Shadow Play:Part Five
The sun was setting somewhere behind the clouds when Terra and her family stepped out of Defenders HQ. The Defenders had said earlier that they would not prohibit their wards from leaving the building, but warned that Vile was most likely looking for them.
“You don’t have to come,” Isengrim said to the others as the brisk spring wind cut through his fur. “I would hate for Vile’s henchpets to find all of us.”
Terra put a hand on the sword at her side. “We’re not defenceless, remember?” she said. She was glad her jacket was nice and insulated—it came in handy on a blustery day like today. “I mean, even the kidnapping failed.”
“You did do an excellent job of protecting yourself,” Isengrim said. “But I still cannot help but worry.”
“Well—we’re worried about you, too,” Blynn said. “I mean, you haven’t seen this guy in years. It might go better if you had us there as backup.”
The Werelupe gave his family a long look. “I suppose I cannot stop you,” he said. “But at the first sign of trouble, I want you out of there, understood?”
“No can do,” Hyren said, patting the hilt of his sword. “We’re in this together, remember?”
“All right, all right,” Isengrim said, and they set off down the street.
Of course, they were on high alert as they made their way to the Second-Hand Shoppe, constantly on the lookout for anything amiss. Terra didn’t notice anything odd—at least, not odder than usual when it came to Neopia. She figured Neopia Central was a big city, and Vile might not have known where her family was. Maybe the Defenders caught the Symol before he could tell Vile that Isengrim was staying at Defenders HQ. At any rate, she would stay cautious.
As the cold and the dark deepened, Isengrim took point in leading them down a long alleyway littered with refuse. “Maybe this is where the Second-Hand shopkeeper stores all of his Ultra Fashionable Potato Sacks,” Blynn said as she stepped around a soggy issue of the Neopian Times.
Terra nodded, but she was distracted. Something about this place pricked at the back of her neck and made her steps more deliberate. There was strong magic here. Terra could not use magic, but according to her Draik, evidently she could sense it better than the general populace. She didn’t know whether it was an ability inherent to her, or just the fact that she was willing to be quiet and listen, but it did come in handy sometimes.
As they reached a dead end at the back of the alley, a troubled wind picked up, sending refuse swirling across the pavement. Terra could feel power running through the place, and she put a hand on Isengrim’s arm.
“Zoltan!” Isengrim barked. “Come on out! I know you’re here!”
The wind swirled again, and this time it did not stop. Deep purple magic sliced through the air in front of them, the shadows seemed to shimmer, and from out of nowhere stepped a Halloween Kyrii.
This, however, was no ordinary Halloween-painted Neopet. He was a hulking beast who stood almost two and a half metres tall, shorter and a bit leaner than Isengrim because Kyrii were naturally smaller than Lupes to begin with, but that did not keep him from being imposing. He looked rather like the Kyrii equivalent of a Werelupe, and Terra wondered if that was exactly what he was.
But that was not the strangest thing about him. His fur and mane were laced with veins of glowing violet magic that seemed to surge as though it was a manifestation of the power running through him. Even his bright green eyes contained purple streaks. Unlike Isengrim’s breeches made of skins, this Kyrii wore an old-fashioned shirt and trousers, an equipment harness, and a heavy cloak lined with thick fur. The topside of the cloak was curiously decorated with elaborate embroidery in floral designs, and Terra wondered about the strangely ornate apparel.
“Lord Isengrim,” the Kyrii said with a nod before surveying the others. “Is this the family you wrote of?” His voice was deep, but quiet, as though he knew he did not have to be loud to be heard.
Isengrim put a paw on Terra’s shoulder. “It is,” the Werelupe said. “It is good to see you well, Zoltan.” He extended his other paw to the mage. “This is my old ally, Zoltan Arnyek.”
“’Ally’ is a strong word,” Zoltan muttered. “Can you call someone an ally when you have not heard from them in years?”
“I can,” Isengrim said, “if I have no reason to believe he has broken his promise. Zoltan, this is my owner Terra and my siblings, Blynn and Hyren.”
Hyren stared at Zoltan with his antennae lowered and eyes narrowed—and Blynn had exactly the opposite reaction. “Oh wow,” she said, “you’re so cool! How’d you do that glowy thing? You look so hardcore!” Terra smiled—Blynn had voiced what her owner was thinking as well, but Terra generally preferred to keep her opinions to herself.
Zoltan’s ear twitched and he looked down at the Zafara with a grimace. “You don’t find me intimidating?” he asked.
“I don’t get intimidated easily,” Blynn said with a shrug. “You must be a really strong wizard!”
With another annoyed glance, Zoltan ignored her and stepped toward Isengrim. “I can already sense it,” the Kyrii said. “There is a heavy evil spell around this entire city. I doubt breaking it will be easy.”
Isengrim nodded. “As I figured,” he said, “but if anyone can, I believe it’s you.”
“Perhaps you put too much faith in me,” Zoltan said. He paused and stroked his beard of coarse brown fur. “But I will see what I can do. I cannot let such foul magic abide, nor allow this Malkus Vile knave to keep hurting people.”
Terra smiled. Zoltan might not have been the most cheerful Neopet, but he seemed like a good guy. And if Isengrim trusted him, that was enough for Terra to trust him as well.
“Thank you, Zoltan,” Isengrim said. “What can we do to aid you in your investigations?”
“Don’t worry about it,” Zoltan said. “I’ll get this issue taken care of.”
Isengrim tilted his head. “Are you sure?” the Werelupe asked. “Have you ever been to Neopia Central?”
Zoltan glanced aside. “Well, no,” he said. “But I know what I’m doing when it comes to dark magic.”
“It might help,” Isengrim said, “if I could at least give you more information on Malkus Vile, so you won’t be going into this blind.” When Zoltan did not reply, Isengrim added, “I’m here to help you, Zoltan. Please. I worry about your safety.”
The Kyrii stroked his beard again for a moment, then turned back to the Werelupe King. “That was what you said to me before,” Zoltan said quietly. “I will have you know, you are one of the most generous creatures in the Haunted Woods. Although that is not saying much.” He sighed. “All right. Give me what information you have on this Malkus Vile.”
“Here and now?” Isengrim asked. “It is much to tell, my friend, and the night will only grow colder. And Vile has Neopets looking for us, I am sure. Would you like to accompany us back to where we are staying? They have on file the information I gave them, for you to peruse as you wish.”
Again Zoltan paused. “I was hoping to do this on my own,” he muttered.
“C’mon, don’t be such a grumpafrump!” Blynn said.
Zoltan frowned, and Isengrim shot his sister a look that, while not unkind, clearly said “please let me handle this”. He looked back to his Kyrii associate. “I understand you work alone, Zoltan,” Isengrim said, “and I will not force you to accept the help I am offering. But it is my opinion that it behooves you in your line of work to take advantage of every possible resource. I am concerned that you may fail in this mission because you did not adequately prepare.”
The Kyrii scowled, looking somewhat like a pouting child for a moment as his large pointed ears turned back slightly. “You always have a way of putting things,” he said to Isengrim, “that makes it sound like they’re in my best interest.”
“That is because I think they are,” Isengrim said, folding his arms.
“All these years,” Zoltan said, “and you still feel the need to look out for me…” He shook his head. “I don’t know what I did to deserve this. All right. Show me to these files so I can get my job done.”
Isengrim smiled. “Gladly,” he said. “Please, follow us.” With a wave of his paw, he motioned for the others to join him as he headed out of the alley. “By the way, my pack no longer lives in the Haunted Woods. We relocated to Meridell some years ago. Did you not get the Neomail I sent you back then?”
“Ah—now that you mention it, I think I remember something like that,” Zoltan said. “I was busy with something else at the time, so I never got around to replying. It was good to know you were still alive, though.”
Terra stayed by Isengrim’s side, glancing over her shoulder at their new acquaintance. He was definitely not what she had been expecting, but then again she didn’t know what to expect. Isengrim had a penchant for making strange allies. She felt that Zoltan must not have had an easy life, to be so aloof and distrustful. And clearly, he and Isengrim had some sort of history that Terra was curious about.
“I must admit,” Zoltan said as they stepped out onto the sidewalk, “I am surprised to see you with an owner and siblings. You did not strike me as that kind of Neopet.”
“I wasn’t,” Isengrim said, “until I met Terra. She is the best thing to have ever happened to me.”
Terra smiled modestly. “Aww, thank you,” she said, squeezing his arm. “I’m so faerie-blessed to have you in my family.”
Zoltan just gave her a dubious look. “Yes, well,” he said, speaking directly to Isengrim as though he was pointedly ignoring her, “I hope you have not lost any of your edge.”
Isengrim’s smile faded a bit and he put an arm around Terra’s shoulders. “Of course not,” he said. “If anything, my family has helped me become an even stronger warrior. I feel I am at my best when I am fighting for them.” He tugged at the strap holding his sword to his back. “It helps that they gave me this sword, too,” he added, grinning at Hyren.
“I wondered about that blade,” Zoltan said. “It roils with old magic—I can feel it all the way from here. I’m curious as to where you obtained it.”
“I found it and my own sword years ago,” Hyren said, “in some ancient ruins in the mountains between the Lost Desert and the Haunted Woods. They were part of an entire cache of weapons, but most of them ended up in Isengrim’s paws shortly afterward.”
Isengrim smiled, and Terra knew he was recalling the first time he had met their family. While it had been terribly scary when it was actually happening, now that they were all friends, they tended to look at the events of that night as something special, an important and pivotal part of their lives. None of them knew it back then, but twelve years later they would reunite, for good this time, and everything had gotten better from there.
“Hyren’s family kept these two swords,” Isengrim said, “and I sold the rest. When we met each other again and needed to defend Brightvale against a great evil, Hyren generously gave me this claymore. It has served me well ever since.”
“It’s nice to see a mage with an appreciation for swords,” Hyren said to Zoltan. “Usually your kind is more about staves and wands. What’s your implement of choice?”
“That’s none of your concern,” Zoltan grunted.
Hyren’s antennae lowered and he frowned up at Isengrim, who gave him an apologetic look back. Terra had to admit that she was not entirely fond of Zoltan’s attitude, but she could understand it. Perhaps, like Isengrim and Hyren himself, the Kyrii would open up to them as they continued to show him kindness.
As they headed back to Defenders HQ, Terra realised that other pedestrians were actively avoiding them. Before, when they were with just Isengrim, Neopets and owners made an effort not to crowd the large Werelupe, but now people stared at Zoltan in a mix of surprise and fear, and hurried out of the family’s way.
“Not to pry,” Terra said to the mage, “but do you usually get this reaction from people?”
“Yes,” Zoltan said, “and I like it. Frees me up to do my job without any distractions or… annoyances.” The way he said that seemed to hint that she was one of the aforementioned annoyances.
Terra’s heart sank. She wasn’t trying to be annoying, and she hated when people took things the wrong way. Zoltan was rapidly proving himself to be someone she did not want to spend much time around. Perhaps after he got the information he needed from the Defenders, he would go off and do his job alone like he wanted to, and she and her family could relax and enjoy each other’s company.
Isengrim, who was uncanny at reading his owner, gave her shoulders a squeeze. “I’m sorry,” he said to her. “He has always been like this. Is there anything I can do to cheer you up? Should we order Pizzaroo for supper tonight?”
Terra gave him her best smile. It wasn’t his fault Zoltan was such a grouch. “That sounds awesome,” she said. “Thanks.”
When they got back to Defenders HQ, Blackwing was in the lobby again, chatting with the white Nimmo receptionist. Both of them froze, however, when Zoltan walked in.
“Whoa—what’s going on?” Blackwing asked, his tail bushing and his ears turned back.
“It’s all right,” Isengrim said, holding up a paw. “This is an old ally of mine, a dark mage. He is here to help us.” Zoltan looked just as on-edge as Blackwing as he glared around the lobby, as though he expected to be attacked at any moment.
“I know exactly who that is!” Blackwing said. “That’s Zoltan Arnyek, the Lord of Shadows! There are stories about him all over the Haunted Woods—he’s nearly as infamous as Hubrid Nox! And you brought him into Defenders headquarters?!”
“I am grateful for those stories,” Zoltan said, “because Neopets who fear me will leave me alone!” He drew himself up taller, his mane bristling as power coursed through the purple streaks on his body. “Now stand aside and let me do my job!”
A low growl started in Blackwing’s throat and blue energy began to crackle around his paws. The receptionist hid behind the desk.
Isengrim stepped between the mage and the superhero. “Please,” he said. “Whatever rumours you have heard about my friend Zoltan are unfounded, although I am sure he appreciates the misinformation. Now, however, is the time for truth and not deception. Zoltan is firmly on the side of good. He uses his abilities to combat the misuse of magic. He would like to help the Defenders break the spell over Neopia Central.”
Blackwing lowered his paws, although he still looked apprehensive. “Kinda tough to trust a guy who looks so much like a supervillain,” the Wocky said. “With the reputation to match.”
Isengrim smiled. “I can be easily mistaken for a villain, myself,” he said, “and yet you trust me. Please—this may be our best shot at catching Vile and ensuring my family’s safety.”
It took Blackwing a moment to respond, but finally his ears turned forward and he eased out of his combat stance. “All right,” he said. “I do trust you, Lord Isengrim. But your buddy had better not try any funny business while he’s here.”
“He won’t,” Isengrim said. “He is just as devoted to stopping evil as you all are, despite the rumours. May I have permission to show him the archives? He would like all of the information he can get on Malkus Vile before he goes to work.”
“Oh—okay, he can see the archives,” Blackwing said. “But let me come with you. I trust you,” he added quickly, “but you’ll need help locating the files you need.” He turned to the receptionist and said, “Hey, sorry about the scare.”
The Nimmo shook her head. “It’s just one of the hazards of the job,” she said. “I knew you’d keep us safe.”
“Of course,” Blackwing said with a grin. “Would you mind staffing the desk for a bit longer? I’ll take over when I come back from the archives.”
“No problem at all,” the receptionist said. “Good luck.”
They ended up having to take two lift cars, since just one would not have fit all of them now, and they would probably go over the weight limit anyway. Isengrim let Zoltan choose who to ride with, and after painful-looking deliberation, Zoltan chose Terra and Hyren under the assumption that they would be the least talkative.
When Terra stepped into the lift car and saw the buttons, she had to grin. One of the things she and Blynn had done yesterday was to run their hands and paws down all of the buttons in a lift and see where it took them. No one was there to stop them, after all. Thankfully, not many Defenders employees got into that lift car while that was happening.
Terra’s mind raced with questions about the enormous Kyrii who stood well away from her and Hyren, staring intently at the lift doors as the magic running through him cast a purple glow on the walls. Zoltan smelled like forest, with the unmistakable tinge of magic, and Terra wondered what his story was.
But she wanted to be polite and not make Zoltan talk about things he didn’t want to, so she kept her mouth shut. This, she decided, was why she was not a Neopian Times reporter—she was very bad at being pushy. So was Hyren, so the ride down passed in silence. Zoltan kept glancing down at them as though he expected them to be obnoxious, but they disappointed him in that regard.
Down on the twelfth basement floor, far below street level, the doors opened and let them out. Blackwing led them down the hall to a large set of doors that he had to unlock. On the other side was an enormous, warehouse-sized room filled with bookshelves and filing cabinets. “Welcome to the archives,” Blackwing said. “And yes, there are late fees.”
Hyren let out a low whistle. “I’m surprised you haven’t transferred all of this data to a Virtupets computer system,” he said.
“We don’t have the IT resources for that,” Blackwing said as he moved to the nearest bookshelf. “That Virtupets tech is fancy and efficient, yeah, but it requires certain training to implement and use correctly. We’ve always gotten along just fine with these archives, though.” He removed a thick tome from the shelf and began leafing through it. “Let’s see,” he muttered to himself, “V… V… Vandagyres… Vira—no, that’s too far… ah! Here we go. Vile. His files are in section 32A.”
“To 32A!” Blynn said. “To find Vile’s files!” She giggled. “That rhymes.”
As they walked down the long, data-lined corridors, Terra looked at all of the books and folders stored there. She thought the Defenders probably had information on nearly everything in Neopia. It would be a fascinating place to just explore for fun. She made a mental note to do just that after all of this business with Vile was over.
Near the end of an aisle, Blackwing stopped at a filing cabinet. He fished out another key from his utility belt, unlocked the cabinet, and pulled open one of the drawers. “Here you go,” he said to Zoltan. “Everything about Vile is going to be in this drawer. Go ahead and take what you need.”
As Zoltan rifled through the drawer, Blynn looked up at Isengrim and said, “So how’d you meet this guy, anyway?”
The Kyrii shot Isengrim a disapproving look over his shoulder, and Isengrim smiled. “I think it is fine to tell them, Zoltan,” he said. “It was so long ago.”
Zoltan regarded him for a moment, then shook his head. “Fine,” he muttered as he turned back to the filing cabinet.
“Ages ago,” Isengrim said to his family, “far before I ever met you, my pack and I found Zoltan on one of our nightly hunts. He had been gravely wounded while battling evil. I was not as kind to non-Werelupes then as I am now, but I realised that Zoltan, though a Kyrii, was like us—he had let in the wild and let it alter his form.”
“Makes sense that that happens to Kyrii too,” Blynn said. “It explains why Lupes and Kyrii get similar results with the Halloween Paint Brush.”
“Exactly,” Isengrim said. “Although our species were different, I could not help but think of him as a brother the same as my packmates, and I took pity on him. We brought him back to the keep, patched him up, and took good care of him while he recovered. I extended to him an offer to join my pack, but he refused, insisting that he work alone.”
“I still do,” Zoltan grunted, not turning around.
“However,” Isengrim said, “it seems my pack’s compassion must have touched him, because he promised me that he would never work against us, nor aid anyone in doing so.”
Zoltan grabbed a pair of binders filled with papers. “Well,” he said, “I had bigger blandfish to fry in the Haunted Woods than bringing a pack of bandits to justice. Much worse things than you lurked in that forest—some of them still do, unfortunately.”
“Did you ever fight Hubrid Nox?” Blynn asked.
Zoltan narrowed his eyes at her. “That’s really none of your business,” he said.
“I’ll take that as a yes,” Blynn said. “But it sounds like it didn’t go well for you, right?”
The Kyrii grimaced. “Are you always like this?” he asked.
“Oh yes,” Blynn said, giving him a toothy grin.
“Nox was an extremely powerful warlock,” Isengrim said. “But I am sure that Zoltan’s actions kept him in check.”
Zoltan paused, then held the binders under his arm. “I’m not here to brag about heroics,” he said before looking down at Blackwing. “I’ll have these back to your headquarters as soon as possible.”
“They can’t leave HQ,” Blackwing said. “Defenders policy.”
Zoltan’s face fell. “Oh,” he said. “Is there somewhere in the building where I can study in peace?”
“Of course,” Blackwing said as he led them back to the entrance. “I’ll show you to one of our study spaces. Nice comfy chairs there. I mostly use them for napping.”
“Thank you for protecting Isengrim and his pack,” Terra said to Zoltan. “I know he wasn’t the most… upright Neopet, but he’s really turned around. I think you’ll be proud of him.”
“I don’t take well to being buttered up,” Zoltan said, giving her a rather cold look. “If you think you can make friends with me, you are mistaken. I don’t do friendship, and you won’t get anything out of me by playing nice.”
Isengrim frowned and put a paw on Terra’s shoulder. “She was just trying to be kind, Zoltan,” the Werelupe King said. “That is the sort of person she is. I know it’s not what you’re used to, but not everyone is like the sort of Neopets you deal with in the Haunted Woods.”
“I have difficulty believing that,” Zoltan said, sticking his muzzle in the air a bit haughtily and narrowing his eyes. “Better safe than sorry, that’s what I say.”
“Then please keep your opinions to yourself,” Isengrim said firmly, his ears shifting forward and his tail rising. That, Terra knew, was Werelupe body language for “knock it off”.
Zoltan’s ears drooped a bit, and he looked away and said nothing. Isengrim gave Terra’s shoulder a squeeze and she squeezed his paw in return. This whole business with Vile was proving to be more difficult than she thought, for reasons she did not anticipate. It made everything tougher when someone on their side refused to trust her. It definitely hurt her feelings, that was for sure.
To be continued…