Underdogs: Part Five
Art by nut862
The eyes stared at him, not moving. Pinnock stared back; once he’d met their glowing gaze, it was hard to take his own eyes off of them. A chill wind whipped around him as he stood frozen in place, on stiff legs rooted in the snow.
The shadowed body belonging to those glowing eyes began to move forward, striding purposefully towards him. As it grew closer, Pinnock could make out two pointed ears and a muzzled face. This was a Lupe, and from the looks of his strong body, a wild one. He came close to Pinnock, pawing the ground and sniffing around him.
“Where are you from?” the wild Lupe barked, the glowing eyes narrowing.
Holbie Pinnock was suddenly very aware that he was currently in the body of a Lupe, speaking to a genuine member of the species. He couldn’t say that he was from Kiko Lake, could he? That would give him away immediately as an impostor, since only Kikos lived there. Then again, this was a wild mountain Lupe; did he even know where Kiko Lake was? Had he ever met a Kiko?
“I am from a lake near Neopia Central,” Pinnock said, trying to keep his teeth from chattering as he said the words.
“You don’t smell like the other tourists from Neopia Central. The lake must be far away.”
“Yeah, it is.” Pinnock saw no reason to elaborate.
“What are you doing here?”
“I’m trying to find the main road through the mountains.”
“Through the mountains? Then you want to leave?”
“Yes! Do I look like I’m in good shape for scrambling around this place?” Pinnock shivered in the cold. “My friends are stranded out here. I’ve got to tell someone that they need help.”
“You are alone?”
Pinnock didn’t like how the Lupe was eyeing him. “No, my friends are around here. They’re just lost. I’m traveling ahead of them.”
The Lupe raised his head, looking around and sniffing. “They must be far behind. You are the only one here.”
Though he was uneasy, Pinnock decided he had nothing to lose. “Can you help me?”
“Yes,” the wild Lupe growled, reaching out and seizing the small yellow Lupe with one huge paw. Pinnock’s heart began to pound as he felt himself being dragged through the snow; instinctively he tried to flap his fins and ended up waving his arms rapidly back and forth. He was exhausted in a few moments. The wild Lupe’s voice came from up ahead, mingled with the wind: “I will bring you to the path, and leave you there as a warning to others who pass. Your friends can find their way back to the city on their own, or freeze up here, whichever happens first. Our clan is the only one allowed in these mountains. Perhaps that will teach you city Lupes to stay in your houses.”
* * * * *
The blue Kougra trudged along in the darkness, his boots flinging snow aside with every step. The Techo and Nimmo who were following him relied on his night vision to guide them through the darkened Terror Mountain. The rescue party had been following the path for hours and had seen no trace of the Kikos. Their tracks would be distinctive, since they moved by bouncing, but the snow on the trail showed no sign of their passage. Apparently they hadn’t gotten this far.
“They must have gone off the path at some point,” the Nimmo said, clutching his jacket around him as the night wind blew through the peaks.
“Then they could be anywhere,” the Kougra said. “We’ve got to pick up their tracks before they left the path. The one good thing about them wandering around in the snow is that the wild pets will probably leave them alone. The Lupes up here only get bothered about intruders if they seem like rivals, and a bunch of Kikos aren’t going to look like a threat to anyone.”
* * * * *
Pinnock felt himself being slammed into the ground. Rocks jabbed him in the back; he felt as though he were frozen from having dragged himself through the snow for hours and then been dragged the rest of the way to the road. But he was on the main path now; he could feel that the ground underneath him was smoother and there was less snow on it. He would have allowed himself a gasp of relief if a heavy paw hadn’t landed on his chest and knocked all the breath out of him.
The eyes were hovering above him, glaring at him. Pinnock stared into them, trying to find his breath. He could feel no air in his body. He flailed, trying to do something--anything--to get oxygen back into his lungs.
He was jerked to his feet, and all at once air began to flow again. He choked and coughed. The wild Lupe looked disgusted. “I’m amazed you dared cross into our territory when you are so ill-prepared. Remember, we are the only Lupes in these mountains. No outsiders are welcome here.”
“Look,” Pinnock gasped, knowing how ridiculous this would sound. “I’m not a real Lupe.”
“I know that.”
Suddenly the wild Lupe was leaping at him, and Pinnock felt hot breath on his neck as teeth brushed it. Instinctively Pinnock darted backwards and threw himself on the ground, expecting to bounce up off it. He didn’t, but at least the result was the same: the wild Lupe’s teeth clamped shut on air.
The wild Lupe circled him, growling. “You are a spy. I do not trust those who come to deceive.”
“I’m not trying to deceive anyone! Look, I drank a morphing potion, and that’s why I’m like this now, because before I didn’t have a chance of moving around in this rough terrain. You can tell I’m still not good at it. And I have a bad fin.” Now that Pinnock thought about it, though, he hadn’t felt pain in his shoulder since the transformation. “I’m just trying to help my friends, not steal your territory. I’ve got to get to Altador.”
“I do not believe you. I cannot smell your friends. What foreign magic is in a morphing potion?”
“I don’t want to know. They taste freaky. I’d never pay money for one, myself.”
“Your speech makes no sense. Enough of this.” The wild Lupe lunged, and Pinnock realized then that there was no point in trying to argue.
He was just going to have to win this fight.
* * * * *
Team Kiko Lake’s first night in the cave was cold and sleepless. Some of the players tried to rest, but the ground was uncomfortable and the cold seeped through the rocks. They heard the wind howling overhead, making it useless to shout for help.
“At least we’re safe in here and not out in the wind,” Moni Vyshan said. “That’s a comfort, at least.”
“If we were out in that wind, we’d be in Altador a couple hours from now,” Cellers said.
“They must be looking for us now,” Kitah said. “They’ll see the rockslide and figure it out.”
“How do they know which path we took through the mountains? It branches at several points. They may not pass by the rockslide,” Cellers said. “Holbie has to get to Altador and tell them.”
* * * * *
Pinnock stumbled over his own paws as he leaped and rolled to escape the wild Lupe’s bites. Motions that would have enabled a Kiko to bounce easily around a Yooyuball field were clumsy in a Lupe’s body. He couldn’t just evade; he had to attack and get this Lupe away from him. Pinnock jumped at the wild Lupe, opening his jaws and bracing for the bite.
He slipped on the ice and tumbled through the snow. A shot of pain went through his leg as his opponent grabbed it in his teeth. Pinnock let out a howl and was shocked by the sound of his own voice. He tore free, feeling pain as he placed his leg gingerly on the ground. This wouldn’t do. He couldn’t afford to lose his balance again.
Yet what could he do? He had no chance. The wild Lupe was charging him now; he was going to get knocked to the edge of the nearest cliff and thrown to the rocks below. And after all that effort it had taken just to get down from the cave safely...
No. He’d gone to all that effort; he wasn’t going to give up now. Ignoring the pain in his leg, he sidestepped backwards, leading the wild Lupe towards the edge of the cliff. The dawn was breaking over the horizon, and in the early light he saw dead branches scattered in the snow. He looked back and saw the wild Lupe running at him; he jumped out of the way, kicking with his back leg and knocking one of the branches into his opponent’s path.
Pinnock fell flat in the snow and listened to the angry howl as the wild Lupe tripped over the branch, losing his balance. His cry echoed as he fell.
He might only be wounded. Pinnock got to his feet and hurried back to the path, dragging his bad leg, and hightailed it down the road to Altador.
* * * * *
“Keep an eye out for signs that they’ve camped nearby. Burnt wood, leftover food, and that sort of thing.”
The rescue party stopped suddenly in the middle of the path. A pet was approaching. As it grew nearer, they saw that it was a small yellow Lupe, though it wasn’t behaving the way any Lupe would. It was moving by jumping, jerkily inching forward with every bounce. One of its legs seemed to be wounded.
The Lupe threw himself in front of the small group of rescue workers, clearly exhausted. His eyes closed and his tongue lolled out on the snow. “I’ve... got to... get to... Altador,” he gasped, and then fell silent.
To be continued...