Two Moltarans Walk Into a Lodge...
"So why did you want me to come here with you again, Stealth? This part of Terror Mountain is having what's probably its worst blizzard in the past five years," asked Jacob. The subzero temperatures here were taking a heavy toll on the Kacheek's body. Moltarans weren't used to these conditions. How Stealth was surviving this he'd never know.
"Long story short, there's this special ice crystal I've heard about that can be found here. When used, can make a perfect sundae."
"But that's just the thing... wh-why didn't you just u-use the iceb-box?" Jacob asked through chattering teeth. "Quite frankly I'd be worried what's in this ice if normal wa-water didn't do the trick."
The duo managed to finally find a rest stop to ease their aching feet. The hike up to this location had been treacherous. Stealth didn't trust the mountaineers to take them up. Something about their shoes not looking "professional" enough, or something like that.
The stop was quaint and cozy. It appeared to be a locally-run inn of sorts. Definitely not as glamorous as one of the numerous Neolodge hotels that were found throughout Happy Valley, but it was perfect for now. Nice cozy fireplace, pretty paintings lining the walls, the stares of many a patron glaring at Jacob's choice of attire...
"Stealth, I feel uncomfortable..." Jacob said to his friend. Jacob had always been self-conscious and nervous around others. With Stealth he had a more relaxed manner than normal, but in public? Outside of the Month of Celebrating he was a bit of a nervous wreck.
"Just relax. Why would they be staring at you?"
"That's easy for you to ask. You at least dress neutrally, so to speak. I basically stick out like a giant neon sign saying, 'hey world, look at the out-of-place Moltaran on Terror Mountain!'" said Jacob. Stealth had always worn a simple-yet-dressy ensemble consisting of a brown suit coat, a pair of khaki trousers, and Wellington boots, whereas Jacob was constantly weighed down by heavy brass and leather, signifying his Moltaran residence. "They probably think I'm some know-nothing tourist in way over his head..."
"And why does that matter? You're likely never gonna see these guys again."
"That's why I'm worried! This will be the only thing they remember me by..."
The duo made their way up to the counter to find the receptionist completing a crossword puzzle. Jacob decided to time it: it took exactly fifteen seconds before he had noticed the two arrive. He was a Kyrii, but shorter and plumper than most. Must be packing on the pounds to brave the storm, the duo thought.
"Welcome to the Winter Solstice Inn, where our list of unhappy customers is the shortest of all. How may I assist you two today?" he said in an almost too-happy tone.
"We'd like to rent a room for the night, if it's not too much trouble," Stealth said.
"I'm terribly sorry, but the only room left is a single room. Unless... he's not with you," the Kyrii said, glancing at Jacob.
"No, sir, he's with me," Stealth said, firmly staring the Kyrii right in the eyes.
"Then I'm afraid we're fully booked. Perhaps you and your... climate-challenged friend... can find somewhere else to stay?" he said smugly.
"The NERVE of that guy..." Stealth said as he exited the building. "I get he only had one room left, but how insensitive must he be to outright make fun of those from Moltara..."
"Stealth, I appreciate it and all, but... we really need to find somewhere to rest up. It's gonna be a long journey at this rate, and there's not a single hotel for miles. I'd hate to have us freeze out here." Jacob felt another cold wind barge into his body.
"I just don't get it. This inn wasn't even on my map in the first place," Stealth said. Jacob looked at the map.
"Stealth, you do realize that this map is from over a decade ago, right? A lot of things have changed not just here, but all over Neopia since then."
"In that case, is that why this one isn't around anymore?" Stealth asked, pointing to one building in particular on the map. The grim looking facade resembled that of a medieval fortress, which was quite the unusual sight to see on Terror Mountain. It was labeled as "The Ski Lodge."
"Huh, I don't believe I've ever seen that one before. According to the map, it should just be right atop that snowy plateau over there. No harm in looking for it, right? If they can't afford to keep the establishment on the map, I'd imagine the price of staying the night would be negligible at best."
"I guess you're right. I'll do a quick fly-over and see if it's still there," Stealth said as he began to flap his wings.
"Oh my, I sure hope that Stealth makes it ba-"
"It's still there!" Stealth yelled upon return.
"Your time keeps getting better, at least. What do you say about going inside?" Jacob asked.
After a quick flight with Stealth awkwardly holding Jacob on the way up, the duo arrived at the doorstep of the place. A stately manor on a mountain, this was a building built in a prime location: the slopes surrounding this plateau were impeccable. One had to wonder how it got so little business.
"Hello?" The mansion was silent, but the lights were still in order. Dust covered the floors in a fine film, but beyond that everything was intact. The interior of the lodge seemed... off. Gigantic images and tapestries of Dr. Sloth lined the walls.
"Maybe the owner has a nice sense of irony, and he's really a chipper guy?" said Stealth when faced with Jacob's quizzical expression.
"It wouldn't be the first time a Neopian was struck with a random Sloth obsession, that's for sure..." said Jacob.
"Something you're not telling me, Jacob?" Stealth said with a goofy grin.
"I... just enjoy researching his technological feats, that's all..."
The duo moved further into the lodge in order to find any of the help staff... they wouldn't want to get a room without paying. That'd be rude. After looking around at all the dust and cobwebs, Stealth noticed a notice on the ground.
"Hey Jacob, come look at this notice I noticed," he said.
"It looks like a quarantine notice... or an eviction notice. I'm not sure which." Jacob began to read the note further. "Ski Lodge to be closed indefinitely at the end of Year Three. Ruled to be unsafe for occupants due to... unforeseen circumstances leading to the visitors' demise." He began to shake. "Stealth, I know where we are now... we're in that infamous Ski Lodge. I read a book about what happened in this place. It's not a hotel, it's a death trap!"
"Get a hold of yourself, Jacob. If there's an eviction notice, then whatever did that back then's been taken care of by now. If only the rest of this place were better taken care of though," Stealth said as he flicked away a small Spyder.
"We can't stay here Stealth," Jacob said as he began to pace. "And whatever you do, don't use the swimming pool."
"They have a swimming pool?" Stealth said, beaming.
"Stealth, there's a reason they call it the Dea-" Jacob was cut off by something. A creaking sound. In response, he darted behind one of the fancy, if dusty, couches in the lodge. Stealth followed in confusion.
A tall, intimidating figure stood in the doorway. He wore a completely black cloak, as well as a hood, so his features couldn't be made out, save for his putrid green-colored hands grasping the door handle. The figure removed its hood.
"Ah, it's good to be back here again." It was Dr. Sloth himself. "How long has it been? Fourteen years now?"
Stealth peered out from behind the couch before darting back to Jacob's side. "Huh, so I guess Sloth himself owned this place, eh, Jacob? ...Jacob?" Jacob was shaking uncontrollably, barely able to catch his breath. "Here I thought you said you enjoyed all his technological accomplishments."
"Why do you think I'm cowering, Stealth?" Jacob managed to say in a frantic whisper. "I know fully well what Sloth's capable of doing to us if he sees we've trespassed here."
Sloth squinted his eyes and peered around the room. "Is someone there? Are you a Pet? Petpet? ...Petpetpet? I don't want any of those in here..." Eventually, Sloth decided he must have just been hearing things. "Ah well. The time has come for my next plan." Sloth pulled out a giant cardboard box and began rummaging through it. Stealth and Jacob quietly watched in anxious silence. "Ah ha! Here we are. At last, it's all mine: the last working Neovision set in Neopia!"
"That fiend," Stealth whispered before Jacob put his hand over his beak.
"Now nobody on this pitiful planet can ruin my vacation plans. Now... where did I put that blasted remote? Did it fall between the couch cushions?" Sloth reached his hand down between the cushions as the sweat from Jacob's brow began to flood his goggles.
"Now what?" Stealth asked, almost silently. Sloth was sitting on the couch they were hiding behind.
"What is the meaning of THIS?" Sloth roared. Stealth and Jacob embraced each other in fear. "Why are the batteries missing? This is unacceptable. Perhaps they fell behind the couch."
His gruesome hand began moving around the back of the couch, reaching for the supposed batteries. Thinking quickly, Jacob saw the batteries and pushed them toward Sloth's hand.
"Ah! There we go. Now we can just put these back in the remote, and be all set to go," Sloth narrated to himself. He then heard a dinging noise. "Ah yes, my popcorn must be ready. You can't watch Neovision without popcorn." Sloth then walked casually out of the room in order to retrieve his light and buttery snack food of choice.
"Now's our chance to leave, Stealth! The coast is clear! We can just get out of here, alert the local law enforcement, and be on our way!"
"Good thinking Jacob!" Stealth said as he began to race for the door. Or, at least, he would have raced for the door if his footing hadn't gotten stuck on Sloth's throw rug, causing him to trip. As he fell, he managed to launch a small lamp that had been placed nearby right into the Neovision set, breaking the screen beyond repair. Luckily, the sound of the popping of the popcorn hadn't made Sloth aware of the dilemma. The duo stood in shock.
"NOW what?" Jacob said, on the verge of tears.
"I... have a plan," Stealth said as he pulled out two sock puppets.
"...How long have you been carrying those around in your pockets?" Jacob asked.
"Why does that matter now?" Stealth said as he quickly fashioned a "new Neovision set" out of the cardboard box, and threw the old one out in the snow. "Just follow my lead." Jacob and Stealth both jumped in the empty box.
"Unbelievable. 'Extra Butter' my left foot..." Sloth said as he entered the room, chewing half-heartedly on the snack. "Ah well, at least I can relax now." Sloth pressed a button on the remote control, which gave off a tell-tale beeping sound.
"That's our signal," Stealth whispered. "WELCOME to the Puppet Channel, Neopia's last airing Neovision channel!" Stealth screamed as he held up his sock puppet, making it flail about.
"What? This is the only channel running?" Sloth roared.
"That's right! All the other channels gave up when Neovision went bankrupt. But not us!" Jacob nudged Stealth's arm.
"Stealth, the channel isn't supposed to talk back..." Jacob whispered.
"Just join in... I need a co-star." Stealth handed Jacob the second puppet. This one was female, as noted by Stealth's crudely drawn lipstick and yarn hair, the only features stopping it by being identical to the "male" puppet.
"Umm... now it's time for... Puppet News!" Jacob said unenthusiastically. Stealth gave a quizzical look.
"News, huh? Better than the Neopian Times, I suppose," Sloth quipped.
"Making news now: nefarious Neopian mastermind Doctor Frank Sloth has been seen around the peak of Terror Mountain."
"WHAT?" Sloth bellowed.
"Eyewitness reports state that the Doctor entered the long-abandoned Ski Lodge just a few hours ago. The Defenders of Neopia, the Chia Police, the Space Faerie, Queen Fyora, AND the Tombola Guy are headed to the scene of the alleged sighting to apprehend the criminal once more."
"This cannot be..." Sloth said as he clutched at his chest. "My... perfect vacation!" With a heavy heart, he began pushing buttons on the arm of his chair. Outside, an escape pod appeared, in which Sloth made his grand exit. "Maybe next year will be better."
"We did it, Jacob!" Stealth cheered. "He's gone! We can go home now!"
"Yeah, this certainly has been an adventure. Quite clever of you to use puppets."
"Oh, don't be so modest. The newscast was your idea."
And so, the duo left again for Moltara, where warmer weather and less haunted ski resorts greeted them upon arrival.
Sloth sat for a moment in his lair when an epiphany struck.
"Wait a moment, the Tombola Guy doesn't work in law enforcement..."