The Tale of the Ixi Huntress
The white Ixi galloped through the forest, relishing the caress of the wind that tousled her fur. A Gruslen followed close behind and he barked with the exhilaration of the hunt. She slowed her pace as she caught an acrid scent on the breeze, and the petpet stopped too, sniffing furiously.
“Campfire,” she whispered to the Gruslen, though the Ixi knew full well that his nose was far more perceptive than her own. A fire in the woods meant bandits, rogues or some other kind of new and lurking evil; trouble, in other words.
The Ixi crept stealthily through the woods, following the thin trail of smoke that was drifting lazily through the trees; she grasped her staff firmly in preparation. Although she had done this countless times before, her heart raced wildly as if this was her first mission. As the two companions neared the camp, the Ixi could see a single tent pitched beside the campfire—hardly a challenge!
The two waited in the bushes that surrounded the camp’s small clearing and the Ixi mouthed the signal, gazing at her Gruslen. “Ready…? Go!”
The Ixi lunged into camp. She swung her staff ferociously in anticipation of the oncoming hoard of bandits. Instead, her hoof hit something unexpectedly squishy, and she tumbled to the ground in a dusty heap. She immediately sprung up as the figure began to move, pointing her staff menacingly at the rogue.
A plump blue Bruce stood at the receiving end of her fury, blinking the sleep out of his eyes and stifling a yawn on his beak. The Bruce’s alarm was palpable as he finally comprehended the situation, and he sidled away from the Ixi and her fierce glare. He raised his flippers in defeat.
“Err, hello there…” the Bruce said, chuckling nervously.
The Ixi looked the Bruce up and down and frowned in irritation. Hesitantly, she lowered her staff, although her grip remained tight. Just in case.
“You don’t seem to be a bandit…” she said slowly, “But what else would you be doing in parts such as these?” She did not speak directly to the Bruce, but instead puzzled it out herself.
“Well.” The Bruce puffed himself up. “I’m a bard, you see, Kerith the Bard—nice to meet you! I’ve been camping in these woods for the last few days…” Kerith took a few steps towards a pile of belongings that were tossed around the still-smoking campfire, but the Ixi was upon him instantly.
“Not so fast, Kerith,” she hissed. She was trying her best to remain vigilant but the Bruce’s vacant gaze was something so naïve that she felt a bit sheepish at her own hostility. Her Gruslen wasn’t growling—a good sign—but was instead watching the Bruce attentively with his head cocked slightly.
“Oh, go on then,” she muttered, lowering her staff. Kerith hobbled over to his pile of goods and retrieved a large wooden case.
“What’s that? Your weapon?”
“Of a sorts,” he replied, smiling mysteriously. Kerith seemed entirely at ease as he unfastened the latches and slowly opened the case. Nestled in the velvet-lined box was a wooden stringed instrument, long, slender and polished.
“It’s my lute, see?” The Bruce gingerly hoisted the instrument for the Ixi to admire. When she did not comment, Kerith started to explain. “I’m a bard. A poet, originally from Terror Mountain. Well, I’ve never been anywhere else until now, actually.” He paused, shrugging abashedly. “Which could explain why I’m hopelessly lost.”
“Yeah, that could do it,” the Ixi replied after assessing the Bruce one final time to ascertain that he was no true threat. “Honestly, I thought you were a hoard of bandits at first because they’re the only kind of pets you’ll find lurking in these parts. It’s dangerous, you know! No place for a bard, or poet, or whatever you call yourself.”
Kerith the Bard lowered his gaze, a bit ashamed of his misguided sense of direction and the trouble into which he had gotten himself.
“Well, I’ve been trying to get to Meridell but it does seem like I’ve gotten quite lost in these forsaken woods.”
“Meridell, huh?” The Ixi cocked her head. “It’s only a few days journey, but you’d never be able to navigate these woods by yourself. You’d just end up wandering in circles until you happened upon something dangerous—or until something dangerous happened upon you! I’m due to report there in a few days, so I’ll lead you to Meridell.”
“Oh, would you?” Kerith grinned broadly. “Thank you! Thank you so much!” With the reassurance of a guide, Kerith began to pack up his few belongings, his tent and his lute, piling them into a large sack that he slung onto his back. “So what are you reporting for, anyway?” he asked as he doused the fire.
The Ixi stiffened before she spoke. “The Meridell Hunter’s Association. Perhaps you’ve heard of it? It’s an organization of some repute.” The Bruce nodded and she continued, ”There are often bandits and thieves in the forests outside of Meridell who tend to prey on unsuspecting travelers or loot the farms on the outskirts. We’ve had our run-ins with a few rogue faeries as well. It’s my job to prowl the woods and make sure there are no troublemakers lurking about—or any wandering bards in need of protection.” She cracked a smile.
“Well, I’m just glad you came along…” He paused expectantly, realizing that he did not yet know the Ixi’s name.
“I’m Ilana,” she replied. “And this,” Ilana said, nodding towards the Gruslen who was sitting patiently at her side, “is Moo.”
“Moo?” Kerith asked dubiously.
Ilana shrugged and turned away from camp, pulling her forest-green cloak over her head. “We'd better get going We’ve a lot of ground to cover before nightfall, and I trust you’re not as used to traveling as I am.” The Bruce nodded and heaved his enormous sack over his shoulder, sinking with its weight. Silently, Ilana took the bag from Kerith and fastened it over her own shoulders, adjusting her bow and staff as she disappeared with Moo into the woods ahead.
Kerith smiled, waddling off to follow the Ixi huntress. “Thank you, Ilana.”***
The shadows descended upon the forest and it was the first time the two were able to rest since they had departed many hours ago.
“We’ll stay here for the night,” Ilana announced, “Here, by the stream.” Kerith collapsed on the forest ground, grunting with a mixture of relief and exhaustion.
“Oops! I forgot that you aren’t as used to traveling as the two of us are.” The Ixi smiled apologetically. “Moo and I will set up camp and prepare dinner, so just have yourself a rest.”
The barren forest floor was soon transformed into a cozy campsite, and within the hour the Ixi, Bruce and Gruslen were sharing a hearty pot of potato and wild marrow soup.
“I’ll be honest,” Kerith admitted through mouthfuls of soup, “I thought my flippers were going to fall off earlier!”
“I do apologize about the pace but we needed to cover a good distance…”
The Bruce shook his head. “No, no! I should be thanking you. You did do all the heaving lifting, after all.” Ilana was still wore a slight frown and so Kerith tried to change the subject quickly. “So, you’re used to traveling out here, all alone?”
Moo the Gruslen growled softly; Ilana picked him up and cradled the petpet possessively. “Not alone,” she said. “But yes, the two of us have been patrolling these woods for a while—ever since I became a full member of the Hunter’s Association.”
Kerith seemed impressed. “But don’t you ever get time off? Go back to a home in Meridell, or vacation in Neopia Central, or something?”
“I suppose I could.” Ilana shrugged. “But why would I want to? These woods are my home, and I find it quite peaceful.” Moo settled next to her, nuzzling at her arm, and the fire crackled.
“Hunting for bandits and other trouble is peaceful?” The Bruce stared, incredulous.
“It is unless I find a lost bard bumbling about and making a ruckus,” Ilana teased. “But anyway, that’s enough about me. What about you—what exactly is it that you do?”
The blue Bruce put down his bowl of soup and cleared his throat. “I come from a long line of bards—poets, storytellers, songwriters and such. We write about the finest Neopians in the land and the most legendary happenings, traveling around so that all can know of their stories. You’ve probably heard some of the famous tales—the Ballad of Jeran the Brave, the Song of the Soup Faerie, the Bane of Balthazaar…”
Ilana nodded in assent. “So why did you decide to leave Terror Mountain? And why Meridell of all places?”
Kerith blinked thoughtfully. “Being a bard is all about inspiration and I ran out of that. I needed a change of scenery.”
“Not too much to write about in Terror Mountain, huh?” The Ixi stood up suddenly and mock-cleared her throat before proclaiming, “O, Snowager! Giant worm of ice and snow, into your cave I dare to go…” Kerith mumbled something and quickly slid his notebook into the bottom of his rucksack.
“That’s why I’m going to Meridell!”
“So you can write about, what, the Turmaculus?” Ilana chuckled. “With my petpet up I creep, to the Turmaculus who is asleep…”
The poor bard grew increasingly flustered as he tried to protest. “No, no!” Kerith waved his flippers. “Meridell has so much more! Draik Knights in shining silver armour, court nobles in suits of velvet and lacy dresses made for twirling, chivalry and bravery and royalty and—“ He broke off at the Ixi’s loud snort.
“What?” he asked crossly.
“If that’s the Meridell you’ve come for, you’ll be sorely disappointed. The real Meridell—the one I grew up in—is quite different. A land of fat, grumpy kings, peasant farmers who amuse themselves with large blocks of cheese, and unusually large root vegetables.” She drank her last bit of soup and smacked her lips. “The potatoes really are the only thing that Meridell has to offer!”
Ilana’s harsh tone softened as she saw the crestfallen expression on the Bruce’s face. “But that’s just my opinion, you know. I really do hope you find the Meridell—and the inspiration—that you’re seeking.”
“Thanks.” Kerith broke into a smile and fished out a chunk of potato from his bowl. “So do I.”***
After a night of restful sleep, the journey proceeded fairly smoothly. Ilana and Moo led the way, while Kerith mused about knights and swords and practiced his verse. Ilana made certain to take frequent breaks so that the bard could catch his breath.
“Almost there!” Ilana announced triumphantly as the forest finally began to thin. “Follow that path over there and it’ll lead you straight.” Kerith hopped in delight, his weariness momentarily forgotten. “And it’s a good thing too,” she said, glancing at the sky. “Looks like it might start raining soon.”
“Ah, almost there! I can smell that roasted marrow already, so we’re definitely close!” Kerith gazed longingly into the distance.
“We’re not that close!” Ilana looked up sharply, and she suddenly stopped. “But you’re exactly right.” She motioned silently for Moo and Kerith to stop too as she crouched down into the bushes. “Can’t believe I didn’t notice it sooner,” she muttered to herself, glancing at Moo.
The Ixi turned abruptly to Kerith. “Bandits,” she said simply. “And a fair number of them—no lost travelers this time. Over in the clearing beyond these trees, based on the direction that the wind is blowing.” She pointed.
“I didn’t think there would be any rogues this close to Meridell,” Kerith admitted, his voice quavering.
“They don’t usually stray this close,” she said softly, “so they must be a pretty confident lot.” Ilana paused. “You’d better stay back.”
“What?! You’re going to face them alone? Shouldn’t you…call for reinforcements or something?”
Ilana smiled mischievously. “Duty calls. And I’m not alone.” She nodded at the Gruslen. “Moo, you know what to do.”
The sky rumbled ominously and a sudden breeze swept through the forest, chilling the air. The Huntress pulled her emerald cloak tight around her and unsheathed her staff as she crept toward the campsite.
Kerith tried to protest, but his feeble plea was quickly overridden by a single glance. An assured calm had settled over the Ixi. The Huntress was fearsome; she was fearless.
"Need inspiration?" Ilana asked, her eyes gleaming fiercely. "Watch closely."***
The Ixi Huntress crouched in wait
The harbinger of bandits’ fate
She entered camp with strength and speed
To right their wrongs, to end their greed
The clouds grew gray, the rain did fall
She braced herself, prepared for brawl
Her staff, it whirled throughout the air
A skillful crack, an amber glare
Her faithful Gruslen barked and bit
Despite the rain, the sweat, the grit
To serve the truth, enforce the law
Together, fought with tooth and claw
The bandits battled, though in vain
To save their goods, let chaos reign
On forest ground, the Ixi sprung
With daring grace, her staff she swung
The clash of arrow, sword and spear
With smoke and ash, the scent of fear
The roar of battle, fearsome cries
A spark of triumph lit her eyes
The bruised and battered bandits fled
Hot flames still burning in their stead
The ground was rife with stolen loot
Her Gruslen sprinted in pursuit
The Huntress saw the gold returned
She did not take, though she had earned
Her duty done, the finished fight
She vanished, silent, in the night