A Precious Gem: Part One
I need not bore you with my life's story, but for you to fully understand the narrative I am about to limn it is necessary that I provide a brief account of the events that preceded it.
My name, I should first say, is Patt. I am a Kougra, Brown in Colour. The land in which I live and in which this story is set throughout, is Shenkuu, the Land of Mist. I had lived there for most of my life, and for the same duration I and an amiable Lupess had been close companions.
The flaw of companionship is that it is oftentimes far too fragile and transitory, more so than we realize. Then, when the time comes that it is shattered, we are shocked. Who was it who said, "Be courteous to all, but intimate with few, and let those few be well tried before you give them your confidence"? The first Emperor of Shenkuu, if memory serves. Well, my friendship with this Lupess wasn't. It did not undergo and withstand the shocks of adversity the Emperor insists are necessary before true friendship is entitled to the appellation.
The fact of the matter is, it ended, and all too abruptly. She moved. Oh, we wrote at first, friends always do—but the letters became fewer and farther between, until they ceased altogether.
Upon the day in question, a day not long before the beginning of the fourth Altador Cup, I was walking among the brumous peaks of Shenkuu, alone, as was my wont since my loss. It was, so it seemed at the time, a day merely like any other—but in truth, it turned out to be a day I will never forget.
A sudden gust of wind, whirling through the mountains, tore the Daring Adventurer Hat from my head. "Bother!" I interjected as the breeze tossed it about like a Biyako would a ball of yarn. The end result was the same as the Petpet's exercise; the plaything was flung to a position where its malefactor could no longer reach it, namely, a gnarled tree growing from a crevice in the face of a cliff, where it was no closer to my grasp than the wind's.
I glanced down the precipice. Not far below, a group of adjoined huts perched atop a sizable ledge. It wasn't a terribly long way to fall; if you do slip, I assured myself, you won't kill yourself, you'll just break a few bones. Well, as long as you miss that outcrop. And as long as you don't miss the ledge.
Convinced that my brain was doing its utmost to liquidate me, I pushed my glasses back on my nose, and I lowered myself carefully over the edge of the path, nimbly worked my way downward with the aid of small projections and clefts for pawholds. At last I reached the tree, and set one paw gently upon its trunk. It shook only slightly beneath my weight as I lowered myself onto it and began working my way toward its outstretched branches. The farther I went, the more the tree creaked, swayed, and sagged.
"Come on," I sibilated through gritted teeth, "come on . . . just a little farther. . . ."
I sprang forward, seizing the hat in my paw; but as the tree swung away, hanging feebly by the splinters of its trunk, I found myself all dressed up with nowhere to go—but down.
It was a short plummet, but to the Mystery Island native playing the tom-tom on my heart, it felt as if I was falling from Kreludor. I plummeted five feet, ten, fifteen, twenty, seventy-eight million, forty-two thousand, five-hundred and fifty-nine; then I plunged through the bamboo roof to land in a heap of Remarkable Restoratives wares, my prize firmly grasped in my paw; a painful and aromatic landing, but I was alive, and I didn't think I broke anything. Although I worried for my sense.
Massaging the inflated balloon perched where my head had once been, I rose to my paws, donned my hat, and took a look around. My hope that the hut was untenanted was dashed in one of the most peculiar events of my life.
The rays of sunshine pouring in through my architectural addition lent some light to the dim hut, but it took my eyes a moment to adjust to the shadows. In a moment I discerned an Usul sitting in a chair, gazing at me through wide, astonished, bespectacled eyes.
"Good afternoon, miss," I greeted, tipping my hat. "Nice day, isn't it? I was taking a stroll when I noticed your hut, and I said to myself, 'Hey, that's a nice place, why don't you drop in and introduce yourself?' Like your new skylight?"
The Green Usul gazed at me, incredulous, bewildered, probably thinking me a lunatic, which I confess to be a veracious perception. But as my pupils dilated further, I found, to my astonishment, that the Usul was gagged and bound to the chair. Without further ado I sprang forward, claws unsheathed, and rived the ropes.
Immediately the Usul threw her arms around me, gasping, "Thank you—thank you! But—how—who—where—what in Neopia——?"
"That's what I'm wondering, and more," I said, taking the Usul by the shoulders. "We'll start with the important details. What are you doing here, how did you get here, and why are you tied to a chair?"
"The Shenkuu Out-Streeters," she gasped. "A notorious gang of thieves. They were robbing my Neohome—I caught them in the act, tried to stop them—too many—they kidnapped me—brought me here——"
Suddenly the door flew open. "Hey! What was all that racket? What's——" the Techo broke off at the sight of me. He raised his spear and pointed it at me. "How—who—where—what in Neopia——?"
"Excuse me," I murmured to the Usul, pushing her roughly aside to seize her chair. The Techo, an Out-Streeter guard I presumed, rushed at me. I caught a thrust from his spear by the seat of the chair and tweaked it from his hand. The Techo struck out with his tail, knocking the chair from my paws. The guard connected his foot to my face in a roundhouse kick that prostrated me. Suddenly the face staring down at me became two; the Usul was by the Techo's side. She seized him by the arm, levered him over her back, and flung him against the wall.
As our opponent crumpled in a heap, the Usul helped me to my feet, asking, "Are you all right?"
"I think I bruised my pride, that's all. But, come now, what's going on here? Who are these Out-Streeters, anyway?"
"I told you, an organized crime ring! From petty theft, to kidnapping, to smuggling arms——"
She was hushed by a bellow from the next room. "Hey, Slick! Where'd you go to?"
"Better get out of here," I propounded. The Usul nodded in concurrence. I lifted her to the point that she could scramble up onto the roof, and with the help of a crate and her extended paw I climbed out beside her.
"Smuggling arms," I repeated. "I'll consider myself lucky I didn't fall into the weapons closet."
As we lowered ourselves over the eaves and began to slink away among the rocks and distorted trees, when a cry went up from the hut.
"The Usul's gone!"
"Run!" cried I.
We took to the open ground for the sake of speed. The path ahead of us curved away to spiral upward by one path, and downward by another. Above, a bridge spanned the gap between this lonely peak and the next, being one of the outer pinnacles of the city. If we could but reach it——
An arrow whizzed past my head. Glancing over my shoulder, I spotted an approximate half-dozen thugs armed with crossbows.
"Your friends want us to stay for tea," I observed.
"Keep your head down," said the Usul, "but keep running!"
"I'm not thirsty, anyway."
"How can you joke at a time like this?"
"You're right. Teatime is too serious to be trifled with. I am thirsty, I admit it."
We dodged around the bend, arrows clinking vainly against the cliff face as we put it between us and our pursuers. We advanced upward, through a cloud, spiralling on, until we reached the bridge. Without a word, without a pause, we put our paws to the wooden planks.
We had made it a third of the way across before the first arrow announced that our shadows had caught up. The arrow sailed harmlessly past the bridge. Hopefully any Neopians at the nadir of the mountain were watching their heads.
We expedited our pace, dodging further assaults. One arrow narrowly missed my ear to sever one of the rope rails. The bridge lurched; the Usul lost her balanced and slipped. I hate to think, in retrospect, what would have happened had I hesitated for even a moment. But what did happen is more important than what might have happened—and what did happen is this: I sprang forward as she tumbled over the edge, seizing her paw in the nick of time. Firmly gripping the opposite rail with my hindpaws, I helped the Usul back onto the blanks, where we sat together, panting.
I yowled as an arrow sank into my flank; the Usul gasped, "No! Oh, no!"
The six Out-Streeters were closer on our tails than ever, already on their way across the bridge. Wounded as I was now, we had no hope of outrunning them. There was nothing we could do now—my heroic rescue was doomed to failure, and the Usul and I were plain doomed.
I threw a sudden glance at the severed rope rail. Maybe there was still one chance.
I turned to the Usul. "Do you trust me?"
"Do you trust me?"
"Then you'll regret it," said I, wincing as I extricated the arrow. "Never trust a lunatic. Now," I directed, "grab hold."
The Usul obeyed, taking firm hold of the herringbone pattern tying the rope rail to the planks. I quickly did the same, gripped my hat, and, with three swipes of my claws, cleft the bridge completely.
First, it felt as if we were floating. Then, as the bridge gave way beneath us, as if we were falling, followed by flying. Finally, it felt as if we had run headfirst into a brick wall, which, more or less, is what we did. Dazed, flank throbbing, but clinging desperately to the rope ladder we had created, I encouraged the Usul to begin the ascent, I following behind her. Neither of us looked down, only I looked back; the screams of the Out-Streeter guards had testified to their fate, though one, I perceived, had gained the safety of a ledge—an Aisha, a scar running across one eye and an eyepatch concealing the other. He stood there for a moment, glowering at me; then turned and walked calmly away.
The climb was toilsome and fatiguing, but at last, out of breath, chests heaving, the Usul and I flopped down on the safety of the ledge above.
"We did it," the Usul breathed, a smile creeping across her face, a twinkle illuminating her eyes, joy pervading her voice, "we did it! We escaped—alive!" She laughed gleefully. I joined her. Our mingled laughter echoed among the mountains.
Then, "No," added the Usul, "no—you did it. You saved me. Why—and how? Where did you come from?"
"Well, I'm from Mystery Island originally, but I——"
"You know what I mean!"
I just grinned and extended a paw. "Patt," I introduced myself. "What's your name?"
"Jade," said the Usul of Green.
I echoed, "Jade. That's a word—a noun. Mine's a verb. A verb and a noun—descriptive, that."
Jade laughed. "I have no idea what you're talking about."
"Nor do I. That's the best of me. I never know what I'm talking about. I can say anything I like without understanding half of it. Oh, look, a cloud shaped like Blugthak." I paused as Jade chortled; I joined in with a chuckle. "Well, well," I added suddenly, rising, "best be getting back home now, Jady."
"Jady?" the Usul Pawkeeted, cocking an eyebrow while she climbed to her feet. "Right, then, Patty."
"Well, here now," I objected, "that's different—I'm a guy—affixing a Y to my name isn't very——"
"Come on, Patty," laughed Jade, "time to be getting home now."
She turned and pranced away into the mist. With grinning jowl and a shrug of my shoulders, I followed.
* * *
Tears streamed down my face. I slumped over the table before me and pounded my fist upon its surface.
"That—that—" I choked, "that's the most hilarious thing I ever heard!"
Jade, our fellow FTWers—Bee, Emily, Dawn, Kat, Doki, Foamy, Ben, Kean, Abby, May, Cloud—and I were gathered round a table at Culinary Concoctions, roaring with laughter over a story Doki had just told.
The weeks had flown by, the Altador Cup was come and gone. Jade and I had become fast friends. Sweet, friendly, amusing, loyal, quite obstinate, rather paranoid, and downright awesome, who wouldn't get along with her? It's me, downright Patt, I have always wondered how she could tolerate. Somehow, she's been mad enough to do so.
"And then——" a laugh interrupted Doki's speech. "And then he said, 'I didn't want the pot—I only wanted the lid!'"
We all laughed at this, and when Doki's tale had spun to its finish, conversation turned to other things—literature, celluloids, the upcoming holidays, Roxton Colchester's latest exploit.
"So, Jady," said I non-sequitur, "how about that game of Key Quest?"
"You're on," she responded. "Do you have a set with you?"
"Always!" I produced the aforementioned item. "When, that is, I have a game arranged."
Jady laughed and we began setting up. The others settled in to watch the showdown, May called, "I challenge the winner!"
"There's a great reward for the victor," joked Abby.
The game set, I courteously allowed Jady have the first move.
"Good luck," I bade. "You're going to need it!"
Jade laughed. "I probably will."
"Great comeback," I jested. "You're too self-critical, Jady! You'll probably win."
"I'll lose and you know it."
"Humph!" I grunted dubiously. "We'll see about that. There, you see? A Loaded Gummy Die and a Key Grabber on your first roll!"
And you know what? I don't even remember who won. Some details just aren't as important. . . .
To be continued...