Stand behind yer sheriff Circulation: 130,067,293 Issue: 259 | 29th day of Gathering, Y8
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Fire and Gold: Part One


by silvormoon

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Gerra looked sadly at the snow-swept landscape outside her window, watching as the snowflakes fell gently against the glass. It was snowing, as usual, on Terror Mountain, and that meant that once again, she couldn't go out and play.

      This wasn't to say that Gerra didn't love living on top of the mountain. She loved having snowball fights, she loved sledding down the slopes, she loved eating slushies and Chia Pops. She even loved watching snowflakes falling, marveling at how each one was different from every other. Nothing would make her happier than to spend every day of her life playing out in the snow with her family and friends. The only thing that made her sad was that she couldn't.

      Gerra, like the rest of her family, was an Eyrie. Unlike the rest of her family, she was a Yellow Eyrie. Eyries were adapted best to tropical climates, so being an Eyrie made it difficult to live on Terror Mountain - the snow made their wings ice up, making it difficult or impossible to fly, and the stony crags made their claws chip. Nevertheless, her family had survived there for generations by means of special magic: when each young Eyrie child reached a certain age, they were given a Snow Paint Brush, transforming them into a Snow Eyrie that was properly adapted to the harsh conditions. Their snowy wings could carry them even in the most ferocious snowstorms, and their paws didn't feel the cold. Gerra's two older siblings were outside even now, frolicking in the new-fallen snow. If Gerra herself wanted to go out, she had to wait until it stopped snowing, and then wrap herself up with a coat, hat, scarf, gloves, and boots, and she would still get cold in an hour or two and have to go inside and warm up.

      "It's not fair," she complained, watching as her big sister Sherra piling up snow to make a fort. "Why am I the only one who has to stay inside?"

      "Now, you know you're not old enough to make the trip to the Rainbow Pool on your own," said her mother gently. "It's not just about being painted, you know. It's whether or not you're ready to take care of yourself."

      "Terr's only a year older than me, and you let him go," said Gerra persistently. "Please, Mama. My birthday is in the middle of winter - it will be snowing so hard by then, I won't be able to go out until spring. Please let me go now. I promise I'll be really, really careful!"

      "I don't know. It's a big step, going out into the world all alone," her mother replied. "It's a long trip from here to Neopia Central, and you'd have to keep your Paint Brush safe all the way there. If you lose it or someone steals it, we can't afford to replace it."

      "I'll take really good care of it," said Gerra, and she meant it. The last thing she would want would be to lose her magical Paint Brush and give up her chances of joining the rest of her family as a Snow Eyrie.

      "Well, she is almost old enough," said her father thoughtfully, "and she's right about the winter snow. Terr and Sherra both had their birthdays in the summer, so it was easy going for them, but it would be much harder for Gerra if we made her wait for her birthday."

      "That's probably true," Gerra's mother said thoughtfully, "and it really wouldn't be fair if she had to wait for spring. She really would be miserable, having to stay inside all winter."

      "So I can go?" asked Gerra eagerly.

      "Not today," said her father. "It's supposed to snow all day... but it's going to clear up tonight, so tomorrow should be a nice clear day. Why don't you try then?"

      "Yippee!" Gerra cheered, flapping her wings joyfully, making her levitate a few inches.

      Gerra's mother went to a shelf and pulled down a dark wooden box, which she opened up and looked inside.

      "I thought it was in here," she said. "Here, Gerra - your very own Snow Paint Brush. Take good care of it."

      Gerra purred with happiness as she accepted the box with the precious Paint Brush. She couldn't resist opening it up to look inside.

      "I'll start packing right now," she said, and scurried to her room to start filling a pack with everything she'd need for a long journey. Maybe today she couldn't go out and play with her brother and sister, but soon she'd be going on an adventure that would be even better than having snowball fights and sledding.

      She had no idea how big an adventure it was going to turn out to be.

          

     Deep in the Haunted Woods, a little Shadow Meerca was skittering down a path, winding his way towards home. It was night time now, and all manner of strange things were lurking out in the dark, and Twee didn't want to meet any of them. He ran as fast as he could, his long tail streaming out behind him. If only he could get home before anyone noticed him, everything would be all right...

      There was a light up ahead. Twee slowed down, not sure if it was safe to proceed. He slipped off the trail and began creeping through the bushes, trying not to make a sound. As he drew nearer to the light, he could see that there was a campfire burning, and there were three Neopets sitting around it: a hulking Halloween Lupe, a Mutant Skeith, and a Ghost Hissi. None of them looked like the sort of pets Twee wanted to tangle with. Unfortunately, they had set up camp right in the middle of the road, and they didn't look like they wanted to let anyone else past them. Twee flicked his tail in agitation. He had to get past them to get to his home, but he was worried about what would happen if he tried to cross those big ugly bullies. He knew most Neopets were friendly, but the Haunted Woods occasionally attracted some no-good types, especially deep in the forest where there was no one to stop them from doing as they pleased. If they decided they wanted to pick on Twee, he'd be helpless against them. On the other hand, if he veered very far off the path, there was a good chance that he would get lost, or run into something even nastier than these three. He would just have to try to slip past them, quietly as he could.

      Very, very slowly, Twee picked his way through the underbrush, trying not to so much as step on a dry leaf that might make a sound. Fortunately, he was small and light, and could easily hop across the exposed roots of trees without having to touch the leaf-strewn ground. His dark fur blended easily into the shadows. He crept right along the edge of the circle of firelight without alerting even the sharp-eared Lupe of his presence.

      "Hey, Boss, you were awesome in the Battledome today," said the Skeith to the Lupe. "I'll bet there's no one who could stand up to you!"

      "Indeed, it wasss a sssplendid performanccce," the Hissi added.

      "You better believe it was," the Lupe boasted, "and it's all thanks to this baby. Nobody can face me down when I've got this in my paws." He held a gleaming sword up to the firelight, making it seem to glow with its own light.

      Oooh, Twee thought. Shiny!

      It should be noted, at this point, that Twee was not the most honest of Neopians. Like many Meercas, he loved playing pranks, and furthermore, it had to be confessed that he was a thief. Anything that caught his attention would probably find its way out of its proper owner's paws and into Twee's, if it was left unguarded for even a second. Shiny things in particular fascinated him, and now his attention was caught by the beautiful sword. If he had something like that, he thought, he'd never again be afraid of the creepy things lurking in the Haunted Woods! His good sense overcome, he crept slowly out of the shadows and picked his way towards the firelight.

      The other Neopets weren't paying attention to him. They were looking into the fire, where they were roasting food on sticks and chattering about the Battledome matches they'd seen that day. The boss Lupe had set his sword down again, and it was resting on the ground next to him. Twee crawled closer and closer until it was almost within reach. Then, with a sudden bound, he pounced on it. His paws closed around the hilt, and he turned to escape.

      "Thief!" the Hissi bellowed. "Growgar, look - a thief!"

      Twee gave a cry as he realized he'd been spotted. He tried to get away, but the sword was heavier than it looked, and it made him stumble. The Hissi moved swiftly to intercept him, blocking his escape route while Twee was still trying to collect himself. He looked up to find three pairs of angry eyes looking down at him.

      "What," grumbled Growgar, "do you think you're doing with my sword?"

      "Um, just looking?" Twee offered.

      "I'll bet," said Growgar. "I'll bet you just thought you'd take it home and have a nice long look at it, didn't you?"

      Twee started to nod agreement, realized that was a bad idea, and shook his head instead.

      "I wasn't stealing anything," he said. "I just didn't want to interrupt your dinner, honest?"

      "Don't believe him," said the Skeith. "Let's pull his tail until he confesses!"

      "Eek, not my tail!" Twee yelped. He tried to jump over the Hissi and escape, but the Hissi caught his tail in its mouth and dragged him back. Twee wailed, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry! I'll never do it again! Lemme go! Lemme go!"

      "Aw, he wants us to let him go," said Growgar with a chuckle. "Sure, I'll let you go, little Meerca. I'll let you go with a warning about taking other people's things!"

      Growgar grabbed Twee by the tail and lifted him up over his head, twirling him around in the air. Twee squealed in pain and outrage until Growgar let him go, lofting him up into the trees and out of sight. The last thing Twee heard as he sailed away was the raucous laughter of the other three Neopians.

      Fortunately, Twee was light enough that he didn't fall hard, and he was lucky enough to land in a heap of soft leaves, so he didn't hurt himself when he landed. His pride, however, was aching.

      "I'm sick of being picked on," he muttered. "If I was big and tough like them, they couldn't pull my tail. They wouldn't laugh at me if I was scary like they were. If only I were different, then things would be better. If only..." A sudden thought occurred to him. "If only I had a Paint Brush!"

          

     Gerra was happy as she soared the clear blue skies over Neopia Central. She had spent the past two days alternating between flying and walking, making her way steadily closer to her goal. Now she could actually see the glow of the miraculous rainbow in the distance, and she rejoiced to know that the end of her journey was near. Even though she was tired, the thought that she would soon have her wish to be a real Snow Eyrie spurred her on, and she practically danced with excitement as she touched down on the grass. After a lifetime of living in the snow, grass felt odd beneath her paws. Oh, well - she'd be back where she belonged as soon as she got herself painted.

      It was easy enough to see which way she should go, so she trotted forward in the direction of the Rainbow Pool. There were many other Neopets going that way, too - some carrying Paint Brushes of their own, others leading Petpets in the direction of the Petpet Puddle. Coming from the other direction were freshly painted pets, looking damp but happy with their new colors. An air of excitement suffused everything. Being painted was a joyous occasion for everyone.

      "Look out! Comin' through!" a small voice piped up, and Gerra was just barely able to dodge as a Shadow Meerca zipped by.

      "Look where you're going!" she shouted at him, but he was already out of sight in the crowd. She scowled.

      "Some Neopians are so rude," she complained to no one in particular.

      She made it up to the gate that surrounded the pool and checked in with an important-looking Wocky carrying a clipboard.

      "Howdy! Glad you could make it," the Wocky said. "Let me just get you registered real quick. Lessee, gotta write down your name and your homeland here... Got your Paint Brush?"

      "Right here," said Gerra, showing him the Brush. She told him everything he needed to know, and watched him write it all down on his clipboard.

      "Snow, eh? Don't see too many of those these days. Everyone wants to be something flashy... Let's see here, I've just got to check to make sure you're compatible. Wouldn't want to waste a Paint Brush if the magic won't work. Yes, indeed, this Paint Brush is approved for Eyrie use! Just leave your things here for safekeeping, so they don't get wet, and come on in!"

      Gerra checked her bags in with the guard Wocky and followed the crowd up to the edge of the pool. It was even more crowded here than it was outside. To Gerra, it seemed like all of Neopia was here to be painted. She could barely move, there were so many other pets around, and she gripped her Paint Brush tightly to make sure she didn't drop it. Finally, she reached the edge of the Rainbow Pool. She gazed into it for a moment, marveling at how the water rippled in every color. Now all she had to do was dive in, and...

      "Thief!" bellow a voice in the crowd. "That thief stole my Paint Brush! Somebody stop him!"

      Gerra turned to look, as did nearly everyone else in the crowd. A Meerca was weaving in and out through everyone's legs, clutching a Halloween Paint Brush. It was the same Shadow Meerca who had been rude to Gerra on the way to the Pool.

      "Sorry, sucker!" he shouted. "It's mine now!"

      "Not if I can help it!" a Ruki declared. He made a grab at the Meerca and missed, losing his balance and falling. He crashed into a pudgy Moehog, who gave a squeak and fell onto the foot of an Elephante. The Elephante bellowed in pain and jumped backwards, pushing over yet more Neopians. In the jam-packed crowd, it was impossible to get away, and soon there was a regular domino effect in motion, as more and more Neopians either fell or tried in vain to get out of the way of those who were already falling. Others tried to latch on to the slippery Meerca, adding to the general chaos. Gerra, panicked, tried to spread her wings to fly away, but there was no room. She was pushed relentlessly towards the pool, as were many others. Try as she might, she couldn't stop herself from stumbling. She flailed at the air, trying to stay upright, and her Paint Brush slipped out of her grip and fell into the water with a plunk. Gerra had only enough time to register what had happened before she fell into the pool as well.

      Around her, she could hear the splashes of other Neopians falling into the water around her, but she couldn't see them, because her eyes were clouded by swirling colors. The strange sight confused her, making her uncertain which way was up, and she scrambled helplessly, feeling her feathers weighed down by water. Then her feet found the bottom of the pond, and she pushed off, managing at last to pull herself up to the surface. She gasped and tried to snort the water out of her beak. Then she paddled carefully to shore. The chaos caused by the thieving Meerca had died down, and everyone was now concentrating on trying to fish out all the pets who had fallen into the pool.

      "Here, grab on," called a Mynci, uncurling his tail to reach her. Gerra gratefully latched on to it, and he helped pull her back to shore.

      "You okay?" he said, offering her a towel.

      "I'm fine, thanks," she said, gratefully accepting the towel from him. She began to dry off. Then she stopped, realizing something was wrong. Her paws were not, as she'd hoped they'd be, snowy white. They were yellow, but only at the tips. Then they shaded to orange, red, and eventually black. She looked herself over. She appeared to be mostly black now, with definite flame markings. There was no getting around it.

      "I'm the wrong color!" she wailed.

To be continued...

 
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