Spheres of Influence: Part Three
A small fire was one of the few sources of light in the depths of Robin’s cavern home. The Xweetok sat hunched by the fire, her head hanging, but her eyes and ears alert. She was still nervous. She was in the home of a Kougra, after all. Robin appeared out of a dark passage, which made the Xweetok jump slightly, but she resumed her former position. Robin felt pity toward the poor creature, and kept as distant and as friendly as she could. She carried with her a small sack, which she placed near her small white-colored friend. “I don’t normally carry foods like this,” she said, backing away a pace. “But I have to accommodate my guests, no matter what they eat.”
The Xweetok turned her head to look at Robin, then lowered her gaze to the sack. She opened it slowly, pulling out a small nut. She examined it briefly, then she cracked it open with her teeth and started eating its contents.
“I had a hard time finding even nuts around here. Most of the stores can’t replenish their stocks until later in the year. Even the fruits haven’t gotten here yet, mostly because of the festival on Mystery Island.” Robin shook her head. “Either way, eat all you want. I need to tend to my brothers.”
The Xweetok didn’t say anything. Robin sighed as she stood, and padded to the other side of the chamber. As she reached one of the passages, the Xweetok turned to her.
“Thanks,” she said.
Robin stopped and looked back to the Xweetok. “You’re welcome,” she replied. Then she moved down the passage. On the other side, she entered another chamber, where she found Slate, sitting alone, and looking down the passage that led out to the mountainside.
“Where’s Cole?” Robin asked.
Slate turned to Robin, then nodded his head to another passage.
“He went down there alone?” she asked. “Doesn’t he know anything about caves? He’s never been here before. He could get lost down there.”
Slate only shrugged.
“How can you not be worried? He’s your brother!”
“And you’re my sister,” Cole said, stepping into the chamber.
“There you are!” Robin said. “What did I tell you two when we got here?”
“You told us to leave the Xweetok alone,” Cole said, smiling.
Robin rolled her eyes. “I told you not to go wandering off! Even I don’t know where these passages lead!”
“No, I suppose you don’t,” Cole said. “But I’m not an idiot.” He picked up a pebble and held it between his claws. A moment later, the pebble was glowing red hot and sizzling. “At this temperature, these pebbles can stay lit for at least half an hour. I’ve made dozens of them in my travels. See for yourself.”
Skeptically, Robin padded over to the passage Cole had emerged from. She was surprised to see a dotted path of glowing stones all along the passage. Turning to Cole again, she looked at him, trying to find some excuse to scold him. In the end, she only huffed and went outside.
“What was that all about?” Cole asked. Slate didn’t turn his attention from the exit passage, but he did shrug. “Well, fine then. Let her go blow off some steam. I’m not done checking out that passage. I have a feeling that there’s more down there than stones.”
Slate growled softly as Cole moved to the passage again. The fire Kougra turned back. “What?” he said. “I can take care of myself. Let Robin complain, I’m still going down there.” Then he disappeared into the shadows. Slate glared into the shadows for a while before turning his attention back to the passage leading out.
* * *
“Blast that Cole!” Robin muttered angrily to herself as she paced through the snow outside her cave. “Fyora help me if I don’t pound him into the ground!” She had already created a trench about a foot deep. “He’s so impulsive! So Rash! Someday, he’ll get into trouble, and...”
She stopped in the middle of her trench, her head low. “No,” she said. “I’m not going to let that happen. Not if I can help it. I’m his older sister. He’s my responsibility, now that Drake’s left us all.”
She looked up at the sky. A few fleeting flakes fell from the overhanging clouds. The last strands of a season past. Prey would be stirring in the forest. Her food stocks were low and, if she was going to feed her brothers along with the Xweetok, she had to get more. Sighing, Robin hopped out of her trench and made her way up the mountainside.
* * *
“It’s around here, somewhere,” Hoshi called over to Drake. The wind rushing between them was making it hard to communicate.
“Somewhere doesn’t help us much,” Drake called back. His altitude dropped suddenly, and he beat his wings to gain his former position.
“Will you be careful up there?” Naia growled. “I know this is the fastest way to get to the mountain, but I don’t like the idea of a quick trip down to it, either!”
“Maybe if you stopped squirming,” Drake growled back, “I wouldn’t have to shift my grip on you!”
“By Fyora, can those two do anything but fight?” Hoshi asked softly.
The three Kougras were flying just above the treetops. Drake was carrying Naia as best as he could with her wrapped around him, while Hoshi kept herself busy looking for Robin’s cave.
“I thought you said you’ve been to her cave before,” Drake called to Hoshi.
“I have,” Hoshi called back. “But never at this time of year. Everything looks so different. Wait; I think I see it, down there.”
Hoshi swooped down lower to the ground, followed closely by Drake, and landed outside an ominous looking hole in the side of the mountain.
“Is this the place?” Drake asked as he let Naia down.
“I think so,” Hoshi replied. “Yes. I can smell Robin's scent. This is her cave.”
Drake sniffed the air. “She's been here recently,” he observed. “See the tracks leading away from that furrow?”
“Where did she go, then?” Naia asked.
“She could be off hunting,” Hoshi answered. “She gets her own food when she can; rarely visits the stores unless they have something she needs.” She turned to the others. “Why don't we go inside and give Robin a surprise welcome?”
“That sounds interesting,” Naia said. “But I'm not really prone on bursting into someone's home uninvited.”
“Neither am I,” Drake said. “But that's only because I haven't thought to try it.”
“I don't think she'll mind too terribly if we stay in the front cavern. It's not as private as, say, her bedroom,” Hoshi said.
Drake turned to Naia. “Well, I don't mind.”
“Fine, then,” Naia said. “It was getting cold out here anyway.”
* * *
A distressed whining brought Slate bounding into the cave where Robin had left the Xweetok. When he got there, he was surprised to see a grey Kougra there, wearing a tight black collar with a spherical device. He had the Xweetok held firmly in his mouth.
The Kougra growled.
The Xweetok whimpered.
Before Slate could do anything, the strange Kougra disappeared down a back passage. Slate followed as closely as he could, tracking his scent in the darkness. This Kougra seemed to know these caves, Slate noticed. He barely slowed down as they wound a path through the caves. It wasn't long before they left the caves that Robin called home, moving into the darker depths of the mountain. As he chased this kidnapping Kougra, he couldn't help but notice that he had the same kind of musty, depressing scent he had smelled when he found the Xweetok.
They rounded another turn, and Slate plowed into something. It grunted when he hit it.
“What the...!” There was some scuffling, in the darkness. A small wisp of flame lit up between Slate and who he had run into.
“Slate?” Cole said, once he recognized his sudden assailant. “What are you doing here? What were you chasing? I could swear something as big as me rushed by here just before you ran into me.”
Slate growled and pointed insistently in the direction the strange Kougra had fled. Then he too disappeared down the passage. Cole followed, shaking his head.
“Talking to that dope is like talking to an overgrown petpet!” he muttered to himself.
* * *
Hoshi entered the cave first, folding her wings close to her body. Drake and Naia entered soon after, and Drake stretched his wings as soon as he entered the chamber.
“What a long flight,” he said. “Normally, I don’t have such a heavy load to haul.”
“Heavy load?” Naia hissed, whirling on Drake. “Why, I have half a mind to...”
“Hush!” Hoshi hissed. “I think I hear something.”
Hoshi had moved to the edge of a dark passage. Drake and Naia joined her there and listened carefully. It was rather faint, but the sound of a scuffle could be heard echoing along the passage. There was also some snarling.
“What’s going on down there?” Naia asked.
“Sounds like a fight,” Drake said with a menacing smile. “I could use a good scuffle.”
Before either of the girls could do anything, Drake had dashed down the passage, disappearing from sight.
“Drake!” Naia called. She growled in frustration. “Oh, come on, Hoshi. We should go after him.”
* * *
The grey Kougra entered a small cavern, but with the two Kougras chasing him, he was having a hard time escaping. When he ran from one, the other cut him off. They were keeping him from the exits. The Tyrannian even found chances to hurl stones at him using some kind of earth magic, while the fire colored one would sometimes shoot a spout of flame at him.
The grey Kougra was starting to get desperate at this point. He needed to get away from his pursuers before they wore him out. And things would be a lot easier for him if the Xweetok would stop fussing so much. In a brief moment where they lost track of him, the Kougra set his bundle down between his paws for a moment.
“Quiet, Lin,” he growled softly. “The mistress isn’t happy with you! Do you know how many of us she’s sent out to track you two down? When I get my paws on your new friend...”
“I think he’s over here, Slate!” one of the Kougras called. Quickly, the grey Kougra picked up the Xweetok again and bolted for another passage. He was a few bounds away when the Tyrannian Kougra barred his path.
I have no time for this! the Kougra thought viciously as he raked his claws across his muzzle. The Tyrannian hissed in pain, backing away from his attacker. The grey Kougra smiled through his bundle and moved to the exit again. To his surprise, another Kougra had entered the cavern. Without thinking, he shoved this Kougra aside and tried to escape. The new Kougra, growling in surprise, kicked him hard and sent him flying across the cave.
* * *
Drake didn’t know what had tried to knock him down, but he knew that it was going to feel that hit for a while. He was about to finish off his assailant when he noticed movement in the shadow. The scent coming from it seemed familiar.
“Slate?” he asked. “What in the world are you doing here?”
Slate didn’t answer. He didn’t have time to, if he could. For, at that moment, a blazing Kougra shot through the air with a roar, landing square on Drake’s shoulders. Drake rolled with his burning attacker, biting and scratching, until he finally pinned the beast down against the cavern wall.
“What’s going on in here? Hoshi, can you light up the cavern?”
In an instant, much of the cavern was illuminated from the passage Drake had emerged from. A small sphere of light was hanging near where Hoshi and Naia stood. Slate was getting up from the ground, his muzzle turning red with a fresh wound. And off to the side, Drake was pinning down a flame colored Kougra.
“Cole!” Drake growled. “What in Neopia are you doing?”
“Drake?!” Cole gasped. “What are you doing here? Where’s that Kougra?”
“What Kougra?” Drake snapped. “There are five Kougras in this cavern!”
“Make that six!” called another voice. Hoshi and Naia parted to make room for Robin, who padded stiff-legged into the cavern. “What are you all doing down here? I could hear you from the cave entrance!”
Drake let Cole up and padded over to Robin. “Nice to see you too, sister.”
Robin’s eyes narrowed. “It’s been a long time, Drake. I’m surprised you’re even talking to any of us, after you turned your back on everything our parents taught us.”
“And I still hold to my beliefs,” he replied coolly. “I’m only doing my sisters a favor.”
“What favor?” Robin asked, looking to Naia. “What are you talking... where’s Hoshi?”
“Over here,” Hoshi said. She had moved away from the passage, sniffing at the ground around where Drake had kicked his attacker. “Naia, come take a whiff. Isn’t this like what you found on Mystery Island, and Drake tracked from the Haunted Woods?”
Everyone gathered around the spot, taking in the scent.
“Yes, that’s like the scent, all right,” Naia said. “Musty nothingness, like depression.”
“I’ve smelled this before,” Robin said quietly. “Just after Jake disappeared...”
“And don’t forget that little friend of yours,” Cole put in. “She had a scent kind of like this.”
“My friend?” Robin asked. “What do you mean? What happened?”
“A grey Kougra came and took that Xweetok we found in Happy Valley,” Cole said. “What do you think we were doing romping around these caves for?”
“What?” Robin gasped. “How did he...? These caves... The Xweetok!” Frantic, the cloud Kougra dashed out of the cave and down the passage toward her den. She passed through the entrance chamber and entered the room where she had left her white colored friend.
“Oh no!” she gasped, staggering into a sitting position. “She’s gone. That Kougra took her. But why? What makes her so special?”
“Neopians have been disappearing all over Neopia,” Hoshi said as she entered the chamber. She was closely followed by Slate. “My mentor, Illa, sent me and Naia to find the rest of you and meet her on Mystery Island. My guess is, she wants us to find out what’s been going on. I’m sorry your Xweetok friend has been taken, but at least we know who’s been taking everyone.”
Robin sighed. “I thought I was getting through to her, too. She was such a precious, frightened little thing.” She stood up again, her eyes burning with determination. “I’ll come with you. No one else is going to vanish if I can help it. I’ve lost enough already.”
To be continued...