Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Worth Searching For, Chapter 1

I hope everybody's ready for some prodigiously long Neopets fanfic. :)

As per tradition, I'm going to give you a little director's-commentary breakdown on this story first. I started conceptualizing Worth Searching For as I was writing Worth Fighting For. Specifically, the seed of the idea came about when my very helpful editor for that story noted that I didn't really give the Werelupe King any motives in that story. That was something I hadn't really thought about--I just needed a reason for Blynn and Hyren to have to work together, and a turning point for Hyren to realize how much he really cared about the kids. So I decided that the Werelupe King wanted Terra to adopt him because he had actually been created by an owner and then abandoned, and like all tragically abandoned Neopets in Neopian Times stories, wanted to be adopted again super bad. I went more into his psychology in the short story "That Great Hunger".

Well, that made me feel really bad for him (not surprising), and I decided maybe Terra really would be a good owner for the Werelupe King, since she's so good at helping folks with her compassion and patience (see: Hyren). But I knew that bringing them back together again would require some fancy plot acrobatics that would take Terra and her family on an adventure from the streets of Shenkuu to the wild woodlands of the Meridell region, and it ended up giving Pharazon a pleasantly surprising amount of character development besides (which would carry over into later stories).

Incidentally, the story starts in Shenkuu because I was taking a class on East Asian history and kinda fell in love with ancient China, and just really really wanted to write something set in Shenkuu (if at least temporarily... but I would get my Shenkuu fix again in a much later story). Not even mad. I totally couldn't help but slip in Shang Dynasty oracle bones, which may hold the record for nerdiest and most obscure real-world historical reference to ever get into the Neopian Times. You're welcome.

Another reason this story came about was because I was going through a series of rough friend-breakups at the time, and really wanted to write a story about a friendship that worked, despite getting off to a rocky start. Writing can be really cathartic like that sometimes.

That being said, I went through a huge learning process with this story--specifically, with later realizing large parts of it simply didn't work. Whatever you do, don't read the version that got published in the Neopian Times--it's super cringey, and Isengrim and Terra are just not themselves at all, and, ugh. No. It doesn't work. (To be fair to my editor, she tried to tell me, but like I said, I was going through a rough time and not really thinking straight sometimes.) I did some very extensive revisions a few years back (you can find my notes on that under the "Neopets" tag, way back in 2017), but wanted to revisit the story before putting it on the blog because there were still parts I wasn't quite satisfied with (as I've been blogging about lately).

But now, finally, I feel content with it. The characters and their relationships are exactly what I feel they should be, as is the plot (and I think I ironed out all of the prose mishaps). I feel very proud and happy to finally present it on this blog, and I hope readers enjoy it. Because I sure had fun working on it.

“Look out!”

With a whistle and a bang, fireworks shot through a narrow alleyway. Multicoloured streams of sparks twisted over the paving stones, and silk-robed Neopets let out shouts of panic as they dived away.

The fireworks arced into the night sky, where they swelled into the fiery shapes of a Kazeriu, a Dandan, and a Pandaphant. The three phantasmal Petpets cavorted above paper lanterns and tile eaves, eliciting cries of awe from the streets below, before dancing to the roof of the Imperial Palace and fizzling out. A roar of cheers and applause erupted and then died as the crowd was swept into other festivities.

“So that’s what Shenkuuvian potsherds do,” said a disco Zafara standing in the alley as she twanged the rubber of her slingshot affectionately. “Different from the Lost Desert variety, huh?” she asked as she looked over at her companions with a toothy grin.

Terra peeled herself away from the wall. The pale-skinned, copper-haired owner readjusted her glasses and brushed off the sleeves of her plaid flannel shirt, trying to look unruffled. “Blynn, next time you do that,” the young adult said shakily, “could you at least warn us first?” Her blue eyes were still wide from being startled.

“That’s it,” a blue Grundo said, stumbling out from behind Terra. “You get your magic slingshot privileges taken away for a week.” His antennae were flattened against his head as he pointed an accusing finger at his sister. Somehow, he did not quite cut the imposing figure he wanted to. Perhaps because he was less than a metre tall.

Blynn stuck out her tongue. “You’re not the boss of me, Hyren,” she said.

Hyren shrugged and rested his hand on the pommel of the shortsword at his waist. “Well, it was worth a shot,” he said. This was his life for the past twelve years. He supposed he should have gotten used to it by now, but there was no getting used to a household full of wild cards. Someone had to pretend to keep them in line, and the role had fallen to him.

“Is—is it over?” a faerie Draik asked, poking his turquoise-coloured snout out from behind a corner.
“Yep,” Terra said, mirroring Hyren’s exasperated expression. “You okay, Pharazon?”

“Blynn, you nearly gave me a heart attack!” Pharazon said as he shuffled into view, his wings twitching and throwing out sparks in agitation. “And you spooked Gwyneth! If she had bolted, who knows what she might have destroyed!” He turned back to the corner and curled his claw in a beckoning gesture. “Come on, girl… there we go… it’s all right…”

An immense Ganuthor plodded out of the shadows, wings tucked tightly against her sides and floppy ears drooping. Even with her head slung low in fright, she towered half a metre over Terra. And her girth barely fit into the alleyway, looking comically large like someone had plopped one of a smaller Petpet species into a toy playset of the Imperial City. At her sides hung pouches that held the family’s travelling accoutrements.

Gwyneth made a pitiful whuffling sound and buried her pink nose into her owner’s paw. Pharazon stroked her shaggy grey head and said, “There, there. You’re safe. I’m sorry some pets are insensitive.” He shot a glare at his sister.

“What?” Blynn asked, trying to look innocent as ever. “You gotta admit, it’s cheaper than buying fireworks!”

Terra sighed and buried her face in her hand. “What am I going to do with you,” she said.

“Love me?” Blynn asked.

Her owner laughed, reaching down and ruffling the tuft of fur on Blynn’s head. “You little scoundrel,” Terra said. “What did I tell you about pyrotechnics?”

Blynn folded her paws behind her back like a schoolchild. “Explosions are dangerous,” she recited in a sing-song tone, bobbing her head from side to side, “and I shouldn’t cause ‘em.” She paused, and grinned again. “Except in open areas with adequate precautions.”

“Very good!” Terra said, puting her hands on her hips with a mischievous smirk. “After we’re done at the festival, let’s go find a rice paddy or something where we can set more of those things off.”

Hyren groaned and tugged at his antennae. “You people are incorrigible,” he said.

Terra winked at him. “You knew that when you took the job, buddy,” she said.

Blynn put the slingshot back in its holster, a leather arrangement around her waist. At her other hip sat a row of small pockets. She reached into one of them and pulled out more shards of pale porcelain. “I wonder if these make all the Petpets,” she said. “And if there’s a way to control their colour somehow…”

“Blast you kids and your experiments,” Hyren chuckled, shaking his head. He lived in a house full of lunatics. But they were his lunatics, and he loved them. He looked up at Terra. “Let’s go to the Shenkuu Lunar Festival, you said. It’ll be fun, you said. I don’t know about you, but my idea of ‘fun’ is not getting apprehended by palace guards.”

“Okay, fair point,” his owner said, folding her arms. “So is there anything you want to do here? You’re good at keeping us out of trouble.”

“Well, someone has to,” Hyren said. “I vote for grub. I’ve heard about Shenkuu’s famous noodle houses.”

Blynn jumped up and clapped her paws. “Ooh, great idea!” she said. “If we eat now, we can probably finish in time for the parade!”

Pharazon tapped the Ganuthor on her nose. “Gwyn, down,” he said. The great beast complied, crouching so the family could climb onto her broad back.

Pharazon took point at the base of Gwyneth’s neck, and behind him, Terra deposited herself. In back of the human sat Blynn, while Hyren “took rear guard” as he liked to phrase it. No one was going to attack them from behind if he could help it. And he could help it.

“Good girl,” the Draik said. He rubbed the top of Gwyneth’s head and she rumbled in delight. He reached out and tapped a point on her head further forward.

Gwyneth rose back up and lumbered down the alley, back out into one of the main streets of the city. She parted the pedestrian crowds easily, although here and there Hyren spotted other Neopets who’d had the same idea as them, sitting atop the backs of large Petpets.

Pharazon pulled up at an intersection next to an Eyrie and a Kacheek riding a Kiiyak. The bovine Petpet was decorated with drapes of red silk and gold coins that jingled as it shifted.

“’Scuse us!” Blynn said. “D’you know a good noodle place?”

The other two Neopets nodded. “Yes, try Okashi’s down on Naleap Avenue,” the Kacheek replied, pointing with her fan. The Kiiyak and Gwyneth sniffed at each other’s faces in greeting.

“Thanks!” Blynn said.

“Peace and long life to you!” the Kacheek said as traffic started to move again. She and the Eyrie bowed their heads.

Gwyneth’s riders echoed the gesture. “And to you!” Terra replied as they parted ways. “Man, this place is awesome during the Lunar Festival.” She twisted her head, trying to take in all the sights. “We should do this more often.”

“Yes, the culture here is fantastic,” Pharazon said. “I hope we’ll be able to stop by a bookstore at some point. I’d really like to do more research into Shenkuuvian poetry.” With another tap of his claw, he directed Gwyneth to turn at the intersection.

“You’ve got Gwyn really well-trained,” Terra said to Pharazon.

Pharazon looked up over his shoulder at his owner. “You think so?” he asked.

“Yeah, I remember when you first got her!” Blynn said. “We had to rebuild so many walls!”

Hyren snickered. “Oh, so is that why we moved to Altador?” he asked. “You were tired of repairing a bamboo beach hut?”

“Yeah, that might have had something to do with it,” Terra said.

For being located on the main street of the Imperial City, Okashi’s wasn’t too crowded, although the patrons chattered noisily enough. A string of cheerful orange-red lanterns hung from the eaves, and a ceramic Angelpuss sat beckoning on the counter, one paw resting on a Neopoint coin. All sorts of savoury and spicy aromas emanated from within.

Pharazon escorted Gwyneth to a side alley. “Stay, girl,” he said. “Don’t worry, I’ll bring you back a treat, I promise.” She settled onto her forepaws and gave him a mournful gaze, but seemed to be placated by another pat on the head.

“Please, enjoy!” a camouflage Usul behind the counter called out to her newest customers. She waved to the family as she passed a steaming bowl to an eager Wocky.

“Ooh, they have negg noodles,” Terra squealed as the four took their seats and opened the provided menus. “Definitely getting those. And edamame. Yessss.”

Blynn perused her menu, then glanced up at Hyren. “How about you, chief?” she asked.

The Grundo did a double-take over the top of his own menu, his antennae pricking. “What?” he asked.

“What?” Blynn asked, tilting her head.

Hyren shook his head. “Nothing,” he said. “It’s just… you haven’t called me that in a while. It… reminded me of when we first met.” His gaze dropped back down to the menu, but his red eyes glazed over, his mind elsewhere. That title brought back so many memories for him.

“It’s been twelve years,” Terra said. “Well, nearly. It’ll be twelve years on the dot in Running.” She picked up her chopsticks and began methodically scraping away the splinters, while her pets decided on their orders and relayed them to her. When they were ready, she raised her hand to get the Usul’s attention.

Pharazon gave his owner a quizzical look. “Twelve years? Since what?” he asked.

“Since we adopted Hyren,” Blynn said as the chef took Terra’s order.

The Draik looked at his Zafara sister, and then over to his Grundo brother. “Why did Terra adopt you, anyway?” Pharazon asked. “You’ve never told me the whole story. All I know is that you used to do something in some space military before you met her.”

“It’s not the kind of story you want spreading,” Hyren said. “Thankfully you were never nosy about it. Until now, anyway.”

“But Terra created me and I’ve been in the family for ten years!” Pharazon said. “Haven’t I earned your trust by now?”

The diminutive Grundo leaned back in his chair, his antennae lowering in annoyance. “Look, it’s not relevant to you,” he said. “That’s all.” Why did Pharazon want to have this conversation now? All Hyren wanted to do was enjoy his dinner and make sure no one even looked at his family the wrong way.

“Hyren,” Terra said, folding her arms on the table. “It’s been long enough, don’t you think? We can’t keep him in the dark forever. He is your brother.”

Hyren’s shoulders sagged. “Fine,” he said. He waited for the chef to give them their food, glanced around to make sure no one was eavesdropping, and then draped one elbow over the back of his chair and assumed the air of a seasoned storyteller. “Once, long ago,” he said, “a mutant Grundo who’d been allowed to keep his free will served as a commanding officer in Dr.Sloth’s invasion corps, leading platoons of mind-wiped Grundo drones.”

He spoke in a low voice, although it was barely necessary considering the restaurant’s lively background noise. “He conquered countless worlds for Sloth, but all winning streaks have to end sometime. His came to a close at the Battle of Sakhmet, when he was betrayed by another CO and abandoned planetside.” Hyren had to admit, once someone got him telling war stories it was hard to want to stop.

Pharazon leaned forward, wide-eyed, and nearly did a faceplant in his bowl of leafy noodle soup. “Holy Kau,” he said. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“Like I said, not the kind of story you want spreading,” Hyren said.

“Ooh, what happened next?” Blynn asked.

Hyren gave her a funny look. “Blynn,” he said, “you were there.”

“I know,” Blynn said, “but it doesn’t make the story any less exciting!”

The Grundo picked up a sloppy wad of udon noodles in his chopsticks and blew on it a few times before slurping it down noisily in observance of Shenkuuvian etiquette. “He escaped into the Lost Desert,” he said, “where he finally met his match in the form of a stubbornly kindhearted teenage girl and her irritating Zafara.” He smirked. “They raised a ruckus for him all through the Desert’s northern mountains and into the Haunted Woods, and by the time he finally got them to Sloth’s flagship, they’d somehow wormed their way into that crusty old space marine’s heart. So he helped them escape.”

“Tell him what happens after that!” Blynn said as she took a sip of her miso soup. “Ew, green onions. Terra, you can have these.” She picked them out of her own bowl and deposited them in her owner’s, much to the human’s delight.

Hyren chuckled and said, “Well, those little scamps ended up being clingier than a sticky hand, not to mention really bad at following orders. They stayed on the ship and rescued the Grundo from Sloth’s clutches, and helped the rest of the prisoners commandeer the vessel.”

“Really?” Pharazon asked as he bit plump green soybeans out of their shell. “The histories say the Space Faerie was the one who helped with that.”

“Our heroes didn’t want any of the credit,” Terra said, fishing the last of the noodles and negg slices out of her broth. “They just wanted to go back to Neopia and live quietly. Besides, if you ask anyone who was there, they’ll tell you about a mutant Grundo, not a blue one.” She grinned.

“What happened there?” Pharazon asked his brother. “I thought you hated being short. Why’d you change your colour?”

Hyren sighed and folded his arms. Pharazon just had to bring that up. “It couldn’t be helped,” he said. “As much as I’d love to be able to rip apart steel with my bare hands like the good old days, Sloth had subjected me to some unusual mutations that rendered my genetic code extremely unstable. Basically, I can’t survive another mutation process. As it was, the Space Faerie had to save my life by reverting me to my original blue form.”

“Wow, I never would have guessed that,” Pharazon said. “I’m sorry.”

“Eh… at least I’m still alive,” Hyren said. Although deep down, he still really missed being a mutant. He felt so much better-equipped to protect his family when he was big and strong. He frowned and took another bite of his dinner to try to wash away the emotion.

“That’s the adventure where we got our weapons,” Blynn said, patting the slingshot at her side. “We found ‘em in some ruins.”

“I remember Blynn explaining her slingshot to me a while ago,” Pharazon said. “She said the magic kept it from decaying or breaking, not to mention its… unique properties.” He looked over at Hyren. “Is your sword magic, too?”

“Yeah,” Hyren said. He once more looked around to make sure no one was watching, then pulled his blade partway out of the scabbard. “See these? Faerie runes.” He traced the symbols in the steel and looked up at the Draik. “Each of these weapons is worth a kingdom.”

Pharazon’s eyes widened. “Did Terra get one, too?” he asked.

Their owner, who was currently perusing the dessert section of the menu, had a sword strapped to her waist as well. “Oh man, you guys. They have chocolate momo,” she said.

“And ice cream dumplings!” Blynn jabbed a finger at her own menu. “Oh, please, Terra, please?”

Terra thought for a moment, then shrugged with a lopsided grin. “Well, I guess we’re just gonna have to order both!” she said.

Hyren smiled. “This shortsword was Terra’s,” he said. “There’s nothing particularly fancy about the sword she uses now, but I did help her shop for it—I made sure she got a well-made blade with a few good enchantments on it, just in case. Anyway, I used the claymore.”

“The one you always make me strap to Gwyneth’s saddlebag when we travel?” Pharazon asked as Terra ordered dessert. “Can you even lift that thing now?”

“No,” Hyren said, folding his arms with a frown. “Terra can’t even wield it effectively, I know. I keep it with us just in case.” He did not particularly enjoy being reminded that he could no longer use his former favourite weapon.

“Just in case of what?” Pharazon asked.

“I dunno. Emergencies,” Hyren said. In his opinion, one could never be too prepared.

“Or it’s just because you like swords,” Pharazon said.

“Hey, that thing is my baby,” Hyren said. “I take pride in my swordsmanship and I don’t want to let such a perfect weapon out of my sight.” It didn’t hurt that it reminded him of the glory days.

“It must be nice to be good at something the way you guys are,” Pharazon said, wings sagging.

Blynn looked at him. “What are you talking about?” she asked. “You’re great at organising bookshelves, and knowing obscure trivia, and, uh, finding things to be paranoid about…” The arrival at their table of platters of dumplings distracted her from listing anything else.

“I meant something useful.” Pharazon snorted, letting out wisps of sparkly faerie dust from his nostrils. “Look at me. I’m a faerie pet and I can’t even use magic. I’m not sure if I even have any in me besides glitter. Even if it does make for really colourful colds.”

“Have you ever tried using magic, though?” Hyren asked, biting into a deep-fried banana dumpling drizzled with chocolate. “You’ve always been more interested in history and science.”

Pharazon fidgeted with the spade-shaped tip of his long tail. “I don’t know,” he said. “Forget it.”

“Don’t stress about it, Pharazon,” Terra said before slurping away the rice-dough skin of her ice cream dumpling. “I think you’re fine just the way you are. Just be yourself, okay?” The Draik nodded, not looking too convinced.

“Hey, cheer up!” Blynn said as she set a plate of food in front of him. “Maybe you can set the world record for fastest dumpling-eating!”

“Or worst case of indigestion,” Pharazon said.

The chef leaned over the counter with a bamboo tray holding the tab and four fortune cookies. “Thank you so much!” she said, passing the tray to Terra.

“The food was great!” the owner replied with a grin. From her purse, she produced a small pouch of Neopoints and began fingering through the coins.

Blynn took charge of passing out the cookies to everyone. “Ooooh, I wonder what my fortune’s gonna say,” she said. She cracked her cookie in half and pulled out a thin slip of white paper. “’Laughter is the most potent of medicines’,” she read through a mouthful of crumbs. “Hey, it’s true!”

Hyren rolled his eyes. “Of course it’s true,” he said.

The Zafara turned to their owner and asked, “Terra, what’s yours say?”

“Ummm… ’Never forget the power of compassion’,” Terra said. “That’s a good one.”

“Yeah, and it fits you perfectly!” Blynn said. “Just like mine fits me!”

Her Grundo brother broke his cookie apart methodically. “I hope you don’t really believe in that stuff,” he said. “A pre-written message in a cookie isn’t going to tell you anything profound or important about your destiny or something. Like mine, it says ’Your adversities make you strong.’” He leaned back in his chair and tossed the paper on the table. “Everybody’s adversities make them strong. These ‘fortunes’ are purposely written vaguely enough that they’ll apply to anybody.”

“We know,” Terra said. “But they’re still nice things to think about, at least. What does yours say, Pharazon?”

The Draik snapped open his cookie and pulled out a folded piece of yellowed paper. “Huh,” he said. He unfolded it and his blue eyes widened. “This is… new.”

Blynn leaned over the table. “What?” she asked.

Pharazon spread the paper out to reveal a message scrawled on it in black ink, in an unsteady hand unlike the other three fortunes:

When shadows consume the moon
Spectres of the fallen shall rise
And threaten to devour the sun.

Beware the beast that smiles.

The four looked up at each other. Blynn shot a smug glance at Hyren. “Yep. That’s sure vague, all right,” she said.

The Grundo looked defeated for a moment before shrugging. “So a prankster got into the bakery this morning,” he said. “It’s a pretty ingenious practical joke, really. Although I would have been more direct and morbid about it.” He chuckled, trying to mask the lingering unease behind his skepticism. As much as he hated to believe in it all, things tended to happen for a reason in Neopia. In a world of spells, curses, and prophecies, this sort of occurrence was not unheard of.

Terra plinked a few coins into the tray and passed it back over the counter. “Hyren’s right,” she said to Pharazon, who still held the paper in his claws, looking rather pale. “It could have just been a prank, or they got some papers mixed up when they were baking, or something. We shouldn’t get so worked up.”

He glanced back up at her, his ears drooping. “But what if it’s not?” he asked. “What if something happens? This could be a warning.”

His owner took a deep breath and rapped her knuckles on the table as she stood up. “Then we’ll have to keep on our guard,” she said. “Don’t worry. We know how to look out for ourselves.”

“Yeah, nobody better mess with us,” Blynn added with a toothy smile. “We’ll keep you safe.”

Hyren climbed out of his chair. “Besides,” he said as the four made their way out of the restaurant and back to Gwyneth, “I can’t think of anyone who would want to target us. We’ve kept a low profile these past twelve years.”

Terra stuffed her hands in the pockets of her jeans and grinned confidently. “Yeah,” she said. “If someone’s trying to scare us with some silly ominous warning, they’re gonna have to do better than that.”

The Ganuthor had waited patiently for them, and Pharazon rewarded her with a dumpling he saved from dessert. She took it in her massive fangs and chomped it down, and used her thick tongue to lick the spare chocolate sauce from the Draik’s paws, tickling him and making him laugh.

Blynn scrambled onto Gwyneth’s back. “Okay, let’s go find the parade!” she said. “I don’t wanna miss it!”

They heard the parade far before they saw it. The cracks and howls of fireworks echoed through the streets and lit up the sky nearly as bright as day, if daylight was an ever-shifting rainbow of hues. A jubilant beat of drums, chimes, and cymbals intermingled with the happy cries of spectators.

Gwyneth was less than appreciative of all the noise, and as they neared the avenue down which the parade was proceeding, she became more and more anxious. She lifted her wings in agitation, the coarse fur on her back bristled, and she began to make gurgling noises in the back of her throat.
When they were still several blocks away, Pharazon said, “Gwyn, halt,” and placed his hands on her head. She stopped, and the Draik looked over his shoulder. “I shouldn’t take her any further. She doesn’t like all this commotion.”

Blynn shifted from side to side behind Terra. “But we can’t even see anything from here,” the Zafara said with a groan.

“You and Hyren go on ahead,” Terra said to her. “I’ll help Pharazon find a place to keep Gwyn, and we’ll catch up with you.”

“Aww, okay,” Blynn said. She clambered down from the Petpet, Hyren following.

“We’ll be at the corner of Naleap Avenue and Fourteenth Street,” Hyren said, looking up at his owner. “Come straight back to us when you’re done. Don’t talk to anyone suspicious, and don’t let anyone talk you into buying anything.”

Terra chuckled. “I know, Hyren,” she said.

He grimaced. “Maybe I should come with you,” he said.

“You taught me how to defend myself,” Terra said, putting a hand on the hilt of the sword at her side. “I’m a big girl now. Don’t worry.”

The Grundo folded his arms. “But it’s my job to worry,” he said.

“Be that as it may,” Terra said, “do you really trust Blynn alone around pyrotechnics?”

Hyren gave his sister a suspicious glance, which she returned with a slightly crazed grin. He looked back to Terra. “Point taken,” he said. “Just… come back soon.”

“Of course,” Terra said.

“Then let’s go!” Blynn said. She grabbed Hyren by the arm and shot down the street, forcing her brother to break into a sprint to keep up with her.

“You know I hate when you do this!” he said as his stubby legs struggled to catch up with her powerful hind limbs. He looked over his shoulder at the other half of his family, and Terra waved at him while Pharazon turned Gwyneth around.

He would see them again soon, Hyren told himself. Nothing would happen.

Blynn wormed her way through the increasingly thick crowd, Hyren in tow. Due to their small size, they managed to slip past Grarrls and Eyries and ended up very near the action, right behind a family of enthusiastic Quiggles.

A Gelert drummer strutted past them and pounded out a beat with a flourish of his drumsticks, and Hyren clutched his antennae. “This is way too loud to be enjoyable,” he grumbled to himself. “I’d like parades better if they weren’t so noisy. Or crowded. Or if I wasn’t watching them.”

“What?” Blynn shouted above the din.

“Nothing!” he shouted back.

After the line of drummers came a troupe of dancers that elicited cries of delight from the crowd and a squeal of amazement from Blynn. Neopets in gaudy costumes balanced on large, colourful balls and rolled down the avenue, interweaving their motions with other costumed Neopets twirling long sashes, juggling, or guiding cavorting Petpets. Their intricate movements seemed effortless, especially since they greeted the crowd with smiles, but Hyren knew that just spoke of their incredible level of discipline and practise.

A Kyrii dancer bent down and walked on her front paws while her two chittering Dandans ran up her legs and balanced on her upturned feet. She flashed a smile past her long mane, and Blynn and the Quiggles went wild.

“Okay, I have to admit, even I’m impressed,” Hyren said to his sister. While the words left his mouth, however, he looked over his shoulder through the crowd. “What’s taking them so long…” he muttered. He’d nearly lost Terra and Blynn twelve years ago. He didn’t know if he could go through something like that again.

As the dancers passed, the deep crash of a gong filled the air and a gasp swept through the spectators. Two towering Pandaphants lumbered down the street, bedecked in red and gold. They swayed their furry white trunks and flapped their black ears, and one of them let out a sonorous grunt.

“Ooooh wow!” Blynn squealed as she jumped up and down. “Real live Pandaphants! I’ve never seen one before! I didn’t realise they got so huge!”

“It’s hard to tell from pictures in books,” Hyren said. “I mean, who would have thought Ganuthors could carry a small family?” He fingered the hilt of his sword absently, and glanced over his shoulder again. They were fine. He’d see them any second now.

The Bori astride one of the Pandaphants steered his Petpet closer to the crowd. It wagged its stubby white tail, clearly enjoying the performance as it strutted to the drumbeat. When it reached Blynn, the Pandaphant stretched out its trunk and blew a burst of air in the Zafara’s face, poofing back her magenta fur and making her laugh.

She waved at the Bori as he moved the Petpet onward. “Man, I wish Terra was here,” she said. “She’s always wanted to see a Pandaphant, too.”

 “Hey guys!” Their owner’s voice, though barely audible past the cacophony of other noise, made Blynn’s floppy ears and Hyren’s antennae prick.

Hyren peered through the legs of taller Neopets and caught a glimpse of the owner and Pharazon. “Terra!” he shouted, waving to them. “Over here!”

“We’ll be right there!” Pharazon said, trying to edge past a Skeith. “Er, pardon us, ma’am—“

A roar of applause, cheers, and whistles swelled up from the crowd and Blynn yanked on Hyren’s arm, tearing his gaze away from their owner. “Look, Hyren!” she gasped. “Noil dancers! The best part of the parade!”

The hollow thud of a drum kept the beat for a line of Neopets collectively wearing a long, stylised Noil puppet. The puppet’s bright red, gold, and white fabric fluttered sinuously as the dancers wove and bobbed in practised synchronisation, tracing a meandering path of loops and curves down the street. Occasionally they stopped in front of the spectators and the performer manning the puppet’s enormous head would make the Noil snap its wooden jaws open and shut, shaking its great mane playfully before moving on.

“Man, it must be so fun to be one of those dancers!” Blynn said. She jumped up and waved her arms at them. “Hey, over here!”

An amused smile crept up Hyren’s face. “This is pretty cool,” he said. He glanced away from watching the dance to see what was taking their owner and brother so long. “Terra, Pharazon, hurry, you can’t miss—“

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