When Outlast, Sabin, and Vackran pounded to a halt on the
stone bridge in the swamp surrounding the Shadow Alliance's Neohome, all were
panting but Sabin, who squealed and bounced in circles. Gavdrael stood closer,
staring off to the northeast, as if waiting.
Triano and Zajen, the Halloween Whoot, sat on
their owners' shoulders. Triano hopped down from Outlast and slid purposefully
towards the dark Scorchio. "What is it…?"
Gavdrael only pointed with his free hand, the
other held a glittering sword, its hilt as black as its owner.
The sky above the tangled woods surrounding
the swamp were black and churning, but the rain only fell in weak, erratic drizzles
now. Triano frowned, crossing his fins. "I don't see why we're just sitting
here. If anything is really coming, I think we should prepare for it."
Vackran stared at Triano, and then stared at
Gavdrael. "You're not prepared for this sort of thing?" Zajen buried
herself deeper into Vackran's black fur.
Outlast shrugged. "Aside from the occasional
annihilation threat from agents like Magnolia and opposition like Myyth and
Sloth… We haven't had much need for constant defenses. Anyway, we have Gavdrael."
"But if it's bad enough, will even he be able
to stand up against it?" Vackran asked quietly.
Outlast couldn't respond. He didn't have an
"Where's Mareninini?" Sabin sang from behind
them. "All soft and fuzzy…" He skipped back and forth on the bridge, finally
flying awkwardly into the air and swooping over the bog in a series of dives
and back flips.
"Where is Mareni?" Triano muttered aloud. "And
Suddenly, Zajen squeaked and leapt out of Vackran's
fur, leaping into the air, scythe whirling to the southwest, then back again
to the northeast, and then she collapsed into wordless wailing and trembling.
Vack put a comforting paw over her, a paw that nearly enveloped the dark little
The trees rumbled suddenly. Gavdrael's feet
slid across the stone as he braced himself, readying his sword. Sabin hurtled
backwards in the air above the bubbling swamp as if struck, and the dark clouds
above them drizzled rain. Hissing, Outlast pulled an Attack Fork from his striped
shirt and followed Gavdrael's example with both fork and glistening silver claw,
slick with drops of rainwater.
With a shriek, Sabin zoomed across the swamp
and into the only open Neohome window in Outlast's kitchen to the left of the
door before them.
Muttering, Outlast opened his mouth to order
Sabin to close the window, but he hadn't a chance. Trees trembled while wild
Neopets and petpets fled in fear, the darkness between the trees blurring with
their colors as they fled.
From the great depths of the forest, something
crept ever closer. As it did, Zajen trembled more and more, whimpering louder
and louder with increasing frequency. Something within the depths of the forest
cried out in terror and was abruptly silent. Soon, all was silent, save Zajen's
Triano growled. "All of this for nothing?" he
cried, whirling to face Vackran and Zajen. "You talk to me about…" he stammered
suddenly, jaw dropping in horror, for at the end of the bridge, a seemingly
innocent, furry green beast with horns on its brow smiled.
"I have come," the beast announced, "for your
Triano, eyes the size of saucers, let out such
a wail that even Zajen looked up in surprise. "To the north, Gavdrael! The
north!" Without thought, Triano jumped headlong into the swamp, splashing
mud and muck as he struggled to swim across.
The tax beast was just beginning to make its
slow, cruel descent upon them, stepping easily onto the first stone block that
made up the bridge. Muttering, Outlast turned to the stainless steel building
and cried, "Sabin! Release the prunes!"
Sabin's purple head poked out the window, one
claw up in a salute, "Yes, ma'am, Outlast, ma'am!" A moment later, small, purplish-blue,
wrinkly blobs on minute black wings fluttered out of the window.
Outlast growled and shook his claw with the
Fork in it at the window, as the tax beast cocked his head, looked at the flying
gnats blankly, and then burst out laughing. "You expect to stop me with these?
You must be in…" His eyes widened as each little prune grew razor sharp teeth.
Some say they heard him crying on Mystery Island.
Snickering, Outlast fished the floundering Triano
out of the swamp. "Should I make my smart remark now?"
Triano glared. "Don't make me hurt you, prune
Zajen still shivered, her scythe thrust out
to the northeast, where the rumbling had begun.
"But what can be worse than unpaid taxes?" Triano
The ground shook once more, and the clouds stopped
their rain in fear, while there was nothing left in the forests to run. Zajen
yelped and jumped onto Outlast, hiding in the kerchief around his neck. Gently,
Outlast stroked Zajen's gray feathers and dark cloak with his silver hook. "There,
there, little one, don't be afraid. I've got plenty more prunes to beat up whatever
comes out of those trees!"
Zajen peeked one big eye questioningly from
beneath the kerchief, and then dove back in again.
"How come you never say anything that nice to
me?" Triano asked Outlast indignantly, glaring at him.
Outlast smiled, showing all of his teeth. "Because
I'm not nice to dinner."
Triano narrowed his eyes and sniffed haughtily,
turning pointedly back to the northeast wood.
"Scared." Zajen whispered quietly. "Scare Zajen.
Outlast blinked and looked down. He could barely
hear her, but he was sure the little Whoot had spoken. "Scared of what? What's
"Zajen had nightmare. Nightmare bring Lupe."
Now the shadow Lupe himself was beside them,
holding his breath at every word.
"Not Vack. Bigger."
"Bigger than Vack? Bigger than Deadele?" Triano
asked in disbelief. Vackran and Deadele were the biggest Lupes he had ever seen.
"Bigger," the Whoot squeaked and burrowed closer
to Outlast's neck.
Bigger. The three of them mouthed the
word silently, while, beside them, Gavdrael stood stone still, staring to the
"Can you ask the Lupe to go away?" Vackran asked
his petpet gently, more gently than Outlast and Triano had ever seen him.
"Maybe," Zajen whispered. "Haven't tried."
"Try," Outlast told the Whoot, stroking her
A flicker of deep blue and yellow stalked into
view across the swamp. Balthazar gazed across the swamp and then smiled, laughing
Gavdrael finally moved in a flurry, his black
wings stretching as he pushed himself off of the bridge, breaking into the air
with such speed and force that it barely took a flap of his wings to torpedo
his way across the bog. Without a sound, he brought his enchanted sword down
on the Lupe, but he caught it casually in his paws.
"Not good enough!" he laughed, throwing the
Scorchio into the swamp by his sword.
Gavdrael was sucked down into the bog, weighted
by his cloak, wings, and sword, and for a moment those petrified on the bridge
were sure he was lost. Then, miraculously, he broke the surface, spinning in
to the air, muck flying in all directions, splattering trees and Balthazar's
coat. His dark wings spread in a stunning display, his cloak flying around him,
and he dove again.
Abruptly, Zajen fled the safety of Outlast's
kerchief, flying out over the bog. "Go away!" She cried, her voice high and
cracking at its volume. "We don't want you here!"
Gavdrael stopped his charge with a burst of
outstretched wings, and spiraled back up above the treetops.
Balthazar squinted at the little gray Whoot
with her scythe and black cloak. "You summoned me here! You called me in my
Zajen shook her head, the hood of her cloak
whipping with the force of it. "Bad dream! Zajen had nightmare! Don't want you
Balthazar growled. "You summoned me here, with
such power, and now you simply dismiss me with no instruction at all? I rushed
here from my sleep to find who called me, and now you do not want me? Why should
I do as you say? You fear your own power, Whoot!"
Balthazar growled and shook his head. "I will
not leave unless I am defeated or unless I receive something for my trouble!"
"Zajen say go away!" The Whoot cried, and her
eyes glowed golden, and the wind whipped, knocking even Gavdrael into the trees.
Zajen hovered, unaffected, above the bog, while those stuck, speechless, on
the bridge braced against each other to stay on it. Rain pounded around them,
splattering mud and muck in the bog, pelting Balthazar with raindrops that felt
more like hail. Lightning shot through the air, followed by a boom of thunder
louder than any heard already that night, though by now dawn should have been
reaching its fingers across the sky.
Balthazar growled and leaned back on his haunches,
wincing from the wind and rain, and prepared to leap at the Whoot, when Gavdrael
struck from behind. Balthazar howled as the flat of the sword hit him, and lightning
sent a tree smoking and earth flying near the end of the bridge, leaving Balthazar
Finally, the Lupe turned, tail pressed between
his legs, looking back in indignation, anger, and loss, and fled back into the
Haunted Woods. The lightning stopped, the wind died, and the rain ceased to
drizzle, and Gavdrael glided across the bog onto the stone bridge as if nothing
out of the ordinary had happened at all. Zajen zipped back down and plunged
into Outlast's kerchief, shivering.
"Well!" Triano cried, turning towards the Neohome.
"That's done and over with! Now, I want to take a nice warm bath and catch up
on my sleep, and then I'll…"
"If Zajen had enough power to summon Balthazar,
and making him think he should obey her, no less, just by having a nightmare
about him," Outlast mused. "Well, it goes without saying that she does indeed
have a power that needs to be cared for. But if she summoned Balthazar, where
did the tax beast come from?"
Triano froze and looked back at the other three,
shivering. When they all walked back to the Neohome, Gavdrael had disappeared,
but no one had expected him to stay.
Mareni and Capone watched as the tax beast fled in fear, pursued by a swarm
of flying prunes.
"I don't like this," Mareni growled, dragging
a paw through the wet soil. "I don't like this at all!"
Capone sighed dejectedly. "We tried…"
"We tipped off the tax beast, Triano's major
fear, and yet it is the tax beast who runs screaming, not the fae-forsaken fish!"
Mareni growled and finally stomped his paw into the dirt.
"Why don't you just stop working for him?" Capone
muttered, adjusting her coat.
Mareni sighed. "Must I explain my motives to
Capone snorted. "As if I haven't heard them
enough." She stepped carefully back onto the main path to the Neohome, avoiding
as much mud and puddles as she could, which was nearly impossible, the state
the path was in. Mareni followed, and paused as footsteps sounded across the
"What the…?" Mareni murmured, turning.
The tax beast wailed, its green fur eaten by
prunes, leaving only bare pink skin. "You owe me NP, you little puppy!" he screeched.
Capone, caught between a fit of giggles and
shrieking, took off running down the muddy path, her red white-trimmed coat
flying, and managed to reach the Neohome in the bog safely.
Mareni was not so lucky.