Ylana Skyfire: Protector of Spring
Neopia, for all Ylana Skyfire disliked it, was a great place to go when one didn't want to be found.
For added measure, she'd chosen a land where one would least expect to meet an interstellar bounty hunter: Meridell.
Well, there was also Tyrannia, but they at least didn't eat rocks in Meridell.
So here she was on a particularly snowy day in mid-Running, huddled in the corner of an inn's ground floor, sipping her mug of borovan and half-listening to the inane chatter and singing of everyone else who'd gathered for breakfast. The other half of her mind was running through logistics, trying to figure out when it would be safe to venture back out into the stars. But at least, she thought smugly, no one would ever recognize her here.
"Ylana Skyfire!" someone said. A pair of green paws slammed down on the table in front of her, and she jumped, spilling her borovan on her travelling dress. Staring at her with a goofy grin was a portly green Lupe wearing a rucksack and a thick winter coat.
"What—I have no idea who that is, peasant," she sniffed in her best attempt at a sophisticated Meridellian accent, dabbing at the hot borovan with her napkin and hoping the stain would come out. "I'm Lady Katherline of House Claymore. Now trouble me no longer with your presence!"
The Lupe laughed. "Nice try, dude," he said, "but you're totally Ylana Skyfire. Tall, lanky blue Acara, mole on her left upper lip, scar on her right horn from an epic faceoff with a space pirate. And Claymore's your real last name. Yeah, you can't fool me, bruh. Fanboy senses never lie."
It only took Ylana a second to reach into the folds of her cloak and whip out a blaster. "You're—that King Altador wanna-be from Neopia Central!" she sputtered. "What do you want? If you think you can collect a bounty on me—"
He held out his paws. "What? Nah, bruh! I just recognized you from across the room and wanted to say hi!" He stuck out one paw for a pawshake, a gesture that Ylana did not reciprocate. "My name's Peter, by the way. Although my Neoquest group knows me as…" He struck a dramatic pose. "Sir Alexandus the Drakonid-Slayer!"
"I'll stick with Peter," Ylana said as she lowered the blaster. This Lupe was not a threat—just super annoying.
Peter grinned. "Oh—and thanks again for saving Halloween last year!" he said.
"I was just doing my job," she said. "Also Farlax V is a moron if he thinks candy is an effective superweapon. At any rate, keep it down, seriously! No one's supposed to know I'm here!"
Peter leaned further over the table towards her, dropping his voice to a whisper. "Don't worry, I'll keep your identity secret," he said. He paused and giggled. "Oh man, I'm in Ylana Skyfire's trusted inner circle!"
"No, you're not," Ylana hissed. "I don't have an inner circle."
"Why are you in disguise in Meridell?" Peter asked. "Tracking down a new bounty? The Gelert Assassin?" He squealed dangerously loudly, but no one seemed to notice. "Are you going to fight the Gelert Assassin?! Can I watch?!"
"No, and no!" Ylana said, clamping a paw around his muzzle to silence him. "Look, if you have to know, after I returned Farlax to serve his time, I took a job on the other side of the law. There were some… complications, but suffice to say it's not safe for me out there right now. I'm lying low until everything blows over."
Peter nodded, and Ylana let go of his face. "Gotcha," he said. "I won't tell a soul. Drakonid-Slayer's oath."
"Good," Ylana said. "Now leave."
"Actually—I was hoping I could get your help with something," Peter said. Even though Ylana showed no interest, he scooted over a chair and sat down, leaning an arm on the table. "Notice how it's still winter around here?"
"I'm not familiar with the seasons on Neopia," Ylana admitted. "I thought maybe it was always this chilly in Running."
Peter shook his head. "It's supposed to start warming up by now. I thought it was just a cold snap, but I keep hearing Neopets talking." He nudged his chin over his shoulder. "Illusen should have started spring by now. Some pets say she's gone missing from her glade." He pounded a fist into one paw. "You have to help me find her. I think something's wrong."
"Not interested," Ylana said. Having cleaned up her spilled borovan as best as she could, she took another sip from the mug. "If anything, all this snow will make it tougher to track me."
"But you're the best Neopet in the galaxy at finding people!" Peter said. "C'mon—you're a hero in Neopia Central, you know! You could be a hero in Meridell, too! They'd probably put up a statue of you, and compose ballads about your greatness, and Illusen would reward you—"
Ylana had been letting Peter's words about heroics and fame go in one set of ears and out the other, but when she heard the word "reward" her ears pricked. "Illusen would reward me?" she asked, setting the mug of borovan down. Now he had her full attention.
Peter nodded. "Yeah, of course. She always rewards Neopets who help her. Anyway, and Skarl would throw a banquet for you—"
Ylana held up a paw to cut him off. "I'm in," she said. "It's been boring keeping holed up in this inn pretending to be nobility, anyway. Might as well keep my skills sharp." Standing up, she pushed away from the table and brushed past him. "Thanks for the lead."
Peter squealed again. "She thanked me!" he sighed, his tail wagging in delight.
Rolling her eyes, Ylana made her way to the door, out into the frigid morning, to the stables to fetch the Whinny for her carriage. Getting used to these archaic modes of transport took some time, but she didn't want to hire a Uni or an Eyrie to lug her everywhere, because those asked questions and Petpets didn't.
As she folded the heavy wool blankets that had been put on the Whinny's back, a familiar voice asked, "Can I help?" Ylana jumped. There stood Peter, clutching the straps of his rucksack, looking ready and raring to go. "I've taken a few classes on Meridellian Petpet husbandry," he said. "Every bit of knowledge helps!"
"Why are you here in Meridell, anyway?" Ylana asked. "Don't you live in Neopia Central?"
"Yeah, but—" Peter reached into his rucksack and pulled out a notebook. "I write Jeran Borodere fanfiction!" he said with a grin. "And if there's anything I can't stand, it's inaccuracy! So I do as much research as I possibly can about everything Meridellian! Do—do you wanna read the chapter I just finished, it's got this way intense swordfight—"
"I want you to leave," Ylana said as she led her Whinny out of its stall. "I got the lead I wanted, so I'll let you go back to your… fanfiction." She said the word like it was a disease.
"But I'm coming with you," Peter said.
Ylana flinched. "I never agreed to that."
"Do you know the way to Illusen's Glade?" Peter asked.
"No," Ylana said, "but I can easily ask any Neopet I meet along the way."
Peter puffed out his chest. "Do you have freakishly encyclopedic knowledge of everything to do with Meridell?" he asked. "You know, anything that could help you find a missing faerie in the region?"
Ylana glared at him sourly. "Fine," she spat. "But don't talk to me. And don't cause any trouble."
Far from obeying this command, Peter let out a bizarre sound that started as a bark and then turned into a high-pitched screech that made the Whinny turn back its floppy ears and shy away. "I… can't… believe this!" he yelped, flailing his arms. "I'm Ylana Skyfire's sidekick! Best day ever, best day ever!"
Ylana grabbed his arm. "Keep. It. Down," she growled.
"Oh, right, right, 'Lady Katherline'," Peter said with a grin. "Can—can I be Sir Alexandus?"
"You can call yourself Dr. Sloth for all I care," Ylana said. "Help me get to the Glade."
And so the two set off for Illusen's Glade. As the carriage bumped over the slush-filled roads, Peter was very bad at not keeping quiet, asking Ylana all about her adventures in the cosmos and babbling about comic books and conventions, and even confessed that he was an Usuki collector, although he was really more into Quigukis because they were green like him.
Finally Ylana pretended to have a headache and convinced him that only silence would cure it, so Peter got back to work on his fanfiction. A few stray squeals and comments about how awesome Jeran and his friends were kept slipping out, but Peter was clearly trying to stifle his noise, at least.
It was past lunch when they reached a thick glen of immense old trees deep in the forests of Meridell. The place would have been absolutely lush with greenery in the spring and summer, but right now it looked as though it was still in the dead of winter, with barren branches and a thick layer of snow.
"Oh… oh no," Peter said as he pulled the hood of his coat over his ears. "This is worse than I thought."
"It is?" Ylana asked. She'd donned her familiar armor again, goggles over her eyes both to protect from the blowing snow and to access the sensor feeds from her helmet. Being in disguise was less important right now than getting the job done with every resource possible.
"Illusen's Glade isn't supposed to look like this," Peter said. "She always keeps it more alive than this with her magic, even in winter. That means… she really is gone."
"So let's get her back," Ylana said, boots crunching on the snow as she headed for the nearest tree. "I want that reward."
"We should start looking in the canopy for clues first," Peter said, pointing to a rudimentary lift that led to the treehouse-like structures above. "That's where she lives."
The two rode the lift to the top, and found Illusen's house in a state of disarray. There had clearly been a struggle, and Ylana stalked carefully among the overturned furniture and scattered décor, trying to piece together what had happened.
As she lifted a couch, splatters of black liquid on the floor caught her eye. They were unusual both because there wasn't an inkwell around, and because the still-wet liquid seemed to smoke slightly, sending out ebony tendrils. "Peter, get over here," she said.
The Lupe was currently inspecting the contents of Illusen's bookshelf. "Oh man, she's got a copy of Anubis Toxicology Reports? In the original Sakhmetian?!" He ran his pawpads over the cover of a very old volume of bound papyrus. "She must have gotten this thing millennia ago!"
"Peter! Focus!" Ylana barked. "What's this goop? I'm guessing it's some sort of potion, and I don't have experience with those." The vast galaxy, with all its fine advanced technology, unfortunately had not done much to educate her on Neopian magic. That was where her walking Meridellian encyclopedia would come in handy.
Peter crouched down beside her, swiped a finger through the substance, and stuck it in his mouth.
Ylana cringed, expecting the worst, but the Lupe just chewed and then spat it back out onto his paw like a wad of gum. "Dark Vine Potion," he said. "Not toxic, but useful as a binding agent. So she was kidnapped."
"Well, that's something," Ylana said.
"I'm thinking it was Morguss," Peter said. "A Draconian witch with no love for Meridell."
"What makes you so sure?" Ylana asked.
Peter sat back on his haunches. "Well, she's got the motives," he said. "She hates Meridell. And she brews some mean potions. Dark Vine Potion was one of the recipes included in the Morguss Spell Book. Which was published without her permission, I might add. That was a fun scandal."
"That sounds like a lead to me," Ylana said. "Any idea where to find her?"
"Let's see…" Peter stroked the fur on his chin. "She disappeared after the Kass War and hasn't been seen since. Although I've heard a few rumours that Neopets have seen her in the Shadowglen Woods. Which makes sense, because it's full of magical reagents." He grinned. "I learned that when I was researching to write Kayla accurately for my second Neopian Times series, 'Jeran Borodere and the Twisted—'"
"Where's the Shadowglen Woods?" Ylana asked, standing up and peering out the window at the frosty forest below. She could only take so much hearing about Peter's fanfiction.
Peter's tail wagged. "I can show you the way," he said.
Ylana sighed. "All right," she said. "And… thanks for your help."
The Lupe squealed again. "Yeah, no problem, dude! Can I get you to sign my rucksack?"
"No," Ylana said. "Let's go."
They reached the farmland outskirts of Meridell as the sun set. Despite all of the fields and cottages looking the same to Ylana, Peter somehow seemed to know exactly where they were, as he guided her down a little-used dirt road into an increasingly thicker and darker forest. The Whinny seemed to object to going very far into these woods, so the two continued on foot.
"This place is obnoxious," Ylana said as she fired a few blaster shots at a thick vine that curled toward them menacingly. The vine recoiled from the attack and slithered back into the undergrowth.
"It's awesome," Peter said. "I've never been here after dark. But it's nothing Ylana Skyfire can't handle!"
"Of course not," Ylana said. Hopefully.
"Is someone there?" a female voice called in the distance. "Help, please!"
Ylana switched on her helmet's bio-sensors, but they only registered herself, Peter, and some scattered Petpets in the vicinity.
"Lady Illusen!" Peter barked. "Don't worry—we're coming!" He ran a few paces ahead of the bounty hunter, but stopped and turned around when he realized she wasn't follow. "Ylana, c'mon," he said.
"But there's no one there," Ylana said. "She's not showing up in my bio-sensors."
Peter laughed. "Silly. Faeries aren't alive," he said. "I mean, like, not biologically, 'cause they're made of magic and stuff. It's weird. Only they really understand it. Hurry!"
Ylana shook her head at the insufferable oddness of Neopia as she followed him through the trees.
"Oh, thank goodness someone's come!" Illusen said. She stood in the middle of a cage of thick black tendrils that stretched from one tree trunk to the next. "You've got to free me so I can start spring!"
"I'm on it," Ylana said, training her blaster on the tendrils. She fired a few shots, but they were merely absorbed into the goop.
"Energy won't work," Illusen said. "Believe me, I've tried." Her hands glowed with green magic.
Ylana frowned. "Guess we're doing this the old-fashioned way, then." She pulled a ceramic dagger from her belt and began cutting away at the webbing. Thankfully, it gave under a good sharp blade, although it made her a little queasy as it flopped to the ground like rotten Space Fungus.
"Uh, Ylana," Peter said, "you might want to hurry."
"Why?" Ylana asked. When he took too long to respond, she looked over her shoulder at him. Her eyes widened.
Her Lupe companion was backing away from giant Juppies with faces. Very malicious faces. Their eyes glowed red in the dusk as they snapped their toothy jaws at the Lupe, the Acara, and the faerie.
Ylana sucked in a breath. "Peter—get Illusen free!" she said, slapping the hilt of the dagger into his paw. "I'll hold these things off!"
"Be careful!" Peter said. "I'd hate to see anything happen to your armour, because it was a custom job from a planet full of—"
"Go!" Ylana said, shoving him toward the web. She pivoted and sprinted toward the Juppie plant beasts. All she had to do was distract them long enough.
The Acara darted into the mess of vines that the creatures had used to clamber through the forest, and their heads turned and arched after her. One rose up in front of her and Ylana fired her blaster at it, sending it reeling back on its stalk.
Curled vines lashed out at her and she spun to evade them, running up onto another stalk. The Juppie-head at the end of this one took a moment to realise she was on it—and then it swung itself around in an attempt to get her off.
Ylana wrapped her arms and legs around the prickly stem, taking the opportunity to unload a few more blaster shots at the other heads to remind them what they should be focusing on. Peter looked like he'd nearly cut enough of an opening for Illusen.
Then the Juppie beast decided to ram itself into a tree.
Ylana saw the trunk coming just in time and switched on her energy shield. It absorbed the brunt of the impact and she bounced harmlessly away, but the shock loosened her grip on the vine.
She tumbled to the ground and rolled to evade the teeth of another Juppie, pulling her blaster out of harm's way and popping back up onto her hind paws. All of the beasts were focused on her now—too many of them. Gritting her teeth, Ylana backed away, firing at them, but for every Juppie she knocked away, another loomed closer.
Suddenly the creatures glowed with green light and let out pained roars, writhing on their stalks. "Begone, vile fiends!" Illusen cried, holding up her hands as her hair flowed dramatically behind her in a nonexistent wind. The Juppies thrashed and snarled, but Illusen's magic drove them back, into the shadows, and then they were gone.
"That… was… awesome!" Peter said as Ylana caught her breath. "You ladies are the coolest! Did you see those crazy hardcore combat skills? And that unbelievable magic! This is gonna give me plenty of inspiration for my next fic!"
Illusen stared down at the near-hyperventilating Lupe. "Is he always like this?" she asked Ylana.
"As far as I know," Ylana said.
"Thank you for your assistance, brave Neopians," Illusen said. "Morguss had planned to wreak havoc on Meridell's agriculture by preventing me from starting spring. It seems she will have to come up with another plan."
"Called it!" Peter said. "Booyah! I mean, uh, it was my greatest honor to rescue you, Lady Illusen." He bowed deeply. "For I am Sir Alexandus the Drakonid-Slayer, hero of Meridell!"
Illusen tapped her chin. "I've not heard of any Sir Alexandus," she said. "And aren't Drakonids long extinct?"
"Somehow I don't think he cares," Ylana said.
The faerie turned to the Acara. "And who might you be, brave warrior?"
Ylana cleared her throat. "Lady Katherline, of House Claymore," she said, forgetting the accent this time. "We're, uh, kind of a small house, not very well-known," she added, hoping Illusen would buy it.
The earth faerie scrutinised her for a moment, then smiled. "Well met, milady," she said. "For your valour, I hereby dub the both of you Protectors of Spring."
"Awesome!" Peter barked. "I have a real title! My Neoquest group is gonna be so jealous!"
Illusen gave him a quizzical look before turning back to Ylana. "If you and your, erm, assistant would accompany me back to my glade," the faerie said, "I would gladly reward you for your efforts."
Ylana's eyes lit up. All of this would be worth it, she reminded herself. "You can ride with us in my carriage," she said. "You must be weary after this ordeal." Also, buttering up a person usually got her a nice fat tip.
"I thank you for the offer, milady," Illusen said, "but I find it more convenient to travel by tree." She reached out to the nearest tree trunk. Somehow the solid wood curved aside, creating a crack and then a split that extended to the ground like a doorway. On the other side, as though it had been there all along, was Illusen's parlor.
Ylana raised her eyes. Sometimes, Virtupets technology had nothing on Neopian magic.
"Awesome!" Peter said, darting toward the tree-portal. "How does it even work?" he asked, plunging his paw in and wiggling his fingers around.
"Earth magic, of course," Illusen said. "Now let's not dally. It's far too cold for my liking." She strode into her parlor and the two Neopets followed.
"Oh my, Morguss and I did make a bit of a mess, didn't we," the faerie muttered upon seeing the state of her home. "Nothing a good cleaning spell can't fix." She shook out her hands and snapped her fingers, and in a swirl of green magic everything began shifting back into place.
While Peter gawked at the spell, Ylana said, "So about that reward."
"Oh—yes, of course!" Illusen said. "I've got just the thing!" She reached behind her back.
Ylana leaned forward, eagerly expecting bags full of Neopoints, or some rare artefact that would sell for a fortune on the galactic market.
Illusen pulled out a plate of cookies. "My homemade specialty!" she said, presenting them to the Acara. "These cream cookies taste absolutely divine, if I must say so myself."
Ylana's jaw dropped. For a long moment, all she could do was stare at the cookies. "I—was kind of expecting something—better," she stammered.
The earth faerie giggled. "But this was only your first quest!" she said. "You'll have to do lots more if you want better prizes!" She winked at the Acara. "Also, there is no House Claymore."
"Sweet, Illusen's cream cookies!" Peter said, taking a few and snapping them up in his jaws. "Oh man, these are even better when they're fresh! Thank you, Lady Illusen!" he said before striking another dramatic pose. "However—heroism is its own reward."
Still at a loss for words, Ylana turned and walked away, feeling utterly numb. Maybe the whole fiasco in space had calmed down by now. One thing was for sure—she was never, ever coming back to Neopia again. What a horribly do-goody place.
From behind her, Illusen said, "Hey—someone's been touching my copy of Anubis Toxicology Reports!"