Pystry's Elemental Odyssey: Part One
"The Master wants to see you."
Pystry the Mutant Hissi nodded in acknowledgement, then resumed straightening the tatami mats. Although the expressions on his two heads remained placid, all of the calm focus of his Agility training had fled his spirit. The Techo Master did not call for Neopets lightly. Pystry's minds raced, wondering what reward or reprimand he might have earned. Taking two deep breaths, he steeled himself and departed.
Discreetly, Pystry traversed the main floor of the Mystery Island Training School. He navigated around a Silver Peophin balanced in a half-moon yoga pose, and gave a wide berth to a fierce Baby Chia assaulting a Sloth minion effigy with fast-flying Asparachucks. On the front wall, an elevated space reserved for the Master and visiting dignitaries lay empty. Pystry craned his heads in opposite directions to scan the whole room at once, but to no avail. Not wanting to disturb the trainers, he slid open the front door and slithered outside.
If the Master was not in the dojo, the stone gardens were the next best bet. Here on the edge of an active volcano, only the hardiest and most resilient of plants grew, but alongside the porous cobblestone path, a few volunteer Koyle bushes thrived. Anxious to find the Master, Pystry couldn't appreciate the quiet stillness of the winding gardens and their respite from the noisy tropical forest. Finally he spotted the wizened Techo, who was serenely smelling the pointed periwinkle blossoms of a wild Dunkydoo patch. Atop the stone wall behind him lay a Lucky Pandaphant Doll, whose one eye seemed to follow Pystry as he approached.
Pystry lowered both heads in a gesture of obeisance. "You asked to see me, dai-sensei?"
The Techo shifted his weight, facing the Hissi with impossible grace and speed. Somehow he seemed to gaze into both pairs of Pystry's eyes at the same time. The Dunkydoo flowers rippled as a gentle breeze rustled through them.
"How are you progressing, young adept?"
Pystry's pulsed raced. He felt judged and found wanting. Still, he thought, this could just be a test. Just answer the question. You're good at that. "With respect, Grand Master, under your guidance I've recently achieved level 150 and the dojo rank of Master. I'm expecting my red belt as soon as they make one that fits a Mutant."
The Techo nodded. "You have trained well, young one, and fought honorably when Faerieland fell." Balancing on his tail, the Techo looked down upon the palm-covered plains below the Training School. "Yet you have not truly become a Master."
Pystry fought to maintain his composure, and kept silent.
The Techo continued. "Tell me, young scholar, what do you know of Jin?"
All of Pystry's eyes blinked in surprise. "Jin the artist?" The Techo nodded. Pystry paused, determined to give an articulate response. "Jin the Blue Kougra is an artist who specializes in watercolor naturescapes of his native Shenkuu. He is admired for the beauty and luminescence of his colors, especially in his skies."
The Techo smiled almost imperceptibly. "How do you know this?"
Pystry mused. "Jin doesn't have an entry in the Neopedia yet, so I think I must have learned about him from the Neovian Press' Shenkuu Travel Brochure."
The Techo's eyes flashed. Pystry recoiled, as shocked as if a buzzer had just gone off in his ear. "Precisely! You know nothing of Jin, because you have only read of him. You have never seen his work."
Pystry, confused, had no reply.
The Master closed his eyes, and intoned as though speaking a mantra. "'I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.' No one questions your skills as a scholar, young Neopet. But knowledge is not the same as understanding."
"Your training has reached a plateau because you do not understand the powers behind your weapons, not even your innate Hissi skills. Before we will award you your red belt, you must complete a Master Quest."
The eyes on Pystry's left head widened in shock. Master Quests were very rare, and a tremendous honour. Normally one received such a quest at the Grand Master level; the travails of Techo Master's own Grand Master Quest were legendary.
The eyes on Pystry's right head widened in fear. All of his martial training, all of his scholarship, had been found lacking, and whatever this Master Quest might be, it sounded as though it would test his weaknesses rather than his strengths.
The Techo Master spoke again, and this time, his voice carried power. "Go, adept, and fulfill this Master Quest. Seek out six Hissis with insight into each of the combat elements: earth, air, water, fire, darkness, and light. Interview them and learn what you can. Only then may you report back to me. If your progress is satisfactory, the red belt is yours. If not, your training here is at its end."
The dry air was filled with that special silence after a door slams, leaving you alone in the room.
The Master reached up and handed Pystry the one-eyed ceramic Pandaphant Doll. "Take this, young one. Each time you achieve insight into one of the elements, fifty Tropical Jelly Beans will materialize inside. The doors of the dojo will remain closed to you until you have collected 300 jelly beans." As Pystry took the figurine, his wingtips glowed blue for an instant.
In gentler tones, the Techo spoke one final time. "Good luck, Pystry." He shut his eyes. After a respectful moment Pystry bowed and took his leave.
Pystry left the Training School without a word. By some unspoken understanding, everyone in the dojo kept their distance. Ghi Pharun, the stealthy Grundo ninja guardian of the dojo, alone acknowledged his departure, with a silhouetted salute that Pystry barely glimpsed out of the corner of one eye. Pystry felt a wave of relief. Had the Grundo not wished to signal his respect, the Hissi would never have seen him at all. The gesture left no doubt: in the eyes of the dojo, Pystry's departure was an honourable one.
Pystry's minds were troubled as he slowly made the trek downhill to the shore, where his best friend Bizhiw would be waiting. Normally, Pystry's first response when faced with a challenge was to visit the library and search the Neopedia. He felt sure that the Master would not look kindly on that approach.
The salty air of the Mystery Island seashore flickered across Pystry's tongues; the setting afternoon sun warmed his scales. Pystry scanned the beach volleyball courts, expecting to see his friend. On the beachfront, in a makeshift juice stand, a comely Island Hissi eyed him with amusement as something big swooped down on him and the world turned upside-down.
Pystry found himself flat on his back, cushioned by the sand, pinned down by a brawny Red Lutari. "Weren't you just studying agility?" grinned Bizhiw. "I'd ask for your codestones back, if I were you." With a laugh, the Lutari pulled the Hissi up from the sand into a bear hug, then pulled him over to the juice bar.
"Captain Phidianne, allow me to present my friend Pystry. Pystry, this is the young lady I've told you so much about."
Phidianne looked Pystry over appraisingly. Tawny eyelashes fluttered over her twinkling gold eyes. "Charmed," said Phidianne, handing Pystry a fizzing drink with two straws and a tiny bamboo Mynci hanging on the rim.
Pystry racked his noggins, trying to recall what Bizhiw had said about Phidianne. Bizhiw had met Phidianne on an underwater vacation trip to Maraqua, where they had become fast friends. Phidianne operated her own ferry service, and had fended off pirates to reclaim her family's ship. Despite her casual Island garb, she had risen to become an important figure in her village. And, of course, she was a first-rate barista. Pystry's eyes rolled with pleasure as he tasted the grog.
Pystry explained his new mission. Bizhiw's brow furrowed. "I know a lot about water, but you said you had to talk to six Hissis, right?" Pystry nodded. "How about you, Captain? Could you help my friend on his quest?"
Phidianne smiled demurely. Her fingers played along her tiki necklace. "I know juices and sailing, but I'm not really at home in the water. I think both of us know someone better suited to Pystry's needs."
The Lutari's smile widened. "You mean our Maractite friend? But he's so far away, and Pystry has no way to breathe underwater."
Phidianne shook her head. "Actually, he's coming to visit the Council of Elders to discuss... business. I'm sure he'd make time for us, Pystry. He owes both Bizhiw and myself a favour."
Bizhiw smirked, imagining the curmudgeonly Maractite Hissi in contract negotiations. "Poor Écueil. He's going to hate Island politics."
"That's why I'm going to be by his side," laughed Phidianne. "You're both welcome to stay with me in the meantime. Maybe we can come up with some other leads for you, Pystry."
"That's really very kind of you," stammered Pystry. "I was feeling overwhelmed, and here you've gotten me off to a great start."
"Think nothing of it, Pystry. That's what friends are for."
Pystry wasn't sure what he'd expected of Écueil, but it wasn't this. The Maractite Hissi's Squid Hat seemed awkwardly out of place above water. The sand-dollar star on his buckle marked him as an underwater sheriff, but his shirtless kit and hand-hewn weapons screamed "country yokel" to Pystry. Stop being such a snob, he scolded himself. He has something to teach me. I hope. Écueil seemed ill at ease on the crowded beach, but acquiesced when Phidianne handed him a glass of Appriberry nectar with a knowing look.
"Thank you so much for agreeing to meet with me," said Pystry, offering his right wing hand.
Écueil said nothing. After a moment, he ground his teeth, and shook Pystry's hand. The sheriff's grip was surprisingly strong, like shaking hands with a statue.
"I don't know how much Phidianne and Bizhiw told you, but I've been tasked with interviewing different people about the Battledome elements."
"Don't rightly see how I c'n help," muttered Écueil.
"You're helping me a great deal, sir, really. Let me see... you live underwater, correct?"
"That's my business, but yes." Écueil's feathered fingers brushed along his eerily glowing boomerang and dagger, tucked inside his belt.
"How do you breathe underwater?"
"Maractite lungs. Treats water like it were air."
"I've never met a Maractite Neopet before. Is that real maractite in your skin, then?"
"Yup." Écueil looked down at the sand.
Oh dear, this isn't going well, thought Pystry. "Phidianne tells me you still use some of the old Utility Fish.'
Pystry switched tactics. "Why don't you wear a shirt?"
The sheriff looked at him as though he'd finally said something intelligent. "'Tain't practical. Maraquans don't usually wear much, 'ceptin' for formal occasions. This here star's a big ol' target. Gotta dodge quickly. Faster this way. 'Specially now." The sheriff stopped abruptly.
"Wait. Does that mean you didn't use to be Maractite?" Pystry instantly regretted the question. The sheriff scowled. '"Never mind, sheriff. I should be focusing on water anyway. What would you say is the biggest difference between water and the other elements?"
"It's wet. I think we're done here." The sheriff flapped his wings rapidly to lift himself up from his seat.
"Please, sir, if I could just..." Pystry's plea was interrupted by a shriek from the ocean. Although they could see nothing, the sound of distress was unmistakable. Both Mutant and Maractite bolted towards the shore, all awkwardness forgotten in the moment. The sheriff smiled grimly. "See if you c'n keep up, son." He dove into the water with zero splash. Taking a deep double breath, Pystry followed.
Beneath the waves, Pystry craned his necks so his heads touched. It was uncomfortable, but the most hydrodynamic swimming style he'd yet found. Ahead of him, Écueil torpedoed into deeper water, where a young Blue Kougra was struggling to free himself from a wild Cofferling. Almost too fast for Pystry's eyes to follow, the sheriff flung his boomerang at the wild petpet, but it simply ricocheted off its tough carapace.
"You hold him. I'll pull him off." The sheriff's voice carried surprisingly well underwater. Pystry extended his wings, letting the undertow drag him behind the Cofferling, and pinned the rogue petpet down with a Hissi Squeeze attack. Écueil pulled his dagger from his belt and pried the Cofferling's jaw open, freeing the frantic Kougra cub. Pystry tried to ignore the burning in his lungs as he whipped the Cofferling deeper into the undertow and swam against the current until he finally breached the surface. Gasping for air, he saw Écueil release the sputtering but unharmed Kougra back to his grateful family.
With two strokes of his glowing tail, Écueil waded out to where Pystry lay treading water. "Good job, young 'un. I've got to fetch my boomerang. You reckon you've learned what you needed to about the water?" he asked drily.
Pystry smiled. "It may seem quiet, but there's a lot going on under the surface, and it can get dangerous in a hurry. Just like you."
Écueil started to speak, then smiled, and plunged into the depths.
To be continued...