The Viridian Gloves: Part One
Night falls on the land of Meridell. The residents of the land, almost every single one, lie asleep in their beds. The green and brown flatlands of Meri Acres Farm lie silent and empty, or so they seem at first glance. A closer look tells a different story; several symols scurry from the edge of the fields, crossing the small bridge across the river. They head for the rubbish dump. At the opposite edge of the farm, an Albat sits in its tree, waiting alertly for something. What it waits for, only the Albat knows.
The intentions of the large Vullard circling around the forest behind the farm are much clearer. A patient hunger waits to be satisfied – probably by something also moving, beyond site of the farm.
Still, it would be fair to say that no Neopet is stirring within site of the farm.
Across the river and some way down the road, the great Turmaculus slumbers. The roasting meat outside the foods shop has been removed, and the fire below it was extinguished long enough ago that no heat or smoke emanates from it. The booths and festivities that fill the land with laughter and jest during the day are silent. A lone Crokabek flies near the castle ramparts. Still, a traveler passing the castle by way of the main road would report the village and the castle to be just as deserted as the farm. Such a perception would be misleading though; four Neopets do stir near the royal residence of King Skarl. Two beings move slowly inside the castle; two more move even more stealthily outside. The first pair believes this to be like any other night; the second pair hopes that every night to come will be just like this night.
Two of the Neopets have a good reason to be there. Two young adult Skeiths stand guard inside the castle drawbridge. These two were brothers, and had only recently joined the castle guard. Their relative youth got them the undesirable job of night watch. So far, nothing of event had happened on their watch. Little surprise there – the land had experienced a time of uninterrupted peace since the truce with Lord Darigan. Still, if something were to happen – either in the castle or the nearby village – these two guards would be the only beings present as first responders.
Another pair of brothers is awake in Meridell, though, for a much less noble purpose. Hovering at the outskirts of the castle, they wait. Both are sure to stay in the shadows, out of the sightline of the guards inside.
In time, it becomes clear what they wait for. A sudden red glow flickers in the village nearby. As one of the guards looks over the rampart of the castle, he sees the glow coming from the door of a large house. Stopping and watching more closely, trying to discern its source, he almost cries out when the glow in the door resolves itself into the sharp flicker of flames enveloping the door and climbing towards the roof. Quickly he finds his brother and the two race outside to awaken the village, sound the alarm, and try to save the house. No one in the village seems to have yet awoken, even within the house.
The two figures in the shadows spring into action once the guards race across the bridge. Quickly and quietly entering the castle through the open gate, they head straight for the treasury room. Fiddling with the lock for just a few seconds, one demonstrates the skills of a master thief and quickly has the door open. Moving with purpose and efficiency, one fills two bags with gold from a chest in the corner while the other grabs the most valuable of the displayed relics and statues. Closing the door softly behind them, the pair slips back out of the castle before anyone in the village even knows they were there.
The village stirs to life and works together to bring water from the farm and from the castle, fighting the flames that devour the house. In the end, the house is saved, and the fire prevented from spreading to another house, but heavy damage is done. One neighbor reports that the house's owner had left on a business trip, leaving the house unattended. The quick response from the castle guards had prevented much damage, but at what cost?
The burglary of the castle treasury is not discovered until the next morning. Speculation on how the heist was performed so smoothly flies wildly. Some suggest that the treasure had been looted days ago, and only now noticed through the negligence of the guards. Some superstitious Neopets blame the interference of spirits. Some correctly guess that the fire in the village was related to the theft. But regardless of their reaction, the culprits roam Neopia, free to strike again whenever they choose.
Harlath nudged his friend Shalina. "See? See? I told you they're up to something! Look! It's Orig!"
Shalina the Shadow Bori looked unconvinced. "Of course they're 'up to something', Harlath, that's the definition of a job. You show up in the morning, you're up to something, you leave at dinnertime."
The pair sat on a bench outside of the Defenders of Neopia headquarters. Harlath had led them there several hours earlier, hoping to catch a glimpse of some of the heroic Defenders. Now the young Electric Krawk practically shivered in excitement as Lupe hero Orig the Great moved quickly past them and entered the headquarters.
"Let's just wait here a little while, Shalina! I know Orig's investigating the Meridell robbery; he's just got to be!" Harlath flashed her his best grin.
"Well, a few more minutes won't hurt," Shalina relented. "But I absolutely have to be home in an hour to help my mother close the shop. Some of us have more responsibilities than just dreaming of becoming a crimefighter, Harlath. Hey, what will you say to them even if they do have time to talk to you?"
Harlath paused. "I hadn't... exactly gotten that far yet. But I can help them somehow! I know it!"
Orig the Great walked quickly around a corner, almost running into an equally harried secretary. With a quick dodge, Orig managed to avoid a collision. The headquarters of the Defenders of Neopia seemed to be filled to the brim with frenetic energy; with a little less optimism, Orig might even describe it as panic. Reaching his destination, the caped Lupe found the Defenders' tireless leader, Judge Hog, waiting for him. In contrast to the fear swirling through the air, Judge Hog was as composed as ever.
"You wanted to see me, sir?" Orig said crisply.
"Yes, Orig, thanks for coming so quickly," Hog replied. "I'm sure you've been following the news."
"Of course, sir. Meridell was hit last night. Another case of arson, another seemingly separate case of burglary. How can I be of service?"
Hog frowned for a moment. "Yes, Orig. Whoever is perpetrating these heists, they have to know the risk is increasing with each new target they hit. When the Brightvale library and the pair of Moltaran shops were raided, it was not even reported to us. By the time we found out about the Shenkuu armoury and Altadorian magic shop being raided, the rumors were already flying that a new master thief was loose in Neopia."
"From there, the fires started. The treasury in the Lost Desert palace was robbed. Codestones from Mystery Island. The Neggery on Terror Mountain," Orig continued.
Judge Hog nodded grimly. "There's no way the fires set in each land are a coincidence. Whoever is behind this knows Neopia is stepping up security, and he was prepared with a ready-made distraction. The truly unfortunate part is that Neopians aren't reacting to this crisis in a way that helps us solve it."
"What do you mean?"
"The best way to solve this case would be to stake out a number of potential sites with all the agents we can spare. The more agents, the better. But instead of allowing us to investigate the case in the hopes that their items will be recovered, each victim is insisting on an increased Defenders of Neopia presence in their land to protect the rest of their valuables. They've had us running back and forth from land to land all week. Now that you've returned from that little incident with Kasuki Lu – good work on that, by the way – you're the only agent we've got that isn't wrapped up running security." Hog paused. "I'm headed straight to Meridell in an hour. King Skarl is even more insistent than most of the previous victims that his castle needs extra protection. What I need more than anything is for someone to focus exclusively on catching this culprit while the rest of us handle the damage control. That someone is going to have to be you."
Orig nodded. "It will be difficult to find where to start. The thief hasn't left much of a trail. But it is clear that – at least for now – they are hitting one target per Neopian land. With how many they've hit already, it may be possible to guess well enough to catch them in the act."
"Depending on luck is no substitute for solid detective work," Judge Hog scowled.
Orig smiled grimly. "Oh, I'll do the best investigation I can. But you've already compiled all the facts of the case, and clearly they haven't led us anywhere so far. Sometimes, a good guess can be just as useful."
Hog reached across a desk for a brown folder stuffed with notes. "Here is everything we have on the case so far. The good news is we are starting to see a clear modus operandi on the heists. I'll let you read about it later. But even then, we cannot explain how it is tied into the fires. At any rate, Orig, I'm sorry to dump this crisis on you, but I know you can handle this, and bring peace to Neopia."
Orig the Great straightened his cape and turned to leave. "Sir, I will do my best to stop this menace." As Orig passed out of earshot, Judge Hog sighed and quietly mused to himself, "For the sake of Neopia's collective sanity, it may already be too late."
To be continued...