Chet Flash wuz here Circulation: 197,578,187 Issue: 990 | 25th day of Hiding, Y25
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Underground Underdogs

by flannelle


From the deepest crevices of the ground, great swathes of steam rose to the stalactites that were Moltara City’s rocky sky. The rhythmic rumble of working engines and the rattle of rotating cogs filled the air. Several blinking beacons lit the cave—the famed glowing lanterns—for Moltara had no sun, but it shone anyway. Rusted metal and behemothic boulders composed their buildings; within, they all glowed with the same orangey glow. The ground was tepid, alive with the lava in its depths. To the wayward wanderer, Moltara was an intimidating destination; only the most experienced of travellers dared to descend to the molten abyss.

To Tulah Kisner, right forward of Team Moltara, Moltara was home. She inhaled deeply the steamy air. Her glowing fur smouldered happily like coal returned to its hearth. The Altador Cup was behind her, but not too far behind. The memories of their few defeats and fewer victories churned inside of her. Her body was a cauldron, bubbling, boiling, with tumultuous thoughts. Moltara received its team with open arms, of course, and its citizens still cheered at their return. Tulah did not join them in their celebration, however. The homecoming was lost on her.

Captain Aldric invited the Moltara Team to supper at Molten Morsels. Tulah had half a mind not to attend, but Zax convinced her otherwise. He stood outside Town Hall, his tail flicking anxiously to and fro until he saw Tulah. He waved at her with a smile. The fiery Scorchio always smiled when he saw his friend.

“Tulah!” he greeted her. “I was afraid you wouldn’t come. Vere and Harlis already went ahead. I told them I’d wait for you.”

Tulah smirked. “I didn’t want to come, but here I am.”

“Why not?” Zax winced at her remark. “You know Aldric’s good for it. Besides, it’s important to stay in touch during the offseason.”

“The offseason just started, Zax.” Tiny flames flickered off the Magma Acara’s fur as her irritation slowly grew. “Maybe I need a break from seeing your mugs, eh?”

Zax gave her a nudge with his elbow. “Come on, Tully, you don’t mean that.”

Tulah chuckled, rolling her eyes at the nickname Zax insisted on using for her. “No, no, you’re right. I don’t… It’s just…”

“Just what?” Zax looked at her, concern brimming in his bright green eyes.

“Nothing.” Tulah shook her head. “Come on, best not keep them waiting.”

The pair walked the streets of Moltara City in comfortable silence. The lanterns above rocked lazily on the string. The occasional blast of steam roared in the distance. Mounted into the rocky walls, large fans rotated on beat, ventilating the warm air. Some young Magma Kyriis laughed in the distance, playing with an overexcited Magmut. A few patrons entered Cog’s Togs, causing the brass doorbell to ring—they were greeted loudly. Confused tourists cautiously entered the belly of Moltara, The Caves, where the famous Magma Pools bubbled. Tulah snickered as she watched them follow their poorly designed map.

“Hey, Lampwyck!” Zax greeted the Blue Buzz as they passed him by.

Lampwyck looked up and smiled. In his hand, he held freshly cobbled lanterns that were ready to be hung. “Hey now, you all setting out to burn the midnight oil?”

“Nothing like that.” Zax gave a laugh. “Just going to grab some grub.”

“That’s how it always starts,” Lampwyck said. “Say ‘hello’ to Aldric and the rest of the team for me, will you?”

“Sure thing.” Zax nodded.

“And welcome home!” Lampwyck called after them as they walked away.

Tulah sighed. Home. Yes, she missed Moltara City. She missed her bed. Her Petpet Hoggir. Yet, there was part of her that did not want to return. Part of her wanted to disappear. She could not shake it.

“Hey! Hey!” The chipper voice of Vere piped up. The Purple Yurble waved excitedly at them, jumping up and down. “Hey! They made it!” Vere turned towards Molten Morsels, shouting into the shop. “Aldric they’re here!”

“Sheesh, Vere.” Zax chuckled. “Neopets are eating in there. You’re probably disturbing their dinner.”

“Who cares?” Harlis said as he burst the door open. “We’ve been waiting forever for you two to show up. My stomach is rumbling louder than Vere’s shouts at this point. What took you so long?”

Tulah fixed the Grarrl with a glare. “I got lost,” she said dryly.

Vere giggled. “Tulah, you’re so funny!”

Harlis was not as amused. “Yeah, ha-ha, so funny.” The fiery Grarrl curled his lip. “Get lost on your own time next time.”

“Come off it, Harlis.” Tulah snorted. He always gave her a hard time, especially when he was hungry. “We’re here now. You’re free to stuff your face.”

Harlis’s anger dissipated. He could never stay cross with Tulah for long. “Stuff it, I will. Hope Aldric’s got the points for it.” He gave Tulah a hardy slap on the back as he ushered her in. “Let’s chow!”

Zax and Vere filed in behind them. Vere was quick to start talking Zax’s ear off about the Rainbow Worm she saw earlier in the day. When Tulah entered, she was shocked to see dozens of banners still hanging for the Altador Cup. Several posters of the Moltara Team stayed plastered on the sheet metal walls. Tulah remembered posing for them, cameras flashing in her face. They always told her to smile, but she could only ever manage a smirk.

“Hey, they made it!” One of the patrons, a Fire Bori, called out and raised his steel tumbler. “The whole team is here!”

“Hey, welcome home!”

“Go Team Moltara!”

Tulah shrunk at the several warm welcomes that flooded her, until Harlis pushed her forward again. Sitting at the booth in the far-off corner, she saw their captain. Aldric Beign smiled at them handsomely, much like he did in the poster of himself that was behind him. The Magma Kougra was known for his winning smile, but it failed to charm Tulah. As the rest of the team crowded into their seats, Tulah made a point to sit furthest from Aldric.

“I already ordered us a round of drinks,” Aldric said as they got comfortable.

“Is it Sweet Potato Fizzy Drink? Oh, please, please, please, tell me its Sweet Potato Fizzy Drink!” Vere was practically vibrating in her seat.

Aldric laughed. “Of course. I know it’s your favourite.”

“Yay!” Vere beamed.

Aldric’s glowing eyes fell on Tulah, his smile fell, but only slightly. “Tulah, I’m glad you came.”

Tulah was remiss to say anything until Zax nudged her. She grunted, “Yeah.”

The clatter of stone dishes and metal mugs filled the silence at their table. Nearby, a local band readied their instruments for the late crowd. Vere started buzzing on about how her encounter with the Rainbow Worm was most definitely a sign of good luck. The proprietor of Molten Morsels, a Shadow Bruce named Mortor, approached their table. He smiled at them, paper and charcoal ready.

“What’ll it be, friends? Your drinks will be out shortly.”

Harlis patted his belly. “Well, I’ll go first, and I’m fixing to order the whole menu.”

“Harlis!” Zax scorned. “You can’t do that.”

“Sure, he can,” Aldric said, waving Harlis on encouragingly. “I told you guys it’s my treat.”

“See?” Harlis gave a toothy grin. “His treat.”

Mortor blinked and shrugged. “Okay, uh, one order of… everything.”

“And I’ll have a Potato Shake!” Vere ordered next.

“Potato Shake and Sweet Potato Fizzy Drink?” Zax gaped, then shook his head fondly when Vere smiled excitedly. “I’ll have Seared Lava Fish, please.”

“Potato Shake… Seared Lava Fish… And you?” Mortor looked to Tulah next.

Tulah barely looked at the menu. She frowned. “Uh, nothing for me. I’m not hungry.”

“What? Come on, Tulah,” Aldric protested. “It’s my treat. I know the Fire Rice is your favourite.”

“I’m not hungry,” Tulah insisted. Flickers of flames rolled off her Magma fur.

Aldric rolled his eyes and smiled at Mortor. “She’ll have the Fire Rice.”

Tulah slammed her fist on the table. Flames rolled off her horns. “What part of ‘not hungry’ do you not understand?”

“You can take it to-go, then.” Aldric crossed his arms, unfazed by her outburst.

Mortor scribbled on his pad nervously, avoiding eye contact with Tulah. “Uh, I got Fire Rice… to-go… And for you, Aldric?”

“I’ll have the Triangle Ham and Root Stew, thanks.” Aldric’s winning smile returned.

Mortor finished taking the order with a nod before he practically ran from the table back to the safety of his kitchen. When Mortor had gone, Tulah noticed she had earned quite a few nosy glances from the other patrons at Molten Morsels. She wished she could turn into a pile of soot. She felt like a pile of soot.

“What’s your problem, Tulah?” Harlis growled. “Aldric’s just trying to do something nice for us.”

“Yeah, we fought hard this year,” Vere added. “We deserve a treat or two… or three.”

Tulah grimaced, crossing her arms and sinking in her seat.

Aldric watched her carefully. “Hey, let her be guys. It’s not a big deal. We’re all adjusting to being home again. Emotions are running high.”

Vere looked to Tulah with concern. “Tulah, you know we’re here for you, right? This was a long season. I’m sure it feels weird being back home.”

Even Harlis had some sympathy. “Yeah, sometimes it gets hard coming back here after being under the sun for so long. I kinda miss the sunlight sometimes—feels good on my skin.”

“You don’t get it,” Tulah grumbled.

Zax did, and that was why he stayed silent. He was the only player she vented to thus far. It was up to Tulah to voice her concerns to the team, and she was glad Zax graced her with that chance instead of running straight to Aldric. All her friend could do was press his shoulder into hers, silent encouragement.

“That’s not fair,” Harlis grumbled. “We can’t get what you won’t tell us.”

“What’s bothering you, Tully?” Vere asked. “You can tell us. You can tell us anything.”

“Sweet Potato Fizzy Drinks!” announced the Red Ruki waitress who helped Mortor. In each hand, she held a mug; the other was balanced perfectly on her head. As the Ruki handed out the drinks, Tulah could feel the entire team staring at her, waiting. The drink placed in front of her bubbled, smelling sweet. “Oh, and fellas, this round is on the house.” The Ruki winked. “Courtesy of Mortor. He said it was the least he could do—y'all gave us good business this year. Everyone came here to talk about the Cup after work.”

Tulah wanted to sink further in her seat, but if she went any lower, she would be under the table.

“That’s very kind of him,” Aldric purred, giving her a wink. “We’re always happy to play for our city and our fans.”

The Ruki blushed and giggled. “Oh, Aldric. Charming as ever. Y’all enjoy your drinks now.”

Vere was already slurping at her beverage before their waitress departed. Harlis snorted and scooted his drink towards her, quietly surrendering it to the Yurble.

Zax took a sip or two, clearing his throat uneasily. “Lampwyck says hello,” he said to the table. “We saw him hanging up more lights on the way over.”

“Did he? I’ll have to visit him sometime soon,” Aldric said, taking a swig of his fizzy drink. When he set it down, he fixed Tulah with a meaningful stare. “I’m still waiting for Tulah to tell us what’s going on.”

Before Tulah could say anything, the Fire Bori that greeted them earlier approached the table. “Hey!” He smiled. “I’m sorry to interrupt, but I wanted to let you guys know that your tab is covered. Me and the rest of my buddies are big, big fans.” He gestured with his thumb to the table behind him; they were all miners, covered in soot and still wearing their toolbelts and baggy coveralls. “You guys really help put us on the map, you know?”

“Ugh!” Tulah stood up abruptly, grimacing. “That’s it! I’m going home.”

The Fire Bori was taken aback. “Was it something I said?”

“It just doesn’t make sense!” Tulah reached her boiling point. Flames rolled off her fur now. Tears burned on her cheeks, turning to steam as soon as they fell from her eyes. “I don’t deserve this! Every year, we play, and we never have anything to show for it. Ever.” She looked at her teammates desperately. “We’ve been at the bottom of the barrel since we started. Yet, every year, it never fails; we return to a celebration. For once, just once, I want to feel like I actually deserve it. I want to be better, but the other teams… They just crush us. It feels like they’re always one step ahead, and I keep—I keep falling behind.”

“Tulah…” Aldric stood from his seat. “So, that’s what’s going on…”

The tears didn’t stop, they kept falling, steaming. “Moltara deserves better. We deserve better.”

Just when Tulah thought she would surely erupt, Aldric brought her in for a hug. Zax joined in too. Then Vere. Lastly, Harlis drew up the entire team in a warm hug, lifting them off their feet with all his strength as he gave them a squeeze. Tulah blinked in surprise, the tears no longer clouding her eyes. She looked around and saw her team smiling, crying, laughing.

“Tulah, it’s never been about the trophies. You know that,” Aldric said as Harlis set them all down. “What we do is bigger than all that. You mustn’t forget.”

“It’s true.” The Fire Bori still stood near, tearing up as well. “I wasn’t kidding when I said you guys put Moltara on the map. Neopians would forget we exist down here if not for you.”

“We’ve gotten better every year,” Vere said, sniffling. “And we will continue to grow… together.”

“You’ve felt alone with these feelings for a while, Tulah, but you were never alone.” Zax patted her shoulder. “We’re your team, your family. We’ll get through this together.”

Harlis, to everyone’s surprise, burst into a roar of tears. “You guys are the best!”

One of the miners at the Bori’s table stood up. He was an older Magma Gnorbu. “My son looks forward to your games every year—he dreams of playing for Team Moltara one day.”

Tulah looked around, rubbing her nose with the back of her sleeve. The flames that once fumed on her fur simmered to a soft smoulder. She smiled. They were underdogs, sure, but…

More patrons in Molten Morsels stood up, some raised their glasses, and others drew their hands up in applause. The cheer grew louder, and louder still as the band that was getting ready earlier strung up in song. The Moehog leading the band called out, “This one goes out to Team Moltara, the Underground Underdogs. To Neopia, you were Sixth Place, but to us down here in the hidden city, you’ll always be number one!”

Mortor returned from the kitchen, struggling to balance several plates on his flippers. The Ruki waitress was behind him, balancing more steaming dishes expertly. Both gaped at the cheer that erupted in the establishment. When they approached the table again, Tulah was laughing and cheering too.

“My, my, what got into everyone?” Mortor asked, puzzled. “Hasn’t been this lively in a hot minute.”

“Oh, you know how it is,” Aldric said. “It doesn’t take much for Moltarans to erupt.”

“Ain’t that the truth.” Mortor smiled and raised up the sizzling plates. “I hope you guys are hungry.”

“Finally!” Harlis bellowed.

Tulah, smiling still as her worries and misgivings burned to nothingness, turned to Mortor and said, “I’m starving.”

     The End

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