The Initiate Defenders: Part Two
Jennumara the Darkness Faerie was settled comfortably into her black granite throne, which was was elaborately carved to recall the shapes of long claws and venomous fangs. The shafts of light from the windows were dim, dark red, and entirely unnatural: Jennumara's vast, impressive stone castle was situated deep underground, and could only be entered through a hidden passageway not far from the Faerie Caverns. The room was tall and very long, but only a few yards wide, giving the impression of being at the bottom of a deep trench. Jennumara's surroundings pleased her: the rough rock walls and sharply angled ceiling were dark and forbidding. But she was in a sour mood. Her plan had been so simple, and yet there had been endless setbacks. Why did this have to be so difficult?
Only last week, they had sent a pathetic Cybunny robot to try to stop her. He actually managed to enter the castle through the hidden passageway, which she had thought was concealed well enough to keep intruders out. He had confronted her. She had cast a spell to turn him into stone, but it hadn't worked: it had been partially deflected by his metal casings, so despite some of his skin hardening into solid rock, he was still able to move. Why was this stupid Neopet so hard to destroy? Well, the Defenders of Neopia did have superpowers, Jennumara reasoned. Indestructible, was he? Still not unbeatable, though. Jennumara was not about to let that pesky Cybunny get away, so she shielded the exit with an impenetrable energy barrier, trapping him. Sure, he put up a puny struggle, but now he was locked securely in a dank cellar, from whence it was impossible to escape. But the most pressing question was, how did he get in in the first place? How had they known?
Now the brainwave came to Jennumara. If that irritating metal Cybunny had known how to get in, now that he was imprisoned here, she could learn from him exactly how he had found out. Her spell wasn't yet strong enough to carry out her plan, but perhaps it would work for this. She rose from her throne, strode down the hallway and threw open the door to her candle-lit study, then picked up her spellbook and began brewing the potion.
Flicking through the pages of the spellbook with her sharp fingernails, she scanned the ingredients list. Again, she felt a stab of frustration. She had all the right elements for the perfect mind-control spell, but somehow, not enough strength... then, for the second time, she had an epiphany. If she had all the right ingredients, then all the potion needed was more power. She reached for her stores and snatched up a jar of glowing green berries. Ergy fruits. Just what the potion needed for that little bit more kick.
When the potion was finished, she needed to test it. One of her Zumagorn minions soon returned from the surface with a Patamoose, which the Faerie picked up. It actually looked eager to receive the potion; maybe the silly Petpet thought it was food? She raised the flask to its mouth. Here goes nothing. The Patamoose gulped down the clear liquid, and in a split second its expression went completely blank. Jennumara snapped her fingers and the little Petpet obediently stood on its head, did cartwheels, then grabbed a chain from the wall and swung from it like a Spyder. The Faerie's beautiful face broke into an evil smile. She had done it!
Half an hour later, with the indestructible Cybunny now in a deep trance, Jennumara had all the information she needed. The Defenders of Neopia had recently recruited a Nimmo psychic called The Mind's Eye, who had been able to "feel" where the Faerie's castle was and what her plans were. No wonder they had sent this Cybunny. And better yet, now that he was under her control, all she had to do was send him back to their Headquarters and have him slip some Brain-soap Potion into the watercooler in their office. All the Defenders of Neopia would be her slaves, and then she would be unstoppable!
Several days previously, four Neopets with completely different lives had arrived at the Defenders of Neopia Headquarters together, escorted by Sergeant Brexis. Vitry the water Kyrii was extremely nervous: the high expectations of others had always been her greatest fear, but she believed her new ability to control water was a firm starting point. Astrin the fire Grundo wore a look of determination - this was familiar to him, the necessity to fight for justice, now with the strength of the sun behind him. Skyla the eventide Aisha was hugely excited, because she wanted to prove she could be popular for a good reason, now that she had earned the power to harness the wind. Nuru the woodland Ruki looked completely out of his depth, having never been to a city before; this new world full of steel and concrete hardly looked like an ideal place to control the growth of plants and trees.
Judge Hog emerged through the sliding glass doors and greeted the four newcomers with a broad and welcoming smile. "This is our Headquarters!" he said, gesturing to the magnificent building as Sergeant Brexis moved to stand alongside him. "Are you ready to learn what it takes to be a superhero?"
Astrin and Skyla both responded by nodding eagerly, but Vitry looked down at her shoes and Nuru fiddled uncertainly with the autumn-leaf coat he was wearing. Judge Hog noticed their hesitation. "Don't be afraid, we're all good guys here," he reassured them. "You don't need to worry about anyone being hard on you. Everybody here had to get their start at some point, and some of us found it tough, too. If you change your minds, you're quite welcome to return home."
Vitry looked even more troubled now: without a home to return to, she had no way back. Judge Hog knelt down, bringing his face to a level with hers. "We're here to help," he told her softly. "If you need our support, we're more than willing. That's why we're here." The other three were watching carefully. Nuru was obviously sympathetic; Astrin's face was full of encouragement. Skyla, however, appeared impatient in her eagerness: Brexis noticed, but he was understanding. "Some Neopets take their time getting used to new things," he explained, "and that's perfectly okay." These words had a positive effect: both Vitry and Skyla now looked a little more relaxed.
"You can each receive separate training," the Judge continued, "so you will all be able to learn at your own pace. But most importantly, don't worry: all you need to succeed as a Defender of Neopia is a good heart and a willingness to help. Everything else is just a bonus."
All four of the newcomers met Judge Hog's eyes. His statement was absolute: to join the Defenders of Neopia, they had to understand their purpose. If their purpose was noble, the future was clear.
Vitry, to the surprise of the others, was the first to respond. "I'm afraid of failure," she whispered, "but you can't succeed if you don't try. I want to do something worthwhile."
Then Astrin spoke. His voice was firm, resolved. "I don't like to stand by while evil deeds are taking place. If I can stop them, I will."
Skyla spoke next, full of confidence. "I've learned that you have to earn the respect of others by respecting them in turn, and that means helping them if they need you."
Nuru voiced his thoughts last, having considered them carefully. "I've lived alone all my life, but after I gained my powers, I realised I couldn't let them go to waste. I could have used them just for myself, but it's better to share the benefits with everyone."
The Judge was most impressed. "All of you show spirit," he said, "and that's enough to make anybody a hero." He smiled broadly. "Welcome to the Defenders of Neopia!"
As the four initiates received their private tuition in the Headquarters' training rooms, a mechanical Cybunny called Tinny was returning from his previous mission for the Defenders of Neopia. It had taken longer than expected: he had been away for seven days. He bore the scars of his encounter with the powerful villain: the left side of his body was now encased in solid rock, rather than sleek metal casings. Despite this inconvenience, his magical powers were as strong as ever - but his mind was, quite literally, absent.
The Brain-soap was still acting on the Cybunny's brain. Ever since it had touched his lips, he had been in a deep state of enchanted hypnosis, aware only of Jennumara's orders. "Go back to their Headquarters with a bottle of this potion, offer to refill the watercooler, pour the potion into it, then have a meeting to discuss the mission from which you just returned. Act like you usually do. Do not raise suspicion." Tinny knew, and had been forced to tell the Faerie, that the Mind's Eye's psychic powers could only operate on somebody who had been concentrating on the same thought for at least two days; so as long as Tinny acted quickly, he could undercut the threat of pre-emptive detection and carry out his orders successfully.
Stage one was already complete: he had arrived at the Defenders' home base. His robotic face had always been difficult for others to read, so its unusually blank expression was nothing for his colleagues to be concerned about. However, there were many curious remarks about his partial petrification: the Cybunny raised his left hand and flexed its fingers to indicate to the others that he was still able to move, and he spoke softly and flatly, telling them he was hit by a spell but it was nothing serious. And he returned to the desk in his room, promising the others that he would soon explain everything. From the window facing the main office, Tinny could see that the watercooler was almost empty.
The hypnotised Cybunny spent half an hour writing up a report for his mission to Jennumara's hidden castle. He described how he had found the entrance in short order, confronted Jennumara and been attacked; he then explained that he had been locked in the cellar for several days, but narrowly escaped when the guard opened the door and entered his cell intending to finish him off. Of course, Tinny had needed to come up with an alternative course of events in which he could have emerged safely from the villain's hideout, because "released under the effects of mind control" was never going to meet with a friendly reception. The Cybunny picked up the completed draft and entered the main office to speak to Sergeant Brexis and arrange a meeting for that afternoon. Brexis readily agreed, determined to find out how Tinny had escaped the Faerie who had almost turned him to stone. Tinny offered to refill the watercooler before the meeting, in which he would tell the rest of the Defenders all about what had happened in that bleak underground castle.
Stage two successful; stage three pending. All is going to plan so far.
The four newest members of the Defenders of Neopia were making great strides in their superhero training. All of them were honing and refining their abilities for use in the field, as well as receiving fitness training to ensure that they were at optimum health. They were close to graduating for full membership, each with a different power and a different personality.
Vitry was receiving training from Blackwing, the impressive purple Wocky capable of flight, night vision, and invisibility. Despite his forbidding appearance, Blackwing was patient and caring, teaching the young Kyrii to have confidence in her talents and concentrate on using them to help other Neopets in need. He also helped Vitry discover that as well as being able to transform into liquid water, she could also convert herself into water vapour, allowing her to seemingly disappear into thin air. She and Blackwing worked on her skills at the swimming pool in the Headquarters' gym, where the water responded to her will and danced around her; if she put enough determination into it, she could direct the water at a target with astonishing force. Her self-esteem growing with every lesson, Vitry learned the limits of her abilities: up to a ton of water could respond to her power from up to twenty yards away, but she could move it with more force the nearer she stood; she could boil or freeze water, condense steam or melt ice; she was capable of converting herself entirely into water (either liquid or gaseous) in less than a second, and restoring herself in about three. Finally, she was ready to be inducted into the Defenders of Neopia as an official member. She was asked to choose her superhero name - she remembered how her brother had thought she was a "water monster" the first time she transformed, but this wouldn't do. After some thought, she called herself "The River Spirit".
The fiery Torchio was tutoring Astrin in a specially reinforced training room designed to withstand intense bursts of energy. Astrin had already decided on the hero name "Starlighter" just because he thought it sounded really cool, but cool was not an apt description of the beams of sunlight he could generate. The measuring equipment the Defenders of Neopia used to test and maintain the strength of their members' powers indicated that, depending on the width of Astrin's sunbeam blast, it ranged from the same strength as natural solar energy to as much as 100 times stronger. With careful direction from Torchio, the Grundo learned to produce a shaft of concentrated sunlight as narrow as a laser beam, which could melt through thin steel; by broadening the beam, however, Astrin could create a diversion by blinding an enemy, or distract them by intermittently flashing his light (or so remarked Torchio as he flinched and covered his eyes). Mirrors were a crucial lesson, especially curved mirrors: if his radiation was condensed into a single focal point, it could melt or ignite almost anything. Sergeant Brexis, who was regularly checking on the initiates' progress, suggested that Astrin's energy output could be strengthened by a significant margin if it were channelled through a fire gem, so he had one set into a wand for Astrin to wield: when he tried it, its crystalline structure focused the beam and gave it increased power and accuracy. As a man of action and a former rebel against Dr. Sloth, with quick thinking in tough situations and a strong heart, Starlighter was deemed to have great potential as a superhero.
Orig the Great, the handsome green Lupe able to move objects at will, took on the task of training the energetic and headstrong Skyla. The enchanted crystal from whence her powers were derived had now been permanently set into her favourite glass necklace, which was fastened securely around her neck to prevent it slipping off. This was essential, given the wind speeds she could create: with very little training from Orig the Great, Skyla maxed out her powers with a 160mph whirlwind, which threatened to damage the Headquarters building. Orig mostly watched as Skyla enthusiastically practised her skills, unleashing the crystal's magic to generate roaring gales, terrifying twisters, and updrafts so powerful they could support her weight, allowing her to fly at blistering speeds. It seemed as though the Aisha knew instinctively what she was able to do with her powers, making professional tuition rather unnecessary - or so it seemed to Skyla. But nevertheless, Orig the Great was able to teach her some new ways to make use of her abilities, such as focusing the wind to help other Neopets fly alongside her - and he was sure to reinforce the lessons learned at the hands of the old sorceror who had given her the crystal: Skyla must devote her powers to helping others, which was the most important thing she could do to earn the adoration she wanted. Skyla chose her superhero uniform with great care, lavishing it with jewellery and a gorgeous blue and grey dress, and took on the identity of "Cyclone Aisha".
Nuru received instruction from Dr. Flexo, the Marvellous Stretchy Chia - not only to teach him how to effectively deploy his plant-growing powers, but also to educate Nuru about the rigours of city life. The Ruki needed to learn how to interact with Neopets who live in towns and villages, and also how to find his way in and around major population centres, since he was accustomed to living in a very small territory and had a poor sense of direction. Nuru's powers came quite naturally to him: with his ability to sense the plant life around him, accelerating and controlling the growth of trees felt almost like stretching out his own limbs, similar to Dr. Flexo himself. Practise alone was enough for the old Ruki to learn how to select a specific plant to channel his powers; he gained the ability to produce flowers and seeds from the foliage, then germinate the seeds into new shoots, creating more avenues for the use of his powers. After several days spent testing the limits of his abilities, he discovered that the soil in which plants were rooted would dry out rapidly if he forced their growth; the roots themselves caused the soil to crack and crumble as they thickened, even breaking up bedrock in the process. The air became turbulent as the nearby trees stretched skywards, due to the plants sucking in the carbon dioxide they needed to build up their weight. If the ground was bone dry, or the surrounding air was clear of CO2, Nuru couldn't produce even so much as a leaf. The Defenders' measuring scales showed that in good conditions, Nuru could grow up to two tons of plant material in one second. According to his preference, Nuru's super outfit consisted of a suit and cape woven from leaves, and he was given a wooden staff embedded with seeds. Unable to think of a hero name for himself, Nuru was given the title "The Beanstalk" by Judge Hog.
Eventually, the training was complete and the four new members were ready to be officially employed by the Defenders of Neopia. Having signed the papers to confirm their membership, Judge Hog held a ceremony to celebrate their new positions as professional heroes. On a clear sunny day, he took the four Neopets into the park in Neopia Central and threw a party to congratulate them, assuring them all that they had bright futures keeping Neopia free of crime and safe for everybody. Vitry, Astrin, Skyla and Nuru took the opportunity to socialise, and despite being so different, they got along quite well during the celebrations. Judge Hog eventually had to leave the party and return to Headquarters to receive some important news, but the four new Defenders stayed in the park, enjoying themselves, looking forward to the next day, which would be their first day on the job as superheroes.
Meanwhile, Judge Hog arrived back at home base to learn that Unbreakable the robot Cybunny had returned from his last mission late that morning. Apparently he had borne bad news, because the other Defenders were not wearing the smiles that normally adorned their faces. With his heart sinking, the Judge joined the others in the meeting room, where an unusually sombre Brexis was pouring a drink from the watercooler. When his eyes fell on Tinny, he yelped in shock - the Cybunny's left side had turned to stone!
"Sweet Fyora! Are you all right?" gasped Judge Hog, his eyes wide. None of the other Defenders looked surprised, which was rather strange. Brexis nodded dimly as he handed the Judge a glass of water.
Tinny quietly explained that he had suffered no injury, but he had to brief the Judge on the mission, which had taken an unexpected turn. As well as being attacked, he had been captured and held for six days; but he had acquired a lot of information in that time, which he now needed to convey to his boss. Judge Hog sat down expectantly, then picked up his glass of water and took a sip.
This was a big mistake.
The next day, the River Spirit, Starlighter, Cyclone Aisha and the Beanstalk arrived at Headquarters, dressed and ready for their first day of superhero work. They had each been allocated private rooms where their desks were located, but all of them had been asked to meet Judge Hog in the main office as soon as they arrived, to receive briefings on their first missions.
When they entered the main office, however, they found it completely empty.
Many of the desk lights were still turned on; there were papers scattered over the meeting table, and a half-full glass of water stood at Judge Hog's seat at the head of the table, but nobody was there. It looked as though everybody had been spirited away.
Astrin could tell immediately that something was wrong; he had had too much experience working in this business already, and he suspected that there had been an attack. Villains tended to target the forces dedicated to bringing them down; if the Grundo had learned anything from his regular battles against Dr. Sloth's forces, that was the crucial point. "Guys, I'm going to have a look around to see where everybody is," Astrin told the others; he then left the main office at once to search the adjoining rooms.
Skyla stamped her foot in frustration. "Where in the name of Fyora did everybody go? They told us to meet them here!" she blustered. "This is just rude. I'm going back to Brightvale until these so-called heroes get their act together." With those words, she headed for the front door - but Nuru took her gently by the arm, preventing her from leaving.
"Skyla, wait. Maybe they're not bring rude," said the Ruki quietly. "Maybe they did mean to be here, but something stopped them. Astrin's gone to search; let's wait to see what he finds before doing anything rash. Perhaps the Defenders need our help."
Meanwhile, Vitry was drawn to the watercooler. Her instinct told her that something was awry. Skyla, anticipating a long wait, strode over and picked up a glass, but Vitry quickly moved between her and the tap, stopping her from pouring a drink.
"What?!" snapped Skyla, her limited patience already running out. "First the Defenders tell me to be here and can't be bothered to show up, and now I can't even get a drink of water?!"
"I don't think this is water," whispered Vitry.
Nuru froze, understanding in an instant; but Skyla grumbled. "Get serious, Vitry, of course it's water. Why would they put anything else in a watercooler?"
"Who says THEY put it in the watercooler?" murmured Nuru. Skyla's head spun round to stare at him - not only in frustration, but also in realisation.
Vitry paused, afraid to start an argument, but still knowing that something didn't add up. After a second, she spoke. "I'll pour your drink, Skyla. I can control water, but I can't control anything else; I'll test it, just to make sure."
The little Kyrii turned the tap. The clear, odourless liquid flowed into the glass and filled it almost to the brim. Vitry raised her hand and the liquid seemed to separate; it swirled bizarrely and most of it was lifted to hover over the glass, but a little remained at the bottom.
"This is water," said Vitry, gesturing to the rippling blob floating in mid-air. Then she pointed to the glass. "So what's that?"
Skyla's jaw dropped. Nuru buried his face in his woody hands. At that moment, a side door banged open; Astrin returned to the main office and burst out, "I couldn't see one Neopet in any of the offices! Not even a Petpet! We're the only ones in the whole building! What in Neopia could have happened?"
"I think I've just found the answer to that, Astrin," breathed Vitry. "Look at this glass. See that at the bottom? That was in the cooler, and it isn't water. I can't lift it."
"So what is it?" said Astrin, confused.
"Something bad," replied Skyla with a grimace.
Horror slowly dawned on Astrin's face. "You don't think that's..." he began, but he tailed away. He was too terrified of the idea that Dr. Sloth had infiltrated the Defenders of Neopia to voice his thoughts aloud.
"You don't think it's WHAT?" Skyla pressed him fiercely.
Astrin hesitated, his gaze falling to the floor. Nuru intervened. "Tell us what you're thinking, Astrin. It might be important; whatever that stuff is, it can't be harmless."
The Grundo's lip trembled a little before he said in a slightly shaking voice, "You don't think it's... magic potion?"
Nuru closed his eyes tightly, dreading that thought being true. Skyla flashed a sharp steely look in Astrin's direction. "Potion that does what, exactly? Puts them to sleep? Changes their colour?" She suddenly looked nervous. "Poisons them?"
Astrin slowly looked up into Skyla's determined face and reluctantly spoke. "Controls them?"
"What!?" said Vitry and Skyla together. Nuru's eyes flew open as his fear mounted.
The Grundo sighed heavily, apprehensively. "I know the technology exists, because Sloth uses it. Maybe it was Sloth who put this in the watercooler, so that the Defenders would be on his side." He paused, seeming to pull himself together. "Look. Whether or not my hunch is right, we need to find the missing Defenders. If this potion is dangerous, somebody has to help them, and we might be the only ones who know."
Nuru and Vitry were not yet confident of their heroic prowess, but their faces were solemn. They knew Astrin was right: they had to do something.
"Wait a minute, guys," said Skyla suddenly. "See that glass there at Judge Hog's seat? Has that got potion in it, too?
Vitry conducted the same examination as before: as the water was drawn out, again there was a trace of foreign fluid left at the bottom of the glass. "If that was there when Judge Hog was sitting here last, then let's look at this paper," Skyla told the others. "We'll see what he was reading about at the time he took the potion. It might give us some clues."
They picked up the document, which had been clumsily handwritten on office paper, and sat down to inspect it. Nuru interrupted, "But I can't read; I grew up in the bush. Could someone read it aloud?"
Skyla obliged. The others listened carefully.
"The following report pertains to the raid on Jennumara's castle on... eight days ago, this says, but I know the Defenders were still there yesterday," said the Aisha curiously. "Blah blah blah... it has some random letters and numbers, don't know what they mean... must be code for which mission it was. OK, here's the summary - Found the secret entrance within one hour, but was spotted by Jennumara and attacked. Petrification spell was only slightly effective, no serious harm done - sheesh, sounds like this guy was half turned to stone," muttered Skyla before lowering her eyes to the paper again. "Hmmm... was eventually captured and held in a cellar until this morning, was released by a guard who had intended to kill me, but managed to evade the guard and escape." She looked up at the others.
"Who wrote that?" enquired Nuru.
Astrin looked at the handwriting carefully. "This looks like a robot's writing; look how angular the penstrokes are. Are there any robots in the Defenders of Neopia? Hold on, I'll check..." He scurried off to the western wall of the office, where all the members' names and pictures were affixed to the noticeboard on the wall. In seconds, he was back. "There are three robot Defenders, but all the members post their to-do lists under their photos on the board, and the one who mentions Jennumara is a Cybunny named Unbreakable."
"So Unbreakable raided someone called Jennumara, who can do a spell that turns you to stone..." Vitry was thinking out loud, but the other three were hanging intently on her words. "Maybe Jennumara can make potions as well. It sounds like a faerie's name, don't you think?" she asked.
"More to the point, did Unbreakable really escape, or was he let go?" Astrin was putting two and two together. "If just one of the Defenders raided Jennumara and she had mind-control potion, once she'd used it she wouldn't need to keep him in the cellar. She could make him go back to HQ and put the potion in the watercooler so the other Defenders would drink it too, then she'd have all the Defenders under her control."
"We don't know that for sure," said Nuru softly, "but it sounds like a good theory to me. But really, we should focus on finding the Defenders before we start asking questions about exactly why this has happened." He abruptly rose from his seat and headed for his desk. "I'll be back in a second."
Skyla stood up too. "Four heroes are better than one; I think we should search together. If the Defenders of Neopia are under threat, we may have to work as a team to rescue them."
Astrin nodded fervently. Vitry's face filled with determination, as though she was steeling herself to face her destiny. Nuru returned from the private offices bearing his wooden staff, which carried tree seeds at its tip, and Astrin's golden wand tipped with a fire gem. "We might be needing these. If it's a fight we're heading for, we'll need all our strength and skill."
"The forces of nature are on our side," announced Vitry, summoning up her newfound confidence. "Plants and sunlight, wind and water. We can do this - we can save the Defenders of Neopia."
"Unbreakable's notices mentioned the location of Jennumara's castle," added Astrin. "A small fern-covered passageway about halfway along the Faerieland cliffs, not far from the entrance to the Faerie Caverns. So if our theory is right, we know exactly where to look."
"Well, let's go, then," called Skyla, rallying the others. "The time has come for action!"
As the others began to move towards the door, Vitry ducked back to the watercooler and opened its top, emptying the two tainted glasses of water back into it before forcing a thick pencil deep into the tap mechanism, jamming it shut. "Nobody else is going to drink this," she said firmly.
And so the four newly initiated Defenders of Neopia left the Headquarters. The River Spirit, Starlighter, Cyclone Aisha and the Beanstalk were ready to begin their first mission.
To be continued...