Invisible Paint Brushes rock Circulation: 188,147,882 Issue: 531 | 3rd day of Awakening, Y14
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Showdown at Brightness Reef: Part One


by peirigill

--------

Also by solsticesprite

Tafiti the Camouflage Flotsam strafed the ocean's surface, building up speed. On the deck of a nearby schooner, whose flag sported a large blue dubloon, a Hissi and her two Lutari companions watched. With his azure and aquamarine swirls, the Flotsam seemed a giant skipping stone of living water. After a sudden backwards flip, he plunged below the surface. Moments later, in an explosion of aquatic grace, he burst forth from the depths, flying up towards his shipmates. As Tafiti twirled through the air, his eyes scanned the horizon, reading the constellations emerging in the deepening dusk. One of the Lutari, his Disco garb strangely out of place at sea, leapt forward and caught Tafiti's flippers. Spinning the Flotsam to absorb his momentum, he landed Tafiti safely on the deck. His Red Lutari friend grinned and held out a warm towel.

     Phidianne, the Hissi Captain of the Five Hundredth Dubloon, looked the Disco Lutari up and down appraisingly. Her natural Mystery Islander tan glowed tawny in the fading light. "Nice moves. I see that the great Surgingsong's skills were not exaggerated. I can't wait to see you underwater." The Lutari stepped back smoothly into a formal bow.

     Once dry, Tafiti turned to Phidianne, who was idly stroking the hand-carved tiki on her necklace. "Five degrees to starboard, then steady as she goes, Captain," he reported. "We'll reach New Maraqua within the hour." Phidianne nodded.

     Surgingsong gazed at Tafiti, wrestling to put his thoughts into words. "You were just dancing with the stars, weren't you?"

     Tafiti glanced away, his aquamarine skin blushing to periwinkle, and fixed his gaze on the horizon where the stars of the Collector were slowly rising into view. "It's how my people navigate, Surge. It's nothing special."

     "Nonsense," said Phidianne. "Your skills put the finest Brightvale sextants to shame. If there's a better ocean pathfinder, I'd like to meet them. Speaking of which, we should prepare to disembark."

     Surgingsong bowed, his brightly-coloured arms akimbo just so, and swept away with a flourish. "Coming, Bizhiw?" he asked his fellow Lutari.

     "One sec, Surge," replied Bizhiw with a quiet smile. He put his russet arm around the Flotsam's shoulder with a friendly tug. "You are something special, buddy. Don't deny it. Best delivery record in the whole Peophinny Express. We're gonna need you down there. This mission is too important to trust to anyone less than the best."


     An hour later, the Five Hundredth Dubloon was safely docked at the anchored platform floating above New Maraqua. Bizhiw and Surgingsong trudged up to the deck, encumbered by their diving gear. At the railing, Phidianne was inspecting various bottles of tropical fruit juice as Tafiti carefully packed them into a satchel branded with a stylized Peophin logo. Seeing the two Lutari, Phidianne beckoned to them.

     "Lovely gear, Surge," she said, feeling the green scales of his wetsuit. "Just like a Hissi skin, only wetter."

     Surgingsong stretched his limbs and flicked his tail, testing the suit's give, and nodded in satisfaction. "Not as high-tech as Bizhiw's, but I'll take control over comfort any day."

     "I'll remember that," laughed Phidianne.

     Bizhiw suppressed a smirk as he strapped his metallic diving pack onto his back. "We're ready to dive, Captain. Why aren't you and Tafiti suited up yet?"

     Tafiti opened the waterproof satchel at his waist and pulled out a large flask and a small coral box with delicate maractite filigree. "We'll be ready in just a tick." He carefully opened the box, removed a circlet of seaweed, and placed it around Phidianne's neck, then took a sip from the flask. "Guard this necklace carefully, Captain."

     "Understood. And from here on out, it's just Phidianne. Divulge no more than necessary. Better that people not know we have a ship waiting in reserve. Now let's be off, boys. We have an appointment to keep." She gently tapped the Elephante tiki around her neck. Flapping her wings, she rose up from the deck, flew over the railing, and plunged into the waters below. Surgingsong followed suit, stepping onto the ship's plank and springing into a twisting dive, entering the water with virtually no splash. Bizhiw whistled in appreciation.

     "I've always secretly wanted to walk the plank," admitted Bizhiw affably.

     "Let's hope you never have to do it for real," muttered Tafiti through uncharacteristically clenched teeth. He turned his head back towards the ship, lost for a moment in memory. "Believe me. And if you ever do, pray that Phidianne is near."


     Tafiti's eyes adjusted the fastest to the underwater vista. Below him lay the world of Maraqua, shining eerily in the dark, thanks to the mystical glow of the maractite masonry. Strategically planted fluorescent corals marked the twists and turns of New Maraqua's broad central highway, connecting the king's palace to the main tourist spots. Even without his expert tracking skills, he would have had no trouble finding their destination: Maraqua's world-renowned five-star restaurant, Kelp.

     "Which way do we go?" called Phidianne.

     "Ssh! Do you want all of Maraqua to hear you?"

     "Sorry!" said Phidianne in a lower voice. "I didn't realize how... quiet it is underwater. On board, you usually have to speak up to make yourself heard."

     "We want the large central building with the scalloped roof. I'll lead the way."

     "Not if I get there first!" teased Bizhiw, darting past Tafiti with a powerful breaststroke.

     "You're on!"

     Surgingsong shrugged, and gallantly gestured to Phidianne to proceed. Phidianne shook her head with amusement watching Tafiti and Bizhiw race towards the sea floor. "Boys."


     "Fyora's tears," exhaled Bizhiw, as the four entered the opulent restaurant. "Kelp really lives up to its reputation."

     The maître d', an elegantly dressed Maraquan Scorchio with glinting golden scales, glided forward to meet them. After glancing at the Lutaris' less than formal scuba gear, his gaze lingered just a little too long on Phidianne's caramel swirls and feathered headdress, which marked her as an Island Hissi. He looked as though he'd just swallowed a Super Sour Shocker Chia Pop. Then his eyes widened slightly as he noticed her kelp necklace. His air of disapproval vanished immediately.

     With a bow to Phidianne, he greeted them formally but warmly. "Welcome to Kelp, Madam and Messieurs. We pride ourselves on our eclectic blend of both modern and traditional cuisine, which I am sure connoisseurs such as yourselves will appreciate. Do you have a reservation? What name will it be under?"

     With a gentle downward press of his flippers, Tafiti lifted himself a foot higher in the water to get the Scorchio's attention. "We have a private room reserved under the name Piestrzyca."

     The Scorchio smiled. "Of course, Sir. Please come this way. Gentlemen, your table is in the deluxe air pocket section, so you will be able to remove your helmets."

     He led them to an intimate room in the upper, air-filled floor. An elegant round table dominated the room, its maractite center inlaid with lapis lazuli. Three chairs and two large, water-filled basins surrounded the table. In one basin lounged a burly Maraquan Buzz, whose lobster-like claws fidgeted with a maractite knife and spork. As Phidianne's party entered the room, the Buzz rose and shuttered the kelp window blinds.

     "About time you got here, Tafiti, you old bottom-feeder, you!" The Buzz gestured to Tafiti to join him in the other basin. "And who might these fine folks be?"

     "Piestrzyca, this is Phidianne," introduced Tafiti. Phidianne curtseyed with a gentle Islander sway.

     Piestrzyca dipped his antennae courteously. "Tafiti here's told me you're an expert with tropical fruit, Miz Phidianne. Can't wait to see what you think of Kelp's cuisine." The Hissi smiled coyly.

     Tafiti continued, "This is Surgingsong, and the big red fellow is Bizhiw." Surgingsong bowed.

     "That's Bizhiw with a 'w,' Piestrzyca, sir," the Lutari grinned, firmly shaking the Buzz's claw.

     "My friends call me Zyc."

     "Good to see you, Zyc," Tafiti continued, hopping into the vacant water-filled basin next to Piestrzyca's. As the water buoyed his tail, he gave a sigh of contentment. "Ah, they do spoil you at Kelp. You never find comfortable waterchairs like this on land."

     "Yes, it's exquisite," said Phidianne. "Why the chilly reception downstairs, though?"

     Piestrzyca gave them an uncomfortable half-smile. "I'm afraid, ma'am, that Mystery Islanders like you aren't too popular down here, especially in Kelp. Folks here still remember Old Maraqua... shoot, the ruins are just a stroke and a paddle from here... and how Mystery Island just stood by while pirates destroyed our kingdom. You Island folk stole away Kelp's best chef so you all can keep that Mumbo Jumbo coconut feller of yours fed. Then you make NP paw over fist selling Maraquan petpets in that Rock Pool of yours."

     Phidianne nodded slowly, letting his words sink in.

     "I figured the maître d' thought we were cheapskates out for the least expensive leftovers we could get," chuckled Bizhiw. "Why'd he get so friendly all of a sudden?"

     "Five'll get you ten it was this little lady's kelp necklace," sniggered the Buzz. "Rarer than Utility Fish, those are. Only high-level muckity-mucks on official business get those."

     Surgingsong gave Bizhiw a questioning look. Bizhiw chuckled. "Cap-, I mean, Ms. Phidianne here, isn't just my friend Anneslace's BFF. She's also an official Mystery Island Privateer. Kind of like an admiral in the Coast Guard."

     "When I'm not ferrying tourists or perfecting Neopia's best Bubbling Kraku Thickshake, anyway, which I'd much rather be doing," laughed Phidianne. "But speaking of official business, can we speak freely here?"

     "Once we've ordered, yes, And feel free to help yourself to anything on the menu, on me. Well, on the house, really. It's part of my contract."

     There was a knock on the door. The server, a comely cerulean Maraquan Uni, came in and handed out menus. "Hello, welcome to Kelp," she intoned, as though she had said it a hundred times that night but was determined to say it to each customer as though for the first time. "There are four different... oh, goodness, it's you, Zyca!" She playfully grabbed his menus back. "I know you don't need these!"

     "I wondered when you'd notice me, Arista," laughed the Buzz. "You know what, never mind the menus. Tell that head hash slinger of yours we want chef's choice. Tell him it's me. Tell him I want to see what he can really do with Fungi Fruit. And tell him I'm entertaining a lady who's a master mixologist with tropical juices."

     "Will do, Zyc. We'll have appetizers and refreshments for you shortly." The Uni glided gracefully out of the room. Piestrzyca held up a claw for silence until he heard the door click firmly shut.

     Surgingsong raised an eyebrow.

     "Piestrzyca provides exotic mushrooms for Kelp. He knows the secret places where the rarest culinary mushrooms grow," explained Tafiti.

     "More importantly, I can tell the good stuff from the poisonous shrooms. Pick the wrong kind, and all the nice tourists spend the evening hurling very expensive chunks. Not on my watch, though. I've got the eye."

     "And most importantly," continued Tafiti, "no one knows the wild seabeds beyond Maraqua's borders better."

     "You're too modest, Tafiti my lad. You Peophinny Express riders travel farther than I do."

     "What's the Peophinny Express?" asked Surgingsong.

     Tafiti arched his back proudly. "We deliver mail between distant lands, and especially to settlements outside the main population centers. For example, I hail from an island to the south most Neopians have never even heard of, so small it's not even on the map. We're neither Mystery nor Krawk Islanders. We don't have to deal with their politics, but we also don't get their services, like the post. It's dangerous work sometimes, but I love it. Because I'm a strong swimmer, I do mostly island jobs, but sometimes travel to the undersea townships outside of Maraqua."

     "Neopians live under the sea who aren't Maraquans?" pondered Bizhiw.

     "Well, they usually look like me, so they're 'Maraquan' as far as that goes, but there's plenty as wouldn't call Maraqua home," Piestrzyca replied. "The ocean floor is a big place. After Old Maraqua got destroyed, well, ol' King Kelpbeard, he tried to rescue everyone he could. But some folk, like Caylis, didn't want rescuing. They'd had their fill of kings and cities. They forged off on their own, far beyond the limits of New Maraqua. It's a desolate, harsh world out there on the ocean floor, but they get by. Frontier law is the only law. Few Neopians even know these settlements exist, and that suits those settlers just fine."

     Tafiti lowered his voice. "There's a tiny underwater burg off to the southeast, between Mystery Island and Moltara. The locals call it Brightness Reef. Way off the beaten path. Not much to see, mostly just Kora ranching. I only know it from delivering a shipment of Gravitic Urns to the local saloon. But I noticed two things. First, the sheriff had a maractite boomerang. Hand-made. And on my way out of town, I found this near one of the volcanic vents." He opened his satchel and pulled out a slab of grey stone with a thick vein of deep blue running through it, within which bright striations and swirls glowed like azure embers. "If my suspicions are correct, we may be looking at the biggest lode of maractite yet discovered."

To be continued...

 
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