The Hawk Bandits of Tarkoom (The Secrets of Droon #11), Page 2Tony Abbott
“Tarkoom,” said Batamogi under his breath.
“That’s the place?” said Neal, looking down at the ruined city. “Doesn’t look too lively.”
The earth trembled beneath their feet again.
“Just wait …” the wizard said. “Even now, Tarkoom prepares to return. Let us make camp.”
The eight adventurers made a small encampment in a clearing overlooking the ruined city.
Galen sat on a boulder with his scroll and took up the watch.
Max watered the pilkas, while Keeah unpacked some snacks and passed them out.
“Food, anyone?” she asked.
“Woof!” barked Snorky.
“It figures!” said Neal, shaking his head. “‘Food’ is the only word he understands.”
“Oh, is that so?” said Batamogi, turning to Snorky and scruffing him. “Well, let’s just see!”
The Oobja king let Snorky sniff the cuff of his sleeve. “Now, Snorky, stay here….”
Batamogi backed up slowly, then scurried off behind some big boulders. A moment later, he called out, “Snorky … fetch!”
In a flash, Snorky bounded up and, sniffing along the ground, trotted away into the rocks.
A moment later Batamogi waddled back to the camp with Snorky nipping at his heels. “Ho-ho!”
“That was awesome!” said Neal. “Snorky, now me!” He went and hid himself among the rocks. “Snorky … fetch!”
The dog went over to Max, curled up, yawned, and fell asleep. Then he began to snore.
“Poor Neal!” said Keeah when Neal returned glumly. “I’m sure Snorky likes you very much, in his own way.”
Hours went by. The day wore on into evening. And still Galen read the scroll, kept watch, and said nothing.
“It’s getting cool,” said Keeah. “I wish we had …” All of a sudden — fwoosh! — a small fire appeared before them, its flames crackling. The princess jumped back.
“Where did that come from?” she said.
For the first time in hours, Galen moved, looking over at the princess. “You did that, Keeah,” he said. “It is one of your other powers.”
Eric shot a look at Julie. They both remembered what they had spoken about earlier that day. That Keeah had … witch powers.
“We may never know how you got these powers,” said Galen, “but you must learn to control them.”
Keeah frowned. “I’m sorry. They seem to come from nowhere and just … happen.”
“Like when you helped your mother change from a tiger to a dolphin?” asked Julie, remembering their last adventure in Droon.
“Or when you scared Kem away,” said Neal.
Keeah nodded. “It frightens me a little. Well, a lot. The magic seems very strong. And wild. I’m afraid I might hurt someone.”
“Pah! Never!” said Max firmly. “You are a very fine young wizard. And I don’t believe you were ever alone with any witches. Besides, your father says it’s impossible —”
“That mystery must wait, Keeah,” Galen said, standing quickly. “Tarkoom … begins to wake!”
As the last streaks of sunlight cut across the ruined stones, the valley rumbled even more.
Once. Twice. A third time.
The piles of old rubble and broken stones shivered and shook and rocked and rattled.
Finally — ka-phooom! — the ground quaked from one end of the valley to the other.
And it happened.
The toppled stones of the wrecked city of Tarkoom seemed to fly up one by one and set themselves neatly back into place.
Columns, walls, towers, gardens!
Stone by stone, Tarkoom was rebuilding itself from its own ruins!
“Oh, my gosh,” Julie exclaimed. “It’s coming back. Tarkoom is coming back!”
As they all watched, the centuries-old city of Tarkoom shuddered slowly into the present.
Where rocks had lain scattered on the plain, now great buildings stood.
Dusty piles of tumbled stones were now the sturdy towers and turrets of a monumental city.
Tarkoom was back, glowing within high walls of red- and honey-colored stone.
And at its center stood a giant domed palace.
“It’s beautiful,” said Keeah under her breath.
“Beautiful, perhaps,” said Galen. “But full of bandits who will try to stop us from doing what we must do.”
“So,” said Neal, “their mission will be to stop our mission. But what exactly is our mission?”
The wizard let a smile crease his lips as he tapped his scroll. “My friends, we must do nothing less than destroy Tarkoom!”
“The whole city?” asked Eric. “But how?”
“We must somehow use Ving’s own plan against him,” the wizard replied. “The legend is most specific about this. If I am right, he will mount an attack tonight. If he succeeds, he will have altered Droon in our time. He and his bandits will have become part of it.”
“Oh, dear!” said Batamogi. “An attack! I hope not on my poor people!”
“But we’ll stop him,” said Keeah firmly.
“Only if we hurry!” said Galen.
Leaving their pilkas at the camp, the band of eight travelers climbed down into the valley.
For most of the way, the only sound was their own careful plodding through mountain passes. And the sound of Snorky whimpering.
At last, the narrow way opened up to an awesome sight. Galen held up his hand.
“The entrance to Tarkoom!” he declared.
Hewn from the face of a cliff was a large arched opening. It soared up from the ground as high as two houses. Its sides were cut into the red stone and glowed crimson in the moonlight.
“Awesome,” said Eric. “But scary. Look.”
Above the opening, a giant hawk head was carved into the cliff wall.
Its eyes were shimmering jewels that seemed to stare down on anyone who might enter.
“That is the image of Ving, leader of the bandits,” said Galen. “He loves only himself.”
“No kidding,” Neal mumbled. “It’s like having a picture of yourself on your front door!”
“Let us enter,” said Galen softly.
The moment he set foot through the arch — eeoow! — the howling of the two-headed beast rose up from deep within the city streets.
“Kem is doing his job,” Keeah said with a shiver. “He really is the city’s watchdog.”
“Which means the bandits will soon know we’re here,” said Julie. “Be careful, everyone.”
They passed into a street lined by columns of polished red stone. The buildings on either side were carved deep into the valley cliffs.
The black holes of their doors and windows were like eerie eyes staring out of the past.
“Everything looks so new,” said Keeah. “It almost feels as if we’re going back in time.”
Galen shook his head. “No, Tarkoom has invaded the present. At this very moment, Ving sits in his palace, hatching his terrible plot to stay in our world.”
“And staying in our world,” said Batamogi, “means the dark past of Droon will come again!”
“That’s why we need to destroy the city!” Max chirped. “So the past will leave the present and go back to the past so our present will be safe for the future!”
Neal blinked. “Will there be a quiz on this? Because I’m getting a major headache.”
Eric tried to laugh, but he couldn’t. He didn’t quite understand it, either.
He paused to sort it out in his head.
“Okay,” he mumbled, counting on his fingers. “One, Tarkoom is a city from the past, right? But, two, the earthquake sort of released it from the past, and now, three, it’s in the present. Okay, it’s some magic thing that only happens in Droon. Now we need to — four — find out what Ving is up to and — five — stop him. Then, six, we wreck the city so it goes back to the past where it belongs. Neal, is that right? Does that make sense to you? Neal?”
Eric looked up from his h
ands. He was alone.
The others had turned a corner and were already heading toward the palace.
“Hey, guys, wait up!” Eric called out. “Guys!”
He stopped. He suddenly felt icy cold.
To his right, he glimpsed something in one of those open windows. Red eyes — four of them — flashing in the darkness.
“K-K-Kem?” Eric whispered. “Oh, no. It’s Two-head! It’s him! It’s it! It’s … oh, help!”
Eric tore off down the street, but somehow — thump! thump! — Kem leaped down in front of him, both heads growling.
Then it reared up and jumped at him.
Eric shot around the corner, but his friends weren’t there. He must have taken a wrong turn!
Eeoow! Kem howled and thomped even faster after him. Eric dashed around another corner.
Suddenly, he found himself inside a walled garden. It was thick with hanging plants and vines creeping up the walls.
Kem bounded right in after him.
Eric tried to scream, but no sound came out.
Kem slowed, growling under its breath. Step by step it came closer.
Eric looked around. There were hard-shelled fruits about the size of softballs growing on the vines. He tugged one off and threw it at Kem.
Crack! The fruit clattered and broke on the ground. Plooff! It gave off a horrible stink.
“Oh, phew!” Eric gasped, staggering back.
The fruit smelled like something rotten. Worse than garbage. Worse than worse than garbage!
But Kem kept coming, closer and closer.
With his last ounce of strength, Eric clutched the hanging vines and pulled himself up the wall, tossing more stinky fruits the whole way.
“Get away, you — thing!” Eric cried.
Then — krrippp! — the vines tore away from the wall. Eric slammed to the stony ground.
Kem leaped at him, but the ground gave way and Eric fell through it. Down, down, down he went — straight into the open earth.
Eric slid, rolled, tumbled, then slid some more until — thwump! — he hit the bottom.
“Oww!” he groaned. Every part of him ached.
He gazed about, but it was too dark to see. He felt on every side with his hands. There was hard, packed dirt all around.
“I’m in some kind of pit,” he mumbled.
Looking up, he saw a glimmer of moonlight far away at the top. Very far away.
“Neal! Julie! Keeah!” he cried out.
No answer. Not even the howling and growling of Kem. Eric twisted until he got to his feet. It was hard because the hole was so narrow.
“Galen! Keeah! Help!” he yelled up.
Still, no answer.
Reaching with both arms, he tried to climb, but the sides of the pit were smooth and steep. The more he tried, the faster he slid back down.
“Oh, come on!” he cried. “People! I’m down in this pit! Come and get me —”
“Spluff … muffle … pluggh … wuff!”
Eric froze. “Wh-wh-who’s there?”
“Muffle … wuggh?” was the response.
Something was in the pit with him!
Their noises sounded like words, but of course they weren’t. Then they started scratching.
“They’re just digging,” Eric said, breathing out slowly. “They won’t bother me. They’d better not!”
After a while the sounds died down.
Eric yelled for what seemed like hours.
Why wouldn’t they answer? Were they searching Tarkoom for him? What was going on?
Over and over, Eric yelled out his friends’ names. His voice became hoarse. His throat hurt.
Finally, he gave up. He hunched up in a ball, tired and achy all over. Exhausted, he fell asleep.
When he woke up, light was streaking across his face. He looked around. Then he looked up.
Droon’s sun crossed over the mouth of the pit.
“Holy crow!” he cried. “I’ve been here all night? Oh, man! Neal! Julie! Keeah! Get me out!”
Still, there was no answer.
Eric felt a sharp pain in his stomach. Hunger.
Of course he was hungry! It had been a day since he’d eaten. His stomach was empty.
Looking up, he tried once more to climb out, but this time he felt something round and hard under his foot.
He reached down and grabbed it.
“Yuck!” he said.
It was one of those smelly fruits he’d found in the garden. Luckily, this one was still in its hard shell. It must have fallen into the pit with him.
He was ready to toss it, when he had an idea.
“The shell is hard and curved,” he said to himself. “If I crack it open, maybe I can use the shell to dig my way out!”
“Sp-p-pluff … m-muffle!”
Eric laughed. “Prepare to be grossed out, little guys.” He took a deep breath, then slammed the shell as hard as he could on the ground.
Crack! The shell split open.
Whoosh! The smell poofed out. It seemed to hit his face directly, like a fist.
“Akkkk!” Eric groaned. In the cramped space, the smell seemed even worse than before.
“Spliiiifff!” the creatures cried.
“I agree!” said Eric, pinching his nose tight.
He picked up the broken shell. The fruit inside was dark pink and juicy. He needed to clear it out to use the shell to dig.
He began to pry out the fruit with his fingers.
His stomach ached again suddenly. The hunger was back.
“No way!” he cried. “I’m not going to eat it!”
But he couldn’t stop himself.
Slowly, Eric placed a small bit of the fruit in his mouth. Its cool juice swam on his tongue. Holding his breath, he swallowed. Then he breathed again.
He gasped. “What …”
The fruit tasted sweet! It was delicious!
“Raspberries!” he said aloud. “That’s it. Raspberries, with sugar on top!”
Eric devoured the entire fruit in seconds.
Then he slurped up the extra juice left in the shell. Then he licked every drop from his fingers.
The most amazing thing was that when he breathed again, he no longer smelled the terrible odor of the pod. All he tasted was the wonderful flavor on his tongue.
“This is the most delicious food I’ve ever eaten!” he cried. “I’ve never tasted anything so —”
“Please keep it down,” whispered a voice.
Eric froze. “W-w-w-what? Who’s there?” he stammered.
“You’re talking too much,” said another voice.
Two pairs of eyes blinked at him from the shadows. They moved into the dim light.
“Whoa!” Eric gasped.
The creatures looked a little like otters. Sleek brown hides covered their short, slender bodies. Their heads were crowned by bright tufts of spiky white fur.
Their eyes were large and round and friendly.
“You’re t-t-talking!” Eric said.
“Of course,” answered the first. “It’s how we communicate. You seem to have learned it, too!”
“But how can I understand you?” Eric asked.
“The tangfruit,” said the second. “Its taste is magic. By eating it, you can understand us.”
“And in case you couldn’t tell,” said the first, “you are now speaking our language. The effect will wear off, of course. It always does. By the way, we are called mooples. We live here.”
“Pleased to meet you,” said Eric. Then a question suddenly exploded in his head. “Wait. If you live here, you must know a way out!”
“A way out of the passages?” said the second. He began to chuckle and snort. “Where do you want to go? The passages can take you everywhere!”
Eric’s heart leaped. “Up there!” He pointed to the top of the pit.
“Just follow us,” said the first moople. “Of cour
se, the way in is never the way out. The passages wind and wind. And … here we go!”
The two creatures took Eric through a vast maze of holes. Tunnels upon tunnels. Passages leading to other passages, weaving up and around, crisscrossing each other like a pretzel.
“The passages weave throughout all of Droon,” said the first. “Under mountains …”
“Under castles,” said the other. “Volcanoes.”
“Underwater?” said Eric as they crawled by a bubbling pool. “Does that lead to the ocean?”
He wondered if the tunnels led to the dark lands of sorcerers … and witches.
“The passages lead everywhere!” said the first.
“And they go on forever,” said the second.
“They are all over Droon. You may fall in them again sometime,” said the first moople.
“And be welcome, too!” added the second.
“As she was, poor pretty thing,” said the first.
Eric stopped. “There was someone else here?”
“A child. A girl,” said the second. “She had such nice manners. Poor thing was lost, I think.”
“A girl was lost in the passages?” said Eric.
The first moople scrabbled up through the dirt. “We tried to help her. Then — poof! — a big light, and she was gone. Years ago that was.”
The other began to snort again. “Years ago! That’s funny — if you know what I mean!”
Eric blinked. “Not exactly —”
“You will!” said the first. “And here you are!” He pointed to an opening above them. Fresh air poured in. And moonlight. It was night again.
“Now we must say good-bye,” said the first.
“’Bye. And thank you!” said Eric.
“You are welcome anytime!” said the other.
The mooples scurried away into the darkness.
“Strange creatures,” Eric muttered. “But nice.”
His arms hurt, his head ached, he was exhausted, but the smell of fresh air drove him up.
Finally, he slid through the opening. Moonbeams lit an empty street of red cobblestones. Kem was nowhere to be seen.
“Of course not,” Eric said to himself. “That was, like, two days ago!”
Eric could hardly believe that after all that time and after all that traveling he was only a few paces away from where he’d started. “Amazing,” he mumbled.