Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Worth Searching For, Chapter 6


It turned out Terra was right. It was a long trip. And service was lousy.

She and Pharazon were left alone in the dark for what felt like hours. Sometimes she could ignore the discomfort enough to sleep, and sometimes she would offer Pharazon a few words of consolation and cheer, but he rarely replied with more than one syllable and she began to really worry about him.

She didn’t know what to say to make him feel better, especially because they were hungry and thirsty. Terra retreated into her thoughts, finding her happy place on the white-sand beaches of Altador. There wasn’t much else she could do to pass the time. Blynn and Hyren kept sneaking into her daydreams, Blynn skipping rocks on the waves while Hyren taught Terra swordplay on the sand.

But those flights of fancy didn’t last long, because Terra’s thoughts kept turning back to why she and Pharazon were in this predicament. Thanks to his utter unhelpfulness, though, there wasn’t anything more she could do to investigate for the time being. So she would have to dig in her heels and wait out the voyage.

At some point, the relic Nimmo came back in with a bowl of vinegared rice and a flask of water. She fed them by hand, simply stuffing their mouths full of rice until they began to gag, laughing as they coughed grains back onto the floor. She was no gentler with the water.

“Okay, I hope that’s the only in-flight meal we get,” Terra muttered once the pirate had left.

Pharazon simply sighed in response.

“Perk up, buddy,” Terra said. “I know my optimism is obnoxious, but you’re going to worry yourself sick.”

“Terra, what if… what if it’s Dr. Sloth?” Pharazon asked.

“It wouldn’t be Sloth,” Terra said. “He’s out in the far reaches of space, and possibly still trapped in that amulet, remember? Also he thinks Hyren is dead.” And if it somehow was Sloth, Terra thought, if he thought he could mess with their family again he had another thing coming.

“But what if it is?” Pharazon asked.

“I don’t think Sloth’s the kind of guy who hires pirates when he has a spacefleet at his disposal,” Terra said.  No, this didn’t smack of Sloth in the least. And even if it was, she’d escaped from him before. Of course, that time she’d had Hyren and Blynn with her, not Captain Ulcer and his astounding powers of ineptitude.

“I just want to go home,” Pharazon groaned. His tail thumped against the floor and his twitching wings, restrained as they were, threw out a few sparks.

Terra tried the ropes again. Still too tight. And the pirates had been smart enough to make sure Pharazon’s claws couldn’t reach the ropes. “We could play Twenty Questions,” Terra said. “I’m thinking of a Petpet.”

“Gwyneth,” Pharazon said.

“The object of the game is to guess what I’m thinking of,” Terra said. “And it was a white Selket.”

“I don’t want to play this game,” Pharazon said. The irritation in his tone was evident.

“Sorry,” Terra said. She curled her knees closer to her chest. “If it’s any consolation, I’m pretty sure sky-ships don’t take more than a day or so to go halfway around Neopia, at top speed. So wherever we’re headed, we should find out relatively soon.”

“Lovely,” Pharazon said, not exactly sounding enthusiastic.

Terra felt another wave of frustration well up in the back of her head and she took a few deep breaths of the stale air to calm herself. “Okay. Let’s try to get more rest,” she said. That was her euphemistic way of saying she would stop talking now.

The day - or night, it was very hard to tell due to a lack of windows - dragged on in silence. Their meager meal did very little to quell their stomachs’ protests of hunger. Pharazon did not say another word, and Terra spent her time mentally going over training sessions with Hyren at their villa.

She breathed in time with her memories as, in her mind’s eye, she clashed blades with her Grundo, learned parries, and solidified her stances. The fact that he was half her height did not make him any less of a formidable opponent, but he was a kind teacher. Terra would see him and Blynn again. She would not give up hope.

“Awright, you miserable Mootix.” The Nimmo pirate’s harsh brogue cut through the silence.

Terra didn’t realise she had been asleep until she opened her eyes and saw the Nimmo tromp into the hold, followed by her Elephante crewmate. The distant humming had stopped, leaving an emptiness in Terra’s ears. It now felt like they were bobbing slowly up and down. That and her hunger made her stomach turn.

“Time to go,” the Nimmo said, stalking past them. “And we ain’t gonna have a repeat of last time, you hear me?” She crouched to grab from the floor the sacks that had been over Terra’s and Pharazon’s heads.

Terra frowned. Being stuck in this hold for countless hours was bad enough. But she was not getting her face covered again. “Pharazon!” she hissed as the Nimmo tossed one of the sacks to the Elephante.

The Draik, his ears wilted, looked up at her questioningly.

She mouthed “follow my lead” and pointed with her chin to the Nimmo. As the pirate turned back around, Terra gave her a slightly crazed grin. “You know how Draiks breathe fire?” the human asked.

The Elephante raised an eyebrow at Pharazon. “That one looks more likely ter breathe flowers,” he said.

Terra didn’t skip a beat. “Actually, faerie Draiks breathe magic,” she said. “Yep. Potent stuff, too. Who knows what it might do to you! Could turn you into a Mortog, or make you grow a second head… shouldn’t mess with it, really.”

The Nimmo narrowed her eyes. “Oh?” she asked.

“Yeah,” Terra said. “So I’ll cut you a deal—how about you don’t put those bags on our heads, and I can convince my associate here not to give you an enchantment of eternal itching.” With a desperate grimace, she stared hard at Pharazon, hoping he got the hint.

He gave her a confused look for a moment, then glanced up at the pirates. Taking in a deep breath, he opened his jaw and blew out a warning wisp of faerie dust. “I’m d-dangerous!” he squeaked very unconvincingly.

The two brigands looked at each other and began laughing hysterically.

***

“Okay, that could have gone better,” Terra said, trying to adjust her face so it wouldn’t be chafed by the rough burlap of the large sack she had been stuffed into. Every harsh step the Nimmo pirate took jolted Terra’s insides, heightening her nausea. Over the shoulder was the worst way to travel, she decided. Especially when that shoulder was made of stone. “I think I like the bag over the head thing more.”

“Quiet!” the Nimmo said, gaving her an especially rough jostle. “You sure we shouldn’t have tied up the Draik? He could rip through his sack with his claws, y’know.”

 From somewhere behind her, the Elephante snickered and said, “Nah, he ain’t got the guts ter try. I’ve seen Miamice braver’n him!”

“He’s right,” Pharazon said nearby, probably being carried by the Elephante. “I’ve been nothing but a hindrance to you this entire trip, Terra. I’m… I’m an embarrassment to all Draik-kind.”

“No, you’re not,” Terra groaned. “You’re just… look, can we continue this conversation when we don’t have an audience?”

“Nah, keep goin’,” the Nimmo chuckled. “This is hilarious.”

“We’ll talk about this later,” Terra muttered. Pharazon didn’t answer, so she took that to be an agreement.

The Nimmo stepped upward, and the lapping of waves met Terra’s ears while the air became cold and salty. Deckboards creaked under the relic Neopet’s weight, and then they headed down on an incline. Other than that, there was only ominous silence.

“Do ye have the goods?” a new, raspy voice asked.

Without any warning, Terra was dropped onto a hard surface. A dull thud beside her announced Pharazon’s arrival. She grimaced and rolled over on her side. At least now her stomach would start to calm down.

“We want a bonus,” the Nimmo grunted. “Blasted brats gave us some trouble on the way over.”

Terra heard the heavy clink of coin. “You’ll get what he’s payin’ ye,” the new voice replied, “and nary a piece more. And dunnae give me tha’ look—I’m just the runner. Take it up with him if you want, but leave me out o’ it.”

“Fine,” the Nimmo said. “He must be daft if he’s payin’ this much for these two, anyway.” Although the pirate tried to sound tough, Terra caught a tinge of apprehension sneaking into her tone. That didn’t exactly comfort the human about what she and Pharazon were getting into. But she wanted answers.

The pirates’ footsteps retreated back up the gangplank, and the clop of Uni hooves came around to behind Terra’s head. The runner let out a few grunts as he fit himself back into his harness.

Terra recognised his accent. “I think we’re in Meridell,” she whispered.

“Great,” Pharazon replied, utterly unenthusiastic.

“Did you want to talk?” Terra asked.

“I can hear ye,” the runner said. With a bump, they began moving, rumbling slowly over uneven cobblestones. “And good cargo dunnae talk, or else I’ll tell me client it’s been naughty. And he’s not one to cross. Got it?”

“Yes sir,” Terra muttered. Her stomach twisted and gurgled, irate at having to move again. With a shudder, she curled her legs closer to her body. At least the bag was a little warmer than the open air. She hated to admit it, but she was kind of glad for the silence. Nothing she said to Pharazon seemed to help. She’d never seen him so depressed before. And it was understandable, but annoying all the same. When Terra was upset, she generally tried to do something about it. Pharazon had just given up. And Terra couldn’t stand giving up. It was making him really difficult to work with.

She didn’t know how she was going to be able to keep Pharazon safe through all this. He seemed to be absolutely miserable at defending himself or even helping her in the most basic of tasks under fire. He had book smarts, and that was about it. Terra had been hoping he would turn out to have some hidden wellspring of courage that would manifest in times of peril, but it seemed that hope was in vain. Right now he was only a liability. But she would see him home safely, no matter what.

The Uni clopped steadily into the abyss of night. At first, when they were on cobblestones, Terra heard the occasional creak of wood, jingle of metal, or the quick steps of someone else out late. At one point the sounds of laughter, clinking dishes, and someone singing off-key faded in and then out like a frequency being passed on a Virtupets comm. Terra began to be more and more curious about what sounds would mark the end of their journey.

But dread snaked its way in and twined around the curiosity as well. She tried her hardest to push it back down. Hyren had told her, during their training, that fear was a useless emotion and she should never succumb to it. She had to stay positive. After all, maybe something good would come out of this—like when Hyren had attempted to take her and Blynn hostage twelve years ago. They had befriended him, and it ended up making everyone’s lives better.

Terra wondered if whoever was behind this needed help, too. Of course they did, or else they wouldn’t be kidnapping people. But she just wished it was only her caught up in this, not Pharazon. This whole thing would be easier if she didn’t have to worry about him.

After a short time, the port’s ambiance was replaced by the heavy tamp of hoofbeats on dirt. The air grew less salty, and more fresh and sweet with the scent of plants opened up for the night. Petpetpets chirped and clicked around them. Once Terra thought she heard the far-off bleat of a Babaa. Soft breathing nearby told her Pharazon was asleep.

She wished she could sleep.

It felt like a long, long while, but finally the smells and sounds changed again. The air grew colder and wetter, this time not with sea air but with a mist that carried the aroma of pine mingled with other woods, and the deep fragrance of an ancient forest teeming with life. Albats and Whoots called high above, and a few times the mournful cry of a Weewoo drifted through the night. Terra tried to make herself sleep, but the discomfort and nausea was just too much. So the hours drifted on.

“Halt!” a guttural voice barked, making Terra cringe in surprise at the sudden noise.

They stopped. Terra’s inner balance kept moving and took a couple of seconds to catch up, disorienting her momentarily. Her stomach still had quite a few bones to pick by this point, and she rubbed her arms to try to get some warmth in her. Please let wherever we’re going be warm, she thought.

“State your business!” the voice said.

“Special deliv’ry,” the Uni said. “The crew o’ the Black Blurgah send their regards.”

“Ahhh,” the new voice said, and there was the scrabbling of claws on dirt. The wagon gave a lurch as a new weight was added, and then a massive heat source and loud, rapid sniffing moved around Terra before shifting to Pharazon.

He jolted awake with a gasp. “What was that?” he asked.

“Something with a nose, evidently,” Terra said.

The claws scrabbled back. “Follow me,” the voice said. Something heavy hit the dirt running and retreated into the distance.

The wagon pitched into motion again and Terra ran through a mental list of everything that lived in the Meridell region. Yurbles had claws, didn’t they? Maybe it was a family of Yurble criminals. Or Ixi Raiders—wait, no, they had hooves. And no reason to kidnap her from the other side of the world.

“Terra—I’m scared,” Pharazon said.

“Just hang in there,” Terra said. “I’ll get us out of this. I promise.” She might not have had Hyren’s years of military experience, but she was smart and stubborn. She just wished Pharazon would lift a claw to help her instead of being so infantile.

“We’ll take it from here,” another voice, female but just as harsh, growled.

“Here’s your pay,” the first voice said with the familiar clink of coins.

A pair of massive hands lifted Terra up and threw her over another shoulder. This one was much more cushioned and rather warm, especially compared to the cold night air. Coarse, dark fur poked through the sack.

Terra froze. Big, furry things. Her mind immediately raced back to that night in the Haunted Woods twelve years ago. But these couldn’t have been Werelupes, right? They were exterminated by Sir Tormund and Princess Roberta. Weren’t they?

“Ach, this all?” the runner asked. “Why was he so much more generous with the pirates?”

“It is not your place to question our lord’s payment,” the first voice replied. “Begone, unless you have other business here.”

The Uni muttered under his breath and began to refit himself to his harness, but by that time Terra was in motion again. Below her, two feet padded across the ground. Suddenly, the air became warmer and the smells different, more lived-in than left to nature. Orange firelight began to gleam through the sack’s weave. Far behind them, Terra heard a deep, hollow sound like the grinding of giant bones, and realised they were going steadily down.

Voices echoed from all around, snarling tones that laughed hoarsely, hummed snatches of low-pitched songs, or spoke in gravelly mutters. “Suhel!” someone called out. “You didn’t tell me you’d be hunting tonight! What loot have you got there, eh?”

“These are no spoils!” the female voice replied. “These are a special delivery, straight to His Lordship!”

A wave of murmurs rose up, and Terra became aware of a horde of new footfalls following them. She shut her eyes. These voices sounded uncannily like Werelupes, but they were gone. This couldn’t be them.

She was lifted from the shoulder and placed on a hard surface, and she knelt to keep from falling over. Frowning, she steeled herself for whatever might happen next, although her stomach twisted and her body pleaded for rest. She could rest once she got herself and Pharazon to safety.

“Milord,” the female named Suhel said with a new tone of respect. “Your guests have arrived.” The word “guests” dripped with sarcasm.

“Ah, excellent,” said another voice, deep and fierce as the night wind. “What was lost is now found.”

Terra’s heart froze. She definitely knew that voice. But she hadn’t heard it in twelve years.

Something undid the tie on the sack. Dark, furry paws pulled the burlap down from around her, and she found herself staring into a pair of fierce red eyes. They belonged to an enormous shaggy Lupe with dusky fur and a twisted crown fashioned from some creature’s skull. Their noses nearly touching, Terra could see the gleaming rows of fangs in his wide grin.

“Surprise,” said the Werelupe King.

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