Shadow Play:Part Ten
The next morning, much to Terra’s surprise, Zoltan elected to join them for breakfast in the cafeteria. Although once again they did not all fit into one lift, today he seemed in much better spirits about sharing a lift car with Terra and Hyren.
“Have you been practicing your summoning?” Zoltan asked the owner as the lift descended. “I want to make sure you are well-prepared when next you are asked to fight.”
Terra nodded. “Yeah, a little,” she said. “Sometimes I summon it just to make sure I still can.” She leaned away from Hyren and Zoltan, reached to her opposite side, and twitched her wrist slightly, as though she was loosening a blade from its sheath. In a flurry of magic, the sword appeared, and she grinned.
“Nicely done,” Zoltan said with a nod. He looked as if he wanted to say something else, but suddenly the lift stopped at the 21st floor, and the doors opened. Terra recalled her sword as a diminutive red Korbat in a business suit stepped in to join them.
“Morning, folks,” he said, tipping his fedora to them as he set his briefcase down beside him. He was trying to look chipper, but it was evident from his expression that something was on his mind as he stared sombrely at the lift doors.
“Morning,” Terra said with a polite smile.
“Sleep well?” the Korbat asked. “I hope your accommodations are treating you all right.”
“Er—do we know you?” Hyren asked.
The Korbat looked puzzled for a moment, and then he looked down at his clothes and laughed. “Oh! Silly me—I’m Kourage Korbat! Heading home in my civilian garb after a good night’s work.”
“Oh!” Terra laughed as well. “It’s weird how well a mask can disguise someone.”
“Some of the Defenders don’t use disguises, like Aisheena and Seargeant Brexis,” Kourage Korbat said, adjusting his tie. “But some of us like the added layers of security.”
“Yeah, come to think of it,” Hyren said, “I’ve never seen Judge Hog without his mask. I doubt I’d recognise him walking down the street. Except that I haven’t seen many tall, well-built blue Moehogs in my life. But still.”
“Is something on your mind?” Terra asked the superhero.
Kourage Korbat paused, then shook his head. “I wouldn’t want to trouble you folks with it,” he said.
The lift stopped and the doors opened to reveal Isengrim and Blynn waiting for the rest of their family. Terra moved to hold the doors open, and she looked back at the Korbat. “Maybe it’s something we can help with,” she said.
Kourage Korbat looked up at Zoltan, then back to the human. “Well…” he said. He took a deep breath and stepped out into the lobby. “I suppose it does concern you, since it has to do with gathering the artefacts. The Masked Intruder hasn’t been heard from since he left for the Presidential Palace last night, and frankly I’m worried.”
“That is quite worrisome,” Isengrim said, rubbing his chin. “Are the Defenders going to go check on him?”
“Not yet,” Kourage Korbat said. “He didn’t tell us when to expect him back, and that usually means it’ll take a while. I mean, that place is enormous—seventy floors, over fifteen hundred rooms.”
“Yes, but he has the amulet I gave him,” Zoltan said. “That should help quite a bit.”
“Exactly,” Kourage Korbat said. “I just can’t shake this feeling in my gut that something’s gone wrong.”
“Then let’s go find out what it is!” Blynn said. “Don’t ever ignore your gut!”
Kourage Korbat shook his head. “I couldn’t possibly ask you to go on such a mission,” he said. “You’re civilians! And it’s my job to keep you safe and sound!”
Isengrim smiled. “I mean no offense, sir,” he said, “but although we are not superheroes, we are far from incapable in times of danger. I did not earn and keep my kingship by letting others fight my battles.”
“And I’m an ex-space marine,” Hyren said.
“And I have a slingshot,” Blynn said, “and I know how to use it! Kinda. Unless it decides to do its own thing.” Terra, who was too modest to say anything about herself, just nodded.
“And I am worried about the artefact,” Zoltan said, “as well as your fellow Defender. If that last artefact were to be destroyed, damaged, or magically tampered with, it would throw off the entire spell, possibly with dire consequences. I should see to its security myself.”
Kourage Korbat looked at all of them. “In that case,” he said, “I’m coming with you.” He reached into his briefcase and took out his mask, removing his fedora to pull the mask over his head. “Just let me shoot a Neomail to the Missus, letting her know I’ll be home late.”
“Not to worry,” Isengrim said. “We must eat breakfast, and then we will equip ourselves and be ready to head out.”
Once they were all full of food and ready to go, Judge Hog met them in the lobby. “Are you sure you don’t want anyone else going with you?” he asked the group.
“Lightning Lenny said his surveillance system didn’t see anything out of the ordinary at the Presidential Palace,” Kourage Korbat said. “So whatever’s taking the Masked Intruder so long doesn’t sound catastrophic, at least. Besides, someone has to stay here and keep an eye on HQ!”
“If we need help,” Blynn said, “I’ll send up a signal!” She motioned to her slingshot.
Judge Hog nodded. “Good luck out there,” he said. “I know you’re all skilled. Despite my worrying, I think you’ll be able to handle this.”
Kourage Korbat laughed. “I’ve been doing this for decades!” he said. “Justice will prevail!”
Hyren leaned over to Terra and whispered, “He knows he doesn’t have to use so many corny catchphrases, right?”
“He’s from a different generation,” Terra said with a smile.
On the streets, everything looked normal enough. It was another grey, cool, blustery day, although patches of bright blue occasionally shone through rifts in the clouds. Terra enjoyed the lack of sunshine. Her home in Altador was nice, but it could also be unrelentingly sunny, something her pale skin and light eyes did not appreciate.
The Presidential Palace was an enormous hotel that took up an entire city block. Very fancy models of Uni carriages and Eyrie cabs were parked outside, dropping off or picking up Neopets who looked quite well-off. The hotel towered above them like a gleaming castle of alabaster, complete with fancy scrollwork and Petpet gargoyles in the shape of Flizzardos and Noils.
“Whoa, this place is ritzy,” Hyren said as they walked to the front doors. “Doesn’t hold a candle to the Astrovilla, but…”
“To be fair,” Terra said, “the Astrovilla is its own space station. But this has got to be the fanciest hotel you’ll find on the planet.”
“True,” Hyren said.
Zoltan held up an Amulet of the Unblinking Eye. “Yes, he’s still in there,” the Kyrii said.
“I thought we were looking for the last artefact,” Hyren said.
Zoltan paused. “Well,” he said, “the fact that the spell hasn’t exploded yet is evidence that the artefact is probably secure. Right now, I am more worried about the Masked Intruder. We will find him first.”
“Thanks, sonny,” Kourage Korbat said. “Always put Neopets first—that’s our motto, too.” He grabbed one of the doors and held it open for everyone else. When they were all inside, the superhero approached the reception desk. “Excuse me,” he said to the receptionist, a green Moehog who looked quite surprised by Isengrim and Zoltan, as usual. “Kourage Korbat, here on Defenders of Neopia business. Have you seen a blue Kougra Defender in a black-and-yellow suit around here?”
“Mm… can’t say that I have,” the receptionist said. “Let me check the logs to see if any Defenders are staying here.”
While she did that, Hyren said, “You know, the Masked Intruder probably isn’t the type of guy to use the front door.”
“That’s true, he’s not,” Kourage Korbat said, “but it doesn’t hurt to check. Leave no bit of evidence unexamined, that’s what I always say!”
“I’m not seeing any of your guys in here for the past week,” the receptionist said. “Sorry about that.”
“No trouble at all, ma’am,” Kourage Korbat said. “May we search the premises? I won’t disturb any guests unless it’s strictly necessary.”
The Moehog nodded. “Of course,” she said. “Do whatever you need to do.”
Zoltan held up his amulet, and the eyeball looked upward. “Let’s get to the lifts,” he said, ignoring the look on the receptionist’s face.
“How do we want to do this?” Hyren asked when they reached the lift lobby. “Just keep going up floor-by-floor until the amulet looks straight ahead?”
“Makes sense to me,” Terra said. “Oh—but we have to split up again. How will we meet back together on the right floor?”
Zoltan reached into a belt pouch and pulled out another amulet, giving it to the human. She let it fall into her hands without fully registering what he was giving her, and she flinched a bit when she realised she was holding an eyeball. But it was actually smooth and cool like a marble, not unpleasant-feeling at all. Still, the way it looked straight in the direction of its target as it rolled around in her palm was rather creepy.
“When you reach the floor it’s on,” the battlemage said, “wait for us. We’ll do the same if we get there first. I don’t want us going into this until we’re all together. From what Kourage Korbat says, the other artefacts were guarded as well, so I am worried that something happened to the Masked Intruder.”
Terra, Isengrim, and Blynn took one lift, and Zoltan, Kourage Korbat, and Hyren took the other, and they began the laborious process of finding the right floor. Terra had the idea of breaking it up—instead of going one floor at a time, they would stop at every tenth floor until the amulet looked down or straight ahead, and narrow down their search accordingly.
Except that the amulet kept looking up. By the time they reached the sixtieth floor, Terra had begun to worry that something was wrong with the amulet. But she wouldn’t know for sure until they thoroughly scanned the building, so the only thing left to do was keep going up, one floor at a time now.
On the 68th floor, the amulet’s gaze leveled out. Blynn swiftly punched the button to hold the doors open, and she and Isengrim looked around the lobby before letting Terra out.
“This must be the suites,” Blynn said as she looked around. The lobby here was even fancier than the ones on the lower floors, with far fewer doors.
“Makes sense,” Terra said as she watched the indicator lights above the other lift rise. “If I was Malkus Vile and I wanted to hide something in the Presidential Palace, I’d put it in a place where I knew random hotel guests wouldn’t stumble across it.”
“Yes,” Isengrim muttered, “but that also must mean someone is living here, guarding it. And they probably caught the Masked Intruder.”
Terra clenched her fist. “That’s what his rescue team’s here for,” she said.
The other lift doors opened and let out Zoltan, Hyren, and Kourage Korbat.”Well, this must be it,” the Grundo said. “Are you guys ready?” He put a hand on his sword.
“Ready as I’ll ever be,” Terra said, summoning her own blade. It still filled her with delight every time she did that. She didn’t think it’d ever grow old. She hoped that after she returned it to its rightful owner, Hyren could help her find something comparable, but swords of this calibre were very difficult to come by—and not exactly cheap. But she would worry about that later, once Vile was stopped.
Isengrim squeezed her shoulders. “Just stay close to me,” he said. “I’ll protect you.”
“And I’ll do the same for you,” Terra said.
They let Zoltan take point as he led them down the hallway and around the corner to another suite. This one, however, had a high-tech-looking keypad above the handle, with lights blinking next to its display screen.
“What is that?” Isengrim asked, keeping his voice low.
Hyren sighed. “Virtupets security system,” he whispered back. “Yeah, this has gotta be the right place.”
“No match for brute muscle,” the Werelupe King said, reaching for the door handle.
Hyren pulled his paw away. “Hold up,” the Grundo said. “If you try to break in, it’ll set off the alarm. That’s how these things work.”
Isengrim frowned. “I’m tired of doors I can’t break open,” he said.
“But that would just make things too easy,” Zoltan said, “now wouldn’t it.” He filled his paw with magic and moved toward the door.
Again, Hyren stopped him, blocking his path. “I wouldn’t advise magic either,” the veteran space marine said. “Magic and Virtupets technology don’t mix well. From what I’ve read, when the tech encounters magic it tends to malfunction, if not simply explode. I’ve only heard of a handful of mages who have begun to study how to use magic with Virtupets tech.”
Zoltan clenched his jaw and stepped back, letting the magic fade. “Then what do you suggest we do?” he asked. “I have never encountered such a thing as this.”
“I was getting to that,” Hyren said. “The nice thing about my previous job is that I learned a lot about security systems. And how to mess with them.” He peered closely at the side of the keypad’s casing. “Aha. This is a T-1500 Iota. Pretty standard across Dr. Sloth’s empire. Not the highest security, but it makes sense that that’s what they’re selling on the Space Station.”
“Do you know how to mess with that one?” Blynn asked.
“Ohhh yeah,” Hyren said. “The fatal flaw in this model is that if you open up the casing just right, it won’t set off the alarm.” He ran his finger down the seam in the casing, seemed to find something he liked, and pried at it with his fingernail.
“What are you doing?!” Kourage Korbat hissed. “What if it goes off while you’re tampering with it?!”
Hyren looked over his shoulder at the superhero. “Trust me,” the Grundo said. “This is our best bet for getting in this door. I know we have a weird set of skills, but it works.”
Kourage Korbat stared at him for a moment, and then nodded reluctantly. “I just hope you know what you’re doing, sonny,” he said.
Hyren snapped off the plastic cover, and all was still silent in the hallway. He grinned. “Now to disable it,” he said. He reached into the electronics and got to work.
It was a tense few minutes for everyone else. Terra hoped that whoever was on the other side of that door wouldn’t decide to come out right now. And that they couldn’t hear what Hyren was doing.
Finally the lights stopped blinking and the lock clicked. Hyren slowly tested the handle—it gave. He grinned and said, “You guys ready?”
Blynn nocked a bubble gum ball in her slingshot and Zoltan summoned his blade. “Let’s do this,” the battlemage said with a nod, his magic streaks flaring.
Hyren flung the door open and jumped into the room, sword in front. No one met him. Instead, they all looked at a suite that seemed like it hadn’t been cleaned in ages. Dirty laundry littered the floor and the furniture, crumpled pieces of trash were strewn everywhere, and the paintings on the walls hung askew. But someone obviously lived here, because the trash included stacks of empty pizza boxes and Neocola cans.
There was also a blue Kougra tied to a chair, his muzzle gagged. The Masked Intruder’s golden eyes widened when he saw the group, and his long tail lashed frantically.
“Is this a trap?” Isengrim asked him. When the Kougra shook his head, Isengrim moved to the chair and cut him loose.
“Oh—thank goodness someone came!” the Masked Intruder said, stretching out and rolling his shoulders. “They were going to use me as ransom against the other Defenders!”
“How in the world did you get caught, Masked Intruder?” Kourage Korbat asked. “You know this place like the back of your paw!”
“I wasn’t anticipating some of Vile’s lackeys to live here,” the Intruder said. “Caught me totally off guard.”
“Is the artefact here?” Zoltan asked.
“Yes,” the Intruder said, “it’s—“ He froze as footsteps and voices approached.
There was no time to hide, and at any rate Isengrim and Zoltan could not have hidden anywhere in the suite with their bulk. Two blue Aishas wearing black rounded the doorframe, accompanied by a muscular purple Eyrie in a dark suit and hat.
“Just ignore the mess,” the female Aisha said. “We haven’t gotten around to cleaning—“ She paused when she saw everyone.
“Surprise,” Isengrim said with a grin.
The Eyrie leaped for the Werelupe King. Of course Isengrim was anticipating this, and he brought up his sword to block the henchpet’s claws, throwing him aside and into a pile of refuse.
Zoltan lobbed a few blasts of dark magic at the Aishas, and they were startled but recovered quickly enough to dodge. The male jumped to a set of drawers near the beat-up couch, and Blynn fired a gumball at him. His female companion threw her dagger at the bright orange projectile, and the gum exploded around the weapon instead.
Suddenly Terra realised why these two looked so familiar—she’d seen them in the Neopedia. They were the Aisha Thieves, Meesha and Purrow.
Purrow reached into the drawer and Meesha stuck her paws in her short ears, rolling up her earstalks tightly. Terra only had time to wonder why when Purrow pulled out a Virtupets blaster with an enormous focussing dish and fired it at them.
Terra brought up her sword to block any laser blasts, but instead of energy, the weapon emitted a horrendously loud, low-frequency noise that made the very windowpanes shudder. Terra and her companions let out cries of pain as they dropped their weapons to clamp their hands and paws over their ears. Terra’s sword dissolved into light as she let go of it, but she was too busy having her adrenaline jolted to take much notice. The sound was so loud that it made her tongue hurt, and so intense it felt like it rattled her bones.
She didn’t know what to do. In order to fight back effectively, she would have to unplug her ears, and that would make the noise unbearable. Would she be able to act in that state? Everyone else seemed just as perplexed—except for the Eyrie henchpet, who just looked furious at the Aisha Thieves for not warning him.
Hyren scanned the rubbish on the floor and narrowed his eyes. Clenching his antennae in one fist, he reached down and grabbed a grease-stained pizza box, and held it in front of him like a shield.
Terra didn’t know what he was doing, but she figured he had an idea. And she was right. For some reason, Purrow winced and staggered back. His own short ears fell flat against his head and his earstalks rolled tightly, but he kept his grip on the blaster. Suddenly the weapon began to shake in his paws. It sparked, the noise cut out, bits popped loose, and then it fell to pieces completely. Hyren grinned.
Before the Aisha Thieves could try anything else, Kourage Korbat jumped onto the kitchen counter and opened his mouth. He let out a piercing screech aimed at the siblings, and while Terra still had to cover her ears, it appeared affect Meesha and Purrow differently. Even with their ears held, the knees of the two buckled and they collapsed limply into a pile of Cheesy Neos bags.
Their Eyrie companion lunged for the Korbat, but Zoltan stepped in front of the henchpet and thrust his paw, roiling with dark magic, into the Eyrie’s face. Immediately the Eyrie fell to the floor as well, out cold.
“Why don’t you use that trick more often?” Blynn asked.
“I need to actually be able to grab their face,” Zoltan said, using his thumb to wipe at his palm pawpad a bit. “Usually there’s a weapon in the way.”
“What was that?” Hyren asked Kourage Korbat as the two superheroes set to tying up Vile’s lackeys.
“Stupefying Sonar,” Kourage Korbat said, puffing out his chest a bit. “It’s my specialty! And what was that trick you pulled with the pizza box?”
Hyren looked over at the pile of parts on the floor. “That’s a Virtupets-make Sonic Melter,” he said. “I learned how to mess with those, too. See, in theory they work great, but in practice, if you can reflect their own sound waves back at them, it’s actually the perfect frequency to shake them to pieces. That explains why Sloth’s military doesn’t use them more often.”
“Well I’ll be,” Kourage Korbat said. “You really do know your stuff.” He sighed. “Sorry I doubted you. I was worried you were all talk.”
“That’s understandable,” Hyren said. “I’d feel the same way if I was you. You do good work, Kourage Korbat.”
“So do you,” the superhero said with a smile.
Isengrim put a paw on his owner’s shoulder. “Are you all right?” he asked her.
Terra nodded. “Just fine,” she said. “Except for the awful noise from that stupid Sonic Melter.” She grimaced.
Her Werelupe gave her a hug and said, “Good thing Hyren took care of it for you.” He watched as the Masked Intruder slung Purrow over his shoulder. “It’s a shame,” the Werelupe King said. “I didn’t get the chance to try to talk to them and help them.”
“I don’t think we have the time for that right now,” the Intruder said, glancing over to where Zoltan used his amulet to search the suite. “I mean… you can talk to them later at HQ if you want. They’ll be going through our rehabilitation program, anyway, and there are plenty of Neopets there who will help them work through their problems.” He paused. “Sorry, by the way, for being kind of cold to you all before. I’m… not used to working with civilians. And I was worried you were going to be more annoying than you actually are.”
Blynn grinned. “Oh, I can be pretty annoying,” she said.
“Don’t worry about it,” Isengrim said. “We’re just glad you’re safe.”
Zoltan, who had ducked into one of the bedrooms, came back with another Amulet of the Unblinking Eye – presumably the one the Masked Intruder had been using - and a small locked box. “It’s in here,” he said.
“Oh, I can pick that in no time,” the Masked Intruder said. “But let’s get it back to HQ first—I suspect that Vile’s waiting to hear back from these guys, and like before, he’ll send reinforcements if they take too long.”
“Right,” Zoltan said. He moved to pick up the Eyrie, but Isengrim had gotten there first, leaving Zoltan to carry Meesha.
“Eyries are surprisingly light,” Isengrim said as he shuffled the henchpet on his back a bit, so the Eyrie’s limp wings weren’t in the Werelupe’s way as much.
“Well, their bones are hollow,” Terra said as they made their way back to the lifts. Thankfully, no one else was in them. She hoped they would not arrive in the lobby to see more of Vile’s lackeys, although she guessed it was too early for that.
It was, and the receptionist again stared at them in confusion. “Are those… the Aisha Thieves?” she asked.
The Masked Intruder nodded. “Seems you had a bit of a pest problem,” he said. “We took care of it for you.”
Kourage Korbat struck a pose. “Just another day on the job for… the Defenders of Neopia!” he said.
The Moehog put a hoof to her snout, as though she was stifling a laugh. “Thanks, Defenders,” she said. “I’ll let the manager know.”
Back at Defenders HQ, after they met with Judge Hog and put the criminals in his care, Kourage Korbat bid them a good morning, as he was ready to head home and go to bed, and the Masked Intruder took the others up to his office. It was a sleekly-decorated room with Jazzmosis memorabilia everywhere and a large fish tank that housed two Catamaras.
The Intruder pulled a lock-picking kit out of his utility belt, and motioned for Zoltan to hand him the box. “This’ll just take a second,” the superhero said.
“I am surprised this is not some sort of fancy Virtupets lock,” the Kyrii muttered as he gave the Kougra their hard-won prize.
“Virtupets tech is great,” Hyren said as the Intruder worked on the lock, “but most of Neopia just doesn’t have the infrastructure to support it. And with so many Neopians who use magic, the idea of technology that works through applied science has been slow to catch on. So in Neopia Central, you’ll see some Virtupets equipment scattered around, but it’s not ubiquitous.”
“Got it,” the Masked Intruder said as the box lid popped open.
Zoltan put a paw over the contents as if to shield everyone from dangerous magic. When nothing happened, he reached in and pulled out a golden disc carved with intricate patterns.
“That looks like the stuff you see around Geraptiku,” Hyren said. “I don’t want to know how Vile got a hold of it.”
“He probably has tomb raiders all over Mystery Island,” Isengrim said.
The battlemage inspected the talisman and nodded. “Yes, this is it,” he said. “The final artefact. Now I can break the spell.”
“Can I watch?” the Masked Intruder asked. “All this magic stuff sounds interesting.”
Zoltan looked unsure, but then Isengrim said, “Zoltan, it may be a good idea if you broke the spell in the presence of the other Defenders as well. It would be nice for them to see that their efforts have a result. Only if you want to, of course.”
The Kyrii looked at his old friend for a long moment, then nodded again. “I think so, too,” he said. “They are also involved in this, and it would only be right not to keep them in the dark.”
And so it was that after they had lunch, everyone gathered in the Defenders’ conference room. Zoltan looked rather self-conscious as he stood at the table and arranged the five artefacts in a specific pattern, carefully adjusting their positions and distances from each other.
“Why is it,” Hyren said, “that with magic things like these there are always three, five, or seven of something? That seems like a recurring trend in stories I read, too.”
“Actually,” Terra said, “Pharazon explained to me that magical item alignments usually come in odd numbers because that’s the most stable arrangement. Something about pairs of items generating destabilising mana resonances.”
Zoltan stepped back and took a deep breath, and everyone fell silent as he looked as though he was about to do something important. Nostrils flaring, the Kyrii held his paws over the artefacts and concentrated.
His mane bristled and his magic-streaks surged with energy that also began to crackle around his trembling paws. He frowned, wrinkling his muzzle and furrowing his heavy brow as he focused further.
The air around the artefacts seemed to warp and shift, and lines of purple light arced between them. Zoltan bared his fangs and twitched his claws. The lines snapped, and a backlash of power swept through the room, so strong that Terra flinched and the hairs on the back of her neck rose.
Then the light faded and Zoltan leaned heavily on the table, ears low and shoulders sagging. “It’s done,” he panted. “It’s broken.”
Judge Hog began to clap, and the other Defenders joined in, as well as Terra and her family. The Halloween Kyrii’s eyes widened in astonishment, and then a small, bashful smile worked its way up his muzzle.
“Thank you, Mr. Arnyek,” Judge Hog said. “You have done an invaluable service for Neopia Central—and for all of Neopia.”
“I—you’re welcome,” Zoltan said, sitting down slowly. “I am just glad to be of service.”
“What now?” Isengrim asked.
“I think our best bet,” Judge Hog said, “would be to question those who used to work for Vile, such as Miss Tally, who knows where Vile was just a few days ago. As for your family, please feel free to make the Headquarters your home until we have Vile apprehended. We will keep you updated on the situation.”
“Thank you,” Isengrim said. He put a paw on his friend’s shoulder. “Zoltan, what will you do now?”
Zoltan stroked his beard. “I shall stay here for a bit as well, if that’s all right,” he said. “I should like to see this whole business with Vile through to the end. We have made great progress, but the war is not won yet.”
Judge Hog nodded and said, “We will let you know if we require your help any further, Mr. Arnyek.”
From there they were dismissed to enjoy the rest of their day and await news on Vile’s capture. In the lift lobby outside the conference room, Zoltan turned to the others and said, “Again, I apologise deeply for distrusting all of you. Blynn, Hyren, if not for you, we never would have succeeded in this mission. And Terra… your greatest strengths are less quantifiable, but they are among the most valuable.”
Terra ducked her head modestly. “Thanks,” she said. “I’m just happy I can be of some help.”
Isengrim gave her a squeeze. “You are more help than you realise,” he said before turning to Zoltan. “Don’t worry about it, my friend. We are all just glad you are doing better. It’s nice to see you happier than you used to be.”
The Kyrii tugged at his cloak a bit and looked aside, his ears drooping. “Yes, well,” he said quietly, “happiness is… foreign to me. But I hope it serves some use.”
“Even if the only result is you feeling better about life,” Isengrim said, “it is worth it. You are worth it.”
Zoltan paused, his piercing eyes swirling with emotion. “Thank you,” he said.
The Werelupe clapped a paw on the battlemage’s shoulder. “Well!” Isengrim said with a grin, his tail wagging. “The Defenders have graciously allowed us to use their training simulator room, and Hyren and I have been wanting to do another run through their sims. Would you like to join us? I think you’d enjoy it—and it would give you valuable practice.”
Zoltan’s ears perked. “That… does sound useful,” he said. “And… fun.”
“That’s the spirit!” Blynn said. “I wanna try, too!”
“What about you, Terra?” Hyren asked.
Terra rubbed her arm. “Ehh… I’ll watch,” she said. “It’s not really my thing.” She appreciated the value of combat practice, of course, but she greatly preferred sparring sessions with Hyren and Isengrim, because they were actually nice to her and took it easy on her, while still teaching her valuable techniques and skills. She did not have that assurance from a cold, uncompassionate Virtupets machine.
“We always appreciate moral support,” Isengrim said to her. “I fight my best knowing that you’re cheering me on.”
Terra smiled. “Then I’ll put my all into it!” she said.
They had a most enjoyable afternoon in the simulator room, running through a sim that had them battling undead mummies in the Lost Desert, and it was clear that Zoltan was having more fun than he would let on. The only downside was that the simulator, being of Virtupets make, could not handle magic, so Zoltan was relegated to using his scimitar while Blynn relied on her trickery—and her fangs. And Terra did her best to cheer them on. Working together, the four fighters came out on top.
Afterward, they retired to the family’s suite for board games and takeout dinner. This time, Zoltan showed no reluctance to join them.
“You guys,” Terra said as she dug into her salad, “we really did a great job today. You’re all amazing.”
“Thanks!” Blynn said as she piled way too much cream cheese dip onto a cracker.
Hyren looked up from his Deluxe Elephante Burger. “I’m just glad this whole mess is almost over,” he said, wiping ketchup from the corner of his mouth. “From what I’ve seen of the Defenders, I think they can handle Vile no problem once they locate him. And then everything can go back to normal—and we can stop hiding like this.”
“Not just back to normal,” Isengrim said after swallowing a mouthful of a double chicken leg. “Better than before. Because Vile and his operations will no longer have a hold on Neopia.”
“That’s right,” Hyren said. “It feels good to help put an end to that.”
Terra nodded. “Let me know when you guys want dessert!” she said. “I’m really excited to try that Raspberry Gelert Cake—“
Suddenly the room went dark.
To be continued…