Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Worth Searching For, Chapter 3

 


The heavy smell of incense saturated the air as Hyren followed Blynn through the old wooden door of an upstairs shop. On the other side was a small waiting area, littered with cushions. A grouping of lanterns hung from the ceiling, shedding a cool, soothing ultramarine glow. Silk paintings of Shenkuuvian landscapes adorned the walls. The ambience began to make Hyren quite sleepy, a sensation not helped by the two hours it had taken them to find this place. It was times like these that made him miss his old mutant body and its incredible endurance.

“What possessed you to think this was a good idea?” he grumbled to Blynn. “We should have gone to the palace and gathered more information instead of this… hokey nonsense.”

“Shh, don’t be rude,” the Zafara hissed. “That dockworker told us this was the best place in the city for information.”

“I don’t trust weirdos who think the phase of Kreludor will influence someone’s luck at the stock market,” Hyren said. He wrinkled his lack of nose at a zodiac chart on the wall, showing a circle of Petpets accompanied by rings of broken and unbroken lines. “Most of this doesn’t even have anything to do with real magic, it’s just stuff superstitious pets thought up that sounded mystical, and other pets believed them.”

Blynn approached the elaborately embroidered curtain at the back of the room. “Most of it’s not real magic,” she said. “For every fifty frauds, there’s a genuine soothsayer. Some pets do have that gift.”

“Are you going to stand out there all night or are you going to come in?” asked a voice from behind the curtain. It was husky and female, relaxed but with a bit of a professional clip. “I have no other clients right now.”

“O-of course,” Blynn stammered, pulling the curtain aside. A beam of soft orange light fell on her face like she’d found a portal to Moltara. “C’mon, Hyren.”

 

He nodded, and followed her past the curtain into another small room where heat pricked at his skin. Trinkets and charms festooned the walls, but the floor was bare save for a hearth in the centre and a few cushions arranged around it. Smoke from a pan of glowing coals twined up to a flue in the ceiling, while a figure sat on one of the pillows, thin hands folded patiently in her lap.

Hyren took in a sharp breath and heard Blynn do the same. Neither of them moved.

The oracle smiled, revealing pointed canine teeth as her purple eyes gleamed in the ember-light. “Please, sit down,” she said. “I do not bite.” Her skin was a pale lavender, while her silky hair, dark as midnight, was done up in an elaborate style with silver ornaments that tinkled like tiny bells when she moved. Her leathery wings were draped casually over her shoulders, their claws hooked together at her collarbone to give the impression of a cloak. Beneath them she wore layered, long-sleeved robes in harmonising shades of black, purple, and blue, chased with silver embroidery.

“Sorry,” Hyren muttered, stepping toward the coals and kneeling on one of the cushions. Blynn followed him, crouching nearby. It wasn’t that they were prejudiced against dark faeries. But faeries in general were very powerful beings and commanded a certain respect. There was also the fact that faeries rarely took Neopoints as payment, and dark faeries could be notoriously exacting in their demands. She certainly wasn’t what he and Blynn had expected. But they couldn’t duck out now and offend her.

“My name is Yuezhi,” she said. “You are?”

“Blynn and Hyren,” Blynn replied, staring at her from across the fire. The Zafara’s face was set, but her ears were lowered and her paws trembled. “We heard you’re an oracle.”

“Yes, this is true,” Yuezhi said. “What do you wish to know?”

“First, what do you require as payment?” Hyren asked, his entire body rigid. He wouldn’t put his family in further danger by acquiescing to an unreasonable request. But what if this was the only way to find them? His mind and emotions warred with each other, but he kept his face blank.

“Only that with which you are willing to part,” Yuezhi said.

Hyren bowed his head in thought. She had no need for sustenance. They had no toys they could give her like the dark faeries who sometimes sought them out for quests. Maybe she wanted something more abstract?

Blynn began to unlatch the slingshot holster from around her waist.

“No,” Yuezhi said, holding out a hand in a halting gesture. “I cannot accept that. Its value is too great, and I am not as greedy as some of my sisters.”

“Then what else can we give you?” the Zafara asked desperately.

Hyren fingered his own faerie weapon. What did he have to offer? He looked back up at Yuezhi. “Do you like stories?” he asked.

The faerie’s eyes glittered, and she smiled. “I love stories,” she said. “What tales have you to tell, experienced one?”

The Grundo’s demeanor relaxed and he leaned back on his hands. “More than most pets on this planet have, that’s for sure,” he said. “Let’s see… oh, I’ve got a good one for you. Out there, in the stars, there’s a world made of diamond, created from the heat and pressure of a giant planet’s atmosphere that later got blown away by radiation from its suns. On it live a population of Mibblies—they’re Petpets that look like rocks until you get too close and they start walking away!”

Yuezhi leaned forward like someone had given her a nibble of a tantalising treat. The claw-hooks on her wings tightened. “Do go on,” she said.

Stepping around the fact that he had landed troops on the planet and claimed it for Sloth, Hyren told of how he had discovered crystal caverns etched into the world’s crust, and how the planet orbited a pair of stars that created the most magnificent sunsets when their light shimmered over kilometres of diamond. Yuezhi sat enraptured, and Blynn held her toes and watched Hyren, jaw agape.

When he finished, Yuezhi let out a sigh, and then laughed, her ornaments chiming. “That was beautiful, Hyren,” she said. “Thank you. Your words shall be woven into my memories forevermore.”

“Good thinking,” Blynn said to him.

“Nice to know those stories still come in handy,” Hyren replied. He could never pass up the opportunity to spin a good yarn about the old days. Remembering all the evenings his family had gathered around to hear his storytelling made his heart sink a little. He didn’t want those times to be over.

“Now, as to your inquiry,” Yuezhi said, her tone again becoming businesslike. The faerie reached down and picked up a flat fragment of a Turdle shell from a pile at her side. “You will phrase your question in the form of dual statements, positive and negative. The magic of Neopia will determine which statement is truth.” She took a metal stylus in her other hand and poised it above the shell. “Choose your question wisely. You only get one chance.”

Hyren stared at the coals and rubbed at his chin, frustration itching at the back of his head. He liked that she didn’t try to awe them with theatrics like other, phony fortunetellers usually did. Which one question would put them on the right track, though? Why couldn’t he just ask where Terra and Pharazon were?

Blynn took a breath and leaned forward. “We’ll find who we’re looking for,” she said, “or, we won’t find who we’re looking for.” She glanced over at Hyren.

“Rather vague, don’t you think?” Hyren asked his sister as Yuezhi started to inscribe the statements onto the shell.

“Do you have anything better?” Blynn asked.

He didn’t, so he let her have the satisfaction of winning. He just hoped this would all be worth it, although if they were dealing with a faerie, there was definitely more of a chance that she wasn’t a fake. And, she liked his stories. So she couldn’t have been all that bad.

Yuezhi picked up a pair of tongs at her side and used them to hold the shell in the coals. Blynn and Hyren leaned in to watch as the flat piece of bone began to heat and splinter, hairline cracks forming in and around the characters the faerie had inscribed.

Suddenly, the writing glowed a brilliant purple, and the embers flared up into a pillar of twisting orange flame and violet magic. Hyren let out a cry of surprise and jerked back, pulling Blynn with him. The column swirled and contorted like it was being buffeted by wind, and streams of magic corkscrewed out and bounced off the walls like wayward Lightmites. Yuezhi’s dark eyes glittered.

Within the depths of the maelstrom, an image began to form. Colours and shapes solidified into rolling pastureland and thick forests beneath an overcast sky. A towering structure faded into view, an alabaster castle whose pennants of white and green with a gold sunburst snapped soundlessly in a faraway breeze.

Then the vision was swallowed up by billows of dark smoke and a shower of sparks. The voluminous cloud looked for a moment like it would collapse and fill the room, but instead it funneled up the flue in a rush. A few stray sparks of magic bounced across the floor and faded, and all was silent once more. Yuezhi removed the shell from the fire and set it on the hearthstone.

The two siblings said nothing for a moment. Finally, Blynn said, “That wasn’t a yes-or-no answer.”

“It certainly was not,” Yuezhi said. “That is not a normal response. A strong portent, indeed. You are desperately needed in Brightvale, it seems.”

“Why would they be there?” Hyren asked. “I don’t think we even know anyone in Brightvale.”

“They might not necessarily be there,” Blynn said. “Maybe we’ll find a clue there, or something. I didn’t ask where they were, just to find them. Maybe, um… maybe they were helping somebody who was lost, and they needed to go back to Brightvale for… uh…”

She was clearly grasping at straws, and Hyren didn’t have the heart to rebut her. He pushed himself to his feet. “Well, we have a lead,” he said, “and that’s better than nothing. Let’s get a move on.” It irritated him that this new revelation produced more questions than answers. There hadn’t been nearly enough time for even a Virtupets craft to get from Shenkuu to the Meridell area. Unless some sort of teleportation magic was involved. But again the question came up—who?

Blynn rose to her feet and bowed, Shenkuuvian-style. “Thank you, ma’am,” she said to Yuezhi. “You’ve… given us hope.” She paused on her way to the curtain to the lobby. “By the way… was it you who wrote that fortune in Pharazon’s cookie?”

Yuezhi tilted her head questioningly, and then laughed. “Oh my, another one of those?” she asked. “No, I am not at fault for that. I have no idea who is. A mad soothsayer who works in the bakery, perhaps?”

“Yeah, that would explain it,” Hyren said. He turned and gave the fortune-teller a deep bow as well. “Thank you, milady. In spite of my initial scepticism, I’m glad we were referred to you.”

“See, they’re not all frauds,” Blynn said to him as she parted the curtain.

The dark faerie reached out and traced the cracks in the shell with one thin finger. “Take caution, young ones,” she said. She glanced up at them, her lips thinned by concern. “Something has disturbed the forces of Neopia, causing them to cry out for balance.” Her gaze dropped to the floor. “I fear your search will not be so easy as you wish it.”

Hyren swallowed hard. “What do you mean?” he asked.

“I mean what I say,” Yuezhi said, folding her hands in her lap. “I cannot see more than this. I am but a simple augur.” Her frown eased into a smile and she looked back up at the Neopets apologetically. “I am sorry. Do not let my words frighten you. You are both very strong. If those you seek are just as strong… then I believe all will be set right in the end.”

Blynn nodded. “They are strong,” she said. “I—I’m sure they’ll make it through.” Her tail lashed behind her, a sure sign of her anxiety.

Well, Terra was strong, Hyren thought, even though that did nothing to quell his worry. Pharazon, he wasn’t so sure about. The meek Draik was more suited for the library than these kinds of adventures.

Unable to bring himself to smile, Hyren met Yuezhi’s eyes again. “Thanks,” he said. “Have a good evening.” He paused. “By the way—I’m not young. You’re a faerie, you should know that.”

Yuezhi grinned. “Compared to a faerie,” she said, “you are but a babe. Have a pleasant night, oh seasoned traveller.”

Hyren knew she was right, but he had better things to do than stand around and talk about faerie immortality. He turned and brushed past Blynn, stalking across the lobby and to the door.

A damp wind had picked up outside, whistling through the streets. Lanterns swayed on their ropes and bumped against each other like boats at mooring, and scraps of refuse bounced down the road. The air hung heavy as the clouds huddled overhead, so close that the city’s light reflected vermilion off their undersides.

“Smells like rain,” Blynn said as she and Hyren climbed up Gwyneth.

The Ganuthor had found a garbage bin to root through and was chewing on a bone contentedly, but Hyren figured whatever kept her happy was good enough for him, considering the circumstances. He could worry about her hygiene once he’d found her owner. He searched her saddlebags for any sign that a Weewoo had dropped off a message from the imperial guard, but to no avail.

Blynn patted Gwyneth’s head and steered her back out into the street. “Hyren, I don’t like the look of this weather,” she said. “We should find an inn and set out tomorrow.”

“No,” he grumbled from behind her. “The longer we wait, the farther away we let them get.”

“But I’m tired!” the Zafara said, yawning. “And so is Gwyneth! We can’t go on like this with no sleep, and neither can you!” She shot him a glare over her shoulder. “You’re not mutant anymore, remember?”

Hyren glared back, his antennae lowered. “I don’t care,” he said. “This has nothing to do with the perceived limits of our stamina, and everything to do with getting our family back. We’re flying out tonight.”

Blynn’s tail curled in aggravation. “I seriously think this is a bad idea,” she said.

“Do you want to find them or not?” Hyren asked.

Blynn’s ears drooped and her nose wrinkled as she said, “Of course I do…”

Hyren sighed and said, “If you get too tired, we’ll switch places and I’ll guide her, okay?”

The Zafara’s shoulders slumped, but she reached into one of the saddlebags and pulled out a compass on a cord that she hung around her neck. She gripped the compass in one paw. “For the record, I still think this is a bad idea,” she said. She tapped the Ganuthor’s head thrice. “Gwyneth! Up!”

Gwyneth let out a rumble of annoyance and shook her head, shifting her wings and stumbling down the street.

“No, Gwyn, up!” Blynn commanded again. “I know you’re tired, but you have to fly! We have to find Pharazon!”

The massive Petpet whined, but her owner’s name seemed to have given her a second wind. Steeling her haunches, she spread her wings and took off at a run. As her speed increased, she began flapping her wings, and finally pushed off from the ground entirely. Her first attempt at liftoff only lasted a second before her weary paws touched the street again, but the rebound was stronger and sent the three veering above the rooftops.

A blast of wind made Gwyneth’s leathery wings billow like sails, and she fought to stay upright as Blynn guided her into the clouds. The dense fog slapped Hyren’s face with overpowering wetness. Knees pressed firmly into the Ganuthor’s back, Hyren pulled out their travelling cloaks and threw Blynn’s around her shoulders before huddling into his own.

“Thanks!” Blynn called back to him, yelling to be heard above the wind.

Hyren sneezed miserably in response. He hated rain. But he hated even more the thought of stalling while his family was in trouble. Finally they pulled out of the clouds, and the cold night wind felt like it was slicing through him, chilling his very core. The cloud layer stretched below them like a roiling sea, while above hung a canopy of stars. Distant thunderheads amassed on the southeastern horizon like a pack of beasts cornering their prey.

The Grundo put a hand on Gwyneth’s damp, matted fur. The Ganuthor couldn’t attain the altitude to avoid those storms, so she’d have to try to outfly them. “Sorry, girl,” he muttered. “Hang in there.” They all just had to hang in there.

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