Monster Hunting: Part Two
It seemed that Jedd and Tiraffo had been following the Werelupe for ages, often catching sight of it sniffing around, following the scent of the wounded Mutant it hunted. They lingered back as much as possible, out of sight, trying to stay downwind. They ran faster than they had ever thought possible.
Jedd was covered in brambles, dead leaves and twigs. His scarf was torn and Rainne looked positively miserable. He didn't feel much better but he kept going, propelled by the memory of the look in the creature's eye that moment they had met. He knew that look well, had felt those feelings before. Abandonment, confusion, misery.
They were catching up to the Werelupe. Jedd held out an arm to stop Tiraffo from going further. They watched the bounty hunter look around, sniff the air and then jump, disappearing from sight altogether.
They ran to where it had been standing and both their jaws dropped in astonishment.
They stood on short rise that overlooked a clearing. A clearing, a beautiful clearing. They could see the sky, scattered stars sparkling all across it and the moon shining brightly from above, illuminating the circular space. In the center of the clearing, surrounded by grass that stirred in the wind was a large lake. It reflected the stars and moon with a beautiful clarity but did not ripple when the wind blew.
By the lake, collapsed, was the Mutant they sought.
This was it. Time for action! But Jedd's mind was blank. He looked from the slowly advancing Werelupe to the collapsed creature, then back to the Werelupe. What was to be done? Tiraffo and himself were both far too small, too weak to be of any help! What had he been thinking when he'd left his shelter to come here? He was a nobody, a scared little Grey Acara whose one achievement in life was running away from a miserable life as a Lab Pet. How could he possibly have thought he'd ever be of any help to a fantastical creature almost straight out of a legend being hunted by a professional bounty hunter? He was crazy. He should go home now, give up.
Rainne nudged him with a sad little chirrup when a tear trickled down his cheek. He looked at her, droopy with sadness and failure. Then he perked up.
"Rainne!" he half-whispered, half-shouted. "You can help us! Can you distract the Werelupe?"
Rainne looked confused and a little scared. Jedd motioned for Tiraffo to give him his backpack. He fumbled inside it for the lantern which he lit, inwardly cursing his clumsy, slow fingers. Then he held out the lantern, burning brightly, to Rainne.
"The Werelupe doesn't want anyone hunting his prey," said Jedd. "That's his bounty on the line. If he sees someone he'll chase them away, the way he chased me and Tiraffo. Let him chase you as long as you can. If he catches up with you just drop the lantern and fly up as high as you can, above the treetops. He'll never catch you that way. Can you do this?" He hated asking this of his Petpet but he knew there was no way he could outrun the bounty hunter himself. They'd barely been able to keep up with him! But Rainne could fly, could dart through the low hanging branches and avoid the rocks and brambles in the path with ease. And if she got trapped, she could fly away.
He met Rainne's soft, trusting eyes. Rainne considered his words for a moment then grabbed the lantern in her mouth and hurried away.
"Come on then," said Tiraffo. "Maybe we can patch that poor creature up a bit while Rainne distracts the Werelupe. I've a first-aid pack handy," he added, patting his backpack before shrugging it onto his shoulders. They went to the edge of the sudden drop together and climbed down, careful not to make any noise. The Werelupe was totally intent on its prey. They hid behind a bush, waiting for Rainne's move.
The creature lay by the lake's edge, not moving but sometimes making a sound like a moan, a sad, heartbreaking sort of noise. The Werelupe edged closer, eager to catch its bounty but mindful of the fact that, even wounded, it could disappear into the darkness quicker than he.
Just then, a loud chirruping sort of noise came from the woods beyond the clearing. A light appeared, casting shadows of tall trees and prickly branches. The Werelupe tensed, paused. The sound came again, louder and a rustling noise came from the trees. The Werelupe made a sound of frustration, looking from the collapsed creature to the incoming invader with the bright lamp. This was it, thought Jedd, the deciding moment.
It howled at the moon, sending all the hairs on Jedd's back standing up. And then it dashed into the forest, after the light that was little Rainne.
His plan was in action. It was time to move. Tiraffo and Jedd ran to the wounded Mutant and knelt by its side. Jedd saw immediately that it was covered in wounds; scratches from the forest and what were unmistakably claw and teeth marks. From the bounty hunter, no doubt. He wasn't worried that the creature might turn into a Werelupe as sometimes happened from their bites, no, for the creature was far more terrifying and horrible than any Werelupe. If it changed to something else, he supposed it would be a mercy.
The twisted, hideous creature that held only the furthest resemblance to an Acara was too delirious to notice the two Neopets tending to his wounds. The first thing Jedd did was to detach the horrible collar and rusty chain from its neck and let it drop to the ground. With his years of experience at the shelter he cleaned the creature's wounds and bound them with a quick, easy efficiency, his fear and worry for Rainne subsiding as he fell into the repetitive task. Tiraffo assisted Jedd, handing him what he needed.
"That's all we can do for now," said Jedd at last. He looked up, trying to gauge the time. How long had it been since Rainne caught the Werelupe's attention? How long until it tired of the chase and came back? He rummaged through the first aid kit and found some smelling salts. They'll help to rouse the creature, he thought. Time was of the essence.
He held open the little box of salts near the creature's face, where he presumed its nose was and waited.
"Do you think it's...?" Tiraffo asked, trailing off into silence, his voice small.
The creature awoke with a roar, swinging its clawed appendage with a force that sent Tiraffo and Jedd to the ground, clasping their ears. Its roar was unlike anything he had ever heard before; it was not a natural sort of roar that you might hear from a wild Kougra. It was almost like a hundred voices screaming out in pain. It was a multi-faceted sound that reverberated in your bones and brought tears to your eyes and made your eardrums pound.
The creature stalked over to them and stood over them, making that horrible sound again, its electric blue eyes glowing sinisterly in the low light of the moonlit clearing.
It had never occurred to Jedd that the creature might really be a monster. In all the horrible, depressing scenarios he had thought up in which he had imagined himself failing, getting captured, never returning home, he had never considered anything other than that the 'monster' being hunted was just a wounded creature in need of help. A different scenario occurred to him now. The Werelupe, hired by Haunted Woods authorities had cleared the vicinity of the creature to prevent anyone getting hurt. He was hunting it down to capture it and take it away where it could not bring harm to anyone. And they had interfered in its job and sent it away. Now they would pay the price.
"I'm sorry for dragging you into this, Tiraffo," said Jedd sadly. "It really was a big mistake, wasn't it?" He looked up and met the towering creature's eyes. "I'm sorry, for you too. I don't know what you've been through, but I hope you find peace." His voice shook a little with honest emotion.
He felt a breath-taking feeling of being dunked in cold water though he had not moved. He felt surrounded by darkness though he could still see. His eyes widened. A sensation filled his mind. The creature was communicating with him telepathically!
His mind was filled with a jumble of strange visions, what he supposed was the creature's past, locked in a dark room, drinking horrible transmogrification potions at the whim of a cruel owner whose face was in shadows always, escaping only to find herself hunted, feared, hated. Some of the images shared were too horrible for him to fully comprehend. And her name: Amiranthe.
When the torrent of images flooding his mind faded he realized that tears were trickling from his eyes. He had gone through much the same but he had retained the form of a normal Acara and, more importantly, his sanity. This poor creature, this Amiranthe, had been left with neither. He could feel when she touched his mind that there was very little reason or thought left within her but also there was no anger or maliciousness. She was no monster. Jedd touched her face with a trembling paw. How could he have doubted her? She only needed help.
He pulled himself to his feet and helped Tiraffo up as well and explained to him in as few words as possible what the creature had shown him.
Tiraffo looked horrified and outraged. "That such a thing should happen in Neopia and this poor creature hunted down and not her awful master! It's a travesty!" he exclaimed. He turned to Amiranthe and bowed in a most gentlemanly manner. "My dear Amiranthe, I am totally at your service."
The creature, Amiranthe, seemed to hold them both in consideration. They were both overwhelmed by her telepathic thoughts, a jumble of pictures and half-coherent words. She seemed to be sending a message: I will protect you. This gave Jedd an idea. He didn't know if it would work or not but he imagined a picture of his shelter in his head as vividly as he could, with its brick walls, merrily puffing chimney and cozy rooms filled with overstuffed couches and mismatched pillows. If you are ever lost, if we get separated, he thought as hard as he could, come to this place, you will always be welcome there.
Tiraffo tapped Jedd's shoulder. "This time I have a plan," he said. "And it's a good one."
Liarc the Werelupe was a professional bounty hunter and he was used to catching his prey. He had been in the business for years. It didn't matter to him who he was hunting down or who was asking him to do the hunting as long as the pay was good. He also liked a bit of excitement and capturing a runaway monster for a crazed collector of rare Neopets was his idea of good fun.
But this was not how he had imagined things would turn out.
Everything had seemed in his favor. The monster was, by all accounts, disoriented and crazed, following no logical pattern to its rambling around the Woods. Liarc had studied its movements, trying to understand its powers a little before making his move. You don't last long in the business if you're not careful. There were more dangerous things in Neopia than sharp claws.
The monster was obviously not sane, that much was clear. He would need to be quick and careful, no fancy stuff. And just when he was ready to capture the monster, this ridiculous Starry Blumaroo in an equally ridiculous outfit had stumbled right into his path, bumping into him.
"I do say," the Blumaroo had said, "I seem to be lost, can you point me in the direction of Neoviaaaaaa!" (He had started screaming at that point because Liarc had growled and begun chasing him.) He chased him off a cliff, hoping that would be the last he ever saw of the colourful Blumaroo. Unfortunately, the silly thing had made him lose track of the monster.
He'd found the monster quick enough and almost caught it, wounding it before it could get away. As he tracked the now wounded, limping creature, exulting in his prowess as the best bounty hunter of all, he had bumped into another hapless Neopet. This time it was a Grey Acara with a stupid looking little cloud Petpet thing.
He had not given the Neopet a chance to talk and merely howled and chased it off the very same cliff, yelling at it to leave the Woods, and his bounty, alone.
Finally, he had found the elusive monster in the lake clearing, collapsed, unconscious. Perfect, he'd thought, nothing can go wrong now! And then yet another interruption! Some fool going around with a lantern. His directive had been clear: capture the monster, keep it clean and don't let anyone see!
He pummeled his way through the Woods, intent on catching whoever was holding that lantern and giving them what-for. He was getting closer and closer when the lantern seemed to fall and go out. Perfect. Whoever was holding it had tripped and fallen.
But when he caught up to the lantern, lying broken on the ground, no one was there. He looked around. Nothing. And no tracks either. Come to think of it, there hadn't been any tracks the whole time he'd been following it, no broken branches or footprints or anything. Liarc smelled a trap. He sniffed the lantern carefully. He sniffed it again.
"No. No way!"
It was the Grey Acara! The one with the cloud petpet. He could smell both of them on the lantern. He'd been played for a fool. Unbelievable that he had survived the fall off that cliff. That Acara must be a bounty hunter himself, and a good one, to pull a fast one on Liarc like that. Who would have thought?
"Well played, my friend," murmured Liarc with a sneer. "Well played."
He turned on his heels and ran as fast he could back to the clearing. As he'd guessed, the monster was no longer there. No more distractions. If anyone else got in his way he'd ignore them till the creature was safely in his possession. He'd remember their faces. And he'd come back for them.
He stalked over to where the creature had collapsed, sniffing the ground and air. Where had they gone off to? He could smell it near the water's edge; it must have had a drink of lake water at some point. Then he paused. There it was, the scent of the monster, mingling with the scent of the Grey Acara and somehow... that Starry Blumaroo? They were in cohorts together no doubt.
He could see that there had been a struggle in the grass, torn fur scattered. He chuckled, deep in his throat. "It seems your plan backfired on you, my friends," he murmured, his deep voice reverberating across the lake. So the Mutant had done his work for him, ridding the world of his competition. "Excellent."
Quick as lightning, he was back on the trail. He was so intent on following the scent he barely noticed where he was going, what trees he knocked down as he rampaged. No more playing games. This was it. His bounty. The scent was strong. There! He threw back his head and howled once more, just for the feel of it, knowing he was scaring anything in the vicinity and loving it. When he lowered his head and opened his eyes, he realized he was standing at the outskirts of Neovia. He blinked. Somehow he had gone the long way around, missing the Gypsy Camp completely.
He growled. This complicated matters. One doesn't just rampage into Neovia, knocking Neopets and things out of the way. He would have to be a little more careful. Anyway, there was no chance the Neovians wanted a monster in their midst. They'd be happy to let him in to rid them of it. He approached the gates, trying to look as non-threatening as possible (and failing quite abjectly).
Then he stopped, jaw dropping. At the gates, chatting with the Mayor in friendly tones was the Starry Blumaroo.
He looked around, for the first time doubting himself. The scent of the creature was still strong but it was nowhere to be seen. He could smell the trail clearly, heading inside the city. Surely the Mayor wouldn't be standing around chatting if an evil Mutant monster had broken in. And how was that Blumaroo still alive?
That still-alive-somehow Blumaroo caught sight of him standing beyond the city gates. "Well, hello there! I do say, are you a Neovian native?"
Did the fool not recognize him? Pulling himself up to his full height he walked up to the two Neopets. "Where's the monster?" he demanded.
"Monster?" The Starry Neopet looked from Liarc to the Mayor in apparent confusion. "I'm sorry, do I know you?"
"This is Liarc," said the Mayor, eyes narrowed. "A bounty hunter. There are no monsters here, Liarc, unless you imagined them up yourself. You know bounty hunters are not allowed in the city vicinity. We're peaceful Neopets. Unless you're here for crumpets, I suggest you leave."
Liarc deflated. What....? How....? Then he pulled himself back together. "Listen here, I don't know what game the two of you think you're playing but the monster you're hiding is a dangerous Mutant that needs to be locked up for its own safety as well as yours. You're endangering your own citizens. You can't keep me out!" He loomed above them both.
"Maybe not," said the Mayor, "But if you take one step further inside my city you can mark my words I'll have every Ghost, Zombie and monster I know on your trail and have you arrested so fast your head will spin."
It was worth the risk. Pushing the Blumaroo and the Mayor out of the way he lunged his way through the city, following the trail with his nose. He broke open doors, ran through dark alleyways and over the shackled roofs, dislodging tiles as he did so. He left a trail of destruction and outraged Neovians. But there was no monster. He could smell it. But it was not there. He could almost see the scent, it was so strong. But there was nothing. The trail lead nowhere. At last he sank to his knees in the city square. Surrounded by angry Neovians and enraged ghosts he barely even noticed when handcuffs were clicked around his large, powerful wrists.
Jedd emerged from the lake, gasping for air, soaked through and ice cold. He was still surrounded by a dark mist and as he was helped out of the lake in the moonlit clearing, Amiranthe began to materialize before his eyes.
All things considered, it had not been the best of plans. Tiraffo had picked up Amiranthe's fallen chain with excitement, saying something about how Werelupes hunt by scent. He told Amiranthe and Jedd to hide in the lake and ran off with the chain, laughing about how 'he'll never expect you to hide in plain sight!'.
Jedd had had plenty of objections to this outlandish and quite risky plan but Tiraffo had not left him with any time to object. So, pulling up a reed from the lake to breathe with while submerged, he dove into the lake.
Amiranthe must have thought he needed help, with all his sputtering and flailing and shivering, though he had tried to remain dignified. Though an adept swimmer as any Acara, he just didn't like water all that much. They made his scarves soggy. Anyway, the Mutant had melded into mist in the way she did and enveloped him while underwater, taking him down to the lake floor. The reed fell from his paws yet somehow he found he didn't need to breathe. Through the dark mists surrounding him he could see the bottom of the lake. Much like the Haunted Woods itself, it was terrifyingly beautiful. Eerie dark claws moved sluggishly along the sandy floor between black underwater plants, hunting for shiny little fish that darted here and there. He tried not to think about what looked like bones half-submerged in the ground. It was like being in a dream, the kind where you can't seem to run or move or talk. He hung there, suspended in a protective black fog deep in the silence of the dark lake.
He sensed the Werelupe's presence and felt it running off. We should leave now, he thought, his mind bleary and slow.
And then Amiranthe had brought him up. He was still gasping in air hungrily. It scared him to think how long he'd been down there, suspended. Amiranthe had saved him.
He turned to thank her.
But she was gone.
"It was amazing!" exclaimed Tiraffo. "Everything went according to plan! I explained to the Mayor my predicament and he was happy to help! I ran like a mad thing all around town with the chain. The Neovians helped out as well, it was their idea to bring it over the rooftops. You can always count on Neovians to side with a monster in trouble! Then we buried the chain near the graveyard! The whole city smelled of the monster to that Werelupe, he thought he was going mad!" Tiraffo laughed. "But come to think of it, Jedd my friend, you never did say; how did you get on in the lake?"
Jedd didn't answer right away. "Amiranthe followed me into the water. It was like nothing I've ever experienced before. I thought it was the end for me but she... she saved me. And then she was gone. Also I left my scarf behind." He sighed. "It was one of my favourites, too." He reached up to his neck as though to adjust a scarf but alas, his neck was bare. He rubbed the back of his neck instead with a mournful expression.
Rainne whistled with sympathy. She missed his scarf, too. Jedd smiled and patted Rainne fondly. "You were wonderful," he said. She practically purred with pride.
After meeting up in Neovia the two Neopets had gone off in search of Rainne. When they found the lantern smashed into bits, Jedd practically fainted at the sight, imagining Rainne crushed forever. But then his little Cirrus had appeared, flying from the tree branches above and rushing into Jedd's arms, toppling him over.
They were now on their way to Jedd's shelter, which was near Meridell. TIraffo had invited himself over to see the place and Jedd couldn't say he minded. He rather liked his new friend even if he was far too cheerful by half. He supposed Tiraffo would grow out of it eventually.
"A shame this whole trek was for nothing," said Jedd as they turned the bend and his shelter came into view.
"For goodness' sake, Jedd!" exclaimed Tiraffo, "If you call caring for a wounded Neopet in need of help, putting a ferocious bounty hunter behind bars and curing your Petpet's fear of height 'nothing' then I'd hate to see what your idea of 'something' is! I doubt we'd survive it!"
"Tiraffo..." said Jedd, pulling at his friend's sleeve.
"Now, you listen to me, old bean," continued Tiraffo, caught up in his tirade. "I've put up with your silly pessimism for long enough—"
"—and I'll have you know that I—"
"Tiraffo!" shouted Jedd.
"Look!" he cried, pointing at the shelter.
Tiraffo looked. He frowned. It was a cozy enough place, smoke puffing merrily from the chimney, a warm glow coming from the windows. And dark smoke coming out from the crack under the door.
"Amiranthe," he breathed.
Jedd nodded. For a moment, his face lit up in a rare smile, his eyes bright. "It worked. I told her to come here. And she did. We... we did it, Tiraffo!"
Tiraffo grinned back at Jedd, enjoying the moment of triumph. But it didn't last long.
"Of course, now I have to deal with a half-mad mutant living in this place. It's creaky and ramshackle enough as it is. The whole place will probably fall apart within the week. And Firestop, if he decides he doesn't like her, well, that won't be pleasant," Jedd muttered as he walked towards the door, Tiraffo one step behind, hands in his pockets, regarding his friend with amusement. "He'll burn the whole place down like as not. And then there's legal issues to deal with. I'll be up to my neck in paperwork for the next few years, that is, if the shelter even lasts that long."
"I wouldn't worry about it," said Tiraffo as Jedd opened the door. "With Amiranthe here, who would dare to try and shut it down?"