Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Worth Searching For, Chapter 4

It was dark—that was the first thing Terra noticed. Dark and stuffy. But she was breathing. That was a good sign.

Something heavy and scratchy was covering her face. She aimed a sharp breath out of pursed lips to try to blow it away, but after a moment it simply settled back on her nose and chin.

That was when her heart started to race, because she did not like things covering her face. Her next thought was to push it away with her hand, but she quickly realised her wrists had been bound. With rope. Really rough rope. She was currently trapped in Uncomfortable Claustrophobia Land.

She was not okay with this.

Noticing she was on a hard surface, Terra rolled herself onto her back and sat up, kicking out with her legs. They moved freely. Perfect. Whoever thought it was only necessary to bind her hands would soon discover otherwise.

She kicked off her boots and pulled off her socks with her toes. Then, she leaned her head forward and brought her feet upward, grasping the offending source of her unease and tugging. It seemed to be a burlap sack, put over her head but not cinched tightly enough, as with a little wriggling she got it off.

She let out a loud gasp of relief, taking a few seconds to just sit and breathe unobstructed fresh air. Well, “fresh” was relative. Wherever she was smelled of the musk of old wood, the tang of brine, and a dozen other odours mingled together so her human nose couldn’t discern any of them in specific. She tossed the hateful bag away with one foot.

It was still dark, but a few metres away Terra could see a thin, horizontal line of flickering orange—firelight under a doorway. The dim illumination cast a sparse twilight on tall, angular stacks between her and the door, not enough for her to see any more details. But she still had her glasses on. There were a lot of ways this could have gone worse.

“Anybody else in here?” she asked. “Blynn? Hyren?”

“Terra?” a muffled, yet familiar voice said groggily nearby. Something threw out a few cyan sparks of magic.

“Pharazon!” Terra said, reaching out with her feet and touching smooth scales. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, just… tired, and… what’s on my face? And my arms—!” The Draik’s wings sparked again.

“Do you feel my feet on you?” Terra asked. “Move your head to them.” She felt rough cloth brush up against her toes, and she carefully grabbed and tugged. Once the bag was off, she flung it aside.

“Where are we?!” Pharazon blurted. “What happened?! This isn’t the Lunar Festival, we’re not—“

“Shh! Not so loud,” Terra said. “Keep calm, okay? We’re still alive, and we can work with that. We need to approach this logically.”

“I don’t understand what just happened,” Pharazon said.

“Pretty sure we’ve been kidnapped,” Terra said. “Abducted. Shanghaied.” Terra used her knee to awkwardly push her glasses back up her nose. Her face was clammy with sweat from being in a stuffy bag for who knew how long, and she tried to wipe it off on the shoulders of her flannel shirt.

“’Shanghaied’?” Pharazon asked.

“It’s an old Shenkuuvian colloquialism derived from the infamous sky pirate Shang Hai,” Terra said. “Oh, never mind, this isn’t the time for that.” She shuffled around so her back faced Pharazon. “Turn around and shred my ropes with your claws.”

“Er… right,” he said. Something moved in the dark and began scratching at the thick bonds.

“Heh, amateurs,” Terra said. The ropes began to loosen as loops fell free, and finally with some tugging and wriggling she slipped her wrists out. “Okay, your turn.” She felt for Pharazon’s arms in the dark, worked her way down to his wrists, and started examining his bonds with her fingers, searching for the knot.

“You’re taking this remarkably well,” he said.

Terra’s fingertips hit a snag of rope and she began to work at it, loosening it. “Well, freaking out isn’t going to solve anything,” she said. “Anyway—I’ve been kidnapped before, and once in a lifetime is more than enough.”

“Really?” Pharazon asked. “When? It must have been before I was hatched, otherwise I think I’d know about it.”

Terra paused. “Yeah. It was,” she said quietly. Although she had been trying to keep them repressed, bad memories bubbled up like indigestion. She forced herself to keep working, finally getting the knot undone and pulling the thick cords off of her Draik.

Claws scrabbled on wood. “Oh, thank goodness, my wings are all right,” Pharazon said. “So what happened back then?”

His owner sighed. It was not a time she liked remembering. “Hyren didn’t tell you the whole story of how we met,” she said. “When we reached the Haunted Woods, I was abducted by Werelupes. Their king wanted me to adopt him for some reason.”

“Huh, weird,” Pharazon said. “From what I’ve read, it’s only ever owner-created Neopets who want and need owners.”

Terra thought for a moment. “I guess it’s not impossible that he was created,” she said. “But he wasn’t very nice to me.” She frowned, but another memory surfaced, of briefly seeing the Werelupe looking rather sad and weary. It made Terra feel bad for him, but kidnapping random owners away from their Neopets was not an acceptable way to try to get adopted.

“How did you escape?” Pharazon asked.

“Blynn and Hyren rescued me,” Terra said. She still remembered thinking she would never see her beloved friends again, and have to spend the rest of her life with those unfriendly monsters. The memories made her breath catch.

She swallowed hard. “We fought our way out,” she said, “and Blynn ended up inadvertently demolishing the Werelupes’ keep with her slingshot. They all fell with it, and… that’s probably the last anyone ever heard of them.”

“So it wouldn’t have been the same Werelupe King who was defeated by Sir Tormund and Princess Roberta on their quest to stop the Darkest Faerie,” Pharazon said.

“Nope,” Terra said. “That pack lived in Meridell, anyway.” She gritted her teeth, trying to dispel the memories. They were gone. She didn’t have to worry about them anymore. So why did the fear still feel so present?

But she had to stay confident, both for her own sake and for Pharazon’s. The fact that he was tangled up in this mess too just made her more determined to get them out of it. “Hyren was more than willing to teach me a thing or two after our little adventure,” she said. “Not just about combat, but survival skills in general.”

Her hand moved to her side, and she wasn’t surprised that her sword was gone. Of course they’d take her weapon, but she still mourned its loss. Although it was not nearly as valuable as Hyren’s and Blynn’s faerie weapons, it was still a nicely-crafted blade that Hyren had helped her pick out, and it had served her well for years. She would have to find it—and her purse, which had all of her Neopoints in it, and some protein bars, and was also missing. Not cool.

“How come he’s never taught me?” Pharazon asked.

“Because you’re always reading inside during our training sessions,” Terra said. “We’ve invited you several times, but you always declined.”

“Oh,” Pharazon said. “So what do we do next?”

His owner put on her best self-assured grin, invisible in the gloom. They could get through this. They had to. “First up, a check of our own condition,” she said. “Are you in any pain? Head hurt?”

“Nope… mm… nope,” Pharazon said. “I was a little tired first waking up, but that’s it.”

“Same here,” Terra said. “No head pain, that’s good. At least they were nice enough to not give us concussions. They must have used a tranquilliser or magic. See, we’re off to a great start already.” The last thing she wanted out of this was a head injury on top of everything else. “What’s the last thing you remember?”

“Um… the parade, we were going to see the parade,” Pharazon said. “We’d just finished dropping Gwyneth off at a stable—oh no, do you think she’s all right? Who will go to pick her up?”

“We’ll have to worry about that once we get back to Shenkuu,” Terra said. “But I remember that too. We’d just spotted Blynn and Hyren and were making our way through the crowd over to them… that’s when my memories cut out.”

“Same,” Pharazon said.

“Hm. That means they might not be with us,” Terra said. “Do you feel up to spitting some light?”

“Yeah… yeah, I think so,” Pharazon said. He took a deep breath and blew. A tinkling sound accompanied a stream of aquamarine magic from the back of his throat. It lit the area, revealing a nervous Draik, stacks of crates, and a small, windowless room made entirely of wood.

After a moment the magic dissipated into the air, leaving them in darkness once more. “Looks like it’s just us,” Terra said. She drummed her fingers on the floorboards. “Okay, well, that’s good. I’m sure Blynn and Hyren will figure something out. They wouldn’t leave us missing.”

“Ohh, I hope so,” Pharazon moaned. “Do you think they’d even be able to find us?”

“They’ll come through for us,” Terra said. “They always do.” She leaned back against the wall and cleaned her glasses with her sleeve. “Although that brings up the question of where we are.” Whatever happened, she had to keep the worry away and keep moving. “This looks, feels, and smells like a cargo hold of a ship, but I don’t feel the rocking of water. And—do you hear that far-off humming?”

“Yeah,” Pharazon said.

“A magic-powered engine,” Terra said. “Considering where we were kidnapped from, I think it’s reasonable to deduce that we’re on a Shenkuuvian sky-ship.” She pulled her socks and boots back on.

“Well, great,” Pharazon said. “We know where we are. What about where we’re going?” The Draik’s voice carried such a tone of despair that Terra could practically hear his ears droop.

“Excellent question,” Terra said. “My best hypothesis is that someone saw the two of us dropping off Gwyneth and targeted us because of your rare species and colour.”

“Ransom?” Pharazon asked.

“Likely,” Terra said. “Although usually it’s the owners who have to pay ransom for the pets. So I don’t understand what advantage kidnapping the both of us would have.” She brushed a few stray wisps of hair out of her face. She would have to re-do her braid at some point.

Pharazon leaned against her and said, “Maybe they’re just really stupid kidnappers.” He was still shaking.

Terra put her arm around his shoulders. “That’s what I’m hoping,” she said. She grinned impishly. “C’mon, let’s explore a little. Nobody can keep us down for long, right?”

“Ohhh, drat,” Pharazon said as Terra helped him to his feet. “I should have guessed something like this would happen. Don’t you remember that ominous fortune I got at the restaurant? I never should have opened that cookie…”

“Pharazon,” Terra said, grabbing his shoulder. “This would have happened whether or not you ever opened the cookie. Besides, it said something about shadows consuming the moon and stuff. Not ‘you’re gonna get kidnapped’.”

“Spectres of the fallen shall rise’,” Pharazon said.

Just my luck to get stuck in this situation with someone who’s a bigger worrywart than me, Terra thought. She couldn’t let that exasperation show, though. That would just make things worse for him. “Hey, I wonder what’s in these crates!” she said. “Pharazon, a little light, if you would?” She just needed to keep him distracted enough to stop him becoming a nervous wreck. And she would have to not let his anxiety stress her out too much, although she could practically feel it exploding out of him. “Ow. Leg cramp.”

Terra lifted herself to the topmost crate of one of the stacks, and Pharazon clawed up the side of the wood. With a little exertion, Terra slid aside the lid. Pharazon breathed another puff of magic onto the contents.

“Gold… gems…” Terra muttered as she rifled through piles of wealth. “There isn’t anything useful in here!”

Pharazon lifted his head, his ears perking. “Terra?” he whispered.

The human picked up a handful of emeralds, likely stolen from some merchant’s coffer. “Well, these do hurt when you chuck ‘em at somebody’s head,” she said. “Better than nothing, I suppose. One must be resourceful in these sorts of situations.”

“Terra, what was that?” the Draik asked, wings sparking in agitation.

“Why couldn’t they be smuggling Battledome weapons,” Terra grumbled as she stuffed a few gold coins in her pockets. “Or, you know, Fyora or something. She’d be useful.”

The door slammed open. “Oy!” a rough voice barked. “Whaddya think yer doin’?!”

Terra looked up to see a burly relic Nimmo standing in the doorway, dressed in ragtag Shenkuuvian mariners’ garb, holding a lantern in one hand and a cutlass in the other. The Nimmo scowled as she waited for an answer.

“Oh,” Terra said with a grin. “Hi.”

“What in the seven skies is goin’ on here?!” the pirate growled.

Pharazon whimpered and scrambled down to the floor, poking his claws together nervously as he inched toward his owner.

“You know, we were just discussing that same question,” Terra replied, dismounting the stack of crates. “I was hoping you could tell us.”

The Nimmo narrowed her eyes. “Put those back,” she said, motioning to Terra’s pocket with the tip of her blade.

“I could put them back,” Terra said, pulling out a few emeralds. “Orrr… I could do this!” With a sharp flick of her wrist, she sent a spray of gems flying.

The Nimmo didn’t even blink as they struck her craggy face and bounced off, clattering on the floor.

“Oh. Right. The whole made-of-stone thing,” Terra said. “Yeah, I guess that was a bad call.”

With a snarl, the pirate advanced on them. “Fetch me more rope!” she yelled over her shoulder.

“Aye aye!” came a deep voice from down the hall.

“You little brats had best thank the faeries we was told to bring you in alive,” the Nimmo sneered. Setting the lantern on a crate, she fingered her blade as she began to back them against the wall.

“Yes, that is quite fortunate,” Terra said. “It severely limits what you can threaten us with.” In the next breath, she pushed off, charging toward the Nimmo. With one circling motion, Terra veered to the side and sent a sweeping kick out at the pirate’s feet.

The Nimmo let out a yelp of surprise and toppled to the floor, making the entire ship shiver. Before she could counter, Terra leapt on top of her. The human twisted the cutlass from the pirate’s grip and rotated the Nimmo’s shoulder, making her roll over. Digging one knee between the Neopet’s shoulder blades, Terra lifted the pirate’s arm up and back in a wrist lock, holding the cutlass in a defensive position in her other hand. “Pharazon! Bar the door!” she shouted, struggling to keep the massive Nimmo pinned.

The Draik had plastered himself against the wall. “I—uh—ah—!”  he stammered. Fear stuttered his motions like a broken Virtupets hologram. Heavy, quick footsteps sounded from the hallway.

“Move!” Terra said. Why was it so difficult for him to be useful right now?

Into the room thundered a desert Elephante holding a thick coil of rope. The Nimmo managed to get her free arm under herself and pitched to the side, upsetting Terra’s balance. The girl responded by yanking the pirate’s wrist further back. With a howl of pain, the brigand stopped her struggling.

Terra felt like she was getting things under control, but then Pharazon let out a panicked cry. He flapped his wings and careened toward the Elephante, aiming for the burly pirate’s robust belly.

“No—!” Terra choked. “That’s a terrible battle strategy—“

The Draik collided with the Elephante’s paunch and the pirate merely laughed, grabbing him by the wings and holding him in an outstretched arm. Pharazon let out a squeak of pain, arching his back and curling his tail.

“Looks like somebody never learned how ter fight,” the Elephante snickered. His grin faded as he looked to Terra. “Let her go,” he growled, “or things’ll get ugly fer yer li’l friend here.” He dropped the rope and reached for the scimitar at his side.

“No they won’t,” Terra panted, her eyes glinting dangerously. “She told me we’re wanted alive. So bluff away.”

The Elephante smiled again, revealing a complement of rotting teeth past his trunk. “Yer wanted alive and unharmed,” he said, unsheathing his scimitar and holding the blade to Pharazon’s throat. “Our client just wants yer Neopet alive.”

Terra’s nostrils flared and she scowled in frustration. That was a bluff she wasn’t willing to press. She sighed, her shoulders sagging, and locked eyes with a wilted-looking Pharazon who seemed to be unable to do anything but panic and cower. Slowly, Terra let go of the Nimmo’s wrist, dropped the cutlass, and stood, hands up in a gesture of surrender.

“Well, looks like we got the smart ones after all,” Terra said to Pharazon as the two pirates tied them against separate stacks of crates. The Draik gave her a mournful glance before hanging his head.

“Shut yer yap or we’ll stuff somethin’ in it,” the Nimmo said, pulling the ropes extra tightly around Terra and making her wince. Terra thought the pirates should be grateful for the compliment, but she did not want any foreign objects in her mouth, so she remained silent as the two finished their work.

“I tell ya, he better pay us extra for this job,” the Nimmo growled as she ushered the other pirate out of the hold. She slammed the door, and all was dark again.

Terra let out the breath she had been holding, but the ropes remained taut enough around her torso that she couldn’t wriggle out. “Hm. This is a predicament,” she said. “Well, no worries. We’ll just have to try again later!”

“Terra, I’m sorry,” Pharazon said. “I… that pirate was right, I don’t know how to fight. I don’t know how to do anything. I’m useless.”

Terra hated to admit it, but she was frustrated with him. If he’d done as she said, they would have gotten a lot farther. For her, it came naturally to be bold and decisive in these sorts of situations. Hyren and Blynn were much the same way. It seemed that Pharazon wasn’t, and that tried Terra’s patience, especially in a dire situation such as this when she really could have used his help.

But he didn’t need to hear that right now, so she put on her best smile. In the darkness, she knew Pharazon couldn’t see her, but she at least needed to feel cheerful for herself. “No, you’re not,” she replied, trying not to sound short. “You just… don’t have a very good skillset for this. That’s all. Like Blynn said, you’re good at other things.” She straightened her legs. “Don’t worry. Ol’ Terra will get you back home to your library.”

There was nothing but silence from the Draik. Maybe he had gotten tired of his own whining, too.

“C’mon, you have to be at least a little bit curious about who’s behind all this,” Terra said. “Just think of this as an adventure. A… really uncomfortable, inconvenient, smelly adventure.” She just had to wait out the uncomfortable and smelly part, she thought, and then she could get to the bottom of this mystery. Hopefully Pharazon would decide to step up to the challenge, too.

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