The door opened with a creak.
Even before Balthazar entered, the faeries knew he was in a bad mood. The unwavering, milky-white moonlight revealed an expression sour as lemons, with two eyes burning with fury and a jaw set at a stiff angle. Despite the fatigue he must have had, his paws were clenched hard, as if squeezing his sachet would help him exact revenge on his poor progress that day.
Usually, when the bounty hunter emptied his bag, mountains of bottled faeries tumbled out and rolled about, making clinking noises when they bumped against one another which Balthazar so obviously enjoyed. Today, he didn’t even bother dumping it on the ground. He hung it directly on the rusty hook by the door and went straight to bed. There was apparently nothing captured, and though the faeries might have felt happy for those who escaped Balthazar’s grasp, it only meant that he would be more determined and try harder the next day. Being there for quite a while, they should know. Indeed, more than three times now, the second day, after one in which he hadn’t done well, brought exceedingly good fortune.
And then, the following day, the pets came.
No more than a metre tall and no less than five in total, they were quite a sight at such an early time, the period when Balthazar was just getting ready to leave for his daily catch. After a brief exchange of stares, the tallest pet within the group (though hardly half of Balthazar’s height) shuffled up nervously and handed him a note. His eyes involuntarily glanced downwards and read:
Due to a sudden shortage of resources, the Pound has closed down temporarily, and during this period, you have been chosen to take care of these five neopets. Please do provide them with your utmost care and attention. You may step forward to the area outside the Pound to volunteer to adopt more.
We sincerely apologise for any inconvenience caused and will do our best to restore normal operations at the Pound.
Balthazar’s mouth dropped. Closed down? Chosen? Apologise? He could barely cope with managing his own business, and they simply drop off their troublemakers at his apartment? With scarcely any thought for how it might disrupt his daily life? He didn’t even consider for another second before coming to the firm conclusion that there was no way that would work out. As far as he was concerned, the pets could live out on the streets and fend for themselves. He was fine living by himself, thank you very much!
He threw the note into the bin and squeezed past the pets, making a mental note to stop by at the Pound to get the anger off his chest. And yet, as he turned away, one of the pets squeaked, “Can I have food, pwease?” It was so sincere, so heartfelt, and so innocent that he just had to sigh and turn back around as all thoughts of anger vanished from his mind without a trace. And staring pleadingly at him were five creatures clasping their hands together, tears shining in their eyes, trembling slightly from both the chill of the winter day and the apprehension of getting kicked out.
There was nothing to it.
An owl hooted in the distance, scaring the smallest of the pets. She huddled up closer to the eldest one, who awoke at once, hugging her and hushing her whimpering with soothing hums. Seeing her expression become more composed, the eldest fell into a deep sleep once again, just like the others snoring away.
But somehow, Balthazar knew that she was still afraid.
Being able to tolerate long periods of energy-exertion, Balthazar had been observing the five pets throughout the night under his own covers. He saw that the youngest one was, as all toddlers were, having nightmares. Silly as they seem, nightmares are things a person only understands and fears by himself and himself alone, and this Balthazar knew. Come on, he told himself. Go on and talk to her. What’s the point of observing them if you don’t do anything about it? It was a difficult choice, but with the knowledge that being a bystander was as good as creating her nightmares, he motivated himself to get out of bed.
The youngest pet nearly jumped out of her skin, thinking her nightmare had come alive.
Balthazar realised that although he experienced nightmares sometimes, and had the ability to empathise with someone experiencing something similar, he had no idea what to do or even say to console this pet beside him that was now trembling visibly with fear. He finally decided on beginning with the first thing that came to his mind.
“So, what’s your name?” His voice came out scratchy, and a little louder than expected.
“M…Marina,” stammered the pet, seemingly intimidated by his voice.
“Well, Marina… I know how you feel, and I just want you to know that I’m here, so if you need anything, you can just come and wake me up,” Balthazar hadn’t actually meant to say something so friendly – he wanted to ask her more about her life to keep the conversation going smoothly, and slowly quell her fears. But the words tumbled out of his mouth before he could stop them, and privately he burned with shame, figuring that Marina could nod, laugh or even snicker at how silly and obvious he was being.
Her reply was the last thing he expected to hear.
“Will… will you scold me if I say no?”
Balthazar felt like crying himself. This pet here had obviously been given little guidance in life, with cruel strangers scolding her unnecessarily and slowly diminishing her confidence, to the extent that she suspected everyone would be like them, Balthazar being no exception. And there she was, left alone to him to take care of. His heart softened significantly, and his voice dropped to a trembling whisper, “Oh… oh dear. Not the whole world is like that.” And then, extending his hand slowly, he guided her to a hidden room that was meant to store emergency resources should he need them. It was loaded with delicious snacks, and though he didn’t know if the pet had any allergies, he felt that it was the best way to start building a friendship and gaining her trust. Watching her much delightfully, he smiled and agreed to himself that it probably was. And in that moment, all their fates were sealed.
They just didn’t know it yet.
The next day presented a problem, because there was no way Balthazar would leave the pets at home and risk some major havoc caused as he did his thing outdoors. He considered every possibility, from leaving them with his neighbour to letting them go on a full-day tour at Kiko Lake. But these options, though seemingly helpful at first glance, fell apart under further scrutinising – after all, his neighbour did not have the means to nurse them forever, and there was only so much ground to cover at the lake.
Balthazar felt his mind wandering, and absent-mindedly, he had begun to look at the five young faces in front of him. How could he possibly bring them all along, and ruin his element of surprise when they made even the most subtle of noises? Or, rather, he realised with a start, there were four relatively older faces… and only one much younger, one who needed the most attention: Marina. The solution would therefore be a lot simpler than it seemed, since the older bunch would be able to take care of themselves and rely on one another. Only the youngest one needed to be taken with him, significantly cutting down on any trouble faced. Satisfied, he nodded to himself and prepared to leave.
And so the walks with Marina began.
They started out rather quiet, with Marina trotting silently beside Balthazar and doing as he said – to hide in the nearest bush when he gave a signal, and come out only when he called for her. An awkward silence always passed in between these captures, but otherwise no attempts by Balthazar at catching faeries were foiled. He was glad.
It was Marina, surprisingly, who began the conversations, first inquiring about Balthazar’s life, and the things he did, then moving on to more serious talk as the months passed, such as discussing the papers. She liked to read a lot, Balthazar realised, and would get up early just to scram to the newspapers and scan the headlines for potentially interesting articles. Mostly, she was keen to learn about events that affected the whole of Neopia Central, and this morning that was precisely the topic of their sharing session.
“Balthazar, did you know that they finally found out the cause of the Pound’s closure?” asked Marina brightly.
(She was not surprised when, instead of responding, Balthazar dived into the shrub beside him like a frenzied animal looking for shelter. Hastily, she followed suit.)
“Oh, what about it?” whispered her companion.
“Turns out Dr Sloth was the one behind it. He organised a team to cut the power of the pound so it would not function,” answered Marina softly. “Speculation suggests that he may have done so to recruit younger pets to his future team.” She grimaced.
Balthazar casually sealed the bottle he was holding, inside which contained a captured faerie. He stared at it for a while, as if in deep thought, before replying, “That’s worrying.”
Expecting Balthazar to be nonchalant about this issue, as he usually was, Marina’s expression immediately changed. “Hmm, why are you suddenly so concerned? What do you m–”
Her last question was interrupted by a loud explosion far off in the distance.
“Citizens of Neopia, please beware of our long-time enemy, an individual who goes by the name of Dr Sloth. Several people have reported…”
“Oh, turn that blasted telly off,” groaned Merlin, the second oldest pet in the group. The eldest one shushed him quickly and strained her ears to catch more news.
“…Yes, John, the Defenders of Neopia are already out to stop this wicked villain before he wrecks further havoc. Until then, please stay indoors, remain calm and…”
“And what? Dance like a clown? Frolic like a jester?” Merlin snorted, while the younger two giggled. “Nothing’s interesting on the news these days.”
“Hey, do you guys know how serious this is?” snapped the eldest pet (whose name was Mary). “We could very well be in danger right now, and Balthazar entrusted me with the responsibility to protect all of you. If any of you suffers, it’s your pain, not mine, so I’m trying my best to prevent that from happening. But,” she continued chiding with a glare at Merlin, “how do you expect to stay safe if we don’t know how to protect ourselves?” The other three expressions turned to those of guilt, but Mary, being genuinely concerned with helping her siblings, wasn’t satisfied with just winning that squabble. She turned to the television hurriedly for more advice, and it was only then that she realised that it was off. In fact, in the time she had been talking, it seemed to get, well, darker than it usually was. Out of the corner of her eye she spotted a figure standing in the doorway, and froze along with the others.
“You’re right,” grinned Dr Sloth. “You’re in danger right now.”
Balthazar hurried back to his home as quickly as his legs could carry him, with Marina perching on his back. Both wore grave, panicky expressions that only intensified by the second. Balthazar had been piecing the little information giving by Marina with what he knew about his arch-enemy, and cleverly put two and two together. Even before he arrived, Balthazar knew what to expect.
“Ah, you two are just in time for our celebration!” smiled Dr Sloth, throwing his hands out as if to welcome them home. “You see, I asked those four very politely if they wanted to join me, and quite rudely, they refused. Isn’t that worth punishment?” He gestured casually at the four tied up figures by the bed, all of which struggling to cry for help.
“Of course,” Dr Sloth continued with a wink, “I can offer you a choice. Either you let them go with me, and I let you keep your pathetic collection of faeries, or you, quite stupidly, choose to rescue them, and I release all the faeries you have.” At this, Balthazar’s heart couldn’t help leaping, as he imagined the possibility of all his hard work disappearing.
As he used to do, Balthazar closed his eyes and pulled an iron curtain over all his background thoughts.
There was no way, just no way he would let Dr Sloth take away his most prized possessions in all his life. Why, he had not only earned riches, but also fame from those bottled faeries that were so popular throughout Neopia. And yet, comparing them to the pets that had arrived only five months ago, they seemed… no, he couldn’t call them futile. They were his work. They were his life.
Unconsciously, despite his efforts at keeping focused, he felt his mind drifting back to a time a few weeks ago.
“Merlin, please pass the salt,” Mary requested politely.
Instead of handing her what she wanted, Merlin mischievously threw the salt shaker up into the air, rather forcefully, which did not go unnoticed by Mary. “For shame, Merlin! I told you to –”
She was interrupted by a shattering sound (as the salt shaker hit the ceiling), and looking up in surprise, she was greeted by a hailstorm of fresh sea salt.
In between choked giggles, Merlin managed, “Haha, failure to comply with our terms will get you a-salted.”
Everyone except Mary burst out laughing.
The next day Mary got her revenge by throwing a handful of pepper into Merlin’s face, winking, “That’ll spice up the morning.”
Everyone except Merlin burst out laughing.
And that was the end of the memory. It lasted only a few seconds, but it couldn’t have had a more powerful effect, almost bringing tears to Balthazar’s eyes. And then it did.
“Well, have you come to a decision? I’ll give you… hmm… five more seconds. Five, four…”
These few months had undoubtedly been the most colourful ones he had experienced, ever since these pets with remarkably different personalities stepped into his life. He smiled as more beautiful memories bombarded him. How amusing they had seemed at that time, he thought, and how touching they were now.
He had come to a conclusion, and what was left was how to perform it. It took only an instance before an idea lit up like a flash of lightning in his mind.
“One, zero. I see you’re smiling, Balthazar. That’s always a good sign. Now, what’s your decision?”
Returning Dr Sloth’s wink, he kicked off into the air – here Dr Sloth withdrew his laser gun as quick as a flash – but Balthazar wasn’t aiming for him. Instead, his heart and mind set on rescuing the pets, he went crashing into the shelves of bottled faeries. A heartbeat later faeries flew in all directions, exactly as he had planned, confusing Dr Sloth thoroughly and causing him to drop his gun. That span of time, however short, was enough for Balthazar to rip the rope that held the pets together and set them free.
But they still had Dr Sloth to deal with.
Relieved as they were to be free, the pets were still trembling with fright at the thought of Dr Sloth looming over them. Out of all of them, the younger pair was on the ground, covering their eyes, while Merlin huddled close to the bed. Even Mary ducked her head and tried to maintain her composure. And Marina… wait, where was Marina?
Grabbing the laser gun off the ground the second it fell, Marina had bolted to a sheltered corner of the house from which she had the advantage if two parties were in combat with each other. Then she wasted no time in taking aim at Dr Sloth, only giving a clue as to where she was when the moment revealed itself. All this was accomplished whilst Balthazar did his thing.
Balthazar was impressed.
Even Dr Sloth saw himself in a disadvantaged position, with neither weapons nor manpower on his side. Putting on a smug face, he turned out through the doorway, pausing only for a second to snarl, “This isn’t over.” Then he disappeared.
The house members erupted with cheering and applause.
Three days later
“Dr Sloth had mysteriously vanished without a trace. According to the Defenders of Neopia, he had retreated back to his home in outer space, defeated by an anonymous hero. The Defenders of Neopia would like to sincerely congratulate this individual or group of individuals in helping to take out Dr Sloth and thereby saving the world,” the television blared.
Though hardly anyone was paying attention.
Upon word that the Pound restarted its source of power, and hence would no longer require the assistance of neopians to take care of its occupants, preparations had undergone at once. There was much paperwork to complete, many tears to be shed, and goodbyes to be bid, since the pets needed to return to their rightful home.
Which included those living in Balthazar’s home.
The day before they needed to go, the pets had gathered in one of the storage rooms to prepare something for their wonderful host, and of course, somewhat to his annoyance, but also to his humour, Balthazar was not allowed to even take a peek. The pets spent all day and all night working on this secret project and were very excited to present it the next day.
It was a statue of Balthazar.
Balthazar couldn’t believe his eyes at first, because how in the world could these five young pets create such an amazing work of art? Every detail, from the head to the tail, was perfect.
Suddenly the statue toppled to the ground… but it didn’t shatter. Instead there came from within a suspicious sound of crumpled paper, and Balthazar could guess the rest. He was still impressed, nonetheless, at their effort in coming up with the idea and having the dedication to make it.
“We’ll come visit you soon,” smiled Mary as she gave Balthazar a hug, then stepped out of the door.
“Yeah, thanks for everything. Sorry to pepper you with bad puns,” grinned Merlin. He received an affectionate pat on the back, and then he, too, left.
The younger two each received hugs.
Marina lingered for a while, unwilling to return to the Pound. Sensing this, Balthazar recounted with a laugh, “Remember that day we met and first talked? You were having nightmares, and now you’re fighting villains like Dr Sloth!” Instantly Marina felt safer, with Balthazar’s confident, easy-going manner. She gave him an embrace. “I’ll come visit, and…” She couldn’t say more because a loudspeaker outside the door from a Pound official sounded, calling for them to get on board.
Marina quickly finished her sentence. “And come play laser wars with you.”
Both of them grinned.