Nikki, a little white Aisha, was sitting innocently under a tree in Neopia Central, half-heartedly pretending to read a thick book mysteriously devoid of a title. But in reality, she was people-watching. This was a favorite pastime of hers, watching the crowds go about their daily lives - though she'd never confess to it, for fear of strange looks and exclamations of, "Holy biscuits, that's like such the creepiest thing to do, ever!" perhaps soon followed by the worried question, "There aren't others like you out there, are there?"
Nikki often answered this somewhat offensive question that hadn't really been asked by whispering to herself. "So what if there are? It's better than having others like you in the world, dung-brains."
Currently, though, she was simply watching the people as they went by. Not whispering things to herself, or doing anything else similarly frightening. Just watching.
Nikki looked down at her book for a moment, attempting to avoid being blatantly obvious. She wasn't actually reading it, though - it was pretty dull. But she preferred to bring dull and unpopular books along on her observation-excursions ever since that time that she tried bringing the Neopian Times. That was a disaster. It seemed that every pet that passed by felt the need to come up to her and say something like, "Oh my goshhh! I love the Neopian Times! I can't even believe the four hundred fiftieth issue is almost HEREEEE! I mean, just like, wow. When the fiftieth issues come out is always like, my favorite time of life!" and then skip away in what appeared to be a state of utter bliss before even giving her the chance to respond.
Nikki crossed her eyes at the pages of her boring book, making funny patterns from the words to entertain herself. But when she decided it was safe to resume watching for a little while longer and looked up, the streets were empty. Just like that. Everyone gone.
The sudden silence rang in her ears and she stared. But no matter how large she made her eyes or how much she squinted them or tilted her head, she succeeded in doing nothing more than looking like a complete and total idiot.
Which she may've been, really, because generally when there's absolutely nothing there, it doesn't matter how good your vision is: you're still not going to see anything.
Nikki set aside her book and began to get to her feet, looking around, perhaps hoping that everyone had coincidentally walked out of her sight at the exact same moment, and that someone might reappear around the corner of a building any minute now.
And that's when she noticed him. He was a Korbat of a shadowy color, wearing a blindingly white cloak and sitting about ten feet directly behind Nikki. Staring.
Nikki jumped violently when she saw him, and instinctually wrapped her arms around herself in a tight hug. Then she realized what she was doing, and dropped her arms to her sides, blushing. It took her a second to overcome her alarm enough to form an audible sentence, but soon enough she cleared her throat and said, "Um... hello?"
The Korbat had not moved at all during this amusing display of fear, but now he smiled malevolently and spoke. "Don't you see how frightening it is to be watched?"
Nikki just blinked: her ego was grievously wounded. She'd always considered herself quite the stealthy watcher, and so to know that someone knew that she observed others was rather disheartening. In fact, she was so disheartened that it took her several seconds to remember that it was common courtesy to respond when you're being spoken to. "I don't watch people like that. I mean, jeez, way to scare the garbanzos outta me." She crossed her arms angrily.
The Korbat laughed quietly, looking devilishly pleased with himself, but Nikki started talking again before he could say anything.
"Where'd everyone go? What'd you do?"
"Oh, I was just practicing a little spell... It didn't work quite as planned, but this is quite nice, don't you think?" the Korbat said, gesturing around the marketplace with a smirk.
"Well, uh... no. FYI: you sort of interrupted my daily schedule. Thanks," Nikki said, scowling petulantly.
"It isn't exactly my fault that your 'schedule' includes such creepy activities."
Nikki just rolled her eyes. "You're hardly one to talk about creepy. You didn't like kill everyone or anything, did you? Because that's, like, seriously evil."
"Of course I didn't kill them. Just because I look so exquisitely evil doesn't mean that I actually am," he replied with a wink.
"Well... okay. If they're still all alive and stuff, then why don't you bring them back?"
"You can't?" Nikki said, her eyes bulging. "What'd you do with them, then?"
"Hm. I was wondering the same thing, oddly enough," he said, placing a finger on his chin and putting on a mockingly thoughtful expression.
"Well, this stinks," Nikki grumbled, crossly snatching her book off the ground and turning her back to the Korbat to begin her walk home.
"You really care about others, don't you? I can see how the sudden, mysterious disappearance of a large number of people has affected you in an entirely non-selfish way," the Korbat called after Nikki, sounding almost bored.
Nikki whirled around and placed the hand that wasn't busy holding the book onto her hip. "Oh, shut up. You're hardly one to talk, seeing as you made them disappear in the first place."
"Ah, yes, but I know that they'll reappear any moment now, and therefore have no reason to be upset."
"What?! You just told me that you couldn't bring them back!" Nikki sputtered in disbelief.
"I can't bring them back. But they'll be returning shortly, of their own accord."
"You lying little - " Nikki waved her free arm around wildly, unable to come up with an appropriate ending to her sentence.
She had just taken a step in the direction of the Korbat to have a better aim at him when she sent her book flying at his head (she's always had a bit of a temper), when there was a loud POP!
She froze mid-step, her book already raised above her head in preparation of a mighty toss. Slowly, she lowered her arms and turned her head to look behind herself, where the noise had come from.
The streets were still empty of people, but they were now sprinkled with white, downy feathers that were somehow reminiscent of confetti, and golden balloons were floating everywhere. The book-shaped bookshop's previously red outer walls were now golden, and emblazoned with the message, "Happy 450th, Neopian Times! Buy this milestone issue of the Times inside, or purchase some of our exclusive Neopian Times memorabilia - available only for a limited time!"
Perched atop the roof of the nearby Neopian Bank was a gigantic, lit-up plastic Weewoo with a ridiculous party-hat, rotating slowly and grinning with excitement every few seconds.
In fact, almost every building that was within sight had some sort of outlandish, Neopian-Times-themed decor. All in all, Neopia Central now looked very gold, very celebration-ish, and very feathery.
Nikki took this in for a moment, rage forgotten. Then she swiveled back around to face the Korbat, who was still lounging serenely on the grass.
"Did you do that, too? Dude, who cares about that stupid newspaper?"
"Yes, I did it. That's why I'm here, actually. I was hired to clear the square for a while and put up decorations. I didn't bother to make you leave, though, obviously... I see you here watching people every day, and the opportunity to mess with you was just too enticing to pass up." Here he paused to sneer at Nikki while her face turned a bright red color that would put tomatoes to shame.
"Anyway," he continued, "they offered to pay me for the decorating and all that by giving me the anniversary issue of the Neopian Times and a yearlong subscription, so, naturally, I couldn't refuse. Aren't my decorations lovely?" he said, gazing smugly at the decked-out shopping area before him.
Then he turned to look at Nikki again, his expression serious. "And you should try reading the Times sometime. It's lovely. I know you haven't read it, or else you wouldn't have said that. Everyone likes the Times." As he spoke of the much-loved newspaper, his eyes grew soft and his mouth curved up into a peaceful smile.
"What is it with everyone and the dumb Neopian Times?!" Nikki screeched.
Unfortunately for her, the crowd that had previously disappeared chose this moment to pop back into existence. All was silent. Both parties were shocked.
Nikki was shocked because, of course, it's always a bit alarming to watch a couple hundred people materialize before your eyes. And the throng of people was shocked because, obviously, you know... everyone likes the Times.
A few awkward moments passed. Then someone spoke up, her voice surprisingly kind. "You're really missing out."
Apparently this was inspirational to some other fellow, who shouted, "Yeah, if I were a Weewoo, I'd totally poop on your head!"
There was a general murmuring of assent throughout the crowd. But Nikki had no time to holler back a reply: it seemed that someone had finally seen the banner hanging over the bookshop's door.
"OH MY SWEET CHECKERED DOUGHNUTFRUIT! The TIMES! The special issue - it's HERE!"
This announcement was followed by unintelligible screams of joy and a collective run for the bookstore.
Nikki took the opportunity to begin sprinting as well, though she was headed in the opposite direction. When she finally reached her neohome, she barreled through the door and locked it behind herself before collapsing in the nearest chair.
"Neopian Times fans..." she muttered to herself with a disgusted shiver.