Hanso could not tell how long ago he had woken up on this forsaken island, his chest covered in glowing yellow runes. Time was not measured in days anymore, but in rounds and challenges, and in how often the light appeared to give instructions or punishments. Not that there was a big difference between the two. The voice could pop out from anywhere - rocks, bushes, water, right behind him - to comment on everything he did. Not to mention the Zafara. He didn't want to give them anything to see, but he had to continue. Only the promise of food at each checkpoint kept him going.
He had started in Group 1, with the most popular contestants who got the best food and healing potions; then he, Jazan and Kanrik had lost precious time in a fruitless escape attempt. It had not been a team effort; they had simply taken off in different directions, hoping to use each other as diversions.
They had immediately been neutralised by the obedience curses placed on them. Hanso rubbed his runes, grimacing at the memory of the white-hot jolts. Any rule breaking would get them zapped. Jazan had sacrificed himself to help Nabile escape, predictably enough; but the three of them had received a thrashing from the Oracle's spirit buddies and were now far behind in the game. Hanso still thought he could see the shadow of the tiny winged Ixi following him. He shuddered at the thought of what could have happened to the eliminated contestants.
A window of light appeared in midair. "And the final member of Group 4 has made it out! A round of applause for her!" Those words were followed by the sound of an audience cheering. "Please join your fellow group members and the last member of Group 3 at the next checkpoint, across the beach."
Moments later, a very muddy Princess Amira trudged her way to the picnic blanket where they were seated, right next to the first trees of the jungle. She had barely scraped past the previous challenges, but her popularity votes were enough to keep her in the game. The sight of them did nothing to improve her frowning, scrunched-up face. Jazan was barely recognisable without his royal robe, headdress or guyliner. He rested on his side, exhausted, his fur caked with mud, his long mane in a tangle. Hanso looked just as ragged. Their rune markings were visible through the tears in their plain clothes. Kanrik had to be the least dirty of them. He had lost his cloak and coat long ago, but that could only be an advantage in the sweltering heat. The plain dark clothes that he kept under all his layers had suffered the least. His long, fine black hair had somehow remained in its unitail. Amira immediately sat next to him and dived onto her share of the food.
A large screen of light opened between two trees. A cool female voice sounded from it.
"Welcome to THE ORACLE GAMES! Are you ready for another round, Neopia?" A logo had appeared on the floating light screen, cued by dramatic music. The Oracle herself came next, waving graciously at her applauding audience.
"All right, thanks for your support, Neopia! Here's what's happening today on THE ORACLE GAMES! Your favorite Group 1 is still far ahead despite having lost half of its members. Take a look!" The imaged switched to a green Zafara host who pointed at another screen, with a flashy grin.
At the top of a cliff, Hannah and Governor Gavril McGill were downing tanks of grog merrily, while an exasperated-looking Brynn sat with Roxton Colchester III, who appeared to be in the middle of a thrilling tale. Hannah and the Governor, bold and wily, had proven an unstoppable duo, reinforced by the tough, endurant Brynn. Roxton had wisely tagged along.
After a few seconds, the Zafara host introduced Group 2. In the middle of jungle ruins, King Altador was enjoying a cup of tea with the corporeal ghosts of King Coltzan III and Hubrid Nox. Bruno was playing with the Awakened twins, one little Wocky hanging from each of his enormous arms. Sophie sulked in a corner. She and the Kings were the powerhouses of the group, easily dealing with obstacles, while Nox and the twins scared away the monsters designed to scare them.
Group 3 were taking their break in a clearing. Masila sat between Kell and Corbin, all three looking delighted with each other's company. Next to them, Garin chatted with Nabile and Tomos. They seemed tired, but in relatively good spirits.
"Groups 1 to 3 are well on their way, I say! Today, we'll see if these poor stragglers can catch up."
The screen showed Group 4, ragged and muddy, like a shipwrecked crew. For each member, the Zafara host introduced a montage of the strange faces they had pulled while struggling in the obstacle courses, in slow motion.
"Kanrik, Hanso and King Jazan, who were set back after a cheating scandal! Princess Amira, who made it thanks to your votes! And Sir Jeran, who ran out of time after graciously holding a bridge in place for all his Group 3 team mates!"
The Lupe knight had quietly come to sit with them, looking strangely small without his armor. They all braced themselves for what the Oracle would invent next.
"Group 4 seems to have suffered enough. Shall we let them have some fun, Neopia? The next challenge on Group 4's route will be a little game! We'll even let them do it in pairs, to make things easier! But as they're an odd number, they'll need an extra team mate. Group 4! Go and meet your guide and new member!"
A swarm of floating light arrows popped up, pointing towards a path that climbed steeply through the jungle. They jogged up as fast as they could, so as not to test the Oracle's patience. They ignored the rhythmic music and the little windows that appeared all around them with the green Zafara and his comments. Much sooner than expected, as if there had been a fast-forward, they reached a platform built at the edge of a ravine.
An irritable-looking orange Yurble awaited them, decked for the occasion in Geraptiku style armor with skulls. He grunted and motioned for them to stand in a line. They gazed apprehensively at the ravine. Four narrow rope bridges connected the platform to the other side. A few feet above each bridge, a wire was suspended like a zipline. Hanso did not like those wires, but at least it was highly likely that he would be paired up with Jazan. After spending such a long time in this place, they had learned to tolerate each other.
"Our contestants are going to get a buzz today: my favorite jungle game is none other than the Buzzer Game! Only this one will have a little zap added every time the hoop touches the wire. Fans, your idols need you! Support them by playing the arcade version of the Buzzer Game! They need as many points as they can get. And now, Neopia, specially for your enjoyment, your Oracle shall summon not one, but three people you thought you'd never see again!"
Hanso and Jazan glanced at each other, worried. The Oracle had already summoned two ghosts for her show and made them solid enough to interact with objects. Who could she have chosen this time?
Another floating light appeared in front of them. It took shape and color in front of Kanrik, growing even taller than the Gelert. It was the figure of a Grarrl. Scars of light slashed themselves into his skin, as well as the same runes that kept them all bound to the island. A sharp-toothed grin appeared.
"Today we're getting not one, but TWO Thieves' Guild leaders! Give a warm welcome to Galem Darkhand!"
Despite the sound of cheering coming from the light screen, Galem only had eyes for Kanrik. His large hand immediately felt for the sheath that hung from his belt, but it was empty. Kanrik's jaw had dropped. He nearly lost his cool countenance and opened his mouth to say something to the Yurble, then the Oracle's next words froze him on the spot: "Wish them the best of luck for this three-legged, three-armed race!"
Before anyone could protest, the orange Yurble had shuffled forwards and clasped a pair of metallic bracelets around Kanrik's and Galem's ankles. A string of sizzling light immediately connected the cuffs. The Yurble bound their wrists in the same fashion, then he pushed them towards one of the bridges.
"Here comes our next guest!"
Another tall figure was forming in front of Jazan, made of a blazing orange light. The Kyrii slapped his hand against his forehead, as if he had guessed what was coming.
"The magnificent Emperor Razul!"
Within moments, Jazan had been cuffed to his evil undead father's bony limbs and ushered towards the second bridge.
Hanso held his breath. It was his turn. If the Oracle kept this pattern, he would have to face Xandra. But maybe it wouldn't work. Xandra was different, bound by powerful Faerie magic.
"Let's see how well Hanso and Princess Amira work together!"
He breathed an enormous sigh of relief. As the Yurble cuffed them together, Amira glared at Hanso with the same look she would give a pile of sludge on her expensive carpet, but he would rather face all the snooty royals in the world than Xandra. He gave her a sheepish smile.
Only one summon was left, for Jeran's partner. The Lupe closed his eyes and clenched his teeth as a tall purple silhouette materialised in front of him.
"And now, the guest you've all been waiting for... Lord Kass!"
The Eyrie twitched nervously and glanced around himself, then his eyes fell on Jeran and narrowed. The knight held his gaze, impassive. The Yurble cuffed them together and sent them to the last bridge.
"Our players will take their hoops around the wires to the other end of the ravine. The gates will only open if both contestants bring the hoop. You may stop and take a path on the ground after the first bridge, but at least one team must finish the second half of the Buzzer game and find the key in the tower, otherwise no one can move on! Contestants, grip your hoops. The foreman will give you the signal. On your mark..."
Galem looked about to bite Kanrik, who seemed to be shrinking. Jazan and Razul were leaning as far away from each other with matching sneers of disgust. Jeran and Kass were locked in a death stare. Amira eyed Hanso critically. He focused on the road ahead of them.
The Yurble had brought a delicate and expensive-looking vase to the platform. He smashed it to pieces with a resounding crash, signalling the start of the game. He didn't stop there, though; he kept pounding the shards of vase with great gusto, shouting angrily.
Meanwhile, the contestants had dashed onto the bridges. Galem immediately rammed into Kanrik, punched him in the midsection and dragged him along the bridge. The hoop touched the wire several times and they both got shocked.
"What is this buffoonery?" Razul was growling as he marched across the bridge. "These petty games are far beneath me! You will regret this!"
"Let me guess," said Jazan, "she promised you a glorious return as an immortal emperor?"
"How dare you address me, filth!" Razul strode away angrily, making Jazan stumble.
Jeran and Kass had stopped in the middle of the bridge, wrestling with their free arms, hopping on the spot to keep their balance.
"I knew you were in league with those spirits -"
"That's long past, we're all prisoners here -"
"I will get rid of you for good this time -"
Kanrik had managed to shove Galem's face through their hoop, but the Grarrl struggled so well that he made their rope bridge sway dangerously from side to side, nearly colliding into Jazan and Razul. The emperor immediately started to wave his bony claw at the thieves and screech curses in a strange, raspy language, but his magic seemed to have been cancelled.
"Let's settle this on the ground," said Kass. He began to pull Jeran towards the next platform.
Kanrik had got the same idea. He sprinted forwards with the hoop, forcing Galem to follow, but keeping enough distance to dodge the Grarrl's fists. Jazan and Razul had burst into a shouting match and started to run as well. "Aughs!" and "Oofs!" were heard every few seconds as they got buzzed by the wire. As soon as they reached the platform, they all dropped their hoops and chased each other down the next path, rolling and tumbling on the ground while trying to wrestle with their cuffs.
"Wait!" called Hanso, "we need to do the second half!" No one heard him.
"Our contestants have put on a remarkable burst of speed. At this rate, they might be able to catch up with the other groups! But as three teams have left the Buzzer game, that leaves only Princess Amira and Hanso to continue and retrieve the key."
Hanso cursed. Amira clacked her tongue reproachingly.
"With all due respect, we need to get a move on, m'lady!" He picked up the pace.
"Would you kindly refrain from dragging my gentle person over these rough planks?"
Hanso stopped short. "Very well." He wrapped an arm around Amira's waist and half-hoisted her onto his shoulder, hopping and wobbling across the bridge while she shrieked and flailed to get down.
"Now now Princess, that's not very lady-like language," laughed the Zafara host from one of the light bubbles that floated around them.
They were halfway to the second tower. One quarter of the way remained. Hanso was panting from the effort. At last, they reached the platform. He dumped Amira like a sack of potatoes.
"I'm not even that heavy," she was shrieking, "you just have puny muscles!"
The wire stretched through an opening in a rough wooden tower.
"They're almost at the key!" the host shouted. "Only one challenge to clear in this room!"
Hanso staggered to his feet, breathing heavily, and dragged Amira further. He suddenly jumped back by several steps. Amira shrieked and lost her balance; they got zapped by the wire.
"What is the matter with you?" she shouted. Hanso was cowering. The Zafara host's head hovered near him, looking excited. Amira glanced at what awaited them further in the room, intrigued. Something rested on a cushion, something alive. "There's a creature guarding the key. It's not that big... aaaww, it's a little Plumpy!" She tried to walk towards the loveable bad-tempered Petpet, but Hanso tugged firmly on their bound wrists.
"Don't tell me you're afraid of that little marshmallow?" Amazed, Amira tried to refrain from giggling.
"That's the biggest Angelpuss I've ever seen! I... I don't like Angelpi, OK?"
Amira burst out laughing. A strip of bacon had been hung from the ceiling. She dragged Hanso as far as she could, took the bacon and tossed it to the floor, at the Plumpy's level. The rotund creature immediately dived onto the glorious food, leaving a very squashed cushion from which Amira took the key.
The dirt paths had led the three other teams down three tunnels, in a cacophony of echoing blows and insults. Kanrik and Galem were still grappling with each other, scruffy and bruised, when they reached a dead end.
"You took everything from me," growled the Grarrl into Kanrik's face as he pressed him against the damp stone wall.
Kanrik wrinkled his nose and huffed out Galem's terrible breath. "And everyone loves me for it!"
Galem was about to retort when Kanrik's ears twitched. "What's that sound?" asked the Gelert. A low rumble had invaded the tunnel. Suddenly, a heavy iron grate fell from the ceiling, trapping them. The floor shook beneath their feet and their stomachs sank. They had arrived in an elevator of some sort.
Jeran and Kass had fallen into the same trap. As their platform rose higher and higher, the rumbling sound became louder and shriller. Kass soon had to block his ears. "Is this some twisted sort of revenge?" he hissed.
Jeran shook his head wearily. He had recognised the sound. "Something terrible is waiting for us up there. It's nothing personal, Kass. I'm sorry you got dragged into this with us."
A window of light opened near them to show the Oracle's face. "You're nearly there, Group 4! In order to be true idols of Neopia, it's not enough to be ingenious, tough and daring..."
A round patch of ceiling slid open above their heads, showering them with daylight. The strident roar became deafening.
"To be popular, you also need social skills," the Oracle continued.
The platform stopped moving. They found themselves in the center of an arena. Tall barriers of thick iron bars blocked them from the seating area.
"We're still trapped?" shouted Kass over the din, his hands over his ears.
"No," Jeran shouted back, "those barriers are the only thing protecting us!"
Kass tried to look past the bars, squinting. "By the spirits! What are those creatures?"
"Fangirls," Jeran answered darkly.
Kass scoffed. "Does the precious little knight have a fan club?"
"Yes, but these are mainly yours."
Kass's beak fell open. The seats were filled with a sea of purple. Some of the creatures had started to climb up the barrier, flailing, screaming and trying to knock each other down. With emphasis on the screaming. How could they look so puny, yet so menacing? He spotted a girl with strawberry-blond hair who was squeezing a large plushie effigy of himself, squealing words of endearment. He imagined himself in the plushie's place. He gulped and glanced back at the opening through which they had arrived.
"This... this is madness," he told Jeran.
The Lupe patted him on the shoulder. "There, there. It's all part of the job."
"You... you have to put up with this on a regular basis?" He gazed at Jeran through new eyes.
"Contestants! For this challenge, you will interact directly with your fans! The audience may vote to eliminate a member, so be sure to play nice!" said the Oracle.
"Finally! My loyal followers." In a second arena, Razul spread out his arms and spun slowly on the spot, letting the audience admire his glorious person from all angles.
"Actually, they're mostly here for me," said Jazan. He was eyeing the gates that separated them from the fans, worried.
"Bah! Who would worship you? Everyone knows I wear guyliner better than you."
"Back when you had a face, perhaps."
"They only bought those hundreds of plush toys in your effigy because they were cheap. ... Make that thousands of plush toys. No matter, they were still cheap. Bow to me, pathetic mortals!" Razul shouted the last words.
Jazan rolled his eyes, but was startled to see nearly half of the audience bow before his father. Great. As if he needed encouragement.
Hanso and Amira had been dropped into yet another arena. Hanso covered his ears, wincing. He didn't mind a few rowdy fans, but he was exhausted, and this was just insane.
Amira looked bored as usual. "Oh, get a grip. This is just another public appearance." She waved graciously at the audience, only to be booed. "What in Neopia?"
Hanso laughed. "They're Brynn's fans! They don't look happy to see you." He made calming gestures with his hands, shouting at the top of his voice. "Hey now, let's tone it down a little, guys! Your hero's been working hard." They didn't seem to hear or register anything he said. "Seriously guys, I'm tired. I can't do this!"
Kanrik and Galem were leaning on each other for support, in shock.
"The fans weren't as... intense back when I was in charge," said the Grarrl.
"Save me," said Kanrik. He gripped Galem's shoulder so tightly that his hand was shaking.
"They do seem to love you." Galem eyed the sticky hands, glitter and tufts of hair being thrown about. "They love you a lot. Man, how do you do this?"
"I don't know. Just save me."
"And the gates are open!" The Oracle's voice was completely lost in the shrill clamor that erupted as the fans poured into the arenas.
Don't forget to vote and to play games to earn points for your favorite idols!
Will our heroic contestants manage to please their fans? Will they survive? How does it feel to cuddle Lord Kass? Will Plumpy ever have enough bacon? Why is the orange Yurble so angry? What is that green Zafara pointing at?
Find out in the next episode of THE ORACLE GAMES!
Only on OracleVision.
Special thanks to parody_ham.