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Worth Searching For: Part Two


by cosmicfire918

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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 Zombie Grarrl in back of him, who uttered a moan of annoyance, and looked around wildly at the sea of pets that had gathered to watch the parade.

     The Grundo's antennae quivered as he strained in vain to hear his owner's voice over the din of the crowd. His eyes darted back and forth, but Terra's brown 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 panted, 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 Disco Zafara gave him a gentle shake. "Calm down—just calm down before you hyperventilate, okay? 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 protested. 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. Someone had messed with his family and someone was about to pay, big time. "Plan. We need a plan."

     The Zafara nodded, her brow furrowing in thought. "Ask around if people have seen them?"

     "Right. Let's question the imperial guard, too. No—stay with me, I don't want us splitting up now," he said as he grabbed her arm to keep her from darting away. The last thing he needed right now 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. Those who had 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 back down 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 street 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. Too many scents mixed together, I can't pick out any one of them. It's like a big tangle of smell," she said, holding 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... 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 snorted, "because someone's got to and it might as well be someone competent. We need a better nose. Where did they take Gwyneth." It was more of an order than a question. He had snapped into business mode. Before living as Terra's Neopet, he had been in the business of commanding troops. The accompanying skillset still came in handy at times.

     The Zafara crouched to the ground and inhaled deeply. "I got her scent. 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. He had bigger Blandfish to fry.

     She led him to a stable staffed by a bored-looking Desert Scorchio, who nodded at them as they approached. 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. "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 pointed a claw at the torn-out lower half of the pages.

     "She knows our voices," Blynn replied.

     "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 on him. Sorry, but try a less gullible stablekeep."

     Hyren snarled. "We don't have time for your snark." He cupped one hand around his mouth. "Gwyneth! Gwyn, come!"

     "C'mere, girl!" Blynn chimed in, 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.

     The Scorchio frowned and slammed the brush on her desk, baring her pointed teeth. "Excuse me! 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." It made the satisfying clink of Neopoints as it landed, and the Scorchio's eyes widened. "Go buy yourself a new attitude, while you're at it."

     He 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 the stable keeper's response, Hyren climbed atop the Ganuthor's back and swung his leg over her spine. Blynn tapped Gwyneth's head twice and the Petpet bolted. Hyren hooked an arm around his sister's stomach so he wouldn't fall off.

     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. You could learn, too, if you don't take 'rear guard' all the time," Blynn snickered. 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 grumbled.

     By the time they returned to Naleap Avenue, the only traces left of the crowd were discarded food peels and wrappers, 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." 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 couldn't help but admire the remarkable craftsmanship of Shenkuuvian smithies, 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?"

     "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. Have you tried sending them a Weewoo?"

     "Not yet. Have you seen any suspicious characters around?"

     The guard lifted an eyebrow. "Define 'suspicious'."

     "Kidnappers?"

     She sighed. "I see lots of people in my job, kid. Folks come from all over Neopia for the Lunar Festival. I can't keep tabs on everybody who looks remotely shady. But no, I didn't see anyone in the act of kidnapping." She glanced down at her claws. "Obviously."

     Hyren ground his teeth. Kid? Kid?! 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 had to force out the words to make them polite. "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. Some crazy Gelert decided it was a good idea to jump out in the path of the Pandaphants and wave a Sparkshooter. Security had to pull him off the street before he spooked them. I swear, this crowd gets more unruly every year. Stupid tourists."

     Hyren's antennae dropped. "Oh. Well... thanks anyway. Can you file a missing persons report?"

     "Sure." The guard 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."

     The Skeith nodded. "Can do."

     Blynn began to lead Gwyneth away, and looked over her shoulder at her brother. "Kidnappers, seriously?"

     "That Gelert could have been a distraction. It was too convenient."

     "You're way too paranoid. 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. Remember what happened in the Haunted Woods."

     His sister flinched, her ears flicking back. "Th-that was a long time ago," she replied, too quickly. "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."

     "The feeling in my gut is proof enough," he grunted. "How do we get Gwyneth to find them?"

     "Uhh... good question." Blynn scratched her chin. "I'm trying to remember how Pharazon does it."

     "She'll need something to track, right?" Hyren reached down and fished around in one of the saddlebags. He needed to find something with Terra's or Pharazon's scent on it. "Ah-ha." He pulled out a grey travelling cloak with a silver Draik's-head fastener. "Hold this in front of her snout." 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 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. 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. "Sorry." He gave her a quick 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 breathlessly 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. I can't—whoa!" Gwyneth jerked into motion again and he had to squeeze his knees into her back in order to hold on, cursing his poor riding skills.

     She scrambled out the other side of the alley and burst back onto a main street, eliciting screams 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 sighed in relief. "I'm sure we'll find 'em soon, and then we can beat the snot out of 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—no, he hadn't survived his encounter with the Grundo. 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!"

     At the sound of Blynn's voice, 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 about sky-sailing.

     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..."

     Blynn stared up as another ship came in. "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 spirited away 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. I swear, we'll find them." He wished he could convince himself as much. The awful, aching thought came to him that maybe this wasn't about ransom.

     "But... how?" Blynn ducked her head, and Hyren felt hot drops of wetness hit his arms.

     He sighed. "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!"

     "What?" The Grundo had to grab 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!" She turned around and jutted her snout in his face. "Cheesy fortunes!"

     Hyren's antennae twitched. "Oh, please... you can't mean..."

     ***

     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 alignment of Kreludor will influence someone's luck at the Stock Market." Hyren 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. For every fifty frauds, there's a genuine soothsayer. Some pets do have that gift. Besides." She smiled slyly at her brother. "Would you rather us hire a private investigator? Because that seems like it'd be a serious blow to your pride, admitting you can't figure something out yourself. Can you imagine, if we found them and you were like..." She lowered her voice in an imitation of his and put on a goofy expression as she capered about. "'Oh, sorry, guys, even though I'm a super observant and smart veteran space marine CO who knows everything about everything, I had to hire somebody else to find obvious clues to your location! Durrr!'" She stuck her tongue out as a finishing touch.

     The Grundo blushed. "Shut it." She knew his weak spots all too well. "Also, I don't sound like that!"

     His sister grinned. "I figure, this way we'll get some mysterious response we'll have to riddle out ourselves and save face!"

     Hyren planted his face in his palm. "I hate your train of logic."

     Her smile widened. "I know."

     "Are you going to stand out there all night or are you going to come in?" The voice from behind the curtain 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. 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."

     Yuezhi nodded. "Yes, this is true. 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."

     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 held 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?"

     The Faerie's eyes glittered, and she smiled. "I love stories. What tales have you to tell, experienced one?"

     The Grundo's demeanor relaxed and a smug smirk spread up his face. He leaned back on his hands. "More than most pets on this planet have, that's for sure. 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 atmosphere that later got blown away by radiation from its sun. 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."

     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, breathless.

     When he finished, Yuezhi let out a soul-fulfilled sigh, and then laughed, her ornaments chiming. "That was beautiful, Hyren. Thank you. Your words shall be woven into my memories forevermore."

     "Good thinking," Blynn whispered 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 times his family had gathered around to hear his storytelling made his heart sink a little. He didn't want those times to be over.

     Yuezhi's mirth faded and her tone became businesslike once more. "Now, as to your inquiry." 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.

     He grimaced, but the damage had already been done as Yuezhi started to inscribe the statements onto the shell. Hyren glowered at his sister. "Rather vague, don't you think?"

     She scowled. "Do you have anything better?"

     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 spoke up. "That wasn't a yes-or-no answer."

     "It certainly was not," Yuezhi replied. "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 patience or the heart to rebut her. He pushed himself to his feet. "Well, we have a lead, 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. 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? 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, my lady. 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 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?"

     "I mean what I say." Yuezhi folded 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. 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 this kind of thing.

     Unable to bring himself to smile, Hyren met Yuezhi's eyes again. "Thanks. Have a good evening." 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 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. 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 yawned for emphasis. "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 any more, remember?"

     Hyren glared back, his antennae lowered. "I don't care. 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."

     "Do you want to find them or not?!" Hyren barked.

     Blynn's ears drooped and her nose wrinkled. "Of course I do..."

     Hyren sighed. "I'm sorry. If you get too tired, we'll switch places and I'll guide her, okay?" he said in a softer tone.

     The Zafara's shoulders slumped, but she reached into one of the saddlebags and pulled out a compass on a string 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 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 bones. 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.

     ***

     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 she started to panic. Her next thought was to push it away with her hand, but when she went to move the appendage from behind her back 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 hiking 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 and mentally thanked the Faeries the cinching wasn't tighter.

     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. Had they gotten her pets, too? "Blynn? Hyren?"

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

     "Pharazon!" Terra reached out with her feet and felt smooth scales. "Are you okay?"

     "Yeah, just... tired, and... what's on my face? And my arms—!" The Draik let out a panicked whimper and his wings sparked again.

     "Do you feel my feet on you? Move your head to them," Terra said. 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?!" the Faerie Draik blurted. "What happened?! This isn't the Lunar Festival, we're not—"

     "Shh! Not so loud. Keep calm, okay? We're still alive, and we can work with that. We need to approach this rationally."

     "I don't understand what just happened."

     "Pretty sure we've been kidnapped. 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'?"

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

     "Er... right." Something moved in the dark and began scratching at the thick bonds.

     "Good thing they didn't use chains, huh? Heh. Amateurs." The ropes began to loosen as loops fell free, and finally with some tugging and wriggling Terra slipped her wrists out and rubbed them tenderly. "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.

     Her fingertips hit a snag of rope and she began to work at it, loosening it. "I've been kidnapped before." She wasn't afraid, not yet. Fear was for when she ran out of options. Right now she was annoyed. She'd been put through this kind of thing twelve years ago and once in a lifetime was enough.

     "Really?" Pharazon shifted. "When? It must have been before I was hatched, otherwise I think I'd know about it."

     Terra paused. "...Yeah. It was." 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... sorry, go on."

     "Hyren... didn't tell you the whole story of how we met. When we reached the Haunted Woods, I was abducted by Werelupes and taken to their king. He wanted me as his owner for some reason, and then proceeded to lock me in a tower, because I guess that's what Werelupes do with their owners." Terra smiled grimly.

     "How did you escape?"

     "Blynn and Hyren rescued me." Terra chuckled. "Yeah, I know, infiltrate the monsters' keep and save the girl in the tower. Super cliché." She still remembered crumpling to her knees on that stone floor, cold, hungry, and afraid, thinking she would never see her beloved friends again and have to spend the rest of her life with those beasts.

     She swallowed hard and began rubbing her wrists again. "We fought our way out, 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." She recalled the smell of meat on their breaths, and their thick, coarse fur against her skin, and shuddered, glad Pharazon couldn't see her.

     "So it wouldn't have been the same Werelupe King who was defeated by Sir Tormund and Lady Roberta on their quest to stop the Darkest Faerie."

     "Nope. That pack lived in Meridell, anyway." Terra gritted her teeth, trying to get a hold of herself. They were gone. She didn't have to worry about them any more. Why did mere memories have the power to make her so afraid? "A-at any rate. After that, I decided if I ever got kidnapped again, I wasn't going to be all weepy and helpless." She tried to inject some levity into her tone.

     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 irate. "Thankfully, Hyren was more than willing to teach me a thing or two after our little adventure. Not just about combat, but survival skills in general."

     "How come he's never taught me?"

     Terra chuckled. "Because you're always reading inside during our training sessions."

     The Draik paused. "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. Are you in any pain? Head hurt?"

     "Nope... mm... nope. I was a little tired first waking up, but that's it."

     "Me either. 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?"

     Terra sighed. "We'll have to worry about that once we get back to Shenkuu. 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."

     "Hm. That means they might not be with us. Do you feel up to spitting some light?"

     "Yeah... yeah, I think so." Pharazon 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 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. They always do." Terra leaned back against the wall, trying not to let Pharazon's anxiety get to her, and cleaned her glasses with her sleeve. "Although that brings up the question of where we are." Her mind was happy to have something to do besides worry. "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?"

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

     "Well, great. 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.

     "There, my dear fellow, lies the rub. 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?"

     "Likely. 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." Terra brushed a few stray wisps of hair out of her face. She would have to re-do her braid at some point.

     "Hm." Pharazon leaned against her. "Maybe they're just really stupid kidnappers." He was still shaking.

     Terra put her arm around his shoulders. "That's what I'm hoping. C'mon, let's explore a little," she said with an impish grin. "Nobody can keep us down for long."

     "Ohhh, drat," Pharazon moaned 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 grabbed his shoulder. "Get a hold of yourself, man! 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 murmured.

     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. "Hey, I wonder what's in these crates! Pharazon, a little light, if you would?" She just needed to keep him distracted enough to stop him becoming a nervous wreck. And she wouldn't let his anxiety keep her getting them out of this. "Ow. Leg cramp."

     She 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 rifled through piles of wealth. "Man, there isn't anything useful in here!"

     Pharazon lifted his head, his ears perking. "Terra?"

     The girl picked up a handful of emeralds, likely stolen from some landowner's coffer. "Well, these do hurt when you chuck 'em at somebody's head. Better than nothing, I suppose. One must be resourceful in these sorts of situations."

     "Terra, what was that?" The Draik's wings sparked.

     "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 grinned. "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 motioned 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 chuckled. "Yeah, I guess that was a bad call."

     With a snarl, the pirate advanced on them. "Jakan, fetch me more rope!"

     "Aye aye!" came a muffled, deep voice from down the hall.

     "You little brats had best thank the Faeries we was told to bring you in alive and unharmed," 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 also severely limits what you can threaten us with." In the same 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 girl 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—!" Fear stuttered his motions like a broken Virtupets hologram. Heavy, quick footsteps sounded from the hallway.

     "Move!" Terra pleaded.

     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 watched in dismay as Pharazon flapped his wings and careened toward the Elephante, aiming for the burly pirate's robust belly. "No—!" she choked, too late.

     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," Jakan snickered. His grin faded as he looked to Terra. "Let Fumei 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 and unharmed. So bluff away."

     Jakan smiled again, revealing a complement of rotting teeth past his trunk. "Funny thing about us Neopets." He unsheathed his scimitar and used it to tickle Pharazon's throat. "Healin' Potions work wonders. You can pound on a Neopet all you want, and a few strong enough potions'll make him look right as rain fer our client."

     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. Slowly, she let go of Fumei's wrist, dropped the cutlass, and stood, hands up in a gesture of surrender.

     "Well, looks like we got the smart ones after all," she said to Pharazon as the two pirates bound them hand and foot and 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," Fumei said, pulling the ropes extra tightly around Terra and making her wince.

     As much as Terra enjoyed snarking back, she enjoyed not having foreign objects in her mouth more, so she remained silent as the two finished their work.

     "I tell ya, Jakan, they better be worth what he's payin' us," Fumei 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."

     "Terra, I'm sorry," Pharazon whispered. "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. But he didn't need to hear that right now. "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. This was going to be a very long trip. "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. And those are always the best kind."

To be continued...

 
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