The Shenkuu Defender Tryouts
"Well, hey, anything new today?” asked a quad Yellow Zafara, looking over the top of a fence at his neighbor, a quad Green Techo. (The term “Quad” is used loosely here as both quad Zafaras and quad Techos stand upright but are regardless much shorter than their anthro equivalents.) The Green Techo briefly continued to read his copy of the Neopian Times before sitting up out of his reclining position on his lawn chair and then turning to look at his neighbor.
“Oh, Thal, just in time… Did you hear about the event the Defenders of Shenkuu is doing?” asked the Green Techo, Rod, while pointing at an advert in the newspaper. “They’re holding tryouts for new recruits today, those who volunteer will be assigned to one of their certified Defenders as a temporary sidekick. Knowing you and knowing me, we’ll both want to be there. It says they’ll provide the costumes when you arrive, too.”
Thal and Rod were essentially permanent rivals; they continually competed at anything they could think of that they could compete at. Sporting events, board games, even doing household chores, their need to one-up each other was unrelenting. They seemed to be evenly matched as each of them won about half of their contests. Their owners did not mind them doing this too much as it was a way of them acquiring motivation and getting more exercise, they’d say. Even they had limits on this, of course, but, as it were, only rarely would their pets’ competition go far enough for them to be concerned.
Thal stood up higher onto his toes to better see over the fence; as it were, he was already standing on a crate to be able to see over the fence. He responded, saying, “Riiight, how could I forget? The Defenders of Shenkuu are much more obscure than the ones in Neopia Central, aren’t they? They don’t even usually protect this part of Shenkuu, do they? Still, that sounds so cool getting to meet them… which of us do you think will do better at this? Well, see you there!”
Thal rushed off before Rod could even get out of his chair. The tryouts would not begin until quite a while later in the day and Rod had plenty of time to get there, so he walked out to the road at a more relaxed pace. However, a quad Green Xweetok stopped him before he could get too far down the road.
“Why did Thal just run off like that?” asked the Green Xweetok.
“Oh, there’s an event going on in the Shenkuu capital and we’re both attending, just don’t worry about it…” replied Rod.
He knew that this was Thal’s older sister who was rather protective of him, often to the point of greatly annoying Thal. Rod thought Thal’s resistance against his sister to be a bit amusing especially since he knew Thal to be a bit of a scaredy-Wocky (and the fact that his sister was so much smaller than he was made her necessary protection of him even more amusing to Rod.) Normally Thal would have also needed to check in with his owner before adventuring out like that, but it was a Friday and his owner was never home on Fridays. Rod, on the other hand, was known by his family to be somewhat more of the independent type, so they usually did not really care too much if he were to wander off unannounced.
Rod continued down the road without looking behind him to see the Xweetok’s response. Thal was surely far ahead of him both because of Thal’s more frantic pace and because Thal could bounce down the road much faster than Rod could run. Getting there quickly was not part of the competition, however, so he thought it to be better to preserve his energy. It barely even mattered anyway as Neopian roads have a bizarre property where, if one were to travel down them thinking only of their destination and not caring about the sights of the journey, they would arrive there nearly instantly unless something were to interrupt them part of the way through. Thus, the next thing Rod knew was that he had reached the long, winding stone ramp leading into the incredibly steep mountains that make up Shenkuu’s capital city. Countless pets, owners, and pet-drawn wagons laden with goods made the trek up and down the ramp at the same time as Rod did. Rod still had the copy of the Neopian Times on him, so he used the directions in the ad to easily find the Defenders of Shenkuu headquarters. The Headquarters was on the top of a relatively tall mountain but, unlike the dramatic architecture of the Defenders building in Neopia Central, it was a very generic Shenkuu building with only a couple simple signs to label it as being the Headquarters. He expected to see it, at the very least, more reinforced than the average Shenkuu building, but it turned out to be just as precariously positioned as every other building in the capital. He slid open the sliding doors and then came face to face with a receptionist’s desk.
The Usul at the desk asked, “Are you here for our sidekick tryouts?” Rod nodded and she handed him a form to fill out.
“Hmm, there’s no space to put my Defender codename?” asked Rod.
“Oh, don’t worry about it, it’s not important” replied the receptionist. This was a bit fortunate for Rod as he had forgotten to think about his super codename during all of the time he had been walking there, but he still thought it to be a bit weird. At the same time, despite all the headlines he had read about the acts of the Defenders of Shenkuu, he did not know any of their names; perhaps this was why. In fact, the headlines never even seemed to have pictures of the Defenders that were clear enough for him to tell what any of their members looked like.
Before he could further contemplate this, he was shown to a changing room where his outfit was provided. The costume was somewhat armored, kind of like a samurai military uniform, but with much less armor. Rod could tell from the texture of the material that it made up for the lack of physical armor with a layer of protective magic. The outfit had a decent amount of colored trim although the designs were relatively simple. Instead of a helmet, it came with a lightly armored version of a conical straw hat. As he put on the outfit, it, like most outfits in Neopia, changed shape and size to fit him comfortably, although in its case this also caused the trim to turn green as to match Rod’s complexion. When he turned to face the mirror in the changing room, even though his face was not obscured by the helmet in any way, the outfit caused him to see a bizarre sense of anonymity in his own complexion. He could see a Green Techo staring back at him from the mirror, but he found it hard to tell that it was himself. Upon stepping out of the changing room and into the room in which the Defenders and the people trying out had gathered, he saw that everyone was wearing the same outfit, although he could identify the certified Defenders by the scarves they wore in addition to the outfit. He could tell that there was a large variety of different species and paint colors among those present but, like himself, they all remained extremely generic. He then looked to see if there were a Yellow Zafara in the room that might be Thal, but there were no Yellow Zafaras in the room; perhaps Thal had gotten lost on the way there.
Rod had been handed a piece of paper with a number on it corresponding to one of the many tables spread around the room at which the Defenders were seated, so he walked over and sat down at the corresponding table. Across from him was a quad Jelly Zafara, wearing the full outfit with the scarf but with orange trim. Actually, her entire outfit was made of jelly just like her own body, most likely as a result of the same magic that changes the trim to better suit its wearer.
Rod was the first one to speak. “So, who are you?”
The Zafara replied, “I’m the Defender you’ll be working together with, as you probably guessed. My superpower is that I can turn things into jelly and back, it’s… interesting. I’m actually only a part timer here, but I’ve seen my share of action… Enough about me, what will you be contributing to us? Don’t be shy, share anything you think is helpful.”
“I’m the one who always has a plan. I’ve also been exercising a lot… I don’t have an ability like yours, but I don’t need one. I’ve got all the motivation I need, anyway. So… why does everyone wear matching outfits, anyway?”
“Our thing in the Defenders of Shenkuu is working as a team. We don’t need separate superhero names and costumes as we’re all equals, we all do our parts. We’re just collectively known as the Defenders of Shenkuu rather than as individual heroes. Of course, if you’re trying out in our program here, we do have to list you as lesser rank, but the idea is that we help each other equally. If you’re looking for bragging rights or something, you’re not finding it here…”
While the Jelly Zafara was speaking, Rod looked around the room again to see if Thal had arrived yet. This time, Rod did notice Thal sitting at one of the other tables, or at least a Yellow Zafara that, in all likelihood, had to be Thal. He was sitting at another table across from a quad Custard Ixi. There was too much noise in the room to tell what they were talking about, but the two of them looked like they were having a fairly casual conversation.
Rod, as soon as he had noticed this, said, “Hmm, the Custard Ixi over there is your brother, isn’t he? There’s too few Custard and Jelly pets in the world for this to be a coincidence, what are the odds, a a Jelly Zafara and a Custard Ixi in the same superhero team…”
“You’re also Thal’s brother, right? Your name is… Sun, isn’t it?”
“We don’t talk about our identities here, we all have the right to be anonymous, okay?” The Zafara tried to hide her reaction to Rod’s declaration, but Rod could still detect the tiniest bit of worry on the Zafara’s face.
“Ha, I knew it. I don’t suppose this was arranged on purpose, pairing you with me and Thal with your Ixi brother?”
“Ugh… you’re the one who’s always competing with Thal, aren’t you? Don’t tell me you’re here just to compete… I didn’t know either of you were coming, I doubt Robin did either…” Sun at this point was dejectedly resting her chin on her hands, with her fingers digging deeply into her cheeks.
Rod folded his arms, pleased that he had guessed her identity so quickly. Despite Sun’s statement, he had already determined against reasonable logic that it could not be mere coincidence.
Sun stared down at the table, all motivation to continue with the sidekick tryouts already having left her, but there was no escaping this for her. “So, as per the usual schedule for the tryouts… do you have any other questions for me, as a Defender?”
“I’m just curious why you even took up this job. Your will is broken just so easily, you know.”
“Normally I don’t have to rely on myself, this is a team effort, as I said. But, if it’s just you and me… we aren’t getting anywhere… You just want to drag me down…”
“Besides, if you really can turn anything into jelly as you said, why didn’t you become a supervillain? You could just absorb anything that gets in your way and you wouldn’t need to rely on anyone. You’d be your own strength and all that.” While Rod had a little bit of curiosity about the answer to this question, his main concern at this time was now attempting to pick apart Sun’s psyche.
Sun perked up a bit, feeling the need to defend herself more forcefully. “Even though I could do that, which wouldn’t work anyway since I have friends that’d stop me, why would I want to live like that? I’ve spent enough of my life alone, you know. Being part of something more than myself is the real point of life, isn’t it? I mean… I don’t want to be defined by my power, yet, I can’t just do nothing with it, which is why I’m helping out here.”
Rod was a little bit surprised and a little bit disappointed to see Sun flare up. He did wonder what had even happened in her life up to this point, but he determined that it was too late to ask her now.
Before any further conversation could take place, an anthro Lupe burst in through the door. Neither Rod nor Sun specifically heard what he said, but whatever he had said had prompted all the Defenders and sidekick tryouts to hastily pour out of the headquarters. Rod could see what the trouble was as soon as he had left the building; a fire had broken out among the buildings set upon a mountain elsewhere in the capital. To his surprise, instead of having everyone rush out separately across the city at high speed like the Defenders in Neopia Central would, everyone remained in a close formation despite still moving along at a brisk pace. It was kind of like how elementary Neoschoolers would walk together from class to the cafeteria, but faster (or how it is typically described to pets by their owners, anyway, given that Neoschool doesn’t actually exist.)
Upon reaching the group of mountains around which the fire had spread, the Defenders split up with their sidekicks following them. Rod had never really been in quite as confusing a situation as this, or at least not one where every detail was important. He could see that a group of Defenders were casting water magic over the fire to begin extinguishing it. Sun pulled on his arm, however, leading him in a wide arc around the deluge of water to an area where the fire was still burning brightly.
Rod asked quite loudly as there was a great deal of noise, “What are you doing? You’re supposed to help out with the fire, aren’t you?”
“As a Jelly pet, I can’t be too close to the water as I’m water soluble, so annoying… isn’t one of your sisters a Jelly pet, you should know that, right?”
Rod indeed had a Jelly Eyrie in his family, but his mind quickly turned to more important matters as he just barely could see a pet trapped by the fire on an outcropping on the edge of one of the mountains. He gestured to Sun and they came closer. The area the trapped pet was standing on, as well as the area Sun and Rod were standing on, were just bare stone so that the fire did not cover them, but in between them there was a large patch of burning foliage. There was a building hanging over the outcrop, which seemed to be losing stability by the second.
Sun asked, “You’re the one with the plans, what do we do?”
“Well, hmm… jelly is mostly water, so just go turn the fire into jelly.”
Sun had expected him to say that and was already in position, so she stamped her foot into the ground and a kind of energy spread along the ground. As Rod watched, the entire flaming area was replaced by a band of dark red cherry flavored jelly. It looked kind of like a river that flowed down the wall, across the overpass, and then further down the mountain, even though it was not moving.
Sun was already pushing Rod from behind. “Well, you wanted to do something cool and useful, here’s your chance…”
The band of jelly, while no longer on fire, was bubbling, signifying that it was still boiling hot. “Me, walk through that? You’re like indestructible or something probably, you do it!”
“And, my legs would melt off and I’d never get back.”
Begrudgingly, in a rather un-superhero-like manner, Rod trudged up to the beginning of the boiling jelly and began a mad and awkward dash through it. Much like how one would run through sun-baked quicksand, he could feel the complete loss of his usually at least slightly dignified composure as he flailed madly, splashing the partially liquefied jelly everywhere. It was not actually as hot as he had assumed since his suit insulated him from some of the heat, but it was by no means comfortable either. When he had reached the other side, he found a Red Jubjub, evidently having gone to the outcrop to admire a particular flower that grew there, now shaking with fear. Rod, mainly in a rush to just get out of this mess, immediately lifted the Jubjub over his head and made the same trip back, this time sinking even deeper into the jelly as it had melted further and he did not have the use of his hands to help him swim. The part of the building that had overshadowed the outcrop collapsed behind him as he lightly tossed the Jubjub back to solid ground and then heaved himself up and out of the flowing gelatinous dessert. Sun had reached her hand out to try to help Rod out of the jelly but he slapped it away from him. The two of them plus the Jubjub walked away to safety, just before the other Defenders accidentally doused them with water while they put out the rest of the fire.
While he was catching his breath, Rod said, “You just wanted to watch me trudge through that stuff, didn’t you?”
While it was not Sun’s main concern, especially not while he was doing it, thinking about it after the fact did amuse her a bit. She determined it to be more prudent to not respond to Rod’s question and so instead began to lead the Jubjub away from the wreckage and to try to console him.
Safely back at home, Thal once again stared over his backyard fence at Rod, who was again reclining on his lawn chair. Both of them had already received Neomails back from Headquarters detailing how they did.
Thal spoke first. “Well, hey, I bet you did super well, how about you read off yours first and we’ll see how cool that is?”
Rod replied, “Of course, I definitely did a brave thing today, and such.” He began to read the Neomail aloud. “Dear Rod, while we applaud you for helping to save one Neopian from the terrible fire, we must remark on how un-Defender-like your conduct was prior to this. Your Defender partner told us about your rude treatment of her, and both her and the pet you saved remarked on your reluctance to be the one to help. Furthermore, while not part of the criteria we used to rate your performance, the pet you saved very heavily insisted on us telling you that you forgot to rescue his favorite flower despite having more than sufficient time to do so. We thus reject your opportunity to become a proper Defender for now, but, if you undergo some self-reflection and adjust your attitude, we would very much appreciate if you were to reapply. Thank you - The Defenders of Shenkuu.” Rod then said, “Fair enough. But, I doubt you did any better than that. Knowing you, you let your partner do all of the work…”
Thal replied, “Well, your letter, sounds like you for sure… But yeah, I was there, it was so cool, a few people were saved, fires were dodged, not like anything you got to see!”
“You just said all of that in the passive voice… you really didn’t do anything, did you?”
“Hey, the letter said they appreciated me wanting to help and being such a cool dude… Fine, fine, we both got rejected, that makes this a draw.”
“If we ever do this again… You know, we should do it right. Or I should… make some apologies…”
Rod turned to the side in his seat away from Thal to ignore whatever response he would make. He had a bit of self-reflection to do for next time… his rivalry with Thal would not be ceasing any time soon, but, he told himself that he would not let it get in the way of things like this. There are things much more important than such a petty little thing as that, after all.