Old Lupe Balthazar
How had it come to this? Balthazar thought as he scraped the dried pumpkin off of his fence. A few years ago, he would have chased those pets off of his lawn without a second thought. He would have bounded out of his house, sending the front door flying off of its hinges, and chased the neopets into the darkened recesses of the Haunted Woods. They would have seen his dark fur, his glistening teeth, and if they escaped they would have a tale to tell around the campfire for years to come.
Now he had only watched them throw rotten pumpkins and Gross Food at his fence through cracked windows. Had they even known that the Great Balthazar lived here? Or did they think it was only an abandoned house with its yard of weeds, its splintered walls and crumbling roof, but surprisingly well-maintained fence?
Balthazar tossed the spatula he had been using to scrape the dried food off to the ground. Might as well let the fence rot with the rest of the house. He stalked up the splintered front steps to his home; he was going to eat enough NeoCrips until he felt better or until he slipped into a food coma.
Chipper, Balthazar’s Doglefox stirred from its pile of dirty laundry that served as its bed and sniffed excitedly at Balthazar’s paws. Balthazar leaned down on creaking knees and pet his petpet. “Yeah, yeah, I’m gettin’ it, I’m gettin’ it.”
The smell of rot leaked out of the fridge as Balthazar opened it. There were bags of rotting vegetables in there. Balthazar scratched his chin. He had meant to eat it, he really had, but it was so much easier to eat NeoCrisps and Almost Gummy Rats and Bat Cookies. Chipper yipped again, and Balthazar grabbed the can of petpet food and emptied into Chipper’s food bowl.
Some might think it strange that Balthazar, villain of Extreme Herder 1 and 2, would own a petpet as something other than food, but those games had brought them together in the first place. Balthazar had agreed to star in those games for some quick neopoints. The company that made Inflatable Balthazar’s had stopped paying him years ago, and he had almost considered getting back into the fairie hunting business. Those games should have paid out, but the Samrin, the Kacheek Herder, had a vicious lawyer, and managed to take most of Balthazar’s share as well as his own. In return, Balthazar had taken Chipper as a souvenir. He had also burned down the Samrin’s house, but that was really just an afterthought.
Wait. Balthazar sniffed the air. There was the usual scent of body odor barely covered by cheap cleaning supplies, but there was a harsher scent under it, like glitter and clouds, one Balthazar had almost forgotten.
Before he could do anything about it, his recliner started to slowly spin around to face him.
Then it stopped about halfway there, squealing on rusted gears and spring. A faire huffed and awkwardly swung out of the chair, spun it around so that it fully faced Balthazar, then sat back down in it.
“You know I don’t think there’s any saving that dramatic entrance.” She said.
She had short purple hair and a sword slung over her back. One of those Battledome fairies. They hadn’t been around before he retired, but he had seen one when he visited Dude, the Lupe who stood in for him in his Battledome fights.
“You know, if you don’t clean that fence Meowclops are gonna start gnawing at it, and just try to get them to leave,” the fairie said, without a trace of fear in her voice.
“Who are you and why are you in my house?” Balthazar growled.
“Also you have some hard water stains in your bathroom, so you should get that checked. Also, who uses a Fuzzy Toilet? Seriously?”
“I didn’t know there were Maintenance Fairies.”
The fairie raised her hands. “Sorry, sorry. My name is Ella, and I’m here to deputize you into the Defenders of Neopia.”
Balthazar waited for her to tell the punchline, but after an uncomfortably long silence, he realized that Ella was completely serious. Balthazar started walking to his room. He had had too much for one day. Neopets pelting his fence with gross food, and then some Battle Fairie breaking into his house and trying to make him join the Defenders? Nope. Balthazar was going to go to bed and sleep until all of this went away.
“Wait!” Ella shouted. She scrambled out of the armchair, which was not an easy task as its plushness was legendary in the armchair industry. “It’s Null.”
Balthazar stopped at the door to his room. The story of how a scared, sick Lupe lost in the Haunted Woods had become Balthazar, The Scourge of Fairies, had been told and retold so many times that Balthazar was no longer sure if he could trust his memory. What had actually happened that night? Had he been abandoned in the woods by his parents, or by an owner? Or had he merely wandered into the woods on a dare? His failing memory filled in the blanks with whatever legends he had heard of it, but he always remembered her, and how she had chased and tormented him through the night.
He had tried to hunt her down through the years. Made contacts with other dark fairies and interrogated those he had captured. There was never any trace of her. It was as if she had taken one night to torment a lost Lupe and then vanished back into obscurity. The only thing he had learned was her name, Null.
“How do you know about Null?” Balthazar whispered.
“The Defenders have had a file on her for years, but we just thought she was a minor nuiscance. She attacked the Neopia Central Bank a few hours ago, and has demanded that we bring you to her. Judge Hog is in Altador and we don’t have any other Defenders that are strong enough to face her. You’re the only one who has faced her before, Balthazar. We need you.”
Balthazar looked in the mirror on his wall. He looked like he had had a few swipes with an Elderly Paintbrush. And the Should Probably Eat More Vegetables Brush. And the Should Probably Be More Diligent About His Dental Hygiene Brush. The fur around his head and neck was patchy, revealing pale pink skin. His gut was heavy now, and it added to his hunch. Null wouldn’t have aged a day since they last met. She would still be as powerful as ever. He grinned at the glass. His teeth were sharp.
“Ella, I’ll do it.” ***
Balthazar had been to Neopia Central once, shortly after the incident in the Haunted Woods. He had slept beneath the Money Tree until he was chased off by owners who didn’t like a stray Lupe mucking up their donations of Dung.
It was different now, and not just because the bank was a smoldering heap of rubble. The Defenders had set up a barricade, and were herding curious onlookers out of harm's way. What Balthazar found curious was that nearly everyone was painted. Darigan, Mariquan, Fairie, some sort of pet that looked like it was made out of Lava, but surely that was an anomaly. Last time Balthazar was in Neopia Central there might be a few Starry pets, maybe a Mutant or two. This was just ridiculous.
A Blue Kougra in yellow spandex ran up to Ella and Balthazar, ducking from cover to cover to avoid the bolts of dark magic that Null was throwing out.
“Ella!” He yelled, then paused when he say Balthazar leaning against a tree. “Oh and, uh, you too. Hello.”
Balthazar grunted in response.
“Statues report, Lightning,” Nit said.
“Oh, yes!” The Kougra snapped to attention. “ The assailant has destroyed most of the Neopoints within the bank, and she doesn’t seem to be leaving. The bank employees were able to flee in the initial destruction. No major injuries in the crowd, except for a few scrapes and burns.”
“Excellent,” Ella replied. “Get back to crowd control. Balthazar and I will take it from here.”
Lightning saluted and dashed back to the crowd.
Ella pulled out a pair of handcuffs from her bag and handed them to Balthazar. “Here, these should neutralize Null’s magic if we can get them on her. Now we should come up with a strategy for how to deal with her. I’m thinking I can pull around back and- wait, what are you doing?!”
Balthazar had stalked away, skulking unto the woods that bordered Neopia Central. He could hear Ella trying to follow him, but the underbrush was thick, and her wings impeded her movement. Balthazar didn’t doubt that she would be useful in a fight against Null, but this was something he wanted to do alone.
Balthazar’s joints ached, his claws hurt as the arced out of his paws, and the sunlight slipping through the trees was giving him a headache. He sucked in air through his teeth and tried to think. He had to treat this like any fairie hunt if he was going to succeed. He tried to remember the steps he had made for himself during his career.
Step 1: What are the strengths and weaknesses of the fairie you are hunting?
Answer: Unknown. But he had some anti-magic handcuffs, so that shouldn’t be too much of a problem.
Step 2: What is the personality of the fairie you are hunting, and how can you use that against her?
Answer: Null was a Jerk. Though that doesn’t really help things.
Step 3: Why are you still trying to remember rules and guides you never used anyway? You’re Balthazar! Go catch the fairie!
Answer: Yeah, you’re right Step 3!
Balthazar resisted the urge to howl in excitement and instead snuck through the woods until he made it to the back wall of the destroyed bank. He hunched behind the crumbling wall of masonry. He sniffed at the air. There was the overwhelming smell of burning metal of neopoints and frightened pets and owners, but underneath it was a smell like glitter and clouds and licorice. He sniffed again, it was behind him, just a little to the left.
Balthazar crushed through the crumbling wall at his back with claws outstretched to a surprised Null. To his surprise he fell through her as she dissolved into smoke.
An illusion, of course, Balthazar thought, How could I be so stupid? It was the same thing Null had done when they had first met. Confused him with endless illusions of comfort and safety and terror, only for them to dissolve into ashes.
“Well I’ll be,” a cruel voice purred from behind Balthazar. “You know, I was just out celebrating my birthday with some casual mayhem and destruction, and you show up? It’s like the universe knew I was losing interest in random acts of violence and sent you right to my doorstep. Well, the bank’s doorstep. The bank’s burned, ruined doorstep.”
“Be quiet,” Balthazar growled. His left side was aching from charging through the brick wall and his shoulder felt loose and wobbly. Balthazar got his legs underneath him, and stood up and looked Null in the eye. She wasn’t as big as he remembered. She wasn’t the towering, glowering figure she had been in his mind for so many years. She was just a fairie, one he could catch.
“Oh, is it your turn to monologue?” Null asked innocently.
Balthazar responded by sucker punching her in the gut. Null doubled over, coughing. Balthazar almost laughed. When he was young, he had constructed elaborate revenge fantasies and how he would finally get back at Null. None of them had involved sucker punching her while she gloated. It had been effective though. Don’t forget why you’re here. Get her to the trap. Balthazar lunged for Null, trying to clasp the cuffs around her wrists. Not an easy thing to do one arm barely working.
But with brute force Balthazar finally managed to force Null to the ground and snapped the cuffs around her wrists. He could see Ella running through the destroyed ruins of the Bank to try to get to him. Why was she yelling at him and waving her arms around though?
Null gasped for breath. “Did you think it would be that easy?”
Balthazar realized that he couldn’t let go of the cuffs, and, more worrisome, Null’s hands were glowing with dark orbs of magic. And that was all he was able to notice before his vision was obliterated by heat and darkness. ***
Balthazar’s entire body ached. He tried to move, to get out from wherever he was, but none of his muscles were obeying him at the moment. He settled for opening his right eye. He was in a very white room. The walls were white, the floors were white, and the ceiling was white, as was the table next to him and the bed sheets that covered him. A very high-tech, very white-looking machine made several bleeps and bloops next to his bed.
He tried to think. Hospital? Hospitals were white, right? And they had a red, or was it green plus sign? He tried to think more, ask questions like how had he gotten there and what had happened to Null and Ella?
There was a voice, commanding, but worried, outside the door. A purple blur walked into the room. Null? Balthazar tried to raise his arms in defence, grab something off of the table near him to use as a weapon, but the sheets covering him seemed to weigh a thousand pounds.
“Calm down, big guy,” The blur said. It started to solidify more. Hard features, but kind eyes. No cheap green highlights in her dark hair. Ella.
“Hey.” Balthazar paused, trying to work his brain around the next words. “Null get away?”
“Nah, she’s in lock-up right now. Whatever she hit you with damaged her too.” She paused and patted his arm, inadvertently sending needles of pain through it. “We got her, Balthazar.”
Balthazar tried to say “Good” or “Thank you”, or “Please stop patting me, it feels like my skin is paper and my bones are glass”, but he instead grimaced which Ella took for a smile.
“I’m glad you came by my house,” Balthazar said quietly. “It was good to settle this.”
“Yeah well maybe this can be some new rehabilitation program. Grab old villains out of retirement and have them fight their old nemesis.”
Ella paused. “Not young?”
“Also what’s wrong with you, Balthazar? You shouldn’t have run off by yourself, you nearly got killed!”
Balthazar could see Ella’s lips were still moving, but he no longer heard her. He was already drifting into a dreamless sleep, one more peaceful than he had had in years.