16th Petpet Brigade: A New Mission Statement - Part Three
Chapter 3: Mission Start
The next few days he could tell that Blippa20 and Azuleja were being extra nice to him. They kept him company around the house, gave him space to be alone when he wanted it, and left him his favorite toys to play with. He was almost grateful, but too wrapped up in his own dark emotions to consider returning their kindness. He was still at a loss for what to do or how to feel by the time news of the 2nd Brigade’s record time of four days for a mission reached their section of the neighborhood. By then the others knew of the bet and the petpet they had to retrieve.
Another week shot by, and it was their team’s turn at last to officially receive the mission and start the race to beat a four-day record time. Manti’s apathy had turned to a cold resolve by now. He decided he couldn’t do this. He was not going to aid in his own replacement! No way. Good luck to his team (like they were any good without him) but he was out.
“Go without me,” he sighed to Azuleja and Blippa20 as they waited for Aurelius in the darkened living room. “That’s all I came down here to say.”
“I understand how you feel,” said Azuleja. She was not a young petpet, and lived with the fear that her pet, Shiro, would grow tired of her some day and replace her with a bright, new, spunky petpet. “I’m sorry that it’s come to this; we’ll leave you alone, but the rest of us cannot disregard our mission.”
“I know,” said Manti, feeling very unlike his usually energetic self. “I understand your sense of duty.”
Aurelius made his appearance amongst the group.
“Let’s move out,” he commanded, turning to lead the team to the well.
“I’m not going,” Manti informed him, remaining seated. “Good luck without me.”
Aurelius swung his great head around to stare at the Garfir; those large, empty eyes sticking him to the spot. In the oppressive silence, the Dofrey paused to do what Manti assumed was some thinking, and said, “That is not an option. Move out.”
“I’m not going to do this, Aurelius, sir. The Faellie we’re going to be assigned to get is to replace me.”
“No excuse,” said Aurelius without any pause or feeling, “You will come.”
“I will not.”
It was then that Manti found himself in an exceedingly familiar place: at the base of Aurelius’s hooves, looking up at his menacing bulk.
“There will be no disunity,” said the Dofrey. “You will not disobey. You will fulfill all missions given to you.”
“I said I won’t!”
That was a mistake.
Instead of looking up into Aurelius’s blank expression he was now faced with the impressive spread of the Dofrey’s antlers, coming to many sharp points. They created a barrier in front of Manti, and as Aurelius began to walk, the Garfir was forced to scramble backwards to avoid being stuck with those pointed tips.
“Disobedience will not be tolerated,” said Aurelius to the floor as he maneuvered Manti into line with the others. “Your personal feelings have no place in duty. Move out.”
Azuleja looked a bit conflicted, and Blippa20 looked outright alarmed, but Aurelius kept pushing Manti along toward the door, slowly and surely.
“You’re crazy!” said Manti as he scuttled backwards out of the petpet door in front of Aurelius.
“You have a duty,” said the Dofrey, straightening up once outside and moving out of the way so Blippa20 and Azuleja could emerge. He seemed to expect no further resistance from Manti, and turned his back to lead the way. “Come.”
Manti took up the rear of the line, heart rate slowly returning to normal. That had not gone as planned.
They wound their way in a line through backyards and back alleys to Neopia Central, largely silent. They snuck beneath a few glowing café windows, scattered when Center residents strolled by on evening walks and dodged out of sight when some straggling shoppers hurried into their midst, arms full of a day’s errands. Manti was going on pure instinct at that point, lost in his thoughts. Now what, now what, now what?
“Ready?” Aurelius’s deep voice disrupted Manti’s frantic brooding. He realized that they were at the Neopian Travel Agency, still relatively busy with sleepy pets preparing for overnight trips to visit relatives or get away for a vacation. Petpets without owners or loose from cages were highly suspect, so stealth was of the utmost importance.
Manti didn’t have time to say yes or no before Azuleja sprang onto the wall and scurried up on her sticky feet to hit the entrance button. The doors flew open and Aurelius bolted inside, Manti and Blippa20 behind him, dodging immediately to the left along the wall.
“Behind the trash barrel!” yelled Azuleja from where she was running along above them, able to get a good view of open, dangerous areas and shadowed deserted ones. She rejoined them as they arrived in the (smelly) safety of the trash barrel’s shadow.
None of them were unfamiliar with the Travel Agency, as even simple missions required the occasional overnight travel to a distant land. Manti had only ever been to the Haunted Woods and Meridell—land travel. He wasn’t certain how to get to Faerieland. He assumed through the large purple glass doors marked as such, but what was on the other side? His curiosity was slowly replacing his trepidation. He tried to spy through the doors as various pets and people walked through them.
“Find us a route,” Aurelius commanded Azuleja. The Surzard promptly scurried lightning-quick up the wall, glanced around, and darted back.
“Right 45, Left 30, Right 20 to target!” she said expertly, listing off angles and directions of travel facing the target destination.
“Follow,” commanded Aurelius without hesitation. He pointed himself toward the door, turned to face 45 degrees, and took off running, his team immediately behind him. They arrived shortly at side of the Mystery Island Travel Desk. Aurelius re-oriented himself and took off for the next point, a towering pile of luggage. From around the side of a flowered suitcase the team dashed the last leg, scrambling through exactly as the purple doors swung open to allow a rambunctious family through. They dodged paws and hooves and flippers and hid safely beneath a registration table.
Blippa20 let out a low whistle, Azuleja stared wide-eyed and Manti openly gaped. An enormous golden gateway adorned with carvings of faceless faeries and fanciful tall-spired castles gave way beyond to a sky filled with gleaming bubbles slowly rising high, high until they disappeared into the dark of the night. It was beautiful. Aurelius, forever unmoved by anything but his duties as team leader, was staring at the ground from which the bubbles originated. Manti looked at it, too.
Beyond the golden gate, pets were walking alone or in families onto a misty stretch of ground. Wherever they stopped a bubble moved slowly to encompass them, becoming less translucent as it grew until at last it took off, a mature golden color, the pets or people hidden from view. Faeries stood here and there supervising, but clearly not directing the formation of the bubbles. It looked as if they had only to get onto the misty takeoff ground and a bubble would form around them, hiding them from view and taking them safely to Faerieland. Aurelius looked as if he had come to the same conclusion.
“Come,” he said, stepping toward the edge of the shadow, “The mist will act as cover for us.”
The team of petpets moved quickly and silently through the impressive gate, entering the gently blowing fog.
“Prepare to stop on my mark,” said the Dofrey, navigating the team toward the center of the bubble-field where they would be least likely noticed before the bubble became opaque. But they could not help the fact that the passing of even so small a group kicked up a trail of mist. Manti saw one of the observing faerie’s faces focused in concentration on this strange line of movement.
“Uuuh, Aurelius...” he whispered. The Dofrey’s head jerked around and he saw the faerie, too.
“Halt!” he called before they reached the middle. The faerie moved some strands of blue hair out of her face and took a step toward them, concentrating hard.
Where they stopped huddled as a group, a bubble rose immediately, rising over their bodies to encompass them completely. The faerie saw the unmistakable sign of passengers taking off and began to make her way toward them, trying to see inside the rapidly setting bubble. In another few seconds Manti felt the bubble close gently beneath his paws and they were airborne, floating up past the faerie’s face. She reached up as if to dissolve their bubble and end their trip before it even started, but a pink Alkenore flew swiftly into her path of motion, chattering for attention.
“Oh hey, it’s Suave!” said Azuleja in recognition. The Alkenore turned and gave them a wink as the faerie pet him to calm him down, strange passenger-less bubble forgotten. It was just a bubble, after all.
And they were on their way, rising swiftly in a golden orb, leaving the Travel Agency, Neopia Central, and solid ground far behind. It turned out inside the bubble you could see outside fairly well, if through a slight golden haze. Manti was transfixed. Azuleja joined him in staring downward.
“It’s beautiful, right?” she said, looking at the clouds from above for the first time instead of below.
“Yeah,” he agreed.
“Still regretting being on this mission?”
“Of course,” he snorted, but he couldn’t take his eyes off of the lights of the cities spreading for miles. “I would rather never have seen this, never have been given this special mission, than lose my pet.”
“But if this is what Polaris wants,” she said as gently as she could, “wouldn’t you want to give it to him?”
Anger welled up inside of Manti.
“That isn’t devotion, that’s defeat!” he snarled. Azuleja didn’t answer, just continued watching the shapes of the continents become more and more miniscule. Manti stewed in indignation.
Within an hour they began to see slivers of clouds once more. Within ten minutes of that, the clouds were so thick that the sky and stars became pockets of speckled darkness. All at once the golden haze dissipated and their feet found spongy ground. They looked around, startled, as the grandeur of the towers and cloudbanks of a sleeping Faerieland against a black, black sky greeted them. Arriving pets moved all around them, walking toward the welcome desks to register their stays. The team snuck quietly past and followed Aurelius through the cloudy streets, out through the gates of Faerie City proper to the misty countryside, and out, out, out to a crystal forest.
Blippa20 beeped and projected the current time onto the sharp surface of a low-lying crystal. 23:04. That gave them at most seven hours to wander the forest in search of wild Faellies.
The team looked at the glowing expanse of crystal formations glinting in the moonlight of a huge Kreludor. A few low bushes with red fruits and soft green leaves spread between the crystal banks, and the occasional trunk of an amber tree with deep blue leaves rose up from the crystalline floor. It was highly disorienting.
Blippa20 looked skyward, spun three times, and pointed her beak-like face north. Points of light for north, south, east, and west spread at her feet. Aurelius nodded.
“Due west,” he commanded and three of the points of light disappeared, leaving only the one directing them westward.
Blippa20 turned around and reoriented herself to face due west. The group started walking. The forest which had appeared quiet at first soon revealed itself to be filled with sound. Some sort of bird petpets chirped happily in the moonlight and some Harris peeked curious faces out of holes in the amber trees. A group of Flouds floated past, staring vacantly at them all. There were plenty of petpets but no Faellies in sight, but soon even the usual fauna became scarce.
The numbers flashed red in the night, disturbing the soft white moon light. It disturbed something else as well.
“INTRUDERS!” a shrill female voice shrieked.
Four rainbow blurs dropped from the trees, surrounding the team.
“MARIGOLD, TULIP, SWEETPEA— ATTACK TO CAPTURE!” the same voice yelled.
Blippa20 made a siren sound as a thick net made of twisted blue leaves bound her up into a ball. Azuleja made a successful dash up the smooth side of a crystal, narrowly avoiding a net sent her way. Aurelius shook the too-small net from his huge shoulders and Manti side-stepped the net meant for him and slashed it with his claws to render it useless. The four rainbow shapes changed position.
“SUBDUE THE FELINE ONE!”
Manti’s scorpion tail shot up at the ready as he tried to guard his blind side by backing against a rock. Three of the rainbow petpets charged him as another leapt on Aurelius to distract the Dofrey.
“Aha!” cried Azuleja as she dropped from above onto one of the petpets charging at Manti, but it flipped and pinned her easily as the remaining two leapt at the Garfir.
Manti grappled with one and stabbed at the other with his tail. They were too quick. One escaped from his paws and the other expertly dodged his venomous tail. They disappeared from sight suddenly, and in the brief pause he saw that Azuleja had been subdued with ropes of the same leafy material. And then suddenly the one that had been fighting Azuleja (maybe) appeared in front of him.
“Hey, they’re Faell--!” he cried in surprise before the other two suddenly rushed him from two sides, trapped his tail, flipped him on his back, and tied it up with his feet. “Faellies,” he finished with a groan.
“VERY GOOD!” the one in charge yelled in his ear. “And what are you all?”
“We are members of the Chia Close 16th Brigade,” said Aurelius, easily tossing off two of the other Faellies that jumped him. “I request that you desist your attack and let us pass.”
“NOT A CHANCE, INTRUDER!” the Faellie group leader yelled from beside Manti’s head. He cringed at the assault on his sensitive ears.
The other three Faellies continued executing complicated moves against Aurelius. He dodged some, but let a lot of them land, expression unchanging. Manti could feel the irritation rolling off the Faellie sitting beside his restrained body.
“FINE!” the Faellie shrieked. “Come peacefully and we will hear your case.”
To be continued...