entertaining him. She chews her way through rotten jerky and spills fermented gravy from an old tin can and she learns to hate the pets with their owners who can jump over the globe and never starve.

But I want her to stand in Neopia Central, maybe a few days later after she's found a ferry to stowaway on, maybe years in the future when she hasn't forgotten. I want her to apply for a job in the bank and be told no, because she isn't green, she isn't a skeith. The auction house, because she has a head of numbers and she's determined to use her talents, but they don't employ ixis either. The bookshop even - blue nimmos only. There's this ixi in Meridell, she has this shape shifting game, she'd employ you perhaps? Can you get a hold of a brown paintbrush? Sinsi's brown, you're blue, you see the issue here.

And she wants to shout, she wants to scream at them that no, there isn't an issue. There's no issue. She's blue and Sinisi's brown and you need to be a skeith to work at the bank, has she thought of a morphing potion if she wants it that badly? And she wants a job, she needs a job, but not like this. Why, she asks, why, whywhywhy -

One of the hundred odd jubjubs at the shop wizard looks at her, bemused. It's the users, isn't it? He says. One pet per job, that's the way it goes. They don't need to know how many of us run these things. Not if we all look the same. Right?

And it's not right. It's so far from right, so very far from anything right, and no one can see. The users go to the pharmacy and speak to the green gelert, and they don't care that this one is called Hamish and he's saving for a his daughter to go to school. They don't care that that one's called Janet, she's been there for years, the fur around her muzzle is going white, but she always wanted to work at the pound instead. They don't care that this one is Jimmy and he's new and was maraquan before, still hasn't got used to his legs and doesn't really like them, but he needed a job and the job needed him to have legs.

The soup faerie won't feed her. She's apologetic - she's strict - she's forgetful - she's new, please forgive her. None of the soup faeries will feed her. She isn't an owned pet. There's nothing they can do, it's against the rules. She can't stay at the neolodge, not without an owner to sign her forms and pay for her stay. She can't haggle in the shops; only users can do that. She can't bid in auction or go the mall or pick up a rotten shoe that someone threw away at the money tree.

She can't stand being told how many things she can't do, and she can't find anything out about the rules. The rules just are. They govern everything - they even govern the users. User gets it wrong, user gets locked down, user's pets are left in some kind of limbo. They get left there long enough, and maybe they end up wild, and suddenly they have to walk from Brightvale to Meridell through the mud and the rain and when they get there, King Skarrl turns them away.

I want her to be young and idealistic, and I want her to learn about these things, and I want to know what she thinks of us. Maybe she shakes her head in disgust and leaves. It's been a few years now, she's learnt how to fend for herself. She's not hungry like she once was. She wanted to use her education, but she won't use it here; perhaps she'll find Nabile and take a job as the court scribe. (She hates the sand, but at least here she's far from any mention of the users and any one who would expect her to change her entire species just to work in a shop).

Or maybe not. Lets say she's impulsive, let's say she snuck on that boat in Meridell and she came here hungry and lost and full of ways ot change the world. The users, they're the key, they must be the key. There are ways to talk to the users, ways to get yourself heard, but she goes for the direct route. She walks into the pound and she's hungry and she's cold and she says, I need an owner. I need a user. The techo scowls at her underneath a wig that isn't straight, hands tugging at a lab coat that doesn't fit, and calls her a fool.

Please, she says. She doesn't say, I can't face the boat ride back to Meridell. She doesn't say, I drank the gravy in the rubbish dump, but I can't get near the money tree. She doesn't say, I want to go home.

She can't really abandon herself. It's against the rules. But there are a thousand pets stuck in the pound who want to get, and so very few wild pets who want to get it. The techo disappears for an agonising wait (the other eighteen techos in the room mutter to each other and shake their heads) and when he comes back, he has a name for her.

If you regret it, he says. If you want to get free, come back here. Thousands of pets here, we get out who we can. Your owner gets frozen, you get yourself lined up for a purge, you'll be out.

She takes her name and walks into the pound and says thank you. She lifts her chin against the world and lays her ears back against her skull (blue skull, blue ears, and she wouldn't change for a job she won't change for anyone) and she walks into a cage.

That's the story I want to read.



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James Underscore Twelve and the no good, very bad, horrible day
Exactly what it says on the tin. James Underscore Twelve gets snarky when he's in a bad mood.