Xucrão Shoots the Breeze
It’s so beautiful out, Xucrão thought, smiling as the morning sun warmed his indigo scales. The Darigan Hissi slid into his skeleton armour, pulled on his favourite Jazzmosis Glasses, and bounced out the front door.
“Xucrão, wait!” called a voice from inside the Neohome. One of his housemates, a Camouflage Hissi named Sjörén, poked his head through the doorway. “Where are you going? You promised to weed the garden today!”
Xucrão stopped short and hovered in midair. “Come onnn,” he pouted, “it’ll wait. It’s such a nice day. I’ll do it tomorrow. I promise.”
“Sorry. Gotta fly!” Before Sjörén could reply, the Darigan darted into the sky. Sjörén shook his head and returned inside.
Over Meridell’s white meadows and dung-filled fields Xucrão soared. He angled his wings against each new thermal layer, letting the shifting winds drag his wingtips up and down. A sudden cross-current caught him by surprise, sending him into a rolling tailspin. Xucrão howled with laughter, straightened his spine and wings to maximum extension to pick up speed, furled himself into a somersault, grazed his tail against a treetop, and used the treetop as a springboard to catapult himself back above the trees. He might be a little bruised, but they wouldn’t show against the dark indigo of his Darigan scales, and it was a small price to pay for a moment of sheer awesomeness.
It wasn’t the most direct route, but soon enough the Darigan Citadel appeared, looming dismally beyond Meri Acres Farm like a decaying apple that refused to fall from the tree. On the ground below, Xucrão could see, even at a distance, the stream of ‘Pets queuing for the sky taxi service that had sprung up to bring visitors to and from the floating fortress.
There was no way Xucrão was waiting for a taxi, though. He had travelled the length of the Citadel before, from secret tunnels to Lord Darigan’s own chambers in the high tower, and he knew a much more fun place to alight than the usual tourist drop-off: the barren dunes right behind the Darigan Toy Shop, in the shadow of the nearby domed Petpet Arena.
First, though, he had to get through the traffic. Even though the land still showed its scars, the great Meridell War was becoming a faded memory; for younger ‘Pets like Xucrão, it was just one more dull thing to be tested on in NeoSchool. These days, trade with Meridell and more distant lands was on the rise, tourists flocked to tour the forbidding but starkly beautiful castle or catch a glimpse of world-famous phenom Layton Vickles practicing Yooyuball in the off-season, and even small clusters of blue columbines were beginning to take hold among the Dariberry brambles. In the new peace-ravaged Citadel, lengthening queues for air taxis and increasing aerial traffic snarls were becoming a problem… unless, like Xucrão, you were willing to brave the turbulence and barge in.
Xucrão scooted with anticipation around to the front of the Toy Shop and zoomed inside. An iron rod fastened to the top of the door struck a bat-winged Darigan Triangle suspended in midair with a resolute clank, announcing his arrival.
The shop was busier than usual; young Usuls in Brightvale Academy frocks poked gingerly at the spiked horns on a Lord Darigan Yoyo, their genteel young escorts chortling as they recoiled at its chilly sharpness. In the corner, a scab-coloured Aisha muttered to a pus-coloured Grarrl while she glanced at the young ones with disapproval. As Xucrão approached, the two Darigan strangers offered him a tight-lipped, appraising smile, apparently liking what they were seeing. The shop owner, a grizzled Darigan Moehog with minor scratches and burns decorating his tough purple hide, bared his tusks in friendly recognition.
“Hail and well met, Shoo-krow, my lad,” grunted the shopkeeper, not quite managing Xucrão’s decidedly non-Darigan name. “Back again so soon?”
Xucrão grinned, scanning the display cases. “Anything new since yesterday?”
“Just this.” The Moehog produced a small, clear tube smelling of creosote containing a regal Korbat maquette. “The Uncursed-Lord Darigan Action Figure. Only 4,600 NP. Didn’t you tell me that you once had the honour of meeting His Excellency once?”
Xucrão’s eyes widened, fixating on the figurine. “Oh, man, yes, this is totally awesome.” He cupped his inventory bag gently in his feathered palm. “Will you take 4,150 NP?”
The shopkeeper smiled. “You’re a good customer, my lad, but I have children who need their veg. 4,300.”
“Done!” Xucrão beamed as he cradled the toy to his chest, then carefully slid it into his inventory bag.
While Xucrão scooted sinuously along the aisles looking for further treasures, the Aisha and Grarrl closed in on the shopkeeper. Xucrão couldn’t help overhearing “not a real Darigan, is he” and “filthy paintball,” at which point the shopkeeper barked something that shocked the customers into silence.
The Darigan customers departed in a huff, the Grarrl “accidentally” bumping into the Hissi. The Aisha sneered. “What game are you playing, wearing a Halloween Hissi’s body armour, anyway? You Darigan wannabes are a disgrace to us true Darigans who’ve endured real hardship.”
Xucrão smirked in disbelief. “What, these?” He contoured his body to show off his Skeleton Armour. “I look totally metal. It’s awesome.” Rolling their eyes, the Aisha and Grarrl turned away. Fortunately, Xucrão wasn’t the type to take these things personally, and just shrugged it off. He knew cool; skeleton armour was cool, his Darigan paintjob was cool, and Darigan stuff in general was cool. If these two couldn’t be cool, that was on them.
‘Twas brillig, and our hero was getting hungry. As much as he loved hanging out at the Citadel, it wasn’t the easiest place to get a meal. He popped a few wild Dariberries into his mouth as a snack to tide him over, smiled at the taste of the delicious cold juice, and sped around the Toy Shop towards the land’s edge. He would need extra speed to clear the spiked wall that kept little children from falling into the sky, and to penetrate the buffeting winds that formed one of the Citadel’s least obvious but most effective defences.
“Halt! In the name of Lord Darigan!”
Xucrão stumbled, startled by the sharp soprano voice. If the handsome Usul warrior’s authoritative tone hadn’t been enough to stop Xucrão in his tracks, the two large rock golems flanking her, with their giant mouths and glowing red eyes, certainly would have. The Hissi furrowed his brow. He’d seen these Darigan Elementals, powerful weapons of the Darigan Ciradel’s military created by Lord Darigan’s puissant magicks, in action before, but never directly threatening him.
Xucrão blinked in recognition as the Usul came within closer view. “Captain Anza! Hi!” He slithered forward to meet her, but stopped short as the Elementals lumbered towards him menacingly. “Um, I mean, hail and well met. What’s the matter?”
“Mind telling me what you’re doing?”
Xucrão blinked in confusion. “Um, going home to eat?”
The Usul stared coolly at him. Her well-trained Elementals remained absolutely motionless. She gestured towards a small swarm of Zytches swirling in a vortex of air where the strong winds beyond the Citadel’s border walls met the still air within the city. “Not the most orthodox route for leaving the Citadel. Most tourists take an air taxi at the Welcome Centre, where the winds are less turbulent.”
Xucrão grinned. “This way is way more fun.”
Anza raised a bushy eyebrow.
“No, really, it is! I do this all the time. It’s never been a problem before.”
The Usul shifted her weight. “Look, son. The Citadel may be enjoying better relations with the lands below, but we’re still only in a truce. Skarl has never agreed to finalize peace accords. We have to maintain the integrity of our border, especially with all the increased tourism.” She gave him a pointed look. “Especially for tourists on our watch lists flagged as potential enemies of the state.”
Xucrão wrinkled his snout. “That’s not fair, Captain. Lord Darigan himself cleared me.” The memory was still painful, when Xucrão and his two besties had drawn the attention of The Three, evil spirits of Greed, Revenge, and Ambition, who took pleasure in seducing innocents into seditious acts. Purging his spirit from the influence of The Three had been one of the hardest things he’d ever had to do.
“Yes, I know. And yet, you’ve been making a number of visits to the Toy Shop lately. Find anything you just couldn’t live without? …. Something you just had to have?”
Xucrão’s cheeks flushed periwinkle. He reached into his bag and withdrew the figurine of Lord Darigan, subconsciously holding up the word “Uncursed” on the packaging. “Come on, Captain… It’s just a cool toy. I just think Darigan stuff is awesome, you know?”
The Usul’s eyes softened just a little. “I know. Really, I understand. I’m just looking out for your safety… and the safety of the Citadel. Come along, now, Xucrão. I’ll make sure you get home safely.”
Back home, Sjörén peered over his reading spectacles. Xucrão was being uncharacteristically quiet. The Camouflage Hissi turned to their third housemate, a Christmas Hissi. “So, Peican, did Xucrão tell you about our special guest earlier?”
Xucrão glared. “That was so embarrassing. I didn’t need an escort home.”
“Well, maybe if you’d stayed home and done the weeding like you promised…”
Peican laughed at Xucrão’s discomfiture. “C’mon, Xucrinho. I’m sorry your fun got cut short. But it sounds like Captain Anza was just doing her job.”
“It’s just really upsetting when they bring up The Three. It’s like… they never really forgave, and they never really forgot. And she was wrong. I’m not a Baby. I could totally handle those winds. They’re really not that bad if you just dive right in.”
“I’m sure they’re not,” Sjörén said gently, “but maybe it would behoove you to find a more appropriate – “
Xucrão’s eyes flashed. “Sky surfing isn’t inappropriate, it’s fun.” He clenched his jaw with determination. “I’ll prove it. I’ll show them. Nobody’s going to stop me.”
Peican chuckled. “Hey, now. I thought I was the Revenge guy – and Sjörén’s the Ambitious one.”
Sjörén gave him a disapproving glance. Xucrão’s voice was quiet. “That’s not funny.”
Peican sighed. “You’re right. I’m sorry. Look, it sounds like you need someone to back you up, someone the DC security will pay attention to. Let me send some Neomails. I know a guy who knows a guy…”
Garjan the Cloud Hissi looked up into the morning sky, keeping just outside the shadow that the Citadel cast on the ground. “There is no way I am flying that high straight up, this early in the morning. You do what you want. I’m taking the air taxi.”
Xucrão shrugged, coiled his body close to the ground, and sprang up into the air. Garjan shook his head and hailed a nearby Eyrie.
Near the Minions of Darigan Welcome Centre, Xucrão fidgeted, then perked up as his new friend appeared. Garjan’s Cloud colouration, so common in his usual Faerieland haunts, combined with his long white linen Fancy Lab Coat, made him stick out like a sore thumb… or perhaps, like the only non-sore thumb.
Garjan yawned. “You asked me to evaluate the winds around the Citadel. So far I’m not impressed.”
Xucrão nodded. “Everyone says you are the expert.”
Garjan shrugged modestly. “Fyora – Her Majesty Queen Fyora – does rely on my expertise.”
Xucrão swept his arms out to his sides, gesturing towards the citadel’s horizon. “I promise you, the winds get way stronger than the taxi route. What I want to know is, based on your expert opinion, where can we find the best winds for surfing, and can you vouch that it’s safe to surf?”
Garjan blinked. “Did you say surfing?”
“Sky surfing. It’s totally fun. But the guards – ” Xucrão tilted his head towards a guard watching them from a distance – “think I’m nuts.”
“I can’t imagine why,” said Garjan drily. He scanned the horizon. “I can’t say for sure without my equipment, but I’d say your best bet would be just outside those high cliffs to the west.”
Xucrão smiled. “Yes! Only… that’s just past Master Vex’ Cell Block. It’s kind of a prison. Well, not really. But close enough that we might need to dodge security.” He glanced at the surveilling guard, who quickly looked away.
Garjan’s wings slumped. “Can’t we not, and just say we did?”
On the northern wastes of the citadel, Garjan rested on the barren expanse and observed. Even over all the white noise of the winds buffeting the high peaks, Xucrão’s whoops carried loud and clear. Out in the sky, the Darigan Hissi was indulging in a dizzying array of acrobatics, taking full advantage of the strong circulating air currents.
“Impressive, isn’t he?”
Garjan turned to face a Darigan Usul warrior. “He’s certainly exuberant.”
“So what do you think?”
“About what, Sergeant?”
“That’s Captain, Mr. Garjan. Yes, we know who you are, and what kind of research you’ve been doing in Faerieland. Darigan Intelligence is far-reaching. It has to be.” She paused. “Queen Fyora trusts you to determine whether Faerieland could ever be returned safely to the skies. We trust your credentials. So is this… this sky-surfing… safe?”
Garjan looked nonchalant. “Surprisingly stable winds for such a high Reynolds number.”
“I’ll take your word for it.”
“Currents alternate between strong laminar flow and moderate to high turbulence, strong enough to support a Mutant Skeith. Possibly a little too strong for a Baby Korbat, unless she stayed in the shallows.” He glanced up at the peaks rising behind them. “Even decent protection from rainstorms. It’s a good location.”
“And you’re willing to vouch for this on the record?”
“Very well.” Captain Anza whistled sharply through her Darigan fangs, and gestured for Xucrão to come in for a landing.
“Oh, come on, Captain!” Xucrão sulked. “I wasn’t diving back down to land. Yet. I was just hurling myself off the edge and seeing what happened.”
Anza met Garjan’s gaze, both momentarily at a loss. “No worries, Xucrão. I’m not sending you home this time. I’ve spoken with my superiors – “
Garjan looked smug.
“Ahem, I’ve spoken with my commanding officers, and we have a proposal for you. Pending Mr. Garjan’s affidavit addressing safety concerns, we’d like to open this area as a dedicated, authorised skysurfing area. We believe it could be a real boon to our increasing tourism. There’s just one condition.”
Garjan’s wings were crossed, his fists clenched, barely able to control his excitement. “Anything! What is it?”
“We want you to volunteer as the official Darigan Citadel lifeguard, and train other volunteers to work with you.”
Xucrão emitted a choked sound somewhere between a gasp and a squeal. He swallowed, with difficulty. “Can I make one request?”
“Can we rent out wearable Wings, so that ‘Pets who can’t fly can play too?”
Captain Anza smiled. “I think that can be arranged.”