Voice of the Neopian Pound Circulation: 90,555,820 Issue: 165 | 5th day of Storing, Y6
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A Treasure Lost

by _shakky_


Aylinn sighed as she dabbled her long ears in the water of the Rainbow Pool. The water glistened and sparkled as it rippled away from her, and her distorted reflection stared moodily back at her. The green Aisha winced as the water shone sunlight into her green eyes, and she clapped her ears over them, where they dried quickly from the heat of the sun. Her fur prickled as a breeze swept over the pool - the air felt as though it had been baked in an oven. A ring of green surrounded the pool, but elsewhere the grass had withered, and the grass became lighter and lighter the further away from the water it grew.

     Neopia was suffering a heat wave. The heat had begun over a month ago, but only now was it reaching its zenith. The heat made buildings appear to shimmer, and it was making the Rainbow Pool dry up. The water was at an all-time low, and a strip of mud lined the banks of it; the Petpet Puddle was in danger of disappearing. Neopets and their owners alike drooped; the heat seemed to make everyone drop into a languorous torpor. These days, most creatures napped at midday and became active at dusk when it became cooler. Aylinn normally would have taken one herself, but she had decided to stay awake today. And now I'm regretting it, she thought. Nobody in their right mind is outside today. Everyone would be in a building of some sort with fans blowing at full speed.

     Aylinn had begun to doze off when an acorn toy bounced off of her head. She gave the smallest of flinches, and turned around to confront Deki, her owner. Deki was an odd one - today, she had on a massive straw hat to keep off the sun. Underneath the brim, Aylinn could see the dampness of sweat on Deki's face. She had an eternally mischievous expression on her face which combined with whatever other emotions she was feeling at the moment. Today, she looked tired. Or maybe it was the heat shimmers playing with Deki's features. Either way, she wasn't in the best of moods. For a moment, a worried expression flitted across Deki's face, but she quickly smothered it.

     "Aylinn, there's something I need you to look at," Deki said. "I can't say more right now… but follow me to the house. It's urgent…" Deki turned around and began to walk back to the Neohome, trusting Aylinn would follow her.

     Aylinn did follow her, out of obedience and the lack of anything else to do.

     * * *

     Reaching the house at 3315 Chia Close, Aylinn saw several Kougras in uniform patrolling her home. They looked like members of the Defenders of Neopia. Confused, she entered the house, where Deki was waiting for her. In the front room, Deki began to lose her composure - her face began to switch between a worried expression and a calm one. It would have been comic in other circumstances, but Aylinn wanted to know why she needed to look at something.

     Nodding her head, Deki motioned Aylinn towards her bedroom. They traipsed down the hallway, taking the first left. Once they were both inside, Deki closed the door behind Aylinn and sat down hard upon her bed. She held her hands together tightly, and her thoroughly white knuckles twitched a little every so often. Aylinn flopped down beside her, and waited for her owner to tell her what was bothering her. She hoped it wasn't something silly like a missing petpet - last year Aylinn's Noil had gone missing, and Deki had literally pulled out half of her hair before Aylinn found him chasing the neighbor's Puppyblew next door. It was still a mystery how he'd gotten there. But that wasn't the point… this time, it looked like something so serious had happened that the officials had stepped in.

     "Aylinn. Have you… happened to mention anything to anyone?"

     Aylinn stared at her. Deki was nuts-mentioned what? Aylinn gave her owner a questioning look. It HAD to be bad if Deki was as scatterbrained as this. The last time Deki had been flustered, she had at least made sense, even with half of her hair pulled out.

     "I mean what I keep hidden in my drawer. That valuable thing." She pointed for emphasis, as if Aylinn didn't already know. Aylinn followed her owner's pointed finger, however, and looked at the little bedside table. Nothing looked different about it that she could tell.

     "Yeah, sure. What about your Bent Fork?" That was what Deki kept hidden in her drawer. She didn't like to keep it in her deposit box because she liked to be near it at all times. It was an odd obsession, and Deki was extremely protective of it. She said it brought good luck. Aylinn wondered if Deki even knew it was for the Battledome.

     Deki flinched at the name. "Don't say it! Someone might hear you! … well, not that it matters anymore…" she heaved a sigh. "It's been stolen, Aylinn. Right out from under my nose. Last night."

     Aylinn raised a disbelieving brow. Last night she and Deki had stayed home; they would have heard an intruder. And Deki was a very light sleeper-the slightest noise would have woken her, and the drawer in the table had a horrible squeak to it. Aylinn's thoughts must have shown on her face, because Deki nodded.

     "That's what's so strange, Aylinn. We didn't see them, hear them, and how could anyone have known it was in there? I never mention it in public-it's much too valuable."

     "Well, I've never said a word about it, either," mused the Aisha. "Very strange." Not just strange, thought Aylinn. Completely baffling. "So, you've told me the news… what exactly did you want me to see?"

     Deki had pulled the drawer open before Aylinn was finished. Aylinn blinked at the cushion where the fork had once nestled-it had a dab of mud on it.

     "Mud… can you imagine… mud on their hands while they handle my treasure. It's sacrilege…" Deki muttered. Aylinn snorted. It could always be cleaned. Assuming, of course, they got it back. There was mud on the cushion. She eyed the drawer blandly. It just sat there innocently, with Deki muttering over it with her head in her hands, worrying like a mother hen. The thief had made no noise, had been virtually invisible, and yet left mud on the cushion… yet… there was no mud on the drawer's handle. Someone had taken pains to avoid notice and then spoiled the whole thing, with a bit of mud. And the lack of mud gave Aylinn an idea, albeit a decidedly farfetched one.

     "Hey Deki," Aylinn said. Deki stopped her muttering and looked up. "Don't you find it odd that there's mud on the cushion… and none on the drawer? I mean, it's almost like they intentionally put it there."

     "You're crazy," Deki said, with no change of expression. "Who'd be dumb enough to purposely leave a clue at a crime scene?"

     Aylinn snorted again. "Why else would it be there?"

     To that, Deki had no answer. She shrugged. "Well, the Defenders of Neopia are looking into it… hopefully they'll be able to tell us more information later. But in the meanwhile, please try not to bother them."

     Aylinn nodded, and slumped out of the room. She had a hunch.

     * * *

      Aylinn stepped onto the dock, Neopoints jingling in her satchel. Actually, it was a pillowcase with straps sewn onto it, but Aylinn saw no difference. She tossed a coin to the captain of the ship, a Lupe, who caught it and tilted his head in appreciation. As she began to walk toward the quays, the ship left the docks, leaving her alone among a crowd of bustling Neopets, many with faces of questionable honesty. Above Krawk Island, the clouds roiled and darkened. Aylinn had to finish her business quickly, or Deki would start to worry.

     Aylinn had thought about it the entire journey over, and she was fairly sure she knew where Deki's Bent Fork had gone. There was only one Neopet she knew of who was skilled enough to snatch something right from under your nose, and foolish enough to leave a hint she'd done it. Hannah. The Usul had had years of practice pilfering from pirates, and had grown confident enough to leave mementos of her visit. It was very possible Hannah was the culprit, but Aylinn just wanted to know why she'd done it. Well, that and reclaim the totem. Hannah usually made a point of stealing primarily from pirates.

     Aylinn threaded her way through the dirt streets of Krawk Island, taking care to avoid anyone who looked like they might want her satchel. She tried her best to look fierce, curling her upper lip and scowling at random Neopets, and luckily nobody decided to mess with the little blue Aisha. After meandering for about half an hour, Aylinn reached her destination, a small ship bobbing up and down with the tide further south along Krawk Island's coast. Even "ship" was pushing a point. It had one mast, with a sail tightly furled and slightly mildewed. Plainly, the boat hadn't been in service for a long time. Barnacles and bits of algae coated the hull slightly below the waterline, and the entire thing gave off a feeling of disuse. Half-rotted ropes tied to trees kept the boat from floating out to sea; there was no proper dock. Aylinn walked across a broad plank connecting the shore to the deck, eyeing her surroundings nervously. Normally, Hannah would be no one to fear, but there was this matter of thieving. Perhaps the Usul had changed… Aylinn bent down and knocked on the deck, unsure of what else to do. If Hannah had changed for the worse, well, Aylinn had brought along some of the equipment Deki trained her with.

     Before the Aisha had fully straightened, a flash of motion in the corner of her eye told her that Hannah hadn't needed her knock to know she was there. She jerked upright, wary of Hannah watching her.

     Hannah eyed Aylinn quizzically, no menace in her eyes or posture. "Hello? What brings you here, Aylinn?"

     Aylinn jumped. So much for maintaining a calm front, thought the Aisha. "How do you know my name?" questioned Aylinn, ignoring Hannah's question.

     The Usul snorted. "It says so on your… pillowcase. But what are you doing here?"

     Hannah had said it not unkindly, but Aylinn blushed anyway. She decided she might as well be straightforward-there was no use beating around the bush, and she needed to find the Bent Fork as quickly as possible. "Hannah, why'd you steal my owner's Bent Fork?" There. She'd said it.

     Hannah's expression darkened. "What makes you think I took it? I'm not a villain; I only steal from pirates, and they deserve it. I don't suppose you've gone and interrogated every other thief in Neopia and found out they didn't take it."

     Aylinn blinked. Of course… she'd been so certain Hannah had stolen Deki's fork that she hadn't even considered any other villains. Her heart sank-if it hadn't been Hannah, how was she ever going to find the culprit? There were so many villains out there, some infamous and some your everyday thief just looking for an opportunity to make money. She'd never be able to find Deki's Bent Fork. Deki's lucky Bent Fork. Her owner would probably never get over the loss.

     Hannah could see Aylinn's despair clearly. She certainly isn't discreet about her feelings, thought Hannah, as Aylinn's ears drooped and her face fell. She didn't feel any anger towards the little Aisha-Hannah had been falsely accused of stealing things before, and she'd always managed to help weed out the true culprit. She tapped Aylinn's shoulder, and the Aisha looked up. "I can help you, if you'd like. Find your Bent Fork, I mean."

     Aylinn's eyes brightened considerably. "Would you really…?" Hannah nodded. Aylinn flushed in embarrassment. "Er… I'm sorry for thinking you stole it…"

     "I forgive you. Just try not to jump to conclusions in the future, okay?"

     "Okay. But… I did think it was you, because only a professional thief could have taken it. It was stolen right from under our noses, literally. And even getting to it makes the loudest noise-Deki or I should have heard it. The oddest thing is that the thief deliberately left mud on the cushion the fork was sitting on, but not on the drawer."

     Hannah nodded. Mud and a Bent Fork. She already had a hunch-she wasn't a professional thief for nothing. Connecting complicated clues and occurrences was a breeze for her sharp mind. After a few moments, she announced her thoughts. "They left mud, huh? The first place I want to visit is the Smugglers' Cove."

     Aylinn stared. That was awfully quick… well, she wasn't going to complain. "How did you figure it out so quickly?"

     "I've been in the business a long time," Hannah grinned. "I just connected a few things I knew… for instance, I know the smugglers've been collecting retired Hidden Tower items, and that they're often muddy. I'm not saying I'm sure it was them. Just a hunch."

     Aylinn smiled gratefully. "What're we waiting for?"

     * * *

     Nearing the cove, Aylinn started to run. She wanted to catch the thieves, and she wanted her owner's Bent Fork back.

     She entered the dank cave, and gave a start. It wasn't at all like she expected. She'd thought it would be full of boxes and chests of ill-gotten goods, with dubloons spilling out of bags onto the sand. Instead, a couple of tatty burlap sacks sat in the recesses of the cave, and by the smell of things, all they contained were spoiled potatoes. Aylinn heard the crunch of sand behind her, announcing Hannah's arrival. The Usul joined Aylinn, wrinkling her nose at the smell.

      The two of them knelt in the sand and ripped apart the sacks, and Aylinn's guess proved correct-just moldy potatoes. Aylinn heaved a sigh. She hadn't really thought the smugglers would leave their loot in the cave unguarded. She'd just have to wait until they returned… she lowered herself to the sand, not minding the cold. "What do we do now, Hannah?"

     Hannah flopped down beside her. "There's nothing we can do but wait. The smugglers always return-there's no reason to give up hope, you know. As for when they'll return, nobody's sure. At the most, we'll have to wait a week. Then again, if we're lucky, they might be back here tonight. How we'll get it back is a mystery to me. They keep a pretty tight watch on their booty, and I can't steal it unless it's left unguarded. With retired Hidden Tower items, the chances aren't good…"

     Aylinn wasn't sure if she'd consider it lucky if the smugglers returned that very night. The thought made her more than a little queasy. Well, with Hannah with me… we have a better chance than if it was just me. She patted her fluttery stomach.

     Hannah, who had been staring out at the ocean, perhaps watching for the smugglers' sails to appear on the horizon, opened her own satchel. She brought out some bread and cheese, and offered half of it to Aylinn. She'd assumed that was what the pat was for, anyway. Aylinn took it absently and began to chew. Judging by the sun, it would be dusk very soon. And perhaps dusk would bring the smugglers with it.

     "Aylinn, we're going to have to get some sleep. I don't know when they'll return, but it'll be at night, for sure. We've got to be rested and prepared for them, if all doesn't go well and we end up skirmishing. I suggest we take turns… you take first watch while I sleep, and then wake me up after a couple of hours. Then get some sleep yourself, and I'll watch over you. Wake me up if you see anything."

     Aylinn nodded, grateful for first watch. If the smugglers returned, it would more likely be on Hannah's turn to look out for them. She swallowed her mouthful, and took another bite. This food was good. Especially the cheese. I'll write to Deki tomorrow, she thought. Just to let her know I'm okay… I bet she's busy with those Kougras, but she'll still worry about me. I might be here for a week, just to find out if those smugglers even have her Bent Fork. By then, what if Deki's already found it? Aylinn wrinkled her nose. That'd mean I'd camped out here for nothing. She shoved that thought out of her head. "Han…?"

     The Usul was already asleep, with her satchel under her head and a light blanket covering her. Another blanket lay folded neatly at Aylinn's feet. She's so thoughtful, Aylinn mused. She felt bad that she was being treated so kindly, even after accusing the Usul of stealing.

     Aylinn finished her meal as the sun went down completely, and she draped the blanket over her shoulders, prepared to watch for the smugglers.

     * * *

      "Ye fool! It wouldn't've happened if ye hadn't run us into the rocks," said a gruff voice. "Thanks to ye, not only did we lose all our plunder, the ship's gone as well. By now, it's sitting at the bottom of Davy Jones' locker," it continued.

     "Sorry, Cap'n," mumbled a slightly milder voice. This one sounded a little deeper, and far more humble.

     Aylinn shook herself awake. Immediately, she was furious at herself-Hannah had trusted her to stay awake, and her first time on the job she'd blown it. It was quite dark outside and pitch black inside the cave, where no stars could illumine it. Splashes and rough muttering coming from the direction of the sea alerted her to some creatures' presence… she poked frantically at Hannah, desperately trying to wake her, until she realized Hannah was already awake. She stopped abruptly, making an apologetic face until she realized Hannah probably couldn't see it anyway.

     "Shh," Hannah breathed. "You hear that?"

     The Aisha nodded. What she'd first thought a dream had turned out to be a couple of shapes wading in the shallows of the ocean, apparently arguing. "Smugglers?"

     She received no reply. She began to rub the sleep out of her eyes. "Hannah?"

     A third shape joined the two at the shore, making no sound. Aylinn sat bolt upright as she realized the third shape was Hannah. The first two shapes stopped arguing, but the bossy voice continued to grumble. "Can't ye see we've got no loot?! This oaf here lost me ship and me plunder, so you'll just have to wait until…" The voice trailed off. Aylinn guessed that the smuggler had realized who he was speaking to. "You're Hannah! That disgusting Usul who's always taking me loot!" the speaker backed away from her. Aylinn's eyes adjusted to the dim light, and she realized Hannah stood in front of a Krawk and a Blumaroo. Apparently, the Blumaroo was the one who'd run the ship onto the rocks.

     Hannah waved a paw at the Krawk. "I'm not here to take anything, this time." That's a lie, thought Aylinn. Hannah continued. "I just need to know if you have a Bent Fork in your cargo. Well, had, considering you lost it."

     The Krawk eyed her dubiously. "And why would ye need to be knowing that?"

     Aylinn couldn't see, but she thought Hannah was smiling at the pair. "I'm just curious. There's no harm in telling me."

     The Blumaroo piped up. "Aye, we did. Got it off some lass in Neopia Central last night." Immediately, the Blumaroo wilted under his captain's furious eye. That much could be told by his posture.

     The Krawk finished for him. "It wouldn't matter now, anyway. It's sitting at the bottom of the ocean, along with my ship."

     Hannah was silent for a moment. There seemed to be a decidedly grave air about her now. "In that case, gentlemen, there's something you can do for me." She leaned forward and began to whisper into the Krawk's ear.

     Aylinn didn't care. She gave a small sigh. They'd lost it. They'd lost that beautiful shiny fork. There was no longer any doubt that the Bent Fork the pirates had lost had been Deki's. She wouldn't have to write to Deki, after all, but she would be returning home empty-handed. There was no way she could find it on her own underneath the waves…

     The Aisha was deep in thought when Hannah returned. The Krawk and Blumaroo were gone, probably to pilfer a few dubloons to spend in a tavern. The Usul was holding something in her hand, and examining it carefully.

     "So they lost it," said Aylinn softly. She knew she didn't need to speak quietly any longer, but the darkness and the noise of the waves made it seem only suitable to speak so. Apparently, Hannah didn't think so. She gave an outright chuckle. A chuckle, in this situation. Without a word, she tossed the object in her hand to the sand at Aylinn's feet.

     Aylinn fumbled about until she found it. It was smooth, and cool to the touch. It had an oddly twisted feel to it, and suddenly it dawned on her. It was Deki's Bent Fork. "They said they lost it! I heard it, and you heard it!"

     "They did lose it," Hannah replied in a satisfied tone. "But I told them that if they didn't want to be found out, they'd do me a favor." She paused to chuckle again. "They were quick to agree to whatever I asked. So I gave them a fork out of my satchel, and told the Krawk to bend it up to look like the real thing. Apparently, it passes the test. You couldn't tell the difference yourself!"

     So that's what she'd been whispering about. Aylinn grinned. "Well, if it looks like it feels, I'd say it was identical. But what am I going to do with a fake Bent Fork?"

     "Give it to your owner, of course! She won't be able to get the real one back, so she might as well have what she thinks is the real one. It's not like she's planning to sell it, is she? Because then we'd be in trouble if the buyer decides to actually use it. I assumed your owner kept it to look at, if she kept it on a cushion instead of equipped to you."

     Aylinn smiled. She tucked the fake fork safely into her own satchel. "I can't thank you enough…"

     * * *

     "Aylinn, you're back!" shouted Deki. "You should have told me where you went! Speaking of which… where did you go?" Deki had leapt to throw her arms around Aylinn as soon as the front door had opened.

     "I went looking for your Bent Fork, of course," answered the Aisha with a small smile.

     Deki held her out at arm's length. After a silent stretch, she spoke. "Aylinn, your safety is more important than anything to me. I'm proud that you took matters into your own paws… but you could have been hurt. And compared to the loss of my fork, that would have been far more important to me. …but did you find it? Just yes or no… I want to hear all your adventures later, but first, just tell me…"

     Aylinn rummaged about in her satchel, and pulled out the magical totem. It looked exactly like the true Bent Fork, lying at the bottom of the ocean… but if it made Deki happy, she would help the fork pretend to be whatever it needed to be.

     A small smile dawned on Deki's face, and she pulled Aylinn into an even tighter embrace.

The End

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