Stealing the Show
* Age - Early 20s (drawn-out)
* Difficulty - 450
* Last Seen - (in a picture inside Dr. Flexo's locker) Neopia Central, near National Neopian Museum
* Status - Enemy at Large
* Favourite Game - Hannah and the Wardrobe of Adventure
* Renowned for - Brooding charm and enormous fan mobs
Next to the profile, stern yellow eyes glowered from within the shadowy depths of a hood. A pair of long, sleek blue ears perched high atop the head seemed to blow in the wind. A few locks of black hair peeked out from under the hood almost teasingly, hinting at a dashing windswept style - perhaps a Unitail. The chiselled blue face was cut dramatically by a scar beneath the right eye, and tipped by a black nose that fans and magazines described as "perfectly boopable".
Asha pressed a button and Kanrik's swoonworthy profile vanished from the screen. Her standard Junior Defender communicator was left to display the time again, like an ordinary wristwatch.
The athletic Xweetok struck a triumphant pose just like Judge Hog's - she had practised for hours in front of her mirror. "Keep your sticky hands to yourself, Kanrik, or you might just find a pocketful of Justice!"
A few passers-by raised their eyebrows at her. "That's because he picks pockets!" Asha called after them, holding her heroically raised fist a little higher. "So if he does, he'll get what he deserves - justice - retribution - it's a one-liner! It's like I carry justice around with me..."
No matter; they would remember her once she was famous enough. The Xweetok began to run down the street and soon had to reign in her enthusiasm so as not to tire herself out too early. How lucky that she happened to be the only Defender recruit in the vicinity of the museum. This could very well be her big break. All she had to do was locate a Master Thief, catch him, and keep him caught. She would not be above clinging to his leg, as long as a more experienced Defender saw her do it.
Asha kept her eyes peeled for shadowy figures and ragged cloaks. The stealthiest thief in all of Neopia was unlikely to be prowling about in broad daylight, but it would be foolish to miss important clues by not looking around. She rounded a corner.
Asha had expected to see Kanrik somewhere, eventually. She had not expected to see Kanrik everywhere.
Glaring down at her from posters, postcards, crumpled drawings, beach towels, shirts and caps, an army of Kanriks had invaded the plaza in front of the museum. It seemed to have been mustered by a crowd of young Neopians. They were all clad in hooded cloaks, ninja costumes or even full replicas of Kanrik's layered outfit. They had set up a trestle tables, chairs and cardboard boxes. A large weathered cardboard sign that read "KANRIKON" topped it all.
Every now and then one of the groups would burst into giggling, then cover their mouths to stifle the sounds and keep looking stealthy. They advertised their wares with strangely muffled cries, or very carrying whispers.
"Panriks! Get your warm, toasty Panriks!"
Asha did not want any "Panriks". She wondered why Thieves' Guild fans seemed so intent on eating pancakes in the shape of their leader's head; then she decided that she'd rather not know.
She stood very straight, threw her shoulders back and marched right past the ragtag convention, not sparing them a single glance. She went up the steps that led to the imposing Altador-inspired building, entered, and struck a pose neatly framed by two columns.
"Good day, citizens of Neopia Central! The Defenders of Neopia have arrived!"
An elderly visitor nodded politely at her before walking out of the entrance hall. The Draik at the reception desk scanned her from head to toe. Asha may only be dressed in sportswear - fully tailored spandex was far too expensive for novice Defenders - but she already had her mask, and her colour scheme: navy and pink. She proudly presented her official Defender Badge, with the official logo and the glossy picture of her gazing heroically into the distance.
"How can we help you, Madam?" said the receptionist.
"I have been dispatched here on a mission. If you or your colleagues have witnessed any disturbances, it would be of great help."
"No trouble here today, Madam. What kind of mission are you on?"
Asha leaned on the marble countertop and lowered her voice conspiratorially. "Do not be alarmed. The thief Kanrik has been spotted in the area."
The Draik was not the least bit alarmed; she even looked out with longing in her eyes. "Oh, Kanrik. That's why those kids are partying outside."
"And we shall put an end to his marauding so as to protect your treasures."
"What, you have a Defenders mission against Kanrik? But I thought you arrested, you know, dangerous supervillains. Isn't he a popular hero? Skirmish faction leader and all that?"
Asha bristled at this. "He's still a thief who causes riots and hogs the great Hannah all to himself!"
The Draik muttered platitudes and ushered Asha in to help patrol the exhibitions. The museum had a handful of security guards, but it was a very large building, and Kanrik seemed capable of wafting into any space like smoke.
A large panel advertised a huge exhibition in honour of all the royal families of Neopia. Of course, royal items on display would lure in any thief.
Asha backflipped into the first room, just because she could, and performed a series of punches and kicks learned from the Mystery Island Training School. She reached her final pose with a loud shriek in front of a large portrait of King Hagan, which stared down at her disapprovingly.
"Come out if you dare, Kanrik, and I'll crown you with the fist of Justice!" No, she had already used Justice. Even though one could never have too much Justice, it was important to vary one's catchphrases. "... I'll make you bow to the Defenders' might!" Asha was tempted to pull out her catchphrase cards, but she had to focus. She continued to punch, kick and roll her way past portraits, maps, heirlooms and shiny trinkets representing royals from every corner of Neopia.
After passing Princess Vyssa's old shoes for the third time, Asha had to admit that the museum seemed Kanrik-free for the moment. Even the display cases with ancient crowns and sceptres were safe. The master thief had not jumped out of an antique wardrobe and cried "Boo!", or crept up behind her for a sneak attack, giving her an opportunity to seize his arm dramatically. It was a little disappointing.
Asha would have to be cleverer to lure him out. She would need clues, information about Kanrik. And her luck was in, for she knew exactly where to find it. She removed her Defender communicator and hid it in her pocket, with her badge.
A group of Kanrik fans had gathered on a lawn to trade artwork. No one noticed an unattended cloak slide off the table behind them.
"Isn't he so dreamy in this one?"
"Yes, very dreamy," said a serious voice, as a hooded Xweetok settled smoothly in the group. "Yo, what's up, my Guildies."
"I know, right?" said an excited little Korbat. "I think this beach picture wins the contest, folks. His cloak floats really well."
"How comes you brought the convention all the way to this museum?" Asha asked casually with a broad smile.
"We could sense that Kanrik would be here, of course! There's plenty of royal socks in there. And jewellery."
"Sense it? You can find him wherever he is?"
"Yes, our Kanrik-senses were tingling! Janelle's Kanrik-sense works best." The Korbat pointed at a Quiggle who was wearing sock puppets on both of her hands.
"He's very close, close enough to steal your socks. A group of us went into the museum earlier, but we can't all go in at once, or they'll kick us out." Janelle's bulging eyes scanned Asha from head to toe. "Cool mask. The pink's a bit flashy, but that's a nice costume for sneaking."
"I'd like to go in with the next group, and maybe catch sight of... Kanrik," Asha said with an even brighter grin. A few of the fans leapt to their feet excitedly and began to plan the expedition with Janelle.
"Sis'?" said a familiar voice. "What are you doing here?"
Asha's head whipped round. She was stunned to see a small yellow Vandagyre among the fans, clad in a dark cloak like them.
"Kia- I mean, who? You must have mistaken me for someone else, miss!" Asha gave a high-pitched laugh. "Let me clear up the misunderstanding!" Before anyone could comment, she grabbed the Vandagyre's arm and pulled her - sneakily - behind one of the makeshift booths.
"Don't you call me that here," she hissed. "I am Nightrose, Defender of the future! And what are you doing here with the thieflings?"
"I'm a thief too! That's our guild leader you're going after, you can't arrest him."
"You're not a thief, Kiani. You're in a fanclub, it's different."
The Vandagyre puffed her feathers indignantly. "Am too! I stole that Sway lady's pocket mirror during a Skirmish!"
"She dropped it."
"And I very stealthily picked it up!" They glared at each other. "I'm as much a thief as you're a Defender," said Kiani.
Asha gasped in shock and laid a hand over her chest. "Just... don't get in my way!" she spluttered. "I'm on a mission."
She ran back to the rest of the group; they had not yet left for the museum.
"Let's go. Here, you can have your socks back." Janelle shoved a pair of Hannah-themed socks into Asha's hands. The Xweetok gaped at them. How in Neopia had they come off? Pulling up her trouser legs, she was stunned to see the bare brown fur of her ankles. She hopped clumsily after the group, removing her shoes and pulling on her socks again one by one.
They strolled up the steps with their hands in their pockets, whistling casually as if it could make them seem less suspicious. One of the fans distracted the receptionist while the rest took turns to slink past the ornate counter. Asha rolled smugly across the gleaming marble floor; she was an expert at this. Day 1: she had successfully infiltrated the thieves. They suspected nothing.
"And you can tell your friends that admissions are free today, so they don't need to hide," said the receptionist in a bored tone.
That didn't stop the gaggle of bandits from ducking behind pillars and hugging the walls. With the right poses, they blended into Sakhmetian frescoes surprisingly well. Asha led them towards one of the more valuable displays - ancient jewellery showing the coats of arms of Meridellian nobility. She grabbed Janelle with such force that the Quiggle was yanked off the floor.
"So, what does your Kanrik-sense say now?"
"Getting warmer!" squealed the fangirl.
"Wow," said a Gelert in a handmade replica of Kanrik's coat. Their paws were glued to a case full of brooches. "These are all so shiny! Do you think that we... that we actually could..."
Asha pulled out her collapsible staff and extended it. "No thieving!" she said sternly, taking a fighting stance. "Because... because all this is for Kanrik!"
The Gelert stepped back hastily. "Well, I don't mean doing the job, but maybe we could help him. Especially if we find him." The group had begun to move again.
Asha rushed to follow Janelle, whose eyes were widening every few steps as she bounced excitedly. The Xweetok spun her staff around her with loud shrieks and whooshes. "Nobody else move, I will be the first to find him!"
"No! Kanrik's mine!" Another fan tackled her and they rolled over the floor; the rest soon dived on top of the pile.
"All right, you kids break it up right now!" barked a security guard.
The fans immediately scrambled to their feet and ran away, not bothering to sneak, for once. Asha followed suit and was halfway down the next corridor when she realised that, as a Defender, she ought to have helped the guard. Too late. She threw off her borrowed cloak, which was falling off her shoulders.
While fumbling for her badge, she rammed into someone and sent them crashing to the floor with a loud "Oof!" Papers burst out of a briefcase and spilled on the floor around them. Asha uttered a stream of apologies. She leapt to her feet, saluted like a proper Defender, and pulled the Gelert to his feet.
Her heart leapt when she saw the Gelert's blue fur and tall, slender ears. For a moment, she stared at him, her mouth open; but this Gelert was not the least bit swoonworthy. He was as crumpled as a Brightvale University student after a night spent at the library. Behind his lopsided spectacles, his eyes had no mysterious glare; they were barely visible between drooping eyelids and deep dark circles. There was no scar. Asha really had seen too much Kanrik fanart at the convention. Wasn't he a stealthy Gelert rather than a blue one? This Gelert mumbled apologies at her while she gathered up his papers, then he stumbled away, yawning.
While her sister was engaged in fisticuffs, Kiani too had entered the museum. She dragged her feet past the receptionist, who greeted her with a smile, glad not to deal with another group of excited fans. With her feathers still puffed, the Vandagyre looked like a disgruntled dandelion. How many more socks would she have to steal from Asha to prove that she was stealthy enough?
Kiani stopped short at the entrance to the King Kelpbeard room. Yelps, shrieks, loud running and cries of "I will sacrifice myself for our leader!" were echoing from the corridor just beyond. Kiani turned away with a sigh. She was in too much despair to enjoy the company of her peers.
Her wistful wandering led her out of the royalty exhibition and to a smaller wing of the museum. A modest pointed lavender sign advertised an exhibition about the Hidden Tower, but even fabulously expensive weapons were of no interest to her. Further down the corridor, a hunched silhouette was walking away. Kiani strolled along and they soon reached the reception area again.
It had been a bad idea, for the commotion had migrated all the way to the entrance hall, where two large security guards were scolding a gaggle of apprentice thieves. One of them was crying plaintively that she was a Defender of Neopia, a real, legitimate recruit, and that if only they could stop for one moment and use their eyes to check the badge that she would produce any second now!
Kiani felt for Asha's badge and communicator in her own pocket, slightly guilty. That was not exactly how she had wanted to prove her skill to her sister. Uncertain, she took a seat on the other side of the room, took off her backpack and put it down.
That was when she noticed a shiny thing on the floor. A remarkably pretty figurine almost as bright as a glitter bomb. It was right next to her open backpack. It was so easy. She slid it in without thinking.
The person who had walked ahead of Kiani in the corridor turned away from the reception desk. Behind him, the receptionist was still laughing with strangely high-pitched giggles. The Gelert walked slowly across the room with his tattered briefcase and took a seat next to her, resting for a moment. That was when Kiani knew.
Even as she watched, the placid Gelert seemed to perk up, to fill his crumpled clothes with a lean frame and broad shoulders. His eyes glinted like steel behind his spectacles and gazed at her shrewdly from below stormy black brows. It was the smirk that did it. Only the scar was missing.
Kiani choked on her water and sprayed a few drops.
The Gelert rested his elbows on his knees and spoke in a voice so low that she could have missed it. "Careful, kid. You might smudge someone's makeup with that." And out he went, looking like any student with a long paper to finish.
Kiani was hopping around her chair excitedly. Everything was clear now: he had purposefully left the figurine behind for her to help him sneak it out, so as not to ruin his disguise. It was her own very important mission as a thief. The litte Vandagyre sprinted to the front window and watched the Gelert walk into the street; but, like a snowflake, he melted out of sight before she could see where he would land.
A deep, booming voice filled the hall. "The pesky thief got away again, citizens, but we'll catch him yet!" There were "Oohs" and "Aahs" as Judge Hog's towering figure marched into view. Asha let out a particularly loud screech.
"But how did he open the safe cases without us noticing?" asked one of the bewildered guards. "We only ran after those kids for a few minutes."
The Judge shrugged. "Incomprehensible, much like the rest of Kanrik's work," he admitted gruffly. "Hidden Tower stuff. Mages are still doing their research. But at least, one part of his loot was saved." Judge Hog raised an object high for all to see: a precious figurine carved like a Scorchstone, shining so bright it had to be magical.
Kiani's heart sank. She glanced at her backpack, which had fallen open, spilling out its contents on the floor. She must have kicked it in her excitement. The little Vandagyre's feathers puffed more than ever and she stamped her foot. How silly could she be? She had failed the only mission anyone had ever trusted her with. She pulled Asha's badge from her pocket and walked towards her sister, about to call her.
"And this piece was recovered thanks to the efforts of a brave little Defender in our midst," Judge Hog continued. Kiani saw Asha look up hopefully with tear-filled eyes. Judge Hog stepped forward, leaned very low, and offered his gloved hand to Kiani. "Congratulations. What a young recruit. How talented you must be."
Kiani glanced at the Defender badge in her hand, bewildered, opened her mouth, then shook his hand wordlessly. Several more guards and visitors came to shake her hand too, beaming at the cute new Defender.
"Kiani!" Asha wailed pitifully from her corner. "That was mine, he was mine, Kanrik was mine, how dare you!"
Kiani thought she might just dare again. It would be worth it, just to be trusted and congratulated like this again. She understood her sister better now. It did feel really good to save the day.