Defenders Series 3: Siren of the Snows: Part Four
"Evil… twin?” Steel’s ears were pricked forwards, his expression incredulous. “You’ve got to be kidding me. Jub Zambra has an evil twin?”
“He doesn’t talk about me much,” the jubjub said with a dismissive shrug. “We’re not in contact.”
“Gee, I can’t imagine why that might be,” the Tyrannian lupe retorted. “So, what? You brainwash the Snowager to attack random villages and collect ‘protection’ fees from them to hold him at bay? That’s your big evil plan?” He snorted, his fur bristled so he looked twice his normal size- though the gesture was somewhat muted by the fact that he couldn’t attack when he was surrounded by molten rock on all sides. “No world domination? No takeover of the Bori kingdom in the ice caves?”
“Oh come on now,” Arbmaz scoffed. “I may be evil but I’m not stupid. Plans for world domination bring down kings and knights and faeries on your head. All the most powerful forces in Neopia turn against you. I’d as soon not get myself locked in an amulet floating in space for who knows how long, if it’s all the same.”
He laughed, stroking the slumbering Snowager’s head with his free foot. “This though… this is small potatoes. All this sort of thing brings out of the woodwork is you lot. The so-called ‘Defenders.’ The superheroes who are so pathetic, so incompetent that they regularly need to outsource their tasks to normal Neopians or even be rescued by those normal Neopians. You lot? You I can handle just fine. That idiot with the goggles has already fallen under my spell twice.”
Arbmaz grinned maniacally. “Here’s what’s going to happen, Defender. Your little buddy there is going to go back to your base and tell the others that nothing suspicious is going on. That the Snowager has just turned aggressive, and that the protector is exactly what he claims to be. You, on the other hand? You’re going to be my new messenger to the villagers. You’re going to go out there for me so I never have to leave dear Snowy’s protection, and you’re going to collect all of my nice money.”
“How about no,” Steel retorted. “News flash for you, minstrel, I’m not a snake. You’ll need more than a little pipe to get me grovelling at your feet.”
Arbmaz smirked, sitting back down on the Snowager’s head and putting the pipe to his lips. As soon as he started playing again, the Snowager lurched up, opening its spiralling, mesmerized eyes once more. The monster peeled back its’ jowl to reveal rows of jagged blue teeth- and pierced on one of those teeth was a tiny, bright yellow object.
“...A hissi plushie?” Steel said incredulously. Then, he caught a glimmer of rainbow light against the Snowager’s icy hide, and he realized the toy was putting off some sort of glowing aura.
A magical hissi plushie.
“Snowy keeps the darndest things in his hoard,” Arbmaz mused, briefly pulling the pipe away from his mouth. Then, he laughed, and began playing in earnest.
Steel stumbled as the rock at his feet lurched, a huge pillar of stone carrying him up into the air towards the Snowager’s head. He glanced down towards Tech Tonic, who had discarded his goggles to reveal that like the Snowager, his eyes were consumed by swirls of red and yellow.
If that plushie touches me, I’m done for, Steel thought, looking around desperately. He was still surrounded on all sides by magmatic stone, the pillar carrying him upwards the only safe surface to stand on.
Or well… not the only one.
Steel crouched as the pillar drew within reach of the ice serpent’s massive fangs, his eyes on the plushie speared on the Snowager’s teeth. Every hair on his pelt was standing on end, his muscles were quivering, and his tongue felt as dry as sandpaper. He’d have one shot at this…
The Snowager swung his head around, bringing it towards Steel like a giant mallet. The lupe’s teeth were clenched so tight he felt they might shatter, and just as the ice serpent’s teeth were a few feet away, Steel jumped. There was an off-key note from Arbmaz’s flute as he was ostensibly caught off guard by the lupe’s front half suddenly slamming into the Snowager’s nose. Steel couldn’t quite jump high enough to land neatly on the ice snake’s head, and found his back paws scrabbling frantically for purchase on the ice-slick side of the Snowager’s beak.
Before he could fully haul himself up, however, Arbmaz upped the tempo of his playing, and the Snowager roared in fury, shaking his head to dislodge the hapless Defender. Steel lost his grip, and was sent hurtling through the air towards the icy wall of the tunnel, just barely turning his fur to metal in time to avoid a shattering impact. Immobilized by his power, Steel tumbled down the wall to the floor of the cavern. Once he’d landed the lupe tried to deactivate his powers and lurch to his feet, but he was brought up short as the stone underpaw seemed to suck his foot down as if it’d turned to mud.
“Mussssst sssstay sssstill,” Tech Tonic hissed.
“By Fyora’s Crown, kid, snap out of it!” Steel yelled. Arbmaz laughed.
“He can’t hear you, fool. The Serpent’s Song is ancient, powerful magic. No snake under its power can hear any voice except that of the one touching the flute.” Sharply he barked, “Hissi! Come to me.”
As if to back up the order, the jubjub began to play once more, and Tech Tonic obediently spread his leathery wings and flew upwards towards the Snowager’s head. Seeming to follow whatever silent orders issued from the flute’s music, he reached a gloved wing towards the plushie in the Snowager’s mouth and took it. Then, he glided back down towards the immobilized Lupe, who thrashed helplessly against the stone holding him down.
“No! I won’t be your puppet, you hear me! Never!”
Tech Tonic’s forked tongue emerged from his mouth in a hiss. “Touch the plusssshie. Dancssssse.”
Steel watched in horror as the hissi drew closer. The Snowager’s head lowered behind Tech Tonic, probably so that Arbmaz could get a closer look at the proceedings. The magical, transformative aura of the plushie reflecting off the metal of Tech Tonic’s mechanical gloves, just waiting to turn Steel into a snake, into a pet-
Wait. The gloves!
Not wasting a moment to think, Steel lunched his head towards the oncoming wing, his tusks scoring a deep gash in the cheap metal of Tech Tonic’s glove. A loud electrical pop sounded, and the hissi lurched backwards with a howl of pain as the severed wiring in the glove began shocking him. The plushie flew out of Tech Tonic’s winged hand, flying backwards-
And landing with a brilliant flash of light right on top of Jub Arbmaz’s head.
The jubjub gave a screech of shock and anger, tumbling off of the Snowager’s head as his entire body was bathed in white light. Steel watched, jaw agape, as the fluffy round body shifted, thinning and elongating, huge feet flattening and becoming jagged. Then, the light cleared, and beside the now useless, spent plushie, crouched the yellow hissi that had once been Jub Arbmaz.
“What… wha… What did you do to me?” he demanded, rounding on Steel in outrage.
“I didn’t do anything,” the elderly lupe retorted, stumbling to his feet- the rock holding him down had disintegrated when Tech Tonic’s concentration was broken. “You’ve just gotten what you deserve. Now you’re one of the same creatures you wanted to use for your own selfish ends.”
“No!” Arbmaz snarled, slit pupiled eyes flashing with fury. “I still have the flute! I still have the power!”
He brought the instrument up to his mouth, playing frantically. However, he hadn’t gotten more than fifteen seconds into playing before he began to flinch, his eyes screwing up and watering as if with pain. Dauntless, he went on, the Snowager growling and rounding on Steel- before freezing entirely, his face going slack. Arbmaz was still playing the flute, but it was with none of the energy he’d had before. His pupils were dilating and contracting to the beat of the song, and as Steel realized what was happening, he stepped purposefully towards the former jubjub and put a paw on the edge of the flute.
“You can hear me, can’t you, serpent? I’m touching the flute. You must dance for the one touching the flute.”
“Nnn,” Arbmaz shook his head, but the gesture was sluggish, and there was no mistaking the way he seemed to be dancing slightly to his own playing. More ardently, Steel spoke again.
“You will obey me. You must.”
Arbmaz blinked heavily, his jaw falling slack so that the pipe tumbled out of his mouth, his eyes filling with rippling red and yellow spirals. “Sssserpent willl dancsssse.”
“Play,” Steel said firmly, keeping a paw on the instrument. “Release your hold on Tech Tonic and the Snowager.”
The former jubjub obediently brought the flute to his mouth again, playing several short, sharp notes. At once all three of the snakes- Tech Tonic, the Snowager, and Arbmaz- began to moan and shake their heads, as if waking up from a very deep sleep. Wasting no time, Steel knocked the pipe from the snake charmer’s limp grip and pounced, pinning him to the tunnel floor.
“Jub Arbmaz,” he snarled. “You are under arrest for using mind-control magic on a sentient Neopian, destruction of property, and extortion. You’re going away for a long, long time.”
“What happened?” Tech Tonic muttered, his voice slurred. “Where- ohmigosh is that the Snowager?!”
Steel glanced up, tensing as he remembered the monster’s presence, but the Snowager didn’t seem all that interested in either of the Defenders. He lowered his head, sniffing at Jub Arbmaz- who tensed under Steel’s paws, yelling frantically and trying to give orders to the ice snake that went thoroughly ignored- before snorting and pulling away. It looked Steel straight in the eye, a low growl echoing from its throat.
“It wants the one who brainwashed it,” Steel said softly. “I think he wants me to give him Arbmaz.”
“No!” the yellow hissi bleated. “That is cruel and unusual punishment, you can’t do that! You wouldn’t dare!”
“Seems pretty karmic to me,” Steel retorted savagely, before sighing. “But he’s right. It’s not very nice. Still…” he looked towards Tech Tonic, “I think Snowy deserves at least a small revenge, don’t you?”
“I have no idea what is even going on,” the relic hissi replied, rubbing his eyes. “So you can make the call.”
Steel chuckled, scooped the flute up into his teeth- then jumped backwards off of Arbmaz. With a roar, the Snowager let loose a jet of icy spears from his maw, and the former jubjub shrieked in terror as he struggled to dodge them with a body he barely knew how to operate. Arbmaz vanished into one of the tunnels, the furious Snowager following behind, and soon the sounds of both of them had vanished into the distance, leaving Tech Tonic and Steel alone in the cave.
“Your… your paws are burnt,” the hissi said, looking down at the scalds. “Did I do that? Fyora’s Crown, I’m so sorry if I did that!”
“It’ll be alright,” Steel said around a mouthful of the flute. “I’ve had worse.” He grinned. “And I imagine our buddy is gonna get way worse from the Snowager.”
As they started towards the exit of the tunnel, Tech Tonic ventured, “Was it a good idea? To just let him go. He might try something again.”
“Maybe,” Steel admitted. “But even if we’d taken him in, he would’ve escaped eventually. Villains always do.”
“That’s rather cynical,” the hissi said with a frown. Steel only laughed.
“Ah, you’re still a rookie. It’s not cynicism, it’s just fact. Superheroes and supervillains follow their own rules. You’ll learn soon enough.”
Tech Tonic smiled crookedly. “Maybe you could teach me? Come out of retirement and pass on your skills to the next generation.”
“Ha! Not on your life,” the old lupe retorted. “I am quite happy with my day job, thanks.” His smile gentling, he added, “but hey- once a hero, always a hero. If your butt ever needs saving again, call me. I’ll be sure to come running. What else is being a Defender all about?”