"You've GOT to be kidding me," Qaf guffawed. "Pink? A PINK fluffball?"
"Quiet, Qaf," Ley admonished her brother. "I think it looks nice."
"Yeah, nice and pretty." Qaf sat down on the floor of the unfurnished Neohome. "Can you imagine walking through Darigan Citadel looking like THAT? Pink and fluffy? Oh, sweet Fyora, I can't breathe for laughing."
"Qaf," Ley said, quite a bit more loudly. The yellow Acara glared at the green Ruki. "Quiet! It doesn't matter."
Can barely glanced up. He'd thought he'd like being a lab pet, hoping that it would change him from a little JubJub to something large, like a Grarrl. Instead, it had made him pink, to the endless amusement of the Ruki.
"Did anything nice happen at the petpet ray, Can?" Ley asked gently.
"Not really," Can mumbled. "Name change. 'Petpet of DOOM'."
"Cheery," Ley commented dryly.
"Yeah," Can said. The Abominable Snowball was carried in a small bag on his back, fastened to his pink fur. "Hey, I think I'm going to go for a walk."
Ley frowned. "In Darigan Citadel? Not the best of places, Can."
"I'll be okay," Can assured her.
"All right," Ley said. "Be back before dark, okay?"
"'Kay." Can left the house. Wolf, the robot who cared for him, Ley, Qaf, and Scren, was slumped against the wall beside the door, apparently asleep. Can was glad; he didn't want conversation at the moment, though Wolf wasn't very talkative either.
He padded off into the streets of Darigan Citadel--he didn't like living there, but it was better than the Pound--without looking back. So he didn't see Wolf's dark eyes snap open. He didn't see her stand up, staring after him. And he didn't see her vanish into the Citadel's shadows.
No one saw that.
Can wasn't looking where he was going; he was staring at his large orange feet. This time yesterday, they'd been gold, just after his first-ever lab zap.
Since he wasn't looking where he was going, he bumped into someone. He stumbled back. "Oh, I'm sor--"
He stopped. An orange Grundo stood in the middle of the deserted street, staring at him. "Um, hello?"
"I am not authorized to converse with you," the Grundo said.
"Um... hi, I'm Can, what's your name?" He couldn't think of anything else to say.
"I am A59," the Grundo said.
"That's, uh, great," Can said. "Can I help you?"
The Grundo shook his head, then took a whistle he was wearing around his neck and blew on it. No sound came out.
"Is it broken?" Can asked, just to hear the comforting sound of his own voice. A59 shook his head.
Suddenly, yellow horns seemed to grow out of the pavement beside A59. Can jumped back as the head of a ghost Ixi floated out of the ground, followed by her body.
"Good work, A59," she said, looking Can over. It didn't take long. There wasn't much of him to look at. The Ixi was nearly twice his height.
"Hi," Can said nervously. He was getting scared now. "I'm Can. Who're you?"
"My name," the Ixi said icily, "is Clouds."
"That's a nice name," Can said, babbling. "I don't like my name much. It's really Canfriend, but everyone calls me Can for short. Except that one guy in the guild, he calls me Bucket. And Qaf--that's my brother, well, my foster brother--calls me 'that fuzzball wannabe lab rat'. Well, since we got the ray he has to call me 'that fuzzball lab rat' now, which isn't as bad."
"Shut up," Clouds said. Can's teeth clacked together. "What's in the bag?"
"My petpet. A snowball. It's called Petpet of DOOM. I think I'll call it Doom for short."
Clouds rubbed her forehead with a hoof.
"So, anyway," Can said quickly. "Is there anything I can help you with?"
Clouds smirked. "No."
"Okay." Can turned. There were three more orange Grundos behind him. He spun back around, a question on his lips.
"But there is someone who wants to see you," Clouds continued.
"What?" Can said, and then the world began to spin as if poured into a blender. Black ink was added to the mix and everything was dark.
Clouds examined the unconscious JubJub. The bag had fallen from his back. She allowed herself to seem satisfied. She loved having magic.
"Bring him," she ordered the four Grundos. "Get the bag, too."
A59, the Grundo carrying the bag with Doom in it, was lagging behind. It wasn't because Doom was heavy. The petpet was just some snow, charcoal, sticks, and a hat and scarf. It was even missing part of its smile: Scren had taken it to draw with.
No, A59 was just lagging. He had nearly lost Lady Clouds and the other Grundos by now. He glanced around anxiously. It was getting dark, and Darigan Citadel wasn't a great place to be at night. Scratch that. Darigan Citadel wasn't a great place to be at all. He wouldn't have gone there of his own free will.
He turned. He had a bad feeling that he was being watched. He broke into a sprint, trying to catch up with Lady Clouds and the others, but they were gone, vanished into the Citadel's maze of streets.
There was a soft sound behind the orange Grundo, and A59 turned, a prickling feeling of dread squirming in his stomach.
Crouched on all fours was a young woman. Her short black hair outlined a pale, heart-shaped face, and large, slanted dark eyes stared at A59. He gulped and backed away.
The woman straightened. She was tall and willowy.
"First," she said, "I want you to give me the bag. Then I want to know who you're working for and where you've taken my JubJub."
A59 ran. He didn't get far.
Juley was getting twitchy. Clouds should have been back by now. The Faellie floated above a large, black table in a large, dark room.
"Relax," Rainy said. The Christmas Uni was sitting at the head of the table. "Clouds can take care of herself."
"We've made enemies..." Juley began.
"Anything that can capture Clouds probably isn't going to be defeated by you. And I'm on good terms with Darigan. Nothing will happen to her in the Citadel. It's a simple enough mission, for Jhudora's sake."
Juley settled in a chair that was much too big for her and leaned back into the cushion. "You're right. I'm sure she's fine."
It was at that moment that Clouds returned. She was frowning.
"Did you get him?" Rainy asked.
"Yes, I got the JubJub," Clouds said. "But I lost A59. And I don't know how. He was straggling and never made it out of the Citadel. He had the petpet, too."
"Oh well," Rainy said. "The petpet was unimportant, and we can afford to lose a Grundo. I suppose we'd better send someone after him, though. That crazy Meepit and her idiot Uni will do."
"Are you sure about this, Rainy?" Juley asked. "It's never been done before. And it can't be reversed. If it does work... well, it could create a monster."
"That's sort of the purpose, Juley," Rainy said, a tad impatiently.
"You're not going to get another chance, Rainy," Juley warned. "This is it. Are you sure you want to use the JubJub?"
"Stop dithering, Juley," Rainy commanded. "One, he's weak. Easy to control. Two, he's a labbie. I need to get into the laboratory. This will provide me with just the chance I need."
"All right," Juley said, clearly unhappy that Rainy was convinced to go through with her plan.
There was a pause; Rainy fiddled with a pen. Finally, the Uni was the one to break the silence. "Where is the JubJub now? I'd like to speak to him before I leave for the night."
"Third room on the right," Clouds said. "He was waking up when I left."
Can was bound and gagged. And very scared. Who was Clouds? Why had she brought him here? Where was Doom? He'd only had the snowball for a day, but he didn't want anything bad to happen to it. All right, he had allowed the petpet to be zapped with the lab ray, but as far as he could tell, Doom, who had originally been named Shyfter, had liked it. He thought. Abominable Snowballs didn't show much emotion.
The door to the room opened, but Can was lying on his side, facing away from the door, and couldn't see who entered. He heard footsteps, and then a Christmas Uni sat down in front of him. He'd seen her before, though they'd never talked, and he'd been yellow at the time. Rainy. The evil one. She removed his gag.
"Don't speak. Do you know who I am?" she asked. He nodded. "Good. You're here because I need you for an... experiment."
Can's eyes widened. He'd heard of her experiments.
"It won't harm you," Rainy said. "Not much, anyway. You might even enjoy the results. You'll be released soon afterwards... if you cooperate."
"Wolf will find me," Can coughed.
"Wolf?" Rainy laughed. "Wolf's on vacation in Tyrannia with her pets. Probably celebrating, Bucket."
Can's eyes dropped to the floor. Rainy left, her mission accomplished. She added a parting comment: "And don't worry. Your petpet is safe with us."
Juley was waiting outside Can's room when Rainy exited.
"Was it really necessary to lie about Wolf?" the Faellie asked, not even bothering to observe the second lie, about Doom.
"Are you going soft, Juley?" Rainy snorted. Without waiting for an answer, she yawned. "I'm going home. I really don't need my owner poking around."
Rainy's owner, Argetl, was Can's owner as well. Wolf just took care of him.
"All right," Juley said. "Clouds and I will lock up the lab, okay?"
"Great," Rainy said, and walked away. Juley watched until the Uni was out of sight. Then Juley turned to the door to Can's room and waited.
Clouds melted through the opposite wall and nodded to Juley. "She's gone and the cameras are down. Go. Make it quick. There are still some Grundos, the late shift. I don't think I can get rid of them without suspicion."
"No, that's fine," Juley said. "Thanks. Go home."
"Are you sure you won't need me?" Despite being a petpet, Juley was Clouds's owner.
"I'm sure. Don't worry. I've got my magic."
Clouds shuddered. "I just don't understand why Rainy would do that to herself."
"Who can understand her twisted mind?" Juley opened the door, using her magic to appear as a Christmas Zafara. Linda, another of Juley's pets, wouldn't mind her guise being used here.
"See you in the morning," Clouds said, and left.
Can tried to look up as the door opened, but to no avail. He was more than a little surprised when an angelic-looking Zafara untied him.
"Who are you?" he demanded as he got to his feet.
"I'm here to help you," she whispered. "My name isn't important. You can call me... Rolia."
"Okay," Can whispered back.
"Hurry!" Rolia said. "Follow me! I've got to get you out of here."
Can trailed the Zafara to the door. "But she'll release me if I cooperate! This really is not cooperating."
"Rainy will NEVER let you go," Rolia hissed. "The operation will just make you her slave. As it is, you'll be looking over your shoulder for her for the rest of your life."
"But she said!"
"She lied! She lies left and right! Stay away from her, don't listen!"
Can looked at Rolia. There was no way he was going to be able to avoid Rainy for the rest of his life. They were owned by the same person!
"Wolf will keep you safe, so stick close to her," Rolia added.
"Wolf's on vacation," Can said sulkily.
"She's not. Rainy lied again. Don't believe a word she says. Now come ON!" Rolia peered around the door's frame. "Clear. Let's go."
Can followed her out to the corridor before he remembered the next reason why he couldn't leave. "She's got my petpet!"
"More lies! Clouds lost it. The Grundo carrying it vanished in the Citadel."
"Oh, that's great news!" Can stopped. "Doom is lost in Darigan Citadel!"
"That really shouldn't be your overreaching concern right now," Rolia snapped. "You might want to concentrate on escaping."
"Who are you, anyway?" Can demanded. "Why do you go wandering around villains' labs in the middle of the night?"
"To save you," Rolia retorted, dragging him along the corridor. "Please, Can. I'm trying to help you."
"What does Rainy want with me, anyway?"
Rolia just looked at him. "You don't want to know. Come on."
"Hey!" An orange Grundo holding a mop was standing at the end of the corridor, gaping at them. Rolia vanished. Can froze.
"I surrender?" he asked hopefully.
"I'm very disappointed in you, Can," Rainy said, adopting the gentle tone of a kindly teacher. "You could have made things easy for yourself, but you had to choose the hard way. Do you have anything to say for yourself?"
Can just stared at the Uni. He was gagged, anyway. Behind Rainy floated Clouds and a Faellie, both looking rather drowsy. It was the middle of the night, still.
"Ah well," Rainy said. "Let's start the operation."
Can was laid out on a steel table, held down by leather straps. He was still unconscious. Clouds and Juley had been dismissed. Rainy was holding a glass bottle.
A couple months before, finding herself without the time or inclination to train her magical powers so that they could be used, she had removed them and stored them in this tall, cylindrical bottle. It glowed faintly lavender with a red center, like a misty and malevolent eye.
Rainy breathed in deeply. When released, the power would seek out a vessel, and the unconscious JubJub on the table should present an easier target than consciously resisting Rainy. And if the magic did return to Rainy, no loss. She didn't know if she could remove it again, but if she couldn't, she could still use it. It was a win-win scenario.
Rainy uncorked the bottle. The mist poured out, more than you'd think could fit in a bottle that size, and the red center jerked around inside the bottle, spiraling up the glass to hover just beneath the opening, as if hesitant. The mist seethed, settling to cover the ground for at least a foot. Rainy's hooves twitched. She forced herself to stay calm, gripping the edge of the table that held the limp form of Can.
The mist swirled and built itself up around the two Neopets until it enclosed them completely. Rainy couldn't even see Can. The traitorous, cowardly back of her mind wished that she hadn't dismissed Juley and Clouds.
She took a step back, slipped, and fell. When she stood again the mist was concentrated on Can. The red center of the magic floated over where Rainy estimated to be between the JubJub's eyes.
"It's working," Rainy whispered.
Can took a deep, shuddering breath, breathing in the mist. And another breath. And another. Each time the JubJub breathed, more mist vanished into his mouth. Finally, with just a couple wisps left, the red center sank into the sink between Can's eyes, and with one last ragged breath the remaining mist was gone.
"It's over," Rainy said, with relief.
Then the door broke open.
Wolf's robotic eyes took in the scene in an instant. Rainy was holding an empty bottle. Can was unconscious and strapped to a table. He didn't look harmed, but that meant nothing.
"Hello, Wolf," Rainy said calmly, setting the bottle down on the table. "I was wondering when you would arrive."
"Liar." Wolf crossed the room and pushed Rainy aside, checking on Can. She still didn't see outward harm. She was wearing the bag containing Doom on her back.
"What do you want, Wolf?" Rainy sighed. She was putting on a nice show of being bored.
"What did you do to him?"
"Nothing. I tried an experiment, but it failed."
Wolf's dark eyes searched Rainy's blue ones. "If you've hurt him..."
"What?" Rainy asked, giving Wolf a look of doe-eyed stupidity. "You'll dump snow on me?"
Wolf bared her teeth. "I'd tell you what I'll do, but then you might have nightmares."
She grabbed Can and was out the door too fast for the eye to see.
"Interesting," Rainy mused.
An electric JubJub sat in a dark street in a city that looked very like Darigan Citadel. Beside him was a pile of snow, coal, sticks, and wool named Pants McGee. Before him was a small fire. His red eyes seemed entranced by the dancing flames, though the snowball did not seem pleased.
The JubJub whispered a few strange words, and the snow began to rise into the air. This pleased the snowball even less.
"Look out, world." The JubJub smiled darkly. "I'm back."