Getting ready for an adventure in my house is an adventure in of itself. It astonishes me that we can pull anything together, least of all ourselves, without demolishing what little order still clings to these rooms. Somehow, we manage it. It only takes a few hours and lots of yelling up and down staircases and down hallways.
I was in the closet, trying to find my boots. Being human, I took a bit more time to get ready for anything that might involve danger than my Neopets. They attributed it to my squishy status. I rather resented being called squishy, but it was true that I was a bit more fragile than them. I couldn't go about barefoot any day of the week, for instance. And I certainly wasn't going to leave my house properly armored – well, I did, most days. But this wasn't like most days.
"Mooooo-oooom," came the wailing cry from down the hall and it set my teeth on edge. After all these years, Un-eairkagh hadn't learned how to keep his voice out of an octave that made me cringe when he was being whiny.
"What?!" I shouted back. Ah. My boots were right there. The left one, at least.
"Can I borrow your warhammer this time?"
I inhaled, then slowly exhaled. Crawled back out of the closet and stuck my head into the hallway. The striped Eyrie stood there, paws slightly askance, as if he were bracing himself. Perhaps he was. For an argument.
"Sure," I said. "Go fetch it and take it out to the backyard and make sure you can handle it. Let me know how that goes."
Delight lit up his features and he rounded about, his hind legs slamming into the wall as he went. It did not deter him and I could hear his claws scrabbling on the hardwood as he rounded the corner to the stairs. I winced.
"He's going to hurt himself," a voice said disapprovingly from behind me. Lady Moonfall, my Uni. "It's too tall for him. He's either going to trip on the haft or brain himself with it by accident."
"As long as he doesn't brain himself with the pointy end, I don't care," I sighed. "Can you find my jacket while I hunt down my other boot?"
It took about another twenty minutes before we were all assembled. Un-eairkagh had done exactly what Lady Moonfall predicted and tripped on the haft, then the metal head of the weapon landed on his back when he went down in a flurry of feathers and fur. Subdued, he sat in the living room now as I tallied off our gear. Lady Moonfall disliked being in the fray, so she wore saddlebags to carry any supplies we might need. Terraile, my faerie Pteri, sat on her back with a bow and quiver across her back. Aldrai was unarmed. He had leftover magic from a disastrous event many years ago that had almost doomed all of us. He was a very subdued Zafara now, despite his fierce Darigan appearance. It was deceiving. And Un-eairkagh had thankfully abandoned my weapon in favor of his sword once more. Me? I wore my jacket from Meridell. Padded linen underneath, metal plates over top to protect – as my pets put it – all those squishy vital organs.
"So I think we're ready," I said, addressing the four, "except for one last thing. Where in Neopia are we going?"
"Ooo ooo ooo!" Un-eairkagh cried, sticking one foreleg into the air and waving it around. "The catacombs. I know there's like, curses and stuff, but I heard you can send your petpet in instead."
"Okay, that's a no," I replied tersely. "Partly because you'll just sit around bored waiting for your petpet to come back and partly because I don't want to deal with the aftermath of getting a petpet exploded or something."
"But it's okay if we endanger ourselves on these adventures?" Lady Moonfall asked quietly.
I took a deep breath.
"Exactly," I said. "No exploding petpets. Just exploding us."
"So long as we're clear," the Uni murmured demurely.
"I say we go to Moltara," Terraile said.
I went still. This was not the first time we'd ventured underground in Neopia, but I had no desire to repeat the experience. There were things there I would rather forget.
"I don't like hot climates," I said diffidently, doing my best to conceal my sudden wariness.
"This isn't a hot climate," Un-eairkagh protested. "The open rivers of lava have nothing to do with climate."
"They're a special problem all of their own," Aldrai said quietly. His Eyrie brother missed the remark, as was often the case.
"We've been there before," Terraile persisted. "What's different now?"
"I wasn't wearing armor," I said. It was a weak excuse. The reality was I didn't feel like seeking out danger underground. Not where I'd feel... trapped.
"Then leave it behind! C'mon, pleeeeeease?" Un-eairkagh collapsed to the floor and put his paws together before him, to demonstrate how desperate he was. I sighed. I wasn't going to win this one.
"Fine," I said. "We're going exploring in Moltara. Let's lock up and head out."
I seemed to be the only one with misgivings. The four Neopets were out the front door as soon as I finished talking.
I didn't want to admit to my pets that our adventuring trips was just an attempt to reclaim some of the glory of years past. We'd been very active in Neopia for some time, as a small knot of daring warriors, as had so many others. But things had trailed off for us. There was the Meridell war with Darigan, which probably went the best for us. There was that thing in the Lost Desert which left me sunburned and never wanting to leave a temperate climate again. And then there was Virtupets, which I only remembered as 'that one time I discovered I have agoraphobia.' My pets loved it, however, and paid no heed to my abject terror.
Was my reluctance to go to Moltara in part because I was afraid? That perhaps we'd had one too many close calls and we were simply running out of time?
I kept these thoughts to myself. My pets were far too excited.
The journey to Moltara itself was uneventful. Since there were so many visitors to the underground city now, these paths were well-traveled. It wasn't until we got off the trail that things would go wrong, likely. We intended to just that. I think we spent a few hours in the city itself, looking at the stores and the architecture, admiring all the machinery. My brother was an inventor, but he stole – pardoned, borrowed – all his materials from Virtupets and that gave his creations a certain drab aesthetic. Functional, but hardly a work of art. These Neopets, they turned their inventions into something that was both useful and pleasing to the eye.
As it turned out, adventure found us. A Kyrii approached us, somewhat nervously. I noted that he was wearing the uniform of the Moltara city watch. They were a benign sort, responsible for keeping the peace, and didn't interfere unduly. Unlike some other places I could name. Like Darigan. Oh, the problems we'd had in Darigan.
"Excuse me," he said cordially, "I happened to notice that you're all heavily armed."
"Ye-es?" I replied warily. Had Moltara changed the laws or something regarding walking around with weapons? Should I have left the crossbow at home?
"Please tell me you have a problem that needs solving with violence," Un-eairkagh said, butting ahead of me.
"Well," the Kyrii said, eying my Eyrie, "maybe not violence, but we do need some people that aren't adverse to danger."
"Oh, that's us." Terraile sounded downright smug about it.
"Excellent," the Kyrii exclaimed. "This way, then! I'll explain on the way."
The problem was simple. The most dangerous problems usually were. Ancient curse threatening to destroy Neopia. Tyrannical overlord intent on conquering Neopia. Ancient volcano threatening to blow up Neopia. Simple. All of them. In this case, while Neopia wasn't in danger, Moltara was. At least, a part of Moltara. Specifically, the part that had a magma monster loitering around. They showed up every now and then, like giant blobs of jelly. Jelly that is on fire. Came mostly from the molten river.
"We've isolated the area," the Kyrii told us. "Evacuated everyone and then barricaded the approaches. It hasn't made any attempt to move further into the city, but nor has it tried to return to the molten river. We were hoping to find someone brave enough to perhaps lure it away from the city."
"You want us to be bait," I sighed.
"Yes. Is that a problem? Is running too difficult?"
I couldn't tell if he were mocking us or not. He seemed sincere, but I was not accustomed to discreet sarcasm. Aldrai sometimes let some slip, but with Un-eairkagh's brash bravado and Terraile's caustic wit, subtlety was the exception.
"No, no," I replied. "Being chased by a giant sentient ball of magma sounds like a fine time. Can I ditch my armor with you? I don't want it weighing me down."
I stripped down to just my undershirt. I left the crossbow and quarrels as well, as I doubted they'd be useful. I was slow to reload it. The warhammer would remain with me. It was a long weapon, the haft as tall as I was, with a spike on one end of the iron head and the blunt edge on the other. We had a routine, myself and my pets. Un-eairkagh would take point and I would position myself behind him. Being taller, I could fight over his head while he kept whatever we were facing engaged. Terraile would take what shots with her bow that she could. And Lady Moonfall would watch and sometimes yell helpful hints like 'don't die!'
I didn't think any of our weapons would come in handy against something made entirely of lava, and I relayed this to my pets as we entered the abandoned district. It looked fairly normal on the fringe, but I could smell sulfur wafting in our direction from further in. The buildings were dark and I began to see scorch marks on some of them. Some of the lights were out as well, turning the city into a mess of shadows, the doorways yawning like the void. I wished we at least had moonlight. It'd be better than this.
"So we'll just get its attention," I said, laying out our plan, "and then run like the end of Neopia is on our tails."
"You don't have a tail," Un-eairkagh said sagely. I ignored him.
"Moonfall," I continued, "are you certain you want to come with us?"
She'd shed her saddlebags and now was bareback, displaying her white fur and golden markings.
"Of course," she replied. "Someone needs to carry you in case you can't keep up."
"Well, I don't know, you might be slow." She sounded offended at being questioned.
"Slow and squishy," Terraile added.
We found the magma beast in a courtyard. The stone was slagged, twisted into shapes like melted icecream, and all the nearby buildings had burned to the ground and now sat there in piles of charcoal. The magma beast itself was perhaps the size of a two-story building. I exhaled softly at seeing this. I'd heard they could get pretty big, but this was beyond what I'd expected. The lack of light was no longer a problem. It radiated enough on its own, like a star come to earth. A giant, sentient star, that happened to be made of lava and shaped something like a blob with eyeballs, perhaps. I wasn't feeling very poetic at that moment.
"So," I whispered, "how do we get its attention? I'd go hit it, except I think it'd melt my warhammer."
"Easy," Aldrai replied, stepping forwards and drawing himself up. "We use magic."
This was going to end poorly. I could tell that already. Aldrai grew still, drawing his focus together, and I saw his eyes narrow and the tips of his wings tremble as he concentrated. Then, he gestured, drawing up one paw and holding it there. Something formed under his palm, pale and radiant, and then he gestured sharply, twisting his wrist. It flew away from him, elongating as it went, and then pierced the magma monster straight through.
Ice. He'd thrown a spear of ice. Into a monster made of lava. I gave a short sigh. That was one way to antagonize it, I supposed.
It rounded on us. Ponderously so. Magma was not particularly known for being fast, I supposed, except when being being violently ejected from an erupting volcano. We let it come about and those eyes – like live coals – settled on us. And it roared. The ground beneath us seemed to shake.
"Okay," Terraile said with a note of satisfaction, "we got its attention. Now we run."
And we did. This was harder than it sounds. The only light source in the desolate district was the magma beast behind us, and it cast our shadows forwards so that everything in our path was a confused jumble of sharp highlights and utter darkness. I stumbled a few times, as did my other pets. Thankfully, the creature did not seem to be gaining on us. Much. Gaining on us much. I was trying not to think on how I could feel the air growing hotter and hotter as it narrowed the distance between us, slowly but surely. Part of the problem was that we had to go around buildings. It simply went over, pooling up and around, leaving behind smoldering wrecks. I didn't have time to feel bad for whoever had owned those buildings.
"This was a terrible, terrible idea!" I called to my pets. "Why did we come to Moltara? Terraile, you're fired from the family!"
"Did you just – pun?" Lady Moonfall panted from beside me.
That gave me pause.
"Oh," I said, "I, uh, oh. I regret everything."
I was sweating by the time we reached the tunnel leading to the molten river. We wouldn't have time to stop. It was too close. We'd just have to keep going, up and over the river, and hope that the beast would be pacified by being lured back into its home territory. I'd jump onto Moonfall's back at the last minute and she'd carry me up. This was our plan. The tunnel fell away around us, exposing a winding cavern cut through by a vast river, sluggish, churning and belching fire. The heat was profound. I slowed my pace and Moonfall drew up beside me. I could hear the roar of the magma beast behind us echoing through the narrow confines. My other three pets were in the air already and I clambered onto the Uni's back, and she was quick to join them. My stomach lurched as she pushed off and I clung to her mane as tight as I could.
"Do not drop me," I panted.
"Have I ever dropped you before?" Moonfall yelled at me.
"No," I moaned, "but this is different. So very, very different."
The currents from the super-heated air buffeted us. I flattened myself along Moonfall's back and watched as she banked, coming about, and then she fanned her wings and brought us to a rough hover. The magma beast was lurching into the river, growing steadily more docile as it sank further and further into the lava. We watched this in silence, until the top of its rounded head vanished and did not emerge again. Only then did we set back down on the bank. My pet's fur was slicked down with sweat and even Terraile looked profoundly uncomfortable from the heat. I tucked my hair back behind my ear and wiped my brow with the back of my hand.
"Okay," I said quietly, "let's go home."
That was when the river erupted from behind us. It came out like a wave, hands clawing at the ground, mouth open and fire blazing from between jagged teeth. I'm not entirely certain what all happened after that. I just had one moment of clarity and I recall thinking – this is it. This is when my luck runs out. There was no thought after that. I had my warhammer in my hands, one low near the base, the other near the middle, and I knew what needed to be done. I turned. Pivoted and came about. Put myself between it and my pets and took my stance. And then I remember it lunging – no, surging, like the ocean – towards me. I swung, a long-armed overhead stroke, bringing the hammer down towards its eyes, and then the world went white around me.
I woke on the bank of the Healing Springs. The faerie that governed the waters was staring down at me, her expression solemn. I sat up, slowly, carefully. I was surrounded by my pets, all watching with intense curiosity, sitting in waist-deep water.
"What-?" I mumbled. My head felt like it'd been stuffed with cotton.
"Your pets brought you here," the faerie said coolly. "You looked like you'd picked a battle with a fireball and lost."
"Yeah, about that," Un-eairkagh began, but Terraile bit him on the paw with her beak and he shut up.
I regarded the four Neopets around me.
"So," I said. "What happened?"
"Oh, it was AWESOME," my Eyrie purred. "I mean, you just went toe-to-toe with that thing and it was just epic."
"It was epic for about three seconds," Aldrai continued dryly. "And then you got wasted. It kind of threw you across the cavern. Between the impact and, you know, the fire, you were pretty much out of the fight. So we took over then, taking to the air, and kept it distracted from above. Terraile shot out both its eyes and after that it rolled over and gave up on us. Then we brought you straight here."
So that was my grand adventure. Some running, three seconds of heroics, and then a trip to the Healing Springs. It was little wonder my pets had deemed me 'squishy.' Now they'd be adding 'flammable' to the list of adjectives, it seemed. I hauled myself up and out of the water, regarding my soaked clothing unhappily.
"Let's go home," I sighed. "I think I'm done with adventuring for now."
At least until next time. For all my misgivings, it seemed our lucky breaks weren't through yet. May that day never come.