Terra loved Neopia Central at night. The bustling metropolis was already fascinating enough during the day, but at night it turned into a symphony of light and motion. Faerie-dust lamps set down a rhythm of soft light on endless sidewalks, magic signs blinked a syncopated beat above shops and restaurants, and a choir of Eyrie cabs and Uni-drawn lorries streamed along city blocks like a grid-shaped river.
A chilly spring wind picked up and the pale-skinned, blue-eyed human woman zipped her jacket closed. Her long copper hair was tied back in a braid, and she carefully wadded it against the back of her neck before throwing the hood of her jacket over her head, pushing her glasses up her nose, and putting her hands in her pockets. Low clouds hung overhead, illuminated by the collective glow of uncountable city lights. It had rained earlier that day, and it looked poised to do so again tonight. Not that Terra would mind—she loved rain, too. Visits to Neopia Central were always a wonderful experience.
But even more wonderful was enjoying it with her family. “Hold up,” said the disco Zafara at Terra’s side, stopping in front of a restaurant. A coin-operated candy machine sat on a stand beside the door, and the Zafara fished around in her belt pouch.
“Blynn,” said the blue Grundo beside them. “C’mon, do you really need any more gumballs?”
“Can never have too many gumballs, Chief,” Blynn said. She plunked a Neopoint coin into the section of the machine that held the colourful chicle orbs, and turned the knob.
Terra snorted. Blynn always did Blynn things, and Terra loved every moment of the Zafara’s zaniness. She’d been like that ever since Terra created her as a teenager. Blynn was perfect for her.
The Grundo frowned. “It could start raining again at any minute,” he said. “And I do not want to get caught in it.”
Gumballs merrily clacked against the metal of the machine, and Blynn opened the flap to scoop them into her paw. She stuck one in her mouth, and put the rest in one of the several pouches on her belt.
“Hyren,” Terra said to her Grundo, “if it starts raining, you can wear my jacket. I don’t mind the cold as much as you do.” Shortly after creating Blynn, Terra had adopted Hyren under unusual circumstances. Suffice to say that he was no longer commanding troops under Dr. Sloth. And he was one of the best friends Terra could ask for.
As they continued walking, Hyren gave her a halfhearted smile. “Thanks,” he said, “but I wouldn’t want you to get cold and wet, either.”
A large furry paw clapped down on Terra’s shoulder. “I will shield her from the elements,” said the enormous dark-furred Werelupe walking between her and the street, as if to protect her from traffic.
Terra reached up and gave his paw a squeeze. “Thanks, Isengrim,” she said to her other Neopet. She had, once again, adopted Isengrim under highly unusual circumstances, but her other Neopets agreed that he was every bit a part of their family.
“Of course,” he said with a smile, his red eyes reflecting the faerie-light of lanterns mounted on Eyrie cabs. Isengrim stood a good two and a half metres tall, easily taller than anyone else they had seen in the city, and he had received quite a few odd looks as they’d checked in to their hotel earlier that day.
But he was not regarded with too much suspicion here in Neopia Central – which was full of Neopets of all colours and species – because everyone probably assumed he was just a rather large Halloween-painted Lupe. Few here would suspect that he was actually a natural-turned Werelupe, a Lupe who had let the wilderness of the Haunted Woods take him and alter his form. And no one would fathom that he was the very Werelupe King who lived with his pack in the mountains of the Meridell region and had once allied with the Darkest Faerie.
That was years in the past, though. Isengrim had changed much since Terra had adopted him. She was proud of all that he had become and all that he had overcome.
They stopped at a crosswalk to wait for traffic to turn in their favour. In the middle of the intersection, a Korbat traffic guide hung from a cable slung across the street. The Korbat held her wings out like an orchestra conductor sustaining a note—strapped to her wing membranes were colour-coded faerie lights. She scrutinised the traffic carefully, and suddenly she wheeled her wings in a warning pattern. One direction of traffic slowed to a stop, and when she repositioned her wings, cabs and lorries in the other direction lurched into motion, leaving the crosswalk free to pass.
“It’s so cool how they do traffic here,” Terra said as they crossed the street. “Pteri work the day shift—did you notice that?”
Hyren nodded. “I’m glad we don’t have traffic like this in Altador,” he said. “It’d drive me crazy.”
Blynn blew a particularly large bubble that popped onto her nose, and she pulled the gum back into her mouth with her tongue. “Too bad Pharazon couldn’t come,” she said. “I don’t see why a stinky old magic symposium in Maraqua is more fun than hanging out with your family.”
Terra chuckled sympathetically. “Pharazon doesn’t like Neopia Central anyway,” she said. “He says it’s too loud and fast-paced for him. Which is a shame, since there are some museums here I think he’d love. But he went to the symposium with Celice, and they don’t get to see each other often. I can understand why he’d take this opportunity to go on a research trip with a friend.”
Pharazon was Terra’s final Neopet, the family scholar and the family wizard, both things Terra did not anticipate when she’d hatched him from a Draik Egg. While the faerie Draik was not as rambunctious an adventurer as the rest of his kooky family, he did enjoy going with his sorceress friend to attend conferences and events centering around magical studies. Terra missed him, but she would never make him come along on trips he didn’t want to be a part of. She knew she had to give him his space, as much as she wanted to smother him with attention.
Terra had quite the eclectic family—and she loved them all.
As they waited for traffic at another crosswalk, Blynn said, “We should go for dinner at that restaurant back there. Looked like they had some good pasta.”
Hyren looked over his shoulder at the path they had already traversed. “May I remind you,” he said, “that we’re not here in Neopia Central on vacation. We’ve got higher priorities than sightseeing and food tourism.”
Isengrim’s smile faded and he looked down at the bunch of scrolls tucked under his arm. They were here on his behalf.
Terra clutched his paw again. “You’ll do great,” she said to him. “And after we’re done talking to the Defenders, we can go out to eat.” She grinned down at Hyren. “I know why we’re here. But once we’ve got our business taken care of, we can have some fun!” She was of the “work hard, play hard” persuasion.
“I’m worried about how they’ll react to me,” Isengrim said quietly. “I have not exactly been on the right side of the law for most of my life.”
“If they’re superheroes worth their title,” Terra said, “they’ll be proud of you for what you’re doing.” She was being purposely vague—this was business that she did not want any prying ears to overhear. Neopia was a fascinating place, but unfortunately it had its dark side. All manner of malevolent creatures lurked about, from Swamp Ghouls to the Pant Devil, and even beings like the Shadow Usul and Count Von Roo.
Terra’s family took prudent precautions, however. It helped that those nasties were less likely to pick on people who looked like they could fight back. Isengrim’s sheer appearance said “don’t mess with me”, as did the claymore slung across his back. Hyren’s small stature belied his countless years of combat experience and master swordsmanship, skills that meant he could wield with finesse the shortsword at his side. And anyone who underestimated Blynn was in for a surprise, especially with the slingshot on her belt.
And all three of their weapons were artefacts from the ancient faerie wars, superbly crafted and enchanted to never break or dull. The sword that bumped against Terra’s leg with each step was not nearly so storied, but it was a solidly-made, reasonably-priced weapon that Hyren had helped her pick out. As much as she appreciated a good sword, Terra would much rather her family get the cool weapons than her. She valued their happiness above her own, and she would be satisfied with something that at least worked well.
Although, there were times when she wished she had a special weapon to call her own. Even Pharazon had one—a Staff of the Deep Forest that he’d found during a trip to the Haunted Woods. He’d explained to her how it felt right in his paws, and Terra knew the rest of her family felt the same way about their weapons. She couldn’t help but wonder if there was something out there meant for her.
But maybe she was meant to be special in other ways. After all, she was family to both the Werelupe King and the former Commander Hyren. She could be content with that.
Terra was so lost in her thoughts that she kept walking when the rest of her family halted. Only Isengrim’s paw on her shoulder made her stop and turn around.
“Are you all right?” he asked.
Terra nodded. “Sorry,” she said. “Just thinking.” She craned her neck up at their destination. “Ooh, neat.”
The Defenders of Neopia headquarters building towered authoritatively above them, a steel-and-glass skyscraper in a modern design that incorporated both rounded domes and angular stone cladding. Most of the windows were still lit. The Defenders and their staff must have been working tirelessly to ensure the safety of Neopia, Terra thought, and she appreciated their efforts.
Beside her, Isengrim took a deep breath, and Terra hugged him. “You’ll do awesome,” she said. “I’m proud of you.”
“So are we,” Hyren said, and Blynn nodded.
Isengrim smiled nervously at them. “Thank you,” he said. “Let’s do this.” He ushered them through the doors before stepping inside himself.
The lobby of the headquarters was nicely decorated in marble and metal, with displays of old superhero gear lining the walls, and the crest of the Defenders hanging above the receptionist’s desk. The receptionist, a white Nimmo, did a double-take as they came in. “Er—can I help you?” she asked.
Isengrim bowed. “Lord Isengrim, the Werelupe King, seeks audience with Judge Hog,” he said. He paused, then added, “I believe I have an appointment.”
The Nimmo’s eyes widened even further as she leafed through her schedule. “Oh—yes, there you are,” she said. “Please wait a moment.” She turned to the Beepalite that sat patiently on the desk. “Judge Hog, Lord Isengrim is here to see you.”
The robot Petpet whirred as the light on the feedhorn of its antenna dish flickered, and it blinked and shifted its weight from one foot to the other before settling back down again. “There’s a good boy,” the receptionist said, patting its head, and it let out a few mechanical clacks in delight.
The feedhorn flickered once more. “Tell him to come on up,” said a gruff voice, made slightly tinny by the Beepalite’s speaker system.
“The lifts are that way,” the Nimmo said, pointing down the hall. “He’s on the 41st floor, third door to your right.”
“Thank you,” Isengrim said with a nod, leading his family toward the magic-powered lifts.
“Nice to see they’ve got some Virtupets tech down here,” Terra said as they all shuffled into a lift. Isengrim basically took up half the lift car by himself, but thankfully Terra was slim and Blynn and Hyren were smaller Neopets, so they fit snugly, but not uncomfortably.
“I wonder what they used to use before the Beepalites,” Blynn said. “Maybe Lightning Lenny just ran around the building all day delivering messages.” Terra laughed.
By the time they stepped into the hallway on the 41st floor, Terra could easily notice signs of apprehension from Isengrim. His fur was flat, and his tail and ears drooped, despite his efforts to keep them perked confidently. She reached over and took hold of his paw. “Remember,” she said, “you’re doing the right thing, and that’s always worth it. And if Judge Hog gives you any grief, he’ll have to answer to me.”
Her Werelupe chuckled self-consciously. “I would never ask you to defend me like that,” he said. “But… thank you for being here. You give me strength.”
“Thanks,” Terra said. “I’m happy to.”
“Here it is,” Hyren said, having walked ahead of them. He pointed to the letters on the door’s frosted window: JUDGE HOG, CHIEF OF OPERATIONS.
Isengrim tensed, and Terra’s grip on his paw tightened. “You’ve got this,” she said.
“Yeah, you’re a good guy now,” Blynn said. “And if Judge Hog doesn’t understand that, that’s his problem.”
The Werelupe King nodded. Squaring his shoulders, he took a deep breath and knocked at the door.
“Please come in,” said the same gruff, professional voice from before.
Isengrim clenched his jaw and opened the door, and they stepped into Judge Hog’s office. For a superhero’s workspace, Terra thought it looked surprisingly mundane. There was a calendar and a coatrack, a bulletin board plastered with papers, and even the requisite potted plant next to the window. On top of a filing cabinet sat a greeting card drawn by a child, with a crayon doodle of a caped Moehog. It read “HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO A SUPER DAD”. Terra smiled. That alone was enough to put her mind at ease about this Defender.
Judge Hog himself sat at the desk in the room, his hands folded as he waited patiently for everyone to get situated. The bulky blue Moehog looked rather comical behind a desk built for normal-sized Neopets, but that was really the only thing comical about him. He sized Isengrim up with a stern frown, but his expression softened when he saw the Werelupe’s family. Terra smiled politely, if a bit nervously. Meeting new people was not what she did for fun, but she knew Isengrim was having a more difficult time for other reasons.
“Lord Isengrim, I presume,” Judge Hog said. “The Defenders know about how you and your pack used to roam the Haunted Woods, taking whatever you pleased. And how you moved to Meridell, attempted to invade Illusen’s Glade, and then worked with the Darkest Faerie.”
Isengrim’s hackles rose and his crimson eyes glittered dangerously, and Terra frowned, as did her other Neopets.
Blynn opened her mouth to protest, but then Judge Hog said, “We also know about how you worked together with Brightvale, Meridell, and Darigan Citadel to stop a rogue mage destroying everything. And that you’ve been on good terms with those kingdoms ever since. We’ve also gotten reports from the Haunted Woods that you defeated another Werelupe King who had risen to power and was terrorising the villages there.” The Moehog stood up and extended a hand to Isengrim. “You sound like an exemplary hero, Your Majesty. I’m glad to meet you.”
Isengrim’s expression brightened and he shook Judge Hog’s hand firmly. “Thank you, sir,” the Werelupe said. “I appreciate that.” Terra felt her entire body relax. Everything was going to be okay, after all.
Judge Hog motioned to the chair on the other side of the desk. “Please, have a seat,” he said. “I apologise that I don’t have more seating for your family.”
“No worries,” Blynn said as Isengrim took the chair. “We know how to stand.”
Terra put a hand on Isengrim’s shoulder. The Werelupe took another deep breath and deposited the scrolls on Judge Hog’s desk. “Here you are, sir,” Isengrim said. “This is all the information I have about Malkus Vile.”
Judge Hog’s eyes lit up as he reached for the scrolls, breaking the wax seals and scanning the text Isengrim had written with his own paw. “Excellent,” the superhero said. “Thank you. This should help immensely in our search for Vile.” He glanced up at Isengrim. “If I may ask—what compelled you to cut ties with him and give us this information?”
“If I am as much of a hero as you say I am,” Isengrim said, “then it behooves me not to ally myself with criminals. My business with him has already been dwindling these past few years.” He absently scratched below his ear. “I have felt guilty about my connections with him since my owner adopted me… so I recently decided enough was enough. I am ‘going straight’, as they say. I will have no more to do with Vile or his dealings. And I could think of no better way to fix things than by helping you bring him to justice.”
“Very forthright of you,” Judge Hog said. “You’re quite the honourable sort. I like that. If it’s not too much of a bother, could I ask you some further questions about Vile? I’m sure the information you’ve given me here will be a huge help, but if I could learn anything more about him while you’re here, perhaps we could finally nail him.”
“Of course,” Isengrim said. “Ask me anything you like.” He turned to Terra. “Ah… do you have something else you could do for a bit? Vile is… not exactly a nice person, and I do not think you would want to hear much of what I have to tell.”
Terra smiled. “Sure, I think I can find something to do,” she said. “Meet me in the lobby when you’re done? I won’t leave the building without you.”
“Sounds good,” Isengrim said. Terra appreciated how he always looked out for her, not just protecting her physically but shielding her from things she was sensitive about. He was a truly conscientious and caring Neopet, and she felt faerie-blessed to have him in her family.
“Ooh, I’ll come too!” Blynn said. “I really wanna explore this place! C’mon, Terra, let’s see what we can find!” She grabbed her owner’s hand and started for the door.
“I think I’ll stay here,” Hyren said. “I’d like to know more about Vile, too. You never know when that kind of intel will come in handy.”
Terra nodded. “See you guys later, then,” she said as Blynn pulled her back out into the hallway.
“I wonder what’s in every single one of these doors!” Blynn said. “Where do you wanna start? Should we go to the top and work our way down? Or the other way round? Or pretend like we’re window washers so we can climb all over the outside—wait no, you don’t like heights, scratch that plan.”
Terra laughed. “Thanks,” she said. “Um… let’s see what there is to see on this floor, and then maybe make our way back down to the lobby?” Terra would wait for as long as she needed to if it meant the Defenders getting what they needed to apprehend Malkus Vile. She just hoped there would still be time for a good dinner afterward.
She and her Zafara meandered down the hallway, looking at all the doors and trying to guess as to what was in them—while they were curious, Terra was firmly against prying, so they touched nothing. As they neared a corner, they began to hear voices further down the hall.
Around the bend stood two more Defenders, a blue Kougra in a yellow-and-black jumpsuit and a yellow Kau in jeans and a t-shirt, wearing a green pendant around her neck. “Want me to bring you back anything?” the Kau asked the Kougra.
“I do like their rock,” the Kougra said. “Feels good on my teeth.”
“Howdy!” Blynn said, waving as she tugged Terra toward them. “Why are you talking about eating rocks?”
The Kougra gave them an odd look, and the Kau laughed. “Not rocks,” she said, “rock. Kiko Lake rock. It’s a type of candy. I’m going there on vacation next week.”
“Ooooh, right,” Blynn said. “I like their rock too. It has a good crunch to it.” She pointed to her own fangs. “I get kinda bitey sometimes.”
“Do we know you?” the Kougra asked.
“Nope,” Blynn said. “Our family’s here on official Defenders business. You must be the Masked Intruder! I recognise you from the comics!”
The Masked Intruder smoothed back the fur on his head. “That’s right, kid,” he said, folding his arms and leaning against the wall, the tip of his tail twitching. “The one and only.”
Blynn pointed to the Kau. “And you’re, um… y’know, I don’t think I’ve ever seen your name anywhere,” the Zafara said.
“I don’t go on many high-profile missions,” the Kau said. “I’m the Emerald Amazon. Pleasure to meet the both of you.”
“I’m Blynn,” Blynn said, “and this is my owner, Terra.” Terra waved with a polite smile. “So how d’you get to be a Defender, anyway?”
“There’s a rigourous application process,” the Masked Intruder said. “And the other Defenders all decide together whether or not your abilities and moral character qualify you to be a superhero.”
“Gotcha,” Blynn said. “How’d you get your superpowers?”
“Well, aren’t you full of questions,” the Masked Intruder muttered.
The Emerald Amazon shot him a glare before smiling back at their visitors. “Funny thing,” she said, “it’s different for everybody. Judge Hog was born with super strength, for example. Captain K is an escaped Virtupets cyborg, and Dr. Flexo is a former chemist whose experiment went wrong. I used to be an archaeologist, but when I was exploring a Geraptikan tomb, I found this.” She held up her amulet. “As soon as I picked it up, it granted me the powers of a lost warrior race, and I knew I had to use those powers to fight evil.”
“Coolies,” Blynn said, and Terra smiled as well. The owner liked to learn about people, but she was rather reserved in social situations. Blynn, on the other hand, had absolutely no social reservations, so she was great at getting the scoop. The Zafara turned to the Masked Intruder and asked, “What about you?”
“My powers aren’t as extravagant as the Amazon’s,” the Intruder said, inspecting his claws, “but I’m nothing to sneeze at. I’m a master of stealth and a former thief—until the Defenders caught me, that is.” He chuckled. “They helped me see a better way of living, and during my rehabilitation I realised I could use my skills to help people rather than rob them. So I applied to the Defenders, and somehow they accepted me.”
“That doesn’t surprise me,” Blynn said. “Judge Hog seems like a nice guy. He probably believes in second chances.”
“That’s what makes him so great at leading the Defenders,” the Emerald Amazon said.
Around the corner, Terra heard a door open, followed by familiar voices. “Speaking of,” Blynn said, “sounds like our family’s done in there. Thanks for chatting with us! See you round!” She and Terra waved to the two Defenders as they moved to join Isengrim and Hyren.
“Guys, over here!” Terra called to the Grundo and the Werelupe, who were headed toward the lifts.
They stopped and turned. “Ah, there you are,” Isengrim said, his tail wagging. “Did you have fun?”
“Sure did!” Blynn said. “We met more superheroes! I wonder how many of ‘em are crawling around this place.”
Hyren laughed. “You make them sound like Vernax,” he said.
“How did it go?” Terra asked Isengrim.
The Werelupe King smiled. “Very well,” he said. “I think I was able to answer Judge Hog’s questions satisfactorily. That, and the information on those scrolls, should keep him busy for quite some time.”
“You’re awesome,” Terra said. “I knew you could do it.”
He put a paw on her head. “Thank you for your support,” he said. “Now, then… did we still want to try that restaurant?”
“Sure did!” Blynn said.
Terra pumped her fist. “Our job here is done,” she said, “so let’s have a super fun vacation in Neopia Central! Ready, go!”
Hyren laughed. “Okay,” he said, “now it’s time for food tourism.”
When they got back outside, it had started raining again. After much protest, Hyren finally let Terra lend him her jacket. It reached his ankles and the sleeves were far too long, but he was susceptible to catching cold and Terra would not risk it. And Isengrim, true to his word, kept her plenty warm and dry under his furry arm.
The restaurant Blynn wanted to try was a cosy, hole-in-the-wall place with a menu full of old standbys. Terra ordered the fettucine alfredo, which came steaming hot on a huge platter that she could never finish in one sitting, and Blynn got spaghetti and meatballs in a spicy tomato sauce. The place also served steaks, which Hyren and Isengrim were eager to try. Everyone agreed that the food was delicious, and it was hard to make room for dessert—but none of them could pass up the opportunity for dessert.
Afterward, they headed back to the hotel, too tired and full to do anything else but sleep and look forward to all the fun they would have tomorrow. Terra and Blynn said goodnight to Isengrim and Hyren, who were staying in the next room over, and then the girls retreated to their own room and got ready for bed.
Clad in warm flannel pajamas, Terra took off her glasses, curled up in her comfy bed, closed her eyes, and listened to the rain patter on steel and pavement. “Night, Blynn,” she said.
“G’night, Terra,” Blynn said from her own bed. The Zafara had made herself a cave-nest out of the bedding, and only her long tail flopped out and draped over the edge. “Let’s do lots of fun things tomorrow.”
“Yes, let’s,” Terra said. She buried her face into her pillow and started to plan those fun things. They would have to check out the vast array of shops that sold everything under the Neopian sun, for starters. And Neopia Central had such an impressive history—she wanted to visit sites like the old, abandoned Catacombs and the Money Tree. Perhaps they could even buy gifts to give to Neopets staying in the Pound. She liked having enough money to do stuff like that.
As she drifted off to sleep, Terra felt an overwhelming sense that everything was going to be okay. Things were getting better, after all.
In retrospect, she felt she should have realised that things getting better did not mean there were no more battles to be fought.