Shadow Play:Part Three
Neopia Central at two-thirty in the morning had a bit of a different vibe. It had stopped raining, and there was still plenty of vehicle traffic, but almost no pedestrians on the sidewalks. Most of the lights in the buildings were out, save for the odd Neopet working a night shift. It was rather eerie—or peaceful, Terra supposed, depending on how one wanted to look at it. Right now, though, she was a bit on edge from a kidnapping attempt, so her mind leaned more toward seeing things as eerie.
She hugged Isengrim’s arm as they traversed the city blocks between the hotel and the Defenders’ headquarters, and he smiled down at her, although it seemed to her to be halfhearted. Her worries grew. Had she offended him in some way? They’d had excellent rapport ever since she adopted him – well, to be exact, since about a day after she adopted him – but perhaps she was naïve for thinking nothing could ever cause tension between them. What concerned her was that he was usually so open with her about anything bothering him, and now it seemed like that wasn’t the case.
“Are you okay?” she finally asked him as Blynn made them stop for more gumballs at the restaurant. The Zafara gave a few to Tally this time, before putting another in her mouth and sticking the rest in her belt pouch.
“I’ll be just fine,” Isengrim said with another smile that did not quite reach his eyes.
Terra sighed and stuck her hands in her jacket pockets. Something was definitely up. She just hoped she could fix it. He had never withdrawn from her like this, not since she had gained his trust when she adopted him. What was putting this strain on him now? Hopefully not this mess with Vile. Terra knew Isengrim was stronger than that.
At Defenders HQ, many lights were still on, and the lobby was open. They were a superhero agency, after all, and needed to be ready to help Neopians, no matter the time of day. At the receptionist’s desk sat a purple Wocky in a black mask. He had been reading the Neopian Times, but when everyone stepped in, he put the paper down. “What’s the problem?” he asked.
“Whoa, Blackwing himself!” Blynn said. “I didn’t know you were a receptionist. Shouldn’t you be out, uh, doing hero-y stuff?”
Blackwing laughed as he stood up. “When I’m on assignment, yeah,” he said. “But I’m not on any cases tonight, so I’m manning the lobby. So what can we do for you?”
“You have a Symol in your headquarters,” Isengrim said, “who’s been giving information to Malkus Vile.”
Immediately the Wocky’s demeanor changed and his yellow eyes gleamed dangerously. “Who is it?” he asked, his tail bushing.
“I can help you find them,” Tally said, stepping forward, ears low. “I think I know who it is—I used to work for Vile—but I don’t anymore, I promise—“
“Vile sent her to kidnap my owner,” Isengrim said. “But she’s not going back to him.”
Blackwing surveyed the group, a paw on his chin. “Got it,” he said with a curt nod. “Thank you for your honesty, miss,” he said to Tally. “Courage like yours will not go unrewarded. Let’s not pass up this chance to strike back at Vile and his forces.” He motioned for them to join him as he headed for the lifts. “First, we’ll need to write up a report on what happened,” he said. “Let’s go to my office.”
It turned out Blackwing’s office was on the 60th floor, and as they headed down the hallway there, a red Korbat in an orange superhero suit waddled toward them, carrying a steaming mug of hot cocoa. “Evening, Blackwing,” the Korbat said. “Or, well, morning now, I guess. Helping these fine folks?”
“Actually, Kourage Korbat, I could use your help,” Blackwing said. “Come with us to my office and you’ll hear what’s going on when I file the report.”
“Kourage Korbat?” Blynn asked. “Never heard of him.”
“You young’uns and your newfangled superhero squads!” Kourage Korbat said, sipping his cocoa. “No recognition for the classics! That’s me, Kourage Korbat—‘Kourage’ with a ‘K’!” He stuck his pointer finger in the air authoritatively. “Good need never fear when I am near!”
Blackwing rolled his eyes. “He’s our resident fussbudget,” the Wocky said.
“I’m thorough!” Kourage Korbat insisted. “I’ve been in the superhero business since before Judge Hog even thought of putting together the Defenders!”
“I think old superheroes are cool,” Blynn said.
“Thank you, missy,” Kourage Korbat said. “But remember, I’m not old—I’m seasoned!”
“I should use that line,” Hyren said. Terra laughed. Her Grundo was much older than he looked—unfortunately, he got mistaken for a child more often than he would have liked.
In Blackwing’s office – which was decorated with Wock Til You Drop posters - Tally and Terra’s family gave the two superheroes the lowdown on what had happened. Strangely, however, when they tried to ask Tally more about where she had come from, she couldn’t give them any answers.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I promise I’m telling the truth—I don’t know what happened, but it’s like I’ve suddenly forgotten all I knew about Vile. I can’t even remember where I was going to bring Terra to—not even the general part of town.”
“Look,” Blackwing said, “if you’re scared of Vile’s retribution, I assure you, we have places that are protected from him. Including this headquarters, once we root out that Symol.”
“It’s not that,” Tally said, shaking her head. “I just honestly can’t remember. It keeps slipping my mind.”
“I believe you, missy,” Kourage Korbat said. “I’ve been around long enough to know what lying sounds like. And—we have reason to believe Vile’s got magic users on his side. They could have put a spell on you to make you forget.” He sighed. “Well, that’s all right. At least now we know about the Symol, and that’s a huge help.”
“Why don’t you just go find a mage who can break the spell?” Blynn asked.
“It’s not quite that easy,” Kourage Korbat said. “There aren’t as many magic users here in Neopia Central as in, say, Meridell. Most of the mages here are mana engineers who work with the city’s faerie-dust power grid, but I’m willing to bet Vile doesn’t employ just any old hedge wizards to keep him hidden. And we Defenders don’t know much about magic, but it seems like a mighty complicated business.”
“It is,” Terra said. “My Draik is a wizard, and he’d help us if he weren’t halfway across Neopia right now. He told us that in order to break a spell with magic, you have to know the nature of the spell, or else attempting to de-spell it blind could have bad side effects.”
Kourage Korbat reached out and patted Tally’s paw. “Not to worry, missy,” he said. “We’ll keep that nasty Vile away from you.”
Blackwing put the report into a file folder and opened his filing cabinet. “Tally,” he said, “if you could come with me to help track down that Symol, we can all rest easy here at HQ.”
“Of course,” Tally said, standing up and following the Wocky out into the hall.
“Kourage Korbat,” Blackwing said, “do you feel like showing Lord Isengrim’s family to a suite? There’s no way they should go back to the hotel.”
“You mean we’re staying at Defenders HQ?” Blynn asked as Kourage Korbat led them to the lifts.
“That’s right!” the superhero said, herding them into a lift car. “We’ve got several floors of residential suites, for Defenders who choose to live here, or need to stay at HQ for extended periods of time. Or for situations like this one where civilians need protection. Works great for visiting VIP’s, too.”
“Does Judge Hog live here?” Blynn asked.
Kourage Korbat shook his head and said, “He lives out in the suburbs with his wife and kids. Speaking of family, do you want to see pictures of my new grandbaby?” He fished around in his utility belt and pulled out his wallet.
While he retrieved a set of suite keys, and then brought them to the floor on which they would be staying, Kourage Korbat regaled them with tales of his grandchildren. His toddler-aged grandson, a Cybunny, apparently had the superpower to leap tremendous distances, which was a real headache for his parents.
“And here we are,” Kourage Korbat said, stopping at a door and putting a key in the lock. The residential floors, Terra noticed, had a different aesthetic than the office floors. The hallway they stood in now looked more like it belonged in a nice apartment building.
This image was further reinforced when Kourage Korbat opened the door to reveal an extensive penthouse-style flat, with sleek furniture and up-to-date faerie-dust appliances. A Beepalite, like the one at the receptionist’s desk, sat dormant on the kitchen counter, its feedhorn light slowly blinking. Dim ambient lighting glowed enough so that the place was not totally dark. It also helped that one wall of the suite was an enormous window that looked out over the glittering metropolis of Neopia Central.
“Whoaaaa,” Blynn said. “If this is what we get for Terra almost getting kidnapped, that should happen more often!”
“Haha no,” Terra said, mussing the fur on Blynn’s head.
“Oh, right,” Kourage Korbat said as he reached over and flicked on the kitchen light. “You folks can’t see in the dark.”
“I can see in the dark,” Isengrim muttered under his breath.
“Isn’t that window a huge security hazard?” Hyren asked. “I don’t like the idea of anyone being able to see in here.”
“Then you can rest easy!” Kourage Korbat said, “This building is enchanted with light magic—we can see out of the windows, but nobody can see in.”
Blynn wandered over to the window and pressed her paw against it as though trying to see how it worked. “I thought the Defenders didn’t know much about magic,” she said.
“We don’t,” Kourage Korbat said. “But when we built this headquarters, Fyora sent some faeries to aid in construction. They put a few nifty enchantments on the building to ensure it would serve us well.”
“Nice to know you guys take adequate precautions,” Hyren said.
“Like I said, I’m thorough!” Kourage Korbat said, “Bedrooms are that way, and the cafeteria’s on the fourth floor, so come on down and grab a bite to eat! We can make arrangements for grocery delivery, too.”
Hyren yawned. “Thanks,” he said. “How in the world do you have so much energy at three in the morning?”
Kourage Korbat laughed. “I’m nocturnal!” he said. “The paladin of night, Kourage Korbat!” He struck a heroic pose. “Do you folks need anything else?”
“Actually,” Isengrim said, “we left our luggage at the hotel. Is there any way you could help us retrieve it?”
“Sure thing!” Kourage Korbat said. “I’ll grab Blackwing and any other available Defenders, and we’ll have that luggage here lickety-split!”
“Do you need us to come with you?” Isengrim asked. “Tally mentioned Vile would send reinforcements… I would hate for the Defenders to run into trouble there.” He reached for the sword at his back. “We know how to fight.” Hyren nodded.
“No, no, no—out of the question!” Kourage Korbat said, waving a wing at them. “You’re civilians! It’s the Defenders’ job to protect you, so you just sit back and let us do our job!”
Isengrim frowned. “We are not defenceless,” he said.
Kourage Korbat folded his arms. “This is Defenders’ work!” he said. “I won’t have anything else happening to you, not on my watch! Now you folks just get some shut-eye! You’ve had a rough night!” Before anyone could protest further, the superhero ducked back into the hallway, closing the door after him.
Hyren’s antennae lowered. “Blackwing was right,” the Grundo said. “He is a fussbudget.”
Terra laughed. “I think it’s just his way of showing he cares,” she said. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but you’re kind of the same way. You’re just a little more grumbly about it.”
The ex-space marine grinned self-consciously. “Okay, point taken,” he said. “Am I that annoying, though?”
“You’re never annoying,” Terra said, patting his head.
“Perhaps Hyren and I should follow the Defenders,” Isengrim said, looking at the door. “If Malkus Vile really has sent more henchpets to the hotel… I worry what the Defenders will go up against there.”
Terra’s smile faded. “I’m worried, too,” she said. “But I’m also worried about you and Hyren. I don’t think it’s safe for any of our family to go back to someplace Vile thinks we’re at. He clearly has it out for Isengrim, and that makes the rest of us targets, too. And it’s not like we know how to stop him right now. Maybe we should just lie low for a bit.”
“Not to mention,” Blynn said, “trying to do hero stuff on four hours’ sleep is just begging for trouble. Terra’s right—we should leave this to the Neopets who are actually fully awake at this time in the morning.” She yawned and rubbed her face. “And they’re not babies. They’re superheroes. They do stuff like this every day and come out of it just fine.”
“Mm, good point,” Isengrim grunted. “Perhaps Vile did not anticipate the Defenders getting involved tonight.” He sighed and leaned against the kitchen counter. “I hope he didn’t.”
“It sounds like Vile and the Defenders have been at a stalemate for a long time now,” Terra said. “They haven’t been able to find him and accost him, but it seems like he can’t do much to them, either. I trust that Kourage Korbat and the others can handle this.”
Her Werelupe rested his head in his hand. “I suppose I shall have to trust in that as well,” he sighed.
“I’m gonna check out our new digs!” Blynn said. “Terra and I get dibs on the bigger bedroom!” She took off toward the rooms.
“Hey—that’s not fair!” Hyren said, running after her. “Isengrim’s bigger than all of us, so we should get the bigger room!”
Terra laughed. She moved to follow them, but Isengrim had suddenly become very still and quiet, and it made her pause. He still wasn’t okay.
Turning to face him, she put a hand on his arm. “Hey,” she said gently. “What’s wrong? If that kidnapping attempt scared you, I’m really sorry. But we were totally on top of it. Nobody’s going to mess with us like that.”
Isengrim looked down at her hand and sighed again. He opened his muzzle, but no words came out as he searched his owner’s face. Finally, he choked out, “Terra—perhaps you should abandon me.”
Those words sliced through Terra’s soul so badly that she flinched and took a step back, her emotions frazzled. “Why would you say that?” she asked shakily.
The Werelupe’s ears turned back. “I have made you a target,” he said, his gaze dropping to the floor. “I am not okay with that. I—it may be safer for you if I was no longer connected to your family.”
Terra stared at him in astonishment, aghast that he could say such things. In her mind, one did not just stop being family, especially not over something like this. The entire idea of “family” did not work that way. “Isengrim—“ She grimaced and flexed her fingers like she was trying to squeeze out the hurt and frustration.
So many thoughts swirled through her brain that she was having trouble finding one to voice. The idea of abandoning one of her Neopets, especially one who she had promised to never abandon, was horrible. The idea of someone being scared into doing something just made her angry. And she hated Isengrim suggesting such a cowardly option, especially when she knew he could do better than this. But Terra knew that she had to help him see this in a kind manner. Upset words would just hurt his feelings too, and make the situation worse. Terra wanted to never argue with her Neopets if she could at all help it. She hated arguing.
The human took a deep breath, and resolved to ignore her hurt feelings and raw emotional response and focus on helping Isengrim. She knew he hadn’t meant to upset her, and if he was feeling weak right now, it was her job to stay strong for him. “Isengrim,” she said again in a softer tone. “I’m sorry you’re so scared right now. This must be terrifying for you, to have your family caught in the crossfire like this.”
He nodded. “I just want you all to be safe,” he said. “If something happened to you because of me…”
Terra reached over and hugged his arm. “And we are safe,” she said. “Look—we’re in a protected place, and you took care of that kidnapper perfectly. You’ve done a wonderful job looking out for us.”
“But… what if things like this keep happening?” Isengrim asked.
“Then we’ll keep fighting them off until we win,” Terra said. “Because we’re awesome like that.” She clenched her fist. “We’re a team, all of us, and we give each other strength. Didn’t you say something like that once?”
Isengrim smiled faintly. “That was years ago,” he said. “I said you were my strength. And it is still true today. You give me comfort and confidence when I’m feeling doubtful, and you understand me like no one else does. Seeing a smile on your face fills my soul and boosts my spirits. With you by my side, I feel as though I could do anything.”
“And Malkus Vile wants to take that away from you,” Terra said. “He wants to break our family. Do you know why? Because we’re dangerous to him. You proved that yesterday, when you dealt him a huge blow with all that intel. Remember what you told Tally about Vile’s scare tactics? He does it because he’s scared, Isengrim. Vile is a Skeith who’s built his life around people buying into his threats. If just one person stands up to him, his entire system starts to crumble.” Her grip on his arm tightened. “And I know four people who will never cower to him. He’s not the threatening one. We are.”
Isengrim’s tail lifted and his smile widened. “You’re right—you’re right,” he said, putting a paw on her shoulder. “Vile tried to take you away from me, if not by force then by fear, and that must mean we pose a threat to him.” Crouching down so he was closer to her height, he wrapped her in a hug. “I’m so sorry,” he said. “I never should have mentioned you abandoning me. That was a cravenly thing to wish for. I didn’t mean it. I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
Terra hugged him back. “I know you didn’t,” she said, her voice breaking. “It’s okay. Everything’s going to be okay. We’re fighting. Evil doesn’t stand a chance when good has us on its side.”
“I’m so glad you are my owner,” Isengrim said. “You really are my strength.”
“Glad to be of service,” Terra said. “And you mean more to me than I can ever say. You’re one of the best friends I’ve ever had. I need you. Please don’t ever leave me.”
“I won’t,” Isengrim said. “I promise.” He gave her another squeeze and then let go. “You should get some sleep,” he said. “I imagine you are quite tired as well.”
“Yeah, the adrenaline’s worn off by now,” Terra said with a chuckle.
“I’ll wait up for the Defenders to return,” Isengrim said. “If I sleep in, please don’t let me keep the rest of you from going down to breakfast.”
“I’ll bring you up some breakfast, how’s that?” Terra said with a grin. “Isengrim—thank you for all you do for us. You’re awesome. Never forget that.”
“The same goes for you,” Isengrim said.
From across the room, Hyren cleared his throat. He and Blynn stood by the bedroom doors. “Oh—“ Terra said with an embarrassed grin. “How long have you guys been there?”
“A few minutes,” Blynn said. “Didn’t mean to eavesdrop on your heart-to-heart, but you can kinda hear everything that goes on in this flat.”
“That’s fair,” Terra said. “But what we were talking about applies to you two, too.”
Hyren smiled. “I figured,” he said. “Thanks. You’re right—we’re not going to let some slimehead crime boss keep getting his way. Maybe we’ve set in motion what the Defenders need to finally catch him.”
“I hope so,” Terra said. “I’m sure going to work my hardest to see things end well. I feel like all of this is happening for a reason. Things have always worked out for the best in the past.”
Blynn nodded. “I don’t believe in coincidences,” she said. “Except when we’re talking about the ship Coincidence, I mean. But even then, sometimes I wonder. Anyway—c’mon, Terra, you gotta try out your bed! These bedrooms are super nice! The soap in the bathrooms smells like roseattes!”
“Ooh, neat,” Terra said. “Night, guys,” she said to Isengrim and Hyren as she followed Blynn. “Let’s take this challenge down and show it what we’re made of.”
“Can do,” Isengrim said, grinning fiercely.
“Yes, ma’am,” Hyren said with a salute, one hand on his sword as though he was ready to smite evil right then and there.
As she got ready for bed for the second time that night, Terra was a bit put-out at realising she’d left her pajamas behind at the hotel and would have to sleep in her clothes. Thankfully, her bed was so comfortable – and she was so exhausted – that she was able to get to sleep quickly anyway. As she drifted off, despite everything that had happened, she couldn’t help but feel empowered and invigorated. Her family was not made to fail. They were warriors, all of them, and they would be effective weapons in the arsenal of good.
To be continued…