Thursday, June 18, 2020

Worth Searching For, Chapter 2


Hyren felt like his stomach had dropped to his stubby blue knees. “Terra? Terra!” he shouted, not bothering to disguise the panic in his tone. He pushed past the Grarrl in back of him, who let out an annoyed growl, and looked around wildly at the sea of pets that had gathered to watch the parade.

The Grundo’s antennae quivered as he strained to hear his owner’s voice over the din of the crowd, in vain. His eyes darted back and forth, but Terra’s braid and Pharazon’s faerie Draik wings were nowhere to be found. His stomach clenched into a knot and his hand strayed toward the sword at his waist.

A paw clutched his shoulder and turned him around. “Hyren, what are you doing?” Blynn asked.

“They’re gone,” he breathed, staring into her magenta eyes with a growing frustration and fear. Every moment he spent talking was another moment lost in looking for them. “I took my eyes off of them for two seconds and they’ve—disappeared!” He’d looked after them for years, promised them he would protect them, and now his worst nightmare was coming true. The full realisation of that sickening feeling started to wash over him and his antennae drooped.

The Zafara gave him a gentle shake. “Calm down—just calm down before you hyperventilate, okay?” she said. “They’ve gotta be around here somewhere.” She scampered out of the cluster of spectators and he followed, both of them swinging their heads about for any sign of their owner and younger brother. “Maybe they just got distracted or something,” Blynn said, turning to analyse the crowd from the back.

“But they were right behind us,” Hyren said. He still couldn’t see them. His grip on his sword tightened. “People don’t just disappear like that. Terraaaa!” His voice echoed across the lantern-canopied streets, absorbed into the noise of a celebrating city.

No one replied.

 

He gritted his teeth and turned back to Blynn. “Plan. We need a plan,” he said. He couldn’t shake the feeling that someone had messed with his family, and he wanted to make them pay, big time.

The Zafara nodded, her brow furrowing in thought. “Ask around if people have seen them?” she asked.

“Right. Let’s question the imperial guard, too. No—stay with me,” he said as he grabbed her arm to keep her from darting away. “I don’t want us splitting up now,” The last thing he needed at this point was becoming separated from his remaining family.

They spent the rest of the parade asking if anyone had seen a faerie Draik and a brown-haired human girl, but very few responded in the affirmative. Some Neopets confessed that they’d seen Terra and Pharazon earlier, but were too distracted by the parade to see where the two had gone.

“I hate parades,” Hyren muttered as the crowd finally quieted down and Neopets began to trickle through side streets. “Worst place to lose anyone, I swear. Why can’t people be more observant?” He glanced over at Blynn. “Okay, let’s try something else.”

He led her down the lane to where they had initially parted ways with Terra, Pharazon and Gwyneth. Hyren hoped that maybe his owner and brother would have the sense to return to their last meeting place, if indeed they had merely gotten distracted or lost. Although he doubted that with each passing second. “What do you smell?” he asked, stopping where he remembered splitting from them.

Blynn lifted her nose to the sky and took in a few whiffs of the air. “Too much,” she said. “Too many scents mixed together, I can’t pick out any one of them. It’s like a big tangle of smell.” She held out her paws to illustrate.

“Try harder,” Hyren hissed, shifting his weight from one foot to the other.

The Zafara wrinkled her nose, her tail lashing. “I’m doing my best,” she said. “I’m not a Lupe, y’know.” She took another series of sniffs. “I… think I smell us, but it was a long time ago. They haven’t been back this way. Would you stop assuming the worst?”

“No,” Hyren said, “because someone’s got to. We need a better nose. Where did they take Gwyneth.” He had snapped into business mode. Before living as Terra’s Neopet, he had been in the business of commanding troops. And right now, he had a vital mission to carry out, so old work habits were coming back.

The Zafara crouched to the ground and inhaled deeply. “I got her scent,” she said. “Follow me.” She darted off down another street, her long tail waving behind her.

Hyren was no longer in the mood to complain about her speed compared to his as he ran after her. He had bigger blandfish to fry.

She led him to a stable staffed by a bored-looking desertScorchio. The brays and chirps of various Petpets filled the air, and even Hyren’s weak sense of smell could detect the unmistakeable musk of a place housing numerous creatures.

The Scorchio picked up a brush and swished it on an inkstone, flipping over a page in her thick logbook, and said, “Are you dropping off or—“

“We need the Ganuthor here,” Blynn panted. “Standard colour, named Gwyneth. I’m her owner’s sister.”

The Scorchio’s green eyes narrowed. “Right, let me just give her to you without a receipt,” she said, pointing a claw at the torn-out lower half of the pages.

“She knows our voices,” Blynn said.

“Just trust us,” Hyren said. “This is an emergency—her owner’s gone missing.”

The Scorchio rolled her eyes. “Ohhh, yes, and I’m sure you’re here to ‘pick up’ his Petpet after robbing him of everything else he had,” she said. “Sorry, but try a less gullible stablekeep.”

“We don’t have time for this,” Hyren said. He cupped one hand around his mouth. “Gwyneth! Gwyn, come!”

“C’mere, girl!” Blynn said, a mischievous glint in her eyes.

A joyous gruffling noise met them, and the door to one of the stalls in the courtyard burst apart as an eager Ganuthor ploughed through it. Gwyneth loped up to the two, utterly oblivious to the destruction, and began licking Blynn’s face with her large, rough tongue. The Zafara giggled and clambered up onto the Petpet.

The Scorchio frowned and slammed the brush on her desk, baring her pointed teeth. “Excuse me!” she said. “Even if that Petpet does belong to your family, you now owe me for the damages!”

Hyren rifled through one of Gwyn’s saddlebags and tossed a heavy pouch onto the desk. “Here,” he said. It made the satisfying clink of Neopoints as it landed, and the Scorchio’s eyes widened.

Hyren hadn’t bothered to count the coins, but it was probably more than enough to cover a broken door. Money hadn’t mattered to them in a long time, anyway, and it was certainly of no concern when he had family to rescue.

Not waiting for a response from the stable keeper, Hyren climbed atop Gwyneth’s back. Blynn tapped Gwyneth’s head twice and the Ganuthor bolted.

Hyren hooked an arm around his sister’s stomach so he wouldn’t fall off as Gwyneth raced through the streets. Blynn was leading her back to where they had watched the parade, and not being too careful about it, as Neopets dove out of the furry behemoth’s path.

“How do you know how to direct her?” Hyren asked.

“Because I watch Pharazon do it,” Blynn said. “You could learn, too, if you don’t take rear guard all the time.” She tapped the side of Gwyneth’s head. The Ganuthor careened around a corner and smashed wantonly through some ill-placed crates, the impact not even slowing her.

“Well, excuse me for being cautious,” Hyren said.

By the time they returned to Naleap Avenue, the only traces left of the crowd were scattered bits of refuse and a few stragglers conversing with one another. From his higher vantage point, Hyren scanned the broad street once more. His heart sank at the lack of familiar faces.

Hyren pointed to an armoured Skeith standing nearby. “Let’s start asking the guards,” he said. Blynn nodded and eased Gwyneth over to the soldier.

The Skeith’s pink scales contrasted sharply with her red and black, lacquered-wood armour, trimmed in an authoritative gold. She held a spear in one hand, while a quiver of crossbow bolts hung at her side and the crossbow itself was slung at her back. Hyren admired the remarkable craftsmanship of Shenkuuvian weapon- and armoursmiths, and he wondered if a suit of armour like that could be made to fit a Grundo’s dimensions.

As Gwyneth approached, the Skeith’s ears perked and she straightened up. “What can I do for you?” she asked.

“Have you seen a female owner with a faerie Draik around here?” Hyren asked.

The Skeith shook her head. “Can’t say that I have, sorry,” she said. “Have you tried sending them a Weewoo?“

“Not yet,” Hyren said. “Have you seen any suspicious characters around?”

The guard lifted an eyebrow. “Define ‘suspicious’,” she said.

“Kidnappers?” Hyren asked.

She shook her head and said, “No, I didn’t see anyone in the act of kidnapping. Sorry, kid.”

Hyren ground his teeth. Kid? Kid?! he thought. I’m probably older than you by centuries, lady! His antennae flattened against his head and he had to bite his tongue to keep from retorting aloud. He wished he could say being mistaken for someone younger because of his stature was a rare occurrence.

“Okay. Thanks,” he said. “Did you see anything out of the ordinary during the parade? Specifically, right around the time when the Noil dancers passed this intersection?”

The Skeith thought for a moment. “Yeah… yeah, I did,” she said. “Some crazy Gelert decided it was a good idea to jump out in the path of the Pandaphants waving a sparkshooter. Security had to pull him off the street before he spooked the Petpets. I swear, this crowd gets more unruly every year. Stupid tourists.”

Hyren’s antennae dropped. “Oh. Well… thanks anyway,” he said. “Can you file a missing persons report?”

“Sure,” the guard said. She pulled a sheaf of paper out of a pouch at her side, and Hyren and Blynn filled her in on the details.

“We’re going to keep looking,” Hyren said once she was done. “Send us a Weewoo if you find out anything.”

“Will do,” the guard said.

Blynn began to lead Gwyneth away, and looked over her shoulder at her brother. “Kidnappers, seriously?” she asked.

“That Gelert could have been a distraction,” Hyren said. “It was too convenient.”

“You’re way too paranoid,” Blynn said. “Terra’s a grown-up. She knows how to take care of herself and Pharazon.”

The Grundo clenched his fists. “That doesn’t make them immune to Neopia’s dangers,” he said. “Remember what happened in the Haunted Woods twelve years ago.”

His sister flinched, her ears flicking back. “Th-that was a long time ago,” she said. “We knew for sure someone had taken her. You don’t have any proof that’s what happened now. Maybe they went to help an old lady cross the street or—or something.”

“Or maybe not,” Hyren said. “How do we get Gwyneth to find them?”

“Uhh… good question,” Blynn said, scratching her chin. “I’m trying to remember how Pharazon does it.”

“She’ll need something to track, right?” Hyren asked. He reached down and fished around in one of the saddlebags. He needed to find something with Terra’s or Pharazon’s scent on it. He pulled out a blue travelling cloak with a silver Draik’s-head fastener. “Hold this in front of her snout,” he said. Hopefully the Ganuthor wouldn’t take that as a cue to eat it.

Blynn took the cloak and dangled it over Gwyneth’s nose. “Pharazon,” she said, leaning over the Petpet’s massive head. “Find Pharazon.” She let Gwyneth sniff the fabric for a couple of seconds and then pulled it away.

The Ganuthor’s head bobbed as she smelled the air. Mid-bob, her head froze and her whole body went rigid. Her ears perked and her wings lifted.

“Hang on,” Blynn said. She leaned down and grabbed a tuft of Gwyneth’s thick fur.

Hyren wrapped an arm around the Zafara’s stomach again, and not a moment too soon as the Ganuthor took off running, crushing a pile of melons near a vendor’s stall. “Sorry about that!” Hyren yelled, but his voice was lost in the wind as Gwyneth sped down a side street.

Lanterns turned into blurs of colour around him, and the yells of irate Neopets never had time to form words, left behind by the Ganuthor’s powerful paws. Hyren had to admit that he was immensely glad for Pharazon’s Petpet, as she made transportation so much easier despite her quirks.

Halfway down the street, Gwyneth turned as if jerked by a rope and scampered down a dark, narrow alley that smelled like rotten food and other things unpleasant. There were no lanterns here, simply piles of trash and boarded-up windows.

Hyren felt a chill prick at his spine. “Because I’m so sure they helped a little old lady back to her home in a suspicious alleyway,” he muttered.

“They got lost,” the Zafara said, sounding less and less sure of herself by the second. “They… they’re probably…” Her ears drooped.

“Give it up,” Hyren said. “Something’s gone very wrong.”

“Y-you don’t have to rub it in,” Blynn choked, her shoulders shuddering.

Hyren grimaced. He hadn’t meant to be so terse, but the situation had put him on-edge. He’d forgotten that Blynn was just as worried as he was, and his brusqueness probably was not helping her nerves. “Sorry,” he said, giving her a squeeze. “It’ll be okay. We’ll find them. I swore I would protect all of you, and that’s just what I mean to do.” Never mind the fact that he had failed to keep Terra and Pharazon from getting abducted in the first place.

He and Blynn watched as Gwyneth shuffled around the alley, pawing at piles of refuse and sticking her nose in the grime. Pharazon would be livid, Hyren thought, and insist on giving the Ganuthor a bath straightaway before they departed for home. How he wished the evening would be that simple, but the horrible wrenching in his stomach told him otherwise.

“Do you see them anywhere?” Blynn asked.

The Grundo shook his head. “Nothing,” he said. “I can’t—whoa!” Gwyneth jerked into motion again and he had to squeeze his knees into her back in order to hold on. Riding had never been his strong point—it wasn’t exactly part of his combat training in Sloth’s galactic military.

Gwyneth scrambled out the other side of the alley and burst back onto a main street, eliciting shouts of surprise from pedestrians. Her ribs heaved in exertion and she made determined grunting noises as she carried her passengers down the avenue, straight as an arrow.

“Okay, here we go,” Blynn said. “I’m sure we’ll find ‘em soon, and then we can beat up whoever messed with ‘em.”

This part of the city looked slightly different than the central street. There were less Lunar Festival decorations, and more Neopets hauling crates and goods, moving with purpose around solidly-built storehouses.

“This must be the industrial district,” Hyren said. “How cliché. We’ll probably find them in an abandoned warehouse or something.” Thinking about the inevitable confrontation to come, a question surfaced in the forefront of his mind—why had his owner and brother been kidnapped? And more importantly, by whom?

His mind raced for potential family enemies. Sloth and his forces were still somewhere out in the stars, thanks once again to the combined efforts of the Space Faerie and Neopians six years ago. Not to mention Sloth didn’t know his former commander was still alive. There was the Werelupe King—no, he hadn’t survived his encounter with the Grundo twelve years ago. And the family hadn’t made enough of an impact in any wars to garner the vengeance of their opponents, Hyren thought.

Was it just the doing, then, of petty crooks who figured Pharazon’s species and colour meant he had a rich owner? But if that was the case, why wouldn’t they have just taken Pharazon and held him for ransom? Why Terra, too? Why?

“Hyren!” Blynn said.

The Grundo blinked, snapping out of his thoughts. They had stopped on a flat expanse of stone that stretched outside the city walls and dropped off over the misty valley beyond. Wooden piers reached out like fingers, and moored at them were ships of varying sizes, all with wing-like sails jutting from their keels. One ship pulled away and rose into the overcast, starless sky, probably going to pick up cargo from some far corner of Neopia. The dock was filled with Neopets loading and unloading vessels, shouting orders to each other or singing old folk songs.

Gwyneth paced in circles, starting in one direction and then turning to another. Her wings sagged, and she sat down on her haunches and let out a mournful wail.

Hyren swallowed hard. “No, don’t tell me…” he said.

Blynn stared up as another ship came in and said, “She lost the scent.”

The two were silent for a moment, reaching the same conclusion. Hyren ran a hand down his face as shock gave way to dread. They wouldn’t find their owner and brother in some abandoned warehouse, because Terra and Pharazon had been taken into the clouds.

His sister shuddered again and Hyren held her close, burying his face into the fur on her back. “We’ll find them,” he said. “I swear, we’ll find them.” He wished he could convince himself as much.

“But… how?” Blynn asked. She ducked her head, and Hyren felt hot drops of wetness hit his arms.

He sighed and said, “Do the same thing we did before, start questioning people. We’re more likely to get a lead here.”

And so they did, but no one had seen anything. They even managed to check the harbour logs for suspicious entries, but nothing rang any bells and there were too many departing ships for Hyren to be able to even start to narrow it down. It would take them weeks to try to track that many flights.

That left them sitting on the docks, exhausted and frustrated, as midnight approached.

“I wish we were back at dinner,” Blynn grumbled, slumping against Gwyneth’s back.

“Me too,” Hyren said. “Just talking and laughing and swapping cheesy fortunes—“

Blynn’s ears perked and she sat up, jostling Hyren away. “That’s it!” she said.

“What?” the Grundo asked, grabbing a clump of Gwyneth’s fur so he wouldn’t fall to the ground. “I don’t think going back to the restaurant would do any good—“

“No!” Blynn said. She turned around and jutted her snout in his face. “Cheesy fortunes!”

Hyren’s antennae twitched. “Oh, please,” he said, “you can’t mean…"

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