Spheres of Influence: Part Six
It was a stormy evening on the Neopian Plains. The clouds had gathered quickly, and the sound of thunder roared over the grasslands. Not a drop of rain had fallen, yet. But the way things were, it probably wouldn’t be long now.
“What a gloomy night,” Robin said.
“Actually, I kind of like it,” Drake replied.
“You would, I suppose,” Robin said with a sigh. Drake only smiled.
They had all gathered near a large stone sticking out of the ground at the top of a hill. Robin and Drake were perched on top. Slate had curled up in the shadow of the rock, dozing lazily despite the storm. Hoshi and Naia were curled together at the base of the stone, looking out across the plains, while Cole paced about farther down the hill.
“Where is she?” he muttered, mostly to himself. “Kyran should have been here by now.”
“Have a little patience, Cole,” Robin said. “She’s probably just running a little late.”
“This storm could hold her back, too,” Hoshi observed. “I never liked flying in this kind of weather.”
“Who would?” Drake asked. “You know lightning strikes the highest object it can, right? If you were flying up there, and those bolts hit you, pretty soon, you’ll become...”
“Stop!” Hoshi cried, snuggling closer to Naia. “I don’t want to hear another word about it!”
Drake smirked. “Very well.”
Thunder split the air once more and Slate cracked open an eye. Pushing himself upright, he stretched his forelegs. There was no way he was going to sleep here much longer; if not because of the thunder, then because of the rain that was fast approaching. Yawning, he was about to move up onto the rock when a familiar scent drifted to him. It was like the musty scent that came from the grey Kougra in the mountain, and like the scent off of that Xweetok, though hers wasn’t nearly as potent. Scanning the horizon upwind, he spotted a figure looking at them from the top of a nearby hill. Once the stranger realized that he had been spotted, he turned and disappeared behind the hill.
He could lead us to where we need to go, Slate realized. Without signaling to the others, Slate ran after the strange grey pet.
“Slate! Come back here! Where are you going?” Drake called. Slate didn’t answer, but kept on going. He needed to find out where this pet was going before he lost track of him in the storm.
Slate dashed after the stranger, trying not to lose him. His path was erratic; running in one direction, then sharply turning in another. It was getting dark. Before long, with the fading sun and the gathering clouds, Slate could only see the stranger if lightning flashed. And even then, only if he was close enough. Then the rain came, washing away the scent of the stranger, which was Slate’s best chance at catching him. He finally lost the scent several minutes into the storm. As he took to the highest hill he could find to see where the stranger went, Drake landed nearby. Everyone else arrived soon after.
“What has gotten into you, Slate?” Drake asked. “Have you lost your mind running off into a storm like that? What in Neopia has got your tail in a twist?”
Slate gave Drake a determined look before turning back to search the plains. Robin padded up next to him, watching him carefully.
“You saw someone, didn’t you?” she asked after a moment. Slate nodded, but he didn’t turn. Robin twitched her tail thoughtfully and exchanged a glance with Drake. The Darigan Kougra nodded and turned to the others.
“Spread out,” he said. “There’s a pet in the area that might be able to lead us to their hideout.”
Slate smiled as everyone moved to find the grey pet. But even as he gazed across the sodden grasslands, something else ventured into his thoughts. Something in that grey scent seemed achingly familiar. It reminded him of something he longed for, but he couldn’t quite place what it was.
Hoshi, was also distracted as she flew over the plains. She was sensing a powerful energy nearby. It was like faerie magic, but it seemed muddled. She didn’t quite know what to think of it. She was so distracted that she almost didn’t hear Cole from somewhere behind her.
“Hey guys, check this out!” he called. “I think I found what we were looking for!”
As everyone gathered around Cole, they each in turn stared nervously at the dark, gaping hole that yawned up at them. As if to emphasize the intimidating looking passage, thunder roared above their heads, highlighting the mouth of the cave.
“I like it,” Drake said after a few moments.
“You would,” Robin sneered.
“Cut it out,” Hoshi snapped, her wet fur rising along her spine.
Drake shook his head. “Well, it looks like we’ve stumbled upon what we’ve been looking for, thanks to Slate and Cole. Now we need to decide how to get in.”
“I shouldn’t have a problem with that,” Robin stated. As everyone looked at her, she vanished.
Cole blinked. “Where did you learn to do that?” he demanded.
“It’s an air Faerie ability,” Robin’s voice said from where she last stood. “I can get in without anyone seeing me.”
Drake scented the air. “I can still smell you,” he observed.
Robin reappeared. “I didn’t say it would mask my scent. And it won’t help any of you.”
“It could make us appear one less than we actually are,” Naia said. “That might give us an advantage. And Drake, don’t you have a similar ability?”
“How would you know that?” the Darigan Kougra asked.
“I study Neopian magic when I can,” Naia replied with a dark look at Drake. “If it comes to battle, you should know what your opponent can do.”
Drake rolled his eyes. “Well, I can use Shroud, but it wouldn’t do us much good here. It only makes me nearly invisible to honest pets. It may work on you,” he added with a meaningful glance at Hoshi. “But not on them.”
“I could create a smokescreen,” Cole said.
Drake shook his head. “That would only tell them we’re coming, or make them think there was a fire.”
“It may still be useful if we are spotted,” Robin said. “We’ll keep it in mind.”
“Anyone else have a special ability they want to share?” Drake asked darkly. When no one responded, he smiled. “Good. Now, if there’s no objection, I want to get in there and get it all over with.”
“Wait! What about Kyran?” Hoshi asked.
“For all we know, she could have been captured by whoever’s down there,” Drake said.
“But what if she hasn’t?” Cole asked. “She won’t know where we are.”
Robin and Drake exchanged looks, and the thought crossed her mind that they were actually working together for once.
“It can’t be helped,” Robin said, finally. “They may already know we’re here because of that pet we were chasing.”
A silence fell over the group. Uneasy looks passed from one Kougra to another until Drake padded toward the cave.
“Let’s stop wasting time, then,” he said. If we’re going to storm the place, let’s not wait out here until they beef up what defenses they have.”
* * *
It was a long corridor they traveled down. It wasn’t smooth, but it was straight, and wide. It was also very dark, and Hoshi had to use her magic to light their path. She couldn’t make it too bright, however, unless she wanted to attract the attention of those farther down the corridor.
“This feels somewhat like home,” Robin said uneasily. “But it’s earthy, and musty. The air is stale, but I feel a draft flowing through this passage.”
“It’s coming from farther in the cave,” Drake said. “That musty scent must be from that pet we chased. It smells like that Kougra in the caves.”
“It’s much too strong for one pet, though,” Cole pointed out. “There must be dozens down there. Maybe even hundreds.”
“An army?” Drake suggested.
The whole party paused as Drake and Cole exchanged looks.
“Let’s hope it isn’t,” Naia said. “I’d rather not have to fight off hundreds of pets, even with my brothers and sisters at my side.”
“Me either,” Hoshi put in.
The group fell into silence as they continued on. It was Drake that spoke up next.
“The Xweetok smelled like this too, kinda. I figured that dull scent was because the pet was grey. But the Xweetok was white. How do you figure that?”
“I don’t know,” Robin said. “Maybe she’s been with these people before, and their scent rubbed off on her.”
Drake grunted but said nothing more. This left Hoshi to her own thoughts for a moment, which returned to the mixed magic she had sensed before. She realized that the feeling was much stronger now, as if they were closer to the source. Her fur bristled uncomfortably at the thought. What do they have down there? she wondered. That is, until Cole brought up the subject of a army again.
“I think I might be able to take on a small army. A few fireballs here, a few there... push them back, if it doesn’t burn them first.”
“We all have powerful abilities,” Robin observed. “But that’s not the point. Even if you have all the abilities in the world, a hundred-to-one odds are still rather high. What if they manage to surround you? You’ll be overpowered before you can say...”
“We’ve got company,” Drake interrupted.
Everyone stopped once more, looking ahead at the figure blocking their path. It was a grey Kougra, but it wasn’t the Kougra they had seen in the caves of Terror Mountain. This Kougra was a female, for one. She glared at them with a hostility that seemed unusual for a grey pet to have.
“You are intruding onto my mistress’s home,” she said. “Leave at once.”
“Who are you, then, to tell us to leave?” Drake demanded. Robin pushed him aside as she moved to the front of the group.
“Pardon my brother,” Robin said. “We are on a mission from Illa the light Faerie, and it led us here. Who is your mistress, and what does she do?”
“My mistress is the queen of all that is within these walls,” the Kougra stated. “I say again, Leave at once. This area is under quarantine!”
“Quarantine?” Robin asked. “Are you sick?”
Before the strange Kougra could respond, Cole moved forward to stand beside Robin. “You look familiar. Have we met before?”
The hostility dimmed in the Kougra’s eyes as she looked at Cole. “I... I’m not sure what you’re talking about. I’ve never seen you before... I don’t think,” she added quietly.
Cole took in her scent. “You smell familiar too. I must know you from somewhere.”
Robin leaned over and hissed quietly in her brother’s ear. “Cole, you’re being rude!”
Before Cole could respond, Slate also moved forward, his eyes wide in knowing recognition. Everyone stared at him as he moved between Robin and the strange Kougra, taking in her scent. After a moment, he backed away, as if afraid of what he had discovered.
“Laura!” Slate gasped.
Everyone stood in a stunned silence, staring at the Tyrannian Kougra. He spoke for the first time since the journey had begun, and no one was sure what to do about it.
It was the grey Kougra who broke the silence. “H... how do you know my name?”
“Laura?” Cole asked, unsure. He had the same frightened look that Slate had a moment ago. “How can it be? What happened to you?”
“I don’t know!” the Kougra said, backing away slowly. “How do you know me? How can you know me? I’ve been here for as long as I can remember...”
“What’s going on?” Drake asked. “Cole, do you know this Kougra?”
“Yes, I do,” Cole said. “She’s the Kougra that Slate and I were fighting over... when she disappeared. It’s because of that that Slate’s been quiet all this time. But how did she get here? And why is she grey?”
Drake opened his mouth to say something, but he was cut off by a powerful voice coming from the far depths of the cave.
“The invaders have upset my child,” the voice called. “They must be dealt with!”
The sound of the voice caused Laura to crouch down with her ears low as if she were being scolded. Everyone else just stood stiff with their fur sticking on end.
“What was that?” Naia asked, her voice shaking.
“I don’t like the feel of things,” Robin stated.
The ground began to rumble, lightly at first, but with increasing intensity. The source of the earthquake was unapparent. But it was clear what it was doing to the cave.
“No!” Slate cried, moving to the center of his siblings. He raised his forepaws in the air as rubble started to break loose from the ceiling. They began to fall, and Hoshi crouched down, waiting for it to hit the ground. It never did. Looking up, she saw that it was hanging in mid air. The ground still rumbled, but Slate was holding the ceiling up with his earth Faerie abilities.
“Run!” Slate ordered. “I can’t hold this for long!”
Naia and Cole did as Slate said, and rushed down the corridor, following Laura who had also fled. Hoshi held back, though, staring in disbelief at Slate.
“Come on, Hoshi!” Robin snapped.
“But Slate!” Hoshi cried.
“We can’t help him!” Drake growled, grabbing Hoshi’s scruff. He dragged his sister down the corridor as he ran side-by-side with Robin. Hoshi soon lost sight of Slate as her light moved away from him. But a rumbling sound from down the corridor told her that the passage had collapsed.
“Slate!” Hoshi cried again.
“The cave is still shaking!” Robin observed. “I don’t think we’re going to make it!”
Drake dropped Hoshi on her paws, and looked at Robin. “Then I suggest we all carry our own weight and run faster!” he growled.
Without argument, the three Kougras ran along the passage. Piles of dirt were falling from the ceiling all along their path. One of them landed right in front of Hoshi, and she hesitated.
“Drake!” she cried.
“Don’t stop!” Drake snapped back.
As he said this, a whole section of the ceiling caved in above Robin and Drake. Neither Kougra stopped, but she couldn’t tell if they were unaware of the danger, or they were trying to outrun it. Either way, Hoshi stared in horror, unable to do anything, as the rubble from the ceiling fell upon her two siblings.
To be continued...