Disclaimer: I don't own Neopets or any of its characters. (Lord Luparn is from one of the cards.)
Clop! Clop clop! Clop! Clop clop clop! CLOP!
"No! Don't eat me! Nooo!"
"Jelly World! It's real, I tell you! I've seen with my own two eyes!"
"You'll pay for this, vile scum! When I break free..."
"I won't taste good with ketchup! Honest!"
Clop CLOP CLOP!
"...Pets and houses, all made out of jelly..."
The heavy, wooden, steel-reinforced door at the top of the stairs slowly creaked open, and the prison fell silent. A guard poked his head in.
"Warden, Lord Darigan wishes to see you," he mumbled.
"What's that?" a Mynci asked sweetly, from his desk at the far end of the long corridor of cells. "I can't hear you over here."
"LORD DARIGAN WANTS TO SEE YOU!" the guard bellowed. The Mynci shook his head.
"Hagan lost a Puppyblew? I'm sorry, I still can't quite make it out. Why don't you come a bit closer and try again?"
The door slammed with a horrendous crash, and the torches in the stairway sputtered. A Grarrl turned and looked at the Mynci disapprovingly.
"How many times do I have to tell you to stop teasing the guards like that?" he demanded. "It's going to land both of us in hot water one day."
"Don't be such a worrier, Galgarrath." Master Vex replied, but he knew the Grarrl was right. He just couldn't help himself. The bowels and catacombs of the lower Citadel were his domain, and he found the way everyone stayed away from them like they were diseased rather offensive. "A safer, more secure prison than ours just doesn't exist! The captives here can't hurt a flea." He absently scratched a welt as he spoke.
"LET ME BE THE JUDGE OF THAT!" the Yellow Knight roared. Galgarrath just rolled his eyes.
"Well, we'd better go see what his lordship wants," Vex said. "Haskol, hold down the fort until we return."
The Skeith looked up from the bones he was gnawing on for half a second before he started bawling. "Why am I always stuck down here? Galgarrath gets all the good jobs!" The rest of his words were drowned out by his heavy sobbing.
"Don't worry 'bout him!" prisoner number five told Vex, with a wheezy but confident chuckle. "I'll tell him stories about Jelly World. That'll cheer him right up!"
"Not mustard! Anything but mustard!" Squire Meekel wailed. Barallus just hung upside down and swung back and forth, giggling to himself. The Korbat was creepier than all the others put together, but no one could put their paw, claw, hoof or finger on the reason why. Vex and Galgarrath paid no attention to them all as they headed to the upper world, stopping to latch the door securely behind them. The guards gave the pair odd looks as they passed.
"I wonder what Darigan could possibly want with the two of us?" Vex asked Galgarrath loudly. "Hey, do you suppose it has anything to do with that prisoner who escaped yesterday?"
He watched the horrified expressions on the guards' faces with a satisfied smirk. Galgarrath just sighed.
"We'll find out," he said. But when they entered the meeting hall, where Lord Darigan usually dealt with people, they found it empty. The only occupant was an extremely grumpy-looking servant, who was waxing the ornately carved wooden chairs with such a fury that he was clearly pretending they were something else, perhaps his wife.
"Excuse me, good sir - " Vex began. The servant cut him off.
"In his chamber," he snapped, and resumed his work, grumbling something rude under his breath.
"Are you sure?" Galgarrath asked. Lord Darigan was known to execute people he found snooping, on occasion. (Sometimes he just let them off with a severe beating, if he was in a cheerful mood.) The servant's only answer was a glare that could've stopped the Pant Devil in its tracks. The two soldiers took that as a "yes," and climbed the winding, narrow stone staircase to Darigan's room. When they finally arrived at the top, Vex gave the door the lightest of taps.
"Oh, no answer!" he said with theatrical regret, after less than two seconds. "That's too bad! Come on, let's go back."
Normally, Galgarrath would have rolled his eyes again, but instead, he followed Vex, secretly relieved his boss chickened out first.
"Where do you think you're going? Get back here!"
Vex and Galgarrath froze, then exchanged alarmed looks. It was a bit harsher and raspier than usual, but there was no mistaking that voice.
"Y-yes, my lord!" Vex cried, but he still had to wait a moment to build up his courage before turning the doorknob. When they finally did step into the room, they blinked. It was pitch black, even to their eyes, which were used to the dim, unsteady light of the basement.
"Um..." Vex started to speak, but took a step forward and banged his foot on a table.
"For pity's sake," Darigan's voice said. There was a flicker, then the room suddenly filled with light from an oil lamp, the kind that looked like it might cough up a genie if you rubbed it hard enough. It took a moment for Vex and Galgarrath to adjust to the brightness, but the shapes gradually filled in and the prison warden realized that they stood in a dismal, drafty chamber that made his own meager quarters seem like a luxury apartment. (Vex shivered, but he looked over at Galgarrath and saw that the Grarrl was looking around with appreciation. If anything, he seemed slightly envious.) Besides the table, the only piece of furniture was an ancient four-poster bed, draped with torn, moth-eaten hangings. Lord Darigan was sprawled out on it, a threadbare quilt wrapped around his bony shoulders.
"Um..." Vex started to speak again, but Galgarrath swiftly stomped on the foot he just bumped with a heavy boot.
"You asked for us, lord?" the Grarrl asked with a small bow.
"Why does everybody always say that?" Darigan snarled. "Do you really think I forgot?"
"Well, we're here." Vex said, watching a Spyder messily devour something in its web in the corner. "What can we do for you?"
It turned out that Lord Darigan wasn't feeling well lately. He wanted Master Vex and Galgarrath to travel to the world-famous pharmacy in Neopia Central and come back with the cure. Vex's heart leapt at the opportunity to leave the Citadel, but he knew right away that, even though Darigan was too tactful to say it outright, they were chosen for the errand because they wouldn't be missed.
"Okay, we'll take it." Vex said finally, after a moment's deliberation, rather unnecessary because it was an order they'd just receive, not a question.
"But what kind of medicine do you want us to get?" Galgarrath asked. "We can hardly fetch it otherwise."
"Unless you give us enough neopoints to buy everything in the shop," Vex said, and Galgarrath crushed his footpaw again. But Darigan didn't know any more than they did.
"What are the symptoms?" Galgarrath asked. "If we know that much, perhaps we can ask when we get there."
"Good idea!" Vex said. "Well, it's definitely not Ugga Ugga or Chickaroo... probably not NeoWarts, either," he added, pretending to think hard. "Oww!" The Mynci rubbed his foot, and gave his assistant a pained look. "Galgarrath, why do you keep doing that?"
The Grarrl sighed and focused on Darigan, relieved that their ruler didn't seem annoyed by Vex's antics. Darigan didn't even notice, because he was too busy thinking about Galgarrath's question. He felt achy, tired and grumpy, but then again, he always felt that way. He just didn't see why it got worse all of a sudden.
A chill wind rushed in through the open window and slammed the door shut. Vex jumped. "Gee, I wonder," he said, wrapping his arms around himself. The dungeons might be damp, but at least they were warm, lit by smoky, smouldering fires in the grates. Galgarrath just shook his head at the Mynci and sighed.
"We understand," he said, speaking for both of them. They bowed to their leader again and left to prepare for the trip.
"This is going to be a waste," Vex said, once they were back in the familiar dungeon. "So his joints ache. Mine do too, sometimes! It's called getting old."
"Shh!" Galgarrath hissed. Being reptilian, he was very good at hissing. Now it was Vex's turn to roll his eyes.
"Relax!" he said. "Nobody's eavesdropping down here! They're all too afraid to come here, remember?" Sometimes that could be a good thing.
"I guess," Galgarrath said doubtfully. "Still, it's best not to take unnecessary risks."
"Whatever." Neither of them owned very much, so packing took only a few minutes.
"Goodbye, everybody!" Vex said as they headed back up the stairs.
"I'll kill you when you get back!" the Yellow Knight shouted, rattling his chains.
Clop! Clop clop! Clop!
"Stop by Jelly World while you're out!" prisoner number five cried, banging his stick against the wall. "The strawberry jelly is especially worth trying!"
"Not the pressure cooker! Nooo!"
Haskol just glared jealously at the from his corner as the prison door closed, a very ugly look on his already hideous face.
There had never been a more beautiful day in the history of Neopia. The sky was a clear, rich blue, with only the occasional tuft of puffy cloud. It was pleasantly warm, not frigid, not sweltering. It looked like every pet in the world flocked to Neopia Central to take advantage of the weather. The streets were clogged with an unimaginable array of colors, from babies to faeries, Tyrannians and Pirates, and a few others from the Citadel thrown into the mix. There were even pets that looked like strawberries, or as if they were made out of glass or snow. Some even glowed, and... was that a blumaroo made of jelly? Vex rubbed his eyes and looked again, but the vision was the same.
In the midst of all this happy bustle, Master Vex and Galgarrath stood, with no idea where to look first. Vex felt more excited than he had in years, just like a child. He'd forgotten how nice the sun felt on his fur, having been underground for most of the past ten years. Galgarrath, on the other hand, looked decidedly uncomfortable. The noise bothered him and the light hurt his eyes, making them water.
"The sooner we get this over with, the better." he muttered.
"I don't know about that," Vex said. "It would be a shame to go straight home without seeing at least a few of the sights first. Opportunities like this don't come our way often."
Galgarrath just groaned. Vex took mercy on him. "Don't worry - I'm sure there's somewhere cold, dark, wet and pestilent around. Why don't you go on to the pharmacy while I look?"
Galgarrath's scales were orange, not green. He knew Vex just wanted an excuse to explore the city, but didn't feel like protesting, so he just nodded and shuffled off to a promising building with a big green cross. Once he was gone, Vex looked around at the other shops, and found it hard to pick which to check out first. After a few minutes (in which several pets pushed by him, muttering to themselves about lunatics standing in the middle of the road), he forced his way through the crowd and entered the Food Shop.
He walked in, taking a deep breath and reveling in the scent of freshly baked bread. Then he stared. He'd expected to see rows and rows of crisp golden loaves lining the walls. Instead, every shelf in the store was bare, except for the occasional crumb. A single Tuna Sub rested forlornly by the window. He reached for it, but a Zafara grabbed it at the same time. Vex let her have it, startled by the savage scowl on her face. She threw a handful of neopints on the cashier's desk and left. Then Vex noticed about fifty pets milling around, glancing at their watches.
"Restockers," the Chia shopkeeper said, when he noticed Vex standing there, looking confused.
"Huh?" the Mynci asked intelligently.
"Restockers," the Chia repeated, as if the word explained everything. "They buy items from the official stores like mine at our low prices and sell them in their own shops, making huge profits."
"Is that legal?" Vex wondered, thinking about the constricting laws at the Citadel.
"Oh, yes, perfectly. Neopia Central is a free trade zone." the Chia dusted his paws off on his apron and sighed. "But it does make things hectic around here. You might want to get out of the way."
"Why?" Vex watched the baker move over to his oven, remove the rolls, loaves and baguettes, and place them on the shelves.
The pets loitering by the wall stampeded over, fighting fang and claw as they reached to grab anything they could lay a paw on. Vex jumped back, alarmed. The Chia busily collected their neopoints.
"If everyone flocks here because of your low prices so they can sell the product for more, aren't you losing neopoints yourself?" Vex shouted over the tumult, but the shopkeeper was too busy to answer. Vex left to try his luck at another store. He wandered to a shop called Uni's Clothing, admiring the chic hats and gloves neatly set out. A Uni with a stylish scarf watched him browse with an amused look on her beautiful face. Then he picked up an orange cap, and he saw her eyes widen in alarm.
"Wait!" she cried. "May I interest you in this bandanna?" She thrust a blue square of cloth into his hands. "Or maybe this sweater?" she asked, holding up a sweater with an Eyrie on it.
"But I like this hat," Vex protested.
"Are you sure?"
"Quite sure, thank you." Vex said, taking out his wallet. The Uni sighed.
"I guess it can't be helped," she said.
"What's wrong?" Vex asked. "Is there something special about this hat?"
"It's an avatar item," the Uni told him. "If you buy it, you'll get an avatar."
That didn't make much sense to Vex. "Avatars?" he asked. "I thought those were incarnations in human form."
"Well, these are for the Neoboards." the Uni said. "Everyone's wild over collecting them. If there's no special items left when the customers come in, sometimes they get pretty angry. So do me a favor and buy something else. Or if you've really got your heart set on that cap, ask the Shop Wizard."
Vex realized that there was a whole lot more going on in Neopia than he thought, and he was in a genial mood. "Okay," he said, putting the hat back on its shelf.
"Thank you!" the Uni cried, truly grateful. "Here, take this scarf as a token of my appreciation." She leaned forward to drape it around his neck and got a closer look at his face.
"Hey, aren't you Master Vex?" she demanded. "There's an avatar featuring you, too!"
"Not that I know of," Vex said, but now that he thought of it, there were an awful lot of tourists coming down to his dungeon to play Cellblock lately. He thanked her for the scarf and left, wondering where to go next. He looked around for Galgarrath, but the Grarrl was nowhere in sight, presumably still busy at the pharmacy. He decided to explore some more. By now, it was starting to get dark, and the crowds in the street gradually thinned. Lights appeared in the shop windows. He visited the bank, fascinated by the interesting outside structure, but the Skeith teller kicked him out, saying that only those with "legitimate business" were allowed in.
Vex was about to find a park bench somewhere to wait when he found a set of stairs leading down into the ground. Curious, he followed the steps and found himself in a gigantic underground cavern. Torches in copper sconces flickered on the walls, but the area didn't seem gloomy at all. Pets gathered in clusters throughout the cave, some looking at paintings, others reciting poetry. There was even a coffee shop, where pets ordered steaming cups and biscuits, then found themselves a cozy nook and chatted with their friends, discussing current events, history, and the latest installment of the Neopian Times.
He was intrigued by the atmosphere, since there was nothing remotely like it back at the Citadel. Sure, the upper class was educated, and some of them wrote research papers and volumes of depressing verses. But here, like the rest of Neopia Central, were pets of all colors and backgrounds. Faeries sat shoulder to shoulder with Pirates, and many of them clearly just arrived straight from work.
Vex joined the line of customers at the café. The art patrons continued trickling in. By the time Vex ordered his House Blend and glanced around for a place to sit, almost every seat was taken. He made his way farther back into the cavern, where the crowd was slightly thinner, and stumbled upon a small, unlit alcove. There was a table with only one other occupant, a Wocky dressed in the latest Meridell fashion. Vex normally wouldn't sit next to someone from Meridell, but his paws were tired. He decided to try his luck.
"Mind if I sit here?" he inquired politely, but the Wocky didn't stir. He had his head down on the table, and Vex wondered if he was asleep. Then he noticed the overturned coffee cup, and the brown liquid puddled on the floor.
"Uh, hello?" Vex asked, and got no answer, not even a twitch. He crept behind the Wocky and lifted his head. Then he sharply drew his hand back and let it fall on the table.
The Wocky was dead, a Mechanical Pencil stabbed through his heart. The rich green fabric of his coat was stiff with dried blood. Before Vex could make up his mind what to do, a blue Aisha and a disco Kyrii walked over, looking for seats. They saw Vex standing over the dead Wocky and stopped in their tracks.
"Aaaagh!" the Aisha screamed. "Help! Murderer!"
"Wait!" Vex cried. "I can explain!"
Neither of them paid attention. The Kyrii ran to fetch a police officer. Other pets approached, drawn by the Aisha's wail. Vex was trapped between them and the stone wall.
A few minutes later, the Kyrii returned with an Acara dressed smartly in a blue uniform, completely with highly polished buttons. He took in the scene in one glance, then exercised his authority, ordering the curious bystanders back. This just encouraged them to press in closer. Soon, every single pet in the cave was there, staring. Whispers of "murder!" rippled through the gathered crowd as those in back asked their neighbors what was happening in front. Vex felt sweat bead on his neck and forehead as he took in the three hundred pairs of eyes fastened on him.
"A Darigan Mynci and a Meridell Wocky, eh?" Vex could hear the Acara officer murmur to himself, busily jotting something down. "In a dark corner like this one, no less!" He finished writing and closed the shimmery notebook with a triumphant snap. "Okay, it's clear enough what happened here." he declared to the masses. "Your name, sir?" he asked Vex, glaring.
Vex winced, but there was nothing he could do but answer. "Master Vex," he replied. He saw the Acara's eyes widen in recognition.
"Master Vex!" the Acara repeated. "Now I know I have a real criminal on my hands." He shuddered. "Think of the poor, starving, mistreated captives under his care..."
"Hey!" Vex exclaimed indignantly, forgetting his predicament for a moment. "I'll have you know - " But the Acara cut him off.
"What are the likes of you even doing here?" he demanded.
"My master send me to - " Vex began, sure that even this overzealous police officer would have to agree his quest was benign. He was wrong.
"Your evil lord sent you, all right!" the Acara shouted. "He sent you to kill this poor Wocky! You arranged a meeting - "
Vex groped about frantically for a suitable protest, but he knew it was hopeless. The officer was already completely convinced of his guilt. If only he stayed with Galgarrath! The Mynci opened his mouth to speak.
"You're wrong!" a voice suddenly rang out in the cavern, loud and strong. "That Wocky was waiting to meet with me."
Vex strained to look over the heads of the crowd with no luck. The gathered pets parted and a blue Lupe strode over. Everything about him, from his proud posture to his magnificent sword and shiny armor, was heroic.
"Sir Jeran!" the females in the crowd screamed. Even the males stared at him in open-mouthed admiration. The Lupe nodded to them, then focused his attention on the officer.
"This Wocky is... was a Meridell diplomat," he explained. "Lord Ichiban was his name. When I heard he was in the area, I immediately sent a message to his hotel, asking if he'd meet me. He said he was tied up all day, but he'd be happy to see me here. I had no idea something like this happened - I came here for our rendevous, and this is what I find."
"I... see," the Acara mumbled, looking down at the ground. "Guess this case is more complicated than I thought." He scribbled something else down in his pad, then gave Vex a long, hard look.
"But don't think you're off the hook!" he snapped. "You probably just killed the poor Wocky out of spite! I know how you Darigan types are! I just have to prove it. Now - where are you staying?"
Vex hadn't even thought about lodging for the night. He'd expected to just get the medicine for Darigan and leave.
"Don't worry, officer." Sir Jeran said, taking the Mynci's arm. "I'll take care of that for you."
Before Vex or the Acara could protest, the knight was already dragging Vex outside. The crowd realized that the interesting events were over, at least for the time being, and dispersed, some to return to their storytelling and poetry, and others to go home for the night.
Once outside, Vex yanked his arm from Jeran's grasp. "Why did you help me?" he asked, not impolitely. Sir Jeran, knight of King Skarl, also known as Sir Borodere, was known throughout Neopia. Vex resented his success against Darigan, but grudgingly respected him as well. And it wouldn't do to offend a sword-carrying knight when he was unarmed. "Please, please don't say because it was the right thing to do."
Jeran shrugged his metal-clad shoulders. "What I said was true. Can't have that officer laboring under a misconception, can we?"
Just then, Vex saw an orange shape bearing down on them. It was Galgarrath, with a white paper bag tucked under one arm. The Grarrl stopped and stared when he saw his boss standing with the champion of their chief enemy.
"It's a long story," Vex said, and quickly outlined the events at the Art Centre. he glanced at Galgarrath's bag. "Do you have it?"
Galgarrath nodded. "I was only at the Pharmacy for fifteen minutes. I spent the rest of the day searching for you. What in the orb's name were you doing all that time?"
"Really?" Vex asked, with only a slight tinge of guilt and feigned surprise. "I was looking for you! How ironic that I never bumped into you!"
Galgarrath decided to bite back his skeptical retort. "What matters is that we have what we came for," he said instead. "Let's head back to the Citadel before our lord gets too angry at us for staying so long."
"I'm afraid I can't let you do that," Jeran said. "Your friend here can't, at least. You'll have to stay here until the investigation into Lord Ichiban's death is complete."
"Well, you might as well go on without me." Vex told his companion. The Grarrl considered it, then shook his head.
"No, I can't do that." He glanced at Jeran.
"Come on, then." the Meridell knight said. "I'll bring you to the Neolodge."
They followed him to a tall resort building, then he left them to make their own arrangements. Vex thought about taking advantage of the situation to flee back to the Citadel, which would have the added bonus of shaming Jeran, but saw the group of security guards patrolling outside and realized that wasn't an option. So he joined Galgarrath, who was looking at brochures.
"Cockroach Towers," he read over the Grarrl's shoulder.
"It sounds lovely," Galgarrath replied seriously. "We should definitely stay there."
"Let's at least check out the other places first," Vex said. "That's the cheapest one, after all. For five neopoints a night, there's got to be something wrong with it."
Galgarrath gave his boss a strange look, and wondered if this time away from the dungeons was affecting his head, but wisely kept his comment to himself. After a few minutes, Vex checked into the Ski Lodge and Galgarrath departed for his first choice, eagerly looking forward to being surrounded by dank stones and rotting wood. He'd never admit it, but he was feeling a bit homesick.
The next morning, Vex and Galgarrath rose bright and early. They met in the lobby of the Neolodge's main building. The Mynci's eyes were red and bleary, which Galgarrath picked up on right away.
"How did you sleep?" he asked, giving an exaggerated stretch and yawn. "I had a fantastic night."
"Hmph." Vex refused to look at him and muttered something about obnoxious Usuki fans. For some reason, this improved Galgarrath's mood even more. As they made their way outside, he even whistled a cheery Darigan folk song.
"Mommy, why is that Grarrl singing a funeral march?" a baby Kougra asked, tugging on his owner's sleeve.
Vex and Galgarrath didn't stay long enough to hear the owner's answer. When they reached the gate, Galgarrath's good humor disappeared quicker than a bottled faerie at the Money Tree.
"Where do you think you're going?" their Acara friend from the night before demanded, flanked by two burly Eyrie guards. "You're under house arrest until this investigation's over!"
"And how long will that take?" Vex asked, glaring as an Elephante with a basket full of Usuki dolls strolled past.
"Soon as I can get enough evidence to lock you in a cell and throw away the key!" the Acara snapped. "So get back inside! Move it!"
"Excuse me," a pleasant voice interrupted apologetically. They all whirled around and saw Sir Jeran. "What's going on here? Is there a problem?"
"Uh, nothing!" the Acara stammered. "Nothing at all! I leave these miscreants in your charge, sir!"
Vex and Galgarrath watched the Acara and his henchmen beat a hasty retreat.
"What was that all about?" Vex asked, scratching his furry head. "And why is he so fixated on us? I thought Neopia Central was modern, enlightened, and free of old-fashioned prejudices."
"That's true enough." Jeran agreed. "But I happen to know this particular officer - he's been an avid Meridell lover since he was five. He probably thinks of himself as heroic, defending Neopia from your horrid Darigan scoundrels. Don't worry, the others wouldn't let him lock you up from that alone. There's officials at the other end of the spectrum, too."
"I... see," Vex replied, feeling a bit nonplused. "Where do you come in?"
"It's my job," Jeran said. Vex slapped a gloved paw to his forehead.
"Oh, I thought you said you wouldn't say that!" he moaned.
"Suit yourself," Galgarrath said. "I, for one, feel glad of the assistance. If it'll get us back to the Citadel quicker, it's fine by me."
The Lupe and Grarrl started walking away.
"Hey, wait for me!" the Mynci cried, running after them.
Back at Darigan's Citadel, Haskol was having more fun that he had in years, if not in his entire life. Without Vex and Galgarrath breathing down his filthy neck, he could do whatever he pleased. No one else in the Citadel cared what happened in the dungeons, as long as it didn't smell too badly.
The prisoners all slumped dejectedly in their cells, counting down the seconds until the real dungeon master returned. Even Number Five and the Yellow Knight were silent. Haskol loved the surge of power he got when he saw their unhappy faces.
Now he sat on the stone floor and ripped the legs off a roasted chicken he stole from the mess hall - it was his right, being in charge now and all. Juice spattered all over him as he ate, full away of the jealous looks of longing the prisoners gave him. They hadn't been fed in three days.
As he tossed a bone over his shoulder onto the quickly growing pile behind him, Haskol had a sudden thought.
Vex and Galgarrath didn't have to come back!
The Skeith guard wiped his greasy claws on his shirt and headed upstairs, cackling to himself the whole way.
"I won't return to Meridell until Lord Ichiban's killer gets the justice he deserves," Jeran said, as he, Vex and Galgarrath walked through the marketplace. Vex noticed that it was much more enjoyable if he didn't actually try to buy anything. That was just as well, since he knew it was wisest to save his neopoints to pay for lodging during the ordeal. He imagined the look on the Acara officer's face if they had to stay in the city prison and shuddered. "If that means putting you two in chains, so be it." Jeran continued. "But as things stand now, I truly don't believe you were responsible. I think that, if you did decide to commit a crime, you would've pulled it off a little better."
"Gee, thanks." Vex grumbled. Galgarrath realized that hyperactive Usuki fans were truly a force to be reckoned with, and devoutly murmured thanks that they tended to stay away from places like the Cockroach Towers.
"So, what other possibilities are there?" Vex asked Jeran.
Halfway up the tower to Lord Darigan's chamber, Haskol's smug, triumphant mood abruptly faded, and his toothy, scowling grin slid sideways. He stopped in his tracks and stood in the stairway, suddenly overwhelmed with doubt and worry.
Planning to tell Darigan blatant lies about two of his most loyal, hardworking subjects was one thing. Actually doing so was another. The ruler of the Citadel was anything but gullible, and his hard glare had a reputation for drawing out secrets from even the most hardened liars. But Haskol told himself that the risks were worth it. He imagined being in charge of the prisons and his leer returned. He'd get a smart uniform, and everyone would have to treat him with respect, at least to his face. He could flog the prisoners for no reason at all, maybe just for breathing too loudly.
If he was really lucky, maybe Vex and Galgarrath would be added to the prisoners. Haskol's smile widened, showing blackened gums. He'd make them sorry, all right! "Give me those keys, Haskol!" "Don't leave the cell doors open, Haskol!" "Clean that vomit off the floor before somebody slips in it and breaks his neck, Haskol!" Well, do this!
"Master Haskol," the Skeith guard said to himself. He liked the sound of that. He liked it so much that it gave him the courage to rap on Darigan's door with his claws.
"Lord Luparn!" Sir Jeran exclaimed, clapping the newcomer on the shoulder. "I didn't expect to see you here!"
"We assumed that on our own, thanks to the way your jaw dropped and your eyes almost fell out of your head," Vex told him. But the two Meridell knights were too busy enthusiastically greeting each other to notice.
"We got your message about what happened to Lord Ichiban," Luparn said seriously, once they were done. "I decided to come and see if there was anything I could do. Is there?"
Then he noticed Vex and Galgarrath. "But first, who are your friends?" he asked, eyes narrowing. "They look pretty seedy, if you ask me."
"Seedy!" Vex demanded indignantly. Then he realized that the Lupe was playing. Jeran explained the situation.
"...so they're the chief suspects, and we're working to clear their names and find out the truth." he finished. "We can use all the help we can get. You probably know something we don't."
"I doubt it," Luparn said. "But after we receive word in Meridell, lots of juicy gossip did rise to the surface." Vex thought about the court at the cold, drafty Citadel, then imagined the bright, sunny, cheery meeting hall at Meridell Castle. For some reason, he assumed things in Meridell were different.
"That will be useful," Jeran said. "Maybe you know something about the motive. Right now, we're entirely in the dark. I can't believe it - he was so respectable!"
"Those are the worst kinds," Luparn pointed out wisely.
"I wish there was a park bench around here," Vex muttered. The knights continued chatting about how things were going back in Meridell and turned him out entirely. Galgarrath, standing serenely off to the side, wasn't much help either. He apparently had gotten over his hate of sunlight, or at least could tolerate it now. But when a bird tried to land on his head, he scared it away with a deep, violent roar that rattled the nearby storefront windowpanes and caused several shoppers to scurry off in fright. Both Lupes jumped.
"Sorry," Galgarrath said meekly. "It startled me."
"If you say so," Luparn said, looking doubtful. Vex remembered the time he entered Galgarrath's sleeping quarters without knocking to ask him a question and rubbed his neck where he still had a scar, an everlasting memento of why it was always best to let sleeping Grarrls lie. But Galgarrath didn't seem to notice their odd looks, or that the Lupes were slowly edging away from him.
"So, what did you hear?" he asked.
"Yes, you were talking about the rumors at Meridell Castle and how it would help us.""Oh, that!" Luparn said. He frowned. "It's better not to talk about it out in the open like this." Then he lowered his voice to a whisper. "Astrovilla, room one-forty. Don't forget."
Before they could react, Luparn strolled off jauntily, whistling a merry tune.
"That was our daily serving of melodrama for the day," Vex said, once Luparn was out of sight.
"But necessary," Galgarrath pointed out. "Don't you remember how it was at the Citadel after Kass took over?" The big, tough, toothy Grarrl shuddered. "You had to be careful not to even say Darigan's name on the streets."
"I know, I know," Vex said, waving a paw. "But still!"
"Luparn always did have a touch for overacting and bravado," Jeran said. "Once, when he fought a Skeith five times his size..." He smiled fondly at the memory. "Anyway, it doesn't sound like there's much we can do until then."
They agreed to split up and meet Luparn at the specified room that night.
"Who is it?" Darigan demanded irritably, woken by a halfhearted knock on his chamber door. That just added to his ire - if somebody thought he was important to wake him, the least he could do was be bold about it. "And what do you want?"
"H-haskol, lord."came the quavery reply. Darigan's mood slipped even farther. It took him a moment to place the name, but after he did, he scowled at the mental image that formed. Of course, the prison guard, the one that made the lowest Citadel peasant look like a well-mannered noble. Why Vex kept that buffoon on was beyond him. He asked the Mynci about it once or twice, and only got a vague response about "charity."
"Very well," Darigan said resignedly. "Come in."
It took a full two minutes before Haskol entered the room. Darigan watched impatiently as the door creaked open ever so slowly, followed by the Skeith creeping in on tiptoe, staring at his surroundings. He looked rather disappointed - doubtless he expected to find gold and jewels.
"What do you want?" Darigan repeated, stifling a cough. What could possibly be taking Vex so long? But there was no rush. After the first few days, the Citadel lord realized that he was getting better on his own, something he found surprising, since everyone understood that all Neopian illnesses were chronic until one either found the right medicine or succeeded in pestering the Water Faerie into casting a curing spell. Maybe it was just a scam by the pharmaceutical companies. "By the time that cursed Mynci returns, I won't need anything at all," he added to himself. But Haskol heard, and perked up immediately, glad of the opening.
"That's just what I came to tell you!" the Skeith cried, just a tad too shrilly. "Master Vex and Captain Galgarrath aren't coming back!" He could stand using the titles one more time, if it meant getting his own.
"What do you mean?" Darigan demanded. That wasn't what he'd expected the guard to say.
"Just that, Lord!" Haskol said, the words coming out in a rush as he hurried to get his story out before he forgot. "They... deserted! They plan to join Meridel and tell King Skarl all your military secrets! They - "
"And how do you know all this?" Darigan asked, sounding unimpressed.
"I... er... they were talking about it in the dungeon before they left on your errand, lord! Yes! They said tons of awful things about you. They don't know that I eavesdro - happened to overhear. I... if... since they're gone, you should put me in their place, since I'm loyal!"
Darigan was silent for a minute, looking down at the Skeith with a contemplative expression that he often used when thinking about the most tactful approach. He found it useful because, to the observer, it could go either way. Whether the hapless visitor quailed under Darigan's stare or stood looking bravely into his face influenced the lord's decision.
"Nice try, you dolt!" Darigan thundered. Haskol jumped. "It would've gone over better if you hadn't added the bit about traitors. I know them better than that. No go back to your prison and be thankful that I don't punish you for your incompetence."
Haskol headed for the door, thoroughly mortified. But before he could escape into the hallway, Darigan called him back.
"Wait," he said. "You left your post to come here? Who did you assign to watch it in your absence?"
Haskol blinked blankly. "Assign?"
"You mean to tell me that you just left your prisoners unattended?" Darigan asked, his voice dangerously even."Uh... yes," Haskol said.
"Did you at least lock the door behind you?"Haskol strained to remember, and realized with a chill that he hadn't. "L-lord..."
"You IDIOT!" Darigan roared. In a second he was on his feet and out the door. "They could be doing anything now!"
Haskol hurried after him, wishing miserably that he never hatched such an ill-fated scheme in the first place.
A few minutes before the designated time, Vex and Galgarrath met Sir Jeran in the lobby of the Astrovilla.
"Okay, let's go!" Vex said, behind Galgarrath, who led the way to the stairs.
"Wait a minute," the Grarrl said suddenly, making them freeze in place.
"What is it?" Jeran asked, banging into Vex.
"Vex, do you remember the room number?" Galgarrath turned around to look at the Mynci, causing Vex to smash into him.
"Of course," Vex said, rubbing his nose. "One-thirty."
"If you're sure," Galgarrath said. He'd been completely certain it was one-forty, but decided not to press the matter further. Vex was his boss, after all. They made their way up to the third floor and found room one-thirty.
"It's us," Jeran said, knocking on the door with his gauntletted paw. The sound rang out in the silent corridor, making Vex slightly nervous. The hush made their tiniest sound ten times louder.
"Hello?" Jeran asked, when they didn't get a reply. "Luparn, are you there?"
Just then, thee was a horrendous crash, followed by a shout, the sound of clashing metal, and a thump.
"And stay out!" a voice cried. Then everything fell back it is former eerie silence.
"Say, isn't that - " Vex began.
"Lord Luparn!" Jeran cried.
"From room one-forty,"Galgarrath said, giving Vex a meaningful look.
"Everybody can make a mistake once in a while," Vex said defensively. They ran to room one-forty. Jeran rapped on the door.
"Luparn, open up! It's us!"
The door opened just a crack, and they could see Luparn peering out at them. Then it swung the rest of the way open and they entered. The window was smashed and broken glass littered the floor, along with a rather suspicious red puddle. Luparn's sword was in one paw, and he clutched a hotel towel to his shoulder with the other.
"What happened?" Vex demanded, taking it all in.
"I had an uninvited visitor," Lord Luparn said grimly.
"Who?" Jeran asked. "Who? Who? Who? Who? WHO?"
Vex was tempted to make a joke about owls, but knew it wasn't the right time.
"I don't know," Luparn said. "If I did, I sure wouldn't be standing here right now, would I?"
"That's true," Jeran admitted. "Who was it?"
"I just told you! I don't know!"
"No, no," Jeran said, shaking his head. "What was it? What did it look like? Did you manage to get at least a glimpse?"
"Just that," Luparn said. He looked gloomy, but that could've been due to the fact that the towel was now completely soaked.
"Let me fix that for you," Jeran said, and bandaged the other Lupe's shoulder with a dexterity Vex didn't expect to see in a knight famous for the sheer amount of dragonacks, spyders, and wh knows what else he killed during the Meridell wars, but then he realized that this explained how the warrior survived long enough to do that, among other things. "So, what did you see?"
"Very little," Luparn answered, flexing his shoulder experimentally and wincing. "Like you said, just a glimpse. I was waiting for you, when some creature dressed in black broke though the window. We had a little scuffle, and I got him back, but he went out the way he came before I could do anything else."
"Could you at least tell what kind of pet it was?" Vex asked. Luparn thought about it for a moment."A Kougra." he said firmly. "Or it may have been a Wocky. Or a Lenny. Or - "
"How can you possibly not be able to tell the difference between a Wocky and a Lenny?" Galgarrath asked, a bit sharper than his usual manner, but only because he couldn't comprehend how someone could confuse the two species.
"Whatever," Vex said irritably. "Are you going to tell us the information, or not?"
"It will increase your safety," Galgarrath pointed out. "The more people who know, the safer you will be. They won't have to kill you to stop the information from spreading."
"Unless they decide to get revenge on you for telling," Jeran said. Vex rolled his eyes.
"Either way, they'll want your head. So just tell us already!"
Jeran and Galgarrath gave the Mynci reproachful looks.
"What?" he demanded. "It's late. I'm tired."
"I'm not even going to get into that," Jeran said. "But they're right."
"Of course I'll tell you!" Lord Luparn snapped. "If you only shut up long enough to give me a chance to say it. We Meridell knights aren't cowards."
Vex realized that he wasn't the only one who was cranky, although the wounded Lupe probably had a better excuse. So they sat down at the kitchen table, paws folded primly.
"Now, I expect you understand how important it is to keep this a secret," Luparn began. "Don't go shouting what I'm about to tell you on the street."
"Would we do that?" Vex asked. "Galgarrath, stop looking at me like that!"
"I was surprised to know that Lord Ichiban had ties to Spectre," Luparn continued, ignoring them. He knew he'd never get through the tale otherwise. Sir Jeran's jaw dropped.
"Spectre!" he shouted.
"Shh! What did I just tell you!" Luparn hissed. Then he smiled at the knight's naivete. "Come on, it isn't that surprising. He was a lord, after all. It's not unusual for them to be involved in black market, underground, illegal activities."
"What about you?" Vex asked. "You're a lord, too."
"Well..." Luparn smiled. "I was a bit of a smuggler in my day. But after I amassed a modest fortune - "
"Modest?" Jeran echoed. "You have over 650,000 neopoints in the bank!"
"Chump change," Master Vex said, with a smirk. Galgarrath decided not to say that both he and his boss were almost eligible for the Soup Kitchen on any given day, since Darigan refuted every one of their efforts for a raise by saying that they already had room and board. Galgarrath had his share of national pride. "You should see what the Darigan nobles can do!"
"It's not something to be proud of," Jeran sniffed. He refused to look at his old friend. But everyone else in the room knew that they'd be best pals again by morning.
"Spectre," Vex said, trying to get them back on subject. "The richest, most skillful criminal mastermind in all Neopia. Not surprising that he has contacts in Meridell. I think I know what happened."
"Me, too," Jeran said, eager to prove that he wasn't as innocent as they thought. "Lord Ichiban was sick of them, but they killed him when he tried to get out."
"Or Ichiban asked for more than they wanted to give," Luparn said.
"Lord Ichiban never seemed like that type," Jeran said. "Then again, neither did you."
Vex almost laughed at the expression on the Lupe's face, as if Luparn suddenly sprouted Grundo antennae. "Then it seems clear to me," he said. "Ichiban was killed by a Spectre operative, I happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, and that lunkheaded Acara can't see past it."
"How will we prove it?" Galgarrath asked. "That's the crux of the matter."
They debated it for an hour before they came to a decision.
"Okay," Luparn said, and banged his fist on the table. "This is what we'll do..."
Darigan flew down the halls like the bat out of hell he was, and Haskol was barely able to keep up. Guards and workers jumped out of their way with terrified squeaks. When they arrived at the entrance to the dungeon, Haskol gave a moan of despair. The door swung wide open. Not a creature stirred within. Darigan plucked a torch from its sconce and entered.
The escaped prisoners catapulted out of the dark pit, armed with various implements from the custodian's closet.
"CHARGE!" the Yellow Knight roared. "To FREEDOM!" Even prisoner number five joined in the shout, waving his rake about his head and almost whacking Barallus.
Darigan froze in surprise for a moment. Then he let out a bellow of rage and forced them all back into their cells.
"That's how you do it!" he said, dusting himself off. He gave Haskol a long, hard look that made the Skeith shrivel. "Kitchen duty for you!"
Darigan swept off to find a suitable replacement, and Haskol trudged to the kitchen, knowing he could kiss his humble position as captain goodbye.
"That's the last time I listen to you," Squire Meekel said, and the other prisoners joined in. Even Clop banged his hooves.
"What I wouldn't give for two real soldiers instead of this sloppy lot," the Yellow Knight muttered. "But I refuse to give up!"
The Yellow Knight rolled his eyes, but his sense of honor wouldn't let him escape alone.
The next afternoon was just as beautiful as the day Vex and Galgarrath first arrived in Neopia Central, and there was just as big a crowd. Vex led them to a park bench.
"I don't know if this is going to work," Galgarrath said, in that don't-say-I-didn't-warn-you tone.
"Have a little faith!" Vex cried. "And whatever will be, will be! Hey, let's get some hot dogs."
Half an hour later, they sat down on the park bench, nibbling their purchases, and put their daring, risky plan into action.
"Did you hear about Spectre?" Luparn began, making sure to speak loud enough for people halfway down the street to hear.
"Oh, no!" Vex replied in a marvelously phony voice. "What about it?"
"I heard they killed a Meridell diplomat at the Art Centre!" Galgarrath said. He was a better actor than either of them.
"You don't say!" Jeran said. He glanced at the nearby clump of bushes that was rustling.
"It's true!" Luparn said. "And then they attacked a Lupe at the Astrovilla!"
"Oh, oh!" Vex moaned. "Will we ever be safe again?"
A black-clad Kougra leapt from the bushes and threw itself of Luparn, but this time the Meridell knight was ready. The other pets in the square stared as the Kougra and Lupe fought. Then the shrill sound of a whistle burst out and the two combatants stopped for a moment. They looked up to see the Acara police officer bearing down on them.
"Hey, break it up!" he shouted. "What's the meaning of this?"
"Well, when two creatures hate each other very much..." Vex couldn't resist saying. The Kougra tried to flee, but Galgarrath caught it and held its paws behind its back.
"Officer!" Jeran said, following the next step of their plan by exercising his celebrity status. "I saw the whole thing. The Kougra just leapt out of nowhere and attacked my friend! Do you regularly let this happen here in Neopia Central? I thought - "
Luparn lightly stomped Jeran's armored footpaw to signal that he was going too far.
"Anyway, those two individuals - " Jeran nodded towards Vex and Galgarrath " - were here in my sight the whole time. They didn't have anything to do with it."
The Acara opened his mouth to protest, but since it was Jeran who spoke, he knew it was truth. The two Meridell Lupes pushed their advantage. When Luparn explained how he found Ichiban's connections with Spectre, the Kougra tried to lunch at him, but it realized it was all over and hung its head in defeat.
"I think you owe us something," Vex said sweetly, after the Acara sent his muscular Eyries to escort the prisoner.
"Like what?" the Acara asked, trying not to look at him.
"An apology!" Vex snapped. "Do you know how much trouble you put us through? We have obligations back home, you know! Darigan needed us! Can you guess how much chaos and panic must be erupting at the Citadel in our absence?"
"I guess this means you don't want to stop for a slice or two before you set out," Lord Luparn said regretfully.
"Well, a few hours more won't hurt," Vex said. He, Galgarrath, Jeran and Luparn headed for the restaurant.
"I can sure go for a Flaming Fire Faerie special," Jeran said, licking his lips.
"With an icy Diet Neocola! Mmm!"
Master Vex and Captain Galgarrath returned to the Citadel two and a half weeks after they left.
"I guess we'd better report to Darigan," Vex said.
"That would be advisable," Galgarrath agreed. "For the record, you are my employer and I only followed your orders."
"Gee, thanks. Well, if we lucked out, maybe he died out from Neomonia," Vex retorted.
"How disrespectful," Galgarrath said, clucking his reptilian tongue. They made their way up to Darigan's room. When they passed the kitchen, Haskol tearfully sliced onions and consoled himself that they would get the lecture of a lifetime for being gone so long and that they would be joining him shortly.
Vex tentatively tapped on the door to Darigan's chamber, mentally creating excuses. Their lord was seated at his desk, writing letters. To Vex's extreme surprise, Darigan actually smiled joyfully at them.
"You're back!" he exclaimed. "About time! By the way, I promoted you both while you were gone. Didn't think you'd mind."
Vex decided that he didn't want to know why. Strangely, the news didn't cheer him up as much as it would have a month earlier. He already missed the crowds, fresh air and open excitement of Neopia Central, and regretted that he never had a chance to participate in some of the Art Centre's activities.
"Well, there's always another ten-in-a-million chance," he said to himself with a sigh.
"Did you say something?" Galgarrath asked. He was pleased with his promotion. When they entered the dank corridor leading to the dungeon, he grinned at the familiar spots of mildew on the walls.
"He's back!" the prisoners cried in jubilation. "Yes! Yes! We're saved!" Even the Yellow Knight seemed relieved.
As he settled down at his desk, Vex reflected that it was probably better for his charges to moan and wail, but he knew he had to take what he could get.
"It's great to be home," Galgarrath said. "After all that brightness, my eyes can use the break."
The next day, Vex forgot where he was when he woke. It took a few minutes before he remembered that he was back in his dungeon. When he moved to fix a trough of mush for the prisoners' breakfast, he heard a strange noise on the other side of the door. Curious, he eased it open.
No less than a hundred avatar collectors charged in, pushing and shoving in their haste to be first to challenge him to a game of Cellblock.