Jacob flicked the switch on the coal-sorter and waited on baited breath. This would be the one, surely. The Christmas Kacheek had spent far too many hours on the device for it to backfire again. Slowly one steam-powered rotor began to turn and moved the coal from one pile into its internal furnace. It worked just as planned: a breakthrough, in his eyes.
"Stealth! Come here! It's actually working!" he yelled to his friend. Stealth, a Silver Eyrie, turned from the twelve-piece jigsaw puzzle he was struggling with at the kitchen table to see his friend beaming with joy.
"That's great! So glad to see it finally come together," he said as he gave his friend a pat on the shoulder with his wing.
"Come to think of it, Stealth, aren't you almost late for that delivery run? You wouldn't want to lose another job, you know?"
Stealth looked at the clock in horror as he abandoned his puzzle and flew straight out the door. "Thanks for that! Almost forgot again. See you in the morning!" he said as Jacob heard the telltale thud of the front door.
Outside, the air was still boiling hot, though still less so than the day that proceeded it. Moltara had a funny way of doing that, what with being a subterranean mining colony near Neopia's core. Using the thermals spread throughout the air, Stealth increased his speed substantially to reach the surface in time. Contrary to Jacob's beliefs, however, this was no delivery run. Stealth flew over to a remote part of the lush jungle outside of Moltara's entrance. Pulling aside a cover of foliage, Stealth embarked down a set of now-revealed stairs, dimly lit by torch light. The entrance was then re-covered, seemingly as if on cue.
Upon reaching the bottom of the stairwell, Stealth took notice of his surroundings. The stairs led to a vast chamber-like room, at least 100 feet in height and the length of two Yooyuball fields. Adorning the walls were arcane runes engraved into the great stone facades. Across the expansive foyer there lay a grand scarlet carpet, leading down to the end of the hall. Figures in black robes appeared from the shadows, each holding a single lit candle, and stood parallel to the carpet. Stealth carefully made his way down the eerily silent room, audibly gulping as he went. At the end of the line stood another cloaked figure, though something about this one seemed off, in a way. It was as if the air in the room dropped quite a few degrees in the figure's presence. Stealth knew now what he'd face, and he wasn't very thrilled about the prospect.
"Agent Stealth," the figure said, removing his cloak to reveal a bespectacled Nimmo.
"Yes, Lord Norheim," Stealth said, unsure of how to present himself. He bowed, though the look in Norheim's eyes told him, in no un-simple terms, that this was the wrong course of action.
"We are in need of a progress report. It's regrettable enough that you arrived several minutes late, but now you are failing to deliver your findings in a timely manner. The Dutchess doesn't like to be kept waiting, mind you," he said, placing both of his hands on the top of his crook.
"Yes, my lord. He's almost entirely affiliated with the Seekers as of late," Stealth let out.
Norheim glared at the Eyrie. "You have been living with this pet for several years now, and the only information you could learn of him is a fact that a rudimentary private investigator could gather in twelve minutes at most?"
"He's been quite busy, Lord Norheim," Stealth said as he stammered. "H-he just got back from Brightvale a few days ago. The full species transformation made him rethink certain parts of his life. In case he is ever unable to do mechanical work in the future, he returned to Brightvale University to receive a degree in linguistics, specializing in ancient Moltaran runes."
"So he's even more of a worthwhile prospect than we had originally thought," Norheim said while stroking his beard. "Intelligent enough to achieve another degree in only a few months' time..."
"Well, to be fair, most of the requirements for it were fulfilled when he minored in it back in the day," Stealth clarified.
"Fair enough. There is still ample reason to keep an eye on him. Certain secrets were meant to be kept from the public, and his expertise in both mechanical engineering, and now ancient Moltaran linguistics, could lead to something reaching the public eye that by all means shouldn't..." Norheim said in a hushed tone. "You are dismissed, Agent Stealth."
Stealth was taken aback as the hooded agents each blew out their candles at once, leaving only the torch lights to guide him.
"Oh, and Stealth," Norheim began. "Never play me for a fool. I know you've grown attached to him. For both his sake and yours, complete your mission in its entirety. And just remember that we can always take back what we've given you," he said as he tapped his crook against Stealth's wings. With that, he donned his hood once more and walked into a secret room. Stealth exited the room and returned home to Moltara.
The next morning, Stealth awoke as he usually did. He wandered over to the kitchen table. Today would be the day he'd solve that jigsaw puzzle, he told himself, like he did every day. How did he get caught up in this Sway business? Should he tell Jacob? These thoughts would race through his head at every waking moment. Not being able to complete the jigsaw puzzle wasn't due to a lack of intelligence, but rather a lack of clarity and focus.
"Hey Jacob?" Stealth asked as his roommate plodded heavily over to the table. It was clear that Jacob didn't get much sleep the night prior.
"Oh, hi Stealth. Sorry about the mess in the living room," Jacob muttered, motioning toward the papers strewn about the floor. "I had a pretty long night last night."
"I didn't take you for a party animal," Stealth said, chuckling to himself.
Jacob poured himself some coffee. "Oh, haha, quite funny, Stealth," he said with a slight grin. "There's just been something on my mind for a while is all."
Stealth took some cold pizza out of the fridge and plopped it on a plate. The true breakfast of champions, in his mind. "What's got you so hooked that you actually lost sleep over it?" Stealth asked between bites.
Jacob stirred some sugar into his coffee. "I don't think you'd find it too interesting, honestly. I'm just getting myself worked up, is all."
"Try me," Stealth said as his beak struggled to tear apart the solid iceberg that was once a slice of pizza.
"Well, if you insist," Jacob said before sipping his coffee, nodding at the fact that it was brewed to perfection. "There were some really strange runes that I found by the magma caverns down in the Moltara Caves. Fascinating, really."
Stealth dropped his pizza.
"But what strikes me as odd is that they don't follow any sort of known native Magma Pet dialect. Published studies show no record of vast changes to their language over time, at least not this extreme. The runes seem to be a pidgin language of sorts, but I can't be certain of what the Ancient Moltaran is mixed with," Jacob said. He sighed a bit, and then laughed. "I knew you'd find it to be a bore; you look like you're zoning out, Stealth."
Stealth re-composed himself and dusted off his pizza. "Are you sure it's okay to be poking around like that?"
"Moltaran citizens are free to explore the caves, Stealth. You've lived here for how long?" Jacob said. "And besides, it's for the benefit of everyone else. This could lead to an amazing discovery and reshape the way we think about Moltaran history as we know it!"
"Look, Jacob, I just don't think you should be doing this," Stealth managed to finally say.
"And why is that?"
Stealth did not think this far ahead. What reason could he even give that wouldn't blow his cover?
"I just have a bad feeling about it, is all," he said. There. Jacob couldn't counter-argue someone's feelings, after all.
"I'll tell you what, Stealth. I'll think it over, just to put you at ease a bit. Does that sound okay by you?" Jacob asked.
"To be honest, yeah, it does. That being said, I have message delivery to do today. I'll likely be gone for a while,” Stealth said. “I’m trying to pull more shifts in my jobs to make rent this month. See you after work, eh?”
“Sure thing, Stealth. I don’t have any appointments for repairs scheduled for today, so I’ll probably just be reviewing my notes some more while you’re away.”
Stealth was worried he’d say that. “Okay, that sounds great. See you later, Jacob,” Stealth said as he left the building. When the coast was clear, Stealth whipped out a pen and a piece of parchment. He began to rapidly craft a note. It read:
There has been a minor setback. Jacob is in the process of gathering information that might harm our collective efforts. As I am but a low ranking operative, I do not know what secrets he may be about to uncover. I do not have that level of access. However, from what you’ve told me, I can assume that he is on to something.
Agent 42, Stealth”
Stealth took a whistle out of his pocket. He blew on it, releasing a sound of a pitch far too high for a mere Neopet to hear. In an instant, a Crokabek flew down from a nearby building and took the parchment, knowing full well where to deliver it. Realizing he forgot his delivery satchel, Stealth quickly turned back toward the house in order to keep up the ruse.
A whirring sound greeted Stealth when he entered his home. Upon the countertop, H.O.O.T., Jacob’s Albot was spinning around with a note attached to his beak. Stealth quickly took the letter out of the Albot’s beak and read it aloud.
“Dear Stealth, I hope you’re not worried about me not being home,” he read. It was a bit of a relief, as he’d thought that Jacob had left to research the runes, but he was likely just getting groceries, he thought. He continued reading. “To clarify, I’m not getting groceries. Instead I’ve boarded a boat to Mystery Island. I think I’ve found a break in the case.” Stealth’s heart sunk. Jacob could be in mortal danger if the Sway find his actions too problematic or disruptive. At the moment he had no choice; he had to go to Mystery Island and intercept Jacob.*Year Two*
“Look, I’m just wondering why we need to worry. Maybe this will be a good thing,” said a Brown Grundo.
“I know you’re usually naïve and optimistic, but seriously, you saw what happened to Garzool, didn’t you?” said a Green Grundo. “Face it, Stealth. We’re doomed to become mutants for the Doctor’s Neopian domination plans.”
The Brown Grundo, known as Stealth, sighed. “I…I just want to go back to planet Doran. Everything was so calm there…and less mutated. I’m scared, Zurix.”
“We all are, Stealth. We all are…”
Suddenly the ship came to a halt. Shackled and cuffed, the Grundo prisoners made their way onto the Space Station. Each was given a number; Sloth had wanted a massive army, and numbers were easier to keep track of. Slowly each one made their way into the testing chamber and was transmogrified, becoming a hulking Mutant Grundo. Stealth was Number 42, the last of this set. Curiously, the Grarrl holding the door to the chamber seemed…different than Sloth’s other guards, at least in Stealth’s mind. As Stealth was about to enter the first set of doors, the Grarrl covered Stealth’s mouth, unchained him, and smuggled him into an escape pod, with another Sloth guard seamlessly taking his place.
Stealth finally got his mouth free. “What’s going on?” he asked.
“Your name’s Stealth, is it not?” said the Grarrl before spotting the number on his tag. “Much better than Number 42 I assume.”
“The number’s not so bad, but…I think you’re missing my point,” Stealth said. He cleared his throat. “What in the world is going on?” he yelled.
“I’m with the Sway. We were interested in getting at least one of Sloth’s Grundos by intercepting a shipment. You could hold information that is valuable to our organization.”
“Who’s the Sway? Where are we going?”
“Back to Neopia. I’ll be showing you to the Duchess. You’ve got quite the tale to tell.”
Upon arriving back at Neopia, Stealth was blindfolded. Hours passed before the ship landed in an undisclosed location, and Stealth was taken out and led through a long hallway. A door slowly creaked open as the blindfold was removed, finally showing Stealth what was behind the proverbial curtain. A Lenny with a stern look in her eyes glared at Stealth, all while maintaining her posture.
“So this is what Sloth’s after,” she said.
“Um…hi! I have no idea what’s going on,” Stealth said.
“For a Grundo, you speak modern Neopian rather well,” said the Duchess.
“It’s basically the second language on Doran, though generally only the more elite families are able to speak it,” Stealth said somewhat sheepishly. “My family was rather well-off. We…we made a fortune in the rare element mining business. Hence why my name is a Neopian name, rather than a Doranian name.”
“Knowing the Neopian language also gave you a means to speak without being told to do so,” said the Duchess with contempt. “I presume it won’t happen again?”
“Good. Now then, come with me. You’ve a lot to learn. The Sway could use you to our advantage in covert operations. From here on in, you will be addressed as Agent 42, given your number. But first, you’ll need to go undercover. If a Grundo is seen this early on meandering about Neopia, it will likely turn some heads. Luckily we have a remedy for that,” the Duchess said, pulling an elixir of sorts from a cabinet. “This will do.” She applied the elixir to Stealth as he changed shape to become an Eyrie. “Agent 42, you start tomorrow on your mission; intelligence gathering. Grunt work for someone of Sway caliber, I’m aware, but we all must start somewhere.”*Mystery Island, Present Day*
Jacob wobbled off the boat and onto the beaches of Mystery Island. It was clear that he still had not gotten his sea legs. Holding a manila folder in one paw, and a satchel in the other, he traversed the sandy coastline until arriving at a small booth. Tombola – a source of great enjoyment from the visiting tourists and locals alike. A young Wocky had drawn a ticket and awaited her result.
“I’m sorry, but that’s not a winning ticket,” said the Tiki Tack Man. “However, you did win a booby prize. Here it is, a Toy Sailboat!” The young Wocky took the boat and walked away with a smile on her face. “Come again tomorrow!” he yelled out, waving at the patron. Jacob walked up to the stand. “Judging from your attire, you’re a tourist, are you not? Why don’t you try for a prize?” said the Tiki Tack Man, motioning toward the tombola.
“Actually, I’m here on business. I’m trying for a different sort of prize. Perhaps you can be of help?” Jacob explained, sliding the file folder over to the Tiki Tack Man. Though his mask remained a stone-steady façade, the man behind the mask shuddered.
“I’ll be right with you,” he said, as he put up a “Closed” sign on the tombola. “Follow me into my home,” he said, leading Jacob to his hut behind the Tiki Tack shop. Unbeknownst to them, however, they were being watched. A Crokabek was lurking high up in one of the palm trees, with a purple glint in its eye, almost as if someone had used a spell on it.
Lord Norheim paced about hastily, a spell-slinging Bruce by his side. “I…thank you for your services. Really, I do. Our eyes in the skies program couldn’t work without it, but this…” he said, as he grabbed his own hair, but stopped short of pulling it out. “No matter. I shall bring this up with the Duchess. The secret will not get out, no. We’ll simply eliminate the variables, as we always do.” He looked at his crook once more and polished it. “Such a pity, he could have made great progress as an agent.”
The Tiki Tack Man looked at the runes Jacob brought over and cross-examined them with a specimen of his own. “Well, you were correct in your suspicion that it was an Island language,” he said. “Man, how did you figure this out?”
“It’s a pidgin of sorts. I’m a linguist. Well, and a mechanic, but that’s beside the point. Anyway, as you see here, these symbols aren’t found in any recorded Moltaran dialect, and yet it uses the native Magma Pets’ grammatical structure. However, the symbols reminded me of an Island dialect, so it was either here or Krawk Island, but most of their dialects come from other areas in a sort of melting pot fashion, what with them being seafarers. I take it you know what these are?”
“Yeah, man. Of course. You see, way back in the day, like, Year Five, there was a big hullabaloo here on the island.”
“The Moltenus Incident…”
“Ah, you’ve heard of it? Basically these symbols are the same as the ones found on a note Jhuidah found. Ancient Island language, dating back many years. How they ended up in Moltara I’ll never know, man.”
The cogs in Jacob’s head continued to grind together, eventually leading to a cohesive explanation. “I think I’ve got it actually…it’s a cover up!”
“Whoa man, that’s a pretty hefty accusation,” said the Tiki Tack Man.
“Please, listen,” said Jacob. “This is evidence of a direct link between the Ancient Moltarans and the Ancient Islanders. Due to the fact that you brought the Moltenus Incident to my attention, I made the connection: the first Moltarans arrived in Moltara for the sole reason of stabilizing Neopia, for a great deal of natural calamities had plagued the planet at the time. Namely, volcanic and tectonic issues were to blame. After the scientists and mystics left for the planet’s core, they decided to stay and build a thriving city there, with the mystics becoming some of the first Magma Pets. This is a cornerstone of Moltara’s history, but due to its isolation many thought that the explorers perished after stabilizing the planet.”
“I’m afraid I don’t see where this is going,” said the Tiki Tack Man while scratching his head.
“Allow me to clarify. As I’m sure you know, as you’ve had firsthand experience, Moltenus has power over volcanos and has a magma-like form, correct?”
“Yeah, it does. Man, are you trying to say that…”
“…That Moltenus was mostly to blame for disrupting Neopia’s core. Think about it. The only explanation for that type of Island language to get mixed in with Moltaran runes is through language contact. The formations the runes are carved in are many, many years old. At least some of the explorers, therefore, had to have been residents of Mystery Island.”
“Well, that makes sense, I suppose, but where does Moltenus come into this?”
“It’s simple: why would the natives here, who at the time were primitive compared to the Islanders today, be brought in on a scientific expedition? They had firsthand knowledge of Moltenus, a being composed almost entirely of magma. When it seemed to the outside world that the explorers met their doom in the planet’s core, someone, or perhaps a group of people, wanted the information that it was Moltenus’ doing to stay hidden. That way the beast would lay dormant instead of being eradicated, possibly for future ‘use’ by them. My only question is what group would have that much power?”
Suddenly, Stealth burst through the door, gasping for breath. “Oh, thank Fyora…Jacob, there’s something I need to tell you.”
“Stealth? What is it?” Jacob asked.
“They’re…they’re coming…they’re coming for you. You need to flee, now! You know too much!”
As if on cue, several agents of The Sway burst through the entrance of the hut and surrounded Jacob, Stealth, and the Tiki Tack Man. Lord Norheim stood among them.
“Excellent, Agent 42. You’ve led us right to him. Jacob, I must ask you to stand down and relinquish your findings, or else we will take them by force. And if you resist, we’re not above making you disappear,” said Norheim. “It’s not as if anyone will take notice.”
“They’ll notice if I’m gone, though,” said the Tiki Tack Man, walking straight up to Norheim and staring him down.
“Oh, but of course, my dear sir. Your chapter in Neopia’s history is not yet completed,” he said with a smug grin. “Agent 42, this is truly a disappointment. You let your attachment to this Pet interfere with your mission.
“Stealth, tell me right now what he’s talking about,” Jacob said with a quavering voice. “You’re not…with them, are you?”
“Jacob, I tried to tell you. Trust me when I say that you’re my best friend, and nothing will change that. Yeah, it started as an espionage stunt, I admit…but you just need to trust me.”
Jacob started to tear up. “Stealth, I…I just can’t believe you’d…”
“Enough of this nonsense!” bellowed Norheim. “Consider yourself demoted, 42.” As he said this, Lord Norheim pulled out a second elixir. Stealth recognized the variety, but it was somehow…off. It had a red “X” on the label. Norheim then splashed it on Stealth. Instantaneously, Stealth began to morph in shape, size, and color. His wings and main were replaced with rubbery skin, large eyes, and towering ears. His color changed from Silver to Brown. He’d reverted back to his previous form.
Still adjusting to his new form, Stealth sprung up and rammed Norheim before Sway agents apprehended him. Norheim got up and took the Jacob’s file and tucked it into his robe and began to pull out his hypnotizing amulet. “I’ll be sure that none of you remember the events that transpired here today.” After completing the hypnosis ritual, he and the three other Sway agents took their leave.
Jacob got to his feet at last and ran toward Stealth. He was badly scrapped and damaged, but living. Stealth had gotten a direct hit from the amulet, and woke in a daze. The Tiki Tack Man was unharmed. Due to his mask, the amulet hadn’t fully hit him; only the mask’s eyeholes left him exposed. He could remember bits and pieces, but not the full puzzle. But due to Jacob’s thick goggles, the amulet outright didn’t affect him. “Stealth, I…I’m not mad at you. You saved me,” Jacob said.
“What…what happened to me?” Stealth asked.
“There was a…morphing potion incident. Random Events, you know how they are.” He couldn’t tell him. Maybe it was best for Stealth to not remember his past affiliation.
Stealth instinctively looked in his pocket and pulled out a folder. “What’s this?” he asked, perplexed. Jacob, confused yet ecstatic, took it, claiming he’d dropped it.
“Nothing, Stealth. Let’s go home.” Jacob thought about telling the Seekers about the ordeal, but for now he felt it best to err on the side of caution, just until he was off the Sway’s radar.*
“You do realize this blunder was costly, Norheim.” The Duchess stared at her colleague. This couldn’t reach the media’s attention. They couldn’t act. “Do you mind telling me why the folder contains nothing but a twelve piece puzzle?”
“I…have no explanation, madam.”