Stachetastic: the Hair-Raising Origin - Part Seven
The Defenders of Neopia Headquarters was practically the complete opposite of the Hidden Tower. Its doors were wide open, its tile floors were somewhat marked by the footprints of Neopets walking in and out every day, and its display cases showing off the various achievements and items belonging to famous Defenders were sealed tight. Norman had walked those halls at a young age, brimming with awe and excitement as he was clustered tightly in a heap of excited students.
Now, the Lupe was being led by a vexed-looking Masked Intruder, not up the staircase to Judge Hog and the other Defenders, but down another staircase, much colder and darker than the one he'd traveled up as a child.
"Listen, I didn't mean any harm by--"
"Silence." The Kougra dragged him harder down the stone steps, making the Lupe trip over his moustache, slamming his muzzle into the cold stone. Norman yelped and touched his nose. Not bleeding, not broken. Good.
The Kougra sighed but continued to pull the Lupe down the circular steps, albeit more gently this time. Norman whined, fearing for both his life and his Kadoatie, all alone unless Lenora came to visit. "Please, I have a Kadoatie at..." His hind paws felt the familiar traction of solid ground, and he was momentarily relieved.
Norman forgot about finishing his sentence and tried to squint through the impenetrable darkness. Was the Kougra taking him to prison? It certainly felt like it. A chill ran through him, despite his thick fur. There was only one day left for Norman to go back to Ms. Wyndham and try to explain himself. If he was imprisoned, she would have every right to saw awful things about him while he was gone! No one would dare to employ him after that!
"Here we are." The Kougra stopped at a thick wooden door--Norman could only make it out by scent. The Kougra twisted the doorknob and pulled open the door to reveal a moderately furnished and comfortable office. "Have a seat, if you please, Norman."
Taken aback by the surprising room as well as the immediate introduction of light, Norman squinted for a few seconds before sitting down at the chair in front of the desk. The plaque on the desk read "Morgan: Masked Intruder."
"Why is your office all the way down here?" Norman asked, forgetting he was about to be imprisoned.
"Because I get to hear everything. Besides, Defender lairs are ten times cooler underground." The Kougra's demeanor seemed to reverse itself completely upon entering his office. "You do know why I brought you here, don't you?" The Masked Intruder adjusted his mask in a very casual manner.
The delay and suspense was starting to get to the poor Lupe. "When do I see my cell?" Norman asked, wringing his tail with his paws.
"Your cell!" The Kougra exclaimed in disbelief. He stared at Norman for a second or two before he burst out laughing, even going so far to bang his paws on his desk. "You thought you were being thrown into prison?!"
"It seemed like it, yeah." Norman blushed and looked down at his paws, absentmindedly stroking his moustache.
"Not at all. Circumstances like yours don't come around all that often." The Masked Intruder sipped at a mug of borovan on his desk before standing up. "Take a look at these photographs." He gestured to several photographs of Defenders such as Lightning Lenny, Aisheena, Orig the Great, and Judge Hog himself. "Tell me, Norman, what do all of these Neopets have in common?"
"Besides being Defenders?" Norman stroked his moustache thoughtfully, remembering when he'd stopped the Jelly Chia from stomping on the partygoers at the Defender Dance, when he swam, many years ago, to rescue a little Aisha from the uncertain depths of Maraqua, and when he'd saved Rasmus the Meowclops from the explosion in the Haunted Woods. "They wanted to protect someone."
"You're sharper than I thought. Most people would suggest that 'they had unusual abilities', and while that is part of what they have in common, it is by no means the most important." The Kougra smiled under his mask. "Yours, however, has been a tremendous asset to those around you, and you've spent time humbling yourself and making efforts to conceal who you are rather than parading it about and making your moustache much longer than it is." He chuckled at his own metaphor.
"Which is why I'd like to offer you a full-time position as Defender of Neopia."
Norman leaped out of the chair as if he had been stuck from underneath by an icicle. "Are you serious? But..." His mind flashed to the battle with the Jelly Chia. "I can't fight with my moustache." Norman laughed nervously, picturing himself in fierce combat with the Pant Devil, slapping the blue apparition with his moustache tendrils and wrapping him up tightly with them. The sight was more amusing than intimidating.
"Of course you can. Norman, has anyone ever told you that with great moustache—"
"I know already," Norman interrupted. His paw pads were beginning to sweat. "Isn't Judge Hog supposed to be taking care of the recruits? I know you guys are busy 24/7, but still—"
The Masked Intruder's face lost all its former friendliness. "Look, kid, every day we get scores of Neopets volunteering as Defenders for the glory and the fame and the generous wage. Nobody volunteers anymore for the right reasons, least of all someone with a caring heart and super-Neopian abilities. Do you suppose Ms. Wyndham's experiment was an accident? Do you suppose anything that happened to you was an accident?! Your moustache and new strength are gifts. It would be reprehensible for you to waste them." The Kougra took a matter-of-fact swig from his mug of Borovan and glared into Norman's eyes.
"Then again, we can't very well throw you into the fray. You're close to Ms. Wyndham, too. We've been watching her for several weeks. She's definitely up to something, but only Fyora knows what it is." Another sip of borovan. Another stare.
"We need to establish a few rules before you can be officially hired." The Defender sat back down in his chair and tented his fingertips. "First, you must be trained. There was only so much the Swamp Witch could do with you, and who knows if she is ever in her right mind. Secondly, you must quit your job as soon as you can. No one can be a full-time Defender and have a day job. There are simply not enough hours in the day to begin with.
Thirdly: you need to create a Defender identity, and stick with it for as long as you remain with us. And most importantly," The Kougra growled and downed the rest of his borovan in one go. "Tell only one other Neopian. Be wary of other Neopets at all times."
Norman barked in protest. "I didn't even say I accepted the position yet! I'm not even sure if I'm cut out for this..." The latter statement rang a little hollow as images of a Meowclops, a scared and soaking wet Lenora, and the Jelly Chia swam through his mind, mingling with all of the questions within it in a bittersweet stew.
"I realize this is all a bit much for you." The Kougra's tone softened again. "So you may have the rest of the day off. Report straight to me after the Defender Dance with your new name. You are dismissed." The Kougra waved Norman away before the Lupe could ask any more questions.
Norman turned to go and slowly closed the door behind him. The Crokabek-black tunnel was just familiar enough for the Lupe to not lose his way with his paw on the wall. The Lupe turned around to take one last look at the Masked Intruder's office, but was astonished to find not even an olfactory trace of the wooden door leading to it. The Lupe shook his head and slowly meandered up the staircase to begin the long journey home.
"Ta-da!" Lenora spun around in a circle with what at first glance appeared to be Baby Neopet pajamas held tightly to her chest. "What do you think? I knew you'd persuade Sophie to help, you smooth talker, you, so I decided to work extra hard and make you this!" She held out the outfit proudly. "That training you did with her and the potion she gave you is really helping you improve your abilities, so I came up with a little reward!"
Norman took the jelly-soft material in his paws. It had a strange, familiar quality to it, as though he'd felt that kind of softness somewhere before.
"And it comes with a cape and boots, too!" The bedraggled Aisha had barely enough pep in her body to raise her usually tall ears, but she had just enough to put it in her voice.
Norman's ears perked up as he stroked the fabric. The outfit was perfectly tailored to him, long sleeved, and sported a midnight blue hue, which was striking against his pale blue fur. "It's dark, so you'll be stealthy at night, and don't worry, it breathes. I thought it would be really cool for just... another Defender Dance, but you can imagine how thrilled I was when you told me about your new job! I knew you'd take my advice and find something that you liked!" The poor girl seemed absolutely exhausted by her talking and her work, and promptly stopped speaking in order to catch her breath.
"Lenora, how long have you been working on this?" Norman asked, eyeing the silvery cape with admiration and the boots with wonder.
"Only about a few days and several cups of Azzle coffee. That stuff from the catacombs is really strong. I'm telling you, if you have about four cups you can stay up for a whole night!" The Aisha nodded to attempt to prove her point that she was brimming with energy, but she was unsuccessful. The flopping of her tall ears gave her away. Norman thrust his arms around her, moved.
"Lenora, thank you. This means a great deal to me, it really does, but for Fyora's sake, please, you've got to sleep!" Norman pulled away. "There's no way Mr. Pierce can let you go on like this," Norman lifted one of the Aisha's tall ears, which promptly flopped backwards, lifeless. "You keep this up, we're going to have to get you to the Neopian Hospital."
"I'm okay. I promise. After all, you did save my life, and I won't forget that." Lenora closed her eyes dreamily. The sleep-deprived Aisha was half asleep, half reliving the memory. The waters of Maraqua closed in around her, the light left her eyes, she was sinking, sinking...
"But that doesn't make you a slave for life! I'm not Dr. Sloth!" Norman barked to get her attention. "I know I can always count on you to bring me what I need, but will you stop sacrificing yourself for it?" When her expression became blank, Norman sighed. "Won't you do that as a favor to me?"
"Okay!" the Aisha replied cheerfully as if nothing had happened. She put a hand to her chin, rubbing it. "You already have the boots, the cape, the mask you made, the paycheck (more than double of the Grooming Parlour's salary—man, you really lucked out on that job!), but you still don't have a name, do you?"
"Of course I do. I'm Norman, and you've always known me as—" Norman stopped abruptly as he realized what she was talking about. "Oh, that kind of name." The Lupe laughed nervously. Most of the Defender names he'd heard of were intimidating, like Judge Hog, but others like Orig the Great had to replace their names with another name entirely. A cold shudder went through him as he realized that if he made the wrong choice for a name, he could be ridiculed as a Defender for the rest of his life!
"What if we keep it simple?" the Lupe suggested, hopeful. He thought of how he looked while trying to fight the Jelly Chia. No one, save for Lenora, knew who he was. "Perhaps a name like The Whisker? People like whiskers, and it means moustache. It's mysterious without being overly cute."
Lenora stared at him, a gleam in her eyes. "I've got just the thing." She cackled in an unusually mischievous manner.
"What is it?"
The name stuck.
To be continued...