Invisible Paint Brushes rock Circulation: 118,221,339 Issue: 237 | 2nd day of Hunting, Y8
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The Orphan and the Beast: Part One


by sarahleeadvent

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"Is everybody ready to go?"

      The shadow Zafara's voice rang throughout the small Neohome in the heart of the Haunted Woods, and in two nearby rooms a Cybunny and a Wocky simultaneously called back, "Yes, Kamro."

      Upon hearing his sisters' confirmation, Kamro came striding out of his room, his face lit up with a grin. A scruffy, streetwise teenager, Kamro was the tough, ready protector of the younger two. This burden had fallen squarely upon his narrow shoulders eight months ago when the siblings' parents died, but Kamro had risen to the challenge; and now, as he stood in the hall, well equipped but not extravagantly laden, he showed no sign of feeling the weight of the responsibility, as seriously as he took it. "Well, come on then," he said. "The mountains may wait forever, but don't expect me to!"

      In the room beyond the first door on the left, a red Cybunny grinned. Kamro had always had a great love of adventure, and when he was really looking forward to something his enthusiasm could be difficult to curb. Satiria was the middle child of the three, but she often acted as if she was the oldest; while the others chipped in and did not slack off, Satiria was still the main housekeeper, and the bringer of order in the absence of any adults. She was smart, steady and sensible, the best student of the three and a voice of reason to temper Kamro's impulsive nature and fierce protective instincts.

      "I've been ready for quite some time," she informed her older brother as she joined him in the hall. "In fact, both Leah and I have been waiting for you."

      As if to confirm this, the small blue Wocky padded into the hallway, adjusting the belt which carried most of her mountain climbing gear as she came. Leah was the youngest and smallest of the three, a shy, quiet child for whom both Kamro and Satiria felt deeply responsible. Leah was the sort who got good grades, but would never have any popular friends- in fact, she rarely made any lasting friendships at all. Newcomers to Neoschool seemed to gravitate toward her, but no matter how hard she tried to be kind to them and to make them feel at home, she always seemed to simply fade out of their lives as they got adjusted and moved on to 'cooler' and more popular friends. This trend had always bothered the older two, but Leah quietly took it in stride as a normal part of her life, and neither Kamro nor Satiria had ever heard her utter a word of complaint, either about her lack of friends or the loss of her parents. She had been rather badly shaken the one time she was singled out by a bully, but one brief confrontation between the offending Moehog and Kamro had ensured that Leah was never bothered again.

      "Are we going now?" the little Wocky asked, and Kamro smiled and nodded.

      "You bet, Lee. Both of you got all of your gear?"

      Satiria nodded, and Kamro knew that if she thought she had packed everything she would need, then she had definitely gotten all of her gear, and she'd have made certain that Leah did, too.

      "So, why aren't we going to Terror Mountain?" Leah asked as she followed Kamro down the stairs and out the door.

      "Because Terror Mountain is too far away," Kamro answered, "and besides, so many people have climbed it that it's really nothing special. The mountains at the edge of the woods, however- I don't think anybody's climbed those, and they're only a few miles away from here."

      The three siblings lapsed into silence as they made their way through the Haunted Woods, Kamro leading the way with his easy, rolling lope, Leah padding along quietly behind him, and Satiria bringing up the rear as had become her custom of late. To some, the Haunted Woods were spooky and intimidating, but to these three it was home; nevertheless, caution was still a thing not to be lightly tossed aside, and Satiria preferred to keep a close eye on the small and vulnerable Leah.

      Suddenly a commotion reached their ears, and the siblings turned in the direction of the noise with matching frowns of worry on their faces. Kamro was the first to begin walking toward the source of the sound, and Leah was right behind him in an instant. "I thought you were in a hurry," Satiria remarked as she joined them after a moment's hesitation. A tumult of voices in the middle of the Haunted Woods could mean anything, and Satiria wasn't sure that she wanted to see Leah in the middle of it.

      "The mountains aren't going to be leveled overnight," Kamro replied over his shoulder as he broke into a run. "Something's going on, and I want to know what it is!"

      As they neared the source of the commotion, Kamro slowed to a halt while Leah took a few tentative steps past him before coming to a stop. What they saw was nothing like what they had expected. Arnold was being carried into a makeshift infirmary- on a stretcher!

      Satiria bounded over to the injured Mynci's side. "What happened?" she asked, and Arnold's eyes flashed with indignation and a memory of fear.

      "That… that slimy thing attacked me!"

      "What thing?" the Cybunny asked, and as she spoke she sensed Kamro standing behind her with Leah at his side. Not surprisingly, the young Wocky said nothing, but her eyes expressed her concern.

      "From what we could tell, it was a big, gangly black thing, with leathery wings and a serious bite," a Techo who was helping to carry the stretcher answered gravely, and it was clear that he wasn't joking. "It tackled Arnold while he was out taking a walk."

      Kamro tensed, and Satiria could tell what he was thinking: the protective Zafara wasn't at all pleased with the idea that something was nearby that might attack his little sisters. "Where was this?" Kamro asked, his voice tight with worry.

      "North… well, more like northwest of here," the Techo answered. "At least, that was where he was coming from when we found him running like a scared Cybunny- no offense," he added when he remembered that Satiria was listening. "He made it most of the way here, and then he just collapsed. We tried to find the thing that attacked him, but there was no sign of anything out of the ordinary."

      Kamro frowned in deep concentration. "I think we'd better postpone our climbing expedition until tomorrow," he said, then added as he turned away, "I hope you recover quickly, sir."

      Arnold nodded, his eyes narrowing. "Oh, you bet I will. Some friends of mine are going to set a few traps, and see if we can't nab this scumbag. Maybe we'll see how it likes a few strong Neopets testing their strength on it!" he added darkly, curling his paws as if fingering a wooden mallet.

      As they turned to head for home, both Kamro and Satiria noticed that Leah seemed even quieter than usual, although despite the glint of sadness in her azure eyes it was difficult to tell what was passing through her mind.

      ***

      A good night's sleep had served to alleviate some of the dark weight which the incident had placed on his mind, and by the next day Kamro was as ready and upbeat as ever, although there was a deep, sharp flicker of watchfulness in his dark eyes.

      The sad, thoughtful quietness that had settled over Leah on the previous day had yet to lift, and Kamro hoped that the hike and the following climb would help to put her worries out of her mind. For some added excitement he and Satiria decided that they would spend the night on the mountain, although the decision was made more to distract Leah than anything else. But the news seemed to have little effect, and as they set out for the mountains the small Wocky seemed only to grow even more preoccupied.

      Suddenly Satiria frowned, her long ears flicking and swiveling as she twisted her head in an effort to catch a trace of some faint, elusive sound. "What was that?" she asked, and Kamro responded with a shrug.

      "How should I know? My hearing isn't as good as yours." Although he kept his tone light, Kamro's heart had redoubled its pace, and the image of Arnold on a stretcher crept like a dark mist into his mind.

      The look of worry on Satiria's face deepened. "It sounds almost like a Korbat's wings, but I've never heard a Korbat flying that fast. It's strange, though… the sound doesn't seem to be getting any nearer or farther away."

      The Cybunny's frown spread to her siblings' faces. "We'll approach it quietly," Kamro decided. "Lead the way, but be careful. I want to see whatever it is without it seeing or hearing us."

      Satiria nodded, then began to creep slowly in the general direction of the sound. As they got closer, first Kamro, then Leah began to hear it: a faint, leathery flapping, like a frantic Korbat flying desperately in one place. Kamro felt his fur begin to dampen with a trickle of cold sweat despite the low temperature of the woods. "Didn't that Techo say something about 'leathery wings'?" he whispered, and Satiria turned and put a paw to her lips. As the Cybunny hesitated, Kamro quickened his pace slightly, taking his place at the head of the group, where he would be the first to encounter any danger.

      Kamro had thought he would see it first, but before his searching eyes found anything he heard a faint gasp from Leah. Kamro was about to turn around and ask if she was all right when suddenly the hair on his neck and back stood rigid, and every muscle in his body stiffened in response to an electric jolt of alarm. There it was, only twenty feet ahead of him, the pitch-black scales which covered its enormous body almost blending in with the darkness of its surroundings. It was ten feet tall and whip-thin, with long, spidery arms and legs and piercing topaz eyes. Huge, batlike wings extended from either side of its lanky body, but its ears, while similar in shape to those of a Korbat, were smaller and pointed, sticking straight up from the sides of its narrow head. Kamro had no idea what the creature was, but he did know that he didn't want to get in a fight with it; not only was the strange being huge, but it was clear that this was the same creature that had attacked and injured Arnold. With a silent wave of his paw, the Zafara motioned for the others to get down, and all three of them crouched against the ground in the questionable shelter of the twiggy skeleton of a bush.

      For a moment the creature just stood there, only its head moving as it glanced around as if hearing the siblings but unable to tell where they were. All three Neopets instinctively held their breath, and watched in fascination as it spread its wings to full length, then leapt up into the air and began to flap furiously, its massive wings becoming huge, shadowy blurs. But as hard as it seemed to be flying, it was clear that it wasn't going anywhere. All three siblings seemed to notice at the same time, and three pairs of eyes widened as they saw the reason for the creature's immobility: its left foot was held firmly in the jaws of a steel trap.

To be continued...

 
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