The Heart of Spring:Part Three
"Storm,” said an old acquaintance Lemarque, an exasperated tone to his voice. He was a pirate Uni, and had joined a pirate drafting group at about the same time that I’d been scouted for stealthy training. We’d known each other in the pound, and had kept in touch. As a uni, and he towered over me. His dark mane fluttered in the ocean’s chilly breeze. “Could you please get your charge out of the crow’s nest?”
I sighed. So that was where she’d gotten to. “Sunbeam!” I shouted, looking up at the crow’s nest above the deck.
The heart of spring peeked her head over the edge of the tiny basket. “This is amazing! I love the ocean!”
“Get down from there, that’s for the actual pirates!”
“But I can see the whole world from here!”
“Get down here before the captain makes us walk the plank! Have you ever heard of the Krawken?”
She quickly climbed down, trying not to trip on her flowing colourful blossom gown. Once on the deck, she bounded up to the bow to look out at the ocean. I went to stand beside her.
She tilted her head to look at me with her dark blue eyes. “Hey now Ninja, if I didn’t know you better, I’d say you were seeking me out to talk to me or something.”
“Someone has to make sure you don’t fall overboard.”
“Whatever you say.” She watched the Pawkeets play on the air currents. “What if they don’t like me?”
“Why wouldn’t they like you?”
“I dunno. You don’t like me.”
“I don’t like anyone.”
“That’s so sad,” she said softly.
I shrugged, looking away. “You’ll be fine.” I stared out at the horizon. I didn’t really have any close friends. I had some convenient acquaintances, like Lemarque, who were good for the occasional favour, and would ask me for favours in return. I probably didn’t need friends. Probably.
“Excuse me, Mr. Grarrl, is that a real peg leg?”
We made it to the port without Sunbeam gravely offending any pirates. I’d been watching my bag of Neopoints closely, but I checked it over anyway.
“Wow,” said the liminality as we walked through the narrow cobblestone streets between the rough wooden buildings. I was less interested in sightseeing, and instead kept an eye out for locals who appeared to be walking distractedly. The clumsy collision pickpocketing technique was the oldest one in the book.
I led Sunbeam through the port and out into the woods. A krikket seemed to follow us through the knotted tree branches, its bulging blue eyes unsettling me slightly.
“They live out here?” she asked.
“They live on the cliff overlooking Smugglers Cove.”
“Smugglers Cove? Will we see the smugglers?”
“They don’t like to be seen.”
“That’s so cool.”
We only met one other Neopet in the forest: a very scraggly red Ogrin who eyed Sunbeam’s gloves. I growled at him, and he stayed away.
The description I’d been given of our host’s Neohome, besides of course the number, was that they had a turret with a pirate hat on it. Sure enough, as we approached the cliff, I saw that the contact hadn’t been kidding. From this angle, I could see the very obvious pirate hat turret with what appeared to be an enormous bandana tied under it. The front door resembled a treasure chest, and what I could only guess was the chimney was shaped like an enormous pirate hook. The individual brown and red roofs rose to sharp points, seeming to find their style in complete spontaneity. A balcony with a golden handrail overlooked the ocean. I really hoped Abraham knew what he was doing.
“You know not to say anything about liminalities, right?” I asked.
“Aw, are you scared, Ninja?”
“I’m wary, as I always have been and always will be.”
We made our way through the slightly overgrown yard, coming across a single Keep Out sign. I double-checked the house number. We had the right place.
Above the door floated a ghost Gelert in a plain grey dress, her silver hair decorated with a few loose braids. She was reading an equally spectral book. She smiled when she saw us, floating toward the ground.
“Hi there,” she said in a gentle, almost frail voice, giving a shy, hesitant smile, her red eyes turned toward the ground. “I’m Luna. My sister Rachelle was supposed to greet you here, but she’s working with Jango’s paw. I hope you like it here.”
“Thank you, Luna,” I said. “I’m Storm, and this is Sunbeam.”
“I love your hair!” said the heart of spring. “And it goes so great with your dress and fur!”
“Thank you. I like yours too.”
Sunbeam launched into a monologue about dress colours, and Luna was either interested or very good at faking it. I brushed past them, hoping to search the house for alternate exits.
The entrance branched into a living room stocked with mismatched furniture. A shadow Ruki and the smallest white Bruce I’d ever seen played chess on a red coffee table, and a baby Usul sat on a nearby couch, playing with a pair of Usukis. The wooden walls were decorated with slightly torn pirate flags and miscellaneous posters. To my left sat a dining table beside the door to the kitchen. A camouflage Ruki, aided by a spotted Gelert and a skunk Kacheek, was examining the purplish paw of a familiar wiry Halloween Gelert.
“That’s one milliliter of liquid light, Alli, and err on the side of too little rather than too much,” said the Ruki, not looking up from her book. “Wenlin, did you get the prampet leaves?” She tugged her brown curls back into a ponytail, leaning over a bowl of what appeared to be miscellaneous items. “The rest is stramberry juice.”
“I have the juice,” the spotted Gelert said in a very quiet voice. “It was cheaper to buy it squeezed.”
“That should do, thanks Wenlin.” The Ruki took the juice from her Gelert assistant without looking, measuring it in a small cup before pouring it into the bowl. She stirred with a wooden spoon, muttering something. “That should do it.”
The Halloween Gelert looked over his shoulder. “Well, here comes trouble himself.”
I felt incredibly awkward, but I stepped forward anyway. “Hello. I’m Storm. Is there any way I could help?”
“We’re just about finished, thanks Storm,” the Ruki said distractedly. “Welcome to our home, by the way. Dad is out at the moment.”
“Nice to meet you, Storm. I’m Alli,” said the Kacheek, stepping up to politely offer her hand for me to sniff. I bristled slightly. She was large for a Kacheek, even though her head only just cleared my shoulder. She wore an ornate hooded purple dress. I could tell right off the bat that she was the Battedome pet; wiry muscles replaced the plump flesh that many Kacheeks had. She was probably capable of depleting my hitpoints with one hand. I hesitantly sniffed. Her hands smelled like grass, atrabud pulp, healing spring water, and roast chicken. She didn’t seem dangerous, but I vowed to keep close tabs on her.
I bowed, afraid to meet her eyes. “Same to you.”
“Have you and Jango met?” Alli asked, gesturing toward the injured Gelert, who was now easing his paw into the bowl, hissing something under his breath.
“Yes, in the Haunted Woods. We were attacked by a group of dark faeries, and Jango scared them away.”
“What did you do to bug those faeries, anyway?” asked Jango.
“I’m not at liberty to discuss that.”
“Wow, everybody look out, someone brought Mr. Important into the Neohome.”
The Ruki carefully moved Jango’s paw around so it swished through the liquid. The Gelert growled, clenching his teeth.
“It’s supposed to hurt,” said the Ruki. “It’s purging the spell.”
“Easy for you to say,” the Gelert snarled at the table.
I heard someone breathing behind me, and whirled to find that the baby Usul had walked up without me paying attention. “Hi,” she said, wiggling her white ears. Even as a baby, she was nearly my height.
“Did I scare you?”
“Him? No way,” said Sunbeam, entering the Neohome. “He’s a ninja. He’s not scared of anything.”
“He’s a ninja?” said the Usul, gaping like Sunbeam had said I was a level 500 battledome pet. “Is he a good ninja?” she asked in a stage-whisper.
“Yeah. He fights for good. But sometimes he’s grumpy.” The liminality winked at me.
“I’m Aqua!” declared the Usul. “I’ll show you your room.” She trotted off, pointing out her other family members. The camouflage Ruki was Rachelle, and one of the chess players was Mint, I wasn’t sure which. She described the two pets who currently weren’t at home as she led us up a set of stairs.
“Here!” Aqua declared, gesturing grandly to a small room at the top of the hat-turret. Two funny-shaped orange beds were pressed against the walls, and shared a small window between them. The curtain was shaped like an eyepatch, and was drawn to the side by a golden ring. One bed had a red night table and a blue lamp, the other had a purple night table and a strangely ugly Meepit lamp. An unsettling Slorg-inspired wardrobe stared at me. Nothing else adorned the room.
Sunbeam bounded into the room, walking in a small circle. “It’s so cool! Look at this lamp! This bed is definitely mine.” She tested the bed’s softness. “This looks so comfy! I love it!”
“Do you wanna see my bed?” asked Aqua. “It’s a train!”
“A train bed? Yeah! Hey, what Usukis are those?”
Aqua held up her dolls. “Schoolgirl Usuki---that’s Rachelle---and dark villain Usuki doll---that’s Jango. Rachelle is healing Jango’s paw, ‘cause it’s purple. Maybe he would’ve turned all purple. I don’t think he’d like that.” She shook her head. “Do you wanna play? We can play if you’re gentle.”
“I’d love to play!”
“Yay! I have 41 Usuki dolls, I counted. You’re pretty with your flowers, you can be the hula girl Usuki.” Aqua bounded down the stairs, followed closely by Sunbeam. I tagged along, hoping they’d allow me to quietly stand guard rather than getting me to join in.
Several hours later, I found myself in our room, staring at my bare deep blue paws. Aqua and Sunbeam had indeed tried to get me to play, giving me a stuffed white toy that looked somewhat like a very fuzzy mutant Bearog (a “bear,” they’d called it). I’d left, saying that I had to check the exits. The place had three doors and countless windows, none of which were locked. Jango had rudely offered to put my wearables in the wash, so I’d holed up in our room until they were dry.
Sunbeam barged into the room, my wearables draped over one ear. “All clean! They smell like pine trees!”
“Didn’t you learn to knock?” I snarled, covering my face.
“Please, Ninja, don’t be so shy. The world already knew you have eyes.” I heard a flop as she set the wearables down on my bed. She pushed my paws out of the way with her own. “Peekaboo.”
I bared my teeth. “Happy now?”
“Your eyes glow. They’re beautiful.” She traced the furless scar running across my forehead with her ear. “How’d you get this?”
“I was guarding a Blumaroo duchess. She was attacked by a wraith Pteri. Turned out that the pteri was just a diversion while a pirate Kyrii stole her necklace. I was fired, I’m just lucky I wasn’t charged for messing up.”
“You did your best, I can tell.” She held out one yellow paw with a tiny, pale furless line. “Your scars have the best stories. I tripped over a root to get this one.” She smiled, standing up. “You should get ready, it’s going to be lunch time soon.” She started to trot out of the room, then paused. “By the way, what colour were you before they painted you stealthy?”
“Cool. Aqua was yellow too.” She started downstairs. I got dressed, then followed.
At the dining table, I sat between Jango and Sunbeam. On a bright yellow plate sat a helping of plain omelette, a messy glob of green jelly, and a treasure map Negg.
“Your Negg is so cool,” Sunbeam whispered. “Wanna trade for my meat skewered meat?”
My mouth watered as I looked at the pile of assorted meats on her plate. “Sure.”
We swapped. I wasn’t sure how to eat politely, as I’d never eaten at a table with company before, so I just made sure not to make too much noise.
“When was the last time you ate?” Jango asked, eyeing me.
I put my food down. “Yesterday morning. Why do you ask?”
“Because you look like Florg.”
I stared down at my omelette. “Sorry.”
“If you’re hungry in the Haunted Woods, don’t eat any red, purple, or spectral berries, as a rule. But you can always eat petpets. Zomutts are the best. Just bite ‘em and---”
“Jango,” Rachelle warned, her antennae twitching.
I watched Jango, trying to determine whether or not he was kidding. I decided that I didn’t want to know.
Once everyone had finished eating, Rachelle brought out a few plates of treats. Sunbeam gasped.
“Waffles!” the liminality squealed. “Oh, I was just telling Storm the other day how much I wanted to try waffles! And bananas! This is so perfect!”
Rachelle laughed, passing Sunbeam the plate of banana Blumaroo waffles. “Enjoy.” The Ruki turned to me. “You want one, Storm?”
“Sure, thanks. Any one is fine.”
She passed me a pastry of some sort with chocolate ice cream on top. I sniffed it hesitantly. I’d heard of chocolate, but I’d never actually tasted it. I carefully took a bite. The cold stung the roof of my mouth, but the rich ice cream was complemented by the light pastry. Once again, I tried not to eat like Florg.
“Could I, uh, help?” I asked awkwardly as Rachelle and the miniature Bruce cleared the table.
“The two of us have got it for now,” said Rachelle. “But you can clear the plates at supper time. Thanks.”
I nodded, then made my way to the living room to watch Sunbeam. I lay down with my back to the window, so that anything trying to enter would have to get past me.
As I watched Aqua, Sunbeam, and Luna hold fashion shows for their Usukis, Jango took a seat beside me. I spared him a glance, but said nothing.
It was him that spoke, after a while. “I’m glad you two are here.”
“Yeah?” I asked.
“Luna has trouble interacting with other pets. When she’s upset, she isolates herself, and that makes her more upset. It’s a cycle. She usually doesn’t play with Aqua very much, but Sunbeam seems to be bridging the gap between the two.” He shuffled his paws. “I don’t know what you did to get those lowlife dark faeries on your bad side, and you don’t have to tell me, but if there’s anything I can do, call on me. Anything to make Luna smile.”
“If I think of something, I’ll let you know.”
“You’re not so bad yourself, man. Even though being all quiet and moody is kind of my specialty.”
I laughed a little. “May the moodiest Gelert win.”
“Challenging me on my own turf, huh?” he asked with a smile. “You wanna see who’s the moodiest once and for all?”
“How? A poetry contest?”
“I can’t write poetry.”
I shook my head. “Neither can I.” I watched as Luna said something to Sunbeam out of Aqua’s hearing range. The ghost Gelert seemed to gesture toward us with her muzzle. I wondered for a moment if she’d made similar observations to what Jango had told me.
The hours of the day ticked by. Although Sunbeam spent most of the time with Aqua and Luna, she played tag with Wenlin, tried to learn poker from Mint the Bruce, and participated in the evening reading time, seeming completely absorbed by a book about gallions. I was given a mystery about a paw print and a stolen gem, but I flipped absently through the pages.
“Storm?” Sunbeam asked into the darkness of our room that night.
“I think this is the best family in the world. I want to stay here forever.”
“Your safety is my primary concern.”
“Yeah, I know. Could I go to school? The primary school is in Neopia Central. Then maybe when I’m really smart, I could go to the gifted school in Brightvale, like Rachelle.”
“We’re staying as close to this property as possible.”
“Aw, okay. I guess I’ll just have to read. Maybe one of them could homeschool me.” She paused for a moment. “Have you checked in with Abe?”
“Oh. I forgot.” I turned on my lamp, crawling out of bed. I sat on the floor, composing the neomail.
Got to home with no trouble.
After a bit of thought, I added:
P.S. She likes it here.
The white weewoo carried my neomail off into the night.
“His tusks were green and obviously rotting, but he’d somehow managed to reinforce them with bones,” Jango was saying, describing his encounter with a fierce zombie Moehog.
“I have my doubts about you if you weren’t able to outsmart a zombie,” I said.
“I used the same trick I use for all Moehogs: I climbed a tree. The thing was really persistent, though. I had to leap through several nearby trees to find one that was sturdy enough to withstand being rammed into. After that, it was just a matter of waiting it out.”
“And how long did that take?”
“About six hours. It could’ve been worse. Zombies can be extremely patient.”
“He was probably too hungry to keep waiting you out.”
Jango stretched, his yawn exposing a row of sharp teeth. “What about you, man? Ever met a zombie, current company excluded?” He gestured with his head toward his brother Logs, a zombie Gelert who had just stumbled home earlier that day. Logs had dragged a titanic giant squid out of the fridge and was now chowing down on it.
“On occasion. I was on a mission in Neovia to spy on a client’s rival cult leader. I met their guard face to face. It was a giant Quiggle, the size of a uni at least. It must’ve been labbed.” I’d learned that the reason this house contained a Kacheek who was larger than a Bruce was because both were zapped by the secret lab ray. They’d originally been Grundos.
I shrugged. “I did what I always do. I ran, then eventually doubled back and found another way in. This one sticks in my mind because he was particularly tough to ditch. I ended up crawling through a maze of thorns and holing up with a Halloween scamander.” I laughed a little. “Come to think of it, he looked like you.”
Jango laughed. “I’d deny that if Luna hadn’t told me the same thing a few weeks ago. We were visiting one of her friends from the graveyard and a Halloween scamander wouldn’t leave me alone. She said it probably thought I was its dad.”
“Storm let me try on his gloves once, ‘cause I wouldn’t leave him alone about it,” Sunbeam said, her use of my name instantly making me tune in to their conversation.
“Cool,” said Luna. “I won a bet with Jango once and got to try on his wearables.”
“I bet you looked so tough.”
“I did. He flat-out refused to wear my dress, though. Maybe that’s a bet for another time.”
Sunbeam laughed. “You’re so evil. I’d love to try Storm’s wearables, they’re so cool. I’m not quite evil enough to make him dress up in flowers.”
“I think the girls are after our wearables,” I said to Jango.
“Run and regroup, as usual. And maybe your tree-climbing strategy is a good plan.”
Jango shook his head. “Luna can float. That’s how she’s been able to accompany me on some of my adventures.”
There was a deafening crash. Jango and I both jumped up in unison, standing together near Sunbeam and Luna.
An enormous brown Skeith, easily the height of the neohome, crashed through the cove-side wall, roaring. A few dark faeries clung to its ears.
They’d found us.
To be continued…