Defenders Series 3: Siren of the Snows: Part Two
Conversation with the citizens of of the most recently decimated villages on Terror Mountain had yielded Steel little information of value. He knew only that Tech Tonic had been to none of them, meaning he hadn’t done any new investigating after going missing- all these newest cases had happened after the young hero vanished.
That eliminated the possibility that Tech Tonic had merely gone dark out of fear that his communications were being intercepted. So Steel was going to have to search for him after all. Through hundreds of miles of frigid, desolate, monster infested mountain.
“I’m getting too old for this,” the lupe muttered to himself
As if on cue, a blast of wind hit Steel full in the face, making the red bandana around his neck strain. The bandana was part of his admittedly scant costume- it was held in place by a pin in the shape of a Defenders shield at the front of his neck, and complimented by a pair of gold cuffs around his forepaws. He didn’t bother with a mask- he never had. Without the Defenders gear he looked like one of any thousands of tyrannian lupes in Neopia, and against all logic nobody ever recognized him. Hog had told him not to question these things- maybe it made no sense, but like the faeries, superheroes followed their own rules.
Too bad these rules didn’t include immunity from the cold.
“Focus,” Steel reminded himself. He had a job to be doing.
The most obvious solution to tracking down Tech Tonic would be to track the Snowager. That’s what the kid would’ve been doing when he vanished, after all. Still, there were miles of unmapped tunnels in the Ice Caves that the Snowager could be using to travel. That narrowed down the search, but there was still a lot of ground to cover.
The last place he reported in from was at the village of Tenby, so… I guess my best bet is to follow the Snowager’s trail of destruction from there.
It took several hours for Steel to make it to Tenby through the frigid weather. As he had half-expected, the villagers didn’t know where Tech Tonic was, and hadn’t seen hide nor hair of him since his last reported visit. They did, however, point Steel in the direction that the young Defender had gone, towards a place where the forest had been cleared through by what could only have been the bulldozing form of the Snowager.
Snowy my friend, you are not a subtle one, Steel thought. That in itself was odd though- usually no one actually caught the Snowager outside of its cavern. Nobody really knew how the giant ice worm got a hold of the items in its hoard.
Steel couldn’t help but feel a chill of foreboding as he set off in the direction of the Snowager’s trail- not walking directly in it- he had no wish to make a target of himself- but rather skirting the edges. The deep furrow in the earth, surrounded by dozens of felled trees,stretched deep, deep into the forest, so that it was nearly dusk by the time Steel was forced to stop and and report in.
“Steel reporting in,” he called, pressing a paw against the badge at his throat. A holographic image flickered to life in front of him- Lightning Lenny.
“Anything new, old man?” the bird asked. “Or you just been napping in a rocking chair up there?”
“As if I’d give you the satisfaction of such an obvious joke,” Steel retorted. “I’m following the Snowager’s trail from the last village where Tech Tonic was seen. So far nothing interesting has happened, save for a warren of snowbunnies getting frightened off when they saw me.”
“So what’cha gonna do now? It’s getting late, and staying out in the snow past dark is asking for hypothermia.”
“I’m too far out to make it back to the village by nightfall,” Steel replied. “I’ll probably burrow into the snow for the night, let my body heat-”
Without warning, something large and heavy slammed into Steel from the side, making him yelp in pain as he was knocked clear off his paws. He rolled with the blow, trying to scramble to his feet, but whatever had hit him was faster. Sharp teeth pricked his shoulder as they tried to penetrate his thick mane of fur. Steel’s eyes flashed, and all at once his body froze in its position, half-lurched to his feet in the snow, and every hair on his pelt went instantly rigid and lustrous.
He wasn’t called ‘Steel’ for nothing, after all.
Whatever was holding him released its now useless grip, backing away with a sound like metal clanking and creaking. Tracking the creature with his eyes- the only part of him not rendered immobile by his powers- Steel finally got his first good look at it
A robot dogglefox?
Sure enough, two glowing red glass eyes glared at him out of the metallic face of the mechanical petpet. It was pacing around, gears clanking inside of its outer frame as it seemed to be searching for a weak point in Steel’s defense. Not at all interested in staying a sitting duck, the lupe allowed his fur to settle back into its natural state, scrambling the rest of the way to his feet and darting towards the startled robot. Before it could react to his charge, Steel closed the distance, swooping his head down, and then up so that he scored a slash across the thing’s face with his tusks. There was a loud metallic squeal as the tasks scraped across it, and the doglefox leapt backwards with a growl that was more than half whirr.
“What are you doing out here?” Steel demanded. “Terror Mountain is too wet for robots, you’ll rust in this environment.”
The doglefox, of course, gave no answer. The scratch in the metal sheeting on its face was sparking slightly, as if Steel had punctured a wire within, but the robot was in no evident distress. On the contrary, it seemed preparing to move forward, to attack once more. Steel braced himself, hoping that Lightning Lenny wasn’t panicking too much back at headquarters from the cut off video call and wondering if this… thing wasn’t what had happened to the missing hero.
Then, suddenly the robot froze in its tracks. Steel’s ears flattened, and his fur bristled with suspicion, but then he realized the doglefox was staring at something- his Defenders badge.
The little robot looked up at his face, and a crackling, recorded voice played from somewhere within.
“Designation: Defender of Neopia?”
There was an unmistakably questioning lilt to the doglefox’s words, and after a moment of hesitation Steel nodded. “I am, yes.”
“I go by Steel,” the Tyrannian lupe responded.
“Steel. Identification accepted.” The doglefox abruptly sat on its haunches, opening its mouth wide. Steel was utterly baffled for a moment, but then a young male voice played, different from the chirpily robotic sound of the doglefox’s own words.
“This robot is not your enemy- if it attacked you, this was in error, and for that I apologize. My name is Tech Tonic, and I built this doglefox to be my companion and protector. If you are hearing this recording, I am in grave danger. Follow the doglefox, and it will lead you to my location.”
Steel blinked, caught very much by surprise. “You… you belong to Tech Tonic?”
Of course- Tech. I get it now, Steel realized, even as the doglefox whirred and answered in its own chirpy voice.
“Affirmative. Tech Tonic designation - creator, master.”
“Right,” the lupe sighed. “I still don’t trust you, capisce? But I’ll follow you. If you’re really Tech Tonic’s, I need to find and save him.”
To this the doglefox made no reply, only standing and making a beckoning gesture with its tail before trotting off into the snow. The lupe reluctantly followed after, his ears cocked and his eyes flitting about for any signs that this was some elaborate trap.
Fortunately, it seemed that the doglefox hadn’t travelled far from its ‘master,’ because the sky was just starting to stain red and gold when the little thing stopped and began to dig energetically into the snow. After a moment’s hesitation, Steel came up beside it, pressing his own paws into the ice to scrape it away. After a moment, he saw what the robot was trying to unearth- a tunnel, completely dark inside but for a shallow, pained breathing.
“Tech Tonic!” he called into the darkness. There was no response, and with a growl the lupe thrust himself at the tiny opening in the thick snow, pushing and squirming until he managed to force his way into the ice cave. The doglefox followed quickly after, a pair of green lights on the tip of each of its ears illuminating the space. Steel quickly identified the source of the ragged breathing- a relic hissi, passed out on the icy floor, wearing a hood, thick goggles, and a pair of mechanical gauntlets on each wing-hand.
One of these gauntlets bore the unmistakable badge of a Defender.
“Hey!” Steel hissed. By Fyora’s crown, had this kid been unconscious down here this entire time? He didn’t seem wasted from lack of food or drink at all, but he also didn’t seem trapped if his doglefox could come and go freely. “Hey! Tech Tonic, wake up!”
There was still no response. The hissi may as well have been the boulder his relic coloration made him look like. Steel cautiously walked up to the young Defender, ears pricked for any signs of someone else in the tunnel. He became aware as he drew closer that the hissi was making an odd noise. What he’d initially taken for pained wheezing, he now realized was… hissing? Humming? Some odd marriage of the two, as if the serpentine neopet was singing to himself in his dreams exclusively with hisses.
“I don’t know what’s going on here,” he muttered. “But nap time is over, kiddo.”
The lupe propped his charge up against the tunnel wall, marvelling and somewhat queasy at how Tech Tonic seemed to drowse on through all the manhandling. Then, once Tech Tonic was upright, Steel turned his furry head as far to the side as he could, then sharply swung it around, so that his tusks smacked- hard- into the hissi’s cheek.
That worked where nothing else had.
There was a loud yelp, and Tech Tonic fell to his side, bringing a wing up to his cheek and moaning in pain. “What- why-”
“Morning sleepyhead,” Steel said cooly. “You have been causing our friends back and headquarters no dearth of stress, you know that?”
“I… I what?” Tech Tonic muttered, still seeming very much out of sorts. Then, his gaze listed towards the lupe, and he squeaked in surprise. “You- no way, no way. Steel? The Steel? I th-thought you were retired!”
“I was,” he retorted with a crooked smile. “Until a certain rookie went and got himself knocked out in a cave for nearly two days and I had to come looking for him.”
“I… I did?” the hissi seemed incredibly baffled. “That’s… no, I was looking for the Snowager. Like I was supposed to. Then I started to get a headache and… and now I’m here.” He looked around, and though his expression was hard to read around the concealment of his shaded goggles, his voice was rife with unease. “How did I end up here? And you said it’s been almost two days? I don’t remember anything.”
Steel glanced around at the doglefox. “Could your pet possibly shed some light? Maybe it saw something you didn’t.”
Tech Tonic sighed. “R.F. has many functionalities, but playback of recorded data isn’t one of them. And his vocalizations are limited to a very small amount of pre-programed responses. I’m no Virtupets scientist, just a Moltaran geokinetic who got his hands on a few blueprints. Even the metal in my inventions is sub-par- really easy to pierce and get at the electrical wiring underneath” Brightening, the hissi added, “Oh, but he has a built-in space heater. Want to see?”
“Nice as that would be, lets not melt the cave while we’re still inside of it,” Steel said, his voice very dry. “For now, it’s very close to sunset and I’m exhausted. We’ll rest here overnight, and you can tell me what you were able to find out- in the morning, we’ll both go and try to find the Snowager and figure out how you ended up passed out for so long.”
“Mmm,” the hissi looked extremely discomfited. “I wasn’t being a slacker sir. I swear.”
“I didn’t say you were. But I’m worried about whatever did this to you trying to target us again.”
And I’m also worried, he thought but didn’t say, about why you aren’t more worried about it. Is this kid just stupidly distractible? Or is there something I’m missing…
To be continued…