Defenders of Neopia: The Vacation - Part Three
The next day, Jason was gone.
Upon awaking, Jackal had ventured downstairs to a breakfast of some ancient pretzels that someone must have overlooked, hidden in the back of a cupboard. “Where’s Jason?” she asked, quickly noticing his conspicuous absence.
“Must have gotten up early and gone for a walk,” Dalynne replied comfortably.
Now, twelve hours later, her tone was not so comfortable. In hindsight, it seemed wretchedly obvious to Jackal that Jason would not have gone out for an unannounced morning walk. He was by nature a late riser; he did not exercise for pleasure; he had been seriously unnerved by the ghost town that was Pleasant Manors. All perfectly good reasons to have doubted Dalynne’s theory, none of them of any use whatsoever, then or now. As Jackal glumly pointed out, it would not have helped if they had started looking yesterday or six days later. Except, of course, that in six days they would – hopefully – be back in the heart of Neopia Central.
They had looked everywhere, or at least, as far as seemed at all useful. Their calls met no response. The only thing that had changed from the day before, as far as Jackal could see, was the fact that the newspapers had been cleared from the streets. Every single one of them. Which, needless to say, was not in the least comforting.
Jackal and Dalynne sat on the floor of the bare, spotless living room.
“There’s nothing we can do,” Dalynne said for the fourth time.
“No, there’s nothing we can do,” Jackal agreed, for the sixth.
“What could have happened to him? For that matter, what could have happened to everyone here? It’s impossible. An entire town just doesn’t disappear...”
“And who delivered the newspapers? And who picked them up? And how has nobody from the outside world noticed? All puzzles we have no way of solving. And,” she conceded, “I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of any way to even start.”
“We’re Defenders of Neopia, for Jhudora’s sake!” Dalynne exclaimed. “We of all Neopians should know what to do! But I haven’t the faintest idea. And it’s all my fault, when you think about it. If only that pipe hadn’t burst...”
“Yes,” said the more philosophical Jackal, rather dryly. “If only. But there was no way you could have known. All coincidences – there is a bright side, though. If we do get out of this alive, at least we’ll have a shot at getting promoted.”
Dalynne, it seemed, had nothing more to say for the time being. Jackal didn’t have much to say either, but she had a lot to think about. She didn’t like this situation. An unknown enemy – because there was an enemy in some form, she was certain of that – was picking them off one by one. And which would be worse? To be the next one caught or the last? The idea of waiting alone in this house was not appealing. If the house had at least been furnished, and not so fastidiously clean, it might have been more bearable –
Of course, she thought suddenly. That’s it. A house that’s been uninhabited for years shouldn’t be this clean.
With the realization came no sudden inspiration or impulse. It didn’t change anything, and somehow she didn’t feel like mentioning it to Dalynne. But it did mean that someone had been in here, and recently. What would they have been doing? It was almost as though someone had known that they were coming... But no. Jackal stopped herself at that thought. There was no evidence to suggest that at all, and quite enough going on already to keep them occupied without more conspiracies of paranoia.
She considered sharing her ascertainment with Dalynne, but rejected the idea after some thought; it could be of no possible help, and she didn’t want to stir up more uneasiness.
Instead, she voiced the other thing that was on her mind. “I think we should go to bed soon.”
“Are you crazy?” said Dalynne. “As if we’d be able to sleep! And should we really try?”
“Think about it. We have to sleep sometime, and we’re as safe now as we’re going to be. If we’re half-dead with tiredness, we won’t be able to defend ourselves even if the need does arise.”
Advice more easily given than taken, Jackal reflected gloomily an hour later. She tossed and turned. Every position felt uncomfortable and her mind would not stop racing. Naturally, she imagined a footstep or a voice at every second, and once or twice her mind even fooled her into thinking that she saw a shadow out in the hall. Keeping her door open was still a good idea, she contended firmly in response to her own doubts, but it wasn’t any more likely to help her sleep.
Suddenly she sat up.
Dalynne had just walked past her doorway – at least, she thought it was Dalynne – and was heading down the stairs. Something was strange about this. Jackal leaped out of bed, grabbed her Virtupets StunGun off the dresser, and followed quietly.
She had half suspected that it might be an impostor – not Dalynne, but a trap to lure her out of her room – but it was Dalynne; there was no doubt about it. She was moving oddly, though; her feet hit each step perfectly evenly, and she proceeded without any apparent hesitation or fear, and with, strangest of all, a great air of purpose.
“Dalynne?” Jackal said. The question hung in the still air. Dalynne continued down the stairs.
She steeled herself. “You have exactly five seconds to respond before I use force.”
Dalynne took no notice. She reached the hall and started toward the door.
Jackal lunged down the steps four at a time and positioned herself in front of Dalynne. In a flash, before she could react, Dalynne dealt her a powerful blow and she fell aside, momentarily stunned. Her StunGun slipped to the floor, but fortunately, Dalynne did not appear to be interested in it. She simply turned around and went through the door.
So here she was now, enjoying her fun, relaxing vacation by way of chasing Dalynne through the woods.
The red Lupe had immediately turned westward, continuing without haste and without hesitation across lawns and roads, and after some minutes had reached the end of Pleasant Manors and the beginning of the forest that lay beyond.
In a way, Jackal reflected, carefully maintaining a safe distance, she didn’t mind this. It was, after all, in the line of her profession, and at least she didn’t have to sit around waiting for something to happen anymore. It was the waiting that killed her. Now she could be doing something. There was a mystery to solve and, presumably, enemies to fight.
All in a day’s work.
The other silver lining was that wherever Dalynne was headed, Jason could probably be found. It couldn’t be long now, surely, before they reached wherever it was Dalynne was going. Jackal wondered with interest what was drawing her fellow Defender so powerfully along.
Before long she began to notice that somebody else had already trampled this path through the trees. Perhaps somebodies else might have been more appropriate effectually, if not grammatically, because there was no way that one person had made a trail like this. No, Jackal guessed that this was exactly what had happened to all the inhabitants of the town, and that their collective tramping had made this path. The only questions that remained to be answered were how and why. It was a useful clue... in fact...
An idea flashed into Jackal’s mind, and, moving stealthily in case there was anyone around more concerned with her actions than Dalynne, she quickened her pace and cut a curving path through the woods, some yards away from the trail, catching up with Dalynne’s position and then overtaking her. When she was positive that she had left her friend far enough behind, Jackal stepped out onto the path and hurried ahead. Before she did anything to stop Dalynne from going wherever she was headed, she would find out exactly where it was. She only hoped that she would not somehow miss it.
That, as it turned out, was a needless worry. Her answer came soon and definitely, impossible to overlook.
The path’s edges blurred and finally disappeared as the trees came to an end, opening out onto an enormous valley. Seated in the very heart of it, surrounded by a tall wire fence, was an ugly grey building, square and windowless, blazing with tall lights set all around it. Whatever it was being used as now, it must at one time have been some type of establishment – a hospital, perhaps, or a school. Except, Jackal realized, that no school would be built entirely without windows.
What worried her most, however, were the guards stationed at intervals around the fence, and the faint haze surrounding it, suggesting that it had Virtupets laser technology designed to turn anyone who touched it into ash.
Knowing full well that she didn’t have much time before Dalynne arrived, she made a hasty quarter-circle around the building, looking for some kind of clue as to where Dalynne was supposed to enter – assuming that she was supposed to enter. Not the main gate, surely. That would be too –
Aha, she thought.
Around the side of the building, hidden from the front by an extended south wing, was a large fenced enclosure filled with Neopets.
The door was open, two guards standing on either side, waiting for someone.
But Jackal had an idea...
She circled back around, staying out of sight of the building and the guards, hoping that Dalynne had not yet reached the top of the hill.
She hadn’t. Jackal heaved a sigh of relief, then picked up a sturdy fallen branch and started off into the woods. There was no need for concealment now; she needed to find Dalynne, and it didn’t really matter whether Dalynne found her first.
Although Jackal was expecting it by this time, she was still a little jolted by the sight of Dalynne coming unswervingly towards her, staring past her as though she saw nothing at all. Head up, regular steps, tail down, eyes straight ahead. “All right,” Jackal muttered. “I think I’ve got it.” Then she lifted the branch and brought it down on Dalynne’s head, hard enough to knock her out cold.
“I’m sorry, really I am...” She dragged her friend a little way from the path. She wished that she had something to tie her up with – there was no telling whether she might get up again and keep coming when she awoke, and Jackal wanted to keep her as far as possible from that building – but there was no help for it. And no time to linger.
Jackal regretfully dropped her StunGun in a bush near the end of the woods. Although she would have been much happier with it in her hands, she wouldn’t have been any safer. In fact, she probably would have been dead the moment those guards spotted her.
Then she shook herself out, stiffened her posture, and continued down the hill, doing her best to imitate Dalynne. With any luck she would be mistaken for the red Lupe, and if her ruse worked she would get an inside look at whatever was going on here, as well as a chance to stop it. If not, well... she would have to come up with another plan, and she would have to come up with it very, very quickly.
She had to stop herself from swallowing hard or blinking at the bright artificial light as she drew closer to the fenced enclosure. This was it – the crucial moment. She absolutely could not give herself away.
Fortunately, the two Tonu guards did not seem to spot anything amiss. As she entered the enclosure, they silently closed the gates, and a beam of laser shot through the lock. Jackal had a feeling that it was not going to be as easy to get out of here as it had been to get in.
With the guards’ backs turned to her, she risked a quick look over her shoulder. As she had seen before, she was not alone; what she hadn’t noticed was that everyone was in lines, rigid single-file lines which she hastened to step back into. None of them reacted. She did not see Jason anywhere, although it was more than possible that she had missed him in her brief glance. Apparently they had all been given the same treatment as Dalynne. Jackal forced herself to imitate them, standing absolutely upright and keeping her eyes as still as glass.
How long she stood there she could not have said, but it was certainly hours. By the time somebody came, dawn was breaking and Jackal felt ready to fall down and die. She couldn’t decide which hurt more: her back, her legs, or her neck. In addition it was very difficult to keep her eyes open, since she had gotten absolutely no sleep at all the night before, and she suspected that at intervals she had momentarily dozed off. It was only luck that nobody had been there when it happened.
When somebody did come, it was one of the Tonu guards, who had left several minutes after her arrival, and a yellow Techo in a white lab coat. The guard opened the gate and stood to the side as the Techo looked carefully at every member of the front row.
Then he pointed straight at Jackal.
To be continued..