A Waffle Paradise Circulation: 197,651,278 Issue: 995 | 3rd day of Storing, Y25
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The Price of Ambition


by golden1188

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At midnight, a member of the guild did exactly as she expected. Gentle taps on her window made her look up with a jolt. She walked towards her window and saw a shady-looking Orange Buzz with a hood over her head with a handful of pebbles. Annie pushed her window fully open and stuck her head out into the cool night air. “You’re uh, the guy? Are you Gil?” She asked, trying to keep her voice from shaking.

      “No, I’m just here on behalf of Gil. My name is Rory,” she said, pulling her hood down. She had short hair that looked like it had been attacked by Baabaa shears, and a thin scar that went down her cheek. Normally, if Annie saw someone like that on the street, she’d look the other way. But tonight, she’d be putting all her trust in her. “Are you able to get out of your window? Otherwise, we can figure out a different path.”

      Annie looked down at herself, then at the window. It was decently sized, and she did have wings, so she was at no risk of falling and hitting the ground. If she stumbled, she could catch herself mid-fall. So she walked over to her desk, pulled over her chair, and stepped on it to clumsily get through the window. With a few careful, but slightly unsteady steps, she got through on her windowsill until she was able to start flying. Although she had a small trip, she caught herself quickly enough that she could get down to the ground.

      “Whew, made it,” she said with a small breath of relief. But it wasn’t the end yet. Her heart was still pounding so loud that she was sure Rory could hear it. “So, where do we go now?”

      “Our main guild location is Terror Mountain, but for the sake of not making you fly all the way there, we’ve assembled some of our members in a secret Neopia Central location,” Rory explained, pulling out a small map. “Once we get close, I’ll have to put a blindfold on you. Until you’re a full-fledged member, we can’t have you knowing our hideouts. After all, you could be with the Brutes or something.”

      Annie shook her head quickly. Up until today, she never could’ve imagined herself joining any of the groups that fought for the Obelisk. She was only making this exception for the sake of her fighting ambition, that was all. If she got uncomfortable, she could bail and there would be no harm, no foul. “How far do we need to go?”

      “It should only take us five to ten minutes if we fly. Are you okay with that?” Rory’s eyes were so big that her stare made Annie feel like ‘no’ was not an answer. So without saying anything, she gave a quick nod, and Rory smiled. That smile set Annie on edge even more. “Good. Let’s get moving. We have to get you back home before sunrise.”

      And with that, the two winged pets lifted off and began to zoom through the air, flying past other NeoHomes and streetlights. A chill shot through Annie’s spine, but she couldn’t tell if it was her anxiety or just the night air. As she looked down on all the houses she passed, she wondered if any of them were holding deep, dark secrets too. Was one of them a member of a rival guild? Did any of them secretly work for Dr. Sloth? Every pet and their owner, if they still lived with them, had a different story. And hers had the potential to get a bad ending if anything went wrong.

      After receiving a signal from Rory, Anerada landed with her near the Usuki store. “It’s not here, is it?” She asked, confusion crossing her features. She remembered liking Usukis when she was younger, but she had long grown out of them now. Were they hiding a criminal lair in their basement?

      Rory let out a laugh that sounded like an evil witch’s cackle to Annie. “No way! Can you imagine? I don’t think anyone would ever be able to take us seriously if we were training with dolls all night.”

      Annie shrunk back into herself a bit, looking down at the ground with embarrassment. “Sorry,” she mumbled. She was starting to feel like this might become a recurring pattern: she says something stupid, then embarrasses herself in front of a bunch of criminals. Shouldn’t that be a sign that she wasn’t cut out for this kind of life?

      After a few moments, the Buzz pulled a piece of black cloth out of her satchel. “Hold still, I’m gonna put this on you now. I’ll guide you to the Thieves HQ, and then you can take it off. It’s not too far, and I’ll make sure you don’t trip over anything. Wouldn’t want you to get hurt before you get there, eh?” She flashed a grin, then approached Annie with the blindfold.

      Unable to move, she stood there like a statue while Rory put the cloth over her eyes. She wouldn’t want her to get hurt before she got there? Did that mean they were going to hurt her after she got there? A big part of her wanted to rip off the blindfold and fly home, but when Rory began to guide her forward, she couldn’t think enough to do anything other than move with her.

      As they walked together, the removal of one of Annie’s senses was making her start to feel nauseous. Every step was a mystery to her, and she didn’t know if she’d be treading on solid ground or walking off a cliff at any moment. After a while, she didn’t know how long she had been walking for. It could’ve been one minute, or it could’ve been an hour for all she knew. The only reason she knew that she wasn’t walking in circles was because the terrain had changed from the paved path in the bazaar to grass, and now thicker grass and leaves that had to be in the forest that was just outside of the shopping centre.

      To break the silence, she spoke in a whisper. “How much longer until we’re there?”

      Rory let out a huff of irritation. “We’ll get there when we get there. I told you, we can’t trust you yet. If you wanted easy fights, you should’ve stuck to the school playground.”

      “But you guys were the ones who invited me! I didn’t go out looking for you! I’m putting my neck out on the line by coming out in the first place, can you stop treating me like a little -”

      “Take the blindfold off. We’re here.” Rory cut into Annie’s rant with an authoritative voice, and she took her hands off the Eyrie’s shoulders.

      When Anerada took the cloth off of her eyes, she found that she was staring at a dingy little hut. It looked unassuming, but the door was open, and the inside seemed to have enough space for people to train in. If she didn’t know what she was looking for, she might’ve thought it was an abandoned NeoHome had she passed by it in the forest. “Wow, so the Thieves Guild meets here?”

      “No, this is just our Neopia Central location. The big HQ is in Terror Mountain. If you decide to stick with us, we can take you there sometime. Now c’mon in, we’ve got people for you to meet.” Rory gestured towards the door, then floated through it, just a few inches off of the ground.

      Annie walked in hesitantly, taking in her surroundings as she did. Although the small building wasn’t decrepit, it didn’t seem like it was very well taken care of either. All of the fighting equipment, like punching bags and targets, looked like they were ten years old. The only things that looked shiny and expensive were weapons that hung on the wall, or sat on top of tables. Some of them were things you’d find in the Battle Magic shop on an average day, but there were a few rare ones that she thought she could only ever dream of getting her hands on.

      Rory must have seen her wide, eager eyes, because she gently shoved Annie’s shoulder. “Hey, quit drooling. We’re not gonna let you play with our fancy toys. You can use some of our basic stock, but hands off the good stuff.”

      The shove practically felt like a slap to Annie. It wasn’t violent, but it made her ashamed of her immature behaviour. Would everyone be snickering behind her back the moment she left? She looked around the room at everyone’s faces, and she could tell that they were all sizing her up. She tried to keep her head up and look tough, but it was hard when all their eyes made her feel like they were shooting laser beams at her. Finally, she saw a friendly face: Krookid was standing at the back of the room, giving her a sly smile.

      “So, you really came, huh? I guess a goody-two-shoes can finally crack if you give her enough time.” Although his phrase seemed like a bit of an insult, he had a smile on his face that was unexpectedly genuine. She felt a bit safer, but only by a tiny, microscopic amount. “Lemme show you around. I spoke pretty highly of you, so I’ve got some friends who wanna meet you.”

      Rory finally stepped back, retreating to the dirty concrete wall. “Don’t look too scared. We’ll keep an eye on you, but your opponents can smell fear.” Her grin was much more anxiety-inducing.

      “So you met Rory first, of course. She takes a licking and keeps on kicking. That scar on her face is from a nasty battle with a member of The Sway. She really put her neck on the line for us.” After gesturing at the Buzz, he pointed towards a few other members. Next was a Chomby who was eating a granola bar like it was the first thing he had eaten in years. “There’s Kaz, he’s got an appetite the size of Tyrannia. If he wasn’t such a petty thief, he’d probably be in the Food Club by now.”

      Kaz looked up, meeting Annie’s eyes with a hungry gaze. “Didja bring any snacks?” There was something in that glare that made the Eyrie feel like he was going to eat her if she said no.

      But before she could say anything, Krookid reached into his pocket and tossed a bag of candy at him. “You’re lucky you’re strong. Otherwise we’d kick you out for eating everything we’ve got.”

      “What about Gil? He was the one who invited me, right?” Annie asked. She didn’t know what the guy looked like, so as she looked around the room, she couldn’t tell who she was supposed to spot.

      On cue, a shifty Wocky stepped away from a table and grinned at her. Behind him, there was an assortment of potions and bottles with handwritten labels on them. Annie didn’t recognize a familiar label on any of them, and she wondered where he had gotten them from. “Is it me you’re looking for? I’m Gil, a pleasure to meet ya.” He held out his dirty hand, and although she was hesitant to shake it, Annie did so anyway.

      “He’s a bit of a merchant of sorts. If you’ve got the Neopoints, you can check out his wares.” Krookid pointed at the bottles on the table, and Annie craned her neck to read them. Some of them had names she recognized, but they weren’t in the traditional bottles they would usually be in, like the Earth Potion or even Jhudora’s Potion.

      “Isn’t that one pretty expensive?” Anerada asked, pointing her paw at Jhudora’s Potion, which was in a small jug as opposed to its usual form.

      Gil chuckled, as if there was some sort of inside joke. “You got a good eye, missy. It costs you an arm and a leg at most shops, but for you, I think I could knock the price down. How does 100k sound? It’s a real steal, I’ll tell you that.”

      Annie didn’t have 100k Neopoints to her name. And even if she did, she was suspicious about an expensive potion being knocked down to a lower price like that. “I think I’ll, uh, pass for now,” she said, shaking her head and averting her eyes away from the Wocky.

      “Suit yourself. But if you ever want to take me up on it, I’ve got plenty of fine wares here for huge discounts.” He stepped away from the table and approached Anerada. “Now, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. I invited you here to check out your fighting skills, yeah? Why don’t you step into the ring with one of our guilds and show off what you know?”

      She looked over at Krookid, a little alarmed, and he offered a reassuring smile. “You and I are pretty evenly matched, I don’t think you’re at any big risk fighting one of our other members. It’s not like we’re gonna throw you in against Gil with no preparation.”

      “In fact, we’ll even give you someone who’s still training up with us. You might even be better than he is,” Krookid said, pointing towards a striped Bruce in the corner who was equipping some sort of defensive cloak.

      The Bruce waved, offering a surprisingly warm smile. “Hey, I’m Muddy. I won’t go easy on you, but I think it’ll be fun!” He gave Annie the impression that he might be a little naive like her. Why else would a member of the Thieves Guild be smiling like they were best buddies?

      “Come on over here, I’ll pick a couple of weapons up for you. We can’t give you a Turned Tooth or anything, but you won’t have anything worse than Muddy’s got.” The Korbat brought her over to the weapons table and scanned it carefully. First, he handed over an Ancient Eyrie Power Wand. “It’s an Eyrie wand. I think that’ll be fitting, right?”

      “Huh, I’ve never seen this before.” Anerada turned the wand in her hand a few times. It didn’t look expensive, but it did look like it would be helpful. Next, she was handed some sort of gold shield, and an orb that looked like it might be more powerful than the other things. “This is it?”

      “Yeah, Muddy’s only bringing three things into the fight too.”

      Annie looked over to see if she could spot what he had, but it was out of her view. “Why do they call him Muddy anyway?”

      “Because he gets dirty all the time,” Krookid said with a little laugh. Another inside joke. Annie was surprised to find that she actually kind of wanted to get in on it. “Alright, are you ready?”

      Annie adjusted the weapons so she was able to carry everything and nodded. “Ready to go. Where do we fight?”

      “Out back, we’ve got a gated arena outside behind the building. It dampens the sound a little bit, but if anyone’s hooting and hollering, we might get heard, so be careful.” Krookid pointed at the door, then looked back at Anerada. “Let’s roll.”

      As Annie followed him out, her stomach was churning like she was seasick. She was determined to win, but then where would she go from there? Would she be recruited on the spot? Would she have time to think? Would there be consequences if she didn’t join? Krookid and Muddy seemed nice enough, but the others were making her nervous, especially Gil. There could be anything in those potions, most likely something really dangerous.

      The battle area was surrounded by a thick, steel gate with barely any space in between the bars. There was an opening at the top, so she could see how sound passed through if they were too loud. The gate was completely barren, with no decorations or anything hanging on it, so it looked pretty imposing. Almost like a mausoleum.

      “Now, I want a fair fight,” Gil announced, lifting his hand up to get everyone’s attention. “No dirty tricks, no using anything other than the weapons, and no severe injuries. This is just to test your skills and see what you both can do. When ya need to tap out, step out and touch my shoulder. Don’t be stupid and let yourself get knocked out. Can both of you agree?”

      Annie and Muddy both nodded. She looked at the Bruce, trying to size him up and see if he was just as nervous as she was. But she couldn’t read anything, and it made her even more nervous and frustrated. Was he confident? That wouldn’t be a good sign for her. Her best option was to fake it until she made it, so she tried to scowl like the nasty fighters she saw in the Battledome.

      “On the count of three…” Gil’s voice boomed and it seemed to echo around the ‘cage’. “Three! Two! One! Fight!”

      At the second he said ‘fight’, Annie charged forward with her sword. Muddy’s face showed a split second of fear, and she took that opportunity to hit him hard. She was actually a little surprised that she was able to get the first blow. But after that hit, he came right back and swung at her legs. She was barely able to avoid it, but still stumbled a little as a result. The fight was officially on.

      They traded blows back and forth, each getting decent hits on each other, but neither of them causing any major damage. The fact that they were evenly matched was a relief to Annie, but she was also disappointed that it wouldn’t be an easy win for her either. She wondered if maybe she could drain his stamina and beat him that way, since she knew her stamina was one of her strong points.

      Unfortunately, she did sustain one big hit. When she tried to swing at his legs with the wand, he rushed forward with his shield and smacked her straight in the face. Annie stumbled back, and when she opened her eyes, she found that her vision was a little blurry in one of them. She raised her paw to her eye and it felt sore. Her vision was slowly coming back, but she could tell that the area around it was puffy and tender.

      Muddy stopped and peered at her face. “Oh geez, that’s gonna hurt tomorrow. Do you need to uh, tap out?” He fidgeted, but he looked like he was really hoping that she would say yes.

      Hearing the eagerness in his voice, Anerada growled. “No. I’m sticking out until the end. Get your shield up, I’m not done yet!” With a determined yell, she charged forward again, using her orb to attack him. It seemed to just be a one-time use thing, but she could tell from his pained yell that it hit hard. From then on, her blows were merciless. His hits weren’t as hard, and she could tell that he was starting to get tired.

      After what felt like forever, Muddy stumbled over to Gil and tapped his shoulder. “I’m out… I’m done…” He panted before slumping down on the ground to catch his breath.

      Gil walked over and held up one of Annie’s hands. “And there we have it! Anerada is our winner tonight!”

      The guild members clapped and cheered for her, but kept it down a little so they wouldn’t be heard outside of the arena. Even with their quiet excitement, her heart was still swelling with triumphant glee. If she was tough enough to beat a member of the Thieves Guild, even a beginner, who knew what else she could do? Her head was swimming with the possibilities.

      When Gil let go, he patted her on the back. “Way to go, kid. I know this was just a starter fight, but I think you should really consider joining us. You don’t need any of those training schools. We’ll take you to heights you can’t begin to dream of.”

      At that moment, there was so much adrenaline pumping through her veins that she wanted to take him up on that offer then and there. But before she could say anything, Muddy approached, his chest still heaving. “Hey… great fight! Really, I know I’m… kinda beat up right now, but I’ll be alright.” He coughed for a few moments, then spoke again. “Sorry about your eye, heh… that’s gonna bruise pretty bad, I think.”

      The adrenaline in her body changed to what felt like ice. Annie checked her eye again and found that it was still sore and swollen. How was she going to explain this to Poppy tomorrow? In fact, what time was it anyway? She looked around desperately to see if she could find a clock. When there wasn’t one, she looked back to Muddy. “Uh, what time is it?”

      Krookid looked down at his watch. “2 a.m., why?”

      Her face turned to pure panic. “I gotta get home! I have to get up for school tomorrow!” Annie started to rush towards the door, but Rory grabbed her arm.

      “Hey, c’mon, you’re just gonna ditch? You don’t even know how to get back from here!” The Buzz said, shooting her a warning glance. “If you get lost in the forest, I’m not helpin’ you.”

      “But my owner will freak out if I'm not home! What if she checked my room while I was out tonight?” Annie was starting to hyperventilate. “Plus, I’m gonna need help getting back into my room!” She knew that she could fly up there, but someone would need to help her squeeze into the window.

      Krookid sighed and stepped forward. “Hey, don’t panic too much. I’ll help you get back. We gotta use the blindfold to get you back to the bazaar though, is that okay?” He asked, holding up the piece of cloth.

      Annie nodded. “Yeah. Sure. Whatever. I don’t care. Just bring me home!” She grabbed the blindfold from Krookid and started to put it on herself, tying it tight so they could see how serious she was about getting taken home.

      With a sigh, the Korbat began to guide her out of the hut. When they got outside, the night air felt even colder than it was earlier. Annie shivered involuntarily. Maybe it was partially from the chill, but an equal amount of fear as well. Not only was she afraid that Poppy would be mad at her, but she was also afraid that she would be scared. What if she was waiting, awake in Annie’s room, worried sick about her?

      Every step in the forest felt like agony, and she was relieved when they got onto the grass, and then into the bazaar. When Krookid untied her blindfold, she turned back to him with a relieved smile. “Alright, are you ready to go? You’ve seen my house before, right?” But when she saw his concerned face, her expression dropped a bit. “What’s wrong?”

      “Yer eye is getting more bruised by the minute. I don’t think it’s gonna be anything more than a black eye, but I’d recommend figurin’ out a way to hide it,” he said, looking down at the ground.

      Annie reached up to touch her eye yet again and nervously ground her teeth. “I don’t think I have any eyepatches or anything, and even if I did, I think Poppy would still be suspicious.” Even a scarf or hat wouldn’t look right.

      “Try puttin’ some ice on it when you get home. That’ll bring down the swelling a bit. Then you could tell yer owner that you tripped or something? That’s the only idea I’ve got.” Krookid flew up into the air and gestured for Anerada to join him. “Alright, you gotta lead the way.”

      She did as he asked and started flying towards her house. As she passed the same houses she passed on the way there, an uncomfortable feeling settled in her stomach. She was even more nervous now than when she was going through the first time. Although she had a big opportunity before her, it was going to come with a big cost. And that thought implied that she would even get the chance to take it in the first place.

      When her home was in view, Annie began to slow down a bit. Krookid had dropped her off once or twice before, but she gestured to the house just in case. He followed her lead and the two touched down in her lawn moments later. “Alright, no lights on. That’s a good sign.”

      “Good luck out there, Annie. Someone in the Guild will be reachin’ out to you again soon. Probably through a note on your window again. Otherwise, I’ll see ya next time we train, so we can talk then.” Krookid went up in the air, looking towards her window. “You needed a helping hand, right?”

      “Oh, yeah. I almost forgot.” The Eyrie flew up as well. The window was still cracked, like she had left it earlier. She pushed it all the way up and had Krookid give her a little boost in. She guided herself onto the chair she had set up, then pulled her back legs through with some additional help. “Alright, I’m all set. Thanks again.”

      “See ya soon.” Krookid gave her a quick salute, then flew back in the direction they had come in. Annie watched him go until he looked more like a shooting star than a Korbat, then let out a long sigh.

      The first thing she had to do was close the window. She shut it, very gently, then backed away and listened to see if there was anyone rustling around in the house. Saorsie’s room was next to hers, Bryn’s was across the hall, and Poppy’s was at the very end of the hall. SB was downstairs, so Annie would have to be careful of her when she went to get ice from the kitchen.

      Slowly and carefully, Annie took careful steps towards the door, pausing every so often to see if she heard anyone moving. When she got to the door, she opened it as slowly as possible, trying to make sure it didn’t creak as it swung. Fortunately, it stayed quiet, and she let out a very small sigh of relief. But her next task would be the toughest: getting down the stairs quietly. There was no way that they wouldn’t creak at least a little.

      Step by step, she made her way down the stairs. There were one or two creaking noises, but they weren’t as loud as she feared, and when she made it down to the kitchen, she felt as though she had done so with as much ease as she could. The fridge was in sight, and all she had to do was pull the freezer open and grab an ice pack. But as she approached it, she heard what she thought was a small creak from behind her. Instantly, Annie whipped around, looking for the source of the noise. After scanning the area, she didn’t see anything, so she opened the freezer drawer and pulled out an ice pack. With it in her hands, she turned and started to head back towards the stairs. Once she was up the stairs and at the door to her room, she let out another sigh of relief.

      After wrapping the ice pack in a small towel, Annie laid down on her bed. She was safe and sound, having made her journey with no one seeing her. The black eye might be a problem the next day, but she could always say that she tripped on something in her room or hurt herself while training in her room. She’d rather get in trouble for staying up late and training alone than for getting buddy-buddy with the Thieves Guild.

      Finally, she drifted off into sleep, dreams of training with the best of the best filling her head.

     ~

      When Annie woke up the next morning, the first thing she noticed was that her face felt wet. She sat up, shaking herself off a little, before noticing that the ice pack had melted a bit and had been dripping water onto her and the bed all night. “Ugh, gross!” She said to herself, setting it on her desk. She’d have to bring it down when she went to get breakfast, but since she had brewed up a fake story about hurting herself while training, she wouldn’t be putting it away without a sufficient explanation.

      To make up for her black eye, she decided to dress a little bit nicer, pulling on a sweater and black leggings. She even decided to switch it up with a black wig, one of her favourites. Not only would she look nice, but she could also tell all of her training friends at school that she had a fight with someone really tough, and that was how she got the black eye. When she got ready in the bathroom, she found that it didn’t look too bad. It was still noticeable, but it didn’t look as ugly as she thought it might.

      There was a little spring in her step as she went down the stairs. Although she was nervous about explaining the injury, she couldn’t get into that much trouble, right? Why wouldn’t Poppy buy her story? It seemed straightforward enough. When she reached the bottom step, she looked out towards the kitchen and saw, as usual, the whole family already gathered around the table.

      “Oh, Annie, I’m glad I didn’t have to come and wake you up, I -” Poppy had been putting silverware out on the table, so she didn’t notice the black eye until she looked out and let out a screech. “Annie! What in Neopia happened to you?”

      As her owner rushed over to check on her, Annie put on a shameful face. “I’m sorry, Poppy. I was training all last night and I kinda hit myself a little too hard. I put some ice on it, and I think it looks a little better now, right?”

      “I told you, you have to stop training late at night!” Poppy gave an exasperated sigh, then put her hands on her hips and backed up. “As long as you weren’t hurt worse than that. But if you keep staying up past your bedtime, I’m going to cancel your next session at the Training School. Okay?”

      Annie was about to nod and agree when she heard the screech of a chair being pushed back. She looked over and saw Brynettia standing up with a smug smile. The second she saw that expression, she knew it was over. “Not so fast.” The Gelert was pulling something out of her pocket, and Annie’s heart sank. “You know, I thought I heard someone talking last night. So I went across the hall and checked your room. I can’t believe you left it unlocked!”

      “You didn’t…” Annie growled in disbelief. Of course, that was the one thing she forgot to do! Ultimately, she couldn’t be surprised that her snitch younger sister would do something like this.

      Bryn held up the note, handing it to Poppy. “And I found this note on her desk, too! Take a look!”

      Poppy read the note, and a look of horror began to slowly grow on her face. “Anerada… you met up with the Thieves Guild?!” Her voice rose to a volume that could probably be heard all the way in Kreludor. “What were you thinking? You know how dangerous that is, don’t you? Is that how you got that black eye?”

      Annie shrunk back in embarrassment. “I’m sorry… I just wanted to…”

      “You just wanted to what? Join a criminal organization? Do you know the kinds of things they do? Just take a look in the newspaper! They’re petty thieves and don’t care who they hurt to get what they want!” Poppy was on a full-blown rant now, having set down both the silverware and the note.

      SB raised one of her hooves, speaking up. “I think that’s an oversimplification of their goals. They are criminals, but they’re not uncaring and ruthless…”

      “Stay out of this,” Poppy said, shooting the eldest pet a glare. Annie had never seen her raise her voice to SB before. This meant it was business. “Anerada, you are grounded. No training. No going out. You are to come right home after school and stay inside all night. I trusted you, and I can’t believe you broke that trust.”

      Unable to take it any longer, Annie burst into tears. “I’m sorry! I’m so sorryyyyyyy!” She couldn’t stop wailing and sniffling, and she had to sit on the ground with how overwhelmed she was with emotions.

      “That’s what you get!” Bryn said, pointing a paw at her sister.

      “You need to stay out of this too. We’re going to have to have a talk about invading your siblings’ privacy, even if I am glad to know about this now,” Poppy said before turning back to Annie. “Get up and get something to eat. You need to leave for school soon and I’m not letting you go on an empty stomach.”

      Still sniffling, but not full-on bawling anymore, Annie got up from the floor and sat down at the table. She was able to eat, but not much. Shame and embarrassment filled her whole body, and she couldn’t bear to look at her siblings or Poppy during the whole meal. When she was done eating, she got up and grabbed her backpack, waiting by the door for her siblings to be ready.

      As Brynettia and Saorsie joined her by the door, she could feel their gazes on her. She always wanted to be the centre of attention for her fighting, but not for something like this. When she finally was able to look up at her siblings, she saw that Bryn actually looked concerned now. She expected Saorsie to look worried - and she did, but Annie didn’t expect it from her youngest sister.

      “I’m sorry,” Bryn mumbled, her lower lip quivering a bit.

      Poppy cut into their moment, opening the door for them. “Go on. I’ll see you right after school, Annie. Stay safe out there.” What hurt Annie the most was that she was more sad than angry. She had gone against everything that Poppy tried to teach her throughout her life. Her ambition went too far, and now she was paying the price.

      As requested, she went straight to school. Bryn was silent for the entire walk, only shooting occasional looks at Annie, but looking away once she was caught. Saorsie met up with Shylark and Molly, but they barely talked above a whisper for the whole walk. As she looked over at them, Annie felt about as grey as the two sisters. It was like there was a storm cloud over her head, following her with every step and soaking her with shame. Surely, when she got to school, everyone would stare or laugh at her. Even if she played up her tall tale, her heart just wasn’t in it after disappointing Poppy.

      When they arrived at school, she hung her head low, trying not to make eye contact with anyone. Bryn, Saorsie, and the twins all went off to their classes immediately, but Annie shuffled through the hallways, hoping that no one would pay attention to her. When she got to her first class, she sat down at her desk and stared at the ground. Unfortunately, one of her classmates tugged on her sweater to get her attention.

      “Psst! Are you still free to train after-” One of Annie’s training friends, Rainbow, stopped in the middle of her question and gasped. “Oh my goodness, what happened to your eye? That looks nasty!”

      Annie sighed. There was no way to avoid it. “I got into a nasty fight. Nothing dangerous, but I got hit in the eye pretty hard.”

      “Didja win?” The plushie Cybunny’s eyes widened. She actually looked a little excited.

      “Uh, yeah.” A small smile crossed her face. It wasn’t a lie; she did actually win. But her opponent wasn’t someone with a high moral code.

      Rainbow laughed and clapped her hands. “That’s so cool! I bet you really got in there and showed ‘em! You’re so tough!”

      Although she was still feeling ashamed, the praise cheered her up a little bit. “Heh, thanks, Rainbow. I appreciate it.”

      “So do you still wanna train later? I got a new, secret weapon that I’m ready to show off…” Rainbow smiled slyly and winked.

      “Oh, um, sorry. I can’t. I have to go to the Healing Springs with my owner to see if we can get this fixed up. But let’s take a rain check, yeah?” Annie spoke hesitantly, since she didn’t know when that rain check would be. She could only make excuses for so long before her friends figured out that she was lying.

      But the Cybunny seemed none the wiser. She nodded, still with a smile on her face. “Alright, next time!”

      Relieved that she had gotten away with it for now, Anerada turned her attention to the whiteboard, waiting for their teacher to begin class. Once he started, she opened her notebook and tried to focus in, but it was difficult with all the thoughts swirling in her head. She answered a question when called on, but she almost felt like she wasn’t in her own body.

      Annie went to class after class, trying to make it through without getting too distracted. But the biggest thoughts in her head were ‘I can’t believe I disappointed Poppy’ and ‘if only I was stronger, I wouldn’t need the Thieves Guild to train me.’ Maybe, if she got strong enough, her family would be proud and not ashamed of her anymore.

      That thought filled her with determination. From then on, it would be her goal. Even if she couldn’t go to the Training School, she could still read books about battling, or train in her room before she went to bed. Maybe, if she was good enough, Poppy would release her from her punishment and she could get back to what she had been doing before, just without the Thieves Guild.

      Finally, the bell rang, and she was free from school for the day. Tomorrow, they’d be taking their final exams, and then she’d be done for the summer. Although she wouldn’t have much freedom, she couldn’t wait. On her way out, she got a text from Saorsie saying that she would be staying after school for a club, and Brynettia had already gone home since her school day was shorter than Annie’s. All she had to do now was wait for SB to come and pick her up, since she had to be accompanied home now.

      Watching everyone else leave the school, Annie leaned up against the exterior wall and waited for her older sister. She could see some of her training friends walking together, and she was sure that they were heading to the Training School or the practice arena. She sighed in jealousy, wishing more than anything that she could join them.

      But out of the corner of her eye, she spotted someone. A tall figure in a cloak was standing a few hundred feet away from the school, and he seemed to be holding a bottle of something. Anerada was curious, but she thought the man looked suspicious, so she didn’t approach him. But instead, he approached her first. As he got closer, he seemed to look like a Krawk, but a very green one. His appearance was distorted, and if she didn’t know any better, she’d think that he looked a little like Dr. Sloth. But she could tell definitively that he was a Krawk, just an ugly one.

      “Hello, Neopian. I am looking for the local Training School. Do you think you could point me in the right direction?” His voice sounded gravelly, like he had a bad sore throat or something. The way he leered at Annie made her feel like he wasn’t unkind, but just a bit intimidating.

      “Oh, um, there’s one on Krawk Island and one on Mystery Island. They’re a little far, but if you take a boat or fly, you can get there.” She was surprised that he didn’t know about the Krawk Island Training School since he was a Krawk himself. But maybe he was born elsewhere?

      “Ah, that is a bit far. I was hoping for something in this area.” The man looked up and rubbed his chin, then looked back down at Annie. “But since you know where those schools are, you must be a battler yourself, yes?”

      She nodded eagerly, but remembered quickly that she was now a bit ashamed of that fact. “Yeah, I am.”

      “Did you get that black eye in a fight? You must really be impressive if you did.” The Krawk smiled, and his teeth were straight and as white as a sheet. It was still ominous, but Annie kept putting it aside. His praise made her feel proud.

      “Heh, yeah. I won.” Although she was happy to share it, it hurt a little knowing that it came at a big cost.

      “Then perhaps you could make use of something I have with me. I was going to take this to sell at the Training School, but since you are an exceptional young fighter, I think you ought to have it. In fact, I’ll even sell it to you at a discount.” The Krawk brandished a potion from his burlap sack and held it out with two fingers. “It’s something I’ve been working on lately and I think it would give you a big boost.”

      The liquid in the bottle was about as green as he was, and it seemed to have some sort of odd quality to it that Annie couldn’t understand. It was as if it looked thick, somehow. “What does it do? It looks weird.”

      “It will amplify all elements of your physique. Strength, defence, speed, stamina, you name it. It’s not a wonder potion and it won’t make you the most powerful creature in Neopia, but you will see a marked improvement and you will find training much more efficient.” He shook the potion a little, and it swirled slowly within the bottle before settling again. “If you don’t believe me, I can refer you to my other happy customers. All of them have seen achievements in intelligence, attractiveness, and health.”

      Now, Annie was feeling eager. SB hadn’t gotten there yet, so there was still time for her to buy the potion before her older sister could say it was a bad idea. “How much is it?”

      “For you, my budding challenger, I will only charge you five thousand Neopoints. Quite a steal, don’t you think?”

      That was way less than she expected. Although she had spent most of her recent allowance on other battle equipment, she still had enough to purchase this special potion. If it really did everything it said, this would be a big bargain. Annie dug into her bag and pulled out the required currency, handing it over to the Krawk. “You’ve got a deal!”

      “You won’t regret this, I can assure you. There may be a few side effects, but nothing that will seriously damage you. If you have any problems, do contact me.” He reached into his cloak and brandished a business card. It read ‘Dr. Slade, potion master’ on it, and had an address at the Space Station on it.

      Annie shoved the bottle in her bag and nodded. “Thank you so much! I can’t wait!” When she looked up again, she noticed SB coming towards the school. “Gotta run, bye!” She lightly jogged towards the Peophin, trying not to jostle the potion and hoping that it didn’t clink too loudly in her bag.

      “Who was that?” SB asked, watching Dr. Slade walk off in the opposite direction.

      “Oh, I’m not sure. He said he was from out of town and asked for directions to the NeoLodge,” Annie lied, keeping a confident demeanour so SB wouldn’t suspect that anything was up.

      SB processed her story, slowly nodding. A look of worry crossed her features. “Annie, you need to be careful talking to strangers. He didn’t ask for any information about you, did he? Did he try to give you something?”

      Her sister had a point. He could’ve been a villain with bad intentions for all she knew. But he said that he was qualified, and that she could find any of his past customers if she had any reservations. If he wasn’t trustworthy, surely he wouldn’t have offered that up. “Nope, just asked where to go and then went on his way.”

      “Alright, then. But if you notice any suspicious figures following you, don’t hesitate to let me know, okay? I won’t be mad at you or judge you, I just want to keep you safe.” SB wrapped an arm around Annie and smiled. It made Annie feel warm inside. She couldn’t wait to show her family how strong she was after she took the potion.

      When the two got home, Annie settled in and worked on studying for her finals with Hopper sitting on her desk and watching her. She couldn’t focus, so it took a lot longer than it normally did. But since she had a lot more free time without training or battling, she wasn’t in as much of a rush as she would be on any other night. When she was done with that, she picked up a book on defensive techniques that she hadn’t finished and worked through that. But every so often, she would look over at the bag on the floor longingly, thinking about when she could take it. As much as she wanted to take it tonight, she determined that she would wait until finals were over. Poppy had always said that academics came first, and although she wanted her future career to be the most important thing, she knew that her owner just wanted what was best for her.

      As she settled in for the night, she tried to not think about the potion so she could actually get some sleep. But she found herself tossing and turning for a while, wondering exactly what it would do to her. She hoped that the side effects weren’t too dangerous, and that the benefits would outweigh any negative things that came from it. Even if it turned her green or made her lose fur, it would all be worth it to be strong. When she finally fell asleep, her dreams were filled with battling yet again.

To be continued…

 
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