Showdown at Brightness Reef: Part Two
Also by solsticesprite
Tafiti drank in the undersea colours and sounds. All he could taste was the sour flavour of the special potion that allowed him to breathe underwater. The Camouflage Flotsam couldn't navigate as well without the stars, but he was confident that he was guiding his friends on the right path to Brightness Reef. As a courier for the Peophinny Express, he had discovered signs of a new maractite vein in that remote underwater village. His task was to lead his team back to the volcanic reef and investigate.
Alongside him swam Piestrzyca, a native Maraquan Buzz and underwater terrain specialist. Phidianne, a vibrant Mystery Island Hissi with whom Tafiti had shared many adventures, trailed behind them; around her neck lay a rare magical kelp necklace, keeping her breathing, and her personal tiki totem, keeping her grounded. Bringing up the rear were two scuba-clad Lutari, one Red and one Disco: Bizhiw the cheerful athlete and Surgingsong the elegant dance master.
The trek from New Maraqua to Brightness Reef was largely uneventful. To keep a low profile, the five adventurers kept away from the main trade currents, avoiding the larger settlements. They took advantage of the many undersea vortices, remnants of the catastrophic Curse of Maraqua, and their convenient air pockets, to replenish the Lutaris' air tanks.
Tafiti loved this opportunity to explore. When delivering packages, he usually stayed focused on the most efficient route, and you never knew which alternate routes might turn out to be a better path in the future. He had always had good underwater stamina; in fact, it had once saved his life when he was keelhauled by evil pirates. He was happy to find that just a few drops of water-breathing potion could easily last him a day or more. Piestrzyca, as a Maraquan Buzz, was totally in his element. As they traveled, he kept careful, private notes on the undersea flora, fauna, and especially fungi, and was pleased to have found some interesting (and tasty) edible shrooms along the way.
But if these two underwater veterans were enjoying the trip, their Hissi and Lutari companions were downright dazzled. At first glance, much of the ocean floor seemed a barren wasteland of dimly lit muck, although breathtaking in its stark vastness. But as they acclimated to the depths, they began to notice the sea floor's wonders. Schools of Soreen and Pooka darted past in a kaleidoscope of flashing blues and purples. In one trench, a chorus of Leebles burst forth with unexpectedly loud polyphony, like a primordial, wordless hymn of joy. Beyond the unearthly structures made by naturally growing gyres of Cinder Block Sea Fungus, squids of all sizes hunted Spectral Shrimp amidst chartreuse fields of Shimmery Seagrass. Patches of luminescent coral colonies and phosphorescent lichens illuminated the travelers' way through the vast seabed, and here and there, fearsome hydrothermal vents bubbled up superheated chemicals from below Moltara, staining the sea floor with mysterious colours.
Surgingsong moved with acrobatic grace, as though dancing with the currents themselves. Bizhiw was sure he caught a glimpse of a Smiley, that rarest and most cheerful of all aquatic petpets, and the petpet's smile stayed mirrored on his face all day. Phidianne, good Mystery Island girl that she was, grew up knowing how to swim, but had never experienced the deeps like this. She swam well enough to survive in the water, but with her magical kelp necklace, she felt truly at home in the sea for the first time. Wistfully she wound some strands of the magical kelp blades around her tiki, wishing she didn't have to return the necklace once this adventure – no, this mission – was over.
After a fortnight's travel, Tafiti was sure their destination was near. He beamed with relief when Piestrzyca tapped him on his dorsal fin and silently gestured to a pair of bluish-grey electric eels with telltale glowing blue markings. "Maractite Ramosan," whispered the Buzz with a knowing smile. "The reef can't be far."
Before long, they glimpsed the first signs of a large and healthy coral colony. The adventurers found themselves swimming at a slight upward angle as the murky seabed sloped gently upwards to a broad underwater mesa whose coral ring formed a strong natural defense against casual interlopers.
"Welcome, everyone," announced Tafiti, "to Brightness Reef. It's been a long trek; what say we start with a trip to the local saloon?"
At first, the reef seemed scarcely inhabited. A few humble houses, some little more than middens, dotted the seascape. The town center consisted of single broad swath of shell-lined road with a few buildings along either side.
"Not much here," admitted Tafiti, "but three things you can expect in any settlement: a prison, a graveyard, and a saloon." Phidianne nodded thoughtfully, while Bizhiw simply smiled sadly.
The saloon appeared to be the overturned hull of a large sailing vessel. As they entered, a jovial and buxom Maraquan Ixi looked up from behind the counter with surprise, but greeted them pleasantly.
"Tafiti! I wasn't expecting anything from the Peophinny Express. What brings you out here to the boonies? And who are your friends?" She politely gestured for them to sit at one of the saloon's two lone tables. "We don't get many strangers 'round these parts, and never this many at once."
"Everyone, this is Mesquitte," said Tafiti, and quickly introduced his companions. "Mesquitte here owns the saloon. Real pillar of the community, she is. So how are those Gravitic Urns working out for you, ma'am?"
Mesquitte hoisted a long-necked purple flask. Phidianne watched with curiosity as the bartender inserted a bottle of Lemaniac juice into the urn's neck, whereupon the juice was apparently vacuumed into the bell of the flask, allowing Mesquitte to mix drinks without sea water contamination. "They work perfectly," she replied with satisfaction. "Although I doubt you all came all the way to Brightness Reef to check up on a delivery. Well, I won't pry. Can I get you folks something to drink while you get settled?"
Just then, the saloon door swung open with a crash. Mesquitte's eyes narrowed as she turned to see five Maraquan ruffians barge in. She pursed her lips, but kept a smile in her voice. "Hello, boys. Sit tight while I tend to these visitors. And see you don't cause any trouble in my establishment."
Their leader, an aquatic Kyrii, answered with a voice unctuous as Hissi Oil. "Now, Miss Mesquitte, we couldn't just let these outsiders visit without paying our respects. It'd be downright unneighborly." He smiled ingratiatingly, revealing a maractite tooth. Tafiti quietly reached for his satchel. Phidianne clutched her tiki protectively.
Mesquitte looked the Kyrii straight in the eye. "Now, Hank, I mean it. Behave."
An aquatic Bori pulled away from behind the Kyrii and propelled himself towards Phidianne. "No need to fuss, Mesquitte. We're just making their acquaintance."
"That's right," snarled the Maraquan Acara still standing next to Hank. "Even if these fellas took our special table." Piestrzyca lifted his claws into a defensive posture as the hulking Maraquan Grarrl floating behind the Acara curled his flippers into fists. The two Lutari moved to flank the hostile Maraquans. Only the last member of their gang, a Maraquan Pteri with cruel eyes, stayed motionless.
Mesquitte stared down the Acara and Grarrl. "Moe, Gordy, settle down. Any trouble and I will call the sheriff."
The Bori drew closer to Phidianne. "Like I said, Miss Mesquitte, we won't be no trouble at all. We're just getting real friendly-like." He turned to Phidianne and leered. "You can call me Cam, sweetheart. So, how's about a dance?"
Tafiti started to rise. At a single glance from Phidianne, he froze, waiting to see what she had planned.
With the smiling innocence of an ingénue, Phidianne gazed into the Bori's eyes, only inches from her own. "I'd rather drink bilge water."
"Why, you little – " Cam sputtered, but was interrupted by the flash of an impossibly fast boomerang flying between himself and Phidianne. As the boomerang rebounded back in a narrow arc, the Bori had to collapse onto the saloon floor to avoid being hit.
All eyes turned towards the door. A shirtless Maraquan Hissi in khaki trousers stood in the doorway, backlit by the glowing coral outside. A Squid Hat covered the pink fins on his head; large wings made of shell, useless for flying, shielded his back. With surprising reflexes, he caught the gleaming blue boomerang with his right hand, whose wrist was protected from the boomerang's slicing edge by a coral bracelet. His eyes glowed coolly. He holstered the boomerang opposite a small knife in his belt and adjusted the sand-dollar belt buckle.
"So, Hank," he said calmly to the Kyrii, "It's a bit crowded, isn't it? Why don't you and your boys come back later?"
The suction cups on Moe's tentacular horns undulated, as though feeling for something to grasp onto. "This here's our town, Sheriff. Don't see why we should leave on account of a bunch of outsiders."
The sheriff adjusted his belt, letting his hands rest on his knife and boomerang. "Sooner they finish up their business, sooner they can leave, Moe."
The Pteri caught Hank's eye and tilted his head meaningfully towards the door. Hank nodded. "C'mon, fellas. Lou here is right. Let's go." Grudgingly Moe and Gordy followed.
Cam backed away from Phidianne. "This ain't over," the Bori muttered.
Tafiti placed a muscular flipper protectively around Phidianne's shoulder. With powerful strokes, he beat his tail forwards underneath him, knocking the offending Bori back with the resulting jet of water. The threat in the Flotsam's posture was unmistakable. "Oh, I think it is."
As the Maraquan boys retreated towards the door, Bizhiw called out. "No hard feelings, fellas. When you come back, first round's on me." He handed Mesquitte enough Neopoints to easily satisfy five rowdy boys' thirst. Lou, the Pteri, paused. His eyes glittered at the sight of Bizhiw's Neopoints. He followed the others out of the saloon.
"Much obliged, Sheriff," said Mesquitte. "Tafiti, this is Écueil, the law in these parts."
Écueil shook Tafiti's flipper with a firm grip, clearly sizing him up, and then tipped his Squid Hat to Phidianne. His eyes narrowed slightly as his gaze fell upon her necklace. Finally he looked the two Lutari and the Buzz square in the eyes with a curt nod. Mesquitte started preparing drinks with the purple urn; with graceful flicks of her tail, Phidianne sashayed over to the bar to assist her. The Ixi handed her a second mixing urn with a grateful nod.
"A.K., was it?" asked Piestrzyca, not quite getting the pronunciation.
" 'Sheriff' will do just fine," he replied drily. "I don't figure you'll be in town long enough to fret about it."
"Sheriff!" Mesquitte exclaimed. "There's no need to be rude to my guests, or my customers."
Écueil's stolid expression wavered for the first time.
Surgingsong broke his silence. "No, he's right. That Kyrii and his crew are going to cause trouble as long as we're here. The way they swam out of here, they have a score to settle."
Écueil nodded. "Those boys cause me no end of trouble at the best of times, and now you've got 'em all riled up." He turned to Tafiti. "I respect the job you Peophinny Express lads do for us, so I'll give you a little leeway. But this isn't a tourist town. Most folk here prefer to be left alone. Especially from city folk." He looked pointedly at Piestrzyca and the two Lutari. The Buzz shrugged, seeing no point in denying it.
"No one here is working for Kelpbeard," Tafiti assured the sheriff. "And even self-sufficient pioneers know the value of a good trade." Écueil crossed the tips of his scaly wings skeptically. "Especially when the alternative is a gold rush. Just imagine, sheriff, your reef overrun with dozens of Hanks and Moes."
Écueil darted out his tongue, tasting the water. "Go on."
"Sheriff, that's quite a boomerang you've got there. How did you come by maractite chunks big enough to whittle it from?"
Removing his ear from the saloon door, Lou the Pteri darted into the street to find his companions.
Écueil insisted on putting the travelers up for the night, convinced that it was best for all concerned if he kept a close eye on them. As night fell and the refracted sunlight faded from view, the natural luminescence of the reef guided them with splashes of colour, glowing brighter than moonlight on the land. Soon they reached the sheriff's homestead. They wound their way between several small bubbling pits, where schools of Maractite Dartails and Ramosans flitted in the swirling water. Écueil's old-fashioned ranchhouse sprawled along the reef in the distance.
Tafiti swam between Phidianne and Écueil, whose Hissi bodies undulated in parallel waves. Zyc and the two Lutari brought up the rear. Phidianne finally spoke. "Sheriff, you may not be aware of this, but there's been a big shakeup on Krawk Island, southwest of Mystery Island."
"I know where Krawk Island is, Miss Phidianne," he replied tersely.
"Six months ago, a sea monster broke Krawk Island into pieces. Only one tiny islet with a single shanty remained. Neopians from around the globe rallied to reassemble the island, under the leadership of the only Krawk Islander not caught in the diaspora, one Gavril McGill. He restored Krawk Island, but also installed himself as Governor. He's clearly amassed substantial wealth for himself. Some of the Mystery Island elders have wondered whether Gavril might have been controlling the sea monster the whole time."
"It does sound suspicious," admitted Écueil.
"Gavril has built a regiment at the Swashbuckling Academy, and there is a restricted island off the main coast that has been completely off-limits since the restoration. The Mystery elders fear that Gavril has a taste for power, and might be building an army and navy with an eye to expanding his control to Mystery Island and beyond."
"So your government wants maractite for weapons?"
"Exactly. You lived through the Maraquan wars. You know that maractite weapons were the best deterrent against pirate attacks."
"I'm not saying I have maractite, and I'm not saying I don't," mused Écueil. "But if I did, why should I get involved in Mystery Island's problems?"
"Appeasement didn't work against Captain Dread or Captain Scarblade, did it?" suggested Tafiti.
"Neither did war."
"That's true," sighed Tafiti. "But the alternative is for Mystery Island to bargain with King Kelpbeard for maractite weapons. New Maraqua would grow richer and more powerful." Écueil scowled.
"Mystery Island really wants an independent source of maractite, so we can defend ourselves against Gavril, without becoming dependent on Kelpbeard. There are indications of a substantial maractite source here on Brightness Reef." Phidianne gestured towards the schools of maractite petpets and looked meaningfully at the sheriff's boomerang.
"You suggested a trade, Tafiti. What's in it for me?"
"The Peophinny Express could use maractite, too, to speed deliveries across water. And they're concerned about Krawk Island's newfound power, too. Between the Peophinny Express and the Mystery Island elders, we could offer any amount of Neopoints and treasures."
"I don't care about that," said Écueil. "I'm fine just as I am."
"I see that. So the main thing we can offer is autonomy. If there is a maractite lode here, word will eventually leak out. You can't flash around a boomerang like that without someone putting two and two together, like I did," argued Tafiti. "If Kelpbeard finds out, he'll just declare that Brightness Reef is part of New Maraqua, and take over your town. Mystery Island has no interest in ruling you, and no way to annex an underwater reef even if they wanted. But Mystery Island does have an interest in keeping New Maraqua from growing too powerful. Breaking Maraqua's maractite monopoly will do that."
They had just reached the ranchhouse. On either side of the door, two large panes of salvaged transparashield from Old Maraqua had been fashioned into makeshift windows. On the porch, a pod of Spirkles of various sizes and colours milled about a school of Kora, while a large Trunkard grazed contentedly nearby.
Écueil was silent for a moment as he unlocked the front door and shooed the Spirkles away. "I'll think about it. In the meantime, make yourselves comfortable, while I see to your Lutari friends."
Phidianne, Tafiti, and Piestrzyca availed themselves of Écueil's hospitality while the sheriff led the two Lutari to separate accommodations. Piestrzyca looked at the fish milling around inside the building, and whistled. "Would you believe this. It's like walking into the past."
"What are you talking about, Zyc?" asked Phidianne.
Piestrzyca tapped a claw gently on a large blue jellyfish. It inflated into a soft, boxlike bed. "This here feller is a Jelly Bed. One of the Old Maraquan Utility Fish. Critters trained to be tools and furniture. Let's see... yes!" Zyc grabbed a round fish with gold and black zebra stripes and stroked its nose. It immediately swelled into a pillow.
"Phidianne, you should take the bed and pillow. Tafiti and I will be just fine with these Beanbagchairfish." Piestrzyca nabbed two fish resembling Baby Koi and tickled their fins. They instantly blew up into two comfortable, squishy chairs and giggled as the Buzz and Flotsam settled into them.
Meanwhile, Écueil escorted Surgingsong and Bizhiw to a ledge in the coral reef about a quarter-mile away, with a natural air pocket formed by a shelf of overhanging coral and gas from one of the volcanic vents. "It's not surface air, but it's safe. I work here in this gas all the time."
Bizhiw beamed. "It's just fine. Thanks for thinking of this. It's much nicer sleeping without a metal mask."
Écueil paused. "Phidianne told me what she's after. Mystery Island business. But you're not Mystery folk. What's your angle?"
Bizhiw grew serious. "Sheriff, Lutari Island is my homeland. For years now, it's been buffeted by a magical rainstorm that no ship can penetrate. But if we could cover the prow of a small ship with maractite..."
Écueil's eyes widened. "Then the ship would sail through the water as if it were air."
Bizhiw nodded, smiling again. "There would still be tough winds, but a sturdy ship and a good captain could get her through."
Écueil adjusted the shell clip that held his Squid Hat in place. Turning to the Disco Lutari, he said, "I can respect you folks wanting to help people trapped by a storm. I wish someone could have tried to help the Maraquans that way back during the Curse. Is that why you're here as well, Surge?"
Surgingsong nodded. "I could tell how much this means to Bizhiw. We have to at least try."
Écueil took his leave. Bizhiw grinned. "He's a tough one, through and through, but his heart's in the right place. I think this is going to be a successful trip." Surgingsong smiled back, and they settled down for the night.
To be continued...