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Though their progress was slow, mostly due to everyone nursing a number of injuries, they eventually tracked down the boat again by following the shoreline until they came across the inlet where it was beached. They hadn't seen hide nor hare of Nina or her animals since reuniting, and before long they stood next to a ladder leading to the boats upper deck.
Shelly was the first to ascend, followed shortly after by Amber. The wounds they had accumulated through the day made the short clime feel exhausting, and the pair of them took a moment to rest once at the top. Shelly leaned over the side to look at Axel, just beginning to clime himself. "Hey Axel, wait there for Geno. He might not see us if we're all up here."
Though apparently disappointed, Axel nodded and stepped away. "Whatever you say." Just as he turned away, Zeke leapt from his shoulder and flew up to join the girls on the deck. "Hey Zeke, what gives?" Axel yelled after him.
"She asked you to stay there, not me." He called back in an innocent tone. "I want to see what the treasure is." Axel huffed, but had already given up arguing at that point.
Shelly giggled a little, watching as Zeke landed on Amber's shoulder. Amber winced from the added weight, but did her best to try and hide it as Shelly took hold of the doorknob to the cabin. "You ready?" She asked with a smile. Amber nodded slightly, and Shelly opened the door.
The three of them stepped into what looked like the wheelhouse, though from the looks of it somebody had removed most of the equipment. Small planters hung from numerous places on the ceiling, and most of the windows had been broken to allow sunlight in.
It took a second for their eyes to adjust to the low light, but soon they saw a shadow perched on the boats steering wheel. Just as the pair of them readied for a fight, Riba soared out of the darkness and jabbed the top of Shelly's head with his beak. Amber caught her as she stumbled over, too late to stop Riba as he grabbed something off one of the countertops and vanished out the nearest window.
Amber slowly sank to the ground, unsure of Shelly's condition as she moaned. "Owwww..." She began rubbing the top of her head with both hands, then suddenly cried out. "I hate that bird!"
"Guys?" Axel called from outside. "Did something happen?"
Shelly quickly jumped back to her feet and yelled. "We're fine! I just slipped on something!" She stomped off, catching Zeke and holding him against her chest before he could say anything. Sounding more annoyed than hurt, she mumbled. "Quit worrying..."
As she began looking through the cupboards, Amber noticed a small trickle of blood run down her cheek beside her ear. "Shelly, your bleeding."
"I'm fine." She assured, brushing the blood away and wiping it on her skirt. "Besides, you guys look worse than I do. I can't complain about a little bump on the head." Amber chuckled a little. Despite her appearance, Shelly was apparently quite tough. "Come on, I found a ladder."
She disappeared down a small trap door in the corner of the room, and Amber followed soon after. The area below deck was fairly cramped, consisting of but a single hallway with a door on one side. Light poured in through a large hole in the bow, which Axel was watching them through. "Find anything yet?"
"No, nothing yet." Shelly shook her head, entering through the door to the back of the ship. Amber watched Axel for a moment, realising that their job was almost complete, when Shelly called. "Wait, I think this is it."
Axel clambered through the hole and both he and Amber poured into the back room. It appeared that Nina had been using it as a bedroom, and they saw Shelly pointing at a large safe sitting in the corner next to the bed. "Well, the weird guy from Aged Pelt said they needed the cargo." Zeke mumbled. "What better place for it than a safe, right?"
"Maybe..." Shelly knelt down to inspect the lock, then slowly glanced back at the others. "But how are we going to get it out? We don't have the key, and this thing must weigh a ton."
"I got it." Axel stepped up.
Shelly stepped away as Axel took hold of the safe. "Axel, maybe we should wait for Geno."
"Naw, I got it. No problem." He assured, taking a deep breath. He tugged on the top of the safe, tipping it up on its front edge, then bent down and took hold of the bottom. The floorboards creaked as Axel tugged, and slowly the corner lifted off the ground. Axel's foot suddenly shot through the floor, and both he and the safe fell into the wall. The safe broke right though the hull and landed in the grass outside, with Axel following right behind when his foot broke free of the floorboards.
He bounced off the safe and landed on his back, while Shelly and Zeke ran to check on him. "Are you ok?" They blurted together.
Axel slowly rolled up to a sitting position, moaning to himself and rubbing his forehead. "Shelly, you are never. Picking a job. Again." He complained, making Zeke giggle.
"Hey guys!" They all looked up to find Geno running down the beach towards them. He joined them after a brief sprint, rolling his shoulder to work out some tension he had built up in his battle with the spider. "What'd I miss?" He asked with a grin.
"Well, we think this is what we were sent to find." Shelly mumbled, trying to ignore Axel's comment. "We got it out of the boat, but we still can't open it."
"Oh..." Geno glanced down at the safe door, then cracked his knuckles. "Well if we hit it hard enough it'll break open, right?" Shelly sighed at his suggestion, though at that point they were out of options.
"Wait, I think I have a way." Amber mumbled. She hopped down from the hole in the ship and walked up to the safe, which had thankfully landed with the door upwards. She inspected the lock for a second, then touched her belt. "Armeria, can you do it?"
Armeria jumped from her waist and came to stand on the safes door, looking into the keyhole. "I can." Her tiny arm dissolved into pieces and flew down the keyhole, creating a number of clicking noises as she fiddled with the tumblers. After a second the lock clicked open, and Armeria's arm remerged from the keyhole.
"Wow! It worked!" Shelly blurted. Armeria turned back into a belt, and Shelly began gently shaking Amber's shoulder. "How did you know she could do that?"
Amber rubbed the back of her head, growing a little embarrassed. "Lucky guess."
"So what's inside?" Zeke asked excitedly, circling overhead.
Geno dug his fingers under the door while Axel took hold of the large handle on top, and together they flipped the safe open. Shelly reached inside and produced a small red box with the Aged Pelt crest on the top in gold. She stopped suddenly, feeling the underside of the box with her palm and turning her head to the side. "It's warm."
"In here?" Geno felt around the inside of the safe, finding its walls to be ice cold. "No way."
"But it is." She retorted. "It's like there's something-." Shelly stopped herself when she opened the box, slowly piecing the puzzle together. "It's an incubator." She turned the box around to show the others. "We were sent here to find-."
"An egg!" Zeke shouted, landing on Shelly's head. "Awesome, I'm starving."
Shelly snapped the lid closed and brushed Zeke away, holding the box tight against her chest. "No Zeke. We can't eat it!" She backed away from him as he landed in the grass. "We have to bring it back to Aged Pelt, or we won't get the reward."
"Besides..." Axel cut in, picking Zeke up and placing him on his shoulder. "There's no way the five of us could share one egg."
Shelly shot Axel an annoyed look as both he and Geno began to laugh, before turning around and pushing the box at Amber. "Here, you're not going to eat it, are you?" She asked, sounding both sarcastic and annoyed at the same time.
"N-no." Amber caught the box then glanced back and forth between Shelly at the others. "Would you?"
"No, but I can't fly." She walked to the water's edge and used her sketchbook to make another boat, then quickly hopped aboard. "Come on, let's get going before more spiders show up." Amber followed suet on her floating shield, and so did the guys after they had stopped laughing. It had been a long, tiring day; but they finally had what then came for.
Despite having weaved their way through the swamp for most of the afternoon, finding their way back to Treetop was much easier than any of them expected. Then again, having the ability to fly above the maze of foliage around them also helped quite a bit. They arrived back at Aged Pelt just as the sun had begun to set on behind the trees, dyeing the sky a vibrant orange color, and had been hurried inside by a concerned Miki.
They were all soaked and covered in bruises, in stark contrast to what they looked like when they left that morning. Axel was covered in dried mud, which Zeke had taken to scratching away piece by piece. Amber sat in one of the corners, still holding the box they had been sent to retrieve, while Geno stood against the door and refused any sort of treatment, insisting that he was fine. Shelly sat huddled in a towel to dry, trying to keep her hair out of the way as Miki applied a bandage to her head. "I told you not to let them go." She barked over her shoulder. "This was far too dangerous for them."
Rondo sat behind his desk, rubbing the back of his head in embarrassment. "Yes, I suppose your right Miki." She glared back at him, but said nothing else as he jumped to his feet. "What happened to you all out there?"
Axel shrugged. "Some woman attacked us."
Both Miki and Rondo stopped what they were doing to look at him. "Pardon?" They asked together.
"This isn't all just from looking around in the swamp." Shelly interrupted. "We looked around for a while, then came to this island where-." She explained what had happened to them throughout the day. How they had found the island, how Nina had attacked them, and how they had finally found the egg and made their way back. The members of Aged Pelt listened intently, holding off any questions they had until Shelly finished explaining.
"I see..." Rondo mumbled, looking though a number of books. "So you received all those injuries in a conflict with this Nina person. A dark mage who had made her home in the swamp."
"And her pets." Zeke corrected. "She had a big alligator that smashed everything, a big cat with long fangs..." He glanced at Shelly. "And this big annoying bird who kept pecking us."
"Oh yeah, the alligator." Shelly piped up. "She said it was the thing attacking all the fishing boats. The boat you sent us to find was damaged the same way, so I think she's responsible for that too."
Rondo seemed to think on this information for a moment, in which Miki moved on to look over the gash Riba's claws had left in Amber's shoulder. "So she had this monster attack ships to avoid them stumbling upon her hideaway?" He wondered aloud. "Crude, but effective I suppose."
Shelly shook her head. "I don't think that's it. She said the fishermen where stealing its food and that it was only defending its territory, or something."
"Why didn’t you run away?" Miki inquired. "If you knew she was a dark mage, then you must have known that she'd be dangerous, yes?"
"We can handle dark mages." Geno said with pride.
Shelly nodded in agreement. "Yeah, if we ran away the second it got tough we'd never have found your egg." She spun to look at Amber, or more specifically the large bruise on her arm from Nina twisting it. "Besides, we came out just fine. Right Amber?"
Amber flinched as Miki applied an ointment to her cut shoulder, but nodded slightly. "Yeah, I'm ok."
"I see..." Rondo muttered, apparently still feeling responsible for their many injuries. "I appreciate the effort though. It's been quite a hassle getting a hold of that egg."
"What's it going to hatch into?" Zeke asked curiously.
"Ah... Well you see, I've been told it'll hatch into a creature that is said to bring good fortune." Rondo said with pride. After a few confused glances, he pulled a book off one of the shelves and opened it up to a page with a picture of a four legged animal with five tails. "A Kitsune, or so the legend goes."
"A dog? From an egg?" Geno questioned. "You sure about that?"
"A fox, actually." Rondo corrected. "And I don't see why not, they are magic creatures after all. That's why I couldn't help myself when I heard there might be a chance to study one. We know so little about them that I just had to see it for myself."
"Wait, this was the new project you've been talking about?" Miki cut in. "You sent them all into danger for your own personal curiosity?"
Rondo froze, feeling Miki's eyes burning into him. "Well, I wouldn't say it like that exactly..." Miki shot him a death glair, causing Rondo to sink back behind his desk a little. "I didn't think they'd run into so much trouble in just one day..."
Miki sighed. It was evident that she wasn't satisfied with that, but decided not to push the matter until later. She finished treating Amber and took the incubator to Rondo's desk. "Well, we thank you for your help in retrieving this. And it sounds like you've dealt with our towns fishing problem as well." She stood next to Rondo, who had apparently been feverishly writing down everything they had said. "It wouldn't seem fair to only give them the reward for the retrieval of our cargo. Would it, Master Vulcanus?"
"Hmm?" Rondo sat up abruptly, apparently not fully listening. "What do you mean?"
"Well, not only did they complete their own job, they also chased away a dark mage who had made the swamp her home and solved the mystery of what was sinking the fishing boats." She nodded her head towards the others, apparently trying to hint at something. Rondo still looked confused, so Miki decided to be a bit blunter. "I believe they are entitled to more than we initially promised, are they not?"
"Oh! Yes, of course!" Rondo jumped up from his desk and headed for the back of the room, crouching down next to a small safe in the back corner. He flipped the dial back and forth a few times and gave the handle a quick tug, however the door remained shut. He tried to enter the combination again, but the door refused to budge a second time. "Um... Miki?" He asked timidly. "Remind me again, what was-?"
"Fourteen, thirty-seven, sixty-two." She said with a sigh.
"You ok?" Axel asked with a smile, breaking an awkward silence that had fallen over them. "You need a minuet?"
Shelly elbowed him to get him to stop as Rondo waved them off. "Yep, just a second. Fourteen... Thirty-seven... Sixty-two..." There was a slight click, and Rondo slowly pulled the door open. "Ah, now we're in business." He returned later with two large bags in hand, placing them on the desk in front of them. "Now then, how much where we offering to find our egg Miki?"
"Six-thousand Jewels." Miki said, quickly checking the nearby job board.
"Huh..." Rondo thought for a moment, then added. "How about the bounty of the mage they encountered?"
Miki checked a wanted poster of Nina, which she had retreated the second they had heard what happened. "Eighteen-thousand Jewels."
"Wait, we didn't capture her." Shelly cut in. "Sure we fought, but Nina got away."
"I suppose your right." Rondo shrugged. “But you still chased away a threat to the town's welfare, and helped us with our fishing problem..." He trailed off, pulling a number of large pouches from the safe bags. He glanced at Miki after a moment, who nodded with a small smile. "What do you say I round your reward off at twenty-thousand jewels?"
Everyone was stunned into silence for a moment, taken completely by surprise. "Twenty-thousand?" Geno blurted in disbelief. "That's five-thousand for each of us. Are you serious?"
"Had I known what you would encounter, I'd probably have insisted on you adhering to our five person stipulation." Everyone's eyes fell on Shelly, who shuffled uncomfortably as Rondo spoke. "You completed it on your own. At a great personal risk, I might add. So I believe this should be a fair compensation, should it not?"
Again, none of them knew what to say. Still trying to process what they were being offered. "Five Thousand Jewles..." Axel muttered. "I won't have to take another job for like, a month."
"Think of all the fish we could buy, Axel!" Zeke said excitedly. "An entire years' worth."
"I wonder what Dad'll say." Shelly said with a small smile, quickly noticing Amber sinking into the background. While the others talked, she slid over to where Amber was sitting and sat down next to her. "So, what do you think?" She asked curiously. "How was your first job?"
"It was ok." She admitted, rubbing her injured elbow. "I didn't think we'd get into a fight so quickly."
"It happens sometimes." Shelly admitted. "But five thousand jewels for your first job, we can finally go shopping when we go back." She said hopefully. "If you wanted..."
"First you need rest." Miki interrupted, overhearing the girls talking. "We can pay to let you keep your rooms for another night, on top of your reward. So let yourselves heal a little."
"Sure." Shelly nodded, then hopped back to her feet to address the others. "Well, it's been kind of a long day. I'm going back to the hotel to change." She glanced down at herself, noting that she was covered in patches of dirt and dried blood. "You guys coming?"
"Yeah, I'm tired." Zeke said with a yawn. His wings disappeared from his back and he came to rest on top of Axel's head. "Come on Axel, let’s go."
Bidding their goodbyes, the group left for the hotel. The sun had set while they were indoors, leaving the entirety of the city illuminated by torchlight. It was a much shorter walk back than Amber remembered, though that may have been because she didn't know where they were going the first time. After a while Axel stretched his arms above his head and said. "Five thousand bucks for a day long retrieval job. I could get use to work like this."
Shelly nodded, trying to stick closer to Amber than the guys. "Yeah, but things would get boring if we only went out to work once a month."
"You know, something's been bugging me." Geno cut in. "We never brought her in, so how'd you guy's deal with the witch?" Everyone stopped, remembering the last they saw of Nina was her being knocked over the cliff by Shelly's attack and into the water. "I mean, she kind of just up and vanished, didn't she?"
Deep into the bowels of Telmire Swamp, the beast Tobi slithered through the trees with his master, Nina resting on his back. Azmos sat on his head, keeping a sharp eye out for danger as they travelled through the darkness. After a moment, Nina let out a long sigh. "I suppose we'll need to find another place to settle..."
One of Tobi's paddles flicked water across his back, and Nina felt the sting of seawater in the open cut across her belly. "Uh, damn mages. The Council is probably going to be all over the swamp by tomorrow." She rubbed at her wound, then heard the wing beats of Riba growing closer. After a moment the grey bird shot through the treeline, gracefully landing on Nina's outstretched arm.
He dropped a small jar from his talons into Nina's lap, who then scratched just under his chin. "Thank you Riba." The bird cawed, then hopped away to rest on one of Tobi's crests. As Nina applied the bottles contents to her numerous wounds, Tobi crawled up over a large tree root and flopped back down into open water. Nina took one look back into the swamp that she had called home, then spun to look out over the open ocean before them. "Stay close to land Tobi." She ordered. "You're no longer at the top of the food chain out here." The alligator growled as a response, but turned sharply and began following the coast none the less.
After she finished dressing her wounds, Nina stood up and placed her hand on Azmos' head. "Luckily for us, Bantia is full of untamed wilderness. Finding a new home shouldn't be too hard." Azmos purred as Nina rubbed between her ears, and the small group disappeared into the darkness of night.
Next Chapter – Big Brother