A Family Truth
Ezanna leaned against the wooden door frame, his long, black claws shoved into the pockets of his red Neovian coat. He tapped his foot against the floor. "Shelley, please come downstairs."
"No!" A muffled voice emanated from upstairs. "You go. I don't want to do it."
"Come on, Shelley." Ezanna glanced nervously at the clock. "We have to hurry; Sunny will be home soon." He snorted. "You were all for this a few hours ago. What happened?"
There was a pause and then- with the soft footsteps of an Angelpuss- a lithe, green-eyed Island Gelert stepped down the stairs into the foyer. The tuft of grass between her ears had wilted and yellowed, and the white patterns on her flanks were smudged for want of grooming. Her brother huffed.
"Shelley! Stand a bit straighter, would you? You're supposed to be our defender. Our fighter! Don't you want that?"
The Gelert sighed, and looked at the ground. She etched wide lazy spirals in the carpet with the tip of a claw. "Not really, no. Maybe I used to, but Ezanna, come on- I'm old!"
"You're not old. I'm older than you."
"Yeah, and you aren't fighting!"
"You're not old. And even if you were, so what? You want to go that way? We can get you one of those brushes, you know. I think it comes with a special cane- you know, for hitting people." The Krawk grinned, flipping back his starched, black and white mane. "I think you'd look good in wrinkles. And gray, for that matter."
"I already have wrinkles. AND gray." She raised a paw to her tawny muzzle. "I saw a gray hair the other morning. I'm certain I did. Right there, on the edge of my snout..."
"You didn't. It was light reflecting off the mirror. I see it all the time."
"You have white scales, Ez! You're a skunk Krawk! Of course you see it!" She snorted. "In your case it's definitely not an illusion. Unless you've forgotten your colour."
The Krawk touched his white fore stripe. "Clearly," he intoned. "You don't want to be comforted. Anyway, let's go. Whatever you think about your age, your fur, your tail, your joints, you-"
"OK, OK, I get it--"
"You're still our family's best bet for the upcoming battle."
"I still don't understand," Shelley interrupted, "why you think there's going to be another battle."
"I keep my ear to the ground," the Krawk replied. In truth, he'd spent the last few weeks dawdling in the catacombs coffee shop, stretching an empty mug of borovan long past the hours allotted to single-drink patrons, listening to the words tossed between the mustachioed Kacheeks and beret-wearing Zafaras that frequented the underground hovel. Their words dripped with portent.
"The thieves guild will come in strong..."
"Ooh, more trophies!"
Ezanna's heart had throbbed far faster than expected for the cup of borovan. He had never been a battler, but he loved to read about war. He had memorized the histories of Meridell and Virtupets; had devoured the Battlepedia lore on every challenger bigger than he. He had waited, claws tearing into the living room fabric, for his bold, codestone trained sister to return from the Darigan lines, full of scratch marks and stories from the skirmishes she'd suffered. They'd scraped a few medals from both Meridellian wars, and these hung in the living room like family portraits, glowering from a place of honour above the tall window.
Shelley, for her part, made a point of spitting at the trophies whenever she remembered them. Generally, she ignored them. The Gelert had the misfortune of being her owner's first pet, and for many months was the sole recipient of Coltzan's blessings, Faerie magic, and every neopoint her owner could spare on codestones and dubloons. The consequence was that her stats were far higher than the other pets; the final consequence, the one most relevant to the Gelert's peace of mind, was that she was the Battler. She was the one sent into the fray, sent off the bring home "honour" and "prizes"-- tiny, tinny trophies worth less than the scrap from which they'd been forged. Shelley wasn't a pacifist, but her battles were domestic: in the periods between wars she brought equal vigour to the muffins she baked, the windows she cleaned, and the young brothers she kept in line. True, aside from being sent to the Battledome, Shelley relished the responsibilities that accompanied first pethood.
Ezanna leaned against the door. He was older than Shelley, but had been the last pet to join the family. Sunny- the owner- had adopted him when he was a still a Zafara. He couldn't even remember his original colour; it was all so long ago. At some point- again, he couldn't pinpoint the date- they'd happened upon a Krawk morphing potion. Ezanna had no choice in the matter. The other pets were too set in their species. Besides, Sunny had argued, "Ezanna" was a very reptilian name.
He couldn't remember whether the potion or a subsequent paint brush had draped him in his final scales. He'd been a skunk Krawk, it seemed, for as long as he could remember. He wished that he'd been the first pet. He would have been a wonderful battler. He had the make- long claws, sharp teeth- he was small, like all Krawks, a tad potbellied and awkward on land, but he could improve! If only Coltzan's blessing had swept over him; if only Ryushu had shown him how to hand-chop wood in half! He sighed. And now Shelley was wasting her statistics for- for-
"But why?" he moaned. "Shelley, please. You know this has nothing to do with age."
"I know." The Gelert glanced in the direction of a small, rectangular mirror; framed in lime green, nailed to the beige-and-brown walls. Her reflection stared back, the jewels on her collar glimmering. "I don't want to visit the lab ray, Ez. I did that. For months!" She turned on him. "I thought you'd understand, changing to a Krawk and all. You may not remember, Ez, maybe you blocked it out- but I remember. I remember how you used to wander around the garden, staring in disbelief at the trail your tail left in the dirt. Well just think, Ez, think what it's like to wake up a Gelert, and fall asleep a JubJub. Or worse, a male JubJub." She gnawed her lip. "I just bought this collar! I can't wear it if I'm a guy. It'd look silly."
Ezanna wasn't sure how to respond. The Gelert continued.
"And besides," she said. "Sunny didn't give me permission to use the ray. You know she spent quite a lot on my morphing potion--"
She had indeed. An Island Gelert morphing potion, the magical tonic that had reversed the myriad changes of species, colour, that Shelley withstood.
"--I can't just throw that all away."
"But Shelley..." Ezanna wasn't sure what to say. If Shelley were he, a simple invocation of battlefield honour, the promise of glory, even the reminder of a champion's trophy- would have been enough for him to throw away the millions- (an amount that dwarfed whatever Sunny had spent on the Gelert's morphing potion)- spent on his Krawkness, by subjecting himself to the lab ray, to embrace its outward mutations in exchange for its inward enhancements- but Shelley? She wasn't swayed, not at all. She just wanted to sit at home and wear jewelled collars and bake Juppie-chocolate muffins.
Shelley seemed distracted by her face in the mirror. She pawed absently at the jewelled collar, smiling. Ezanna watched her. He was reminded of a picture which- strolling past the art gallery- he'd spotted a few days ago. Someone had drawn a picture of their Royal female Gelert. Her expression was identical to that which Shelley assumed; absent, bored, indifferent, cold- enamoured with sparkly things. The Krawk cleared his throat.
"Shelley," he said. "Do you like being Island?"
"Mmmm?" Shelley turned on him. "Well, it's alright. I like the flowery lei." She raised an eyebrow. "Why?"
"Have you ever thought..." he smiled. "Of being royal?"
"Royal?" For a moment, Shelley's eyes glimmered purple, reflecting the crown and velvet cushions that paraded through her mind. The Gelert exhaled. "Obviously. What pet doesn't dream of being Royal? Oooooh, and with a cute pointy hat!"
Ezanna stepped forwards. "What if the ray made you Royal?"
The Gelert inhaled sharply. "What if it made me..."
What if, what if. Ezanna nearly cackled. His sister may be a master genius, but she still swallowed the line that pulled thousands of pets to the lab ray. Not the hope of awesome stats, not the hope of scientific enlightenment- but of some glitzy paint job, some priceless new species. And now Shelley followed.
"You could be Royal. You could be maractite. You could be anything, Shell. Anything."
"Shell," she repeated. "That sounds alright, I mean, for a male or female. That was always an issue, last time; 'Shelleylou' sounds odd on a guy."
"Yes! Shell! Let's start calling you that now. What do you say, Shell?"
She paused. Momentarily, her her eyes flickered, like the final flash of lightning before darkness replaces the storm. She shook her head. "What? N- yes. Yes, let's go. Quickly, before Sunny comes home."
Ezanna didn't cackle, but he chuckled under his breath. He opened the door and led the way out, and towards the maze of pathways familiar to any who'd assembled the laboratory map.
"Sit still, and vee vill proceed vith zee expeeeriment." The tumbleweed-haired Scorchio hissed as he paced around Shelley, stopping here and there to adjust a dial, or press a button, on the glimmering, silver ray. He scuttled to the red leather cockpit mounted to the back of the ray and, seizing the pair of handlebars that stuck up from the sides of the pit, twisted the ray's nozzle towards her.
Ezanna stood behind him, half-hidden by a triangular shadow. The tip of his chalky white snout protruded from the shadow. Shelleylou focused on this as the ray, emitting its eerie, throbbing wail, warmed up. The temperature increased; she shut her eyes against the flash.
Zaap! A sharp metallic voice reverberated through the underground chamber.
"You have lost 3 movement points."
Shelley exhaled relief. As much as she longed to be Royal, she dreaded, in equal proportion, mutating into a JubJub or worse- she shuddered- a Lupe.
Had she looked, she would have noted a flash of pearl; Ezanna baring his teeth. He cracked his knuckles; alerting the Scorchio to his irritation. The white-coated Neopet grinned, shrugging as though to say, "That's scientific progress!"
The Krawk stepped forward. He grabbed Shelley's paw. "Let's go," he muttered. "We'll try again tomorrow."
Together they emerged from the underground cavern into the glimmering afternoon light. Shelley shook her head and sneezed. Ezanna ducked.
"Better luck tomorrow, I hope," she said meekly.
The Krawk nodded. He looked at her. She had the hopeful, wide eyed expression of a newly hatched Chia on his way to the Stock Market. His stomach twisted. Should he tell her that the lab ray couldn't make a Neopet Royal?
Off in the distance, thunder rumbled. The day around them grew damp, and darkened as storm clouds rolled in. The Krawk shook his head.
No, he thought. Honour comes first. The war must come first.
"Tomorrow," he said, squeezing her paw. "We'll keep going back till it happens."
Shelley nodded. "Yes. Keep going back till I'm Royal."