Deep Secrets: Part Eleven
The rising sun glittered and gleamed off Terror Mountain. The clear icy air sharpened the edges of everything: the patterns of frost on the windows, the line between snow-covered beaches and true ice.
Standing at the base of the mountain, it was painful to look up at the top. The icy slopes near the pointed top of it caught the sunlight and threw it out in all directions, the light exploding out through the air.
But the only people awake this early weren’t looking up the mountain. They were sweeping up all the remnants of the horde of tourists who descended on Terror Mountain each year for the Advent Calendar, the used scratch-cards and the wrappers from ice cream cones, and bagging them.
Still half-asleep, yawning, the green Tuskaninny didn’t even notice when his broom hit something that clinked gently against the ice. He swept it into his bag and continued on.
The bags were stacked behind the Official Terror Mountain Visitors’ Center, a quaint log cabin with glowing windows and a wisp of smoke rising from the chimney, on a patch of cobblestones periodically shoveled off by the maintenance workers. The sweepers, eager to get back to their beds, threw their bags onto the pile and left.
Most just bounced a few times and settled into their places, but a few slid off and fell onto the ground, and one burst entirely, splitting open at the seam.
A little drift of garbage spilled out: Negg shells, gift tags only half filled out, a cup with an inch of violent blue slush left in the bottom. None of it made it very far, except for a ring that bounced and rolled almost to the edge of the cobbles.
The sun creeping over the mountain touched it, and light flared inside it. The Ring of the Deep had been jostled and pushed around by the garbage.
Finally it was out, and now it simply lay where it had fallen, unable to move on its own. The sunlight glinted off it, but there was no one to see—no one to notice—the gleam of blue and turquoise stone.
A moment later a Piraket coasted over, the sun catching in its bright feathers. It flew off towards the slopes of the Mountain, but circled back before it reached them. A bright black eye noticed the glitter, and the Piraket tucked its wings and dove out of the air.
It landed next to the ring and made an inquisitive noise, cocking its head. It was shiny, and therefore desirable—but what if someone wanted it?
The Piraket waddled all the way around the ring, clicking its beak thoughtfully, and then made up its mind. Seizing the Ring of the Deep with one clawed foot, the Piraket flapped its wings and fluttered back up into the sky, gliding back toward the ship anchored just beyond the docks of Terror Mountain.
Nathaniel Montblanc, captain of the Draik’s Dagger, was not having a good day.
For one thing, the deckswabbers hadn’t quite finished when he came up on deck in the morning, and he’d slipped on a soapy patch and fallen hard against the side of the boat. The red Draik didn’t think anyone had seen, but he was afraid someone might have.
For another, the attack on a small town south of Neopia Central had not gone well, and they’d been forced to retreat, tacking against the wind all the way up to Terror Mountain.
So when his Piraket, Dagger, landed on his shoulder, he just snorted and tried to brush it away.
Dagger clung doggedly to Nathaniel’s shirt with one foot. The Draik pushed at the Piraket again, but it wasn’t going to go easily.
Finally, with a growl, Nathaniel plucked the little bird off his shoulder and glared at him.
“Get out of it, Dagger!”
His face froze in mid-snarl as he saw the glint of the ring clasped tight in Dagger’s foot.
“Where did you get that,” he breathed, and plucked it easily out of the Piraket’s grasp. Dagger stretched out to grab it again, but the Draik, enthralled with the ring, dropped the Piraket without warning, and Dagger plummeted toward the deck.
Beating its wings, it recovered from the sudden fall, but flew off towards the crow’s nest, apparently deciding that the ring wasn’t worth the bother.
Nathaniel rolled it around in his palm, watching how the light slanted through it from different angles and how the stone broke up the sun, catching it here and letting it out again there.
A nice little trinket, he thought, and slipped it onto his finger. It could be worth a pretty penny—he’d have to get the jeweler on Krawk Island to appraise it.
But it still didn’t make up for the failed raid.
Nathaniel turned around to face the crew.
“All hands to stations!” he called. “Weigh the anchor, hoist the sail.”
The deck was suddenly swarming with people. His first mate, a green Gnorbu, shouted orders, directing everyone to their places. The action became more organized, less chaotic: the anchor scraped up from the seafloor and was hauled onto the ship, and another team of pirates untied and retied ropes, letting the sails fall in billows of white cloth.
In a moment of calm, the Gnorbu caught up to Nathaniel. “Where are we bound, cap’n?”
The Draik shrugged. “Tyrannia,” he said, at random. “I hear there are precious metals along the seacoast there, and teams of miners working all night and day to bring it out.” He smiled slowly, stroking the Ring of the Deep with one clawed finger. “Out of the ground, and straight to our ship.”
The return of the Draik’s Dagger to Krawk Island, in the end, was a victorious one. They sailed into the harbor proudly, prow high out of the water. The Gnorbu yelled at the crew, and slowly the sails were tucked away, the stray ropes tied down, and the ship anchored just off the coast.
The gold ore they’d managed to coerce out of the miners sat in the center of the deck in three large crates. It was one of Nathaniel’s proudest moments.
The first rowboat to the shore contained the gold, a pair of trustworthy deckswabbers, and the Draik himself. They tied up to the piers, and the crewmembers unloaded the heavy crates.
Nathaniel waited around to make sure the gold was safe. Usually, he didn’t take this measure of precaution—there was a type of vigilante justice for those who stole from fellow pirates—but with the value of it, he wanted to be certain.
He only left to head down to the Golden Dubloon for a drink or two when it was all loaded up and his first mate ready to take it along to find Jetstream, a slightly shady black Jetsam merchant, and bargain over how much it was worth.
“Make sure to get a good price,” he advised the Gnorbu, who nodded. “Don’t settle for anything less than—oh—” He named a sum, and his first mate’s eyes widened.
“That much, cap’n?”
“Why not? Jetstream can afford it.” Nathaniel strolled away, feeling pleased with himself.
The Gnorbu turned out to be a shrewder bargainer than Nathaniel had taken him for. He got a good deal, and the Draik’s Dagger got more Neopoints than they quite knew what to do with.
This success under their collective belt, they stayed on Krawk Island longer than they usually did. Envious pirates bought them drinks whenever they set foot in the Golden Dubloon, and tiny children whispered and stared at them on the streets.
Buoyed up by the victory, Nathaniel forgot all about the ring on his hand for several days, and only remembered when the serving maid at the Golden Dubloon asked where he’d gotten it.
“This old thing? My Piraket found it,” the Draik said, laughing.
“The whole crew’s so talented, it’s even rubbed off on the cap’n’s pet!” a jokester shouted, and the Golden Dubloon almost burst with the laughter.
The next morning, Nathaniel went to the appraiser, a wiry green Buzz, to have him look at the ring.
The Buzz looked at the ring through a magnifying glass, and then got a light and shone it through the stone at different angles, while Nathaniel went through the story of how he’d gotten it.
He had convinced himself that the ring must indeed be nothing much special, so he was surprised when the sum the appraiser gave him was more than twice what they’d gotten for the shipment of gold.
Before, Nathaniel had merely been a little nervous about thieves making off with their money.
Now he was terrified, petrified, that someone—that anyone—knew how valuable the ring glinting on his finger was.
The Draik had never been very good at hiding his feelings, and so the fact that Nathaniel Montblanc was afraid of something was all over Krawk Island within a few days’ time. Not that they let him know it.
His crew protected him from hearing the rumors, thinking that he was nervous about the money from the gold, and whenever someone mentioned it, they rose threateningly out of their seats and stared at them until they subsided.
But a few people were more circumspect, and knew better than to talk about it in public. The crew of the Draik’s Dagger couldn’t stop them, because they didn’t know who they were or even that they existed.
After a week of this, the Gnorbu went to Nathaniel’s rooms in the Golden Dubloon and rapped smartly on the door.
It opened a crack, nothing more. “Yes?”
Nathaniel peered out, recognized his first mate, and let the door swing open. “You have a report?”
“The crew is nervous.” Which wasn’t exactly a lie. “I think we ought to go soon, cap’n.”
The Draik closed the door behind the Gnorbu. “Yes.” Nathaniel stared at the floor. “What will we do?”
His first mate realized he was staring, and looked away. Though he had never been quite as swashbuckling as some other pirate captains, Nathaniel Montblanc had had a certain amount of style and flair. Now he was a wreck. He looked like he hadn’t slept in days.
“Sail around the world,” the Gnorbu said, impulsively. “Explore Neopia. Set foot in places no one’s ever been before.”
Nathaniel appeared to be considering this proposal. He slumped into a chair, and the Gnorbu noticed a bottle and cup sitting on the table next to it. The bottle had half an inch of amber liquid in the bottom.
“All right,” he said at last. He poured the last of the grog into his glass and swallowed it down. “We’ll leave harbor, and head east. Adjust course for Mystery Island, and then—”
He’d stood up, but now he sat down hard. Nathaniel stared piercingly at his first mate.
“Are you sure the world is round?” he asked.
“What? Cap’n,” the Gnorbu added.
“Are you sure,” the Draik said carefully, “the world is round. If it’s flat, we’ll just fall off. That’s what they want us to do, you know.”
His head fell back against the chair, and he stared up at the ceiling.
“I’m going to go to sleep now,” he said, sounding almost normal. “Wake me up when we’re past Mystery Island.”
The Gnorbu nodded. He waited for his captain to get up and go over to the bed.
After a few minutes, it was obvious that Nathaniel had simply fallen asleep where he was sitting. His first mate got up and went quietly out of the room to start collecting the crew and giving orders.
To be continued...