Pirates of Shenkuu: Part Four
Panbu and I crowd behind Nishi. I clutch my black leather practice helmet in my hands, tracing over the skull and crossbones I'd painted on in white.
"Yes?" A thin Green Grarrl pokes his head through the doorway, looking annoyed. He clutches a bundle of papers in one hand, and a quill pen in the other. "Oh, it's you, Nishi. What do you want?"
"I've found a job for you," the Brown Draik says, and steps aside to reveal Panbu and me, standing in the open doorway. I hastily jam the hat on my head and strike my best pirate pose.
Yitan snorts, fingering the quill pen. "And who are you?"
"The captain of the. . .of the. . ." Too late, I realize our ship doesn't even have a name. Thinking of the sails, I start. "The Purple. . ."
". . .Dumpling," Panbu finishes dreamily. I stare at him. "What?" the Bruce says defensively. "I'm hungry."
"The Purple Dumpling," Yitan snorts, sounding very much like Nishi. "Well, you're the only job offer I've got in months. I'll take it. Just where are we going, exactly?" All three turned to stare at me, questioning looks in their eyes.
"We're going to hunt down pirates," I explain. "To get bounties on them. Do you have a list of them, or something?"
"Right here," the Grarrl mutters, withdrawing into the office and pulling out a sheaf of papers. He shuffles them around, finally withdrawing a worn sheet of bamboo paper. "The easiest one first, then?" he asks.
I nod. "Read their name, and how much NP we'll get for them."
"Saowen the Sallow," Yitan reads. "Flies around Cyodrake Peak. 200 NP."
"200?" I gasp. "That's not even worth our time! Read the next one."
"Wily Weijian," he says, moving his finger slowly across the line. "Circles Biyako Bridge every morning. 250 NP."
"250!" I grab the list from him, scanning the names. There are about a dozen, and most seem to be in the 200-300 NP range. I skip to the highest and read only the bounty: 100,000 NP. Over 99,600 NP more than the next on the list. "This one," I say. "Let's see. . .Captain Dandan. Of the Black Dandan." I slowly lower the list.
Panbu hasn't heard me. "Why're they all so cheap?" he complains to Yitan.
"Pirates around here are really only annoying. Very few of them actually steal anything," Yitan explains. "Most of them have other jobs, and just put up their black sails and fly around following merchants and shooting a few poorly aimed stars at them for fun."
"The Black Dandan!" I shout, and everyone jumps.
"H-him?" Panbu stammers. "That's who we're going after?"
I nod. "This is the only one worth catching on this list. If we do this job, we can get a ship at least twice the size of the one we have now, and of much higher quality. It says here he frequents Quintilc Quarry at night-time, especially during storms."
"Quintilc Quarry's dangerous to fly in," Yitan murmurs. "Tons of branches or jutting rock to snag your sails on. The thing's like a maze, too."
"There'll be a storm tonight," Nishi interrupts. We all turn to look at her. "My father knows weather. He says the clouds point to a storm tonight, and a big one at that."
"It's dangerous to fly during a storm," Yitan mutters, wrinkling his nose. I pass him the list and he examines it carefully, eyes fixed on Captain Dandan's information. "He's stolen thousands of NP worth of supplies from merchants. He won't be easy to take down."
"We can use the storm against him," I say. "It won't be easy for him to fly in it, either." Excited, I hop into the air, fluttering my sky-blue wings. Only one job, and I'd have a new ship! This was going to be easier than I'd thought.
"He probably knows the area well, though," Yitan points out. "The twists and turns of the quarry will be hard to navigate. . ."
"And that's what you're for," I say firmly. I turn around and motion for my new crew to follow. "Come on. We've got a pirate captain to hunt down."
. . .
Rain patters on the deck, splashing in our faces. It's foggier than ever, and the blinding rain certainly doesn't help. I huddle against the main mast, clutching my raincoat around me. "Great Fyora, it's cold," I mutter into my collar, peering out at the gray night.
"I'm not sure this was a good idea," Panbu wails, sliding across the wet deck as the ship swerves to the left, banks, and gains altitude. The weapons chest slides after Panbu, knocking him onto his back. "Yitan!" the plump Bruce complains.
"Sorry!" Yitan shouts, gritting his teeth. "It's not exactly easy to navigate this storm." He's at the wheel, piloting us through the quarry. I man the sails, making sure we rise and fall in accordance with Yitan's instructions. Nishi is perched on top of the main mast, tail wrapped around the wood for balance, searching for the Black Dandan.
"No sign of him!" Nishi yells, her voice faint against the rain. I sigh and lean forward, clutching at the mast for balance as we bank once again, nearly going sideways into the wall. "Sorry!" Yitan shouts again, and I pump the sails, driving us upward.
For a moment I forget myself and we fly upward, as high as we can go, swirling through the rain and clouds toward the tiny window of stars above the storm. Ignoring Yitan's shouts and following my own intuition, I keep rising, until we've finally broken free of the storm.
The night is calm; the air is thin and cold. Nishi scans the horizon, leaning forward.
"I don't see--"
He nearly slams into us from behind.
After jostling our boat, the Black Dandan takes on a burst of speed, rocketing toward the storm below. Yitan turns the wheel and I order Panbu to help me tuck in the sails. We drop like a rock, plummeting toward the gorge below.
We're in the storm again, and the winds blow us straight forward, crashing into the ship. It's made of normal, unpainted brown like the Purple Dumpling, but the wings are enormous and black. The ship ducks down, and I get a glance of a hooded figure standing at the ship's wheel, entirely shrouded in black. It glances backward, and then twirls the wheel, banking sharply to the right. I lunge forward, grabbing the rope coiled in a pile near the weapons chest. I whirl it and throw it forward. The wind catches it and carries it, and the grappling-hook end embeds itself in the Black Dandan's netting.
We're yanked sharply forward and I tie my end of the rope to the bow, as the Black Dandan dips down and then up, swerving around the gorge in a wild array of patterns and twists. Panbu, Yitan, Nishi, and I slide around the deck, crashing into the mast and the chest and each other.
I pull free of them, flapping my wings and grabbing onto the wheel, looking forward toward the Black Dandan. The figure in black--Captain Dandan--glances back at us and then pulls in the sails. The Dandan drops, pulling us along with it. We gain speed, heading toward the bottom of the gorge at breakneck speed.
I realize his trick and open our sails as wide as they can go, pumping upward hard and ordering Nishi to slash through the connecting rope with her sai. They, too open their sails at the last minute, gaining altitude quickly. The captain glances back at us and seems angrily; he spins the wheel with unnecessary force and ramming into our bow.
We lurch backward, crashing into the walls of the ravine behind us. The Black Dandan's long bow smashes into our mast, embedding itself in the side of the Dumpling. We're dwarfed next to the enormous ship, staring up in horror as the captain steers quickly to the side. His bow is ripped free and we plummet toward the ground.
I grab at thin air, and find my hand meeting Nishi's. She has her free hand and her tail wrapped around her cousin, who dangles in the sky, his eyes bugging out of his head as he stares down at the gorge below. Nishi and I flap laborously to a portion of rock jutting out of the façade and drop Yitan there.
I leave them at once and drop down to follow the ship and, with it, Panbu. I wince as the sound of the boat hitting the bottom of the quarry echoes with a sickening crunch. Panbu?
"Aisheng! Over here!" a weak voice calls from somewhere to my right.
I shoot forward, flapping my wings as fast as I can. Panbu dangles from an old branch growing out of the rock wall, kicking his legs feebly at the nothingness below him. I grab him under the arms and fly him to the outcropping where Yitan waits, helped by Nishi as soon as she sees and flies to us.
"I'm going after him," I announce, dropping Panbu and rubbing my sore arms.
"I'm coming with you," Nishi says at once, springing to her feet.
"It's too dangerous--" I start.
"He's right," Yitan breaks in.
"I don't care," the Draik snaps, gripping her sai very tightly. "It's more dangerous for Aisheng, anyway. He doesn't stand a chance against Captain Dandan, or his crew."
"If you both go, Yitan and I are trapped here," Panbu complains. The Green Grarrl nodded hastily.
"We'll come back for you," Nishi snaps, launching herself into the air. I hesitate. All I have is my leather hat, and the bag of throwing stars Nishi gave me fastened at my my belt. What'll I do at close range?
"Hurry up!" Nishi shouts behind her, and I run forward into the air.
We weave and twist among the clumps of rock, bushes, and branches that stick out from the rock face. I nearly brain myself on a large boulder, and Nishi narrowly avoids becoming tangled in an enormous Spyder web. Going is slow, and visibility is poor.
Suddenly the storm sees to die. Some of the mist clears, and we can see much farther. Shouting up ahead catches our attention, and we circle in the quarry, searching for the source of the noise.
"Over there!" Nishi hisses, pointing with her sai toward a large mass of something, hidden in the mist.
"It's the Black Dandan," I whisper, and we edge to the side of the gorge, flying forward slowly and as quietly as we can.
"There they are!" a voice shouts from below, and Nishi and I freeze in shock. We drop several meters before we remember ourselves and begin flying again, flapping our wings to stay hovering in midair.
The Black Dandan has crashed on the ground, the tip of its main mast broken and its netting hopelessly entangled in a huge tree growing out of the cliff wall. The black-shrouded figure on the deck sees us and runs inside the captain's cabin. His crew follows him and all is eerily silent, like we're looking at a ghost ship.
Nishi and I nod at each other and drop down to the ship deck, thudding on the wood and immediately springing into ready stances, warily watching every direction. I pull out one of my throwing stars, wishing I'd remembered to ask Nishi how to use them.
Without warning, Nishi charges forward, dropping her sai into the sheath at her belt and drawing her bow, knocking an arrow into it and kicking down the door to the captain's cabin, arrow pointed into the darkness.
I creep up behind her, careful not to make a sound. Someone's put out all the lights in the cabin, and no one moves. Nishi elbows me, and I smooth my hands along the wall, feeling for a lantern, a torch, anything. Something knocks against my side and there's the sound of a match being struck. I'm thrown to the floor and the whole room brightens at once, shining as at least five lanterns are lit.
The cloaked figure stands above me, one foot holding me to the floor. At this angle, I can't see his face inside his hood. I chuck the throwing star wildly into the air, and it sinks into the wooden ceiling, touching no one. I flail wildly, unable to get to my bag and completely out of options.
The hooded figure jumps away, and I pull myself to my feet, scrambling for my bag. Nishi puts out an arm to stop me, and we both stare.
The figure in black has pulled his hood back.
Captain Dandan stares us in the face.
It's Hezi, owner of Dandan's Dishes.
"Hezi?" I gasp. "What're you doing here? Where's Captain Dandan? Where. . .?" I look wildly around the room, and am met with the silent stares of the assistant cook, Huanghua the waitress, and two Nimmo waiters.
"I'm Captain Dandan," Hezi says miserably.
"But you. . .told us about the Black Dandan," Nishi says reasonably, though the look in her eyes is shocked and hysterical. "You warned us about him."
"So I did," Hezi murmurs. "So I did to everyone. I spread the rumor of the Black Dandan throughout Shenkuu, making up stories how my friend or myself had boxes of supplies stolen from us. Of course, I did steal myself--food, lots of it."
"But. . .why?" Nishi murmurs, dumbfounded.
Hezi's face twists angrily. "It's all because of those other resteraunts! Especially Exotic Foods! Ever since they sprung up, we smaller resteraunts have had no chance, with no money to buy the expensive foreign food. Sitou here--" He gestures to one of the Nimmo waiters--"had a friend who had a friend who had a friend who got us this ship here, and the whole business was started. Many times I've wished we could just stop, but. . .we didn't. I don't want the Defenders of Neopia to take me," he added sadly. "Could you--could you maybe. . .reason with them?"
Nishi and I shared a long glance, and finally I spoke. "This ship here. . .is worth at least 100,000 NP."
"More," the Nimmo named Sitou says, and Hezi nods in agreement.
"Their bounty's 100,000 NP. . ." Nishi says thoughtfully.
"Alright, then," I say, clapping my hands together. "You return all the stuff you've stolen--everything you haven't cooked yet, that is--and we'll get your boat, since our old one's crashed. We'll say we scared you off and you disappeared into the mists of the ravine or something."
"Thank you," Hezi murmurs. "So much."
"No more stealing, all right?" I say sternly.
"Of course," the Gray Gelert says at once, and his crew nods in unison.
"All right, then," I say, raising my voice as Nishi opens the cabin door and the sound of the winds outside muffles our voices. "We'll sell the Dumpling for scraps and use the money to repair this boat--I won't take much, just replacing the tip of the main mast and getting new netting."
Nishi nods, and slowly lowers her bow, removing the arrow and placing it back in the quiver. She runs outside, throwing herself into the air and soaring up, her sai outstretched to cut us loose.
I turn toward Hezi, expecting him to order his crew into pulling the ship upward. But he shakes his head.
"You're the captain now," Hezi tells me. "Fly us back to rescue your friends, and then take us to Dandan's Dishes. It'll take a while to get all the crates out of the basement."
. . .
I stroke my black leather helmet, ruffling the Naleap feather my father put it in. "A pirate's always got to have a feather in his cap," he said, patting my head.
Yitan sits at the enormous desk in the captain's cabin, his instruments and compasses and maps spread all over it, covering every inch. The search for Captain Dandan took barely three hours, and he has a long way to go before he has enough to graduate. We'll have him for a while yet.
Panbu admires the enormous sails, stroking the levers and lines and climbing up and down the new netting just so he can finally sit in a Crokabek's nest and admire the mix of huge black and purple sails. The smallest sails are from the Dumpling--they're just too ridiculous to pass up. We want to be recognized.
Nishi waits for me, manning the wheel while I take my time going up to her. Her bow and quiver are slung across her back, and her sai's stuck in her belt--for once not in her hand, being twirled in the air. I've traded my fans for a bow like hers. I'll have all the time in the world now to learn; as much time as it takes to sail around the world, in fact, which is exactly what we'll be doing.
I signal to Panbu, who opens the sails, and we're off, gliding smoothly out of the harbor. Our family waves to us, and I turn back to salute my father. He smiles, saluting back and mouthing the word captain.
After a while we rise above the mist, and the mountains of Shenkuu fall behind us. We're in uncharted territory now, crossing the mountains that will take us to Neopia Central.
Nishi moves aside and soars up to the Crokabek's nest, and I take the wheel, turning us smoothly to avoid a risky updraft of wind. Panbu pumps the sails again and we're free of the mist. We're free, and always will be--the pirates of Shenkuu.