NSQ bit her lip, and peeked carefully around the corner.
Almost at once, she ducked back around, her hands clamped tightly around her
mouth and her eyes wide.
"What is it?" asked Neofaerie urgently. "Who's
NSQ let her hands fall away from her mouth, took
a deep breath and said, "no one, the path is clear."
Neofaerie rolled his eyes, took a quick look
himself to make sure the passage really was deserted, and padded off swiftly.
NSQ ran behind him quickly, taking small steps and tiptoeing on the balls of
her feet. "This is so exciting," she beamed, completely forgetting about the
danger they might be in.
"I know," giggled Happiness, bouncing along on
Neofaerie's back. "Oooh!" she said suddenly. "It's a giant Moltenore!"
"Where?" barked Neofaerie, stumbling as he pulled
out his Lost Desert Dagger.
"Nowhere," giggled Happiness.
"Gnnn! Stop making things up!" Neofaerie snapped
at them. NSQ and Happiness nodded seriously, but when the Kougra had turned
away, the two younger (Neofaerie was older than NSQ by a few human months) family
members exchanged glances and stifled laughs. Neoangel trailed behind them,
not commenting on anything. She kept looking from side to side, and occasionally
she twisted around to look behind her. She was constantly alert, or as Happiness
put it, totally paranoid.
"You're always fooling around," grumbled Neofaerie.
"Happiness is still young, but you're the owner, NSQ. You're never responsible,
and you're always getting us into trouble without thinking of what could happen
to us. And you always leave me to take care of everything, while you
just do what ever you want. We may be the same age, but the difference is that
you're the owner and I'm the pet."
The atmosphere changed at once. Happiness stopped
giggling abruptly, and NSQ stopped dead in her tracks. Even Neoangel paused,
and she seemed to be holding her breath. NSQ narrowed her eyes and said hollowly,
quietly, "well if that's the way you feel, maybe you should go to the pound.
I hear they do everything for you there."
Neofaerie opened his mouth as if to retort to
this, but he just shrugged coolly and loped away. Neoangel exhaled and stepped
up beside NSQ as they continued to walk on slowly.
"Did you mean that?" she asked softly, although
it was a rhetorical question. She already knew the answer; she just had to hear
NSQ say it out loud.
"Of course I didn't," sighed NSQ, "and I'm not
angry at him at all. I'm angry at myself because he's right, and I do
dump all the work on him, and I am completely irresponsible. As the owner,
I really should've done more. Poor Neofaerie, he almost has to take care of
the entire family. And I always make him watch Happiness."
Neoangel listened to her patiently before consoling
her, "don't worry, he doesn't mean it either. I can tell. He is probably just
stressed from this kidnapping scheme."
"Yeah, and all the other stuff I made him do,"
muttered NSQ, still not looking convinced. Neoangel continued, "he was worried
when the Draik took you, you know. I told him not to come, and he drove a stolen
spaceship all the way here to rescue you."
NSQ smiled weakly. "I don't think he even knows
how to work a spaceship."
"He doesn't," confirmed Neoangel, smiling back.
"Come on, we should catch up to them."
NSQ and Neoangel hastened down the path, and
they found Neofaerie dawdling by a river of magma and molten rock. Happiness
gave NSQ a bright smile, which she returned with a pat on the head. Then, she
looked at Neofaerie.
"Sorry," said Neofaerie gruffly, avoiding her
"It was my fault," NSQ said in a rush, "I really-"
"Water under the bridge," interrupted Neofaerie,
"let's just forget about it." NSQ nodded meekly. "And we're gonna need a bridge
for this river of fire," he continued, looking out onto it. "It's pretty wide,
so I don't know if I can jump over it, and I'm rather not find out."
"I'll fly us over," said Neoangel. She flapped
her wings and flew gently over to the other side. Happiness lifted off Neofaeries
back, and began bobbing to the other side as well, but she stopped midway. "Hold
on," she said, "there's some kinda wall here!"
"That's odd," mumbled Neoangel, as Happiness
landed lightly in NSQ's outstretched arms. The Zafara tried to fly back to them,
but she stopped in the middle as well. "Some kind of magic," she murmured.
"Dark magic?" asked NSQ, drawing her breath sharply.
"Not really," answered Neoangel. "But this is
not really an evil spell."
"Can you get through?" asked Neofaerie.
The Zafara pushed lightly against the invisible
wall with her fingertips, and shook her head. "Too much power was put into it.
I could get through," she said doubtfully, "but it would require a lot of energy,
and I - we - would be vulnerable to a sudden attack. If you want to take that
"It's OK," said NSQ hastily, "if it takes too
much energy out of you, it's not a good idea. Who's to say you won't just drop
right here, into the magma? You'd better just continue along the other side."
"And if I find the exit?"
"Just go out and wait for us. There's more than
one exit, so we'll find another way out. It'll be-"
She was cut short by a shout from Neofaerie.
She spun around, and found that a dark, murky glow was surrounding Happiness.
A split second later, the same thing had happened to Neofaerie, and slowly,
they were fading. NSQ tried to pick up Happiness, but her arms went right through.
She let out a fearful cry. Happiness was looking at herself curiously, examining
the glow with a bewildered look.
NSQ heard a crashing sound behind her as Neoangel
hurtled through the barrier. The Zafara staggered as she landed roughly on the
ground, but regained her posture almost at once. She reached towards Neofaerie,
but it was too late; NSQ saw Neofaerie open his mouth to call out before they
NSQ choked. She extended an arm towards the spot
Happiness had been merely seconds earlier, but Neoangel said sharply, "stay
away from it." NSQ's arm snapped back, and she looked up at Neoangel hopelessly.
The Zafara stared into the empty space where
the two pets had stood, concentrating. She spoke slowly, almost as if she was
struggling to get the words out, "I sense dark magic… anger, but grief and misery
as well. And I can see a Draik." She paused. "That's all I can get. Seeing inside
someone's soul takes a lot of strength, and I don't dare use anymore magic energy
"Denriada is a Draik," remembered NSQ.
"We'll have to go back for them," said Neoangel
grimly. "It will be faster if we fly, but I can't use any more power, so you'll
have to walk. Run, if you can, NSQ. They are back in the center of the volcano
where we came from, and that is not too far away. Will you be able to run it,
But the girl was already sprinting down the tunnel,
shouting over her shoulder, "Hurry up, Neoangel!" The Zafara kicked off of the
ground and tore after her. Something had been nagging at the back of her mind
since she'd got there, something she was supposed to tell NSQ. But she couldn't
quite put her finger on it, so she ignored the feeling and continued down the
passageway. 'If it is important enough to say,' she told herself, 'I will
Gasping for breath, NSQ came to a stop, her
hands resting upon her knees. Neoangel realized she had halted and stopped as
well, fluttering her wings a bit. "We're close, NSQ," she said encouragingly.
"Yeah, okay," panted NSQ, "just wait a minute…"
she let out one long breath and brushed her long black bangs out of her eyes.
"Very close," replied Neoangel. "In fact,
you can probably see it now."
NSQ straightened and peered off down the tunnel.
She could see the opening, although it didn't reveal anything yet. Rubbing her
eyes wearily, she continued jogging.
Soon, they had reached the center of the volcano,
or the entrance to it, at least. Neoangel came to a sudden stop in the air,
and rested one of her paws gently on NSQ's arm.
"NSQ… do you think you can go in… alone?"
The human girl blinked. "Well, umm, I guess.
But where are you going?"
"I think I should hang back," replied Neoangel.
"In case something goes wrong. Denriada just shouldn't see me yet. Is that alright,
with you? It's just an instinct, after all, and I could be wrong. But I just
have a feeling I should stay here, for now."
"If you say so," said NSQ. "I'll be fine,"
she assured her, trying to smile. She turned back around, tucked her hair behind
her ears nervously, and stepped inside.
There was Neofaerie, hanging in midair high
above her, as if by some sort of magic. He had his eyes closed, and NSQ feared
he might be unconscious. On the other side of the area, Happiness had been given
the same treatment, except her eyes were open. Down below them, level with NSQ,
were two giant pools of burning lava, one for each of them, sloshing around
in a sickly sort of way. If either of the pets fell out of their seat in the
air, they would drop into the pit below them and burn at once. There was a narrow
strip of land between the two pools, and standing in the middle, was Denriada.
She had a satisfied sort of smirk on her face. "So," she said, her voice echoing
off the walls, "you found us."
Neofaerie's eyes flew open, and he screamed
down to her, "Run, NSQ, it's a trap!" For some reason, NSQ felt more confident
than before, and, encouraged by a pat on the shoulder from Neoangel, who was
hidden behind a crevice in the entrance, she began walking towards the rocky
path Denriada was standing on. Happiness spotted NSQ as well and called down,
"finally, NSQ! You took a while! You're kinda late, you know." NSQ felt heartened
as she approached the walkway.
"Stop," croaked Denriada, and NSQ paused in
front of the walkway. "So," sneered Denriada, "I suppose you don't know what
this is all about." Before NSQ could answer to that, she continued, "I'm not
going to tell you. I had different plans, but this works nicely too. You're
here to determine the fate of your pets."
"Well I agree with you on that last bit,"
said NSQ boldly. A set of two short, braided ropes appeared in front of her,
and they bobbed slowly on the spot. One was a shiny, multicoloured rope, and
the other was forest green. NSQ eyed them apprehensively.
"Well now, I guess you know which pets those
stand for," said Denriada. NSQ nodded. "Good. What I want you to do is very
simple. You can't have missed these pools of lava, here." Again, NSQ nodded.
"Choose the rope that indicates which pet you want to fall in."
NSQ raised an eyebrow. "Neither."
Denriadas mouth twisted into a cruel smile,
and a similar set of ropes appeared before her. She extended her arms so that
each bony hand was right above one rope. "Choose," she rasped, "or I'll send
them both in, and you too."
"The green rope!" Neofaerie shouted down,
"NSQ! I'll be okay, just touch the green rope! I can take more damage than Happiness!
Just don't touch the rainbow rope, okay?"
Happiness looked merely confused, looking
first at Denriada, then watching Neofaerie as he yelled. Finally, she looked
down at NSQ and smiled. "You'll do what's best, won't you, NSQ?" she said cheerfully.
The girl looked at her sadly, now hardly hearing
Neofaerie's fading voice. Her heart, which had been beating like crazy only
minutes ago, now felt as if it had stopped completely and shattered, to be replaced
by a terrible ache which she couldn't explain.
"Choose now!" snarled Denriada, flexing her
long fingers around the ropes. NSQ started, and reached out towards them. In
the back of her mind, her poor memory supplied her with a recent image. She
grimaced, and readied herself. If this didn't work… 'Trust,' she thought to
herself. She reached out quickly with one arm, and grasped the rainbow rope
tightly in her hand.
To be continued...