Of Mutants and Meepits: Part Three
Panic swept through Happy Valley like an epidemic, giving its name a twisted sense of irony. The usually peaceful crowd of tourists were now flocking out of the valley as fast as they could manage, bumping into a lone figure heading in the opposite direction in their hurry. Nobody apologised, the entirety of the escaping crowd focused too greatly on their own safety to care about a stranger who was getting in their way.
‘Hey, you!’ someone cried, a blue Lutari fighting through the crowd toward the figure. ‘You were the one asking about the mutants?’
Leban looked around at Mr. Chipper, who was taken aback by the change in appearance of the fiery Ruki. No longer attired in his old travelling cloak, Leban wore full Ruki battle armour, with a reinforced shield on his left arm, also designed especially for Rukis. On his back was his back-up bow and quiver, while a sword was sheathed by his side.
‘You have new information?’ Leban asked, his voice a drab monotone.
‘A load of them have apparently taken over the Ice Caves!’ Mr. Chipper explained. ‘That’s why everyone is trying to get out. You should do the same thing, fella. It’s not safe here anymore!’
‘Leave it to me,’ Leban replied, but Mr. Chipper had already rushed off with everyone else, and there was nobody to hear his words.
Snow was still falling in the valley as Leban set off through the last of the crowds. The air was once again chill against his face, but he barely acknowledged it. All that mattered to him now lay in the depths of the scientist’s lair, lost in the heart of the Ice Caves. Sara.
‘Leban, wait!’ Quentin’s voice washed over him, the Bruce exhausted as he stepped in front of his friend, his arms spread wide. ‘I can’t let you do this!’
‘Get out of my way, Quentin,’ Leban said blandly. Quentin just shook his head vigorously, side-stepping with Leban and stopping him from moving past. ‘I didn’t want to do it this way, but you’ve left me no choice,’ Leban concluded. Giving his old friend a piteous look, he took flight over his head, Quentin watching on helplessly yet again as his friend disappeared toward the high entrances to the Ice Caves.
The late afternoon sun was reflected from the high peak of Terror Mountain down into the valley where Quentin stood, completely lost for words. He had never known Leban to be quite so cold and rash toward everybody else, and it was leaving him feeling utterly useless and forlorn. Shielding his eyes from the bright sun, he contemplated going after his friend, but knew he would only be a hindrance. The best thing he could do was wait for him to return.
Suddenly, as he stared up an idea struck him, and he realised how he could yet be of use.
* * *
Oblivious to the activities of his friend however, Leban touched down smoothly at the entrance to the Ice Caves, looking into what always used to be a veritable hive of activity. Now it was full of mutants of every specie, once Neopets like Leban, Quentin and Sara, cursed into the service of a fiendish tyrant.
‘Looking for me?’ he bellowed out through the caves, the booming echo of his voice growing stronger as it resonated and returned to him. Grasping his bow, he fired quick shots at the mutants as they began their fierce assault, taking flight as the swift Lupes rushed to his position. Angry wails of the grounded mutants rose to meet him as he hovered above their heads, returning his bow to the quiver of arrows and drawing his sword.
Suddenly a Shoyru was speeding toward him, Leban ducking low and sharply jerking up as the Shoyru passed above, forcing it against the hard cave roof. Quickly moving away another Shoyru began an attack, Leban once again slipping aside at the last moment, but this time causing the mutant to collide with a stalactite, falling untidily to the ground and groaning miserably. Looking down, he felt a burst of inspiration, the sword cleaving the stalactite with ease and dropping it onto the frozen walkway below, driving the mutants back and scattering them in fear.
Leban landed on a higher walkway and looked down at the mutants gathering below. Stamping heavily with all four feet he watched with twisted delight as the mutants were covered in a layer of snow. Stabbing the sword into the walkway, he marvelled further as fragments of ice collapsed onto the mutants and forced them back again toward the middle of the Ice Caves.
He began to feel a sense of futility rising as from the passages around the Ice Arena there flowed more mutants, the activities of the scientist for the past year coming to light as his private army was finally revealed. There seemed to be no end to them, and Leban felt a twinge of guilt for his attitude toward Quentin; he was right, and he could not handle this alone.
Forced into the air again as the flyers came once more, he knocked an Eyrie out of his path and tried to outrace a Buzz across the caves, only to find another Shoyru coming the other way. Abruptly he pulled up, the pair colliding beneath him and falling into the dark pits off the main walkways. Dropping to a more comfortable hovering height again, he felt the second wind of his muse, spinning away and narrowly evading a fierce attack from a mutated Draik. Skidding onto the ground on the far end of the caves he whistled for attention, taunting the mutants with his cheerful waving before rushing into the nearby cave.
One factor he could always be sure of was that these mutants were not normal Neopets on the receiving end of a transmogrification potion, but the product of a very specific mutation process, akin to that of Dr. Sloth during his earlier attempts to take over Neopia. The mutation process made them bigger and stronger, but it also reduced their intelligence massively, so they would take orders without question. It made them the perfect lackeys for someone like the scientist, who saw no sense in servants who could think their way out of trouble. It also made them perfect for luring into a trap.
The wrathful roar of the Snowager rang out all over Terror Mountain, Leban hopping lightly out of his escape route and into the Ice Caves again as the hordes of mutants were blasted back by the colossal might of the giant ice snake.
Before those less harmed by the Snowager’s attack could realise what was happening, he had vanished into the tunnels, rushing through the darkness toward the ice bridge where they had seen the Mynci before. Even after such a short time in the suffocating darkness of the passage, the air felt crisp and fresh around the bridge, the light brighter and more beautiful than ever before.
Leban had no time to enjoy it, however, and leapt from the bridge toward the other walkway where a pair of Mynci were still carrying slabs of the enchanted ice. He connected with one on landing, knocking them out against the wall. Sharply he forced his shield against the other, causing the heavy slab to drop on the poor Mynci’s head. It staggered for a moment before collapsing backward with the slow inevitability and unstoppability of a felled tree.
Sheathing his sword, Leban gave both a short look that bordered on pity, but dismissed it in favour of saving his sister and set off down the passage the mutants were heading toward. Unlike the passages above, this one was well-lit and fresh. Leban only moved at a brisk pace for a couple of minutes before emerging into a magnificent chamber he had only seen once before, in the centre of which was an exquisite crystalline structure carved into the ice. Inside, the ice was less common as the machinery of the scientist took over, but from outside it was truly a sight deserving of appreciation, as had been intended by the original creators of generations lost.
On the frozen platform around the structure were hundreds of Meepits, but to Leban’s immense relief they had not noticed him. A number were moving smaller fragments of the enchanted ice around, piling it up in the centre of a tight ring of other Meepits. They seemed to be building something, but as to what the Meepits could possibly want to build, he had no idea, and no desire to find out while the scientist still held Sara.
Silently he took flight and passed unnoticed over the heads of the Meepits, landing smoothly on the top of the structure and slipping into the laboratory of his nemesis.
* * *
Fire blazed playfully in the grate, injecting an inviting air to the home atop Terror Mountain. The inhabitant barely noticed it, however, sitting back in her chair and thumbing through an ancient tome. Something felt wrong on the mountain, but she felt oddly isolated from its worries, and it sent a shudder through her entire body.
Frantic knocking resounded through her home. The occupant carefully lay the tome aside and proceeded to stop the newcomer from knocking her door down with their desperate, frenzied hammering.
Quentin practically fell across the threshold when the door was finally opened. Taelia regarded him like he was a madman. He was exhausted after his manic rush up Terror Mountain, but there was no time to relax; his friend was in need of help, somewhere beneath his feet in the dark and unknown depths of the Ice Caves, and only the Snow Faerie knew the ways of Terror Mountain well enough to do anything.
‘Taelia, we need your help,’ he wheezed. Taelia helped him into a chair in front of the dancing fire. ‘Mutants have overrun the Ice Caves! A crazy scientist is trying to turn all of Neopia into mutants!’
She regarded him awkwardly again, pondering the truth of his words. ‘Mutants are becoming commonplace in Neopia,’ she replied, ‘what with Kauvara’s transmogrification potions.’
‘These aren’t normal Neopians!’ Quentin cried, struggling onto his feet again. ‘The scientist has been kidnapping Neopets and transforming into mutants, brainwashing them to his cause. Taelia, please, you have to understand that we need your help. He is doing his final preparations for all this. There is no time for hanging around, or all of Neopia will be converted into heinously mutated slaves of a deranged Scorchio! My friend is down there now, but you’re the only one who can do anything. You’re the guardian of Terror Mountain, and it needs your aid!’
The fabled Snow Faerie took her tome from the table and looked down gravely at its yellowing pages. Legends of the enchanted ice that formed around the heart of the mountain looked back up at her, its mystical properties sending a second ominous shudder through her body. She could feel the heart of the mountain beating alongside her own, and it told her the lands she loved so dearly were under attack. But the qualities of that material crafting material were still alien to her, and she was reluctant to act so rashly.
‘Please, Taelia,’ Quentin persisted. ‘Terror Mountain is my home. I can’t bear to see her abused like this.’
Taelia just looked up and out of the window into the swirling snow, pondering just what she could do to make a difference.
* * *
Leban dropped into the polished corridor and cast his mind back to earlier in the day. He had been brought this way the first time, mesmerised by the eerie stares of the Meepits, and brought before the scientist. Spinning on the spot, he faced the familiar doorway into the control room. He would have to sabotage it before he left. But first he needed to find his sister, and she would likely be deeper into the facility.
An unpleasantly familiar sensation rushed over him before he could move. Turning slowly on the spot, he saw two Meepits watching him. Quickly he took up his bow and fired a single arrow at the ground between them. Both Meepits scurried away in fright. He permitted himself a contemptuous laugh at the creepy servants of the scientist, then turned back toward his destination.
Suddenly a giant fist connected with him bodily, hurling him back toward where the Meepits had fled. Wincing in pain, he looked up at the gigantic mutant Meepit that now barred his path, fixing him with its unnerving stare. Unlike the other Meepits, however, this stare was not so much mesmerising as nauseating, its hot, putrid breaths filling the narrow passage more effectively than even its oversized body could, successful though it was.
An arrow launched toward the abomination but bounced harmlessly off its reinforced skin. Again and again Leban tried to strike it down, but the beast just advanced on him with slow, cumbersome steps. Its clawed hands ran along the walls as it advanced, leaving a long, scratched trail in its wake.
Abandoning the bow Leban drew his sword again and lunged, but the fierce blow of the freakish Meepit propelled him back again, smashing through the doors at the end of the corridor and across the icy floor of the entrance hall. Unrelenting in purpose, it squeezed through the narrow doorway after him, forcibly pulling the frame from the wall in the process.
Leban felt unnecessarily exposed in the centre of the circular entrance hall, but a quick glance around revealed he had no other choice; the room was a perfect circle, with no space for a Ruki to hide. Taking the only available option he took to the air moments before the Meepit smashed its fists into the ground in an effort to crush him beneath.
Events of the day came flooding back to Leban as the Meepit let out a toneless wail, flailing its spindly arms wildly to try and knock him from the air. Ducking beneath, Leban hovered just above the ground again, prompting a second angry, smiting blow from the mutant. Pulling back at the last moment, Leban hovered out of reach again and smiled.
One throw was all it took, the sword blade striking clean through the ice, destabilising the delicate snowflake of cracks that had formed under the blows of the ferocious Meepit. It wailed again, trying to grasp the edges of the ever expanding pit but the ice just gave way beneath its grasp and the oversized mutant Meepit was swallowed by the darkness below and lost in the bowels of Terror Mountain.
Leban did not land until he was back in the corridor, breaking into a desperate charge toward the door at the far end. It opened as he approached, the familiar sight of the control room greeting him for a fleeting instant before something shot into his armour.
It was the arrow from a crossbow. Casually he pulled the shaft out and tossed it aside, the yellow Scorchio giving him a look of mild surprise mixed with annoyance.
‘Well, that didn’t quite go as planned,’ he remarked, fitting a second arrow into his crossbow, ‘but at least it had the desired effect.’
Leban was suddenly aware of the hypnotic stares of the Meepits again, all watching him from around the control room. For the first time he was given a better look at the room, noticing how the Meepits were even sitting on the two large generators at the back of the room, next to the door through which he had entered, seemingly unfazed by the crackling electricity.
‘Now you are here, how about we get on with our show?’ the scientist suggested, snapping the clawed fingers of his free hand. Through the other door marched a mutant Kyrii, roughly holding a starry Ruki only a few years younger than Leban.
‘Sara!’ Leban exclaimed.
‘Try anything and I will kill her now,’ the scientist warned, pointing his crossbow at Leban’s sister. It was an unnecessary threat, as under the mysterious watch of so many Meepits Leban found all his energy drained, and could only watch as the Kyrii locked Sara into the chains between the two power generators.
‘My dear friends, it is time to turn Neopia to my way of thinking!’ the scientist declared, bouncing happily to the control panel.
As before, it was covered in Meepits, but they refused to move as he tried to shoo them away. Frustrated, he tried to brush one aside with his hand. The Meepit suddenly jumped and sank its sharp teeth into his hand. Screaming in pain, he frantically tried to shake it off, unaware of how ridiculously comical he looked, but its grip was unbreakable and would only yield when it felt the time was right. The Meepits had all turned toward the big screen now, those on the control panel slowly typing the same command as the scientist before and bringing up the map of Neopia. Something had changed, however, and every little red dot was replaced with a tiny Meepit head. They had changed something, but Leban was doubtful it was better than the scientist’s own scheme.
Free from the Meepit induced trance, he carefully picked out a path through the Meepits, none seeming to care when he stepped across their view of the screen. The Kyrii was just staring stupidly at the screen like the Meepits, collapsing noisily against the machine as Leban knocked him cold. No Meepit stirred at the sound.
Removing his trusted Ruki-made dagger from its sheath on his leg, he began to toy with the locks holding Sara in place. ‘Do you know of a way out?’ he whispered, shooting a nervous glance over his shoulder to make sure he was still unimportant. She nodded mutely, motioning toward the door through which she had been brought. ‘Good. When I say, I need you to run for it, okay? Don’t worry about anything, just get out. I will be right behind you.’
Finally the second lock opened, Sara falling into her brother’s waiting arms. Together they moved across the rest of the room, keeping close to the wall and trying to stay out of the Meepits sights. The scientist had been released from the vicious bite and was staring up at the screen in disbelief.
‘What have you done?’ he cried. ‘Why have you done this? Everything was perfect, and you have ruined it all!’
‘Actually, I think that’s my job!’ Leban replied loudly, throwing his dagger into one of the generators. Instantly it began to spark uncontrollably, sending shocks of electricity through the Meepits sitting atop it.
‘Run!’ he cried, taking Sara by the hand and rushing through the doorway as the attention of the Meepits was drawn toward him again.
Guided by Sara, the pair bounded up a winding staircase and into another passage, intermittently lit by soft lanterns. Screams followed their escape, but they were not screams of defeat from the scientist. Both closed their minds, not wanting to know what the Meepits were doing to him.
‘Leban!’ Sara cried, Leban turning back from checking behind to see a number of Meepits lying in wait ahead.
Skidding to a halt, he pulled her back, but already more Meepits had arrived from behind, fixated upon them. No more did they wear blank, innocent stares. Now there was a malign streak, more glaring than anything else. The Ruki had ruined their plan, and now he would have to pay the price for his insolence.
Suddenly a blinding flash made Leban recoil, stepping in front of Sara to shield her from whatever was coming. Squeals rose from the Meepits as the air was full of snowballs, passing carefully around the pair of Rukis and forcing the Meepits to scatter. A chill breeze swept through the passage, forcing them back further and into a quick retreat back toward the scientist’s facility.
‘Leban, Sara, come on!’ It was Quentin, beckoning them both on with one hand while the other continued to hurl snowballs at the would-be pursuers.
They did not need any persuasion, and had quickly rushed past Quentin, the Bruce falling into step behind and rushing toward the fresh light in the distance, emerging on a small ridge overlooking the Happy Valley below.
The last rays of the sun were streaking over the valley, the pale sunset casting its resplendence to illuminate the valley magnificently. The breeze was gone outside, yet straying closer to the entrance of the cave Leban could still feel it rushing through, Quentin winking conspiratorially at him.
Suddenly a part of the rock face was blasted open below them, all three rushing to the edge and watching in horror as the rocks fell toward the valley. They gasped as the pieces slowed, floating delicately on the air and passing harmlessly over the town and out toward the sea.
‘The mountain’s heart tells me it is no longer in danger,’ a voice declared. Taelia appeared behind them in a swirl of snow. ‘I will send word to Fyora about the scientist’s bombs, and we faeries will organise their removal. I thank you all for your help.’
‘I should be thanking you, Taelia,’ Leban replied, bowing respectfully to the Snow Faerie. ‘Both you and Quentin. Had you not come when you did...’
‘All that matters is that we did come,’ Quentin said with a smile.
Leban smiled back. ‘Taelia, I have something to ask you, before you go,’ he said, nervous in the face of a powerful faerie. ‘Do you have any idea what the Meepits may have been up to around here? They seemed to have changed the settings on the scientist’s machine.’
‘The Meepits are a peculiar bunch,’ she replied mysteriously. ‘Even we faeries do not understand them. I would guess that perhaps they altered the effects of the machine. If we knew what the Meepits wanted it would be easier to work out to what end though. Now if you will all excuse me, I must attend to repairing this damage.’
In a swirl of snow, she was gone. A faint breeze rushed past the three of them as they stood watching over the Happy Valley, now confident the machine had been destroyed and the Meepits were no longer in pursuit; Taelia would not have left them if there was still any risk. Together they watched the sun sink lower, the darkness descending over the Happy Valley and causing the splendid display of lights to begin, giving it a fairytale appearance from above.
‘Quentin, I’m sorry,’ Leban said at length. ‘Sorry for the way I’ve been behaving.’
‘Forget about it,’ his friend replied. ‘I already have.’
Sara stepped up next to her brother and put her arms around him. ‘Thank you for coming for me,’ she whispered.
‘I’m just sorry it took so long,’ he said, and the first time in months he properly smiled, and felt at peace.
Night settled over the Happy Valley.