A medieval darkness shrouded the fields of Meridell. In the cottage, two eyes blinked open, followed by two more. The twin heads of Pystry, a Mutant Hissi, blinked at one another, shaking off sleep. Pystry smiled. It was going to be a good day. Today marked the fruition of countless hours of training. Today he reached level 750. Today he achieved the rank of Grand Master.
Grabbing his things, Pystry hastened to the Meridell coast. Along the starlit Stonewatch Road, only the clatter of a linkboy Bori’s claws on cobblestone and his lantern’s dim light disrupted the still night air. Dawn crept over the horizon, revealing the ominous Darigan Citadel hovering amid the brightening sky. A familiar ship, the Five Hundredth Dubloon, was already waiting at the dock to ferry him to Mystery Island. The captain, a sturdy Island Hissi, grinned and waved as she saw Pystry approach.
“So today’s the day, is it, o Grand Master?” The Island Hissi’s jewellery clanked like castanets as she swept into an overly formal curtsey.
“Aye, aye, Admiral!” Pystry saluted with exaggerated sharpness, smirking at his friend’s teasing. “But, please, Phidianne, don’t jinx it. I’m not a Grand Master yet!”
Phidianne absent-mindedly clutched the hand-carved totem around her neck, adjusting its leather and seaweed cord in a warding gesture. “Faeries forfend, Pystry. I see you have your formal purple cape. But did you remember your red codestones? I’m not taking you all the way to Mystery Island only to find you forgot something.”
Pystry nodded, cradling a small vibrating bag in his lovat-grey, feathered hand. Soon, after the other ferry passengers had boarded, they were off. Before long, the jungle canopy of Mystery Island’s tropical trees appeared over the eastern horizon, backlit by the morning sun.
Normally Pystry would have travelled by land up the winding pathways of Techo Mountain to the not-so-secret Secret Ninja Training School. Not today. He was willing to risk becoming target practice for the territorial Coco tribes, and soared to the entrance. With a great sense of occasion, he handed over his precious red codestones and prepared for his final session as a “mere” Master.
Curiously, none of the usual trainers appeared. Fearing he would lose track of time, Pystry began to traverse the mountain pathways that wound through the ashram, wending his way around the Zen gardens and the patches of wild Dunkydoo flowers. The school was often quiet, but not this quiet, and Pystry began to wonder whether this was some unannounced test. Just then, he rounded a bend, and came snout-to-trunk with a noble Blue Elephante warrior seated on a picnic blanket, savouring a cup of green tea. He held the cup towards the right side of his face, where a broken tusk offered less of an obstacle to the teacup.
“You must be Pystry,” said the Elephante, almost as if it were an instruction.
“You have me at a disadvantage,” managed the Hissi. “I’ve been training here for years now, but I’m afraid I don’t recall you. Have we met?”
The Elephante smiled, and rose gracefully to his feed. “No, not at all. You see, it’s my birthday, and my dear friend the Techo Master was kind enough to invite me for tea. I understand you are training to reach level 750 today? Congratulations. This is quite a milestone, is it not? I can’t think of a better way to spend my special day than to participate in such an achievement. Fear not, little Hissi. You’ll find I am well qualified to be your trainer.”
Pystry lowered his heads respectfully. “As you wish, senpai. I would be honoured to train with a peer of our noble master.”
The Elephante clapped his hands joyfully. “Excellent!” he grinned. “Assume the third warrior pose.”
Obediently, Pystry coiled his tail and twisted into the challenging balance. The Elephante nodded with approval.
With no warning, the Elephante withdrew a Thick Smoke Bomb from the folds of his jacket, and lobbed it into the curled circle of Pystry’s tail. The detonation blinded Pystry for a moment and clouded his tongues. Through the haze, Pystry glimpsed a Thin Bamboo Staff leaning against the wall, and clutched it just in time to parry a volley of sharp-edged Precise Throwing Cards. Pystry’s training kicked in, and without thinking he turned his heads in opposite directions to maximize his field of vision – a trick that had recently helped him earn Edgar Percival Clarke’s highest award in the Extreme Potato Counter contest. Pystry deftly deflected the playing cards, losing only one feather in the process.
Again the Elephante nodded, and bowed. Pystry returned the gesture, and then gathered the cards and offered them back into the Elephante’s strong outstretched hands. The Elephante swept one hand to the side, inviting Pystry to take a seat on the blanket. “Fancy a game of Scarab 21?”
Pystry grinned. As the Elephante flipped cards onto the blanket with the practiced hand of a seasoned croupier, the Hissi quickly grouped the cards into groups of 21 points, racking up several hundred points in just a couple of minutes. His flow came to an abrupt end when a “pi of hearts” card appeared: the symbol π in the corners, with three whole hearts and a sliver of a heart arranged artistically on the face.
The Elephante’s ears flapped back as he laughed at Pystry’s look of confusion. “No worries, little Hissi. Just my little joke. Nothing sadder than a broken heart, am I right?”
Pystry managed weak smiles, secretly determined to play that trick on his friends at the first opportunity.
“You have a sharp mind, little Hissi. You’ve honed your balance and dexterity. Your combat skills are as fine as the Ninja School can train. Not enough to take on Chiazilla, but enough to hold your own in the Oracle’s little skirmishes, I warrant.”
Pystry held his tongues.
“So, little Hissi. What now?”
Pystry blinked. He had expected more training, more challenges, more something… but not this.
“You can certainly continue your training here. I hope you do. There is always more to learn, more endurance to develop, more strategies to master. But, speaking of mastery… after today, you will no longer be a Master of the Ninja School. You will be a Grand Master. There is no higher rank. Isn’t that, more than anything, what you’ve been working towards?”
Pystry paused, carefully choosing his words. “I was half-expecting to be told that there’s an even more secret training centre?”
The Elephante laughed again, shaking his robust frame. “I like you, young Hissi. There are secret schools that offer specialized training, should you choose to offer your allegiance to the right faction. But no. You’ve reached the ultimate echelon of your ranked training. So, I repeat: what now?”
The Elephante took another sip of tea, then looked up at the sun. “You have until the end of your training session… until sunset tonight, to return with your answer. Go. May you find success.” The Elephante closed his eyes and lifted his teacup, which scraped slightly against his damaged tusk. The audience was clearly over.
Pystry bowed once more, certain that the Elephante could sense his motion, and hurried away, not sure where he was hurrying. He was surprised to see that Phidianne was still boarding passengers for the next leg of the ferry.
“Pystry? Done so soon? Are you okay?” She handed her clipboard to one of her crew, and hurried to the stumbling Mutant. Pystry explained the strange training session and looked into her eyes, silently pleading for advice.
Phidianne curled her caramel-swirled hand around her tiki necklace, in which the head had been carved to resemble an Elephante. “A mysterious Elephante master sends you on a journey of self-discovery? That’s a serious omen… Oh, don’t give me that look, Pystry. I know you think I’m silly and superstitious sometimes. Don’t deny it. Well, you may have trained thousands of strength points, but I have my own source of strength. In my family, we always turn to the teachings of our elders. I think you need to do the same.”
Pystry furrowed his brows. “My elders?”
“The wisest Neopets you know, whose judgment you trust.” Phidianne looked pained. “I’m so sorry, but I didn’t expect you back so soon. I can’t interrupt the ferry service today. You’ll have to fly back to Meridell. It’s a hike, but you wanted a workout today, right? I’ll have the old Five Hundredth docked and waiting for you as soon as I’ve finished today’s itinerary. I’ll be ready to sail you back to Mystery Island at full speed this evening.”
She pulled him close. “Good luck, Pystry. I think today is more important than you know.” She pulled back, gave him a reassuring smile, and returned to the waiting schooner.
Pystry took flight and began the long voyage back home to Meridell. He had a lot to think about. Normally, he was so clever. If anything, that was his biggest fault, wasn’t it? Overthinking things? A Draik flew past overhead, headed to Mystery Island. Pystry shook his heads to clear his thoughts. Phidianne was right. His closest friends would surely have some insight.
Alighting back near his modest cottage on Peaky Stone Lane, Pystry strode indoors. He hoped his boon companion was home. “Bizhiw?” he called uncertainly.
A head covered in charcoal-coloured fur with a purple muzzle popped out from the kitchen. The athletic Lutari gave a big grin. “Pystry! Haven’t you left yet for your big day of training?”
Pystry smiled, as did everyone the Lutari encountered. If Neopets could train for charisma, Bizhiw would have maxed out long ago. Pystry envied Bizhiw’s easy way with others, his way of instantly making friends. “I have special training today, Bizh. Before they let me get to level 750, they want to know what I plan to do next.”
Bizhiw crossed his strong swimmer’s arms and pressed his chin into his paw. “You mean, like going on some grand Grand Master’s Quest?”
Pystry shook his heads. “No… actually, I think this is the grand Grand Master’s quest.”
Bizhiw nodded with a slight smile. “Well, what do you want to do next? You’ve accomplished a lot during, what, 749 levels?” The Lutari began counting on his fingers. “You’ve maxed out your fishing ability, used Eye of the Storm to teach calculus, played the Stock Market, reached All-Star in the Altador Cup, made Hissi découpage, gotten published in the Neopian Times, become a Plushie Tycoon…”
“I don’t think they need a list of 750 things to do in the worlds of Neopia, Bizh. None of that tells me what to do next.”
“And, had adventures and made friends from all around the world.”
Pystry sighed. “That’s what Phidianne said. She said I should talk to the people I trust the most.”
Bizhiw beamed. “And you came to me first? C’mere, you.” The Lutari grabbed the Hissi in a big Bearog hug. Pystry felt the air squeezing out of his lungs. “I don’t know what you’re going to do next. But whatever it is, you’re going to be amazing at it. I have faith in you.”
Pystry cast his eyes down. “I hope you’re right. I only have… three hours, with the return trip?... to come up with a good enough answer.”
“Go!” commanded the Lutari. “Go out and solve this puzzle, Pystry. That’s what you’re best at.”
Pystry left the cottage, looking back briefly at his pal’s confident smile. Despite himself, he felt his spirits lifted. At the very least, he knew his next stop: his Buzz friend Apshai. A veteran dungeonmaster, Apshai spent more time planning next possible moves than anyone else he knew.
Pystry was pleasantly surprised to find not only the Desert Buzz home, but his Kyrii friend Senhal visiting her. They complemented each other well. Apshai was thoughtful and deliberate. She came up with the best, most detailed plans, and was always prepared for contingencies. Senhal was as colourful as his Plushie paintjob, a born actor, fond of improvisation. Between the two, they were sure to have some good advice.
“I think you should do something big, that shows everyone what you’ve accomplished,” opined Senhal. “Exhibit a gallery. Enter the Beauty Contest. You wouldn’t be competing against me, right?” The Kyrii’s eyes widened in faux distress.
Pystry suppressed a snicker. “My music gallery is about as complete as it’s going to get. And I finally entered the Beauty Contest just last week, at your insistence, remember? It was a much better experience than I expected but I’m not going to compete again anytime soon.”
“What else are you already working on?” inquired Apshai pensively, nibbling the end of her pencil.
“Well, there are always more trophies to work towards. There’s always avatars… but now that I finally managed to count over 200 potatoes, there aren’t any more avatars I can really do anything to try for. Maybe I could lobby to get the Caption Contest reinstated, or bite the bullet and pay the NP to finish off a row of stamps. But then…”
The Buzz and Kyrii shared a knowing look. “You’re overthinking things again, Pystry,” interrupted Senhal.
“It’s what I do.”
Apshai gave him a pointed look, but not unkindly. “You’re missing the big picture, ignoring the obvious clue. Let’s say Phidianne was right and the answer lies in working with other people.”
Apshai smiled, like a children’s librarian explaining how books were shelved. “Maybe, just maybe, it’s not about what’s next for you.”
Pystry’s eyes widened. He felt a slight flush come to his greyish scales. “I’m being selfish about all this, aren’t I?”
Senhal threw his hands in the air, in a dramatic gesture befitting a carney straight out of the Deserted Fairgrounds. Apshai blinked her compound eyes gently. “I just think that maybe this trainer isn’t asking what’s next for you, but what you can do with all of these Grand Master skills you’ve worked so diligently to develop. You’ve had your share of adventures questing for the Ninja School, and as I recall, you’ve helped quite a few people doing it.”
“Does it have to be?”
Senhal fastidiously brushed back his mane, and nodded at the Buzz’ impeccable argument. It was always so entertaining watching Pystry get out-logicked.
“You’re right, Apshai. Everyone’s been right, all day. And I think I finally know what to say, and even more importantly, what to do. Do you supposed Abharī is interning at the Pharmacy today?”
Senhal’s plush face wrinkled with concern. “Why? Are you not feeling well?”
Pystry laughed. “No worries. I’m fine. But I think our friend can help me out.”
One short trip to the Pharmacy later, Pystry emerged in Neopia Central with a small bag of supplies. His friend Abharī, a Faerie Hissi, gave him a reassuring pat on the wing, but his face belied his concern. “This should work, Pystry, but if there are any problems at all…”
“I’ll make sure the healers are notified, Abharī. Thanks a million. Or, thanks seven hundred and fifty.” Pystry smirked at his own cleverness. Abharī rolled his eyes, but chuckled. “Hurry up. You don’t have a lot of time to get back to Meridell.”
Pystry set his jaws, nodded, and was off. He was pleased, but not at all surprised, to see all of his friends waiting for him at the pier.
“Permission to come aboard, Captain?”
“Permission granted. Now get moving! We have no time to spare!” Phidianne whistled sharply, bringing the crew to attention. “Let out the reefs! Make full sail! Crowd sail! Crowd on!”
Bizhiw grinned at the scrambling crew. “I love when Phidianne gets all nautical. I think I even understood half of that.”
Back on Mystery Island, the sun was getting perilously close to setting. Pystry literally flew, ignoring the ominous sounds from the jungle below. He found the Elephante lounging comfortably in the exact same position he had left him, painting a watercolour of the tropical sunset. Pystry wondered briefly if he had budged from that spot all day.
The Elephante smiled. “Ah, Pystry, just in time!” Pystry bowed.
“I ask again, for a third and final time: now what?”
Pystry lowered his heads, and held out a small package, cunningly wrapped by the stylish Kyrii. “Happy birthday, senpai.”
The Elephante raised an eyebrow, and appraisingly withdrew a jar of Medicinal Mud Bath and a bottle of Potion of Concealment. Wordlessly, he scooped a dollop of mud between his large palms and rolled it into a curved cone. He lifted the sculpted mud to the end of his broken tusk, and smoothed it into place, fashioning a perfectly symmetrical tusk. Using a clean, albeit a most decidedly non-magical paintbrush, he lacquered a layer of the potion to seal it into place.
Pystry smiled hopefully.
“Healing the world. A tall order. But a commendable one.” The Elephante poured another cup of tea, and drank without coming close to scraping the teacup against his tusks. “Congratulations, Grand Master Pystry. You honour us.” The Elephante bowed again, just as the sun vanished and the first starlight from the First to Rise glimmered in the twilight. “Before, I asked you what next. Now I ask, where next?”
Pystry took in the sweeping mountain view.
“The only place you can go, after reaching 750. Forward.”