Of Mutants and Meepits: Part One
Beautiful flakes of snow were in the air as the pair stepped up to the lip of the valley, looking down over the cheerful tourist site spread out below them. It was ever a picturesque sight, yet beneath its perfect veneer something was amiss.
‘You think she’s down there?’ the electric Bruce asked, looking at his companion.
The fire Ruki pulled his cloak tighter about him. ‘Why did you come with me, Quentin?’ he asked at length, seemingly oblivious to his friend’s question.
‘Leban, do you really need to ask?’ was Quentin’s reply.
Leban just smiled. No, he thought, I don’t. Quentin had been an invaluable companion over the past few months, ever since it had happened, and Leban would not trade him for any other. Yet now they had received the best piece of information of the entire hunt, and he felt uneasy about leading his old friend right into the heart of his mess.
‘If she is there, we will find her,’ he said, finally answering Quentin’s question. ‘Let’s go ask around.’
The Neopets in the Happy Valley at the foot of Terror Mountain did not share in the worries that plagued Leban and Quentin. The fiery Ruki shot a number of irritable glares at the various Neopian children playing in the snow under the watchful eyes of their parents. Around them the tourists were enjoying the steady snowfall, a number of Island Neopets staring up in awe as they felt the chilly splendour for the first time in their lives. Some of the more frequent visitors were watching them and laughing at how they gawped, but as Leban and Quentin passed their attention was drawn elsewhere; something about a Ruki walking past with a bow and quiver strapped to his back had a habit of drawing the attention of bystanders.
Before the pair the crowds dispersed, giving them easy access to the bewildered Mr. Chipper in the middle of the valley. The blue Lutari gave them a broad, cheerful smile as they approached.
‘Got some coupons then have you, fellas?’ he asked. ‘This is the only place in all of Neopia where you can trade them in for ice cream.’ He looked at their grave expressions, and in the face of it even his bright and cheerful demeanour faltered. ‘What’s going on, chaps?’
‘We are investigating some rumours of... unsavoury characters operating around Terror Mountain,’ Quentin answered, cutting across Leban. ‘You tend to know a fair bit of what is going on around here, so we were wondering if you had seen anything.’
‘You with the Defenders of Neopia?’ Mr. Chipper questioned suspiciously.
‘Formerly,’ Leban replied. It had been his time with the Defenders of Neopia that had left him where he was now.
A year ago Leban had indeed been a member of the Defenders of Neopia, and had been an instrumental component of bringing down a crazed scientist scheming to transform every Neopet in all of Neopia into mutants under his command. The scientist had been successful in transforming every pet the Defenders of Neopia sent out to get him until the fiery Ruki was captured, and with the aid of Judge Hog and a special strike team Leban had managed to stop the scientist’s deranged plan and destroy the ray that was transmogrifying and brainwashing the poor Neopians. Yet the scientist had managed to get away. Four months ago, he had resurfaced, and caused a rift between Leban and Judge Hog, which only ended when Leban quit the Defenders of Neopia and set off alone to track down the insane Scorchio.
‘Any activities from mutants that you know about, Mr. Chipper?’ Leban asked.
‘No more than usual,’ he replied. ‘We get a fair few coming here for their holidays, just like we do for every other species and colour of Neopet.’
Leban looked at Quentin, who shrugged. ‘Please, let us know if you see anything remotely out of the ordinary,’ Leban urged, failing to conceal the disappointment in his voice. Being situated so perfectly in Happy Valley, he had hoped Mr. Chipper would be of more help.
The crowd flowed in again behind them as they walked away, still keeping a wide berth; even when so crestfallen, Leban was still an intimidating sight. Leaning against a striped lamppost, the Ruki watched the children playing on the frozen pond and sighed. Mr. Chipper’s question about the Defenders of Neopia had brought everything rushing back to him in the light of day; usually it only plagued his dreams. He had fought back of course, but the scientist had been planning this for some time and he was outnumbered. Every night he saw the bulging silhouettes in that dark street. Every night he replayed...
‘We should ask around in the shops. Maybe somebody else has seen something?’ Quentin suggested, bringing Leban back to the present. ‘You go and check the slushie shop; I’ll ask around in the petpet store.’
Desperately shaking off the memory of that night, Leban headed toward the slushie shop, the little bell above the door ringing out loud across the shop. The striped Eyrie behind the counter looked up from the latest issue of the Neopian Times with a bored look, reaching out for a slushie and trying to suck the last remnants from the bottom of the cup. Despite the busy atmosphere outside, Leban was the only customer and the attitude of the Eyrie suggested he was the first for a while.
‘Have you seen any suspicious mutant activity lately?’ Leban asked uncertainly.
‘No,’ the Eyrie answered, returning to the Neopian Times; there did not look set to be a purchase in this conversation.
Feeling somewhat affronted by the lack of courtesy, Leban pressed harder, ‘There have rumours of a deranged scientist at work somewhere on Terror Mountain. If we don’t stop him, he will turn everyone into a mutant. So, are you sure you haven’t seen anything suspicious lately?’
‘Positive,’ came the drawling reply, the Eyrie not bothering to look up this time.
Approaching the counter Leban placed a hand firmly on the Neopian Times, the Eyrie looking up again. ‘I find that hard to believe,’ Leban snarled, trying to suppress his frustration.
‘Leban, I’ve found something!’ Quentin suddenly cried, bursting into the shop. He stopped dead as both stared at him, Leban calmly turning away from the Eyrie and leaving the shop without a word, knowing that behind his back the disgruntled Eyrie was shooting him an evil glare.
Stepping back into the chill air of the Happy Valley, Leban looked expectantly at his friend, who just stared back blankly for several seconds before managing to compose himself again. ‘Someone said that there has been a lot of activity in some strange part of the Ice Caves,’ he said triumphantly. ‘And what’s more, mutants have been spotted coming and going from there quite frequently, but because they have been in small numbers, not many have paid any attention to it. Worth checking out, don’t you think?’
Without bothering to answer, Leban set off toward the Ice Caves, Quentin rushing to keep up. Quentin had grown accustomed to this sort of behaviour from his friend of late. Every time they came close to finding anything, Leban would get worked up over something trivial and become silent and moody. Quentin had found it paid to just leave him to it; trying to make him change only caused more problems. At least this way they still made progress, and when he finally snapped out of it, he was always very apologetic about his attitude. Quentin often wondered if he would be the same, had it happened to him instead. In all honesty, he believed he would probably be worse.
Just like the Happy Valley at the foot of Terror Mountain, the Ice Caves served as a popular tourist destination and was crawling with pets. Although they were out of the snow inside of the caves, the air was far colder due to the frozen world that surrounded them. Leban pulled his cloak even tighter, but Quentin seemed to be enjoying the familiar chill; he was born and raised on Terror Mountain. During their youth at Neoschool it had meant Leban always had somewhere to go during the holidays, but he could never live there. Yet for those who grew up on the icy slopes, there really was no place like home.
Various others waved to Quentin as the pair made their way through the central hub of the caves, but Leban kept him moving so all he could do was wave back. It did not take the fiery Ruki long to spot the cave they sought; already there were mutants heading into the dark depths. Instantly he made to rush after them, but as he reached the crowd in front of the Ice Arena, Quentin grabbed the hood of his cloak and pulled him back.
‘We can’t just rush in after them!’ he hissed, forcibly dragging his friend to a secluded corner where they could have some privacy. ‘There are only two of us after all, and you’ll wind up getting us both captured! Let’s just try and see what we are up against for now, okay?’
Roughly Leban grabbed the electric Bruce and pulled him close until their faces were almost touching. ‘He kidnapped my sister!’ he snarled angrily. For on that dark night he had been in Neopia Central with his sister Sara when the mutants had come. Thinking they were after him, he pushed her aside and tried to fight them off, inadvertently playing directly into the scientist’s hands. By the time he knew what had happened, it was too late; they had taken her and escaped.
‘Then we need to know what we are doing before we try and rescue her!’ Quentin persisted. ‘Leban, what good will it be if we wind up being captured as well?’
‘I don’t care!’ Leban bellowed, dropping Quentin and pushing a path through the crowd. By the time he made it to the other side, Quentin was alongside him again and pulling him back. Leban just shrugged him off.
‘Listen to me!’ Quentin cried, grabbing him more forcefully and spinning him around. ‘Do you remember what happened last time you faced the scientist? He captured you twice, and I seriously doubt he’ll make the same mistake of letting you escape again. See some sense!’
Angrily Leban shoved him off again and rushed headlong into the dark passage, a small part of his brain remorseful for his attitude. Yet still he could hear the reassuring sound of Quentin’s footsteps after him, the pair quickly slowing in the utter darkness that surrounded them. Leban could feel his friend shudder behind him, the bitter chill that haunted this passage permeating even his thick resistance to the cold.
Groping blindly for the icy wall, Leban slowly proceeded through the darkness, feeling the rapid, hot breaths of Quentin keeping pace behind, occasionally bumping into the Ruki with a muffled apology. It had only been a couple of minutes ago at best, but already their little argument was long forgotten to both of them, although a part of Leban’s mind made a note to apologise later.
Slowly a light began to drift into view in the distance, the pair cautiously stepping out onto a high ice bridge overlooking a cavern that opened onto a deep abyss below. A short way below them another path ran along the wall, a pair of heavy set mutant Mynci making their way along it with large slabs of what appeared to be ice held above their heads; ice which was changing its subtle tones before their very eyes!
Leban looked expectantly at Quentin.
‘They say that stuff forms around the heart of the mountain,’ he explained, ‘but it is very rare. The most valuable items from Terror Mountain are made out of the stuff. Our family has a necklace made of it, passed down for generations. To a collector it could fetch hundreds of thousands of neopoints, if not millions.’
‘But the heart of the mountain is nowhere near here,’ Leban interjected.
‘There are... rumours... myths that say it has formed in other places all over Terror Mountain. There used to be dreadful mines trying to find it, but nobody ever managed to do so. I don’t want to imagine what the scientist is planning to do with the stuff, though, or how he managed to find some.’
‘Only one way to find out,’ Leban declared, quickening the pace across the ice bridge and back into the dark tunnels, Quentin in hot pursuit.
The passage was just as dark and unpleasant as the first, but as they trudged through there was no sign of more light in the distance, and a thick, vile odour was starting to terrorise their senses. Nothing could deter Leban, however, his insatiable need to save his sister lighting his path and cleansing the air of its dank stench.
Suddenly he froze, Quentin bumping into him again and peering past his friend into the darkness ahead. It was not so dark anymore; numerous pale orbs had appeared, floating a short way above the ground. Slowly they were moving closer, the pair realising with horror that they were not orbs, but eyes. Quentin quickly turned but they were behind them too, steadily and inevitably closing in.
‘What are they?’ he asked.
A light struck just ahead of them, and illuminated the waves of eyes that surrounded them in what had been darkness.
Meepits. Hundreds of Meepits, stretching off into the darkness beyond the light, all staring at the pair in the innocent way of the Meepits. Standing amongst them was a mutated Lenny, clutching the flaming torch with a malicious grin.
They had fallen right into the scientist’s trap.
To be continued...