An Illusion Spun: Part One
Cherry came back to herself by degrees, suddenly aware of the intense heat. What kind of heat wave was this? Neopia Central was never this blazing hot, even in the summer!
That left Mystery Island. How had she gotten there? As the thought crossed her mind, she realized that she was lying in the sand, grains of it sticking to her body and trickling to the ground, her thoughts crisscrossing and bouncing off the inner walls of her mind, unable to think straight as she rolled over, and inhaled a mouthful of sand.
She jolted forward and into sudden alertness, now wide awake. She was going to murder her brother, Arak, for leaving her here -- wherever here was. Her eyes popped open, but the brightness was blinding. Shading her eyes with her paw, the red Xweetok took in her surroundings.
This was like no beach she'd ever been to. It was every picture of a beach on the coast, with a sandy beach, intense sunlight, a cloudless sky, and waves lapping the shores in a rhythm of pounding water on land. But it was desolate -- completely, utterly, and totally empty. There were no beach chairs, no lifeguards, no sand castles, no pets swimming in the crystal-clear waters. It was as if Cherry was the only pet in the world.
It was a chilling thought.
No, not true. As Cherry twisted around, she realized that she wasn't alone -- a figure was lying in the sand not twenty feet away. It was a Neopet, that much was for sure, but it wasn't moving at all. The thought caused her to erupt in goose bumps, a reaction one wouldn't expect in such torpid conditions.
Cherry scrambled to her feet and toppled over. It was as if she'd forgotten how to walk.
"Arak?" she called, a note of panic in her voice. The figure remained motionless.
She stood tall on legs that felt as if they'd been zapped into jelly by the Mad Scientist. It was as if the entire world was tilting. Cherry steadied herself and took baby steps, stumbling on the uneven ground. She could hear the distant cawing of Pawkeets, but as she glanced around, she saw no birds. None at all.
Sinking to her knees, she looked up. It was as if it had taken every bit of energy she had just to amble ten feet, but she was only halfway to the figure in the sand. With a sense of urgency, Cherry began to crawl, feeling exhausted and drained. As she approached the figure, she made the connection in a groggy, hazy part of her mind.
It was a Kacheek, and she identified the color as Pirate. This was not her brother.
The Xweetok shook the Kacheek's shoulder apprehensively. "Hello?"
She rolled the Kacheek over to see that he was breathing deeply, lost in a world of dream-filled sleep. Cherry nudged him, softly at first but then with increasing force.
To her utter shock, the Kacheek swatted her paw away. "Five more minutes," he pleaded in a grumble, rolling over.
"Who are you?" Cherry asked, confused. "What's your name?"
"Go away, Jen," the Kacheek snapped, as much as one can snap while they are trapped in that irritating grogginess just before total consciousness.
"My name's Cherry," she said, examining the Kacheek closely. He did not appear to be hurt or sick; merely asleep, and annoyed.
"Whatever." The Kacheek pelted her with sand.
The Xweetok was fed up. "Whoever you are -- "
"All right, all right!" The Kacheek sat bolt upright in a sitting position, rubbing his eyes and stretching. "I don't know what the big deal is, Jen, but you -- "
And then he opened his eyes. The Kacheek did a three-sixty and then came upon Cherry, his eyes as wide as the sun that was beating down on them, surprise marring his irritated features.
"Who are you?"
"I've told you," said Cherry, folding her paws across her chest, a picture of impatience. "I'm Cherry. Who are you?"
"Karik. I'm Karik." Shock and dread seemed to have sapped the Kacheek his obvious characteristic urge to argue as he tried to stand. He swayed but remained on his two feet, looking around, wide-eyed. "Where -- where are we?"
Cherry jumped to her feet, struggling to stay upright and miraculously managing to do so. "Don't you know?" She'd been relying on the Kacheek to remember some scrap of information as to what had led them to their current predicament.
"I can't remember a thing," the Kacheek said, puzzled, scratching his head. "Can you?"
She shrugged helplessly, glancing around. A vast jungle lay behind them, the foliage creeping up past the upper branches of some of the trees, some of them wide, all of them tall. The jungle stretched to the very edge of the island -- Cherry supposed it had to be an island -- and around. She wondered just how large this island was.
"What was that?" Karik said suddenly, tensing for action.
"What was what?" Cherry strained her ears, listening.
"There it is again!"
She heard it, too. It was a faint groan -- coming from the jungle.
Cherry had to admit to herself that the idea of tramping through an unknown tangle of trees and wildlife did not seem like the smartest thing in the world to do. But Karik was already parting a path through two large leaves. He spotted Cherry hovering behind, hesitating.
"Well?" he said. "Are you coming?"
It was less a statement than a challenge, and Cherry would not back down. "Coming," she said firmly, hastening to follow him as Karik stepped into the foliage, allowing the jungle to envelope him into a world of maddeningly abundant green.
The Xweetok followed cautiously. Her fears were not irrational; there was an eerie sense to the jungle, what with the silence pounding in her ears and the overhead canopy that dimmed the light, and her phobia had not evaporated on the spot. She stuck to Karik like glue, unwilling to let herself wallow in the mind-boggling mystery in the back of her mind, because the question that loomed overhead was just too much for her to handle: Where are we, and how did we get here?
And so she put it from her mind.
"Look!" breathed Karik.
He nudged aside a creeping bushel of leaves and peered into the clearing, a patch of circular dirt. There lay a Cloud Mynci. It did not appear to have heard him; it jerked in its sleep, then rolled over and slumbered on.
"C'mon!" Karik was already climbing over an ancient, wrinkled root. Cherry followed suit after a moment's hesitation and bent low over the Mynci along with Karik.
Karik nudged the sleeping Mynci. Cherry said softly, "Wake up..."
"Nobody wakes up to something like that," Karik told her, impatient and a little disgusted with her lack of waking abilities, and he amended in a bellow, "WAKE UP!"
The Mynci came awake with a cry of shock, and Cherry didn't blame him. "Yes," she said, sarcasm dripping from her voice, "so much nicer to wake up to a foghorn."
"Well, it was faster."
The Mynci blinked three times fast, staring at the two pets that loomed over him. "Wh-who are you?"
Karik cut right to the chase. "Do you remember how you got here?"
Pondering the question, the Mynci looked skyward thoughtfully, then shook his head. "I-I-I... I don't remember anything -- "
"That's serviceable," Karik muttered.
Cherry offered her paw kindly to the Mynci and he righted himself, standing on wobbly legs and looking quite shaken. "My name is Cherry," she said with a tiny smile. "What's your name?"
"Dash, do you remember anything at all?" Cherry wheedled. "What's the last thing you remember?"
"Nothing," the Mynci said honestly, looking obviously uncomfortable and more than a little panicked. "I mean, I know my name -- I know my owner's name... I know where I live... everything like that, but -- where are we? Do you know?"
Karik's thoughts were elsewhere. "Do you hear music?"
Cherry did, indeed. Her ears perked up, and she glanced left and right, feeling the jungle pressing in on her from all around. "Where's it coming from?"
But then, through the dense foliage burst a Faerie Wocky, who was singing at the top of her voice and twirling about, her wings fluttering, her eyes closed in apparent serenity. Cherry and Dash backed up several paces in alarm, but Karik approached the whirling Wocky and attempted to get her attention. "Hey -- "
" -- oh there once was a Wocky, the fairest of all," she sang, dancing in a series of twirling movements that had Karik ducking and dodging to avoid her flailing paws. "Then one day a royal prince came to call -- "
The Wocky froze and opened her eyes in mid-twirl. Karik had his paws over his ears, his eyes squeezed shut.
Confused, the Wocky surveyed him. "Who -- ?"
"I'm Cherry," the Xweetok said, hurrying forward; the introductions were eating away at her nerves. "This is Dash, and Karik. And you?"
"I'm A-dri-a-na," the Wocky replied, grinning, making the name a lullaby.
"Adriana," Cherry repeated, thinking that someone who was obviously this elated had to have some knowledge that could point them in the right direction. Perhaps this strange Wocky was from a nearby town. Perhaps they'd all been shipwrecked, though she couldn't, for the life of her, remember ever taking a cruise. "Do you know where we are?"
The question seemed to confuse Adriana. "Nope. Not a clue."
Karik was irritated. "So you woke up on some strange island, had no idea where you were, and decided it'd be nice to start dancing around the jungle?"
Adriana's gaze flashed back to Karik. "What's your deal?"
"My deal is that we're on an island!" he seethed. "A strange, bizarre, twisted island with dancing Wockies running amok! And I have no idea how I got here!"
"Well, neither do I," Adriana shot back. "And I'm stuck on some island with an arrogant, loud-mouthed, sarcastic know-it-all Kacheek! So don't go thinking we're all sitting here smiling while you're the only one with a problem -- "
"Better an arrogant Kacheek than snobby, wacko Miss Royalty."
"Where do you get off saying I'm 'Miss Royalty'? Pirate Paint Brushes aren't exactly dropped off at the Money Tree, either, you know!"
"For your information, my owner found this on the ground while we were -- "
"Cut it out, both of you!" Cherry snapped, stepping between the Kacheek and the Wocky; both pets' eyes were spitting poison darts. "Let's head back to the beach. Maybe we'll stumble on some sort of clue."
"There's a beach?" Adriana queried.
"Yeah," Karik shot back. "You can catch some rays, get a tan, maybe. Just like all you snooty pets do."
"You -- "
"Zip it!" hissed Cherry, a note of danger pulsing in her voice as she motioned for them to head into the jungle.
Silently, the foursome struggled through the thick underbrush, the canopy overhead threatening to create a blackout. Cherry suspected that it would, had it not been for the feeble rays of light streaming in from the cracks between leaves. Every way she looked, there were trees, dense stretches of foliage, and clawing branches. It seemed like the jungle went on forever.
At long last, the snare opened up to a crystal-clear sky that reflected the water. Adriana merrily padded toward the water and stuck her toe in, then emitted a shrill scream. "It's cold!"
Karik bit his lip. Cherry suspected he was holding back a sarcastic remark with great difficulty. He caught her eye and grinned shiftily.
Dash had been glancing around interestedly, but Cherry saw fear stir in his pale, lavender eyes. He spoke up. "Is anybody injured?"
Cherry, Karik, and Adriana looked at him.
Crimson flooded his cheeks. "Well, wounds or any time of an injury would suggest a struggle, meaning we may have been kidnapped to this island, so -- "
Karik examined himself. "Nope. I'm good."
Adriana whirled around like a Puppyblew chasing its tail. "All clear!"
Cherry moved her front and back paws to assure herself that everything was working as it should. Nothing seemed amiss. "Nope. Nothing."
Dash's voice was nothing but a squeak. "We sh-should search for the wreckage of a boat or -- or something, somewhere along the shores. That may indicate a sh-shipwreck, or -- "
Even Karik looked impressed. "You sound like you swallowed an encyclopedia."
The Mynci looked at his feet, scuffing at the sand, mumbling something that sounded like, "I read a lot."
"Let's search the whole island," Cherry put in. "See what we can find. There's got to be something."
The four Neopets scattered about the island, overturning rocks, scouting out various patches of jungle and gazing over the sparkling, shimmering waters, shielding their eyes with their paws. The vast water seemed to stretch on forever, and there was no land to be seen, save for the forsaken island they'd been placed on.
It's as if all four of us just dropped out of the sky!
But Cherry knew that couldn't be true; she'd had a home, an owner, a pesky brother...
Oh, what I wouldn't give to see Arak now! Even if he is the world's biggest jerk...
Lost in amusing thoughts of what the world's biggest jerk was doing at that very moment, though even the most annoying circumstances made her feel teary, Cherry crashed headlong into a towering palm tree that was swaying in the wind.
She fell to the ground in a spray of sand. Karik appeared around the next grove, snickering.
"Some people walk around trees, but if you want to save some time trying to go through it, that's none of my business..."
The red Xweetok scrambled to her feet, her cheeks going crimson to match her mane of ruby-red fur as Karik sauntered away, still chuckling to himself and chewing on his own lame joke. Huffing out of embarrassment and annoyance, Cherry spun on her heel (as much as one can spin in the sand) and walked smack into Dash.
"What?" she demanded, far more aggressively than she had meant to.
"I-I-I-I..." Dash swallowed, looking fearful, and Cherry was instantly sorry about her snappish manner. She tried to remedy it with a kind, encouraging smile, and Dash seemed to take heart in it as he continued, "I didn't find anything. No wreckage, no people, no... nothing."
Some of the panic that had begun to swell in her chest showed in Dash's eyes, and Cherry put a reassuring paw on his shoulder. "Don't worry. We'll figure this out."
But in the privacy of her mind, Cherry had her doubts. How exactly could four different pets wind up on an island that was, as far as they knew, totally empty? In the middle of the ocean? With no towns, villages or cities nearby? It was totally deserted. And most mysterious of all, how could it be that none of them recalled a thing about their predicament? How could they have been dropped from the sky like raindrops onto an island with no memory of having done so? Was it a shipwreck? Was it kidnap? Why?
Cherry and Dash seated themselves in the sand, overlooking the seemingly endless stretch of sea as the sun she had loathed so much for its unbearable heat began to fall, slowly, gradually. She nudged Dash. "What was your life like? You know, before... this."
The Cloud Mynci did not answer immediately. When he did, he spoke haltingly, as if he was searching for the right words. "I had an owner. A boy named Jordan. We'd always been well-off, I guess you could say. But he was a bit obsessed with Neopoints. It took a lot for me to convince him to buy me a Petpet, Quaffer." He exhaled slowly. "He was a Snowbunny." A pause followed, and then Dash went on, "I always had to rely on Jordan to... to buy me food and everything. We had a nice home, in a nice district, but we were never really overflowing with household items, to be honest. We always had just enough. And I guess that was because he was always saving." Hesitation came afterward. Upon closer inspection, Cherry noted that the boy was quite a bit younger than her, and she felt a pang. So young... he shouldn't be trapped here. "I had to buy my own books. I liked to read." At this mention of what Cherry suspected had been the kid's lifelong hobby, she saw a spark in his otherwise dull pale eyes. It was obvious to her that when he was reading, Dash felt most alive.
She wondered if remaining on this island would steal away at that life. If he'd die inside a little each day.
No. It won't come to that. We're getting off this island.
They had to.
Karik and Adriana arrived, both flushed, their cheeks red, the aftereffects of what Cherry suspected had been a heated debate. Both pets avoided each other's eyes as they skirted a tree and plopped themselves in the sand, Karik next to Dash and Adriana beside Cherry. "We went all the way around the island," Karik said. "It's not that big, actually. Just a dot in the sea somewhere." In the silence save for the pounding waves and crying birds, Cherry heard what he was holding back: No one will find us here.
"We did find fresh water, though," Adriana added as an optimistic afterthought. "And there's a ton of fruit in the trees. Tasty, too. If you're hungry -- "
"Not really," mumbled Dash. Cherry didn't share Adriana's positive outlook, either; she didn't feel very hungry or thirsty at the moment.
A long silence fell between them, like a blanket being smoothed in front of them for folding. No one spoke; each pet merely gazed upon the water, because there was little else to gaze at. It was eternal ocean, a calming, restful view, but a dreary, panic-inducing thought. Everyone was absorbed in their own thoughts, lost in time.
Cherry felt a pang for the things she missed most; her owner, Laura, and even her intolerable brother, Arak. An irritation, to be sure, but she'd trade all the tolerance she had left just to hear him pestering her again.
It was a moment before she noticed that a tear was sliding silently down Dash's cheek. "Don't," she said gently, putting a paw on his arm, but she then realized that her cheeks were wet, too, glistening in the golden-red burst of sunset.
To be continued...