The Mutant Conspiracy
The boards creaked under the young Shadow Kyrii’s feet, and she paused, testing out their strength before putting her full weight down. After the night she’d had, the last thing Kyra Talehunter needed was to plunge through a rotten pier and into the icy Krawkian sea.
Warf Wharf at night holds all sorts of disquieting things, and even though Kyra had come prepared (pockets stuffed with Dubloons, a trained Pawkeet so she looked a little less like a complete tourist, and a scowl she’d spent hours practising to deter most unsavoury passers-by), she'd found herself well out of her depth. The Pawkeet had flown away in about three seconds, squawking something about ‘pieces of eight’; she’d lost all but a handful of her Dubloons playing a confusing game called Krawps, the rules of which she suspected her pirate opponents were making up as they went along; and her scowl had disintegrated into a look of exhausted and terrified despair.
All she wanted was a story for Mutant Day. As a Junior Reporter for the Kiko Lake Herald, she was normally tasked with writing fluff and filler—10 Ways Landelbrot Is Ripping You Off, 21 Things You Never Knew About The Altador Cup—Number 9 Will TERRIFY You!--and she was beyond tired of it. Her latest lead, if it panned out, was her chance to catapult herself onto the front page and beyond. The Neopian Times would be in her sights, if only she could get this scoop.
Kyra had dragged herself all the way out here looking for some place called Peg Leg Paddy’s, because according to a tip-off, that was where her source was likely to be. Clenching her teeth to stop them from chattering, she squinted up at the sign above her. It might have been a green and gold shamrock, as she'd been told to look out for, but it was hard to tell through all the scratches and faded paint. It might also have been a seasick Bearog. Steeling herself, she pushed open the door anyway.
The inside of the tavern seemed to suck in all the light. Broad, yellowish candles spread out on every table, their flames sputtering weakly and throwing out more shadow than glow. No one looked up as Kyra slunk in and approached the bar.
Peg Leg Paddy turned out to be a stout Pirate Eyrie with thick orange whiskers covering most of his face and an eyepatch covering the rest. He had a strange, sing-song accent that sounded fake, and his peg leg kept slipping in a puddle of something sticky and black on the floor.
“What can I get fer yer, lass?”
“I’m looking for someone. I wanted to speak with a Gelert named Mr Donnaghy.”
Peg Leg Paddy frowned at her, and adjusted his eyepatch with one claw, pulling it aside to reveal a perfectly healthy eye beneath, then pinging it back onto the other eye.
“He’s in the corner. I’d buy him a drink ‘fore ya go getting too close, though, he’s mighty snappy these days.”
Kyra sighed, fished in her pocket for her few remaining Dubloons and slapped them on the counter.
Carefully, the roving Kyrii reporter carried two frothing tankards of grog across the room towards the corner the Eyrie had pointed to. Beside a dirty window, a table stood apart from the rest, and there sat a hunched figure. As Kyra approached, something stirred from under a chair, then she felt a wet lick on her ankle.
“Dag, let her be,” said the figure by the window. The shape underneath the chair turned out to be a slobbery Mutant Barlow, who nosed its way out to sniff at Kyra before returning to a dribbling heap. “Sorry ‘bout him, love, he’s only being nosy. To what do we owe the pleasure?”
Kyra blinked as she tried to focus on the stranger, trying to ignore the strong smell of wet Barlow. The Neopet had blown out the candle on his table, so his corner was almost completely dark. The light of the moon filtered through the grimy window, meaning all she could make out was a silhouette of pointed spines and something long and tentacle-like.
“Sit down, love, I won’t bite.” The strange 'pet leaned forward, and Kyra couldn’t help but gasp and take a tiny step back as two hungry-looking eyes and a mouthful of sharp, yellowish teeth came far too close for comfort.
“Sorry!” squeaked Kyra, as the grog in her hands slopped out over the sides of the tankards and splashed onto the table, floor, and the Barlow, which grunted irritably and growled.
“Whoops!” said the Mutant Gelert, putting out one paw to steady her, and taking the tankards with the other. Smoothly, he set both drinks down on the table, and pressed the Kyrii firmly into the seat opposite him. “There, now. Why dontcha tell me why it is you’ve come lookin’ for me?”
“Mr…Mr Donnaghy?” Kyra asked, wanting to make certain. This Gelert seemed far more well-mannered than she had expected. She’d been told of a wild and hate-filled Mutant Neopet, cursing the potion that had twisted and transmogrified his form and swearing revenge on those responsible.
“That’s me, love. Most folks call me Don, though.” The Gelert smiled reassuringly.
“My name is Kyra Talehunter.” She took a sip of her grog, and felt her courage slipping back. It was just an interview; she’d done hundreds before. “I was told you might be interested in sharing your story with me, for the Kiko Lake Herald? You might have heard of us…”
“Nope,” Donnaghy said, though not unkindly. “I’ll admit I don’t much keep up with current affairs outside the Island.”
“Ah…er, right,” said Kyra. “Well, it’s got quite a readership, and I know they’d all be really eager to hear your fascinating story…if you’d allow me to document it. Five minutes of fame, your name in the paper—it’s bound to be front page material, from what I’ve heard—and it could even put some work your way…is it true you’ve been working as a private detective?”
“I’ve got far too much work, if truth be told,” said the Gelert darkly, and Kyra hurriedly changed tack.
“It’s a chance to tell your side of the story! An honest account from a Mutant, setting the record straight, getting the truth out there, and so on. What do you think?”
She held her breath. The Gelert took a long draught from the tankard, then clanked it back down on the table a little too hard, making the Kyrii jump.
“Why not? I suppose there’s plenty of folks wondering how a nice Gelert from a good Geraptiku family ended up like this—“ He indicated his overlarge, tentacle-like ears and spiny growths. “—and more ‘pets should know about what’s out there, I guess. Can’t say for sure whether anyone’ll believe me, or you if you write about it, though.”
“Excellent.” Kyra whipped out her notebook, flipped over to a new page, and began scratching rapid notes with a sharp pencil. “In your own words, then, Mr Donna—Don.”
Donnaghy laughed amicably. “Not one to waste time, are ya, love? Alright then. Let’s see.
“I come from a wee place known to most as the Emerald Isle, where shamrocks grow in plenty, and where our Paddy longs to be—though between you and me, our Paddy was born here on the Wharf and he’s never left, but who am I to judge any Eyrie his little affectations? Anyhow, when I was just a pup, me parents brought us over to start life in Geraptiku.
“I was about as happy as any Gelert lad could be. They painted me Speckled to show off the colours of me homeland, and I grew up running wild in the jungle, exploring forgotten tombs, terrorising the Lizarks, and generally making as much mischief as I could.
“Like so many young Neopets, I was fascinated by the life of a pirate, so as soon as I came of age I headed down to the Mystery Island docks and boarded the first ship off to Krawk Island, and there began the first part of my new life, among the crew of the Scurvy Snarhook. I learned all there is to know about sword and knife fighting from the Feared Pirate Buzzbeard, a Kougra called Sid the Knot taught me nautical knots—I can tie a knot in anything you’d care to give me, inanimate or not—and I studied navigation under First Mate Fishface the Flotsam.
“After some years of piracy, I hung up my hook and eyepatch and put ashore on Krawk Island. I lost a bit of direction for a while there, drifting from place to place, but soon found there’s always plenty of folks looking for a fella handy with a blade. Protection in battle, bodyguarding, that sort o’ work came natural to me, even though I wasn’t the type to attack first and ask questions later. I found that with a bit of the old Shamrock charm, I often avoided violence altogether, and just convinced people to leave me or my clients well alone with my sharp tongue and quick wits. Made quite a name for meself, I don’t mind tellin’ ya.”
Donnaghy sighed, and for a long moment he looked out of the window at the Wharf beyond. Kyra waited, pencil poised, gripping it so tightly her fingers were going grey.
“Aye, it were a good time. Now this is where the story gets interestin’.
“I was on a job for a merchant client o’ mine. We’d sailed back to the mainland to pick up some trade goods, and we were just readyin’ to set off back again. While they were loadin’ up the last of the cargo, I took a little turn around the shore to stretch me legs. In all honesty, long sea voyages were never my strong suit—‘tis why I could never’ve been a pirate forever.
“Any road, I’d got a mile or so out from the ship when I heard this odd little noise. Sort of a snufflin’ howl, so sad and pathetic it’d break your wee heart. It reminded me of a time on Geraptiku when I’d found a Blugar trapped down a well, and bein’ the kind-hearted soul I am, I saw no choice but to go and investigate.
“An industrious Gelert am I, and I’d soon caught the trail of this poor creature. Unfortunately for me, it led me right up to the edge of the Haunted Woods.”
At this, Donnaghy leaned very far across the table, and his expression became very serious.
“Now, Miss Talehunter. I know full well this next part sounds like a lot of leprechaun nonsense or whatnot, but I swear to ya on all I hold dear, what I’m gonna say is the honest truth.”
Kyra nodded wordlessly.
“The howling and crying was gettin’ more and more desperate, so I started up into a run. Seein’ as how I’d not spent much time on the mainland, I’d never heard the stories of the Haunted Woods and what a strange and evil place it is. By the time I noticed that the trees were gettin’ taller and stranger, and the shadows deeper and darker, I was well and truly swallowed up by that forest.
“There was nothin’ for it, though, so I kept on goin’, more carefully now, sniffin’ and smellin’ and listenin’ as hard as I could to find that poor lost creature, wherever it might be. I tracked it down to an old, dead tree, all twisted and hollowed out by time, and it was growin’ on the edge of the weirdest pool I’d ever set eyes on.
“The water was like thick, shinin’ sludge, green-brown and stinkin’ to high Faerieland. It bubbled and smoked and splashed like it were a livin’ thing. Every hair on my body, every single atom of me was screamin’ at me not to go anywhere near that water. But right there was that poor lost beastie and I hadn’t come this far to turn tail and run.
“I got right up close and shimmied through the tree roots as quick as I could, and just then, this little bundle of soggy blue fuzz fell right into me paws.”
Donnaghy indicated the Barlow, which seemed to know it was the centre of attention and rose heavily onto its back legs, levering itself off the floor and onto an empty chair. Its tongue lolled and it attempted to lick Kyra again. It was sort of endearing, even with those crooked teeth and mismatched eyes.
“D’ya like Barlows, Miss Talehunter? I do, and I couldn’t resist this fella. He looked a bit different then, right enough, much cleaner. I scooped him right up and I told him then and there: “You and me, Dag, we’re gettin’ out of here.”
“I held him tight while I untangled us from the tree. Just as I thought we were home and free, somethin’ grabbed ahold of me back leg, and pulled us both into that stinkin’, slimy water. I kicked and struggled but it was no good. That sludge stuck fast to me fur, got up me nose and into me mouth and all. Poor Dag was howlin’ up a storm, and there was nothin’ I could do but hold tight onto him and hope we didn’t drown. The last thing I saw before me eyes got all clogged with muck was a pair of great big red eyes.
“I don’t know how long it was before I dragged us out, and by that time the damage was done. Both of us, transmogrified beyond recognition. My client barely knew me—he was ready to set sail without me, and I only just convinced him to take me back with him. That was the end of my bodyguardin’. Not many ‘pets trust a Mutant, it turns out. Something about ‘makin’ folks uncomfortable’, or so I’m told.”
The Gelert sat back, with an unreadable look on his broad face. “That’s my story, Miss Talehunter. That’s how I came to be here, offerin’ me services to the desperate pets of the Island who ain’t got no one else to turn to. Low rates, discretion and one hundred percent honesty—those are me guarantees.”
Kyra finished scribbling a few words in her notebook—she’d filled over ten pages—and then stopped, frowning.
“Mr Donnaghy, I…I don’t mean to be, er, rude, but I’d heard that…well, some people say you think somebody did this to you? That it wasn’t an accident?”
Donnaghy gave a harsh, bitter, barking laugh. “Aye, love. I do. And I’m sure you’ll think me just as crazy as all the rest, but y’see, I know it’s true.” The moon caught his yellow eyes, and they glinted eerily in the shadow-light of the tavern. Dag the Barlow hopped up onto his master’s lap, and Donnaghy stroked its torn ears. “It were a ghost I saw, just before I went under the surface. And ever since then, they’re everywhere. They did this to me, Miss Talehunter. You tell your readers that, why dontcha? Tell them the ghosts of Neopia are plotting to make us all hideous, twisted versions of ourselves!”
Donnaghy’s voice had got louder and louder, until he was almost shouting. He shuddered, and suddenly cast a black look around the tavern. Kyra spun around as well, to see what he was looking at. A few other Neopets had stopped their conversations and were looking over at their corner. Now, the Gelert was staring at the far corner of the room, where a candle in a bracket on the wall flickered.
“They’re here,” he said, in a voice so low Kyra had to strain to hear it. “They’re always here with me.”
After that, Kyra could barely get another word out of him. In frustration, she spent her last Dubloon on another drink, which he chugged gratefully, but refused to be pressed into any more conversation about his transmogrification. Instead, he lectured her on the proper washing and grooming of a Barlow’s coat, until Kyra was tearing out her own tail-hair in boredom.
“Well, Mr Donnaghy, I really appreciate your time here today,” Kyra said, getting to her feet. She’d flicked through her notes once or twice while the Gelert was going on about the optimal length to trim a Barlow’s fur, and realised that what she had would seem little more than the insane ramblings of a conspiracy theorist. “I’ll send you a complimentary copy of the edition of the Herald you’re featured in, if you’d like to read it.”
Donnaghy stood as well, offering her his paw to shake. “Well, to be honest with ya, love, I don’t think I will, but thank ya for the thought anyway.” He suddenly gripped her hand much tighter. “Try and make them believe, eh? Not that anybody will…I’m used to it, o’ course, but still…try.”
“Y-yes, Mr Donnaghy. Good night.”***
Several weeks later, on page 9 of the Kiko Lake Herald, Donnaghy’s story appeared in an abridged form as part of a longer article, entitled Ghosts Made Me A Mutant! Ten Crazy Stories From The Weirdos Of Neopia—Number Three Will Blow Your Mind!