The Heart of Spring
The eventide Gelert tread lightly through the forest, making no sound. She wore a dress weaved entirely of flowers. Even from here, I had no doubt that the flowers were still alive. Her pale brown hair cascaded around her shoulders. It, too, was interwoven with flowers. Ditreys and Springabees fluttered around her, even pollinating her dress. A single earth faerie followed close behind her. The Gelert sang a song about a Korbat and the moon as she walked, tapping plants with her ears. She left a trail of green grass and brightly coloured flowers in her wake.
I couldn’t help but smile despite myself. She was beautiful. She was, after all, the heart of spring.
Last month, I’d been contacted through several intermediates by the heart of winter. He was an eventide Bruce, with bright yellow feet and snow flurries dancing across the darkened sky along his cheeks. He’d told me a legend that only few had heard, a legend about how the seasons came about. Each of the four hearts, or liminalities, as they were sometimes called, would hold the energy of the season within them during their time of the year. The energy had recently passed from him to the heart of spring. He’d evidently caught word about my skills as a warrior and tracker, as he’d hired me as her bodyguard. I’d been paid handsomely, but that wasn’t what motivated me. He’d also told me that if the energy was taken from the liminality, or the heart itself was eliminated, the seasons could be lost until the next year, or worse, forever. I wasn’t sure why anyone would want to destroy the seasons, but I had my suspicion that the energy was something of power, something that one might want to take.
I padded quietly through the trees above her. I’d found her in the forest between the Haunted Woods and Kiko Lake. I’d been following her for nine days now, eating apples, cherries, and the occasional peach, and sleeping when I could, leaning one paw off the edge of a branch so I’d be awakened frequently by the sensation of losing my balance. She hadn’t really done anything special in this time, just sang to the wild petpets, ate fruit, and slept at the base of trees, her head between her paws, not a care in the world.
Her song about the Korbat ended. She took a drink from a sparkling river, then continued on her endless journey, choosing another song about a lost Gathow. I quickly hopped down from the trees to get some water for myself, then scrabbled back up a nearby maple tree. She looked around, seeming to have heard me, but didn’t look up. I vowed to practise my tree-climbing. It wasn’t an easy activity for Gelerts.
Her singing soon trailed off as she spotted a Babith under a nearby Fishberry bush. She giggled, lowering into a sloppy pouncing position and wagging her tail. “Aw, come out here, you. I just wanna play.” The Babith watched her, neither running nor coming out to meet her.
She giggled again. “Babith, Babith, don’t you wanna play? Babith, Babith, such a sunny day! Babith, Babith, hiding time is done. Babith, Babith, now it’s time for fun!”
The creature seemed swayed by her song, and emerged from its place in the bush.
“I’m going to chase you,” the Gelert warned, her star-covered tail swishing through the undergrowth. The petpet made a happy little squeal, then darted off along the path. The heart of spring laughed, giving chase. Her hair and dress streamed out behind her. She reminded me somehow of the flowers on Mystery Island being swept across the beaches by a very strong wind. She gracefully hopped between roots and plants, not even catching her dress on anything. I wondered how long she’d been spending her days chasing petpets through the forest.
The Babith, being smaller, was able to maneuver through the forest faster than she could. It was nearly out of sight, but that only seemed to make the liminality giggle. I stumbled, thankfully earning myself a solid whack on the chest by a branch instead of falling to the forest floor, as roots suddenly sprang up around the petpet. I lunged forward, prepared to jump to the rescue, but this only seemed to make the Gelert happier. Flowers grew in rainbow spiral patterns on the cage of branches. The heart walked up to this rapidly grown floral prison like it was completely normal, peeking down at the Babith.
“I caught you,” the heart declared, poking her nose into the cage to nuzzle at the petpet. “Oh, that wasn’t fair of me, was it? Using my magic against you. You get another try. Go on.” The roots drew back into the soil, and the petpet took off. I kept pace, each breath making my chest ache from the bruise I’d earned. I hadn’t known that the hearts could use the magic quite like that. Did she really need my protection after all, if she could make roots appear as easily as moving her tail? Was I up against something stronger than even that? I was known for my speed and stealth---I was a stealthy gelert, after all---but in a game of brute force, there was no way I’d hold up against larger opponents.
The eventide gelert ran until she was panting. She didn’t try to use her magic again, so the Babith had to wait up for her on a few occasions. Sensing that its playmate was done giving chase, the petpet hopped onto the gelert’s back, batting at her ears.
“You’re a really fast runner,” the gelert said between gasping breaths. “I wish I could run as fast as you. I could run all the way across Neopia and back. I wish I could fly too. Maybe I’d fly all the way to Kreludor! But I’m not sure if I’d want to be faerie. I’d miss my sunset and stars.” The petpet said nothing, crawling onto the gelert’s head to catch her ear. “I wish I could talk to petpets. I wonder what you’d have to say.”
“Don’t grow a wishbone where your backbone should be, now,” I thought to myself. I’d never wished for anything, not even at the wishing well. Wishes didn’t come true. Only hard work made goals come to fruition.
Without warning, the Babith twitched an ear, then scurried under the gnarled root system of a nearby tree. I tilted my ears, but heard nothing out of the ordinary, besides an unusual quiet. Everything had the usual overpowering scent of a spring forest.
“Aw, where’d you go?” asked the gelert, poking her nose through the crevice where her playmate had vanished. I willed her to be quiet. With all the time she’d spent with petpets, she should’ve known by now that petpets had sharp senses and keen instinct.
I silenced the tiny growl rising in my throat, keeping my ears raised and my nose alert. The heart of spring scratched at the roots of her playmate’s hideaway, then sighed, skipping a few paces to sniff some flowers.
I heard the change before I saw it. It was faint at first, just a thump, thump, thump. I placed the sound after a moment. It was the sound of a hopping blumaroo. Could that have been what had scared the petpet off?
The gelert only then seemed to notice that something was up. She raised her ears, sniffing the air. I caught the scent of blumaroo on the wind, confirming my previous data. Surely no threat could come from a blumaroo? I tended to avoid blumaroos; they loved to sing, whether or not they could hit the notes, and play with dice, gambling toys for which I really didn’t see the appeal.
My eyes were the last sense to pick up information on our visitor. It turned out to be an enormous shadow blumaroo. Blumaroos usually towered over me, but this one had to have been at least three times my height. Its tail left dents in the forest floor as it hopped. I took a deep breath, and caught the very faintest trace of something new. A sharp odor mixed with a sickly sweet scent that was ever so slightly like rotting cherries. Dark faerie dust. I wouldn’t trust dark faeries as far as I could throw them.
“Hey,” I hissed, making myself known to my charge after all this time. She looked up.
She huffed a little, then ran in the opposite direction from which the Blumaroo was coming. It proved that it was indeed looking for her when it growled---something I’d never imagined a Blumaroo would do---and clomped off after her. I sank back into the foliage, drawing my spectral forest bow and scroll of ultranova, both of which I’d received as gifts over the years. It had been very difficult to learn to use a bow with my paws, but the spectral string tended to listen to my thoughts as much as my actions.
I pulled back the string, and as they tended to do, a faint blue spectral arrow materialised right in the perfect spot. I aimed for the Blumaroo, and let the arrow fly. As usual, the arrow seemed to pass right through the target, but left its mark on their hitpoints. The large Neopet roared, and there was a flash of purple as at least six dark faeries shot up into the sky, leaving themselves as perfect targets. I managed to get two to drop, and I hit another one before they were out of sight.
The Blumaroo, unfortunately, wasn’t so keen on running away. It looked around wildly for me, having been unable to guess my location. I stayed quiet for a moment, weighing my options. I hated to be separate from my charge, in case this had been a trap of some sort. But at the same time, the beast was focused on me, and I liked that. I’d have to scare the beast away before going to find her.
I climbed higher, using my left ear to steady me, as my right ear was curled loosely around my scroll. The beast spotted me, but not before I was well above its head. I managed to send a few icons of damage its way before it began shaking the tree. I jumped to the next one, using my tail for balance. I led the Blumaroo in the direction from which it had come, looking back on occasion to blast it with my scroll. I vowed to get another scroll when I got the chance, as this bow was hard to use while running away.
I was able to lead the Blumaroo around in circles for long enough to either deplete its willpower or hitpoints, as it eventually gave up and started slowly hopping away. I shifted my scroll to carry it with my mouth, listening carefully for the sounds of anyone following me. I took a roundabout route back to the Babith’s tree, just to be safe.
Locating my charge a second time took me nearly an hour. Her path of lively plants occasionally crossed rocky areas or equally lively meadows. With a mix of sight and smell, I eventually found her under the canopy of a willow near a stream. Her bright yellow paws gave her away.
“Do you know why you were being followed?” I asked, startling her slightly as I pushed through the curtain of leaves. It was slightly dark in here, and gave us the illusion of being in our own little world. Maybe not the most tactically sound hiding spot, but certainly a serene one.
“I don’t know, you tell me. Isn’t that how stealthy pets spend their time? Sneaking around just ‘cause they can?” She gazed down her nose at me in irritation.
“Not by me,” I hissed. “By the Blumaroo.”
“How should I know? It’s not like you gave me a chance to talk to it before ordering me about.”
I snorted in exasperation. She’d sounded a lot nicer when she was singing to springabees. “Fine. I’ll just have to be cautious.”
“Are you going to tell me why you were following me? Are you even going to tell me your name?”
I looked away, fiddling with my hand wraps. “I’m Storm.”
“Storm? Are you a boy or a girl? I can’t see your eyes.” She reached toward my hood with her ear.
I leaped back. “I’m a boy. Why do you care?”
“I dunno. Why are you so hostile about it? And you never answered my other question.”
I sighed. “I was following you because I’ve been assigned to guard you.”
I bared my teeth at a clump of the sparse grass in the tree’s shade. “That’s what I was asking you.”
“Who told you to guard me, then? Did they just say ‘Storm, go guard Sunbeam, and don’t ask any questions?’” She made an exaggeratedly deep voice to represent my imaginary employer.
“Not everyone asks as many questions as you do.”
Sunbeam huffed. “Not everyone gives stubborn half-answers either.”
I said nothing. There was tense silence for a moment.
She broke it with another question. “How long have you been following me?”
“And I never saw you? Did you even sleep? Were you in the trees the whole time?”
“Yes, I was in the trees.”
“Who sent you?”
I plopped myself down onto my stomach. “The heart of winter.”
“Old Abe? Really? Why did he think I needed help? I mean, I’m four years old, I’ve been fine for, well, all that time. How old are you?”
I stood. “I’ll be around. I have… things to take care of.” Like my sanity.
She rolled her dark blue eyes. “Fine, you’re a drag anyway. I’ve played with rocks more cheerful than you.”
I left the leafy hideaway, scouting the area with my ears and nose. Nothing out of the ordinary. I tried to find a nearby tree from which I could see her, but the willow’s curtain had few natural windows. I eventually ended up in the tree itself.
“Nice ‘things to take care of,’” she said after a few minutes. She was lying on her back, her dress cascading along the plants and soil, her hair forming a light brown halo around her head.
I said nothing, watching a zytch crawl along a nearby branch.
“Do you believe in grundonoils?” she asked after another silence.
“Haven’t you heard of Neoquest II?”
“Everyone’s heard of Neoquest II.”
“Well? Do you believe in them?”
“No. They were part of the ship’s virus. There are no such things as a hybrid between a pet and a petpet. There are only petpet hybrids, like wuzzers, from the cooking pot.”
“I believe in grundonoils. I bet they live in the far corners of the Lost Desert, farther than anyone’s ever explored. Maybe there are other pet and petpet hybrids too. Like… feetsams, flotsams and feepits. And… eyragorns, eyries and zumagorns. And maybe even gelkerchiefs, gelerts and ghostkerchiefs. You think?”
I thought that was by far the most ridiculous thing I’d heard in my life. “Okay.”
She snorted. “I’m just daydreaming, Ninja. Don’t take things so seriously.” She made a grape vine grow, having it wrap around her paw. “Have you ever eaten waffles?”
“Waffles? I don’t think so.”
“They sound amazing. Waffles with syrup and… and bananas! That would be the best. And crepes, with whipped cream. Oh, and you know what else? Strawberry cupcakes. Delish.”
She laughed a little. “I’ve actually never tasted bananas. I just think they look so cool. Like pirate hooks. Can you imagine a pirate with a banana on its hand as a hook? Like a fruit pirate. Arrr, I be sailing the seven cherries.”
“Only really fake pirates talk like that.”
Her eyes brightened. “Have you ever met a pirate? Did they have a peg leg? Was it… a real peg leg?” She sat up, bits of grass stuck in her hair.
“I don’t know. I never asked.”
“I bet it was real. I bet they found so many neopoints and dubloons buried on forgotten islands. It would be so cool to be a pirate. To adventure, and find gold. I’d look so pretty with gold earrings, do you think?”
I tried to pretend to be napping, but she wouldn’t have it. “Hey Storm, do you know any good jokes?” She waited for a response before going on. “Here’s my favourite: ‘So Fyora, a kiko, a super attack pea, and the black pteri walk into Kelp and the waiter says: What is this, some kind of a joke?’” There was more silence. “You get it, right?”
“You’re really lonely, aren’t you?”
She sighed. “Uh huh.” She got a cheeky smile. “Hey, you can at least keep me company when you’re not out scaring blumaroos away. Tell me about your history. Then I’ll tell you about mine.” She settled back onto the ground, her front paws curled up under her chin, like it was already decided that I’d tell her my story.
I sighed. I figured learning about her history might offer some clues as to why she was only being hunted now. “There’s not much to tell. I was part of a stealthy training program. They take in pound pets with no humans, to clear up the pound a little. I graduated, and earned my paint brush. I found work spying or guarding other Neopians, pets and humans alike.”
“Oh. My human created me ten days before the spring equinox. She tried to make me blue, but I turned out eventide, because I was a liminality. The eventide paint brush didn’t even exist back then, if you can believe it. Some friends of Old Abe of Winter found me, and told my human that she had to bring me to the winter’s end ceremony. I think it really freaked my human out, because she brought me to the ceremony and then just… left me there.” She shrugged, making a tulip grow beside her. “So I just left too. The forest is a nice place. There are so many cool petpets and petpetpets. But not many neopets or humans. There are a few faeries, but they never stay for long.”
Her human had abandoned her at the ceremony? Surely if the human was after Sunbeam’s power, they would have kept her. “You wouldn’t happen to have talked to any dark faeries lately?”
“Dark faeries? No, why?”
I thought of the way she liberally used her magic. If a dark faerie was out and about in this forest, it wasn’t a stretch to assume that she’d somehow managed to find out about liminalities and learn what Sunbeam was.
“Storm?” she asked after more silence.
“Do you like the way you are? If you could change, would you?”
“If I wanted to change, I’d have done it already.”
“Sometimes I wish I could be a normal neopet, you know? I’d wear casual fashions, chat with my friends, drink vanilla milkshakes, and read the Neopian Times by the window on a rainy day. I mean, I love my powers and all these cute forest creatures, but…”
“Is that how you think normal pets are treated?”
For once, she was the one lost for words. “Isn’t it?”
“‘Normal neopets’ go to the cockroach towers, and that’s if they’re very, very lucky.”
I didn’t respond, not because I was ignoring her again, but because a weewoo dropped off a Neomail for me.
“Oh my gosh, is that a Neomail? I’ve always wanted one of those! Who’s it from? Can I see it?”
I stayed where I was, opening the neomail.
I expected you to write back with your progress. Due to your silence, I am forced to inquire. Has your business been smooth, or eventful? Have you even found the girl at all? I trust that you will word your replies carefully, lest they fall into the wrong hands.
“Let me see!” Sunbeam nagged.
“It’s just a boring letter from the heart of winter. Don’t worry about it.”
“Can I draw a picture? To show him that I’m really here.”
I sighed. “Fine. If you’ll stop talking.” I shoved the Neomail in the collar of my tunic, climbing down the tree.
“Perfect, here, let me use your back.”
I lay on my stomach, folding my paws under me. Predictably enough, she read the Neomail, then set it on my back. To her credit, she was silent while she worked. I waited, listening to the forest while the pen scratched gently against my back.
“There!” she declared. “You make a terrible table, but here it is.”
I looked. Her artistic skills were deplorable, but she seemed to have depicted a Gelert with hair covering its eyes and a huge frown. In equally messy handwriting, it read: ‘Storm’ with an arrow pointing to the figure.
“I’m so bad at realistic drawings. I wish I had paints. So I could splash colours all over the canvas, like a field of rainbow flowers. Oh, have you ever seen a rainbow? I saw one in the sky once, and I once found a waterfall with a lot of mist to make rainbows.”
I crawled back up the tree to reply to the Neomail.
“Bark probably makes an even worse table than you do, you know,” she said.
I rolled my eyes, then set to work writing out my Neomail on the reverse side.
Found the girl. Only one event. Giant blumaroo, working with dark faeries. At least six. I slowed two down, but with a trip to the healing springs, they’ll be back.
“I bet your Neomail is really short,” said Sunbeam. “I bet you didn’t even use complete sentences. I bet you sound like a Tyrannian. ‘Me find Sunbeam. Me tell Sunbeam run. Me ignore Sunbeam all the time.’”
“With all that betting, you should try your luck at the Food Club.”
“Maybe I will.”
I slid my Neomail into the envelope, then held it up. By whatever mysterious weewoo powers, a weewoo swooped down and carried the Neomail away.
“Do you wanna play cliffhanger?”
“Normally we play at the games room, but we can play it here. Look, I write out a saying, and you guess letters until you can guess what it is. If you guess wrong, the Tuskaninny moves closer to the cliff, and when he falls over, you lose.”
“He falls off the cliff? That’s pretty morbid.”
She sighed. “Don’t overthink it, Ninja.” She marched over to the mud by the shore and drew out a series of dashes and a very rough hill and Tuskaninny. “Let’s go. Guess a letter. You’re allowed to guess vowels.”
I half-heartedly guessed letters until a Neomail returned.
“You’re not even trying!” she whined. “It’s ‘You can lead a kau to water, but you cannot make it drink.’ You had the ‘you can’ and ‘you cannot’ spelled out in their entirety.”
I opened the Neomail.
This is certainly unfortunate news. I had hoped that my colleague’s whispers about danger were purely paranoia. I have another plan to keep the girl in hiding. If you would kindly make haste toward the healing springs, I have a contact who will meet you in person to discuss my plan.
Good luck to you,
I stood. “Come on, Sunbeam.”
“Where are we going?”
“I don’t know. Someplace where you’ll be safe. I hope.”
To be continued…