Artemis's Story
As told from the point of view of Diana Banelle...

Chapter Index: P 1 2 3 4 5



Prologue


April twenty-ninth. That was the first day I saw him.

It had started out like any other completely normal day; waking up, finding the most casual outfit I could find in my over-stocked drawers, making breakfast for myself, and of course, going to school.

It happened in twelfth period. I had been taking an English test, and I just so happened to look up at the right moment. And there he was.

I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised to see the tall, ebony-haired teenage boy standing outside the -blocked- He was probably some jock playing hooky, or somebody's second cousin twice-removed visiting from Florida, waiting for the bell to ring and school to let out. But there were two things strange about this boy, two reasons why my eyes stayed locked on his face.

One, although he looked around my age, and I knew everybody in my grade, I didn't recognize him.

Two, he was staring at me.

And three, which I hadn't known at the time; I was going to be seeing a lot more of this particular teenager over the next few weeks.

Chapter One: The First Sight


I woke up, yawned, blinked a few times, and that was the uneventful beginning of another seemingly-ordinary day.

Rubbing my eyes blearily, I was greeted by the incessant beeping of the alarm on my digital clock. It took me a few seconds to remember how to move my arm, but when I did, I reached over my bedside table and pressed the snooze button.

The red neon numbers six, one, and five glared at me from the clock's display.

Not school again," I muttered. Tenth grade was nearly over, but not soon enough for me.

According to my calendar, it was only Tuesday the 29th. Still a ways to go before I had any fleeting refuge from having to wake up at six in the morning.

Well, there isn't any point debating it.

With a groan, I forced myself to get out of the mess of blankets I'd managed to get myself entangled in, and rifled through my drawers for a fairly casual outfit. Was there any reason for me to look forward to the day?

Corey is taking you out to a movie tonight, and Emily and Eric are tagging along.

Ah. Something exciting, after all.

I smiled, selecting a burgundy shirt, and then a pair of light blue jeans with sparkles embedded in the threads. Tonight would be fun, at least.

There was a black sweater draped over the chair at my desk, but I wasn't going to wear it today. According to the weatherman, it would be seventy degrees out soon, and according to my window, it wasn't cloudy, so it probably wasn't going to rain.

I quickly dressed, selecting a gold bracelet spangled with emeralds, and a pair of earrings to match. Corey had said they looked stunning with my eyes, which wasn't surprising, because they were green as fern fronds too.

I'd been going out with Corey for almost four months now. And there were a lot of boys waiting for me to dump him, not that I planned to do that anytime soon. He was so easy to be with.

I was one of the most popular kids in school, being a sports star, moderately intelligent, and everything. Since sixth grade, I'd won every game, race, and event that I'd been in. I was enrolled in the after school cross-country and the softball team. The irony was, I never practiced for either. The ability had just come on overnight, like I had woken up one morning and my body decided that it wanted to be an athlete. I'd been pretty sore for a few days, but when that had worn off, I was suddenly beyond dexterous. Very strange, but I wasn't going to complain about it. I'd gone from being a nobody to Miss Popular within a month.

Apparently, I was pretty, too, although people only mentioned that after they noticed I broke school sports records on a daily basis. So it wasn't as credible as I'd have wished.

I thought I was pretty average looking. My skin was stubbornly pale; no matter how much time I spent in the sun, it refused to tan. My hair was brown, sort of long and shiny, and very unruly. My green eyes were too big; I could believe that, since I'd been told that myriad times in my pre-popularity era. I was kind of tall, and not fat, but not thin either.

Eric and Emily had met up at the spring dance last week, and this would be the first time they went on a date in the city. I really hoped Emily wouldn't mess anything up today; Eric was a nice kid.

Still yawning, I glided down the stairs, careful not to wake my mom and dad.

I glanced at the kitchen clock. Six forty-five. I hadn't realized I'd already wasted thirty minutes. I poured myself a bowl of cereal with milk and grabbed a spoon, shoveling the flakes into my mouth as fast as I could without choking.

As soon as I'd finished inhaling breakfast, I threw a banana, a yogurt, a bottle of water, and a bar of chocolate into a paper bag. I folded the top shut and threw that into my backpack, pulling a comb through my hair as I went. There were twenty minutes until school started, but I was a walker.

I hoisted my backpack onto my shoulders, shouted a quick 'Bye!" to my still-sleeping parents upstairs, and jogged out the front door.

I loved the city in the morning. Dewdrops glistened on the rows of trees that lined some of the streets, and sometimes the early-morning sun would strike them, throwing rays of scattered, fiery light. The air was still misty and cool, just the way I liked it.

There was one part of my walk I didn't enjoy, though. Normally I took a longer route around the large alley-type area in front of me. The streets weren't wide enough, and the low-angle sunlight never shone into the mess of warehouses and abandoned buildings. I preferred to take the other route; to be honest, the alley scared me a little. It seemed to me like one of those places in movies where people would get attacked…

The street on one side of the alley was flanked by a vast, serene forest. But I didn't have the time to take the scenic route today, so with a sigh, I headed toward the shortcut, unconsciously jogging just a bit faster than usual.

Still, I passed through the dark, narrow streets without incident, and then I was almost at Riverbend high school.

The day at school was uneventful. It was a day two on my shedule, so I didn't have Gym. I found myself staring at the clock, waiting impatiently for the hour hand to reach two. While my various teachers droned on about their 'fascinating' subjects, I idly wondered what we were going to see tonight, and what we'd do after the movie.

But my day started getting interesting last period.

My twelfth period was English, and although I was having a hard time concentrating on school, it shouldn't have been so hard. I liked English. At least, I did normally.

I did not like tests.

Honestly, who did? Especially when you have a big night coming up? That sort of thing kind of fills up your thoughts, you know?

They have to pick today, today, the day when I can't concentrate at all, to hold the big Shakespeare test, I thought wryly as I headed for my desk, test in hand.

My friend Emily, who happened to have a seat next to me, poked me as I sat down. "I'm so excited," she gushed. "I can't wait!"

I know," I responded fervently. "I wish Corey wasn't paying for the tickets, though. He did last time, too. He's so amazing."

Silence during the test, please," called Mrs. Stanley in her reedy voice.

I sighed and turned my attention to my work.

About halfway through the test, the day turned from ordinary to not-so-ordinary.

It happened while I was trying to remember my notes on Shakespeare I'd studied so diligently the night before. I didn't know why I thought staring up at the creamy yellow walls would help my concentration. At any rate, this time, it made things a million times worse. I lifted my eyes... and froze.

There was a boy standing at the -blocked-

He was tall and thin, probably my age, give or take a year. His hair was ebony black, and slightly unkempt, like he hadn't had a haircut in a long time. He wore a few-sizes-too-large leather jacket over a worn, ill-fitting black t-shirt, even though the April weather was warm and humid; there was certainly no need for a coat. The small amount of his legs I could see was covered by a pair of also-ragged navy blue jeans. His skin was pale, like he hadn't seen the sun in a long time.

But the most unusual thing about him was his eyes. They were a shade I'd never seen before. I guess you could have said they were blue. But that would imply that they were the pale, steel-blue, standard shade that people with blue eyes had. But his eyes were like nothing I'd have thought naturally possible. I hadn't even seen contacts that color.

They were a shade of dark cyan, like cerulean, but more aqua-ish. They were like gemstones set in an ivory statue, like dark aquamarines...

And those mesmerizing aquamarine eyes were fixed on me.

He met my gaze for a second, then averted his stare.

I unwillingly glanced away from the strange teenager for a second, making sure that Mrs. Stanley was not paying an unduly amount of attention to me.

I turned to Emily. She was dutifully working on her test, a few questions behind me.

Who is that kid?" I hissed to her.

She looked startled. "What kid? What are you talking about?"

That guy at the window with the cyan eyes. Who is he?"

She glanced up, then turned to face me, looking even more puzzled. "Diana, there's nobody at the -blocked-"

How could she miss seeing him? I glanced up. "He's right... what?"

For the mysterious boy was gone, leaving no trace of having ever been there.

Emily, there was somebody there, I swear."

Yeah, sure," she muttered back, her interest slipping back to her unfinished test.

I felt like passing an angry retort - what was so hard to believe about this, anyway? but then shook my head. Why was I obsessing over this? It was just some kid, just a miscreant wearing customized contacts.

It was strange, though, that I didn't recognize him. I knew everyone in my grade by now, and this kid was almost certainly just as old as I was.

You're obsessing again, I criticized myself, staring at the next question on my test. It didn't make sense anymore; the words seemed to be just meaningless groups of symbols on a page. The test could have been written in hieroglyphics for all I cared. My mind was somewhere else completely.

As I struggled to comprehend a single sentence, my eyes kept flickering back to the window, half-expecting to find the mystery teen standing there, staring at me again.

After what seemed like thirty seconds, but was probably at least a quarter of an hour, the bell rang, and as I handed the test in, I was pretty sure I'd failed it. Not that I cared at all right now. I was going to find out who this person was.

Why did I care so much? Even I didn't understand that.

As I navigated the school halls, a hand grabbed my shoulders.

Where are you going?" Emily demanded.

I turned around to face her. "Uhh... home?"

She laughed. "We're going out to the movies tonight, remember?"

Oh. Right." I blushed.

She abruptly frowned at me. "Di, what is wrong with you today? First you're having hallucinations, now you forget Corey and Eric are taking us out?"

I was not hallucinating!"

She shrugged, and I could tell she still didn't believe me. "Suit yourself."

Okay. So I was definitely obsessing. Why couldn't I just drop the fact that somebody was at the window and move on?

I'd seen kids waiting at school windows before, and I'd seen people staring at me. Was it supposed to be so different when you mashed the two concepts together?

There was something different about this boy. I could feel it.

I was barely aware as Emily dragged me through the halls, chattering excitedly. A movie was just what I needed, something to distract me.

Luckily, my distraction was right there.

Corey and Eric were waiting for us at the school's main doors, both smiling.

My eyes raked over my high school sweetheart. His eyes were such a deep chocolate brown, and his cropped hair was the exact same shade. He was tall, and like me, pale. A wide smile graced his face.

Eric and Corey were complete opposites. Emily's new boyfriend was shorter, with blonde hair and normal blue eyes, nothing like those of the kid I'd seen in English. His skin was tanned.

Hey," greeted Eric, reaching for Emily's hand. Corey kissed my cheek and spun me around once, flipping a stray strand of my hair into place. The mystery kid slipped out of my mind as soon as his lips touched my face.

Ready to go?" he asked me, eyes alight.

I took his hand. "Yep. Let's go."

Chapter Two: The Night Out


Emily filled up the silence with chatter as we headed toward Riverbend's movie theater. There was another theater somewhere downtown, but downtown was a place I tended to avoid.

Corey and I were quiet, though. He never felt the need to constantly keep up conversation. Like me, he was perfectly fine with silence.

Emily usually was too, but at the moment, I guess she had a reason to be overexcited. So I just nodded or shook my head appropriately to her questions, and tried to look interested when she started telling stories.

We were halfway to the cinema when Corey broke my own personal peace and quiet.

Diana?" he asked.

I started; I'd been floating in a content personal ether. "Yeah, what's up?"

You looked... bothered... today," he noted in his gentle voice, squeezing my hand. "Before we met up."

It's nothing," I replied instantly, then sighed. I'd been afraid of getting obsessive again, but with Corey around, the whole thing seemed much less interesting, and the movie was top priority again.

I'm listening," he murmured.

Well..." I glanced at Emily, double-checking that she was still pestering Eric with her hyperactive questions. Eric was actually telling her a story now, but that was fine; I just didn't want her to start making fun of me again. I knew what I'd seen.

In English, during the test, there was a guy standing at the window," I confessed. "I don't know why I can't get it out of my head; it's just some kid. But I don't know... there was something weird about him." I rapidly searched my head for a veritable excuse, so Corey didn't have the incentive to refer me to an asylum. "I've never seen him before."

I glanced back at Corey's face. He didn't think I was crazy, at least. He looked interested.

What did he look like?" he asked. "Maybe I know him."

I racked my brains for every detail I'd stored. "He was our age, maybe a year older. He had black hair, kind of rugged, and he was paler than usual. He was wearing a black shirt and a jacket. And I think he had contacts on; his eyes were a really weird shade."

What color were they?" There was no mistaking the slight intrigue in Corey's voice, but it wasn't the same overpowering crave to know that I'd felt earlier. Maybe something really was wrong with my brain.

They were bright blue, like cyan, only darker..."

Hmm..." he mused. "You're probably right about him wearing contacts. But I've never seen him either. Maybe he's not from here?"

Maybe," I said, doubtful. No tourist to Riverbend would head to a school; what was the point? And his shirt was a little too worn; tourists generally wore clothes that were in better shape. And my intuition was acting up again, I just somehow knew that tourism was not the case.

He missed my skepticism, though. "I'll ask around, if you'd like.

No, that's fine," I said quickly. But I meant it; it was hard to be interested in anything else when I was with Corey.

Eric broke into our conversation. "So, what are we going to see tonight?"

I don't know, anything you want to see." Emily gushed, staring adoringly at his face. Eric looked delighted.

I don't know," replied Corey, turning to me. "Did you have anything in mind?"

Not really," I confessed. "I was hoping you'd already know. I'm not sure what's out right now."

Well," said Eric, "there's this one that just came out. Some medieval one. I really don't know what it's about, but it sounded good. The Black Castle, I think it's called."

Well, okay. Let's go see that." Movies about knights and kings and fighting weren't really my type of thing, but I'd go with whatever made them happy.

Sure," said Corey, looking animated. Guys. When it came to things like sports and films, they were all the same.

Anything you want to see. It sounds awesome," agreed Emily, still staring endearingly at Eric. I had a feeling they'd be going out for a while.

Eric apparently did know about the movie, now that we'd agreed to see it. "Apparently the swordfights have the most amazing choreography," he raved to Corey. "There's this one battle at the end; you have to see it. The swords are -"

I sighed to myself and let them chat. Emily would break in now and then, totally agreeing that The Black Castle was probably the most amazing movie that had ever come out. Not that she'd even seen it before, or would have seen it, had Eric not suggested it.

The Riverbend streets were becoming fancier and more crowded as we entered the tourist area. Tourist season was just beginning. This section of the city was filled with pretty, overpriced shops and tourist trap restaurants. But for a resident such as myself, I knew where all the good bookstores and restaurants were.

We rounded the corner, Emily nearly getting knocked over by a group of three brawny guys, probably all nineteen or twenty. The movie theater was right ahead.

Eric and Corey went to the counter to buy us four tickets to The Black Castle while I went over to buy the sodas and snacks. Emily tagged along, talking excitedly about how amazing Eric was. I figured she was already pretty keyed up, so I asked for four decaffeinated Cokes while she wasn't looking. I then bought a highly overpriced basket of popcorn, and headed back to meet Corey.

He took my hand again, and the four of us walked down the hallway, searching for Theater Six. We found it, navigated the dark room, and found four adjacent seats near the back, and sat back to enjoy the show.

It was actually pretty stupid, not that I'd ever tell Corey or Eric. Granted, the fighting was realistic, but the movie was a little too bloody for my tastes. Emily, on the other hand, was so infatuated with Eric that I doubt she even noticed there was a screen.

I couldn't tell if The Black Castle had a plot or not. It started out as a meeting in, well, a black castle. Two kings were basically yelling at each other and banging their fists on the table while their queens cowered and looked terrified. I stopped paying attention after a while of what might have been name-calling and munched on the popcorn. It was too salty, so I took a refreshing swig of my Coke. The moist sweetness felt good on my dry throat. Lifting my eyes to the darkened theater ceiling, I began to daydream.

When I returned to paying attention, I guess the two kings were at war, because there were a lot of men on horses with lances or swords. There were a lot of guys with axes hacking at people too, and the movie gradually disintegrated into a blood fest. I ceased paying attention again. Blood and gore made me squeamish, even though the stuff that was spouting out of the characters looked more like red food dye or paint. So much for realistic.

I paid attention again when the credits started rolling.

That was awesome," Emily gushed to Eric. I didn't think she'd taken a single look at the screen the whole time; she had been too busy watching the movie of Eric's face.

Did you like it?" Corey asked me. He looked content, but not excited like Eric did.

It was okay," I allowed.

Eric finished off his cup of soda with a long draught. "Did you see that last fight! That guy with the axe was totally amazing! I wish he'd beaten Sir Casmir, though. That knight was useless."

Yeah, that scene was pretty cool," said Corey, but he was watching me carefully. He didn't say anything to me, though, but I had a feeling that he would once we were alone.

His opportunity came quickly. Eric suddenly declared that he was starving, and of course then Emily was hungry, too. Corey declined to going out to a fast-food place, and before he could ask me, I quickly said that I wasn't hungry, either.

As soon as Emily and Eric had parted was with us, Corey turned to me.

You still look bothered," he told me.

I sighed. "Am I that transparent?

He laughed. I loved the sound. "I guess. Not usually."

While the movie had been playing, I'd accidentally let myself start mulling over the strange kid again. Was Corey right? He probably was just a tourist. But my intuition had been right before. There was something going on with this boy, and I was going to figure it out.

Well... that kid I mentioned earlier... he was staring at me."

Corey surprised me by laughing again. "Probably just admiring your looks," he informed me, running his hand through my hair.

Don't worry about it; I'm taken."

He gestured to the bathroom. "Do you mind? I need a minute."

Sure, I'll be waiting outside." Whenever he did that to my hair, it gave me a warm and fuzzy feeling. I'd always thought that was just a figure of speech before I met Corey.

He nodded and headed into the restroom. I strolled outside into the bright sunlight. It was about four-thirty or five; I had a thirty minute walk home, so I needed to leave soon to be home on time.

I wished I had more days like this, just more time to spend alone with Corey. He was such a good friend. Emily was like a sister to me, but sometimes I just liked to be alone with him.

I relaxed against the cinema wall, staring ahead... and stiffened.

The boy was there.

There was no mistaking the person I'd spotted in English. He stood across the street, still wearing the multiple-sizes-too-big leather jacket. His mesmerizing eyes frequently darted from side to side, and occasionally he twitched, like he was trying to fight the urge to bolt. He was clearly very uncomfortable in the city; my suspicions about him not being a tourist were confirmed. Not even a tourist could look so... flighty.

While he was not being paranoid, though, his stunning dark aquamarine eyes were locked on me. Again.

He met my stare unflinchingly, and he stopped staring to his sides when he realized that I had noticed him.

Go on! Ask him who he is! I told myself, but I felt frozen, like my legs had suddenly forgotten how to move.

Diana?" asked a voice behind me.

I jumped and twisted to the side. "Corey!" I gasped when I realized who was there. "You just scared the heck out of me."

He laughed softly. "What's up?"

My eyes flickered across the street again. The boy had vanished into the thick crowds.

Diana?" he asked.

I decided there was no point in lying if I was as transparent as a glass wall. "That guy I mentioned... he was right there, just now."

Corey sounded interested. "Where is he now?" he asked.

I don't know. He just vanished when I turned around."

At least Corey, unlike Emily, believed that I was not hallucinating. "Well, if he was here, then he probably was a tourist. Did he see you?"

I laughed dryly. "A better question would have been if he saw anyone else."

He was staring at you again?" I didn't miss how Corey stiffened there.

Yes." I chuckled. "Calm down, Corey, it's not like I'm going to dump you for some random kid that's spying on me."

He laughed at that, too. "I just don't like this kid making you feel edgy," he informed me.

I sighed. "I know you don't."

Well, are you ready to go home?" he asked.

Yeah. I need to go back before my parents have a fit."

We walked back hand in hand again, but this time, even Corey's presence did not keep the mystery teenager off my mind.

Chapter Three: The Conclusion


Corey was mostly quiet as we walked home. He could tell that I was bothered by the seemingly-trivial matter of a mystery kid. I got the impression that he didn't understand why I was making such a big fuss over him.

Nor did I, for that matter.

But maybe I did. From the way he'd been popping up today, how he appeared to be in a setting that he dearly wanted to escape, from the way he had eyes for me, and only me, I got the impression he was following me.

I only wish I knew why...

Maybe Corey was right. Maybe this guy was just wishing I didn't already have a boyfriend; after all, he'd vanished when he'd seen Corey, right? But nobody had ever asked me out before they'd realized what a popular sports star I was, and he obviously didn't go to my school. And he'd vanished when I'd pointed him out to Emily, too. It wasn't like he was avoiding getting into a fight with another guy; it was more like he didn't want to be seen.

So did he have a different reason for following me?

Or maybe I was wrong about the whole thing, and these were just two coincidences?

I'd give him one more chance. If I ran into him again somewhere, and he was watching me like the first two times, then he was following me, and that was that.

And if I never saw him again, well, that suited me just fine. My raging curiosity had turned to confusion, mixed with a bit of apprehension, when I'd seen him in the city.

You know," I said abruptly, breaking the silence. "I've changed my mind."

Corey stared at me, mildly alarmed, like I was crazy or something. "What are you talking about?

I blushed. "What you mentioned earlier, about asking around to see if anyone knows who this kid is. I really hate to bother you, but it's driving me insane."

I can tell," he said dryly.

I bit my lip. "Please don't think I'm crazy, but..."

He frowned. "But?

I hunched my shoulders, then sighed and left them fall. "I think that this kid is following me," I admitted, staring at the sidewalk.

He was quiet for a handful of seconds. I wondered if he was running a list of asylums in Riverbend to send me to through his head.

Well?"

I don't think you're crazy..." he murmured, his eyes unfathomable. "I think... that that's an astute possibility."

I shivered, and hoped he hadn't noticed.

You should tell Mrs. Royce. I think the councilor should know that you think somebody's following you... and that it actually seems likely.

I laughed humorlessly. "Two problems; one, I can't get anything done about this unless I know his name."

Corey didn't look happy at me putting down his suggestion, but he tried to hide it. "Problem two?"

You may love me too much to commit me to a psych ward, Corey, but there are other people in this world who'd love dearly to do just that."

He laughed in response, and it was reassuring. It reminded me that I was getting ahead of myself; he wasn't following me if he didn't show up tomorrow, right?

I sighed when I looked up and realized where we were. I hadn't wanted the walk to end so quickly.

Bye, Corey. See you in school tomorrow."

He hugged me back. "Yeah. Talk to you tomorrow," he said, and turned around toward a different street, the one where he lived. I gazed after him for a minute, then started up my driveway.

Diana! How was your day at school?" my mother interrogated before I'd taken a step into the hallway, more enthusiastic about Riverbend High much more than I thought possible. Talking about school made me feel lethargic, but every day, she always wanted to know everything, even if it was just boring facts I'd learned.

I carefully edged my way past my mother, closing the door behind her. I turned back to face her. "I don't know about school, but Corey took me out with Emily and Eric, and it was great," I gushed, infusing my voice with matching enthusiasm.

She looked critical. "Just because you have Corey doesn't mean you don't have to pay attention in school," she warned, and then she was cheerful again.

So, how was your night out?"

Eric took us to a movie, and Corey paid." "Did you have fun?"

Yes, it was awesome, Mom," I lied.

Do you have any homework?

Erm..." I rifled through my classes in my mind. All I could remember from school was that boy, staring at me through the -blocked-..

I forced myself to think. If I'd had both a Math and English test today, there wouldn't have been homework. Technology rarely gave homework, and Science... oh, I'd had Earth Science lab today. Homework after all.

I have a lab to finish," I said truthfully. Admittedly, I just wanted to be alone with my thoughts. I had a few things to sort out.

At least give your mother a hug before you go off to work."

Mentally sighing, I reached up and embraced my mom. I loved her, of course, but sometimes I wished she realized I was fifteen, not seven.

Did you eat while you were out?" she demanded.

Uhhhh... no, actually." I'd only just realized how hungry I was when she'd brought up the question.

Before I could say another word, or put down my backpack, she ushered me into the kitchen. I was seated and there was a plate of steaming hot spaghetti in front of me before I could blink.

You really shouldn't do homework when you're hungry," she pointed out, sounding criticizing again.

My only response was a sigh as I stabbed the spaghetti with my fork. It was fairly rubbery. I glanced up at the kitchen analog clock mounted on the wall; it was six already. As famished as I was, it was hard to eat.

Making matters worse, my mother asked more questions about school as I forced myself to swallow the marinara-covered strands. I really hoped she wouldn't notice how bothered I was. Corey might not think I was crazy, but I wasn't going to push my luck and add another person to my list of confiding.

Choking down a last rubbery spaghetti strand, I declared that my lab was due tomorrow and that I really needed to get started. It wasn't actually due until Thursday, but I wasn't in a very social mood at the moment.

She agreed that nothing was more important than schoolwork, and after fetching my backpack, I climbed up the stairs, giving a quick greeting to my dad as I passed him. He could tell that I wasn't in the mood for conversation... or maybe he just knew that my mom could tell him every aspect of my day at school, and she probably knew it better than I myself did.

My door was wide open; I stepped into my room, closed the door, and let the backpack slip from my fingers. I stood stationary for a second, then took a few steps and allowed myself to fall forward, face first, onto my bed.

Obviously, it didn't hurt; my soft chenille blankets tickled my face, and I exhaled the familiar scent of home. It was calming, and for a second the issue of a possible stalker vanished from my mind. I rolled over, onto my back, and stared at the ceiling. This was how I loved to think; alone, comfortable, and in such a surreally calm setting that it was hard to be bothered.

So, for a few seconds, the mystery staring kid left my mind alone.

A few seconds was as long as it took for my eyes to wander to the window, and then it was all back again. Pathetically, I felt the compulsion to get up and pull up the shutters to see if he was there, spying on me again.

With a sigh, and a wry mental note to myself that I was turning paranoid, I slid off the bed and flipped the shutters. Of course he wasn't there. But still, my eyes scanned every bush in my yard, every tree; the sun was low on the horizon, and the long shadows could certainly hide something, couldn't they?

There was nothing to see, though; at least, nothing that I could see. Sighing again, I pulled the blinds up and let the dying sunlight flood my room, bathing the white walls in gold and red.

I remembered my homework, and stood up to retrieve it. As I set the packet down on the only bit of my desk that wasn't already covered in drawings, I wondered if I was capable of thinking right now.

You already said you'd put this out of your mind until tomorrow, my conscience reminded me. If a concept could have a face, I'd swear it was smirking. What I wish I could do and what I'm actually capable of are two completely different things, I retorted to absolutely nobody.

Oh dear. Now I was talking to myself. Emily was right; I probably was going crazy.

But there was no mistaking what I'd seen. Voices or not, the strange teenager really did exist, that much I was sure. And I was just as sure that I'd see him tomorrow, as well.

Well, now that that's settled...

With a last futile glance at the window, I lifted my pencil and began my work.

Chapter Four: The Encounter


My predictions were right, of course.

I'd been staring out of the windows every period, watching, waiting for a visitor that I was sure I was bound to have. The teachers' words were just a faint, meaningless buzz in my ears. I was probably going to end up failing every class I took now, thanks to this kid. The thought of my parents seeing my five-week supplemental made me shudder; after all, the last semester had only just started, and I was now off to a terrible start.

But my vigilance was rewarded in eleventh period, the only class in my day three schedule that didn't have windows, ironically enough.

We were running the mile in Gym today. I could hear a lot of the other girls groaning and making various complaints about the strenuous task; running was one of the least favorite gym units in the year. I really couldn't understand why they were upset. Running was another one of my favorite pastimes; being alone, feeling the speed, with my hair streaming in the wind... it was joy. At least, it was joy when there were no annoying mysteries clogging up your thoughts.

We didn't run on a track. The school was on the very edge of the city; the Zephyr Forest that bordered the north and west half of the city was like the fence to the wide school grounds. The path we ran on was probably a little longer than a mile. It went straight back for a while, until it reached the border of the forest. It curved around a little hill, probably only ten or fifteen feet high. The path wound in through some of the larger spaces between trees for a while before turning back towards the school. I loved the path we had to run; it was very scenic, after all.

On your mark… get set… Go!"

I sprinted off at a speed somewhere near ten miles an hour, quickly pulling ahead of the rest of the class. Everyone else had stopped trying to be competitive with me ages ago. People always said to conserve your energy and start off slow, but running just didn't tire me anymore, no matter what speed I ran at.

I felt my tension evaporate as the exhilaration of running seized me. I closed my eyes. Sometimes, with the wind whipping locks of my hair around my face, it was easy to envision that I was flying.

After about a minute of bliss, I knew I had to be getting somewhere near the point where the path turned to the east and began to wind, so I opened my eyes. Sure enough, I was at the grassy hill. I ran the two-seventy degree loop around it and then I was surrounded by paradise.

I knew that the forest was bound to be thicker if I ventured farther in, but it was hard to imagine it being any less of a cityscape than it was already. Greenish light filtered down through large gaps in the canopy of leaves, the buds still too small the completely block out the sun. Ferns brushed up against the chocolate-brown tree trunks, and some pretty spring wildflowers added splotches of white, purple, and pink paint to the fantasy-like canvas. I knew I was alone here; it would probably be a minute or two before another runner reached the forest.

I bounded through the trees. Sometimes it felt like the forest was too surreal to be more than a mirage; it had almost a magical quality to it. The forest had a wonderful scent; the foliage, flowers, fresh air, and greenery combined made me feel wide awake, and yet relaxed at the same time.

Too soon, as usual, the trees thinned, and I was back on the mundane, freshly cut grass of the school grounds.

I picked up my pace as I approached the waiting gym teacher. Her eyes were fixed on her stopwatch. "Five twenty-three," she called as I passed. She raised an eyebrow. "I think that's a school record. I'll have to check later..." She didn't glance up at me once during the whole conversation, too busy keeping her eyes on her timer, although we both knew it would be minutes before the next runner came through.

A broad grin stretched across my face as I walked up to the fence bordering the football field and sat down, leaning against it. In truth, I didn't feel tired at all. Maybe on the second run on Thursday, I'd go and set another record.

As I'd predicted, three minutes later, a guy named Collin practically tripped over the imaginary finish line, panting like he hadn't breathed in months. He shot me a dark glare as he wheezed over to the other end of the wall, as I should have done worse.

Eight sixteen," called Mrs. Black.

Shortly afterwards, the floodgate of students opened, the majority of them finishing between ten to thirteen minutes. They all made a big show of collapsing or wheezing dramatically. I wondered whether it was really as hard as they pretended, or if everyone was just acting it up. After all, I never practiced, and yet everything was so easy... How hard could it honestly be?

The last of the runners came in walking at about seventeen minutes, and the whole class got up to return to the school building.

As we walked back, I threw a glance over my shoulder, taking a last wistful glance at the forest, and my hands clenched into tight fists.

Standing on top of the hill was none other than the same mystery kid. His electric blue eyes were too far away to see, but I could see the direction his face was turned, and of course, it was locked on me.

His unkempt ebony hair ruffled in the breeze. Again, he wore the leather jacket, and the same t-shirt as yesterday. I could have sworn he stiffened when he saw that my gaze was fixed on him, but honestly; if he wanted to stare at me, maybe he should just get used to being stared down.

I vaguely realized that I was behind the rest of the class now; most of them were already at the school's doors. With one last acidic glare toward the boy on the hill, I turned around again and stormed off after my class.

Great. I really did have a follower. Just perfect.

In the hallway, as I headed to English, I ran into my other best friend, Alana.

Her dark orange hair bounced around her face as she bounded up to meet me. As she approached close enough to see my mood, she hesitated. I could see in her green eyes that she was curious, but afraid to upset me. I wondered just how murderous my face was.

At last, she got over her edginess, and sped her pace a little until she was right next to me.

Hey, Di," she asked, looking a little worried. "What's up?"

You're probably going to think I'm crazy," I muttered. "Emily does."

She looked shocked. "Why would I think you're insane?"

I continued walking for a few seconds, then finally turned to her. I hoped she realized the anger in my tone wasn't directed at her. "Because I keep seeing this weird kid that keeps showing up, and he's always staring at me. I'm convinced he's following me around, but Emily seems to have trouble accepting the fact that he exists. It seems like I'm the only person who sees this guy."

She surprised me by not pulling out her cell phone and dialing an institute for the mentally impaired. "Somebody's following you?" she echoed.

Yes," I growled.

She was silent for a few seconds. "Do you know who he is?" she finally asked.

I raised an eyebrow, a little stunned. "You believe me?"

Why wouldn't I?"

Never mind that." I shook my head in bewilderment. "No, I haven't got a clue who he is. I'd never even seen this guy before until yesterday, and now he's tailing me. Alana, what should I do?

I'd meant that as a rhetorical question, so I was surprised at how logical her answer was.

I think you should follow him." I could only stare at her blankly. "What?"

You heard me. Next time you notice him, pretend you don't see him. Let him follow you around. He can't do it all day; he'll need to eat or go home or something, eventually. I mean, he probably lives around here. And then, you turn around, and follow him."

I pondered it for about half a second.

Alana, that's the most brilliant idea I think I've ever heard.

She chuckled. "You're perfect for the job. You can sneak up on anybody.

It was true. With my unexplained athletic ability had come grace; I could make a mouse sound loud in comparison. It was like my feet were made of air. And when I wanted to hide, I stayed hidden.

We're going to be late for twelfth period," she continued as I mentally refined her plan. "See you tomorrow. And good luck."

I felt very devious as I stepped into English.

Let's see how much the stalker likes being stalked.

I couldn't concentrate very well in English, but it was better than my earlier classes; courtesy of Alana, at least my nagging problem had a solution.

I'd been watching the clock for five minutes straight when the minute hand finally reached the eight, and the bell rang. Cell phones were forbidden on school property, but I was too determined to let that deter me. I was dialing before I'd even reached my locker.

Dad?" I asked, when somebody picked up.

Yes, Diana?" He sounded surprised that I'd be calling at this time, before I could even be out the doors.

I'm going to Alana's house, 'kay? I'll call you when I'm coming home."

All right. See you later, then." His voice was a little bemused. I could tell that he'd heard the edge of excitement to my voice. He probably thought Alana and I were about to go egg somebody's house now.

Well, at least I'd taken care of the parents...

I flipped the cell phone shut and twisted my locker dial. My hands were shaking badly, and it took me four tries before I finally managed to get the combination of 31, 45, and 5 in. I grabbed my backpack and hoisted it onto my shoulders, although it would slow me down, and I wasn't even sure that I had homework. I probably did, but I hadn't been listening very well in school lately.

The buses were already rolling away, but I didn't care; I never took the bus anyway.

I left the school doors and waited for my follower to arrive.

I didn't have to wait long. As I rounded the bend, taking the curved street that bordered the Zephyr Forest much more slowly than usual, I began to hear very faint, soft footsteps. The hair on the back of my neck prickled. I longed to look back, but I couldn't let him know that I had noticed him.

I walked as slowly and casually as I could. I loved to jog home, but I didn't want to lose him; I knew that few people could keep up with my pace.

As I turned south, away from the forest, I saw a shiny red car parked along the side of the road. I took a glance in its mirror-like paint to catch a glimpse of a certain teenager rounding the corner. My heart sped up.

But he didn't go any further. The footsteps stopped, and eventually, I couldn't resist the urge to turn around and look.

He was gone.

A flash of disappointment coursed through my veins. Now that I thought back on it, I wouldn't have known when he'd decided to stop unless he'd followed me to my house, and I'd gone inside...

But I couldn't give up now, could I?

Suddenly grateful that I was wearing an old pair of sneakers, I dashed back up the block, stopping and peeking around the brick building on the corner.

My heart pounded faster. He was there, not facing me. He was walking, very quickly, away from me, up the road bordering the forest. I made my decision in a heartbeat. I didn't know what I'd do when he got to his house; maybe I'd have to approach him before them. But I had to confront him at some point, no matter what.

As quietly as I could, keeping a pace just a little bit faster than his own, I chased my follower.

And then he did something that shocked me, and yet somehow didn't surprise me at all.

He veered off into the forest.

I had no idea what he'd be doing in there, and it scared me a little. Was there some sort of gang, a cult? But on the other hand, it was better than running into his parents and explaining myself. Was it?

So I continued to follow him.

He walked about ten feet ahead of me. He did not make very much noise as he pushed through the foliage; it was clear that this was far more his world than the city. He was as silent as a mouse. And I moved even more quietly; I was the cat.

It was strange, though; he had a grace even I did not possess. The way he weaved through the forest, so silent, even watchful... it suggested that he spent a lot of time here. His stance wasn't the typical slouching teenager posture; his was tense and alert, like he was ready to flee at any minute. A very strange sight in this particular century.

But as the forest grew thicker, the slope of his shoulders relaxed, and he stood more upright as he walked. His pace slowed, too, as if he was sure nobody would pursue him this far.

I wondered where he was taking me... and if I'd be able to find my way back.

Suddenly, the darkness eased.

I froze.

I didn't know what I'd been expecting, but it wasn't this.

The light wasn't bright; it was still weak, still yellow-green. The canopy of trees surrounding the large, circular clearing still blocked out most of the light, even though it was probably only around two forty-five.

I kept back in the shadows of the trees, raking my eyes over the sight before me.

In the center of the forest clearing was what were clearly the ruins of a house. A front entryway and parts of some roofless rooms were distinguishable from the piles of charred stones lying haphazardly around the structure. By all means, the house was dilapidated, and I could tell it had been destroyed in a fire.

The ruins were overrun by some flowering vines, leafy ferns, and mainly a strange plant I'd never seen before.

It was probably some kind of flower. The stems were leafless, and a light, slightly yellowish shade of green. Their buds were large, but every last one of them was closed, despite the time of year. And there were hundreds of them; mainly in the house, but also spangling the clearing.

As I watched, my mystery follower approached two stone markers - gravestones, I realized with a chill. He laid down three of the strange, unopened flowers at the graves and knelt in front of them, his eyes closed. He made no sound, but his shoulders trembled rhythmically, and I realized he was crying.

And that was when it hit me; this was his home.

A chill ran up my spine. I'd always known there was something strange about him, but I'd never have guessed...

I eyed the two graves with trepidation, wondering if it were his parents that were buried there... and if he'd buried them himself.

Because it was suddenly glaringly obvious. He had no parents for me to confront. No family. He lived alone, completely secluded, almost like a parallel universe to the hustle and bustle of modern-day life.

I still had no idea why he was following me.

I took a step forward and by some chance, happened to step on the loudest possible item; a dead fern. I winced at the audible crackle.

I could have sworn his ears tilted back, and he swiveled around to face me. His face was unreadable as his stunning eyes raked the gloom, and his hair hung in front of them, hiding them from my own gaze, but I knew he could see me.

He whipped around again with surprising agility and bolted toward the trees.

In one fluid movement, I shrugged out of my backpack and flew after him.

He was fast, but nobody had anything on me. I pounced on him before he could escape into the darkness of the forest. He struggled futilely under me; he was much stronger than I'd thought, but still not strong enough.

Who are you?" I demanded, the desperation of my curiosity audible in my voice.

He did not answer; he only gave a vicious heave, and his power took me by surprise. He leapt a few feet forward... and my hands, still clutching his leather jacket, pulled it right off.

He froze, and turned slowly back to face me, but I'd seen it.

His black t-shirt had two holes cut in the back of it. And through the holes branched two large, batlike wings, covered in dark cyan scales... the same color as his eyes.

The membrane on his wings connecting the three ribs was much lighter, and translucent, and it cast a bluish shadow on the ground behind him. The bright scales caught the small amount of light at the forest's edge, throwing glittering sparkles across the grass.

He stared into my eyes, and his eyes were pleading, like he was desperately trying to convey something vital to me without words. I don't know how my face looked, but I was frozen in shock.

Please," he whispered, and I was sent careening that much further into shock; it was the first time he'd spoken to me.

Then he wheeled off into the trees.

Chapter Five: The Path


I let him go. It's not like I had a choice; my legs were rooted to the ground.

His black leather jacket, the jacket whose purpose I now understood, slipped from my numb fingers and slid to the mossy ground.

Wings. Wings.

Okay, so I'd always known there was something completely wrong with this kid. And I'd thought I'd already figured that one out; that he appeared to live entirely alone in the middle of Zephyr forest.

Wings. What was he? Human suddenly didn't seem such a good description anymore.

I mean, what sort of person had wings? I could still see them vividly in my mind; as if I would ever forget. It was like somebody had molded the incandescence of sunlight on the southern oceans into the two dragon's wings that flared from his back. The glittering light cerulean scales, the same color as his eyes... eyes that I now knew were probably not covered by contact lenses.

Emily hadn't believed he'd existed as a normal human being? I gritted my teeth. The sun would explode before she believed me now.

And then the first question; why was this freak of nature following me?

I knew that even Corey or Alana, the two most believing, understanding individuals on the planet, would not believe me now. I was completely alone. I wasn't even sure I believed myself. I didn't think I was delusional, but I supposed anything was possible.

Anything with the exception of a mystery kid showing up from nowhere, tailing me, and suddenly turning out so be some kind of monster.

I don't know how long I stood there, completely dumbfounded, but it had been at least an hour before I dimly realized the emergence of another problem; one that now seemed to pale in comparison to my other dilemmas. I was stranded somewhere in the sprawling Zephyr Forest, and I had no idea where the path I'd taken into the forest was.

With a serious effort, I shoved the issue of my inhuman stalker into the back of my mind, scanning the clearing for my backpack, which I'd dropped near the edge. At least I'd know in which general direction was out... but with a sinking feeling, I remembered the various twists and directional changes that I'd taken while following him.

At last, my gaze crossed a bright white splotch against the gentle green midtones, and I unsteadily walked toward it, weaving like a drunk. For once, my abnormal grace had completely deserted me. I felt the pins-and-needles in my feet; just how long had I been standing stationary? The sun was lower in what I could see of the sky, but I couldn't tell how much. Everything I'd seen before was just one long blurred memory, only a prologue to the impossible.

I just hoped I'd make it home by nightfall.

As I hoisted my backpack up onto my shoulders, I saw a small green thing at my feet. My curiosity was numbed, overshadowed by a much more pressing need-to-know, but I still knelt down to examine it.

I fingered the plant. It was one of those strange flower bud plants that were overrunning the ruined house behind me... only this one was picked, and freshly so by the stem's still-vibrant color.

I lifted my eyes to see another picked flower, further along the path. And then another after that, barely visible in the gloom. And then it clicked.

Somebody had laid out a path.

Why was he helping me?

I didn't even bother trying to answer my latest question. I already had too many; another would drive me crazy, considering the possibility that I wasn't already.

I shivered as I realized that I'd have to trust this mystery not-quite-human boy if I ever wanted to see my family again.

But what other choice did I have?

I took a deep breath, let the stem in my hand drop, and followed the makeshift path.

The picked flowers left on the forest floor grew sparser as I blindly walked the trail, but they were still close enough to each other so that I could see where I was going. The trees were thick, and sometimes there was barely enough space for me to pass through; I knew that I'd have never gotten anywhere if I'd attempted this alone. The forest was a labyrinth. It was hard to believe that anyone could know their way around inside it.

Don't be grateful until you see where this leads, I reminded myself. After all, he could be trying to kill me, now that I knew his secret. Could this be that important?

Or was he really just trying to help me?

I felt like I didn't know anything anymore.

I wondered if he was still here, ahead of me, laying out the path, and I broke out into a sprint. I still hadn't gotten my answers, only more questions.

There was no doubt I couldn't tell anyone what I'd seen. I was already pushing my luck with the asylum, and I was sure this latest claim would push it off the edge.

So no, from this point on, I'd have to figure this out myself.

I'd been traveling for maybe thirty minutes when I realized that the trees had thinned. They grew farther apart from each other now, and the vines and flowers were gone. There was one last picked flowerbud plant ahead of me, and then...

Sunlight. Strong, unfiltered, bright golden sunlight. It was glorious, and for a few seconds, I just let myself soak it in. I couldn't have spent more than a few hours in the gloom of the forest, but it felt like days.

From the sun's height, I could guess that it was maybe four thirty, or a little later.

Then I grimaced. The mystery was so much more pressing now, and I doubted I'd get any sleep tonight. Now I didn't have a follower, I had a mythical creature. The obsessive part of me itched to turn around and go back into the depths of the forest. But I couldn't stand another minute in the darkness, and I knew that I'd never find him in the vast, unfamiliar expanse that he called home.

For all you know, he could be hiding in a cloud now.

A small part of the mystery had been solved, I reasoned. A very small part. At least I knew where the mystery teen was from, what made him so strange, and why he was so uncomfortable around civilization in general. Besides the reason that he followed me in the first place, those were all my old mysteries, actually.

I sighed. Couldn't I ever get one just one single solid answer anymore; one that didn't open up a floodgate of new questions to torment me?

But I'd get my answers eventually. There'd be another time, another encounter. And I wouldn't let him escape when that next time came along.

I finally took a look at my surroundings. Sure enough, I was on the road that bordered Zephyr Forest, the very same road that I'd departed from to follow my stalker.

I pulled out my cell phone from my backpack and dialed, heading towards home as I went. As usual, my father picked up.

Dad?" I asked.

Oh, it's you. Are you coming home now?"

Yep."

He must have noticed the flatness of my tone, or maybe he just shared my intuition for these things, because he didn't end the call like usual. There was a moment's pause, and then he broke it.

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Laluzi yawned. "Wow," said the royally dressed Darigan Kougra. "I can't believe our owner just wasted so much time working on a page that nobody will ever read."

Yep," agreed the pet she was talking to, a Werelupe named Falayi. "I mean, why can't she do something productive, like feeding us?

Laluzi sighed. "I wish she'd never have entered the Story Telling Competition in the first place. Now, she spends all the time on the site refreshing that page, and she freaks out when she wins. I swear her eyes popped out of her head once."

A Baby Kougra laying on a pile of pillows piped up, "But it was pretty cool when Mommy got that Island Paint Brush."

Oh, shut up, Purricat," responded the Werelupe eloquently. "Besides, she's not Mommy, she's Dianacat777. She's just our owner."

Purricat grumbled and went back to sleep.

Oh, my god," said an astounded-looking Halloween Kougra named Vampiirae. "Guys, I think there's somebody in here!

Laluzi raised her eyebrow so high it almost fell off her face. "Then they're crazy..." she said, but yes, there was a person there, named guest.

BANANA CREAM PIES!!!" screamed guest. Suddenly, the ceiling began to crumble, and the walls began to shake, as a giant rain of banana cream pies began to fall from the sky...

Author: o_O Somebody's there.
Date: April 31st
Prize: A Coke and a side of fries
Story: #Eleventy

..."You managed to get the potion. Well done," said a voice.

A second voice, which Tinsum recognized as Curly's, replied, "It was harder than I thought. Those two Acaras came back again, and some Petpet managed to drive them off."

The first voice sighed. "That pair is getting to be quite notorious. I wonder why they wanted the potion? We honestly need to stop them soon... and we couldn't have done it without this potion. Thank you, Curly."

No problem, boss," replied the Gnorbu.

It's Judge Hog! Tinsum realized.

But when are we going to deal with those Acaras? They've proved as of late that they're more than just a pair of petty criminals."

Judge Hog sighed. "I don't know, Curly. I just don't know..." He paused for a long moment. "We're running out of members," he said in an almost defeated tone. "More noble heroes are disappearing each day, and some of these disappearances are more mysterious than others. There's nobody to take the place of these heroes, either. I'm beginning to think that we have a greater enemy, who's striking from the shadows, and will finally emerge when we're too weak to do anything to stop him."

Curly sounded shaken. "Then we need this potion more than ever. If we lose too many members, there won't be anything to stop those villains from wreaking havoc."

But where will we find new members?" asked Judge Hog. "I think we need to make this our first priority right now."

They're hiring members! Tinsum thought in amazement. If they're desperate for new recruits, then maybe, just maybe, they'll hire a Petpet. He couldn't believe it. Just earlier that day he had been convinced that he would never be able to become a Defender. But now he had these powers, and that insistent voice kept telling him, "Do it. Do it."

Tinsum took one look backward, then turned slowly toward the door. Trembling not with fear but excitement, he placed his trembling head against the door and nudged it open...

Author: Dianacat777
Date: May 23rd
Prize: Mystery Island Paint Brush
Story: #323
...Tinsum shivered with terror. That voice seemed to be pure darkness. Despair and fear seeped through him like poison with every shadowy word it spoke, filling him with hopelessness. How could I have ever thought we could win? he thought.

He shook himself to clear his mind. I can't just run. The Defenders must be saved, he thought, and forced himself to stop trembling.

Yes, my lord," replied Drek. "It was a very arduous -"

I have not come to listen to you exaggerate the difficulty of your mission. Do not look to me for praise," hissed the evil voice.

I apologize, my lord," replied Drek, with a hasty bow.

I should think so," the darkness grated, and what happened next almost made Tinsum bolt away in fear, even with his newfound confidence.

From the hole, a black mist began to spiral up. It formed a tall, twisted column. Two Darigan-like black wings sprouted from both sides of the pillar of darkness, each as large as the column itself. Slowly, the mist began to settle. It formed an insubstantial wraithlike figure, with two six-fingered hands. Both of these hands were clawed, and they constantly opened and closed as if trying to clutch a victim. Its two eyes were so intensely red that they were glowing. The creature had no legs. Slowly it floated over to Drek, who along with Shizique, flung himself into a bow that made him almost level with the floor.

Finally, the potion is mine..." the darkness said almost softly, his terrible fingers reaching for the potion.

It paused. "Hahahahaha!" it laughed manically. "The Defenders are helpless! Neopia belongs to me!"

It took another step forward, hand outstretched to take the potion...

Author: Guess who?
Date: May 30th
Prize: Bri Codestone
Story: #323
...and then recoiled, turning around back to face Morguss. "Why have you brought me here? What do you want me to accomplish?"

Morguss laughed. "You haven't guessed?" she mocked him. "Quite obvious. Our goals here are separate, but they can both be done."

Darigan narrowed his eyes. "How do you know what I want?"

Morguss sighed. "Because," she said condescendingly, "you noble people are all the same. You want to undo your mistakes, save your people from the dangers of the Orb, and make your present-day home as glorious as it once was. Really, it's the dishonest people you want to worry about."

Darigan frowned. "Close enough. But you definitely fall into the dishonest category. What do you want?"

I," she said with a shadowy smile, "want a little more than just pretty meadows and normal Neopets. Although the sheer amount of purple in the Citadel is disconcerting... No, what I want is for Meridell to posses the Orb... and reap its curse..."

Author: Shady intentions
Date: Jun 13th
Prize: Zei Codestone
Story: #325
...Seraph grinned indulgently. Even the word gave him a warm and fuzzy feeling.

He had waited so long for this day. Ever so long. Cooped up, trapped in his own Neohome, bound by a spell.

Seraph remembered facing the light faerie on a swirling storm cloud above Faerieland. He leapt at her, claws extended. She raised a glowing sceptre. He fell back, shielding his eyes from the sudden flash of light. He tried to step up again, but found himself unable to move. The faerie was chanting an ancient spell, and a stream of white magic was flowing from the sceptre, wrapping around him. Everything began to fade, and then everything was darkness. A familiar darkness, but the door was gone.

He remembered wandering through the dark halls as a Darigan Bori, without a torch to see by, only his Darigan-enhanced night vision. Forever pacing through the manor, back and forth, back and forth. Nothing ever changed, just constant thinking. Thinking of a plan.

He remembered finally breaking through the light faerie's spell, only two nights ago. Finally escaping his ten-year imprisonment.

What a waste, Seraph lamented. He could only imagine how much he could have accomplished during that period of time, had he not been held prisoner. In his own Neohome, too. That faerie certainly had some nerve.

He glanced down at his fur. How repulsive. Such a pretty shade of light blue, the delicate Faerie wings... it sent a wave of nausea through him just thinking about it. But it was a small price to pay for the vengeance that had filled his dreams for ten long years.

Liannah will pay, at long last... he thought. You didn't think I could escape, did you? You thought that the heroes always triumph? You thought that the darkness would perish?

Seraph shook his head to clear his thoughts. Time enough to gloat later, but he had to put his plan into action. Liannah was only the first on a long vengeance list.

Seraph alighted near Jhudora's Cloud in Faerieland. He started to walk toward the city, and then paused. He turned to look at the purple, stormy clouds of the dark faerie's abode. Now there was somebody that could help him with this particular ambition. They had been allies before. Why not now?

Oh yes, all of Neopia will remember the name of Seraph, he thought, lips curving into a cruel smile...

Author: Must get revenge
Date: Jun 25th
Prize: Skunk Paint Brush
Story: #327
...Time enough for memories later, he told himself, when there isn't a vengeful dark faerie trying to kill you.

Seraph's heart pounded. His eyes were wide, and his tongue lolled out of his mouth as he gasped for breath. He had never run so fast in his life, and it didn't help that his new color had very weak limbs.

He dimly wished he hadn't left his Darigan paint brush back in the alley, but the more rational part of his mind had other, more important issues to worry about.

Seraph could vaguely hear Jhudora's furious screams as the pair fled through the crowded streets. Neopets turned to look at the unusual sight with wide eyes; a faerie Bori and a grey faerie dressed in rags fleeing Neopia's most famous dark faerie, who was yelling incoherently and shooting out blasts of magic from her wand. Most spectators yelled and jumped back, and more than one covered their eyes. A green Kacheek got down on his knees and proclaimed that it was the end of the world.

Before Seraph knew it, he and Liannah were out of the city. Can't stop running, he told himself, although now he was using his wings as well as his feet to jump over increasingly large gaps in the clouds. He barely noticed that his chosen path was getting higher and higher above Faerieland.

And then he was standing on a swirling storm cloud. Horribly familiar.

A sickening sense of deja vu seized him. His eyes darted around. It was a dead end. He could always fly away, but then he would be leaving Liannah to the mercy of Jhudora, and although he was a villain, he somehow couldn't let that happen.

Jhudora landed daintily on the cloud, wearing a malicious grin. "Guess what I found?" she mocked, lifting up a certain sceptre. One he had seen before, ten years ago.

Seraph whipped around and spread his wings. He would take Liannah's advice from ten years ago and retreat. But his wings seemed to be pinioned to his sides; they were suddenly far too heavy to lift.

He turned back toward Jhudora. The jeweled sceptre was raised, and streams of white magic were flowing toward him. Around him. She was chanting a terribly familiar chant.

And he knew. Oh, he knew. He had escaped his ten years of imprisonment, and now Jhudora was going to put him under that same curse again...

Author: Oh, no...
Date: Jul 5th
Prize: Brown Paint Brush (although earlier that day I won a Disco Paint Brush from the Fruit Machine)
Story: #327
...then slammed the door shut again.

The Ixi made her way to the window, followed by Gilly. Sophie peered anxiously out the window, hoping that the marshmallows would be more successful than the potion bubbling away in her cauldron.

The frenzied leaping of pure silver stopped. The Swamp Witch could see each individual Meepit now. That wasn't reassuring. There had to be hundreds, no, thousands of ghost Meepits, all shining bright silver. And every pair of those large, staring red eyes were fixated on the bag of marshmallows.

Meep?" inquired one particularly luminescent Ghost Meepit.

Meep!" responded the rest loudly, in unison. They all dove for the bag as one, becoming entities of glowing molten silver once more.

Gilly watched the silver mass swarm over the bag of Sophie's magic ghost marshmallows. "Is it working?" she asked.

Sophie's Meowclops attempted to crawl inside of her hat, and the Ixi pried him off her head. She turned to Gilly ignoring the Petpet's indignant mews. "I think-"

Her confident statement was cut off by a sudden rumble. She swiveled toward the window again.

The Meepits were still only a mass of bright silver, but they were no longer jumping over Sophie's bag. They appeared to be doing an almost ritualistic dance around Sophie's house, gracefully leaping as one, creating an endless ring of silver.

Gilly let out a muffled cry of surprise as Sophie's shack began to shake. Neatly stacked vials of potion rolled off her shelves and shattered as they hit the floor. The Meowclops clawed his way up Sophie's robe and started wailing. A bright silver light began to shine through the cracks in the door; dim at first, but getting steadily brighter.

-not," finished Sophie lamely, as...

Author: Is being attacked by Meepits
Date: Jul 10th
Prize: Ten Dubloon Coin
Story: #328
..."Where exactly are we?" asked Tomos, after what seemed like an eternity of silence. There was no sound, except the plink, plink of dripping water from the stalactites. The tunnel was far more earthy now, and the torches were becoming more frequent.

We're almost at the vaults," said Nabile grimly. "And I'm almost afraid of what I'll find there. Something's wrong. I can feel it."

Plink, plink went the water.

The light of several torches flickered ahead. It was the entrance to the vaults.

Nabile?" said Tomos suddenly, his ears flattened. "Can you hear that?"

Hear what?" she responded, almost irritably. "The water?"

No, the sound of your epiphany coming true. I really doubt that chanting is a good thing."

*****

Jazan held a torch in his left hand. It was for Zina and Horace's benefit; he and the Nightsteed were not even remotely visually impaired by the darkness of the tunnel. His right hand was raised, tracing the hieroglyphics on the wall. He knew these writings; they were almost there.

Are they going to find us down here?" asked the Zafara impatiently.

Jazan turned around and flashed her a vampiric smile. "No, my friend. We're going to find them."

A smoky scent suddenly permeated the air.

Nightsteed nickered faintly and nudged his lord's side. "Smell the air, Jazan. That fire ahead is not the torches. No, it is something else."

Jazan's eyes had a troubled, apprehensive look to them. "Something else I happen to remember quite clearly."

Horace was not so good at masking his fear. "And what exactly is it?"

They had arrived at a large, cavernous circular room. They stood on a ledge that circled the room. There were seven glittering, jewelled vaults spaced evenly on the walls, and all of the doors were open. A multitude of torches hung on brackets on the walls, but that was not what was causing the scent.

There was a stairway that wound its way some ten metres down. At the bottom, five guards stood in formation, chanting. A circle was drawn on the ground, darker than blood. And in the circle, written in that same strange liquid, were a group of hieroglyphics.

Jazan's heart nearly stopped. He knew all to well what those symbols meant.

Before anyone could say anything, the symbols burst aflame. Fire shot out of the ground, causing rocks to clatter to the ground and the earth to shake. Stalactites fell down in a deadly rain, narrowly missing Zina.

The fire was coalescing, though, some of it turning black and spiralling up to shape something. No, not something... someone.

Razul was back once more...

Author: Be quiet! I'm having an epiphany here
Date: Dec 14th
Prize: Invisible Paint Brush
Story: #348
She was alone again.

Liyara looked up. The wall, the shadows of Tarla and Taelia... they were all gone, as if she'd woken up from a bad nightmare. She was in another cavern, but this one was like a picture straight from a fairytale storybook.

Beautiful crystals in shades of pastel blue, green, and purple grew from the walls, and a faint blue light shone on them from somewhere to her left. The crystals reflected the light, and they threw stunning sparkles over the icy cave. The air was warm, despite the ice, and smelled perfumed. For some strange reason, she felt safe there. In this mythical-seeming cave of crystals, her memories seemed to blur and fade.

Liyara felt drowsy, but as she stared at the crystals, a flicker of her old curiosity sprang up within her. Where was that faint blue light coming from? She turned to her left.

A figure stood some twenty feet away from her, partially shrouded by a whirl of snow that constantly danced and swirled around it. But it was clear that it was another faerie. She looked very similar to Taelia, only her wings were closer to periwinkle than cyan, and they were translucent and glittery. She wore no thick coat like Taelia did, and her eyes were pure white. Her skin was the colour of chalk, and her hair was the same shade as her wings, the long tresses flowing and waving behind her like a pale blue blizzard.

She was so beautiful...

You have finally come," said the figure aloud. Her voice was so much more powerful, so much more beautiful in person. Liyara could feel all her doubts slipping away. Why had she ever been afraid? This was right.

The memory of Cheddar, hurt and broken, Athi tied up and gagged...

Athi! He had warned her, told her... and yet somehow, she was here...

No, no, no...

She shut her eyes.

Liyara," the faerie whispered. Her voice was like the tinkling of wind chimes in a breeze, and so smooth...

But she couldn't give in, not when Athi was in danger.

He will be safe."

No, he won't be safe, you liar, not when he was so afraid of you...

He was confused. He did not know what he was seeing."

All those children, crying...

A lie..." whispered the voice of silk.

Liyara struggled, but the doubt was spreading like poison through her veins. How could she place faith in Taelia and Tarla when they refused to believe her at first, when the faerie before her was so beautiful?

But Athi vanished before Taelia appeared.

They took him. I will help you return him, Liyara, save him..."

The voice seemed to blaze through her mind, burning all her resistance to ashes...

Liyara desperately grasped her last shred of willpower and closed her eyes, willing her memory to return.

Athi... will I ever see you again?"

Every word dragged out of her throat burned like fire, and the noise was hideous, so raspy compared to the beautiful voice. And it hurt. So badly.

A single tear rolled down her cheek, splashing against the cold icy floor...

Author: Can't hear herself think
Date: Jan 4th
Prize: Skunk Paint Brush
Story: #350
Minimus dove behind a stone pillar as the footsteps grew louder.

That fool Kougra isn't going to keep that sword much longer," chuckled a gleeful yet sinister voice.

Y-yes, M-master," came the other voice, who Jake recognised as Casper.

Honestly, why did he want to trash the sword when he could use it to bring his ancestor back from the dead?

And under his control?" came a third, raspy voice.

Jake's eyes widened, and then he froze as something was pushed into his hand -- a hilt...

I'm sorry about this," whispered Minimus in Jake's ear, "but it will all work out..." He muttered another word. Suddenly, with a ripple, his blue fur changed colour to match the stone walls of the chamber. A camouflaged paw reached up and snatched the hat from Jake's head. There was a faint wavering in the air, like the air on a hot day, as Hektis's heir darted off into the tomb.

The sword clattered to the ground, slipping loose from Jake's numb fingers, as three Neopets rushed into the room.

Jake was still too stunned at Minimus's sudden betrayal to jump behind a pillar or into an empty casket, and it wouldn't have done much good anyway.

So, instead, he gazed into the faces of his to-be-captors.

The first was a red Kacheek, presumably Casper by the way he trembled, shook, and clung to the second Neopet.

The second was a very burly-looking Lupe. It might have been a Werelupe; after all, its fur was a dull greyish brown, and he looked like he had never seen a comb before. And the Lupe's eyes were green, not gold.

A Werelupe's presence should have been enough to terrify Jake, but he couldn't feel scared of such a trivial matter compared to the last Neopet.

Jake gasped as his eyes raked over the last figure; he knew the third...

Author: It was him! *points*
Date: Jan 9th
Prize: Red Petpet Paint Brush
Story: #351
...followed by a roar, ringing with fury.

Jake grabbed Hannah's arm, dragging the less agile Usul out of the way as a torrent of flames, electric blue this time, engulfed the spot she'd been occupying less than a moment before.

Fools!" Hektis shouted. His pure black fur, unblemished by stripes or spots, seemed to ripple and waver, and fiery orange patterns wound their way around his pelt, actually moving as they snaked over his fur. He conjured up another fireball, and his ebony eyes gleamed bright crimson.

Foolish mortals. My own heir understands me even less than that fool Jazan understood Razul. He believed I was a hero, the great legend, nigh a god. He thought that you weak band of Neopets wanted to steal the sword and use it to wreak havoc. He was... misled. There is no good or bad, no right or wrong. Only power. And I intend to seize all I can."

His flickering raven eyes rested on Jake. "You asked a question, fool. And I suppose, since you helped me return from the shadows, I can answer it before I kill you.

The Darkest Faerie, in my time, was just another fool, one who thought that her entire race of faeries was wrong to seek power. She had... a conscience, I believe. But she had power, dormant but present, that even I would envy."

His eyes glinted red again. "So I showed her the meaning of true power. I revealed to her the truth. And she followed the path I showed her, followed it until she failed. She failed because she was too weak. I will not make that same mistake."

A cruel smile spread across the black Kougra's face, and he drew back his arm. The fireball turned a deep purple.

The Werelupe snarled behind him, and Jake started; he had forgotten that the Lupe was there. There was a clatter of claws on the broken stone as the Werelupe leapt over Hannah, diving straight at Hektis.

Hektis was fast, but he was also large, and he couldn't dodge the attack. He roared in fury as the Werelupe bowled him over, raking its claws into the Kougra's ebony fur. The purple flame went flying into what was left of the ceiling, and that, too, shattered. The sword also fell from the Kougra's paw and clattered to the ground.

Hektis flung the Lupe off of him. With a howl, the Werelupe crashed into the ruins of a statue and slid to the ground in a grey-brown heap.

Hektis locked his blazing eyes on Jake, and before the explorer could blink, the shadow-and-inferno-furred monster had snatched up his sword once more and was on him, pressing three black claws against his throat.

Jake froze as he stared up into Hektis's eyes, knowing what was going to happen and hoping that it would be quick. The villain's eyes glowed redder than ever.

And then they flickered golden.

Hektis froze, and his grip on Jake's throat relaxed slightly. He trembled, and his face was furrowed in a mixture of concentration and agony.

The eyes began to flicker faster, changing from black to pure gold to black again, before finally settling on Minimus's natural eye color. The flame patterns faded as the raven fur began to lighten, slowly at first, and then quicker as black changed to cyan. He began to shrink, the muscles retracting and limbs shortening.

Hektis, now completely Minimus, drew back from Jake, gasping for breath. The sword dropped from his paws and fell to the ground, glittering with a sinister-looking red sheen.

Casper cowered against Hannah as she gave the recovering Kougra a long, hard stare, but when Minimus finally caught his breath, his words were directed at Jake.

I am... so sorry..." he panted, his eyes desperate for a shred of forgiveness. "I had... no idea..."

Jake laughed; it was a slightly hysterical sound. "So you aren't going to morph into Hektis again?"

Minimus smiled. It did not quite reach his eyes. He paused a few moments before speaking. "No. That's over. The connection between us, which ran through the sword, was broken at a pivotal time in the transformation. He will never possess anyone again."

The solemn Kougra caressed the sword's blade with one white claw. The sword hummed, vibrating violently. The unhealthy red sheen faded, and the main jewel in the hilt, a fiery ruby, popped out, clattering against the stones. A stream of black tar oozed from the opening and dissolved.

Jake sighed with relief. "So this is all over?"

Minimus laughed, a perfectly natural sound, so strange from somebody who'd just been running around throwing flames less than two minutes earlier. He offered the sword to Jake, who looked up, stunned.

Yes, it is over," he agreed. "So now you can go home and take this treasure to your museum, where it belongs."

The End

Author: Sorry, she's possessed right now
Date: Jan 11th
Prize: Pawkeet, awarded three days late. PLEASE, people; stop sending me guild invitations! I'm happy where I am.

Story: #351
After all, time didn't really matter anymore, did it? The shadow had all the time in the world now.

You always outshone me, the creature thought bitterly. Cassile this, Cassile that. Never a thought for Rellekka, her useless, underdog older sister. Ha! Look at me now!

For now she was powerful. And smart, and athletic, and all the qualities she'd have sold her soul for during her childhood, just so her parents would notice her. Now she could be anything.

Of course, that might have been the asking price -- her soul.

But she had been willing. The Three had come to her, and she surrendered to them without a thought. And they had given her everything she'd ever wanted. She'd never had a moment's regret.

There was one last thing she wanted, though: admiration. And if she could just get Cassile out of the picture and take her place, she'd finally get it.

With a devious smile, Rellekka muttered another word under her breath, and yet again, her form began to distort...

***

So, what do we do now?" Bowe asked Cassile. "I'm feeling a little waterlogged at the moment."

I... I'm not sure," Cassile answered. "I noticed something, though; you can tell who's a double or not. I think they're enchanted. For some reason, they don't have shadows."

Hmmm." Bowe frowned. "This seems pretty strange. Who has this sort of power and this much determination to hurt you?" he mused aloud.

Smart place to start," drawled a voice behind the pair. "I can certainly see the brains behind this outfit. Of course, you were never a smart one, Cassile. Just a water-lover."

Cassile whipped around, quickly followed by Bowe. Behind them stood a shadow Lupe, her eyes a piercing yellow, her stance lithe, and her fur smooth and glossy. Bowe looked befuddled, but Cassile's eyes widened in recognition, and she was momentarily lost for words.

It was Rellekka's true form. At least, it was what used to be her true form... before the Three had taken over.

I don't know why Mother and Father always made such a fuss about you," Rellekka continued. "But it doesn't matter. I have nothing more to say to you."

And with that, her fur started to melt back into the shadows. Then the shadow seemed to rise up, doubling in size, and becoming...

Author: Revenge is sweet...
Date: Feb 1st
Prize: Pirate Paint Brush
Story: #354
Vehn's ears pricked up, and his heartbeat raced. What secret? What forbidden information was he about to learn?

But he was mostly just disappointed with Lowell's response.

Well, yes, I don't think he'll ever figure out what those two brooches are for," the elderly Gnorbu panted.

Mr. Olden reached for the front of his suit and gently removed another brooch. Vehn had to stifle another gasp. This one was identical to the one Vehn now had, only the gem was a striking violet. The Nimmo fondly caressed the amulet. Was it just Vehn's eyes, or did he seem a little less aged?

Well, it's the other one that opens this passage," Mr. Olden sighed, letting the amulet drop, his eyes flickering back up to the Gnorbu's face. "You did not give that particular key to me. I would be much obliged if you found it. Now."

Yes, sir," the servant wheezed, turning around and making for the door.

Vehn shivered, clutching the brooch more tightly. He could only imagine what would happen if Mr. Olden found out that he had been eavesdropping.

I wish I was home, back with Hinsay, he thought despondently.

For a second, he could have sworn the brooch grew hotter under his fingertips, but then it cooled again.

And then he heard Lowell's raspy shout from down the hallway, and it was not for him.

What are you doing here..."

Author: Well, that wasn't supposed to happen...
Date: Feb 6th
Prize: Christmas Petpet Paint Brush
Story: #355
The Gnorbu, although incredibly old, was by no means weak. No, Mr. Olden had too much magic under his control for that. And so Lowell, or rather, Mr. Olden, dropped his pretences. Before Hinsay had a chance to blink, the Gnorbu had him in a grip that suited a Skeith wrestler much better than an elderly, wheezing servant.

Hinsay gasped for breath, his eyes bulging. He could barely breathe. He managed to turn his head slightly; Lowell's eyes were now like scarlet pools, completely glazed over with red. He didn't even have pupils anymore.

Hinsay, although pinned against Lowell's chest, managed to shiver as a colder presence entered the room.

It was Mr. Olden, of course. There was no mistaking that stately posture, the black velvet garb, the cold apathy on his unnaturally calm face, the icy aura he seemed to emit...

The Nimmo looked completely unshaken by the fact that his secret abode had been discovered. In one hand he held a glowing red sphere, and Hinsay recognised it, shuddering again. This artifact was dark magic. Very dark. He'd known that Mr. Olden had possessed it all along, but it wasn't reassuring, being in the same room as it.

His first words were directed at Lowell. "I see, Lowell, that you somehow managed to misplace my key in a spot that you didn't even go to. Congratulations."

Lowell just stared blankly at him, completely under his thrall.

Mr. Olden smirked, and his gaze passed onto Hinsay. The Lenny averted his eyes instantly, with yet another shiver. The moment of eye contact had filled his veins with ice.

I see that you happen to have one of my... possessions," the Nimmo stated, in that same coldly emotionless voice.

I don't," Hinsay mumbled, quite truthfully.

You lie," hissed Mr. Olden.

The Nimmo's icy voice filled him with despair. If only he could stop listening to it. Closing his eyes, Hinsay tried to shut out his current predicament and remember what he knew.

Lowell would not react quickly, and he only knew as much as Mr. Olden did. And when he wasn't under Mr. Olden's power, he was just another elderly Gnorbu. If Hinsay could only break out of this iron grip, he could escape somewhere.

Where would he go? If Mr. Olden had amassed as large a collection of artifacts as the book had said, he was bound to have something useful for escaping lying around somewhere.

But how could he manage to escape? Vehn was gone, and he had to be realistic -- he was a Lenny, and sterotypically he spent almost all of his time reading. Lennies were not known for physical strength.

Mr. Olden was still talking, but Hinsay wasn't listening at all now.

Hinsay shut his eyes, as if it would make the dilemma before him would vanish. But Mr. Olden still leered behind his eyes, him and his glittering violet brooch...

The Lenny's eyes flew open. The brooch! That was the key!

If he could only somehow reach it, he could turn back time and keep Vehn from leaving him alone, stranded in a place that shouldn't exist. But even if he did reach the amulet, what then? Could he manage to control it? Unless his beloved books lied, powerful magic was averse to being tamed on a whim. How would he use it?

I'll think about that later, he told himself. What he was about to attempt to do was impossible. Insane. But he would do it.

And with that reckless thought, locking his eyes on the sparkling purple brooch, the Lenny broke free of Lowell's grip and lunged for the jewel...

Author: Last chance
Date: Feb 7th
Prize: Robot Petpet Paint Brush
Story: #355
I know that you think I've been using you. I think you can guess that I only hired you to chart stars because I was looking for a disturbance, something to signal the Space Faerie's... arrival."

Aglai just nodded, staring into the Space Faerie's flickering form. She wanted an explanation.

Mulkor could see that. "Look, please just be patient, okay? I can explain, but you're going to need to know the background information first, or this won't make much sense to you."

The JubJubs were now carting the Space Faerie into a large, dark hole in the quarry wall that Aglai hadn't noticed before; the mine must have had a new entrance dug out.

All right," sighed Aglai, "but one thing first -- how did the Space Faerie get like this?"

The Wocky shook his head. "I'll get to that."

Aglai was about to interrupt, but Mulkor cut her off. "Six months ago, I was reading a book in the Archives," he began, slightly louder than usual. "And I came across a book that I could have sworn I'd never seen before."

His eyes flashed. "It was the Darkest Faerie's journal.

The pages were written in some strange code language that I'd never seen before. There was only one thing written in the modern-day Neopian script, on the last page, and it was quite disturbing. A curse of sorts, written in a riddle format.

This curse said that were the Darkest Faerie to ever be removed from her throne, Neopia's heroes would fall one by one, and chaos would overtake the realm of Altador.

As soon as I took my eyes off the book, it vanished like a mirage on a hot summer day in the Lost Desert."

Aglai broke in. "So you think that the Space Faerie is a victim of this now-activated curse?"

Mulkor's eyes glinted. "Yes, I do. But there was one more thing in the book, one thing that frightened me more than the curse itself--"

The Wocky's voice was cut off by a faint yell from the darkness of the mine.

Boss! Something's going wrong..."

Author: *runs away screaming*
Date: Feb 13th
Prize: Bearog
Story: #356
...to find that it was completely empty.

Oh dear," he breathed.

What is it?" Spiff demanded, pushing past Mulkor to see the contents of the box.

It's gone. The ring is gone."

Not gone," chuckled an unnaturally cold voice from behind them. "Just misplaced."

Mulkor whipped around. Behind him stood Aglai, her usually golden eyes glazed with crimson, her lips twisted into a menacing smirk. Carefully held between two of her fingers was a sapphire ring.

Looking for this?" the Darkest Faerie asked mockingly, twirling the ring between her fingers, but careful not to actually slide it on. No, she knew better than to do that.

As did Mulkor. Spiff beside him was frozen with terror, but Mulkor knew that as long as the ring was still intact, there was hope.

As if she were reading his thoughts, the Darkest Faerie's smirk widened. "Not going to happen, fool. Hmmm. Shall I destroy you now, or watch you struggle for a little longer? It certainly is quite amusing."

Mulkor did something quite rash. His own life seemed very insignificant now. This was for Altador. For Neopia.

For Aglai.

Gathering all of his strength, he tensed his muscles and hurled himself at the Darkest Faerie.

The faerie was caught by surprise, and she was still new to her Zafara form. The Wocky managed to bowl her over, and the two scrabbled across the flagstones in a writhing, spitting tussle.

Of course, it only took the faerie about a second to regain her wits. She summoned up her considerable well of magic and went limp, smiling despite the claws that raked her. All she needed was to get a decent aim, and the Wocky would only be so many ashes scattered across the Hall of Heroes.

But Mulkor was cunning, too.

The Darkest Faerie stiffened as a cold, glimmering ring was slid onto her finger.

She flung it off instantly, an instinctive reaction, but the damage was done.

*****

Aglai woke up.

It wasn't like the kind of waking up where you open your eyes and stretch, shrugging off a night's sleep. It was like being blinded, and finally seeing the sun for the very first time. Like warmth after an eternity of cold.

For the tiniest fraction of a second, there was warmth and comfort, and everything was right.

And after that, it was cold, and everything hurt, but at least Aglai was still there. She existed again. She was aware, dimly, but still aware.

Slowly, the shadows in front of her eyes cleared, and what she saw was not reassuring...

*****

Fool," the Darkest Faerie growled, picking herself up off the floor. The ring clattered against the wall, shattering into bits. Her throw had been powerful enough to break the artifact. "Did you ever really think you could destroy me?"

Yes," Mulkor spat, defiant until the end. Inside, he was in turmoil. The ring was gone. Aglai was lost forever. All hope was null and void. But he wasn't going to show it. "I did think I could stop you. And if I may die, then I will die a hero, not a coward."

The Darkest Faerie smirked, purple flames appearing above her paws, spinning and blazing. "Oh, but when there is nobody to record history, dear Wocky, there is no difference."

Mulkor threw himself to the side, pulling Spiff with him, as the Darkest Faerie threw a blaze of dark magic at him. It missed him and the JubJub by inches, blasting right through the wall and sending shards of stone flying everywhere.

The air turned icy as the Darkest Faerie conjured up another handful of magic fire. The Wocky dodged again, ducking as the bolt of violet shattered the statue of The Wave.

Mulkor's heart skipped a beat as he threw himself to the ground. She was destroying the Hall of Heroes!

Play time is over," laughed a wicked voice behind him as its owner stalked toward him.

*****

Aglai was utterly horrified.

She could see everything that was happening, everything that she was doing. She saw it through her own eyes, now the Darkest Faerie's eyes, of course. She saw herself obliterating Altador's historic statues. She saw herself trying to end Mulkor's life.

And there was nothing she could do to stop it.

Oh, she tried. But no matter how much effort she put into it, she couldn't move. It was like a horrifying dream, a nightmare where she couldn't move, as hard as she tried.

Her mouth wrenched open, despite her attempts to keep it shut. "Play time is over," she laughed, in that new, cold voice that was not her own.

She saw the Wocky turn around. She saw the horror in his eyes. It scalded her, hurt her worse than the icy flames that sprang up in her paws.

The Darkest Faerie manipulated her arms, preparing to throw the magic. And for the Wocky, it would all end there.

Mentally, Aglai closed her eyes and let out a sob of despair.

Mulkor... I'm so sorry...

*****

The Darkest Faerie flinched.

She had felt Aglai awaken inside of her. She could hear the pitiful mortal's screams of protest, of horror. Not that she cared. That was like music to her.

But now, there was emotion. Friendship. Caring.

It burned her.

She couldn't stand it. She fed off hatred, fear, and loathing, but this caring was like poison to her. It spread through her veins like fire, burning her, scalding her, causing immeasurable pain. She couldn't stand it.

With a strangled screech, the flames sputtered and died. The Darkest Faerie clawed at her chest once, and then she was gone, leaving Aglai in control of Aglai once more.

Aglai blinked, shivering horribly as complete feeling returned to her once more. Everything hurt worse now, and exhaustion pressed down on her shoulders.

But how could she sleep, knowing what she'd just done?

The Hall of Heroes was in disrepair. Two of the statues were merely shards of debris, and there were two gaping holes in the wall, scorched bricks laying haphazardly on the floor. Spiff was squirming, struggling to get a heavy chunk of stone off of his foot. But Aglai had eyes for only one thing, one Neopet.

I'm sorry," she murmured to Mulkor. "I didn't know what was going on. I didn't mean to let her take me..."

Mulkor smiled awkwardly. "It wasn't your fault, Aglai," he said softly.

Aglai knew things would never be the same again. The Darkest Faerie's attack had left Altador in a state of panic, and there were quite a few repairs to make in the Hall of Heroes. But there were good things, too. Mulkor had once been her employer, but both of them knew that they would be friends for life from now on.

Gah!" yelled the Yurble janitor, coming down from the observatory. "Who made this mess?! Not a thought for me, eh? Nobody ever thinks of the one who has to clean this up!"

Despite the situation, Aglai smiled to herself.

I guess some things never change, she thought.

The End

Author: The Sleeper
Date: Feb 15th
Prize: Disco Fever Paint Brush
Story: #356
The Krawk's voice sent an apprehensive shiver down Jac's spine, and instantly, his golden eyes flickered over to the Krawk's face. The smile was by no means reassuring.

He swallowed his sudden fear. He was being unreasonable, he decided, by prejudging this Krawk.

But man, if he cares about fashion, that trenchcoat has got to go, he thought.

Who are you?" His voice betrayed none of his sudden apprehension.

The Krawk's grin grew wider, revealing a mouthful of pearly, albeit sharp, teeth. "My name is Mr. Krawley," he smiled, "and I believe I can help you..."

Jac was still somewhat spooked, but he couldn't suppress a glimmer of hope. Was it possible that this Krawley could help him and Bran achieve the fame they'd always dreamt of?

Bran, too, was hooked, despite his own mistrust of the blue Krawk. "Would you really?"

Hold on, thought the Kougra. Another flicker of unease had stirred within him. Where have I heard that name before?

Of course," replied Mr. Krawley in his velvety hiss. "For only a small fee, of course."

Reaching one clawed paw into the folds of his coat, the Krawk withdrew two gleaming bottles of potion...

Author: Shady dealings...
Date: Feb 19th
Prize: Orn Codestone
Story: #357
Pllaaaayyy foooorr uuussss..." moaned one Draik, lurching toward Jac.

Keeeeep plaaaayyyiiinnng..." mumbled a Lupe from near the back of the crowd.

But even not a direct order from Fyora herself would have made Bran touch his saxophone, lying forgotten next to Jac's guitar case.

Let's get out of here," whispered Jac.

Agreed," Bran hissed back.

The Xweetok's eyes swept the crowd for an opening, a gap in the throng of Neopets. At last, he found one.

His eyes flickered to Jac, who nodded.

They bolted.

The crowd was moving sluggishly, as if the loss of the music had dulled their senses. A few lunged at Bran and Jac as they fled past them in a flash of yellow, brown, and black fur, but most just stared, vacant, mouths agape.

When they'd cleared the crowd and gotten a fair distance away, Jac stopped to take a deep breath.

That was the freakiest thing in my life," the Kougra panted. "I'm never trusting that Krawley guy again!"

Jac!" cried Bran abruptly. "They're following us!"

Indeed, the crowd was. When the enthralled Neopets realised that their two new idols were escaping, they began to stumble after them, in a gait that was hauntingly also zombie-like.

Uhhh, run again?" Jac asked.

Can't see why not."

The two pets took off again.

Do you really think this is over?" Jac gasped as the two fled away from the Concert Hall. "After all, you took the potion too..."

Bran gulped. He'd forgotten about that.

Suddenly, Jac grabbed Bran's shoulder, pulling him back.

What are you doing?" the Xweetok hissed.

The Kougra was trembling. "Bran, I think we have to go back."

What?" Bran was appalled. "Why?"

Mr. Krawley said," echoed Jac, his eyes wide, "that the potions were guaranteed to make the music so good that nobody could stop listening."

Well, they'll have to," growled Bran, trying to push away from Jac. "I want to play music, not weave a spell."

The Kougra was insistent. "Bran, look."

At last, Bran turned around.

The crowd of enthralled Neopets was no longer chasing after them. Instead, they were all locked in various positions, frozen in mid-stumble, eyes wide. They were still as statues, still as stone.

No, they weren't as still as stone; they were stone...

Author: Teellll meeee aa stoooorrryyy...
Date: Feb 21st
Prize: Ghost Paint Brush
Story: #357
Muta stood still for a second, frozen with fear. Then she swivelled around and fled from the Kyrii's grasping paws.

Aaarrgh! You little devil! The Snowbeast will devour us all!"

Muta growled under her breath as she dashed toward the door, panting heavily. Oh, really? Guess who's dealt with that before?

She skidded to a halt.

Before her stood Kalla, blocking the entire doorway, her -disallowed_word-the whole island seemed pretty inconvenient to anyone substantial), and the ropes that held the ships in place were mouldy and frayed.

The ships...

There were at least twenty other ships, all ragged and ancient, flying the same black, tattered ensign. Through the mist, Aryah could barely make out flickers of pale blue milling on the decks. How many ghost pirates were there?

Looming above the city's rusty, iron gates was a tattered, frayed black flag, rippling in a gale that didn't blow.

Beyond the gates stood a city in ruins... dilapidated stone buildings, rotting wooden homes, and of course, the thousands of ghost Neopets she could just make out that populated the streets.

At last, Aryah found words. "What is this place?" she choked.

Ailx's voice was almost soft. "Home."

The Ixi tore her gaze from the ghostly city, staring her brother in his eyes. "What about Krawk Island? Isn't that home?"

The Wocky turned away from her, staring out into the grey fog. "Not any longer."

I never thought I'd become a ghost," he continued, in that same soft, almost placating tone. "I went off to follow the dream many Neopets have. I wanted to be a pirate. Not a ghost... I merely wanted to sail the high seas with a crew of trusty Neopets, pillaging and thieving, feeling the wind on my face...

Well, I got it.

It was my fifth day at sea. I was on my little boat -- with all I have now, I can't imagine I thought that was a ship -- with my bedraggled crew. A vicious storm was brewing, and Gen didn't think the boat would fare well through it. He wanted to find land and dock, and I insisted that we brave the storm. While we argued, we didn't notice the ship that rolled in with the fog...

They came upon us with all the power of the brewing storm itself. I don't remember how I died; it was very quick, and in the midst of a frenzied, albeit very short, fight. I was waving around my scimitar -- so useless, I don't know why I thought it would work on ghosts. There was a sharp, icy pain in my back for the shortest moment, and then I was floating..."

I was horrified at first, when I realised that I was a ghost, along with the rest of them."

Aryah was confused. "So you don't like being a ghost?"

Ailx snorted. "Like? I positively adore this life or, rather, death. I get everything I've ever wanted and more. Nobody will ever stand up to me. I can fly through the air and run along the seafloor. I don't have to eat or breathe, and I can never die. Okay, so I can't feel the sea breeze and taste the salty air, but what does it matter? Those things could never compare to the joy of death."

The last three words sounded very oxymoronic to Aryah, but she didn't comment on them. The Ixi sighed. "You've become so ruthless."

Ailx grinned, a wild, mischievous grin that brought back Aryah's memories of simpler days. "I know. It's great." His smile abruptly faded. "We can't stay here for that long, unless... this is no place for mortals."

Then why bring me here at all? Why take me away from home?"

Ailx's defiant gaze at last dropped to his paws. There was a hint of shame in those ghostly eyes. "Because we need you..."

Author: *is attacked by ghost authors*
Date: Mar 26th
Prize: Green Petpet Paint Brush
Story: #362
His hand swiped the remote out of the Chia's stubby paw, but the clown was ready for it. It retaliated with a jab from its spotted purple umbrella, holding it like a sword. The remote went spinning out of Aodhan's grip to the slanted street, where it began to roll.

Nimble as a Dartail, the Shoyru leapt back, away from the umbrella's range, and dove for the remote. A banana cream pie whistled past his ear, thrown at an unnatural speed. Another grazed his left wing.

His hand curled around the remote just as two of the Chias pounced on him.

But Aodhan wasn't going to give up so easily.

Poia watched the struggle apathetically, her eyes cold. The fool Shoyru had a stroke of adrenaline, but he was bound to lose. Her army was powerful. Invincible, even. And then the intruder could be eliminated.

Aodhan grunted, rolling aside to avoid another blow from the umbrella. His initial strength was starting to wane, replaced with a heavy weight of hopelessness. Another clown joined in the fray. The Shoyru heaved with all his might, shoving the mechanical Chia off of him and onto...

There was a sharp snap and a few bluish sparks as the remote was crushed.

The Lutari's eyes opened wide, her emotionless features flooding with a rage that she didn't understand. They narrowed to slits, and her ebony claws curled into fists.

He. Has. Destroyed. The. Sacred. Icon. Our. Legacy. Will. End. With. Me.

Her mouth parted. "Annihi-"

No.

Some invisible force seemed to catch the words in her throat, preventing her from completing the order, the order that would destroy her friend. A tiny whisper in the back of her mind, but with more power than Fyora's sceptre.

I. Have. No. Friends.

The smaller voice was desperate. Aodhan. Aodhan, Aodhan, Aodhan. Can't you remember? You've known him for years, he's a prankster and Fyora knows he's a bit of a pest at times, but he's still your friend!

Confusion overtook Poia's face. She stared at the Shoyru blankly. The brawl had stopped; her clowns were upright, expectant, awaiting their order. Something fluttered in her mind, just out of her reach. Memory?

I. Do. Not. Know. Him. He. Is. Disposable.

Yes, yes, the crown was right. It was power. She was power. She was the leader of Chia Clowns.

No--

He. Is. Disposable," she murmured, still half-dazed. Aodhan recoiled, startled, his sudden hope changing to icy fear. Poia looked up, her eyes blazing with cold fire.

Annihilate."

Aodhan trembled, terror threatening to overtake him as the Chia Clowns turned toward him once again. This time, he was surrounded, and his one hope was lost.

Or was it?

He stared into Poia's unfeeling eyes, and clear as crystal, an idea bloomed in his mind...

Author: I. Am. The. Author.
Date: Apr 3rd
Prize: Tai-Kai Codestone
Story: #363
Spreading his wings, Valrigard flew.

Regret fluttered in the far reaches of his mind. He'd wanted nothing more than to settle down and live a quiet life outside of Meridell. He'd wanted to forget the years wasted in those gloomy dungeons of that accursed castle and start anew.

Deep in his heart, the Draik had known it wasn't going to last. There'd always be another call for bravery, and his knight's soul didn't allow him to stand idle with a clear conscience as another Neopet suffered unjustly.

The cool air danced around him, twisting and coiling like tendrils of a faerie's magic. He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply, enjoying a last minute of peace before he'd throw himself into the heart of the fire again.

The irony of it all. He'd hoped to never again see that castle that now loomed before him on the horizon, its double doors seeming like the imposing maw of some giant beast.

But he wasn't going to allow another knight to suffer because of an adviser's ambitions...

With a Draik's grace, he angled downward and plunged to the ground like a shooting star, a streak of blue in the late afternoon sky.

He squinted at the castle. Was it just him, or did that great sentinel of white stone look somehow... different?

It took Valrigard a few moments to discover the change, and when he found it, a jolt of ice pierced his heart.

Meridell's flag had changed.

No longer did the ensign of red and blue flutter above the kingdom. No longer did banners of crimson and cerulean hang down from the castle walls. Skarl's colours had been taken down.

In their place was a new emblem, one Valrigard recognised all too well...

Author: Oh dear
Date: Apr 8th
Prize: White Paint Brush
Story: #364
Get back!"

The words didn't register in Valrigard's brain. Speech had ceased to mean anything to him when the paws had seized him. He had been captured.

Reverting to his most basic soldier's instincts, the blue Draik proceeded to struggle and thrash as violently as he could. His paw shot down to unsheathe his trusty sword, but the other Neopet had already grabbed his arm.

Stop that or they'll hear you!" hissed the voice, gripping Valrigard with more power than the Draik would have expected.

Valrigard fell limp, more out of shock than obedience. Because he recognised the speaker, even though it seemed like years since he had last heard him, rather than just an hour.

Oriel?" he choked.

The other Draik let go, pulling Valrigard against the wall. "More quietly," he warned.

Valrigard reeled. This couldn't be real. First, there'd been another 'traitor' in Meridell; that was believable, albeit unfortunate. But then suddenly Hagan was imprisoned in a castle dungeon he'd been framed of annexing -- with Meridell's most esteemed knight, too, he couldn't forget that -- and now his mentor had waltzed right into the scene? A very jumbled, nostalgic dream seemed to be the only possibility.

But if it was real...

Valrigard struggled for words for a handful of seconds. At last, he found his tongue. "What are you doing here?" he spluttered.

The master glazier gazed into Valrigard's eyes. "Looking for you. And Hagan, but there isn't much I can do until I find a ring of keys."

But why?" The Draik struggled to keep his voice low. "It's too dangerous here!"

A low, rusty chuckle rumbled in Oriel's throat, before his face returned back to serious solemnity. "I may be old, and not as strong as I used to be, but I can still wave a sword around. And I have a duty to my king."

Valrigard opened his mouth to reply, but Oriel thrust a hand over his mouth, pressing him up against the cold wall.

Footsteps echoed a floor above, getting louder, and then fading into the distance. Whoever it was hadn't been heading to the dungeons.

Why are you here?" Valrigard repeated, much more quietly. "Why did you want me?"

Oriel sighed. "I came to plead for help, although now I realise I'm probably not going to find any. Not only has King Hagan has been kidnapped, but Brightvale is under attack by..."

Author: What are you doing here?
Date: Apr 9th
Prize: GX-4 Oscillabot
Story: #364
...There was no response to her question. In fact, there wasn't any sound at all. Spring was picking up speed -- or at least, it had been anyway -- but everything was silent. Not a single Pteri chattered in the gloomy, grey, almost drooping trees. There was no talk coming from her Neohome a few metres away. She couldn't even hear the sound of the rain that soaked her, the pitter-patter of the light sheets of drizzle.

But there was no denying the obvious. Yvori had turned grey.

She felt an overpowering urge to cry. She didn't deny it. What was the point?

Why is the world so unfair? Who could have done this to me?

The rain was cold, albeit not very torrential, and all Yvori could think of was how horrible it felt on her fur. Her bloodshot eyes raked her yard. I never realized it was so ugly, she thought in wonderment. The trees looked a little like Zomutts, the leaves hanging listlessly from their droopy grey branches. The grass looked unhealthy and dull. The flowers in her garden were bent over, their petals bending down as if they were crying.

There wasn't another Neopet in sight...

She almost didn't see the Grey Faerie, as she blended into the dreary, colorless surroundings. She was leaning up against a tall, dull tree. The faerie sat head in hands. She hadn't noticed Yvori. Her long, tattered dress was dull, albeit with a hint of purple. Her hair was colorless and unkempt. Even her pale skin was grey-hued.

Despite the wave of misery and indifference that swamped her, Yvori felt a strand of her usual curiosity stirring within her. What was a Grey Faerie doing on her lawn?

Was she the one that had made her Grey?

Striding through the droopy, squishy grass, the Mynci made her way over to her guest. "Who are you?" she asked simply.

The Grey Faerie looked up, lowering her hands. Her bloodshot eyes were miserable.

I was once known as Fyora..."

Author: What a horrible, horrible entry...
Date: Apr 14th
Prize: Pink Petpet Paint Brush
Story: #365
...She closed her eyes.

The listless, dying grass itched her fur, and the rain's icy fingers jabbed at the Mynci on and on. Each handful of drops felt like a barrage.

But still, she had to fall asleep, didn't she?

Shifting slightly, and trying to ignore the drizzle, the Mynci allowed her grey thoughts free reign.

This is so useless. I don't understand why I'm even trying. What's the point? I'm trying to help a pitiful faerie that doesn't even care, and I'm not sure I care either. And I'm probably wrong. Why should anything I come up with work? This is futile. I should just lay back, and let the miserable world pass me by...

Sleep came to her on swift, silent wings, whisking her off to a place where reality was little more than a whisper.

This time, she dreamt.

* * * * *

Yvori opened her eyes.

Joy swept her. This was Neopia as she'd known it, Neopia as it had been until she'd woken up this morning. In fact, it now felt like this was the truth, and everything Yvori had just witnessed had been merely a feeble, grey dream, a nightmare which felt insignificant upon waking.

She looked down, another thrum of happiness filling her entire body. She was blue again, the sky's vibrant hues trapped in every strand of fur that adorned her frame.

Everything was right again...

That was when she noticed the difference.

It was subtle, at first. She realized that everything seemed a little too bright. In the beginning, she would have thought everything just seemed more colorful after the greyness of her nightmare.

But the lilies that dotted her garden were a brilliant fiery orange, the grass greener than polished emeralds, the trees a rich chocolate, adorned with leaves of glistening peridot. The sky was cloudless, the shade of cyan almost neon. The sun glared down at her, so bright that nearly the entire sky was blinding. The colors seemed to radiate out of their boundaries, too; the grass surrounding the orange flowers had touches of orange around the edges, and the area where the sky met ground was highlighted in blue. It was almost too colorful to be real, like a picture from a child's coloring book.

Yvori ignored it. She didn't want to believe it was fake, not when it was so beautiful, so much better than the dream --

You know you're wrong," murmured a soft voice behind her.

Yvori whirled around. Behind her stood Fyora, more glorious than she'd ever been in reality. She was so radiant it was almost blinding. Her hair, her robe, her wings, her eyes; they all shone a dazzling lavender, as if the faerie had been sculpted out of liquid amethyst.

What are you talking about?" the Mynci asked, marvelling at Fyora's beauty.

You know it's a lie."

Yvori winced. Fyora's words were laced with truth, so powerful she couldn't deny it, but oh, how it hurt to accept them! The pain was almost tangible, cutting the Mynci to the heart. She gasped, trying to comprehend what a low state reality was in.

A hand touched her shoulder.

It can be fixed," the Faerie Queen continued. "But we will have to do it here."

But how?" Yvori sniffled. "If it's just a dream, how can we really do anything here?"

Fyora gestured to the beautiful surroundings. "This is a dream, but it is a dream that faintly grasps reality. It is an ethereality that people can stay in, and occasionally reach out to touch Neopia, as they do now."

It is here that one dark faerie now dwells, after being banished from Faerieland. A faerie named Baelia had lost her name and wings to the faerie, who proceeded to lock her up on a mountaintop. A travelling Kyrii saved the faerie, who was able to make it back to Faerieland once she had given herself a new name. She told me what had occurred, and the dark faerie was subsequently banished."

But Jennumara has at last decided she wants revenge..."

Author: This entry is just a dream
Date: Apr 16th
Prize: Florta
Story: #365
Daraik stared at Amazara incredulously. The villain had quite a large arsenal of witty remarks at his disposal, but this latest development left him almost speechless.

What?" was all he managed to splutter.

Sloth folded his arms over his chest. "That's simply absurd."

Amazara glowered at him, his eyes catching the light in a way that should have been imposing, but ultimately didn't work. "How would you know?"

The evil mastermind snorted. "Oh, I'm sure Judge Hog announced to all of the Defenders that they were going to ally themselves with a bunch of Petpets, and evil ones at that. Honestly, you heroes aren't all you're cracked up to be. Has it occurred to you that the Defenders are too far above that sort of thing?"

Amazara shook his head. "No. Not all of them are."

The Defenders," he continued, "are sworn to uphold Neopia. At all costs. That means we sometimes have to pick the lesser of two evils."

A satisfied murmur rippled through the seminar, and Amazara realised his unintentional metaphor. Most of the villains looked rather pleased with themselves.

So," the Amazing Acara continued, "occasionally, we must work with villains to protect Neopia from even worse villains. Fine print, but it's just as important as anything else in the rulebook."

Heermeedjet looked puzzled. "But that doesn't mean they're working with the Meepits."

No," Amazara agreed, in what he hoped was an intelligent yet foreboding tone. "Normally, it wouldn't. But I've seen some unusual things around the HQ lately."

Like?" Merouladen questioned.

Six months ago, Judge Hog put a lot of his top agents -- that includes me," Amazara added hastily, looking very pleased with himself. "We were hunting down the Meepits. We were going to locate them and stop them; some witnesses had seen some very strange Meepit activity. Dancing ghosts and whatnot...

We found their hideout, and then suddenly, Judge Hog and Lightning Lenny called off the mission.

I was confused -- we all were. We had been so close to finishing it! But we assumed there were more important things to be done. Petpets weren't very high on the list anyway. So we waited.

But there haven't been any missions since. It's like Judge Hog was certain you'd all be stopped anyway.

And it's more than that. Right after the mission was called off, the Meepits stopped, too. All the sightings in one place ceased; there were just a few scattered reports, all over Neopia. Nothing to worry about, we thought. We never considered that they were scouting around. And also, when Judge Hog cancelled the Meepit search, his cape was simply covered in pink hairs. He must have been with the Meepits, working something out."

Why are you helping us, then?" asked Jhudora testily, who'd finished magicking Meuka's snot off her dress. "You're a Defender."

Amazara's brow creased, and for the first time, he looked uncertain.

I don't really know. Most of the Defenders don't know what's going on, just a handful at the top. But I think the Meepits are up to something. They hate the Defenders as much as you do. They're going to stab the Defenders in the back, I'm sure of it."

A dashingly reckless smile suddenly split his face. "And Fyora knows life will get incredibly boring if there aren't any villains to pulverise."

Daraik snorted. "Dream on, Not-So-Amazing Acara." Then he straightened up. "But you're right. Any pl--"

He froze.

What is it?" Amazara asked, praying his nemesis had received a sudden brainwave.

I don't have a plan," Daraik said slowly, "but if you'd stop talking for a moment, maybe you'd hear that sound."

The silence following the Dark Draik's words did not last long. For a moment, there was only the pounding of rain and the rumbling roar of thunder outside.

But then there was a scuffling. A soft noise, like paws on stone or tile. Lots of paws.

And then, the voice of a myriad of creatures, all in a unified call...

Meep..."

Author: It's a bird! It's a plane! No, it's the Neopian Master Storyteller!
Date: Apr 24th
Prize: Feloreena
Story: #366
Cylette drew in a sharp breath. She should have seen this coming. Mysterious, seemingly invisible sources of help generally did not do so without a price.

She looked around quickly. There were too many Neopets in the dressing room, praising her vigorously as they got ready for their own dances.

She needed to get out of the room, somewhere quiet and empty, if she were to negotiate with somebody who didn't seem to be there.

Thanks!" she said quickly to a reverent-looking white Kougra by the name of Daisy. "But I really need to go to the bathroom, so if you'll excuse me..."

Without waiting for a response, she turned away and threaded her way through the throng of dancers, finally making it to the door. Briskly, she walked down the miniature backstage hallway, ducking into the first room she saw.

Luckily for Cylette, it was completely empty. It appeared to be a storage room of some sort, so nobody else was probably headed here, either.

All right," she panted to nobody, locking the door. "What do you need?"

She flinched slightly as the voice whispered in her ear, even though she'd been expecting it. The feeling of an invisible, insubstantial creature following her every step she took was quite disconcerting.

First," her erstwhile helper began, "I wish to inform you of what would happen if you didn't do this little favour for me. You see, you also asked for the Aisha and the Xweetok to perform badly. I shall grant that also, whether you wish for that now or not. I'm afraid I'd have to reveal to the crowd that you cheated and spread a Slippery Floor Potion on their dance shoes. You'll find an empty potion bottle in your locker if you go look right now, actually. They'd ban you from ever performing with them again. And we wouldn't want that to happen, would we?"

Cylette's breath caught in her chest, her -disallowed_word-if he could really accept the fact that he was awake), a mixture of feelings that left him breathless and quite lightheaded.

If it was a dream, by Fyora's sceptre, it was the most realistic one he'd ever had.

His breath was jumpy now, like a runner's. He gazed with complete wonder at the artefact, the artefact that could -- no, it would restore his home.

But how would he use it?

As he stared beyond its golden surface, questions began to form in his mind. How was this possible? How was the Orb's existence even possible? It had been destroyed, its magic lost forever.

And then it all crashed down on him, with such force that a cry of anguish escaped his throat. It couldn't exist. This was an impossibility, and be it a delusion, hallucination, or dream, it was not real.

And then the voices came.

He didn't flinch as he heard them. He'd felt an unearthly presence from the second he entered the dungeon; he'd assumed it was the Orb's magic. And he was already beyond amazement. The disappearance of a dungeon, its prisoners, and then a destroyed artefact appearing in a dirty sack? Hearing voices seemed like an ordinary, everyday ordeal now.

No," murmured the first speaker from minutes earlier, the silky tone much different from the whispering hiss she'd employed before. "It's not real... not yet..."

The second voice to speak was coarser, harsher, and certainly male. "But it will be, soon enough."

Yes, it will," chuckled the third. "If you would listen to our proposal..."

Author: Is not actually dreaming
Date: May 13th
Prize: Pink Paint Brush
Story: #369
***

Lord Darigan sighed, drumming his fingers in a terse staccato rhythm against the windowsill.

His yellow eyes swept the green plains beneath his floating realm, farmhouses dotting the emerald sea of grass like stars swimming in the night sky. To the far south, a grand castle flew its scarlet and navy banners. So simple, and yet so beautiful. Something his own world could never have again.

He imagined he could see Sally, the little Usul, down there, perhaps frolicking with a handful of the Petpets she loved, or resting in the shadows of one of the few trees that broke the otherwise flat landscape.

His mind wandered past Sally, to the times before her, when he'd fallen to demonic whispers and allowed himself to become his subjects' own greatest threat. He could vaguely remember the blazing hatred, and the fear, and knowing his most trusted advisers had turned against him, unable to realise it was very much the other way around...

It was enough to send a shiver through his spine.

Never again, he reassured himself, tearing his gaze from the windswept plains beneath. We are at peace. And I will never fall to the Three again.

Oh, you won't, won't you?" laughed a cold, silvery voice from behind him.

Lord Darigan whirled around, his black robes trailing in the air behind him. He hadn't heard the Three's voices for a long time, that was true. But he was still sensitive to them; he doubted he'd ever truly be free from them.

But now... it sounded so close, so real...

His heart sputtered to a halt.

A faerie stood in the doorway to his private chambers, a venomous smirk stretching from one ear to another. Her black-ribbed wings flanked her sides, not quite veiling the two figures that stood beside her. One was a rugged Gelert, a sharp blade held poised, his face largely masked by an eerie hood. The other was a Skeith, rotund, sharp teeth revealed in a wide grin.

Ambition. Revenge. Greed.

Darigan reeled. How were they here? The Three may have held plenty of influence over even the strongest-minded Neopets, but they were merely shadows, without a true form. They could not use their magic unless through another body.

And then his eyes narrowed as he realised. "This is just another dream, is it not? You cannot fool me."

Ambition stepped forward, reaching out with sharp nails to stroke Darigan's cheek. The Korbat shuddered convulsively at the frigid contact. "Does that feel like a dream? No. We are now just as real as you now."

How?" was all Lord Darigan managed to rasp.

Ambition let out a cold, humourless laugh. "How are we real? By similar cunning that you yourself fell to, fool. Apparently, your citizens are not content with what the Citadel has to offer. And they're quite stupid."

Darigan winced. That stung. He knew, deep in his heart, that it was partially his fault that his subjects had been cursed. Oh yes, Meridell was mostly to blame, but he'd always bear a part of that burden...

Very well, then," he retorted, bluffing slightly. "So you're real. All the easier for me to vanquish you."

Revenge took over, his eyes glinting from beneath his hood. "I really don't think so."

Darigan opened his mouth to reply, but he was thrust to the ground as the Citadel gave a violent heave, throwing him to the floor in an unceremonious heap.

Ambition cackled again. "Well, well. It would appear as though the sky is falling."

The Darigan Citadel shivered again, harder this time, and the Korbat realised with a pang of dread what was going on.

The Citadel was about to fall from the air...

Author: *bonk'd*
Date: May 15th
Prize: Reptillior
Story: #369
The tree moaned again, and Reyan clapped a paw over her sister's mouth to discern what it was saying. After a few seconds of deep concentration, she was able to make out its utterance.

Stolen," the tree creaked.

Parlis's eyes widened in disbelief, and in her surprise, the Moehog forgot who she was talking to. "What are you talking about? You can't steal a brain!"

They stole my intelligence..." the Brain Tree rasped. "Now, answer... my question."

How? And who is 'they'? Why do they want your brain?"

The Brain Tree appeared to be getting annoyed. Its red eyes glinted, and sluggishly, it rattled its branches, shaking the Moehog thoroughly.

The one who stole the knowledge I have gleaned is the shade of the night, the darkness that lurks in these woods. Now tell me; when did Sir Jeran arrive in Meridell, and how did he do so? You have 2 hours and 35 minutes left!"

I don't know!" Parlis gasped, trying futilely to catch her breath. "Why do you care, anyway?"

I want my knowledge back!" the tree growled.

Ummm..." Reyan was finding it quite hard to think while being simultaneously squeezed and shaken by a sentient tree. "Wouldn't it be more effective to just catch the thief, whoever this 'shade' is, instead of forcing every Neopet you meet to gather pieces of what you lost?"

The tree seemed to ponder this.

Then it folded two branches across its trunk, somehow managing to look stern. "Very well. You will return my brain to me. Now hurry up. I don't have all night. You have 2 hours and 35 minutes left..."

Author: Give me my pen back
Date: May 20th
Prize: Strawberry Fields Forever Paint Brush
Story: #370
Parlis looked up, her eyes wide, stunned. "Wait a minute."

Sophie was incredibly agitated. She didn't even make an attempt to retrieve the lost spoon. "What?"

You believe us?"

Of course I believe you!" Sophie exclaimed, exasperated as ever, making the shyer Moehog flinch. "I already knew she was up to something! After all, I--"

She cut off abruptly, biting her tongue.

Reyan raised an eyebrow. "You what?"

The witch shook her head. "I shouldn't have said that."

You just did, so explain."

I can turn you into a Mortog."

Then do it!"

This is none of your business!"

Quaking slightly at the threat of being magicked into an explosive Petpet, Parlis stepped forward between the quarrelling witch and Yurble.

Actually," she began timidly, "I think it really is our business. The Brain Tree sent us to find his brain. We've got 2 hours and 35 minutes -- oh, wait, that was almost an hour ago..." She trailed off, her eyes pleading.

Sophie shook her head. "Great. Stupid tree, sticking to standard quest lengths even now, in a crisis? Remind me to have a word with the Brain Tree later."

Does that mean you'll explain?" Parlis asked hopefully.

The Ixi hesitated.

All right," she muttered. "Follow me. And don't break anything. I can do Slorgs, too."

With that, the Swamp Witch led the sisters to the back of her shack, leaving the pea soup bubbling merrily away in her cauldron.

***

A crystal ball?" Reyan questioned.

Sophie grunted, hefting it onto the table. "Cliche, I know, but it works. Look at this."

She muttered a few incomprehensible words, and Parlis and Reyan leaned forward to peer into the misty ball.

The fog swirled a little, then darted away to reveal... darkness?

No, not darkness. Spirits.

They swirled and swooped around a tall, ebony-cloaked figure, a whirl of glowing crimson eyes and translucent black bodies. The figure had her arms raised. She was flanked by large wings like oversized dying leaves, and her eyes were pure green, devoid of pupils. At her feet was a cauldron, in which something red-orange pulsated, immersed in a dark, viscous liquid. More and more of the wraiths emerged from the cauldron, flying up to swirl around Ilere in a frenetic dance.

Reyan gasped as a sudden, choking dread dawned on her. "You know how the Brain Tree's always asking about dead Neopets?"

Sophie nodded grimly. "Those are their ghosts..."

Author: Ghost Author
Date: May 22nd
Prize: Checkered Paint Brush
Story: #370
Jendan?" The Usul narrowed her eyes. "Brec? Come out from hiding! This isn't funny at all!"

She knew that her Lupe friend liked to play tricks on her, but Jendan was the type who scared easily. The Kacheek didn't like to go along with those sorts of mean pranks. Did he?

Jendan?" Her voice had an unmistakable quaver to it, and against the grey cratered plains, she felt very small. "Brec?"

No response, only the echo of her voice bouncing off Kreludor's crags.

She shoved down her growing terror. "Fine," she muttered aloud. "You want to play hide and seek? At least it's something you can do on this boring chunk of rock. Fine. Ready or not, here I come!"

Five minutes later, Bekah had dropped that notion, too.

Just craters. Shallow craters everywhere. And nowhere to hide. She'd have definitely spotted the Kacheek's vibrant blue hues or the Lupe's fire-patterned fur against the dull grey a kilometre away. They weren't around.

Bekah sat down on a protruding rock, grey like everything else on the moon. She choked back a sob. Her oxygen was running out, and it seemed like her friends really had just vanished.

Vanish? Was that possible?

She let that sink in. This was Kreludor, not Neopia. Who knew what could happen on a moon? Maybe some of the craters were massive pits of grey quicksand. She shuddered.

They went that way," whispered a small, frail-sounding voice from behind her.

Startled, the Usul jumped and whirled around with a small squeak. Behind her stood a small, feeble-looking orange Grundo with a very timid -disallowed_word-how was that possible at this point?). "Actually, I was rather hoping that you'd stay in the water and join me for a little... game."

He flashed his teeth at him; Peryck knew exactly what he meant. He stepped back, his fur and antennae bristling in fear.

Why are you doing this? Why us?" Katri shrieked. Water was lapping at her hooves now, and the boat gave an ominous series of creaks.

For the briefest of seconds, the Kiko and the Jetsam exchanged a glance, and then the Jetsam turned his head and stared down at the bottom of the lake. Katri didn't miss this silent exchange, and her eyes flickered down to follow his gaze. There was a hole there on the lake floor, a black, gaping tunnel that twisted far beneath the shallow, glassy waves of Kiko Lake.

And then the Kiko looked up. His face betrayed no hint of any other motive. "I'm afraid, my dear, that you are simply in the wrong place, and very much during the wrong time."

On shore, the native Kikos were waving frantically, screaming and flailing their arms. There was an edge of hopeless desperation to it. Almost like they'd seen this before... and knew there was nothing they could do.

The Uni's wings strained at the air, frantically beating, but it was no use. They were too small -- she was still too young to fly -- and they were also wet.

None of that now," the Kiko said in a light, almost friendly tone.

The Jetsam nodded, opening his maw and shattering the rest of the glass with one resounding snap of his jaw...

Author: *screams*
Date: Jun 16th
Prize: Apis
Story: #373
...into an abyss that never seemed to end.

A scream -- half exhilaration, half utter terror -- escaped his mouth as he tumbled downward, further into the neverending blackness.

A strange mixture of giddiness and fear overwhelmed him, and yet, as he fell, he began to laugh. This was what he lived for. Exploration. Excitement. Danger. Even in the middle of a horrifyingly dangerous task that he didn't even want to complete, he could still appreciate it.

And then it was over, and the Lutari hit a soft, thick layer of something that tickled his fur.

Still, the breath was momentarily knocked out of his lungs, and Roxton spent a few seconds just laying there, gasping for breath and spitting out copious amounts of something dry and bitter that made its way in.

The air was warm here, perhaps even stifling. But somehow, it was sweet, more natural. Yes, that was it. It smelled like the outdoors, like the tropical forests he so loved to explore. Cautiously, he managed to pull himself into a sitting position. It was difficult; as he moved, he sunk further into the thick pile of debris. Carefully, he wormed his way over to the side until he found a wall and re-lit his torch.

The sudden light was a bit startling, and he squinted, trying to adjust to it. Even the short fall had seemed like an eternity of darkness.

He looked skyward first. The pit appeared to closed over him again. This time, it did not open. He gulped. He was trapped. Roxton hoped he'd made the right choice.

He was now in a pit, with tall, stone walls that seemed to stretch up forever. The dry, bitter-tasting layer that coated the floor was myriad dead leaves, brown and lifeless, but still comforting nonetheless.

Leaves? Roxton's eyebrows furrowed; he was underground. Where had they come from?

The Lutari's gaze went further sideways still, and he gasped in an awed breath.

Growing in the center of the pit was a tree.

But not any tree, no, not anything that had ever graced Neopia's surface. This one seemed tall enough to reach the stars, with huge, vast branches that spanned the pit -- Roxton was amazed he hadn't been impaled by them as he fell. Its leaves were like indigo and cerulean fans, bright and otherworldly. They seemed to glow, like they absorbed the torch's feeble light. Clusters of bright yellow fruits dotted the fringes of the branches, looking unbelievably juicy and tempting.

It was so beautiful...

It was impossible to tear his eyes from the utter magnificence, and yet, he somehow managed to see the door, the small, insignificant passageway halfway up the wall.

So that was it. He had to climb the tree to move on.

A grin spread across Roxton's face. At last, something easy.

He snuffed out the torch once more and stowed it in his knapsack. The tree's leaves were still glowing, a million blue and purple suns. The Lutari fought his way through the dead leaves, making towards the brilliant tree's trunk.

He began to climb, completely unaware of what lurked in the branches above him...

Author: Is officially now a 9th grader :D
Date: Jun 24th
Prize: Invisible Paint Brush
Story: #374
..."Aborala."

The Guardian's tongue flickered out, tasting the air. The Lutari was speechless with terror like all the others, so scared he wasn't even blurting out gibberish words like they always had; he was hers now, another unworthy seeker, and she'd be well fed tonight --

And then the amulet flashed once, jerking her backwards and snapping her great maw shut.

The password. This one knew the password.

How did you know?" she hissed. Her widening eyes were burning like red flames, but she could not attack. Magic would be magic.

Roxton wiped a bead of sweat from his brow. "The carving." His voice was quicker and shakier than he'd intended, but that hardly mattered now, didn't it? "That design on your amulet is the exact same one as the carving on Aborala shores. That's why I came to this place... and got dragged into this insane chase."

A long sigh escaped the Hissi's mouth, even though her face remained -disallowed_word-if it could be called a head; a part of it just leaned to the side, splooshing a little, but it achieved the desired effect), "that's the whole point. I'm not a mutant jelly."

Err, then what are you?"

A dire mutant jelly."

Isn't that the same thing?" Keeler pointed out sceptically, deciding to put the fact that he was talking to a jelly aside. Everyone thought he was crazy anyway.

Of course not," the dire mutant jelly huffed. "Have you ever played Neoquest before? There are plains Lupes and dire Lupes. And not only do the dire Lupes drop different stuff, but they're level four. The other ones are only level two. I saw this kid playing Neoquest once and--"

Is that even relevant?" Keeler raised an eyebrow, cutting the jelly off.

The jelly appeared to look away. "Maybe not," it admitted. "But seriously, Kyrii -- what are you doing here, anyway? I've seen you around here all week. Some Neopets come here a lot, but I've never seen one just sit here."

The Kyrii turned away. He heaved a dramatic sigh; he'd been laughed at enough times as he explained his plan to sight a never-before-seen faerie. "I... I'm looking for the Dung Faerie." And then, indignantly, as he predicted his received reply, "I know she exists! Where else would all the dung come from?"

Well then, kid, you're just in luck."

Keeler froze, whirling around, startled at the lack of scepticism in the response. Then again, he was talking to a rather articulate dire mutant jelly. "In luck?"

The blob chortled. "Of course. I know exactly where she lives; it's where I live, too. The Dung Faerie lives on the other side. You know, of reality. And the entrance to parallel reality -- nonreality, actually -- is right here at the Rubbish Dump..."

Author: Very offended Plains Lupe
Date: Jul 14th
Prize: Meepit
Story: #376
Keeler opened his mouth to scream and instantly regretted it.

His maw was instantly filled with an assortment of tastes and textures that simply cannot be recaptured in mere words, courtesy of being absorbed into the... unpredictable bulk of a sentient, articulate dire mutant jelly.

The unfortunate Kyrii choked, attempting to spit out the incorrigible sensation in his mouth. It tasted somewhat like a combination of very strong fish and nail polish, and had the texture of mashed lima beans and diamonds. However, the oddly flavoured jelly stuck stubbornly to the roof of his mouth like peanut butter, and it almost seemed a little numbing. Or maybe he couldn't spit it out because there was no room for it to go.

If he'd thought the Rubbish Dump was a rather unpleasant sensical overload, well... he'd outdone himself.

His eyes were shut tightly. Behind the lids, he saw a vast expanse of brown, which seemed to somehow... separate... into other colours. It was the only word for it. Brown was pulled apart into green, purple, and orange, which further deteriorated into blue, yellow, and red. Like everything was being reduced to its components... and then rearranged into new, nonexistent colours, strobing behind his eyes in pulsating streaks and flashes that made no sense.

And then the bizarre taste left his mouth. And the scream that had been delayed for a million hours, or maybe a split second, finally poured from his throat. Because he was falling, faster than sunlight slices through the air. Falling, and flying upward, and then jolting to a halt --

Keeler blinked, opening his eyes to light. Or something like it.

The rather helpful mutant jelly was gone. And so was the Rubbish Dump. No, he was standing on a plane of something like jelly, while a waterfall of chocolate-coated asparagus and peaches cascaded down into a cardboard river with an odd accompanying noise that was somehow both squelching and beeping. Something like a sentient marshmallow skittered past him on six spiderlike legs, clicking like long fingers typing on a Virtupets keyboard. Trees twisted up around him. Or maybe they weren't trees, because trees weren't vivid pink, sky blue (or what he remembered as sky blue, because the sky here certainly wasn't blue), or formed from shiny metallic steel?

His nose was similarly overcome by an array of scents that he could barely recognise, but certainly not make sense of.

And Keeler realised, with a feeling of unease, that there was one thing missing from the nonsensical picture of both sight and scent.

Yes, it had its jelly. And its asparagus, and marshmallows. Number Five would be ecstatic.

But there was no dung...

Author: Sixth Artemis Fowl book came out today :D
Date: Jul 15th
Prize: Screal
Story: #376
Anah shrieked as she tumbled and fell through the air.

Her heart pounded madly. Her stomach was in her throat.

Oh, sweet Fyora. I'm falling. Falling from Faerieland. How far is the ocean below? I can't fly! Help!

It took her about five seconds to gather her wits, and by then, Faerieland was ever so far away, like a glittering star in the vast midnight sky.

Oh. Right. She could fly. She'd been given her lifelong dream and painted faerie a week ago.

Swallowing down her fear, she spread out her butterly-like wings. Anah shuddered as they absorbed the shock and the speed, but heaved a sigh of relief when her freefall slowed down into a controlled hover. She was a novice at flying, but she had this much down, at least.

Fluttering her wings like the breeze through a field of dew-soaked grass, Anah cast her eyes to the lavender clouds above and began to fly back home.

Clambering back onto the edge of the cloud where her Neohome rested, the Zafara flipped over onto her back, panting, and stared up at the sunny sky as if life's meaning was etched into the sun's rays. She breathed deeply, trying to calm her frantic heart, and pondered what had just happened.

It was strange. The clouds had opened right beneath her... and then closed right after she'd fallen through. A perfect timing for the Faerieland ground to open up like some monster's maw, and either way, she'd never heard of a sinkhole in the clouds before.

And the way Suki had stared at her... it was almost like the Harris had been concentrating.

Maybe it was just imagination, but she didn't like Lijh's new Petpet much. Suki just freaked her out sometimes. The way it stared at things was too intelligent. It reminded her a little of a Meepit.

Suki?" she called, shoving her stipulation aside. "Where are you, you naughty Petpet?"

No response. Not that she'd expected one. The Harris was a Harris, after all.

With a sigh, she turned back to her Neohome. Dinner would be getting cold, and she needed to find that Petpet.

After increasingly uneasy and then agonising minutes spent searching and calling in her Neohome and gardens, Anah had drawn a conclusion.

Suki was gone.

And so was Lijh...

Author: AAARRRRGGHHHHH!
Date: Jul 21st
Prize: Faellie
Story: #377
...and no matter how foolish he'd been, she wasn't going to let him down.

As she nimbly crossed her front yard and pulled open her Neohome's door, the evening's events began to dawn on her.

What was going on?

Okay, so Suki looked sinister. Maybe that was just her imagination running amok. And it looked like the Harris had lured Lijh away. Not to mention, it also seemed as though Suki had caused the clouds to open up beneath her feet.

But she had to be serious with herself -- she was being ridiculous. Suki was a Harris. A small, pink Petpet. How could she possibly be evil?

Maybe the Petpet's constant staring off into space was even a sign of dimness.

So what was going on? Just a little misadventure?

It didn't feel like it.

But even as she tried to convince herself, she knew her mind wasn't complying with her wishes. Suki's gazing didn't seem dim at all; rather, the Harris seemed far too intelligent for a Petpet.

Anah shook her head a little, trying to empty her mind. She needed to find Lijh. He would be scared, trapped inside a secret room, even if he found comfort in the freakish Petpet that was with him...

Inside her Neohome, the delicious scent of dinner wafted through the halls, making her stomach growl. She pushed her hunger aside, although a small, rather random bit of her mind noted pessimistically that the food was getting cold now.

No time for that now. No time...

At last, she made it to the closet. Storage and junk. She pushed her way inside, fighting through the old clothes and photographs and trinkets --

Click.

Anah stiffened.

Her paw had struck a small cylindrical object. Thin and tapered.

A lever.

With a whirring sound, the back wall drew away to reveal... a tunnel?

It was stone and dark. Very unusual for Faerieland, whose architecture generally included magically enhanced wood and clouds.

The Zafara stared in shock for a few seconds, then shook herself.

How many mysteries does my Neohome hold? she wondered. Cloudy sinkholes, secret passageways. No wonder we got this place so cheap.

With only a moment's hesitation, she clambered inside.

It was stuffy, dusty, and the darkness was abyssal. The tunnel seemed to narrow instantly, and soon, Anah was struggling to move on. It was constant pulling and dragging, reaching forward and repeating the cycle. Her fur had accumulated so much dust, she wondered if she'd turn grey.

Colour change. Ha-ha.

She panted. Her heart pounded madly. It seemed impossible to breathe.

Oh, Lijh, you are so grounded for this.

Her eyes were ill-accustomed to the darkness, but at last, she saw the deep greyness around her seem to branch away, and the tight corridor relax and spread out. Almost like she was stepping into a room.

She stumbled, and her paw struck something. She fumbled with it, realising it was a lamp. Without thinking, she struck it, and a small, quivering flame jumped up, casting the shadows dancing back.

Lijh?" she called tentatively.

A small, mewling sound was her only response.

Startled, Anah whirled around, lifting up her light source to the sound.

An Angelpuss was sitting on the ground in front of her, its paws crossed over its chest, its eyes large and endearing. And yet, it bore an oddly scared appearance. Somehow, it looked familiar.

The Zafara frowned. Well, she'd seen Angelpi before --

Her eyes flew wide open in shock.

It was Lijh's missing Angelpuss.

There was no mistaking it for anyone else but Fluffles. The Angelpuss had a quirk in its left ear, and sure enough, there it was.

Anah took a step back from the Petpet, shocked.

There was a nervous bark and a rather throaty chuckling sound as a Doglefox and Gallion stepped forward to meet her. They also looked frightened; the Doglefox had its fluffball tail down, and the Gallion was quivering. Anah instantly recognised them as Rusty and Flames, Fluffles's predecessors.

Amazed, she turned around and saw myriad sets of eyes staring back at her from the darkness.

All of Lijh's Petpets were here.

But there was a glaringly obvious one missing.

Lijh was not here, and nor was Suki.

The tunnel stretched on further beyond the room filled with Petpets, a yawning earthen corridor that was black with shadows and menace...

Author: Missing Author
Date: Jul 22nd
Prize: Green Petpet Paint Brush
Story: #377
The Aisha was shaking. His fur, slick with the storm's rain, stood up in uneven yellow spikes. Whatever he'd just seen, it wasn't pretty.

A monster?" Linae echoed, glancing at Orrin. Just what was this thing he hadn't told anyone about?

The Nimmo was already running past them, down the hallways, followed by Hoban.

Shumi hesitated for a second, and then strode after them. Linae tagged along.

Tuan told me to fetch you," the Aisha panted. "The storm's getting really bad. I haven't seen its like in years. He can't spare himself to help us right now."

The ropes! Linae felt a twinge of guilt. She'd need to go back to the storeroom quickly. The sooner the sails were taken down, the better.

And then they were at the galley. Even through the closed door, the clamour in the kitchen was audible. The Nimmo did not hesitate to open it.

And there, five feet away from a spatula-wielding Bonju, the beast stood.

It was big. Really big. Perhaps as large as Captain Tuan, if not even bigger than that. It was a dull grey, with large ears and a long, twisted tail that ended in an arrowhead. Two tattered grey wings flanked its thin frame. The creature's eyes were pale yellow. It looked slightly like an over-sized, very deformed Korbat. It bared its teeth, a continuous, alarmingly loud hiss pouring from its jaws.

What is that thing?" hissed Linae. The Kougra's pink fur was bristling.

Orrin's jaw dropped.

It's the Bat Thing..."

Author: HHIIISSSSS
Date: Jul 28th
Prize: Orange Petpet Paint Brush
Story: #378
..."If time, of course, is actually pliable. I still believe that if we do go back, then we have already been back. Which would lead to the assumption that nothing ends up solving this problem."

Tarkin chuckled softly. "Nothing has been proven about time. You know time travel is forbidden."

The Skeith shot her a dark look. "And you know full well why. Do you really think they will allow us to go back because the warp has opened?"

Tarkin shrugged. "There cannot be much worse than this."

Monty gave her a grave look. "Perhaps you are right. Or, perhaps... you are not."

The words lingered in air like the silence before a storm.

The pair vanished into the darkness, leaving behind the Aisha's single whispered phrase to hang in the air.

But we have nothing to lose."

***

Somewhere beyond the tainted future of Neopia, beyond the Space Faerie's starry patrol grounds, beyond reality, something stirred.

Darkness roiled with blinding light, colours pulsating wildly and erratically, and all aspects of every sense imaginable whirled and danced in ways that defied their very natures. Dark stars glowed and shimmered among the blackest white.

It existed quietly, unknown, hovering outside the edge of reality. But it existed.

Time did not pass here. Instead, it raced forward or leapt back, sometimes holding still. If you could measure out a second here, perhaps a million years would pass in that second, or no time at all. Or possibly, you would find yourself further back than you were when your 'second' started. Time spun and danced erratically in an incomprehensible whirl.

It reached out through the dimensions, occasionally touching down in places throughout space and time. Such contact was rare, and impossibly infrequent.

Something jolted, and somewhere outside of Neopia, Year 10, a small spaceship containing a young Grundo and a slightly older Blumaroo mysteriously vanished, without leaving so much as a trace. Their families would be frantic, and authorities would search for them for months, but to no avail. They were never seen again.

Somewhere outside of Neopia, Year 1287, a spaceship containing a young Grundo and a slightly older Blumaroo appeared out of nowhere, continuing its course to the planet.

And deep within the heart of the time warp, she stirred.

Imprisoned here ever since her worst deed yet, one that had destroyed and tainted Neopia for an eternity to come, she had slept. And slept. Undisturbed and untouched by the passage of time. The sands did not pass through time's hourglass here.

But now...

The faerie lifted her head and brought herself to attention, shaking the ceaseless sleep from her mind. She assessed the situation in a sixty-fourth of a second. Deftly, she leapt into the wormhole a few moments before it closed up.

A fading strain of a cackle lingered in the empty space for a second after she vanished, before it was sucked up by the time loop and deposited in some other unknown galaxy a couple million years ago.

Oh, no, Neopia was not done with this dark faerie...

Author: Warped
Date: Aug 6th
Prize: Yellow Petpet Paint Brush
Story: #379
And of course, in her agitation-driven comic, there had been no escape possible.

Aletia wanted to smack herself on the forehead. She'd drawn that entire series to deal with her complete and utter annoyance with her older sibling, using them to channel her wish that he'd go off and disappear. It seemed like a sick, sick joke that she was getting her wish now.

How could I have ever been so cruel? He's my brother!

The Xweetok clenched her fists. Well, she was going to get him out of it. And maybe he wouldn't be so petty when she saved him.

Yeah, right, her negative half said sarcastically.

Her thoughts drifted to the strange, seemingly magical -- or cursed -- pen in her pocket. She forced herself to focus. Yes, perhaps she'd not allowed for any escape. But she could always draw one in, right?

She shuddered. Using the pen again was the last thing she wanted to do.

If that's what it takes to save him, that's what I'll do. If not for him, for Mother...

It couldn't be so bad. She could draw in a superhero, a Defender. Maybe Judge Hog or Lightning Lenny would help her, or some new amazingly powerful hero to join her cause. What could go wrong?

Besides everything? her pessimistic side cut in again wryly. You have no idea how this pen works.

Shut up, her optimistic side said in a very pointed, non-optimistic fashion.

She sighed. She didn't have to draw anything yet. She could just go see where her brother was, and try to work something out from there.

Aletia glanced at her pale, unconscious mother once more. The doctor would arrive any minute now.

With only a second's more hesitation, Aletia stepped out of her Neohome and into the pages of a comic book.

Unconsciously, she knew where to look. Where her inspiration had come from. Behind her house was a forest, a wood that she had never completely seen all of due to sheer size. She'd been told scary stories about it before, when she was younger.

Scary stories. She rolled her eyes as she made her way through the trees that grew thicker with every step. Did she need any more trouble?

Well, they probably weren't true. Not like the real problem that she was chasing after...

There was a sudden rustling, a scuffling in the trees behind her.

Nothing else supernatural can be happening, she told herself, trying to flatten the fur instinctively rising up on her neck. It's probably just a Petpet, or a hunting Lupe. You only drew one comic with that strange p--

She froze.

Because that hadn't been the first one she'd drawn.

The other one had just been more of a doodle, an offhand sketch. Something that she wouldn't have noticed if it had disappeared.

Slowly, the Xweetok turned around...

Author: Reality Comic Artist
Date: Aug 11th
Prize: Acko
Story: #380
There was just that feeling. After all he'd done with Nysck, Sen simply knew when something wasn't going according to plan. His heart, already accelerated with the mixed terror and thrill of the execution of a crime, skipped half a beat.

He waited. Ten more seconds ticked on. The heat of the flames scalded him, even from the small distance he stood at.

Pets were screaming, pointing, running. Sen knew that they should have been off by now, their crime already committed. Attention was never a good thing, and Sen knew they were getting a lot more of it than they needed.

And yet, on Nysck's instructions, here he waited.

His thoughts began to whirl. Where was the faerie? Was she hurt? Trapped in the fire? Doomed?

For that matter, where was Nysck? Had he gone in to steal the Neggs himself?

Thief as I may be, I can't live with death on my conscience.

What about your own death? his sarcastic side noted pointedly. It's kinda hot in there, if you haven't realised.

Sen hesitated, glancing back at the chaos behind him. Before long, some authority would show up. And then he and his Scorchio friend would be in a lot more trouble than they'd ever bargained for.

Trying not to think of what he was doing, Sen ripped the door wide open and thrust himself in.

Smoke. Fire and smoke. Sen choked. How did Nysck bear it, being a walking fireball? The prospect seemed unbearably agitating.

Marred by the scent of the fire, the smell of Neggs wafted up to him, irresistably inviting.

Inwardly, he groaned. How could he manage to be hungry at a time like this?

It was too hot. Some voice in the back of his head wondered if the Neggery would collapse on him as he ran through. The Meerca tried not to think about it, but it was difficult.

He pulled more doors out of the way. Doors, Neggs. Doors, Neggs, fire. That was all there was, thrown into some jumbled labyrinth.

And then he heard a voice.

He caught a strain of a sentence, a soft faerie's whisper, not Nysck's voice of fire.

You woke it."

And then the Meerca was in, bursting through a final door.

He froze to a halt, his feet slipping slightly as his frame turned to stone.

The Negg Faerie stood by the blazing wall of the Neggery, her eyes burning like the flames her respite was enduring. Her palms glowed with a nimbus of magic.

Behind her stood Nysck.

Not stood. Cowered was closer to the mark. The Scorchio looked badly shaken, his fiery wings seeming oddly diminished. He stared past her, past Sen, at something the Meerca couldn't see.

Something rumbled...

Author: Criminal Mastermind?
Date: Aug 18th
Prize: Skunk Paint Brush
Story: #381
You could never escape me."

The voice was barely a hiss, a broken rasp. Hardly audible. And yet, it was hauntingly familiar, and a whirl of out-of-focus memories of clashing swords and screaming armies sent shudders up Garin's spine.

Who -- are -- you?" the Usul managed to choke out, writhing as his lungs filled with sand.

And yet, as his chest burned, and his lungs screamed, and his throat seemed to rip apart with the agony... he was still breathing. It didn't feel like air, but what else could it be?

Breathing sand? How was that possible?

Somehow, Garin knew it wasn't.

Revenge," the sand-hiss whispered, the reply seeming slow and distorted.

He'd had little experience with magic. Just while fighting alongside Isca and Caylis, as well as his short but uncomfortable encounter with the Drenched. And his necklace, the enchanted amulet that had allowed him to visit Maraqua. But... magic could do a lot of stuff, right?

It's an illusion, Garin realised. This is all but an illusion. I can feel the pain, the heat, the exhaustion, but it is all a lie.

As soon as the Usul embraced that fact, the magic unravelled, strips of it peeling away in a very peculiar show. It was still dark -- reality was barely brighter than the illusion of the hopeless desert -- but Garin could actually see the illusion unwinding, falling apart. Sense returned, and for a second, all Garin could do was revel in the cold, musty air, after the sensation of burning desert heat.

Cautiously, his sudden hope dwindling like a sinking ship embracing Maraqua's depths, he glanced around, trying to see through the semi-darkness. He was in a cave, a damp, gloomy cave, the walls lined with fungus and mold. It looked like a smuggler's hangout.

Except that there was absolutely no exit. Just rock.

And the voice that spoke to him was no longer masked with distortion.

You are trapped," Captain Scarblade pronounced, smirking at the Usul as he scrutinised the younger pirate's face. "And if you ever want to see your precious ship again, you're going to help me..."

Author: You hear the cackling of a MAD PIRATE CAPTAIN.
Date: Aug 26th
Prize: Cool Negg
Story: #382
For a moment, all Nyeni could do was stare in shock.

The vacation leaflet didn't say anything about this..."

Mystery Island never saw snow. Never.

But what else could it be? The Kyrii blinked a few times, shaking her head, but the streams of purest white emerging from the volcano's peak did not vanish or change colour to a more explainable (if no less reassuring) fiery orange. The volcano was no doubt erupting, but this was by no means the usual eruption...

What could possibly cause this?

The unusual turn in weather had not passed unnoticed by the other beach-goers. Tourists stared and pointed in puzzlement, whereas some of the locals fled, screaming of bad omens and prophecies and doom.

The Kyrii frowned. I must go to the mountain. I need to find out what's going on.

Nyeni knew she was an adept mountain climber. And while the week of sun and sea might have softened her a little, she was quite used to freezing air and howling gusts.

You have no equipment, her pessimistic side noted wryly.

And then a giant chunk of something much more solid than ice hurtled out of the mountain's lip. Coming straight at her. With a shriek, Nyeni leapt back, and the block of what appeared to be ice crashed to the shadowed sand a few metres away from the edge of the beach, where it met the jungle.

But it wasn't merely ice.

Without really thinking, instinctively, the Kyrii started toward the chunk of ice, making her way through the thinning throng of beach-goers toward the dense island jungle.

Frozen in the block of ice, unseeing eyes wide and horrified, was Jhuidah...

Author: Frozen Author
Date: Sep 2nd
Prize: Snowickle
Story: #383
The Kyrii took an instinctive step back, and a small squeak escaped her mouth before a mass of enraged Petpets fell upon her.

And oh, how it hurt! The cuteness had been fairly deceiving. En masse, the beaks snapping at her were painful.

She shut her eyes, tears beginning to form in her eyes. Why had she taken this stupid vacation after all?

Through the clamour, she somehow managed to hear a faint noise. A rustle. Squinting, she dragged her head up a fraction and opened one eye.

The Techo Master had sprung to action.

He moved like a lightning strike, power and speed beyond mortality. He swept across the clearing too fast for an eye to track, cutting through the frenzy like a Maractite blade. Darblat after Darblat keeled over, unconscious. Nyeni jolted as he knocked all the Darblats on top of her with one well-placed kick, his aim so precise that his foot skimmed her fur.

With one fluid movement, the Techo Master knocked out the last five with one lash of his fist and leapt back to the centre of the clearing, resuming his meditation as if nothing had happened.

Nyeni was left staring at the Techo, completely dumbstruck. It hadn't even taken him twenty seconds to incapacitate hundreds.

At last, she found her tongue. "Thank you," Nyeni began.

He smiled placidly and nodded.

What were those things?" she continued.

The old Techo opened his mouth to speak and then froze.

Slowly, the aged eyes lifted, staring through the fog, up toward a peak that was smoking. Not snowing, honestly smoking, with no trace of illusion.

Trouble brews here, young one," he murmured to Nyeni. "The disturbance woke up a much deeper calamity. It may be out of our hands."

Wh--" Nyeni began, but she was cut off.

The volcano gave a deafening roar, and clouds of fiery ash shot up toward the blackened sky, followed by a single, mighty plume of molten red lava. The Kyrii shrieked.

No. The volcano wasn't roaring. Something alive was.

Moltenus had arisen...

Author: Some volcanic tendencies...
Date: Sep 4th
Prize: Blue Petpet Paint Brush
Story: #383
The faerie's frozen face remained static, the horrified features stuck in place as Moltenus's fury blazed toward her.

And then the eyes clamped shut and the teeth gritted as the molten bolt struck her.

A shower of green and magenta sparks came off the ice as it vaporised, aiming the fire away from the now-freed faerie. Jhudiah still had a fair amount of magic.

Not enough, though.

Lady Frostbite screeched, whirling around as she created another slick of thin ice to stand upon, and they all watched as the force of the flame sent the dazed Jhuidah flying backward into the icy embrace of the ocean.

No!" Eithne cried weakly, apparently conscious again.

Lady Frostbite hissed, jumping around again to throw a rather slushy blast of snow at the giant Moltenore. Her icy eyes were narrowed with defiance, but Nyeni could see the mingled fear and despair in them.

Find the faerie," she demanded in a tense aside to the Petpet.

The Darblat gave another cry of "Blat!", pushing Eithne onto the ice floe, and then the Kyrii in turn --

A giant shock ran through earth and water alike. Waves roared up, metres taller than before. Mystery Island itself shook. With a cry, Nyeni was flung backward into the raging sea, trapped in a frigid tumult of the elements...

Nyeni flailed wildly, thrashing to keep afloat in the icy water as she desperately scanned for Jhuidah. She choked on salt water. But she could not see the Island Faerie; the roaring, towering, unfriendly waves loomed over her, disorienting her as her eyes already spun.

Something pushed her from under, buoying her up, and she saw the same Darblat from before carrying her. It had brought a friend with it, apparently, because a second one started pulling her back toward where Lady Frostbite stood on her makeshift iceberg.

Thanks," she whispered to the Petpet. "Errr, bla-blat, blat, blat-blat blat."

What was that about grape Neocola? the Darblat beneath her wondered idly as it towed her toward Lady Frostbite, whose eyes were shut in concentration as she re-froze the raging water beneath her.

A third Darblat was approaching, swimming at an alarming rate. It glittered with a faint greenish sheen, and soon Nyeni could see why -- a very exhausted but determined-looking Jhuidah clung to its back, her eyes narrowed as she took in the Island.

The Kyrii glanced back too, wondering how the clash of flame and snow was going. Lady Frostbite only needed to hold on a little longer...

And then Nyeni saw what had caused the earthquake.

The volcano was erupting...

Author: Blat blat-bla-blat blatblat. :)
Date: Sep 10th
Prize: Mutant Petpet Paint Brush
Story: #383
And then Nyeni knew the truth.

He was afraid.

Had the situation not been so chaotically desperate, the Kyrii would have laughed at the irony. An ancient, giant Moltenore of unsurpassed fiery power, positively terrified.

But Moltenus's power was waning too, just like Lady Frostbite's. His initial rage of being cooped up in the volcano had long since worn off, and now he was only following some ancient duty. Protecting the Island from the threat, the frozen Krawk who would see it turned to a barren wasteland of ice. For Moltenus was a part of Mystery Island, another figure entwined in its legends and lore.

Even as she watched, Nyeni saw swirls of grey rock twining among the molten sentinel's body.

Moltenus was cooling. Mystery Island was dying. Moltenus could not live without the volcano, and the volcano could not live without Moltenus.

She saw it now, how perfectly, how delicately everything was intertwined, a glittering web of life. For all his blazing fury, the great Moltenore was as important to the Island's welfare as Jhuidah herself. Moltenus, Jhuidah, Techo Mountain... they were all linked to the power of Mystery Island, and now that power was dying.

The imbalance had come when the tropics had turned arctic. Then it had been shaken further when Moltenus stirred to fight off the intruder, like a body responding to a disease. But that had weakened the volcano, and with the Island drowning, and Jhuidah powerless...

This fight had to stop. Now. If it wasn't already too late, then the time left to the land was measured in minutes, if not seconds.

If this kept up, Lady Frostbite would lose all her powers, and probably be swept up by the roaring sea. Moltenus would solidify until all that remained of him was one great grey statue, a statue that would sink into the depths of the sea with the rest of his domain.

And Jhuidah, and Eithne, and the Islanders, and all of the folklore and stories. All the native tribes, and their pasts and customs and magic. Rorru and her haikus, confusing, but with a certain beauty to them. The Rock Pool, where the kindly yellow Kougra watched over the refugee Petpets from the giant whirlpool that had destroyed Maraqua. The Ghost Lupe, patrolling the sandy shores at night, a knight searching for a long-lost love. The jungles, the Training school, all of the Kougras and Myncis and the coconut JubJubs...

All lost forever.

This couldn't happen. Nyeni wouldn't allow it.

She felt a sort of fury welling up in her, a power she hadn't known she had. Almost like the Island's waning strength was flowing into her, the feeling growing stronger with every second. Only it wasn't fury; it was more like determination, but fierier than any blast Moltenus had ever conjured up.

Stop!" she cried to Lady Frostbite.

Are you mad?" the Krawk snarled, slinging a blast of tiny ice shards at Moltenus. He retaliated with a blast of flame that was more smoke than fire and largely dissipated before it even reached the frail icy assault. "He's almost done for!"

Nyeni grabbed Lady Frostbite's cyan arm. "You can't destroy him! Mystery Island needs him in the volcano, not vanquished."

Get off of me, you silly girl," snapped the Krawk, shaking the Kyrii so violently that she keeled backward. A blast of cold lanced through Nyeni, and she would have fallen off the iceberg had a Darblat not dashed across the ice to push her back into balance.

Nyeni glared and was formulating a sharp remark when a third voice cut in.

You would do well, sorceress, not to waste any more of your power harming an innocent child."

Another Darblat had crawled onto the ice, and next to it stood the Techo Master. Magnificent as ever, the old Neopet did not look in the least bit shaken.

Lady Frostbite flushed with anger. "Don't you order me around, you old fool."

The Techo frowned slightly. "You would also do well to listen to your instincts. This is a battle that neither side can win."

This island is mine!" Frostbite hissed, throwing another burst of powdery snow at Moltenus.

It cannot be yours. You have known that for quite some time, I think."

The Krawk looked on the verge of taking a swipe at the Techo when Nyeni cut in.

How do we get Moltenus back in the volcano?"

The Techo looked at her, and his eyes were strangely pitying. Sad.

I am afraid," he murmured, his voice gentle but grave, stretching out his hand, "that it is nobody but you who can complete this task."

In his hand was a glittering black codestone...

Author: The Chosen Author?
Date: Sep 11th
Prize: Mortog
Story: #383
The Chia had a determined glint to his eyes as he pushed the giant chocolate sculpture. There was something else in his eyes too, a gleam that was largely unfathomable.

Liljek didn't stop staring, though. There was something different about the Negg. It didn't really look outright different than the one he'd accidentally shattered earlier, but it couldn't have been the same one -- he had destroyed it, right?

Oh, and it glittered. It was a faint sheen, a subtle, mysterious sparkle that was barely visible in the half-darkness, but there was something profoundly wrong with it.

Did he have another sculpture?" he whispered incredulously. "Why attack me about it, then? What a jerk."

It's probably not the same Chia," Jaym muttered.

Just then, the Chia looked over, spotted Liljek, and gave him a baleful glare of so much loathing that the Moehog's doubt was washed away like sand on the Mystery Island beaches.

***

Arthe's heart was pounding.

Partially with excitement. Here he was, at the Chocolate Ball, among all the master chocolatiers. The pinnacle of chocolate. And he had a beautiful, beautiful masterpiece to his name this time.

And then with fear.

He'd cheated. He, Arthe, had cheated. His spell had been as carefully crafted, as undetectable as that of the most powerful faeries, but it was still there. If his Negg was scrutinised too closely, by the right eyes...

And the Moehog. That accursed, accursed Moehog was here. At the Chocolate Ball!

But that wasn't the worst bit. He could repress his anger at the Moehog, that clumsy, destructive pet, but the Moehog could be his very undoing. If he let slip to anyone that his beautiful Negg had been destroyed only minutes ago, then they'd know that he, Arthe, was cheating. He'd never, never be an apprentice then. He'd be a laughingstock, his name a taboo.

No, he had to keep that silly pet quiet. It was for his own good, really.

Nothing will happen if he doesn't try to tell, he assuaged his fluttering conscience. If not... well, he'll be paying for the way he crossed me earlier. He'll have thoroughly deserved this if he ruins me twice.

Making sure his face was hidden from prying eyes, he closed his eyes and muttered an incantation...

Author: Chocolatey spellcasting goodness
Date: Sep 16th
Prize: Purple Petpet Paint Brush
Story: #384
***

Jaym's jaw dropped.

He'd seen it all. Cowering behind his repaired Negg, the Chia had started to mutter something at him -- the Mynci had seen where the Chia's eyes were looking.

The chocolate master had confronted him, and for a second, things had started to go right.

Then they'd spiralled even further out of control.

The Chia had muttered another spell at the furious Kiko, and the old Neopet's anger had faded into a rather vapid blankness, which faded to pleasantry. And somehow, over the buzz of excited crowds, Jaym had heard the Chia's demands...

Liljek," he hissed. "Did you just see that?"

See what?" the Moehog demanded thickly through a mouthful of warm chocolate.

That Chia, the one from earlier. He's on to us. And he just brainwashed the chocolate master, from the looks of it."

So he can use magic?" Liljek swallowed. "Yeah, since I broke that Negg and saw it repaired, I kind of figured he was up to something. But what...?" He shivered suddenly, despite the warmth of the room.

He put some sort of spell on the chocolate master. We need to take it off. I think grandeur is starting to get to this guy's head. Do you have any ideas?"

The Moehog didn't answer.

Liljek, please! This is urgent. We need to break this spell!"

Still no response.

Liljek, stop eating and pay attention!"

Aggravated, Jaym whirled around, mouth open, and his blood ran cold.

There was a lot more chocolate on Liljek now. It seemed to cover him entirely. Only it wasn't dripping any more, and the Moehog had stopped trying to eat it.

He was only a chocolate statue...

Author: Chocolate Author
Date: Sep 17th
Prize: Halloween Petpet Paint Brush
Story: #384
The coat flapped in the light wind, and for one second, Annad could see everything before her.

Clouds. Light. Up ahead, a glorious, bubbling spring.

A fleeting hope that Taira was going to ask the Healing Faerie for help soared high in Annad's chest before crashing down again, leaving the Bori feeling even more ill.

Because why would the Eyrie confess to the Healing Faerie that she was becoming a faerie hunter? Once upon a time, Taira would have done anything to save her friend, including turning herself in. But now... Annad shivered, although the air inside the smooth planes of the vial was warm. Something inside Taira had changed -- some warm, friendly piece of her heart had turned as hard and icy as steel.

And then there was the look on Taira's face.

A memory was thrown into perfect clarity before Annad's eyes -- the time Taira's little brother, Kaize, had fallen ill with a bad case of Neoflu. And every day, Taira would come home, face filled with rage, her sneezing, miserable sibling in tow, ranting about how the Healing Faerie had only healed him a little, or placed a Poisonous Snowball in his paw... and Kaize only cried harder and harder as his condition continued to deteriorate...

A tear rolled down Annad's cheek, splashing against the bottle. It had been horrible.

And now Taira was going to get an equally horrible revenge.

Stop!" she shrieked in her pitifully small voice as Taira reached inside her coat for another bottle, but the Eyrie never heard her. She didn't even make eye contact, keeping her face low. Wincing at the echoes, the Bori curled into a ball and heaved a huge sob as darkness shrouded her once more.

Taira stepped forward until she was under a metre away, keeping her coat closed and her face even. No need to arouse any suspicion in that awful faerie before it was too late.

Hello, young Neopet," the Healing Faerie said in her deceitfully soft, kind voice, shifting upon the rock where she sat. "Do you need a healing?"

Actually," the Eyrie said, smiling with cruel satisfaction as she lifted the bottle. It sparkled coldly in the light. "I require a rather different kind service from you. Remember me?"

The Healing Faerie had barely any time to drop her jaw in horror before the coldly laughing Taira lunged forward, trapping her in the vial...

The faerie cried out, her voice as pitifully tiny as her body. Taira smiled as she corked the flask, feeling the vindictive satisfaction of revenge thrumming through her veins.

You owed me that. Now be a good faerie and I won't store you away in my Safety Deposit Box for all eternity."

What are you doing?"

Taira's head jerked up. A faerie Kougra was starting toward her, his eyes horrified and furious.

Are you mad?" he continued. "Set her free or I'll call the Faerie Queen down here!"

And then Taira realised her mistake. Yes, she'd gotten her revenge, but she'd done so in broad daylight, in front of a very large crowd...

Author: Bottled Writer Faerie
Date: Sep 23rd
Prize: Zei Codestone
Story: #385
Reginald cried out in shock.

It was impossible to fathom. Neovia, his home, the town that had existed in the midst of the woods for centuries... gone? The concept was disturbing enough to send shivers down his spine.

That's impossible! Neovia can't stop existing!"

Ilere laughed mirthlessly. "Why not?"

It... it just can't!"

His hands contracted instinctively, and with a yelp, Blink leaped out of Reginald's paws and nimbly landed upon Sophie's shoulder, glaring balefully at the Lupe.

The faerie's white-green eyes gleamed. "I have heard that you love your books, Reginald. Is it possible that you know so little of magic? Your town was founded by magic, upon the roots of magic. And magic will forever twine through it. It was why Krawley was drawn here in the first place, and why the Spirit of Slumber answered Thumburt's plea. If magic ceases to support the foundations of Neovia, it will fall into chaos and then ruin, and it will lie in dereliction until even the memory of it is forever lost."

Reginald shook his head wildly, trying to blot out the faerie's poisonous words. Ilere had to be lying. It couldn't be true...

Sophie frowned, speaking up for the first time in a while.

I think you're wrong, Ilere."

Two sets of eyes -- and one single eye -- locked on her face; Ilere's were infuriated, Reginald's were hopeful, and Blink's was impassive.

You think you know more of the forest's roots than --"

No," Sophie snapped, her staff sparking with annoyance. "I'm not an idiot, Ilere. What I mean is, I think you're wrong about Flangick. I think he knows exactly what he's doing."

Ilere's eyes flickered. "Of course," she muttered.

What do you mean?" Reginald was puzzled and appalled, and also slightly annoyed at being out of the loop. "Why would he want to destroy Neovia?"

Sophie shifted slightly. "I think he's working for..."

Author: Sneaky
Date: Oct 1st
Prize: Mau Codestone
Story: #386
...that floated down in an almost mocking fashion into the bowl.

Erold trembled once, a small shudder that ran down his spine and set his lavender fins aflutter.

The ingredient was secret, of course. So secret that only the chef knew exactly what it was. Erold secretly suspected that it contained dashes of faerie dust. So it wasn't like he could suddenly whip up an extra batch of the powder on a whim or at any moment, such as, say, when his job was on the line, a well-known critic was dining at kelp, and the whole restaurant suddenly seemed to be breathing down his neck.

Of all the nights to go wrong...

He sagged, his tail unfurling. Without the ingredient, the ice cream would be merely ice cream. Nothing special. A bit anti-climactic, really. A mediocre end to a perfect dinner made the perfect dinner not-so-perfect, and kelp would be the laughingstock of fine dining when Mr. Upington's reviews in the Neopian Times claimed that it was not nearly as much as it was cracked up to be. And his coworkers would blame it on him, too. He --

Wait.

The ingredient was special. Very special. A sprinkling of it was used in plenty of kelps signature dishes. Too special for the chef to let it run out.

And the bag had been completely full this morning.

Could it have been used up? He doubted it.

No, it had been stolen.

His suspicions were confirmed when a low chuckle reverberated through the water, and a flicker of cream and orange fins flashed in the corner of his eyes...

Author: Maraquan Draik Thief?
Date: Oct 6th
Prize: Gallion
Story: #387
Erold shuddered and flicked his tail much faster than necessary, propelling himself out of the back door and toward the Maraquan Ruins. Yes, the Scorchio's face suggested something more devious, but he had no time to ponder that. A well of tears awaited...

***

Franz chuckled quietly but harshly to himself.

Oh, this new fool of a worker was so gullible.

Why would the chef want to oust the competition? He had no competition. He was the chef, and a well-respected one at that.

And using Caylis's Tears as an ingredient in common, everyday food? What an idiotic concept. He snorted. No, the fool would bring him back the prize ingredient in the spell he needed. Quietly, Franz withdrew the jar he'd filled with the secret ingredient from the pantry behind him and began to mix the ice cream.

The chef, the chef he loathed so much, that condescending fool, would be put to shame when he had no dessert to present. And he, Franz, would save the day with the most brilliant desert Mr. Upington had ever tasted. Oh, this would make the best ice cream ever. So enthralling, everyone who caught a drop of it on their tongue would be completely under his power.

He could make it kelps new signature dish, too.

Grinning to himself, he flicked his tail and began.

Oh, Chef," he murmured under his breath as he stirred, "who's the amateur now?"...

Author: Sneaky chef...
Date: Oct 8th
Prize: Har Codestone
Story: #387
Armin stared at the bone with horror.

It was as black as fresh ash, as night; a gleaming piece of ebony darkness moulded into a curved, long shard. And it was glowing; a soft, red, malevolent light that fell across the snowy ice like a bloody shadow. And the piece of bone seemed to tremble slightly in Sarra's claws, filling her ears with a strange, unearthly hum.

Armin choked. "I... I thought he was gone."

Sarra's claws tightened, almost as if she were trying to smother the bone's vibration. They gleamed in the reddish light with an eerie sheen. "But... isn't he? You destroyed the Bringer."

Armin blinked, then shook his head. "We need to tell the elders about this. Now."

What?" With a great effort, Sarra tore her eyes away from the remnant of the once great monster who had attempted to obliterate her race. It seemed to have a strange pull to it. "Armin, it's just a bone."

The yellow Bori looked at her gravely. "I don't think the Bringer of Night is as gone as we thought."

What do you mean?"

I heard," Armin said slowly, "that the Bringer wasn't exactly alive when the thieves unleashed him upon us. They'd summoned him, right? Using some ritual. What if they could do it ag --"

Wait," Sarra interrupted. Her eyes were trained over Armin's shoulder.

What?"

Shush. Do you hear that?" Sarra's ears were perked, leaning forward intently. Listening to the distant but growing-ever-closer crunch of pawsteps on hard snow, and the muted whispers of a hushed conversation...

Author: Writer remnants
Date: Oct 13th
Prize: Faerie Petpet Paint Brush
Story: #388
Approximate Total Prize Value Count: 35,265,500 NP



Due to popular demand, I am making a story out of the intro!

Story #Eleventy ends Sometime.

Laluzi yawned. "Wow," said the royally dressed Darigan Kougra. "I can't believe our owner just wasted so much time working on a page that nobody will ever read."

Yep," agreed the pet she was talking to, a Werelupe named Falayi. "I mean, why can't she do something productive, like feeding us?

Laluzi sighed. "I wish she'd never have entered the Story Telling Competition in the first place. Now, she spends all the time on the site refreshing that page, and she freaks out when she wins. I swear her eyes popped out of her head once."

A Baby Kougra laying on a pile of pillows piped up, "But it was pretty cool when Mommy got that Island Paint Brush."

Oh, shut up, Purricat," responded the Werelupe eloquently. "Besides, she's not Mommy, she's Dianacat777. She's just our owner."

Purricat grumbled and went back to sleep.

Oh, my god," said an astounded-looking Halloween Kougra named Vampiirae. "Guys, I think there's somebody in here!

Laluzi raised her eyebrow so high it almost fell off her face. "Then they're crazy..." she said, but yes, there was a person there, named guest.

BANANA CREAM PIES!!!" screamed guest. Suddenly, the ceiling began to crumble, and the walls began to shake, as a giant rain of banana cream pies began to fall from the sky...

Author: o_O Somebody's there.
Date: June 25th
..."What?" cried Laluzi, looking up at the falling pies.

guest just stood there and laughed their head off, dancing in the falling pies.

EEEEWWW!" cried Purricat, waking up. "I hate coconut cream pies!

Oh, shut up," said Falayi, reusing her line. "They're banana.

Do I care?" asked Purricat.

Uhhh, guys?" asked the Halloween Kougra. "Why don't we get out of here, before we drown in banana cream pies?"

Good point," noted Laluzi, and she ran out of the rapidly crumbling (and cream-covered) Neohome, followed by Dianacat777's other pets.

I want Mommy!" wailed Purricat. "Me no likey banana cream pies!"

Oh, shut up," said Falayi irritably, turning her line into a cliche. "First, it's NOT Mommy, it's Dianacat777. Two, you do not have mad grammar skillz. Three, 'likey' isn't a word.

Uhhh, Falayi?" said Laluzi. "Please shut up. You're ruining the dramatic tension. Storytelling Competitions are the time to run around screaming and creating plots, or talking nonsense dialogue to stall the time while we're thinking of a plot. Nobody wants to read about a Werelupe giving a Baby Kougra a grammar lesson."

Then, Dianacat777 ran in. "Oh god, my house!" she screamed...

Author: Don't got no grammar skills neither
Date: Jun 25th
...Then she looked up and saw that she was in the little colored boxes that they put the Storytelling entries in.

Wow!" she cried. "I'm the protagonist of a Storytelling Competition!" She looked around for the Storytelling director guy to give him a hug.

Laluzi poked her. "Uhmmmm, actually, this is a fake. WE'RE the main characters, not you. And you wrote it, not the Storytelling guy."

Good point," noted the eccentric, Darigan-obsessed user, and she began to lead a conga line of fruitcakes off the panel.

Wigglepuppy!" screamed guest, throwing pies at whoever is reading this, so I guess guest was throwing pies at themself.

Why is that weird person throwing pies at themself?" asked Vampiirae.

I want Mommy!" wailed Purricat. "Me no likey banana cream pies!"

Oh, shut up," said Falayi irritably, yet again using her cliche. "You already used that line last entry."

No fair! I already used all the words I know!" cried the Baby Kougra.

So your whole vocabulary consists of 31 words?" asked Laluzi skeptically.

What does consists mean?" replied Purricat, proving her point.

Okay, no new lines from you, get off the set," said the director, hidden behind a tree.

Purricat grumbled again and left the little cream-colored box with text in it.

Say," said Vampiirae suddenly, looking worriedly back at the yellow-colored ruins of her beloved home. "I think guest just turned into an MP3 player...

Author: Already used up all her lines
Date: Jun 25th
...Laluzi's eyebrow rose so high it fell off her head and landed on the ground with a thump.

Hey!" cried the very annoyed eyebrow, and it too marched off the stage in a huff.

Wow!" cried a voice out of the box that sounded very much like a certain Baby Kougra. "An MP3! I want it!"

Falayi ran over to the edge of the panel and spent the rest of her time in this particular box keeping Purricat from re-entering the story.

How are we going to get that MP3 back to being guest?" asked Vampiirae.

Why do we want to get it back?" asked Laluzi. "There's no more banana cream pies falling from the sky, and besides, Dianacat777 never let us listen to her MP3.

Good point," noted Vampiirae, and the two winged Kougras prowled over to the MP3 player.

Awww, come on," said Laluzi after a minute. "There's no good songs on it..." She took it out of her ears and walked away.

The MP3 chose this particular moment to morph back into guest, and the rain of all things banana, creamy, and pie-ish commenced.

Suddenly, a shadow fell over the two Kougras, and they simultaneously looked up...

Author: Baby Kougra-B-Gone
Date: Jun 26th
..."Oh dear," said Vampiirae slowly.

Oh dear hardly covers it!" cried Laluzi. She dove into her dazed companion and slid to safety a few yards away.

WEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!" screamed the falling Dianacat777, clutching the evil giant doughnut that she was riding.

Crash! The doughnut hit the ground, and chunks of dough and purple frosting went flying everywhere.

This just keeps getting weirder and weirder..." muttered Laluzi.

Vampiirae poked Laluzi. "Uhhmmmm... I don't think that was the only doughnut she had..." she stammered worriedly.

Dianacat777 was doing a stupid, almost ritualistic dance, complete with extravagant gesticulations and weird noises. And more and more shadows were falling across the ground.

Falayi stopped holding Purricat back to run back into the story, followed by the nosy Baby Kougra, although an unwanted character was the least of their worries. "It's Dianacat777's Giant Doughnut Army!" the Werelupe screamed.

Run!" cried Laluzi, who deftly scooped up her baby sister, and the four pets fled the scene.

You know," panted Laluzi, once they had outrun the doughnuts, "has anyone stopped to think about why all of this is going on?"

No," responded the Halloween Kougra testily. "We're in a Storytelling Competition, and for god's sake, Dianacat777 wrote it. No wonder everything is being weird..."

Wawuzi!" cried Purricat suddenly. "Look!"

From their point of view, which happened to be on top of a huge skyscraper that they had just randomly appeared on, they saw a dramatic plot unfold...

A war between the banana cream pies and the giant doughnuts was about to begin, and in the center of the chaos was none other than Dianacat777 and guest...

Author: Captain Doughnut
Date: Jun 27th
..."Oh dear," said Vampiirae slowly.

Wasn't that the same opening line you used last time?" criticized Laluzi.

Vampiirae was about to say something along the lines of "Who cares?", but at that specific moment, the fight began.

BOOM! There was frosting and cream and glazed dough and pie crust and pies and doughnuts flying everywhere. Dianacat777 and guest circled each other. Daiancat777 was making various weird noises and the resulting speech bubble crushed Purricat.

Serves Dianacat777 right," muttered Falayi. "Now she has to buy another paint brush."

Vampiirae poked Falayi. "Uhhmmmm... did you notice pur sister happens to be, like, dead?" she questioned.

Who cares?" retorted Falayi. "It's just a story. She'll probably just spring back to life in a few minutes."

Vampiirae rolled her eyes. "That sort of thing only happens in really lame stories with even lamer characters," she proclaimed, and returned to watching the battle.

A few minutes later, Purricat sprang back to life. The two Halloween pets looked at each other. Vampiirae decided not to comment.

The battle's heating up," said Laluzi suddenly. "Look!"

The city was nearly trashed. Almost all of the buildings were destroyed, and everything was covered in banana cream and frosting. But now, there were giant cats and olives in the fray, too. And where Dianacat777 and guest were fighting, there stood two more people; Talon___Star and Oliviahorse7.

One of Oliviahorse7's pets came up to join them. "You know?" asked the Shadow Uni, who was named Midnight77777777777. "I think my name has too many 7's in it."

And this has what to do with the plot...?" asked Purricat.

Midnight shrugged. "I don't know," she admitted. "But I thought we needed a bit of an anticlimax..."

Midnight?" advised Laluzi suddenly. "I know that, like, you're my friend and everything, but can you please get out of the story? My idiot of an owner is the one that wrote this thing, and since you're not her pet, I'm afraid she'll kill you off in some idiotic way."

It's a little late for that," laughed a very evil and sinister voice behind them...

Author: Has too many 7's
Date: Jun 30th
...Midnight let out a muffled squeal and slowly turned around...

The evil voice actually belonged to a fuzzy, completely ordinary squirrel.

Laluzi raised an eyebrow, which had somehow managed to get back onto her head. "And just who do you think you are?"

The squirrel glowered at them. "Hey," it protested indignantly in its normal voice, which was much different from the sinister, deep tones it had been using on its previous lines. "I always wanted to be evil! Just give me a chance! I-"

The squirrel never got to finish its quote, because at that time, Falayi picked it up by the fluffy tail and flung it out of the story.

Midnight's tail swished. "You're right, Laluzi. I should leave," she whinnied, and galloped out of the box.

My God, Diana does not know how to write," muttered the Werelupe testily. "You know, I had hoped that I might be the hero of some epic adventure, or some dastardly villain concocting a brilliant evil scheme, or a wild Werelupe roaming the plains... but no, we're just bystanders watching a giant doughnut-pie-kitten-olive war."

Laluzi frowned. "Well, maybe we should go off and make our own story then?"

Falayi brightened. "That sounds great!"

Vampiirae grinned, something that the sensible Vampire Kougra didn't do very often. "First, our little baby sister here probably won't do very well inside an actual adventure..." she smiled, pushing Purricat out of the story for good.

Let's go," said the Darigan Kougra, marching off into a different story...

The three pets found themselves standing in a thick forest. "Wow," said Falayi, looking down at herself. "I have muscles." For the slender, lithe Werelupe looked very much like a true Werelupe now; strong, with long black claws and pure red eyes.

Vampiirae lifted a paw to gaze at it. It was a light blue, like the rest of her fur, and her stripes were now black. Her bright yellow eyes were now pure white, and her vampiric fangs were more pronounced than ever.

Laluzi, too, had changed with entering a more epic story. Her fur was a dark magenta, with dark wine-red stripes. Her wings, paws, and chest had turned a light green. Her red eyes were now cyan, and instead of the Royal Kougra garb she had worn, she now bore a sapphire crown and a star-shaped locket with a red crystal dangling from it.

Laluzi frowned. "Stories don't usually work out with more than one protagonist. Diana proved that for us... although that adventure was stupid anyway. So which of us gets to have all the fun?"

Falayi stared longingly at her new claws. "Well... it was your idea... so you should be the one to go."

Falayi's right," said Vampiirae. "Maybe we'll just pop up in your new story, and play less important characters."

Laluzi's cyan eyes sparkled. "I'd always wanted to go on a quest," she said. A lavender mist sprang up at her paws, but she didn't feel scared. Quite the contrary; she was excited, and anxious for the adventure to begin. She felt brave. The mist was spiraling around her, and now everything in her vision was droplets of lavender. The mist cleared to reveal a new world...

Author: Finally taken matters into my own hands
Date: July 7th



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