Shadow Play:Part Four
Terra woke up rather later than she would have liked, but given what had happened last night, she would allow herself all the sleep she needed. Blynn was not in her bed, but the girls’ luggage had been brought into their room. Terra wandered groggily out of the bedroom to see her Neopets sitting at the table in the flat’s dining nook.
“Gooooood morning!” Blynn chirped. “I brought you your stuff!”
“Thanks,” Terra said with a tired grin. “I’m guessing that means the Defenders made it back okay.”
Isengrim nodded. “It took them an hour to return,” he said. “There was an… altercation at the hotel. Vile had sent more henchpets, as Tally predicted.”
Terra’s smile dropped. “Fantastic,” she said. “Is everybody okay?”
“Thankfully, yes,” Hyren said. “The henchpets escaped, but the Defenders were able to protect all the civilians—and get our belongings back to us unscathed. I guess these guys really are more than just colourful costumes and corny catchphrases.”
“Of course they are!” Blynn said, pounding the table with a paw. “Don’t you read the comics?!”
“And yet they still cannot catch Vile,” Isengrim muttered, staring out the window at the city beyond. He took a deep breath and turned to smile at his family. “Well. Shall we see what they have for breakfast down at the cafeteria?”
“Yes, let’s!” Terra said. “I guess I should change into some neater clothes and fix my hair. That’s one disadvantage to a cafeteria, I suppose, having to look presentable while you eat. But you can’t beat free food, so.”
After Terra had gotten ready for the day, they rode the lift down to the cafeteria. On the way, Terra gave Isengrim’s paw a squeeze. “Feeling better?” she asked him.
“Much, thank you,” he said. “I am still sorry about what I said last night—err, earlier this morning. It was stupid of me.”
“You were worried,” Terra said. “It’s because you care so much about us, and that’s something I really appreciate about you. But remember, we’re in this together. We want to take care of you just as much as you want to take care of us.”
“Yeah,” Blynn said, “you can’t get rid of us that easily. Hyren tried that years ago, and look what happened to him.”
“I regret nothing,” Hyren said, and they all laughed.
The cafeteria was a sunny, roomy hall where a large number of Defenders and their support personnel sat eating breakfast and chatting. Terra and her family got in line in back of a camouflage-coloured Mynci who was just about to take a tray when a streak of cyan whizzed in front of her. “No cuts, Lightning Lenny!” she yelled, and the blue blur zoomed away.
“Does he do that a lot?” Blynn asked.
The Mynci nodded as she picked up a tray. “Guy thinks he’s entitled to whatever food he wants just because he can get there first,” she grumbled.
“What’s your superpower?” Blynn asked.
The Mynci paused, and then chuckled. “Oh, I’m not a superhero,” she said. “I’m in Neopet Resources. So I guess logistics is my superpower? Although I don’t know if something’s a superpower if you went to school for it,” she added under her breath as she reached for a plate of sausage on toast.
“I am sure the Defenders appreciate your hard work,” Isengrim said, taking a bowl of scrambled neggs. “I do not think their operation could run nearly as smoothly without their support staff.”
The Mynci’s face lit up. “Oh—thanks,” she said. “You’re right. Sorry, I didn’t mean to complain. I really do love my job. I’ve always been a big fan of the Defenders, so it’s a dream come true to work for them.”
“And the Defenders would not be who they are without you, I’m sure,” Isengrim said with a smile.
Terra grinned as she picked up a couple of pancakes. She loved having such nice Neopets.
“Whoa, they have sketch apples?!” Blynn said, reaching for one of the bizarre fruits. “Awesome! I’ve always wanted to try these!”
Terra was still having trouble wrapping her head around the idea of sketched things—including Neopets. But living drawings were just part of the wide, weird world of Neopia. “I’ll try one, too!” she said, adding a sketch apple to her tray.
Once they were fully equipped for breakfast, the family sat down at a free table, and Terra and Blynn bit into their sketch apples. As Terra suspected, only the drawn part had any substance—the rest was hollow. It made her wonder how sketch-coloured Neopets were able to ingest food. It had to have been magic, she thought, and magic was one of those things that one should not try to think too hard about. The apple itself had a delicate taste, and the drawing lines seemed like they should have a stringy texture, but they melted quickly in her mouth.
“Neeeeeat,” Blynn said as she licked the sketch lines of her apple. “I wonder what it’s like being a sketch Neopet.”
“But then you wouldn’t be obnoxiously loud-coloured,” Hyren said as he crunched on his bacon.
“True,” Blynn said. “I like my disco flair!”
“Good morning,” said a familiar voice. The Masked Intruder sauntered toward them, holding a glass of orange juice.
“Morning!” Blynn said. “How’d it go at the hotel?”
“A commotion, like usual,” the Intruder said, taking a sip of juice. “Nothing we couldn’t handle, though. It’s too bad Vile’s cronies escaped. We could really use more information on his whereabouts.”
“But Tally couldn’t remember when we asked her,” Isengrim said. “And we suspect it’s due to magic. You might have the same problem with any of Vile’s other henchpets.”
The Intruder frowned. “I think we know what we’re doing, thanks,” he said.
“Where is Tally, anyway?” Blynn asked.
“She’s being taken care of,” the Intruder said. “We have special programs to help Neopets like her work through their problems and integrate back into normal society. We’ll even help her find a new job when she’s ready.”
Terra smiled. “That’s great,” she said. “It sounds like the Defenders are on top of things. And they really do care about looking out for civilians.”
“All in a day’s work,” the Intruder said. “Just don’t get in our way, all right? I know folks like you like to play hero, but you’ll just end up making things worse.”
Hyren scowled. “I wish you knew who you were talking to,” he muttered under his breath before stuffing toast in his mouth. The look Isengrim gave him said that the Werelupe felt the same way.
Terra was not a fan of this guy’s attitude either, but she felt she could understand it—the Defenders were an elite superhero force, so it did not surprise her that someone as self-assured as the Masked Intruder could also turn a bit prideful.
“Where’s Kourage Korbat?” Blynn asked. “I haven’t seen him at breakfast yet.”
“Oh, he went home an hour ago,” the Intruder said. “He’s probably sitting down to dinner with his wife right now. Anyway—I didn’t come over here for small talk. Judge Hog wants to see all of you in his office when you’re done with breakfast. We have an update on the situation at large.”
Isengrim nodded. “Understood,” he said. “We will meet with him promptly.”
“Good,” the Intruder said as he wandered toward the food line.
“They must have caught the Symol,” Hyren said.
“I think so, too,” Terra said. “I’m so glad Tally was able to help us out with that. Maybe now the Defenders can finally make some progress against Vile.”
“And the sooner they do,” Isengrim said, “the sooner we no longer have to worry about his machinations.”
After breakfast, the four headed to the lifts again and rode up to Judge Hog’s office. The Moehog sat at his desk, poring over files and writing on a notepad, but his severe expression lessened when Terra’s family came in. “Good morning,” he said with a faint smile. “Are you enjoying your accommodations?”
“They’re super fance,” Blynn said. “Thanks!”
Judge Hog raised an eyebrow “’Fance’?” he asked.
“You know, mr.coconut?” Blynn asked. “Mr.sneky? The Fance Top? Bah, never mind.”
Judge Hog snickered and shook his head. Terra guessed he was used to this kind of zaniness from his kids at home. “Well,” he said, “I’ve got some good news, and some bad news. And then some good news again.”
“Fire away,” Hyren said.
“We found the Symol earlier this morning,” Judge Hog said. “Tally helped us snoop him out, and helped us question him.”
“That’s great!” Terra said. “What’s the bad news?”
The superhero sighed and said, “He told us that Malkus Vile has a powerful dark spell in place around all of Neopia Central. It prevents anyone with good intentions from ever finding him. That would explain why we’ve never been able to accost him, despite our best efforts.”
Isengrim frowned. “That is very bad news indeed,” he said.
“I’m none too pleased about it, myself,” Judge Hog said. “We have no magic users in our ranks—I’m not sure I even know anyone who works with the dark element. But, back to good news: at least now we know what the problem is, and I’m going to get every available mage in the city on the case. We’ll have that spell broken eventually!”
Isengrim put a paw to his muzzle and looked aside, and Terra said, “I hope it goes well. Thank you so much for everything you do for Neopia. Is there anything we can do to help?”
“I may need more information from Lord Isengrim, depending on how this goes,” Judge Hog said, “but other than that, please just enjoy your stay here.” He smiled. “Think of it as an all-expenses-paid resort vacation. It’s the least we can do, considering what you’re dealing with right now.”
The Werelupe King seemed to break out of being lost in thought to give Judge Hog a grin. “Thank you, sir,” Isengrim said. “Your hospitality means a great deal to us, I assure you. I will be happy to provide you with whatever additional information I have.” He turned to the door. “Well, we should leave you to your work. I hope this investigation progresses smoothly.”
“I appreciate that,” Judge Hog said.
“Where to now, guys?” Blynn asked. “Should we put an order in for some groceries? The cafeteria’s fun, but I get snacky.”
“Good idea,” Hyren said. “Back to the suite it is, then.”
As they stepped onto the lift, Isengrim folded his paws behind his back and stared hard at the lift doors like they were telling him something important. His crimson eyes seemed to swirl as his gaze grew distant.
“Hey, what’s up?” Terra asked.
The Werelupe took a breath and turned to her. “I have my concerns about the Defenders’ course of action,” he said. “Kourage Korbat told us that Neopia Central does not have many magic users—and I do not mean to be cynical, but it is possible that a number of them work for Vile and would be more of a hindrance to the Defenders than a help. And if the Defenders have never been able to catch Vile, despite all of the resources at their disposal, I have my doubts they will be able to do so now.”
“Not to mention,” Hyren said as they stepped into the hall, “Vile probably knows by now that his Symol has been caught. He’s likely going to try to up his game now that he’s been dealt such a severe blow. I know the Defenders mean well, but it seems like Vile’s just a little out of their league—especially now that we know he’s got magic on his side.”
As they reached their flat, Terra said, “I wish Pharazon was here. He knows a lot about magic. Maybe he could help us. Maybe I’ll write him a Neomail.” She reached for the pencil and notepad on the kitchen counter.
“Mm…” Isengrim grunted thoughtfully. “Not to disparage my brother’s abilities,” he said, “but he is still only beginning to learn how to spellcast. I do not think he or Celice have ever dealt with attempting to dismantle a spell of this magnitude. From what Celice has told me it, it takes incredibly strong magicks to cast a spell that has effect over an entire city.”
“Oh, that’s true…” Terra said, her shoulders slumping.
“But… I think I know someone who can help,” Isengrim said. “Judge Hog mentioned that this spell is dark-aligned. I know a Neopet who specialises in dark magicks, and he’s dratted powerful. Last I heard of him, he was in the Haunted Woods, so it should not take him too long to get here.” He picked up the pencil and began to write a Neomail, seeming to choose his words deliberately as he concentrated on the paper.
“It’s not Hubrid Nox, is it?” Blynn asked. “Because he’s kind of a ghost nowadays.”
Isengrim chuckled and shook his head. “Nox was a thorn in my side when I lived in the Haunted Woods,” he said. “I’m sure that warlock still hates me. Besides, becoming incorporeal probably lessened his abilities a good deal.”
“No offense,” Hyren said as Isengrim wrote, “but why didn’t you get this guy’s help when Skoll went crazy and tried to destroy everything? Or when you were trying to break the Lynwood curse and oust Vakhtang?”
The Werelupe grinned self-consciously. “To be honest,” he said, “it has been years and years since I last saw this fellow, a long time before I met you. He sort of slipped my mind until Judge Hog mentioned dark magicks. At any rate, during those situations, I had a myriad of other things I was trying to deal with. I do not think I should be faulted for failing to remember an old acquaintance.”
“I think that’s fair,” Terra said.
Isengrim finished writing, folded the Neomail crisply, and ducked out into the hallway to put it in the mail chute. It had been explained to them that at Defenders HQ, Neomails were sent to a central mail room for Weewoo pickup and delivery in a secure location. That helped Terra feel reassured that her family was safe here.
“Now what?” Hyren asked when Isengrim returned.
“Now we wait,” Isengrim said. “Hopefully… hopefully he is still around to receive the Neomail.”
“Maybe we should send a Neomail to Jhudora, too,” Terra said, “just in case.”
“Aren’t the faeries still recovering from the whole wraith debacle?” Blynn asked. “I’m not sure Jhudora will be available to help us. And even if she wanted to, you know how faerie bureaucracy works.”
“You mean how it doesn’t?” Hyren asked with a snicker.
“Exactly,” Blynn said.
“Well, I’m sending Neomails to Jhudora, Fyora, and Pharazon and Celice anyway,” Terra said, jotting down her letters on the notepad. “Can’t hurt, right?” After she dropped the Neomails in the chute, she came back to her Neopets and said, “Okay, I think we’ve covered all of our bases. Now then… we’ve got this whole enormous awesome building to explore!”
For the next day and a half, that was exactly what they did. As guests of the Defenders, they were allowed to poke around the superheroes’ headquarters to a reasonable extent. Only a few areas were off-limits for safety and security reasons, but other than that, the Defenders seemed to enjoy showing off their base of operations. They had an extensive training area that took up two full floors of the building, complete with a Virtupets-imported virtual reality room that could simulate all sorts of action-packed situations. Hyren and Isengrim took it for a spin and enjoyed it immensely.
The family also enjoyed getting to know the Defenders and their staff. Many of the Defenders were rather down-to-earth, humble superheroes who did what they did because they earnestly cared about protecting people, and Terra found she enjoyed their company greatly. It was refreshing to know there were so many heroic Neopets in Neopia that reminded her of her own family. The Masked Intruder, however, continued to strut around HQ self-importantly, and did not like to be bothered when he was at work. But he was easy to ignore when nearly everyone else was so personable.
One grey, cloudy afternoon, when Terra and her family were sat on and around the couch playing the board game version of Nimmo’s Pond, there came a knock at their door. Isengrim opened it, and a shadow-coloured Lenny in a cyan superhero suit handed him a folded piece of grimy-looking paper.
“Neomail for you!” the Lenny said.
“Lightning Lenny!” Blynn said. “You really do deliver messages!”
“Well, I deliver Neomails,” Lightning Lenny said. “I get bored between missions. Did you know, they installed a stairwell in this building just for me? Waiting for the lifts to take me between floors would have been killer!” He shifted his weight from one foot to the next, as though he was itching to get moving again.
“How do you not get tired from that?” Hyren asked as Isengrim read the Neomail.
“I have a crazy metabolism,” Lightning Lenny said. “Okay, catch you folks later!” He sped away, leaving a cyan streak in his wake.
“Is it from your guy in the Haunted Woods?” Hyren asked Isengrim.
The Werelupe looked up from the paper, smiled, and nodded. “Indeed,” he said. “He’s still alive, thank the fates. And… he says he’s willing to help me.”
Everyone let out a breath of relief. “Did he say when he was coming?” Terra asked.
Isengrim glanced back at the Neomail and said, “He says to meet him in the alley behind the Second-Hand Shoppe after sundown on the 11th.”
“The 11th?” Hyren asked. He glanced over at the calendar on the wall. “That’s today.”
Suddenly, the paper was consumed in violet light. Isengrim dropped it in shock, and in a matter of moments it had shriveled into ashes on the floor.
“Are you okay?” Terra asked, reaching out to inspect his paw.
“I am, thank you,” Isengrim said. “I do not think that magic was not meant to harm me—just to destroy the message. He is a rather cautious fellow and, I am sure, takes the necessary precautions to make sure he cannot be traced.”
“Okay, now I’m really curious about this guy,” Blynn said.
Isengrim smiled down at his family. “I had best not keep him waiting, then," he said.
To be continued…