The Heart of Spring:Part Two
"Do you have to walk up there?” asked the heart of spring as we made our trek to Faerieland. Thankfully, we were relatively close.
“Yes,” I said from my place in the trees. “Someone has to keep watch.”
“How can you even walk in the trees so well, let alone climb them?”
“Will you teach me? Do I have to be stealthy coloured to learn?”
“Being stealthy coloured only comes with dark fur and this customisation, no special powers. And no, I won’t teach you.”
“I don’t have time.”
“Then I’ll join that stealthy training agency you were in.”
I snorted, smiling a little. “Good luck.”
“How do I find it?”
“You don’t. It finds you.” I looked down at her trail of tulips and forget me nots. “The first thing you can do to be stealthy is stop leaving plants everywhere.”
“I can’t help it.”
“Well, learn to help it. You have to act like a normal Gelert.” I wondered why Abraham, the heart of winter, had picked the healing springs as the rendezvous point, given the fact that I’d said that we’d had trouble with dark faeries. I’d tried the whole hide-right-under-their-nose strategy, and it had proven far too risky.
This actually earned a few minutes of silence. She tripped a few times, looking back to see if her lush trail was gone.
“Storm, I really can’t make it stop.”
I stopped for a moment to examine her in more detail. “Well, how does it happen in the first place? Will clearing your mind help?”
“It doesn’t matter what I’m thinking about, things just grow everywhere I step. It even happens during the other seasons, but not as much. I melt little puddles with my paws in the winter. I’m really easy to track. It makes it impossible to build snowmen. Have you ever built a snowman? Did they have snowball fights as part of your ninja training?”
Her paws… I hopped down along the branches to the ground, then pulled off my hand wraps and shoes. “Here, try these. So your paws don’t touch the ground.” The sensation of grass on my paws reminded me of my days of training. I’d very rarely taken off my wearables since.
She carefully tugged the hand wraps over her bright yellow paws using her teeth. “These are so cool. I feel like a ninja already.” She frowned at her fabric-clad front paw. “But they smell funny. Do you ever wash them?”
“Let’s go. See if they work.” I climbed back up the tree, ignoring the way the bark bit into the pads of my paws.
“Hey, they do work! I guess it was just my paws. That or your clothes have some sort of dark magic-cancelling effects on them. But aren’t I going to look weird wearing your shoes and hand wraps?”
“You look fine.”
She rolled her eyes. “Okay, finish the sentence. ‘Blue and green should never be seen…’”
“What are you talking about?”
She sighed, rolling her eyes. “‘…unless there’s a colour in between.’ They clash unless they’re transitioned with turquoise. And since I’m not taking fashion advice from you, I definitely look weird.”
I snarled. “We’re going to meet Mr. Abraham’s contact, not to the customisation spotlight.”
“Well, what if everyone sees me walking around wearing your gloves and boots? Won’t that be suspicious? If the Blumaroo or someone recognises me, then they’d know how I control my powers, and therefore how they can disable them…”
“Fine. The nearest market is in the Haunted Woods. Do you want to go there?”
“Do I want to go shopping? Is that even a question? Let’s go!”
“It’s not whether you want to go shopping, it’s whether or not you want to go into the Haunted Woods. It’s quite literally your every nightmare. Legend has it that it can even shift to be what you fear the most.”
“Then it sounds really cool. Besides, I have a big, strong bodyguard by my side.” She winked. “You’d probably scare everything away by being grumpy. Or ignore it until it got bored and walked away. Come on, let’s go!”
I sighed. “Just a moment.” I can’t believe I’m doing this, I thought, bringing out the spare piece of paper and envelope that I kept in my cloak for emergencies.
Unexpected detour. No danger. May meet the contact later than expected.
“Me take Sunbeam shopping. Me grumble about it whole way,” the liminality mocked me.
Once a weewoo had taken my Neomail, I started us in the direction of the haunted marketplace. “Whatever you do, don’t chase anything shiny. Don’t make any deals with anyone, and don’t go exploring. We go in, we get you some wearables, we go out.”
“Yes sir. I wish we could go to the NC Mall, I hear the clothes there are so cute and sparkly. But I bet you don’t have any Neocash. You obviously never go shopping for cool clothes.”
“Only humans can get Neocash.”
“There are a lot of cute Neopoint clothes too, I bet. I’ve never been shopping, obviously. But I did find a Usuki fashion magazine. Oh my gosh, you’ll never believe how may usuki sets there are!”
She continued to prattle on about toys and fashion until we got to the border of the Haunted Woods. It was a pretty abrupt change. There were ten paces between the healthy trees and the thick mass of dead plant matter. I bit my lip, wishing I’d had the spine to tell her to quit whining and wear my hand wraps and boots. It was true that I’d never voted in the customisation spotlight, but surely it couldn’t look that suspicious?
“Ow,” said Sunbeam, trying to disentangle her dress from a skeletal bush.
“You’ll get used to that.”
“Can’t I use magic to make it back off?”
“Don’t use any magic until this is sorted out.” Taking advantage of the pause in our trek, I inspected my front paws. I pulled a stray thorn out.
“Not even in self-defence?”
I started hopping down through the branches to help her. “You don’t need to defend yourself. You have me.”
“But what if you lose your hitpoints? Or… worse?”
“Then you run. Contact Mr. Abraham, and he’ll either replace me or send me a colleague.” Most likely the former.
“You’d fight until the end to protect me?” She got herself unstuck before I could help her, leaving me to have to climb back up.
“That’s what they taught us. Mission before comfort. No matter how wild stealthy pets choose to make a living, it’s never making cupcakes. If we abandon the mission and lose our job, we starve.”
“But what about the soup kitchen?”
“Only for owned pets.”
“Oh. What about the fruit in the forest?”
I shrugged. “The wild is always a good resource, if we know how to use it.” I hadn’t really had any training when it came to wilderness survival. I passed dozens of types of fruit in the forest, not daring to pick them because I didn’t recognise them. Maybe I should teach a supplementary course on wilderness survival in the stealth training I’d taken. Unless of course the idea was to make us assume that we were helpless if we weren’t using our stealth to serve Neopian society. It wouldn’t surprise me.
“You must’ve travelled everywhere, huh? I usually stay around this forest---well, not this forest, but you know what I mean. I wish I could go to Maraqua, or Moltara.”
“Could you keep the chatter to a minimum?”
She sighed. “Yes sir.”
We walked for about twenty minutes with nothing eventful. Each noise made me bristle. Petpets watched us from the shadows, the perpetual twilight reflecting off their eyes. If one got too brave, a growl from me sent it back.
Sunbeam eventually started humming softly. I was about to shush her, but noticed the strained look on her face. I decided to leave her to her comforts.
Without warning, she started screaming. I leaped down from the trees, landing in front of her, ready to defend her against… against the bat boy standing before me, smiling cheekily, waving its cloak. Its large eyes glinted, its head tilting to the side a little.
“Get it, get it!” Sunbeam shrieked, scrambling back.
“It’s just a bat boy. You made me jump out of a tree for this?”
“It’s horrible, and it’s going to eat us!”
“No it’s n---” I was cut off by a sharp pinch as the petpet sank its fangs into my paw. I sighed.
Sunbeam’s shrieking reached horrible levels. “Oh no! No! Help! Help!”
“Shut up! It hardly even hurts! Look.” I swung my paw, flinging the petpet into the trees. “Look, it’s gone, calm down.”
She started crying. “That was the most terrible thing I’ve ever seen!”
“It’s just a petpet. It’s not even that ugly of a petpet. You haven’t seen grembles.” I turned back to my tree.
“Can you walk with me? I’m so scared, what if it comes back? What if there are more?”
I sighed. “Fine. Let’s go.”
For some reason, there were several more bat boys on our journey. I snapped my teeth at each of them while Sunbeam cowered behind me. We made it to the Haunted Marketplace with no liminality-related danger, at least.
The Haunted Marketplace seemed to be a blend of dilapidated wooden shacks and tombstones. I chose one shack at random, ducking in through the partially collapsed doorway. By Neopian mysteries that I didn’t bother questioning, the place was larger and slightly better kept on the inside. I located the room with a picture of a hanger carved into the doorway, then led Sunbeam across the creaky floor. An aboogala skittered across our path.
Inside the shop, the wearables were sorted according to zone. I made my way toward the gloves. Eyeing the price tags, I quickly located a pair of fiery mittens.
Sunbeam looked at them like I’d just picked up a fish pop. “Uh, no. Those look ridiculous.”
“Storm, what did I say about your fashion sense? Here, I’ll do the shopping, you growl at things.” She pawed through the display, picking out three pairs of gloves and dropping them in front of me. “Hold these.”
“Just to keep them safe. You’re good at keeping things safe.”
I grudgingly picked them up with my teeth, trying to keep up with her as she trotted over to the shoes rack. She tested several combinations of gloves and shoes against her fur and dress, muttering to herself.
“Can we go?” I hissed.
“Hush Storm, art is in progress.”
I rolled my eyes, lying down.
After what seemed like ages, she finally decided. “These quaint Gelert gloves and Illusens laced slippers.”
I frowned at the price tag on the slippers. The price of the gloves, however, made me huff. “Absolutely not.”
“Aren’t you paid that much?”
“Not to spend on gloves.”
“Then I’ll get a job from summer to winter to pay you back.”
“I don’t give loans. You can have the slippers, but pick a pair of gloves under ten thousand Neopoints.”
She pouted. “I’m going to cry.”
“So cry. Plenty of pets cried when they got hurt or failed the stealthy training.”
True to her word, she started crying. She actually got tears to flow as well as the sobbing.
“You’re such a brat,” I muttered, examining a knot in the floorboards.
She continued to cry for twenty minutes, after which point boredom and irritation at the delay made me stand up. “You’re as stubborn as a pwerko. Let’s get the gloves and go. But I’m not buying you any more shiny things.”
She sniffled a little, suddenly cheerful. “Awesome! Thank you so much, Storm! I’ll pay you back, honest!”
“I doubt it,” I said, storming up to the bored-looking usul with the ridiculous makeup.
“What’s a pwerko?”
“A petpet. Come on.”
I grudgingly handed over the large sum of Neopoints. I could swear I saw the usul’s eyes light up a bit. Sunbeam and I exchanged gloves and shoes just outside the shop, her being careful not to touch the rotted planks.
“You had better wear those gloves until they’re rags,” I said to her as we left the mall.
“Oh, they won’t become rags, trust me. They are so cute, look at these little pearls! That was so much fun!”
I rolled my eyes. “Now you have to do everything I say.”
“Yes sir.” This time, she was a little less sarcastic.
I crept through the branches, trying to ignore a cut on my paw. Sunbeam, to her credit, walked silently, visibly suppressing her fear.
We were nearly out of the Haunted Woods when I caught the scent of dark faerie dust again. I hopped down from the trees, gesturing for Sunbeam to follow me. I brought her to a hollow tree. She tread carefully, frowning at the damp earth, and very delicately sat down. I climbed a nearby tree, hoping to get the advantage of being above my opponents.
For a moment, there was silence. I swallowed an instinctive growl. The scent intensified, but I couldn’t see the source.
When I got the sense to look up, I spotted the faerie. Or rather, half a dozen faeries, all hovering above me. They dive-bombed me before I could reach for my weapons, knocking me out of the tree. I landed on my shoulder, a jolt of pain shocking me for a moment. I hopped to my feet, grabbing my scroll of ultranova to start fighting back. I gave a warning zap to any faerie who thought she could get past me. I drew my bow, ignoring the throbbing in my shoulder, and quickly sent arrows flying. The six faeries flew together, seeming to weave a complex pattern that produced a throbbing purple cloud. A bark escaped me. I aimed my attacks for a single faerie, hoping that eliminating her would break the ritual.
A Halloween Gelert was suddenly in the battle. He leaped an impressive distance in the air, batting one dark faerie away. The purple cloud seemed to leak, sluggishly dispersing into the air. The five faeries shot up skyward, their sixth member following them after a moment.
I examined our mysterious helper. He was a wiry Gelert with a black cape, messy dark hair, red eyes, and large, sharp fangs.
“Thank you,” I said warily. I didn’t believe that any white knights spent their time wandering around in the Haunted Woods.
“Don’t mention it. Bunch of lowlifes.” He examined his paw, which was slightly purple, muttering something that I didn’t catch. He walked away without another word.
I went to check on Sunbeam. She was lying on her stomach, a spot of colour in the dim tree cavity. Her eyes were huge, and a gremble was sitting on her head. Its striped feet sat above the Gelert’s eyes, its disfigured, sewn face twisted into a grin. Its yellow eyes glowed from beneath a head of tangled black hair.
Grimacing, I picked the gremble up by its brown, furry scruff and set it down outside the tree. “Are you okay?” I asked.
“I think I’m going to cry for real,” she whispered, her voice weak. “That thing was horrifying.”
“But you didn’t shriek like earlier.”
“It was all I could do to keep quiet, believe me.” She shuddered.
“Let’s get going.”
“I definitely agree.”
We made it to the Healing Springs without any further issues. I soaked my sore paws in the bright blue water. The pain faded immediately.
“Storm? Lady Sunbeam?” asked a voice. I sat up.
A blue Kyrii approached us. He was adorned simply with a black hat, but the way he carried himself had an air of importance that made up for his small size.
I nodded. “Hello. You’re Mr. Abraham’s contact?”
“Yes I am. Let’s go somewhere quieter, if you don’t mind.”
He led us behind a large bush bearing plump crimson berries. Sunbeam eyed them, but seemed to decide against trying one.
“Mr. Abraham has a plan to keep you in hiding until summer,” said the Kyrii. He produced a bag of Neopoints. “Here, the fare for use of the ferry.”
I peeked in the bag, then swiftly drew it shut, wondering how the old Bruce made his Neopoints. “I’d rather make my own travel arrangements, the ferry is too public. What does he have in mind?”
“The arrangements have already been made. You will be staying with a human’s Neopets, at their Neohome on Krawk Island.”
Oh, spectacular.To be continued…