Home > Stories > Flowlight: Sun – Echoes of Pride

Flowlight: Sun – Echoes of Pride

Sequel to Flowlight: Moon – Eternal Stranger, which can be found in the Neopian Times under antiaircraft_3. I submitted it as a five-part series, only to have returned that ‘it contains real-world references such as references to famous people, geography, other websites, etc. that are not permitted’. Some random editing removed apparently eliminated the source of the complaint, but now I am told that it is too violent. I should like further assistance where possible. 😀

Edit: fourth revision is done!

Part One

The following is the second part of a prophecy laid down by the Eyrie Great Sage of Shenkuu, Four Left Feet, as recited by his scribe; the text itself having been destroyed in an unfortunate arson.

***

He comes a-knocking, and goes away
‘Fore greetings can be said,
‘Cause there’s no man can greet a knock
When he’s already dead.

~Neovian children’s rhyme

In those days, as now, the ghostly fingers of faint light reached dispersedly down through the clouds, brushing gently against the brightly painted ridges of the corrugated roofs. It would have been called dim; but the light here was the only light that the children of the land had ever seen. Despite the dimness that was all that passed for day even at high noon, they laughed and played, free of cares and worry as only children could be. Those of them who had the chance would grow up to be sober and wary, sometimes merely unfriendly, sometimes expressive of outright hostility, robbed almost completely of the ability to trust; but for now, they were happy, and their laughter was the laughter of the blissfully ignorant.

Perhaps, the philosopher might dwell, they would have been happier in the end if they had been attentive enough to see the crawling chaos of the Woods, its roots spreading over days and weeks, wilting the grass, covering the shining fay-lanterns gifted to them in ages past, planting thorny wood into the ground and thrusting spiny growths into the air. Perhaps, if they had observed the deathly shadow that encroached upon their doorsteps, the hideous, malformed appendages that reached out for them time and time again, and then withdrew quickly again from the thin curtain of sun that would burn their flesh to ashes; perhaps, if they had seen the darkening of the blackened cloud, like a blanket of ash, they would have gotten wind of the terror that longed to possess them, to steal their bodies, their identities, their souls – their names. Perhaps they could even have fled in time, ere the lost and nameless ones came shuffling, loping, skittering over the dying ground and took hold of them, and dragged them away, away, as they screamed soundless screams and kicked feebly, as if they had the slightest chance to escape the undead hordes that, in the deep and the dark of the twisted hollows beneath the barren branches, devoured their souls in hunger and desperation…

***

The grey light of dawn crept sluggishly through the windows and the cracks in the weather-beaten door. The occupants of the establishment were in no condition to notice its unwilling passage. They were asleep, for a start, and none of the occupants of this particular inn were going to bother getting up because of something as petty as daytime. Day meant very little in the Haunted Woods, least of all a time to awaken. Sleep was better. In this town especially, there was nothing much to do in the first place. It was a rotting, run-down old skeleton of a settlement, with the frameworks of decayed buildings showing white as bone in the dimness. There were few people here, in this dreary wasteland which had given up its fight against the emptiness that surrounded it.

One of those few people was not from the Woods. Most of the tourists in the Woods went to Neovia, a site of history by all means – and seldom decided to investigate the dead, overgrown paths which led between towns. It was a common belief that Neovia was the Woods’ only settlement; and the shadow Gelert’s presence would have been out of place, had he been a mere tourist.

He was a freelance reporter, having built himself a solid reputation for not shrinking from potential danger. Inevitably, that reputation had brought him sauntering here. He hadn’t had much luck so far, needless to say. The few townsfolk he had accosted had proven reticent beyond all reason. When he asked their names, their reactions had ranged from staring at him in horror and backing away, to attacking him with a remarkably sharp cleaver. It didn’t matter. He was very skilled at avoiding angry interviewees, and it was his oft-cited motto to ‘never give up’.

The locals’ tendency not to speak had made it quite difficult for him to find out the location of the next town, but he had managed to determine a vague symmetry between this and the traditional home-structures of certain towns in Meridell. A correlation, perhaps? In any case, he’d require something more substantial than that if his client was to be satisfied, and he always satisfied his client.

With that in mind, he’d been just about to move on to the next location, and he – in his inconspicuous (or so he thought) brown coat and dashing wide-brim hat – was now sitting in a threadbare sofa that seemed to be leaking its stuffing, sipping a cold, bitter cup of greyish sludge which the innkeeper claimed was coffee. There were few things he could have expected less than for two unusual strangers to walk in through the door.

The first was a tall, graceful white Xweetok attired in pristine robes; her carriage suggested a magician of some sort, as did the discreet silver ring on her finger. Probably a gypsy; but a rich one, if so. The second was a green Shoyru in nothing short of embarrassing dress – Daniel had the brief impression he was looking at one of the more flamboyant sorts of lawn ornament.

His attention was not so much on the child as on the elder, who immediately upon entry affixed him with a piercing gaze completely uncharacteristic of the citizens of the town, and approached with an air of more than nonchalant curiosity. He was not perturbed in the least – it was a refreshing change, and he stood quickly, to the detriment of the sofa, which sagged into a yet more shapeless mass than before. “Good morning,” he said cheerfully. “Daniel Harrier, reporter-for-hire. Do you happen to have any business with me?”

“It’s certainly unusual to see someone awake this morning,” the Xweetok replied, her cold gaze crushing all his hopes of an impressive introduction. “I trust you don’t intend to stay very long?”

“Not at all.” He was aware that he was beginning to stammer.

“Well, perhaps you will permit me to detain you awhile. It is, after all, a good morning to-day.” Her voice was slightly mocking. “You are a journalist; I suspect you now find yourself in an unfortunate situation. I cannot imagine anyone in this town offering anything of a story, after all; especially considering your rather unnerving habit of demanding names.”

“Unnerving?” Daniel seldom found himself echoing someone else’s speech; but his usual repertoire seemed to have dried up in the presence of this singular subject.

“You don’t ask names around here,” said the Shoyru. His tone was peculiarly adult-like, as if he were not as young as he looked – though that would not be difficult to imagine. “It’s dangerous.”

Before he could elaborate, the Xweetok said, “Consider it thus for now: the tradition here is not to ask for someone’s name, but what they are called. It is a subtle nuance, but if you are not cautious – and caution is something you are lacking to a disturbing degree – you will soon find out why.”

“Why?”

“That’s the wrong question,” said the Xweetok with a faint smile.

Daniel sighed; he felt as if he was losing the upper hand. “Alright,” he said, whipping out a notebook, “what shall I call you?”

“To you? The child is Alexander; and I, Fox.”

Fox…” It was the first time Daniel had heard a name that was completely unfamiliar to him. “What does it mean?”

“It is not a name you would quite understand, but it means many things.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“A traitor; a trickster; a homeless wanderer of paths and player of games, entangler of fate, teller of endless tales.”

Daniel’s pen was briefly busy. Then, “I see. And… do you know of any unusual or interesting occurrences around the Woods? Mysterious disappearances, for example?”

There was a long silence. Then the Shoyru said, “Which ones?”

“Well… you know? Stories. People who disappear on their way to work, and never turn up again. People who are found dead and who everyone knows can’t have had an accident.”

Another silence.

He pressed: “It even helps if there’s a little suggestion of the… you know… supernatural in it.”

The Shoyru burst out laughing.

Once he had calmed down, the Xweetok said, “You have been wandering around the Woods for weeks and haven’t noticed that people vanish every day?”

“They do?” Daniel made a note of it. “That’s shocking.”

“Hardly. What’s shocking is you; the fact that you have absolutely no idea of what the Woods is like. Those that live here do not do because they want to, but out of necessity. There is no easy way to escape the Woods once you leave the beaten path, Daniel Harrier.”

Daniel nodded. Clearly these superstitious folk were hard to convince; he decided not to try.

“You are sceptical,” said the Xweetok. “Perhaps a walking tour would better explain, as you aren’t as busy as you claim to be.”

Daniel nodded. “As long as there’s something to see.”

“It’s settled, then,” said the Xweetok. “Alex – we’re leaving.”

“Got it,” said the Shoyru. He snapped his fingers – Daniel noticed a small ring on one of them, and the next instant his attention was drawn away, as sudden appearances of grand pianos are wont to override all other input into an observer’s mind.

“He’ll play a short piece for us, if I’m not mistaken,” said the Xweetok. “He makes a policy of it.”

And he did; leaping up onto the seat, the Shoyru tested the keys, flexing his fingers; then, he began to play.

The notes sang clear through the dense twilight, piercing through to the minds of all who heard. It might have been Daniel’s imagination, or there might really have been golden sparks dancing about the child’s fingers as he played; but in any case, around the town, heads were raised, eyes were opened, feet sprang out of bed – not necessarily in that order – and the sweet music, infectious and lively, washed away the gloom that had hung over the town for years, and brought the colour back to it. Daniel, on an impulse, hurried towards the window, and yes – the blackness above was peeling back, the clouds folding into themselves and vanishing, and blue sky shone for the first time upon the wearied eyes of the townsfolk.

He turned back towards the Xweetok, who was smiling that knowing smile. “You’re magicians,” he exclaimed.

“Magicians? No; I may be called that, but he is only an apprentice.”

He’s an apprentice?”

“I may soon have the chance to start teaching him,” said the Xweetok. “But teaching can wait – it will wait for quite a while.”

The song ended, but seemed to echo around the Gelert’s head; he felt he had made his way out of some great valley of depression, but he was unable to imagine what it might have been – for a moment he utterly forgot about his surroundings, and there was magic in the air.

Part Two

The trees creaked and groaned in some wind, or perhaps the effects of the day’s heat. The Shoyru’s enchantment had not entirely worn off yet, and the clouds were much thinner than usual.

“So, where are you going now?” Truth be told, Daniel was the one following; normally he was at least able to pretend that he was boldly leading the way.

“I’ve someone to meet,” said the Xweetok, “and if you will insist on coming with us, at least try not to act so… conspicuously. It makes things hungry. They might take notice of you.”

“This is what I always wear! What do you mean?”

“That wasn’t what I was referring to. I meant the way you seem to have more in common with a lost Babaa than a self-aware Neopet. If you were alone, you would almost certainly have fallen prey to any of the dangers which you seem completely and blissfully unaware of. If, for example, you were to take one more step forward, you would probably fall into the gaping mouth that happens to be awaiting your foot.”

Daniel looked down. There was nothing.

“Merely illustrating a point,” said the Xweetok.

“So, what exactly are you doing to… investigate these events? Just asking around?”

“But there has been a marked increase in the number of supernatural abductions, and there is only one person likely to be able to guess at the reason.”

Daniel noted this down. “Supernatural?”

“Name thieves. Ghosts who take people who stray outside the towns. They should stay away from the towns themselves, as marked and bounded by the lanterns. It’s forbidden.”

“Forbidden by what?”

“By the treaty. The century-old treaty. Without it, the Woods would be a warzone; and it may be that it will become exactly that.”

“And who is this who knows so much about paranormal politics?” That makes a good alliteration, a part of Daniel thought absently.

“You’ll find out. Quite frankly, this is a momentous event. It would serve you well to make a record of these events, since you’re interested – though I doubt you’ll publish it.”

“So that’s why you’re suddenly telling me this?”

“Yes. By the way, how fast a learner are you?”

“Oh, very,” said Daniel emphatically.

“Then you may make it out of here alive.”

They continued on in silence, as behind them a living pit opened in the overgrown ground, gulping hungrily at the air.

***

The settlements of the Woods were clustered together for the most part in the north-eastern corner, as if seeking mutual protection from the tangled, crawling roots of the twisted trees. Nevertheless, it took – in as much as time could be measured here – nearly until noon to reach Neovia.

Daniel was not particularly impressed. Still, there was no time to argue, not in the crush of tourists – and the rare local resident – milling about. It was a large town, by the Haunted Woods’ standards, with a gaudy, ostentatious palace in its centre, and noticeably poorer regions around the edges. Daniel was forced to weave his way through the crowds, barely managing not to buy anything. He was practised at it, but this was considerably thicker an assembly than he was used to. Neovia was heavily trafficked for being part of the Haunted Woods, to the point where the majority of this street was lined with tourist shops. The path they had emerged from seemed to have disappeared, covered by roots and blocked by branches as it was, giving way to the wide cobbles and general friendly bustle.

Not even he noticed the way that the trees seemed newly-grown, or that the fay-lanterns that should have lined the edge of the town had been swallowed up by the darkness of the woods; for so it had been since before he had arrived.

At one point, when the jostling stopped, he managed to catch up with the Xweetok – who seemed to walk straight through the bustle as if it were not real – and said, “This isn’t the way to the mayor’s palace!”

The Xweetok turned and looked at him, almost pityingly. “The mayor knows nothing except what he’s told by other people who know nothing. Very few people ever go to see the mayor. Those who come here will always be rather hungry, and there is one place above all others in this town that they know of and visit: the Crumpetmonger. She knows more folk and folklore than anyone else you’ll find here, and the only person who might match her is someone you’d not like to meet.”

“She makes good pastry too,” commented the Shoyru from behind Daniel, who barely noticed, being caught up in moving as quickly as he could after the Xweetok.

When he finally reached the shop in question, the Xweetok was already there. The Shoyru was beside her, in the middle of purchasing some bagels. Obviously, he’d picked up a trick or two. Daniel stepped quickly up to the counter, and then realised he had; but what happened directly after was even stranger. He felt his mouth moving, and knew that he was moving it. He was even vaguely aware that he was pushing, prodding, nudging, doing his job as he had never done it before, but only after he had stopped speaking did his hearing seem to begin working properly again.

“Oh, yes, I remember that one,” the Crumpetmonger was just beginning to say, “he used to come here every day, that youngster. He was barely up to the counter, but he’d bring a few coins every day and I’d give him a little extra, because he was poor, you know. People always used to stay away from him, almost as if they were scared or something – even the local fellows who knew him. Maybe he was just shy, or it could’ve been because he had these really big teeth, his mam used to be really proud of them, he wasn’t funny in the head. I thought that, then one day – that was twenty years ago, mind you – I saw him leaving the town and that’s the last there was of him. No-one else really noticed he was gone – he didn’t have many friends, you see – so he might’ve decided to go away and never come back, or he might’ve just been curious. Same thing in the end, you know – I knew this Gabbie –“

Sensing that this might go on for some time, Daniel backed away slowly, scribbling in his notepad. He didn’t see how the information was important, but once they were outside the shop he turned and demanded of the Xweetok, “What was that?”

“What was what?” she replied innocently. “You gave a stunning account of yourself just then. I applaud you – but we must be going now.”

“Going where?” It seemed to Daniel that she was mystifying him almost on purpose. She could at least bother to explain some of the things that were happening.

“To see the child she was talking about.”

“Child? Didn’t she say that that was twenty years ago?”

“He is remembered as a child, so it becomes his identity. Such is the fate of the nameless ones. And I know where I will find him.”

As they went further away from the palace, the houses became shabbier, and all of a sudden stopped being two-storey; the pets were fewer, their clothes more ragged, their faces less contented; the ground went from cobbles and brick to mud, compressed by hundreds of errant feet. And there was the ever-growing smell, quite indescribable, but extremely irritative to the keener nose. Perhaps the simplest and most polite way to describe it to a person who has never had the chance to smell it for himself would be ‘a concentrated essence of dung, uncorked and locked up in a small windowless room for a week’. The only flaw in such an analogy would be how close it was to the truth.

Bear in mind that while that is probably the worst thing any respectable Neopian will ever encounter, the real thing is a lot worse. These were the slums proper. The shock of the smell increasing tenfold and crashing against his delicate senses like a tidal wave was enough to bring him to the present, and he realised the Xweetok was saying, “ – make a living of doing things that involve entering the woods. There are a surprising number. The Lord Mayor doesn’t know, and I doubt he would mind if he did.” She smiled oddly. “He would say it kept the population down.”

“What? You’re absolutely sure – like pests?” demanded Daniel.

“To him, pests is all they are; unwanted, unneeded, fouling the image of his town.”

“Right.” Daniel noted that down. “In any case, are you looking for one of these people? Trying to meet a ghost, are you?”

“Not a ghost,” the Xweetok replied calmly. “Not just a ghost.”

“Hey! You be lookin’ for a guide?”

It could have been any of a hundred such calls. It just happened to be the one that fit into the pause in the conversation. And it belonged to a young Wocky, by the look of it hardly older than the Shoyru was, with fur much too grimy to tell the colour of.

The Xweetok looked thoughtful. “Yes, I think we are.”

“Where you wan’ to go?”

“I dropped something in the woods. Only about an hour’s way out, I think, in that direction.” She pointed to the forest, which Daniel realised they had been walking past for some time. “I’d like to pick it up again.”

A strange choice of words, thought the small part of Daniel’s brain which wasn’t screaming silently about child labour and being quite exceeded in volume by the fundamentally ingrained fear of going into the Woods.

“Sure I can take you there. It’s a hundred thirty.” The child held out his hand.

***

The Wocky danced nimbly around the trees, as if stooping and jumping and climbing around the hissing trunks and their crooked offshoots were an ordinary, everyday matter. To him, it probably was. He seemed to know not only where he was but where he was going, always barely in sight.

The Shoyru had been having more trouble keeping up than Daniel did, so he was now riding on his shoulders. Daniel was faring better than he had, though in fact he felt that he was hardly doing better than a Slorg might; A Slorg half-dead from dehydration and a chronic lack of cabbage, said his innate editor. His legs were aching terribly from the strain of the journey, making it less frightening than downright miserable, though in fact they hadn’t gone all that far when the Xweetok stopped and announced, “We are here.”

“Great,” said Daniel. “I thought we were somewhere else.”

“Nope, definitely here,” said the Wocky. Then he grinned.

And his mouth stretched unnaturally, as if his face was being distorted by a convex mirror, like the smile of a jack-o’-lantern, showing no actual expression at all; and when he opened his mouth, the rest of his head collapsed baggily in on itself, while his teeth lengthened and sharpened in a ring – and what was left in the end was nothing but a mouth, like the mouth of some sort of deformed worm.

The Xweetok seemed completely unperturbed. Daniel was shaking. He prided himself very much on his self-control, but even that was telling him to run. “What–?” he just managed.

“That,” said the Xweetok to him, as the creature stalked closer to them, drool running down its shapeless chin, “is the person I have been aiming to meet. He is the soul who was once the child Trevor, and not only that, but the Wraith Lord of the Nameless of the Woods, he of the Misted Throne, the King of the Ghosts.”

Part Three

“How quickly and completely you have changed!” Solana said drily – “but no amount of change has ever excused you of your memory before.”

A voice emerged from the creature’s throat, oddly inflected, yet recognisable. “Who are you to know my name? You are nothing to us. You are food.”

“Have you really forgotten? I have come concerning the continued safety of the colonies. The treaty is being violated.”

Daniel felt an icy chill down his spine. They shouldn’t have come here. This wasn’t mortal territory. It was madness to enter this place, this evil, benighted grove in the deep of the Woods. There, around them, the eyes were watching. The branches seemed to be forming a wall, and between them there were eyes, huge eyes, hungry eyes. The shadows, it seemed, were coming alive.

“That may be, but it is not your business. Nor is any other part of the Woods; and even if it were, you are not protected by it.” The thing before them lunged.

The Xweetok held up a hand, as if gesturing to stop. The wraith halted abruptly in midair, and hung suspended there, twisting and slobbering. “You must not understand what I mean,” she said coldly. “I am called the Traveller of Light, she who first bound you to this treaty. I visit in peace, but if I must enforce the old law then I shall.” She released it then, and it dropped ungracefully, stumbling. “I ask for nothing more than for you to hold council. It is your role, Lord Wraith. Not this.”

It hissed, angrily. “Very well. You will be heard, and that is all.” At this the Xweetok nodded. Daniel might normally have said something, but for the first time in his life he was dumbstruck, and not pleasantly so.

The king raised its head and gave a strange bubbling howl, and his subjects came. Not quickly, not slowly; there were some who could have seen them, hopping ungainly or loping gracefully or drifting like mist, but completely silent, their forms far too numerous and hideous to be described. It was obvious for most of them that they had once been Neopets, but having lost their names, their forms had become malleable by what they were in the minds of those around them – and not very many pleasant things are said or thought about the nameless ones. They were no longer properly alive, feeding on the names of those whom they could find in the hope of finally regaining a solid form; but rarely is a name that can be worn found.

Daniel could sense their approach, and his fur began to stand up on end. The mist began to drift in, dense as cloud, playing games with the senses, shrouding what was real and showing only the most terrifying of sights. Alone, it might have driven a lost pet insane within minutes. Finally it receded a little, gathering here and shifting there. It was then that Daniel saw truly whose court he was in.

The many ghosts had formed in a circle so tight that they seemed to overlap, their shapes constantly dissolving and reforming like a mirage. Once or twice faces could be made out; but even those hideously distorted, whether with oversized yellow fangs or having one huge eye, or skin like melted wax, or some other irredeemably disfiguring feature. All of them were bowing, heads or whatever passed for them pressed to the ground. They were paying homage to a great throne of marble wreathed in ethereal white, upon which sat a form which was not reminiscent of a pet at all. His was a black cloak, shrouding him like tattered wings, and a hood which covered his head from view; but out of its shadow there shone the flaring blue gaze of something that could look at you and see everything you were, everything you had been and would ever be, from beginning to end, every secret laid bare. Here was something more solid than any mortal or any single entity could ever be, and those piercing, hidden eyes held in them not one soul, but every one that had ever sat upon this throne. Skeletal hands raised a circlet of mist to his head, as he intoned in a voice like a funeral bell, “I am the King of all the Haunted Wood,” and so it was. A small part of Daniel’s being knew that this was an aspect, however mean, of what had been called the Seventh True King; and in resonance with that part, he trembled, for that implied an entity completely aloof from the cares and wishes of petkind, regal and alien, ancient as the monsters that lurked in the impenetrable primeval shadows that must have lain behind the first eyes that saw.

“Kneel,” whispered the Xweetok.

“But Solana –“ the Shoyru began.

Solana? Daniel wondered.

“Now!” the Xweetok muttered. She and Daniel knelt, an action which permitted the Shoyru to dismount and hastily follow suit.

“Walker on the Path of Light,” said the wraith king. “What have you come for?”

“So you do recall! I have come to fulfil my duty, Lord Wraith, to save those who dwell in this forest from destruction. Why has the treaty been broken?”

“We have rescinded it. It is no longer beneficial to us.” The words were a chill wind in Daniel’s ears.

Solana sounded almost angry. “A king is bound to obey the law, and the law forbids such an action without the agreement of all parties, particularly those whom it threatens.”

The king showed no reaction to this, but the circle of ghosts seemed to ripple, as the surface of the sea ripples at the coming of a storm. He said, “Then your laws and ours differ. The well-being of my people is of greater importance to me than anything set down in times gone past.”

“What you have done may bring war. The other denizens of this world will not stand by while their kin are threatened. I fail to see how that would be for the good of your subjects. You know that they may suffer death.”

“Let there be war if you will not accept my deeds. I am exercising my right to rule the Woods – and all of it.” Daniel felt the cold power of this ancient being, as the mist thickened and strengthened; and he felt, somehow, as if a war against it could have only one outcome.

The Xweetok shone in answer, the mist disappearing into a brilliantly glowing nimbus around her. She raised her head, slowly, to look directly at the wraith king. In her light, he seemed transparent, as if he were not really there. “I forbid that. If there were a war, I would see to it that you lose. I would raise up another champion, another hero, as I did Jeran the knight and Lisha the sorceress, Garin the pirate lord, and Fyora the Fair. And they would subdue you, as I did before.” Her voice softened slightly, along with her light. “You are no fool; you must know this. Your kind do not forget as willingly as the living. What is it you fear more than death?”

Without waiting for an answer, her gaze focused sharply on the king. “I can see it, the source of the trouble. You saw it once, yet you fear it so that you seek names, names to make bodies that the sun will not destroy, so that you can flee. A deeper darkness than the woods themselves, something both knowing and not knowing.” A look of intense concentration formed. “I have seen this before…”

The wraith king was silent; he seemed to be fading even further.

“Something threatens your place in this world,” said the Xweetok finally. “And you are trying to escape from it by taking back the land that was once yours. This have I seen.”

“I do not appreciate your attempts to pry into matters that do not concern you,” answered the wraith king, suddenly there and more solid than ever. “Nor do I ask for your assistance in any such matter; I will not accept it, lest I be indebted.”

“Then perhaps we can strike a bargain.” The Xweetok stood, and Daniel knew she had been waiting for this. “I will destroy the source of your fear. You will at once remove your presence from the towns of the woods. Will you accept?”

The king’s strange eyes seemed to brighten with intrigue. After only a moment, he said, “Very well,” and the High King of the Haunted Woods, Dread Rider of the Endarkened Wastes, the Wraith of the Misted Throne, rose, his cloak billowing around him in a sudden wind, as black wings. A sword with a blade as dark as night appeared in his skeletal hand, electric-blue light flickering along its edges and around the glistening silver hilt. “My part in this is to consider the places in which the living dwell hallowed ground. It is a difficult deed, and I shall require more than what you have offered. What I require, I shall take.”

Daniel’s eyes widened, as the wraith king turned and fixed those terrible eyes, burning in the shadow, upon him. He could not move, as the sword was raised, slowly, to point at him, as the blue dancing around the edges flared.

“What is your name?” demanded the voice of despair.

Daniel’s eyes widened, as the wraith king turned and fixed those terrible eyes, burning in the shadow, upon him. He could not move, as the sword was raised, slowly, to point at him, as the blue dancing around the edges flared.

The sword flew, as swift as an arrow; he saw it collapse, as it came, into some other, unfathomable dimension. If it had been moving less swiftly than inexorable Time, it would have made no difference; he could not dodge an intention, no matter how slowly it had been thought. There came with it a sense of ghostly pain, and with the remainder of his breath he whispered faint curses; curses to petkind and others alike, filled with a dying maelstrom of hate that was all that was left of his soul; hate of everything, of the world, of the air he breathed and the ground that supported his feet, hate of her. And then…

The form of the wraith king vanished. Daniel did not move.

Then, with agonising slowness, the Gelert grasped the ethereal sword, letting it take its form. It came free easily from whatever recess it had been plunged into, with the whisper of a vanishing soul; his attire changed – though that was the least significant, truly, of the alterations – from the simple brown ensemble to the coat of a Neovian gentleman, adorned in silver. The crown was now the ornament of a sleek black top hat, and an elegant cane with a silver handle tapped the ground, the tip spitting blue sparks.

He exhaled, a cloud of frosty air billowing from his mouth, and stood, cold, proud, the King of the Haunted Woods. Blue-white infernos blazed in his eyes. “Freedom and a new name,” he said, a cold wind accompanying his words. “The bargain is struck. I have a solid form, and the light shall no longer blind me. It is a fair trade. I have accepted, and I will accompany you in your task.”

“The Lord Wraith,” Solana explained when they were walking again, “is not one being. He is a legion, composed of every soul that has been, as it were, appointed to become joined with him, and because of that nature he is more solid than the rest of the nameless, having a stability of identity that they all long for and which was only priorly achieved by the Spirit of Slumber, who through multiple appearances to people managed to establish their belief in his identity – and it was not too long ago that he became part of the Lord Wraith himself. The King signifies the entirety of the ghosts’ existence, their attempts to establish something solid about their identities, as they had when they were truly alive. Other kings have privilege; all he has is duty, and power. It is good for him indeed that he has gained a name; but unlike his subjects, he knows that even if a ghost has regained a name, they can never leave the Woods, the source of their existence.”

“Did you bring that man along just so he would get killed?” was Alex’s first question, and one he had wanted to ask for some time. What discomfited him the most was that the answer ‘yes’ might actually make sense.

“Killed? Hardly. Like the other kings, he has been absorbed. However, because he had a name when he was taken, I believe his personality will have a great deal of impact. You could say that he has become the King of the Haunted Woods, in truth. It is a great coincidence that he, the only name truly compatible with the Wraith, was there to be met when we did.”

“So you’re saying you actually did him a favour?”

“No. To many people, the responsibility of his position – and the endless mind-struggle that must come with it – would be a fate worse than death. Fortunately for him, he is not alone. I hope he will lead his people well in what time there is to come.”

“He hasn’t answered your question,” said Alex. “But you said you knew what he was talking about.”

“He will not answer if he can help it. Even for those of the darkness of the cursed land – no, even for me, to say that name is… difficult.”

Alex was taken aback, yet in the manner of all children, he pressed, “What is this then, that he won’t tell you, and you won’t tell me?”

“It is something I remember, that is all; and you need only face it once. No words can describe it properly, and no person who has seen it shall ever forget. My memory of it is mercifully brief, and I hope yours will be shorter.” Solana’s eyes were fixed on the road ahead. “The memory is from far, far back.”

“How far back? A hundred years? A thousand?” Though he was as confused as anyone could be, Alex’s voice carried more curiosity than discontent.

“Many times longer than that. The knowledge and terror of it is older than you can imagine, but you will feel it clearly enough.” Solana paused, searching for words that she could speak without fear. “For me, there are two sorts of evils, ones from this world, which are terrible enough, and ones which are not. I bear a duty to bring about the salvation of all that is good in Neopia to the best of my ability, but while the laws of the path of narrative dictate that I cannot intervene for the side of Good alone, lest I suffer defeat, if true oblivion threatens then I can and must defend. If this enemy is what I believe it to be, then I must do so soon.”

“You’re talking more cryptically than usual.”

“I am speaking plainly. It is you who do not comprehend the meaning.”

“Can you at least say, then, where we’re going?”

“Of course. There is something I must ask a woman who calls herself the swamp witch; her age, and hence her knowledge, are too great to be fathomed.”

Alex nearly choked on his tongue. “Some of the people who remember when she was young are still alive!”

“I know of the stories that are told. Sophie is supposed to be no older than those who are called her siblings, to have received what magic she has through the aid of the earth-fay Ilere, and that is true, inasmuch as you could understand. I shall say that birth is something that she cannot remember, and the first sensation that she felt was death; and while it is convenient for people to know as little about her as they do about me – she is very careful not to let too much on – she is not a being that travels through time in the same way other mortals do. Very little can be hidden from one who knows the end of time, the dusk of this universe, the uniting doom; life’s last breath. She is the keeper of all unfathomable knowledge, but she refuses to tell us what she remembers of the future – I do not know whether by design or impossibility.”

Alex had long ago decided that nothing was impossible until proven so, and that world-view served him well now in not dismissing the matter. “But – isn’t she, well, not exactly nice?”

“That is most certain. It could be truthfully said that she once turned a person who attacked her into a Meowclops; it’s still around, and she treats it quite well. She cannot, as is claimed, petrify a person by looking at them, but her glare has had considerably worse effects on the mind. She is formidable, and prone to loss of temper, but wise of judgement. I can promise that you will come to no more harm than you willingly bring upon yourself.”

Alex glanced to his left. The wraith king walked in utter silence, and his eyes were focused on the road ahead. He showed no sign of having heard them at all, but Alex felt that he had. He no longer looked unused to reality, either more or less solid than the things around him, but moved fluidly and naturally. Still, there was something about his bearing, and the way that the Woods made way for his passing, that distinguished him greatly from any mortal. He was, in a way, the reporter that they had met in the bar of a nameless, isolated town, but clearly far more than that – not only a pet, but a ghost, a wraith, and not only that, but the Lord Wraith.

On his other side, Solana stopped short. “This is the time. This is the place.”

“For what?”

“You have called it many things; a spiriting away, a vanishment, a fell wind and an evil eye. It will take us where we wish, at the time we wish it; but only if we are swift.” She looked askance at her companions, as if wishing them elsewhere. “It is called a danger of the Woods, but the difference is this: you know of the Woods and of the dangers it poses, inasmuch as a pet ever could.

“I have this to say: nothing you have seen or heard or heard tell of here will prepare you. I can ensure your safety – only do not look back.”

At that instant, the earth dissolved and seemed to swallow them whole, briefly releasing a stench that drove a troop of Bartami away, howling madly.

Part Four

Sophie undid the latch and flung open the door. It opened outwards, not for her own convenience but for the satisfying feeling of solid old wood making contact with unsuspecting faces. Unfortunately, in this case the knockers had stepped back just in time.

The Witch of the Swamp glared at the world outside in general. “Who are you? Never mind that, why are you here? This had better be something urgent.”

The pets at the door were noticeably cowed. Two of them were very young children, an Usul and a Kacheek, clearly from a nearby town. Between them, and with difficulty, they were carrying a Nimmo a little older than they were, though still a young child. More importantly than that detail, there was a frightening unhealthy paleness to his skin, as if he were about to fade away, and he was not moving. Not at all.

The Usul plucked up the courage to speak. “Um, my brother and we was playing only just now, like… a couple of minutes ago, and then he… we heard you could…”

Her companion interrupted, blurting, “Will you help him? Please?”

Sophie looked mildly irritated. Still, there was no doubt as to what she would do. This was a defining part of her job, insofar as it was counted as one. “Fine, bring him inside. Lay him down on the bed; remove his shoes for now.”

Shouting their earnest thanks, they lay the child down on the rather rough mattress; Sophie at once went to the wall of cupboards, searching through them frantically for the herbs she required. “It’s too late for just a healing, his soul’s nearly away from his body. But I can do a resurrection, that’s how it’s going to be. Lupesbane, willock, a little whiteheart, that brownish bitter sludgy stuff that always makes people worry – can’t remember what it is – yes, here we are…”

Eventually she had all the bottles in a neat little row on the table, with the Meowclops sniffing at them inquisitively. “All right,” she said. “Wait – you! Get off the table.” In a huff, the petpet jumped down and slunk under the bed, while Sophie began mashing the herbs together and mixing them into the oily liquid.

“Get me that hammer and those nails,” she directed the pets when she was finished. Once she had them both, she went around quickly boarding up the windows. “This is going to be rough,” she said with vagueness that was more worrying in her mouth than in that of any prophesier of doom. “Now, that sledgehammer.”

After only a momentary pause, the Kacheek picked up the heavy wooden bludgeoning implement and brought it to her. She took hold of it and hefted it, closing her eyes, feeling the balance.

Then she swung it in a smooth overhead arc and, with remarkable accuracy and force, down onto the Nimmo’s long, slender toes.

He shot upright and screamed. The Meowclops raced screeching from the bed and jumped onto the Kacheek’s face in a ball of terrified fur and claws. “Get it off me!” yelled the Kacheek, though he hardly needed to – finding no safety in scratching his face, the Meowclops leapt off and began frantically attacking the windows, leaving deep claw marks in them, while the Usul ran up to her brother and tried to explain what had happened, desperately trying to be heard over the others.

“Everyone shut up!” ordered Sophie.

The Meowclops froze in midair and dropped to the ground. In the wake of its ferocious screeching, the relative quiet was so sudden that there was immediate, embarrassed silence.

Sophie took the bowl of herbs and, scooping a handful, stuffed it unceremoniously into the Nimmo’s mouth, an action which would have stopped him even if it were not a potent analgesic. “Judging by the way you screamed, you’re in perfect health,” she snapped. “Now, get out. All of you!”

(There was later a period during which the fact of Sophie’s actual existence disappeared into obscurity; legends sprung up around the name of the Witch of the Swamp, saying that she carried a great iron hammer which could not only strike down her victims, but could raise them as undead minions to serve her; and that she kept a familiar in the form of the Meowclops, which the screams of the dying drove into such a fearsome frenzy that it could run faster than the wind and strike down mighty warriors with its talons. This is a grave insult to both the authenticity of her healing arts and the sheer augmenting capability of adrenaline on small frightened mammals – the Meowclops can run far faster than that.)

Once they had left, she focused on the bludgeon. The concentration made it to glow pure white for a moment, before resolving into a thick wooden wand with runes glowing faintly green. As they faded, she set about unboarding the windows; but she was barely finished when she felt the rip, the split-second opening, the terrible emptiness.

Somewhere in the Haunted Woods, someone had gone to the other side. Were matters really that bad?

***

On the other side was a barren wasteland.

No, a wasteland in the normal sense would have been an improvement. A wasteland of Neopia would not be left in perpetual eerie twilight, as if unable to decide whether to be night or day. Darkness would be almost preferable, considering what there was to see here.

There was smooth sand beneath, of a dull colour that seemed the barest expression of dirt, and loose to the point where he felt he was slowly sinking into it. Above, there was only a swallowing, agoraphobic emptiness. Of the landscape, that was all there was. A pity, I must say, that the landscape was not all there was.

Surrounding them were creatures – no, grotesquely parodical imitations of the living, except no word I can print in this text could fully impart to a listener the extent of the nauseating repulsion that their vile forms created in the observer. Many come to mind, I assure you; and I shall discard all of them.

The things were everything that is hideous, loathsome, and terrifying, the sum total of the worst nightmares of any race one could care to mention, a half-alive, parasitic, despicable seething mass of distended hate, radiating with all their half-formed beings their want to take all that is good and alive in every world and devour it, for demented reasons that cannot and should not be fathomed, lest one go mad. They manifested the terror that lay mercifully sleeping in the deepest depths and forgotten, shadowed alleyways of the dark behind the eyes. Yet here they were, awake and hungering and slavering, embodying an inexpressible fear, magnified by the knowledge that every single malevolent, slitted, bulging, repulsive eye visible in the half-light was affixed on Alex himself.

He was screaming, screaming as loud as he could, but no sound was coming out; he could not breathe, there was no air, there was no ground beneath his feet. A hand came out of nowhere and covered his mouth, and he panicked, thrashing and scrabbling. It took him a long time to realise that it was Solana.

As soon as he calmed down, she let go, and he wheezed, “What are those? Where are we?” as he slowly convinced himself not to draw breath.

Solana spoke quickly and in a low whisper. “This is the timeless land. This is a secret darker than the Woods. It is the vastest of universes, and it brushes many worlds like your own. They have broken through many times in ages past, where the wrong summoning was used in the wrong way, or where magic accumulates to the point where the universe becomes thin, but they were always destroyed in the end, or otherwise trapped. They have been called demons, but they are far worse. They are nothing more than… things, now. Once, before there was life, they were. These are the old ones, the dark deities, whose coming heralds madness, chaos, apocalypse, and this is where they were banished to.”

The darkness closed slowly in, lurching and shambling lopsidedly.

“Where’s the… the other one?” Alex hissed.

“Either he’ll be fine or he won’t. Worry about yourself. Magic won’t work here – their presence distorts spells. Now, run! Don’t look behind you!” she added, reiterating her earlier warning.

Alex didn’t need to be told twice. He followed her in a crazed dash over the featureless landscape. Flapping his wings had no effect, and time seemed to warp, so that it felt like he was trying to run through water; the sand gave way underfoot so that he felt he was proceeding at no more than a crawl. There was no clear path, and he had to scramble and dodge past the things that shuffled into his way. When he collided with one – not a pleasant experience no matter how one tries to think of it – it folded and collapsed like a marionette, and he felt a burst of hope despite the circumstances: maybe they weren’t as frightening as they looked –

As he thought this, he heard a huge fleshy behemoth rise up behind him, shapeless feet smashing down indiscriminately and shaking the infirm sand. In three ponderous strides it was above them, and Solana was only just in time to tackle Alex out of the way of a great clawed hand, which smote the ground, sending a ripple like a tidal wave through the strange dirt.

Alex rose with more difficulty than speed and struggled to keep up as Solana bounded gracefully ahead, stretching her full stride as far as it would go. Even as the monstrous thing contorted itself, twisting its whole malformed body to take a single step, Alex heard her chanting softly. Not magic, certainly, but though he couldn’t make out the words over the blood pounding in his ears, let alone tell what language they were in, they echoed oddly through his mind.

Solana’s ring gave off a flash of intense light, so brief that it was hardly noticeable, yet powerful, carrying with it a glimpse of unspeakable vastness and might. The behemoth reared and stumbled in the face of it, screaming like a legion of tortured souls, and eventually collapsing, losing all semblance of form. Alex stopped and nearly turned, a disproportionate amazement washing over him.

“Don’t look, you fool,” said Solana, calmly as an icicle, from far ahead of him, just as a shadow stole over him, bringing with it a foetid odour which leached the feeling from his limbs, dragging him to the edge of the black pit of unconsciousness.

“For goodness’ sake!” hissed the Xweetok, darting between the looming things and scooping him up, a split second before they would have closed in and begun to feed. Alex opened his eyes blearily, just in time to see a dazzling light open up before him, and vanish both of them before he could blink.

***

Sophie was standing there when the two of them materialised in the middle of the recently vacated floor. She did not look happy, and the fact that her wand’s markings were glowing steadily and menacingly green did not help.

“Pleased to see you again,” Solana said, rising and dusting herself off.

“Two complete strangers,” she snapped, the words clipped and short as if escaping from a steel trap. “One of you would be a handful enough. And don’t think I don’t know who you are,” she added to Solana, “better than you do yourself.”

“We’ll be sure not to take up much of your time,” Solana said. “Shall we go outside?”

***

It was noticeably more humid outside the shack than within, the swamp air clingy and suffocating, saturated with the smell of something you wouldn’t want to land face-down in, and more importantly some things which you wouldn’t want to have landing on you either. The swamp was not a pleasant place, but it was pointedly distinguishable from the creeping chill of the shadows of the trees, almost seeming to reject the place around it. Alex had heard stories of Sophie’s magic, but most of them had revolved more strongly around her temper, and only now did he appreciate the extents to which she went to keep her privacy, the vastness of the powers of earth that she must have employed to raise such a barrier against her unsavoury neighbours.

The swamp stretched for many miles in all directions, and the ground was practically bare, with only a stunted mangrove jutting up here and there to break the black, bleak ceiling of cloud above with its sharp silhouette. The grey-green muck that passed for water here caught and distorted what ghostly light leaked through that low roof, lending the whole place the likeness of an ethereal morgue, and doubtless impressing on any visitors the credibility of the many stories that were told about the Swamp Witch.

In Alex’s eyes, Sophie was a sight to behold; it was impossible now to see just the tangled hair or the fragile temper. In a very real way, she was the swamp itself, and to Alex, who had always been sensitive enough to notice what others might not, it was as if there was a powerful force both pushing and pulling on him at the same time.

Then she had donned a brownish travelling cloak, which to all appearances was quite normal, and the sense had abruptly diminished to a faint tingling, less than what he realised he had been feeling from Solana all the time.

He glanced surreptitiously at the Xweetok. Those robes, beautiful and flowing but not decorated or ostentatious; that ring, a discreet silver metal with a tiny gem set in it. If he really tried, he could feel a field of determined absolute nothingness coming from her. It never struck him how sensitive one would have to be to feel such a well-disguised magic; instead, he merely wondered who she was – where had she come from, and where was she really going? He felt suddenly surrounded by strange giants, dwelling in their own world.

“So, what is it?” demanded the swamp witch.

“I was hoping you could answer that,” replied Solana. “You cannot possibly be completely ignorant of the fact that –“

“I’m not,” snapped Sophie. “What do a few break-ins have to do with me?”

“To call them break-ins would be putting it lightly; they threaten the existence of the settlements themselves. If this goes on, then the Woods will be deserted, and while I know you’d like the sound of that, what’s more important is the cause behind it.”

Sophie sighed. “If there was something that big going on in the Woods, I would know.”

“You only remember the things of this world. Fate is changing. Things that were meant to be, are not. Something that shouldn’t live, does. This is the work of the grey outer ones.”

Without skipping a beat, the witch retorted, “I don’t believe in children’s stories.”

“For someone as entangled in them as you are, you’re uncharacteristically quick to pass judgement. People fear the swamp witch – ” Solana stepped slowly towards her – “but what does the swamp witch fear?”

“That’s a question you can keep on asking,” Sophie said stiffly.

“And yet, I have the feeling you already know what I want.” The Xweetok circled the witch slowly, examining her. “And that’s all I want. Show me where it is.”

Sophie turned to face Solana. “Fine. You can try going there. But for your own sakes, I hope you turn back, and unlike the old Hag, I mean it.”

Solana nodded. “Unlike the old Hag.”

The witch of the swamp-lands raised her staff and began to chant, slow monosyllables heavy with power rolling out of her mouth and crystallising in the air. She raised the wand, and Alex watched, half-comprehending, as a magic circle thick with patterns of tiny runes formed on the ground around her, impressed in the soft earth and beginning to shine. The chanting grew faster, the lights stronger, the circle wider, spreading rapidly to encompass first the small area of solid ground they stood on, then spreading rapidly outwards, covering the swamp, and going beyond.

As Sophie’s rapid stream of incantation died down, images began to flicker through the air. Most of them were flashes of the characteristic darkness of the Woods, but there was the occasional town here and an abandoned house there; and it was on one of the latter that she eventually settled, focusing closely on a huge mansion with dark green ivy creeping up the cracked, faded walls, and broken windowpanes emitting a faint light of indescribable hue – something like yellow and purple and green curiously mixed, if such a thing were possible. The vision grew larger, as if they were rushing towards it, while standing on solid ground –

They were not standing on solid ground. Through some curious dislocation of the world, Alex saw the world more than flying past around him, while Sophie said, “It’s not too far away; I can send you there myself.” He could hear her as if she was standing right beside him –

And she was, there and not there, as if she were only visible through one eye. She turned to him and commented, “If you’re around, it might just work out.”

Then there was a sharp jerk, and they were in the air, directly above the decrepit building, and falling; regardless of one’s species, it is impossible for this to be a pleasant experience.

“Whoops,” said Sophie mildly. “A few hundred metres off the mark, I should think. Perhaps it’ll be longer before she comes to bother me again.”

Part Five

And here, now, approached the finale. A building that must have once been grand, now held up only by the growths that coated its walls, in which the wooden floors had somehow rotted away completely, while the walls had been left intact.

There was only one piece of furniture here, an ornate chair that might have been someone’s throne. A single faerie sat in it, a flame-fay, her wings burning with the unnatural light that had showed through the skeletons of the windows. The merely observant might notice something dead in her eyes, as if she saw nothing through them worth caring for. The more magically adept might see the dark that expressed itself boldly through those eyes, revelling in the knowledge that it could observe, and in the sheer power that it had. That which had been the faerie herself was almost gone, that same dark having laid rampant waste to her mind. The sharp shadows that were cast by that fearsome light were absolute; their inky blackness allowed nothing into them, and they were as sharp as if they were real.

The ceiling crashed and crumbled, and two figures fell through. The first, a white Xweetok, landed adroitly, pulling a whip from the ring on her finger. The white cord lashed out like a living thing, hungry for magic, but Solana’s sharp command held it back. Her very fur shone with power, as the whip struggled against it like an invisible rein.

Alex flapped rather clumsily to the ground, and stood there, panting quite heavily in the silence. Solana glanced at him. “Your task begins here.”

A blast of power seemed to punctuate her words, dissipating against an invisible barrier. The fire faerie’s strange flame hissed and leapt all over her body.

Solana turned to her. “This one was just like Zerie, wasn’t she? But it’s too late for her – you’ve eaten her soul.” Solana clenched the hand that was holding the whip. “This time I was too late, but you still cannot have this world, this universe. You cannot – I forbid it.”

She snapped her fingers, and the faerie’s head jerked up with an audible crack. “You don’t fool me.” Again, and the room around them wavered at the blow, like the wind rippling a sheet of canvas. “Give in. I am superior in this.”

The faerie howled, a sound of eternal pain and regret. Behind the wretched sound, a voice fashioned from the difference between darkness and light said, NO.

“Yes.” Solana swung the whip, wrapping it around the faerie’s wings. “I will take this body from you. Illinehtar All-Slayer!” she cried, and ripped them from the faerie’s back.

All colour drained from the faerie. For one of the fair folk to lose their magic is something unimaginable. Only a privileged few among pet-kind know what a euphoria it is to have flowlight running through one’s veins and power crackling at the tips of their fingers, and for that to be taken away when one has had it for all her life – no, not grey! they would cry in their dreams, hoping against hope that it is all some horrible nightmare. To be grey is to be nothing. Grey is the dullest colour in the world.

The dullest colour in the world. Perhaps that is why it was chosen, when the other, outer grey ones had no better option than to make their presence manifest; perhaps it shows how they wished to walk unhindered and hindering nothing.

But as the faerie fell to the ground, lifeless as a puppet, something else lifted from her form, ripping itself away. No longer able to use her arts, the dark tendrils that had gripped the last remaining shreds of her soul were forced to release the illusion. The old, creaking mansion vanished. In its place was – something alive, but only in the meanest form of the word. It was dark embodied, living, screeching, growling dark, with misshapen, half-formed figures bubbling out of it like mud, and the like of some rudimentary eye squinting gleefully down at them from what should have been the ceiling.

This, Alex realised then, through the sensation that he was going ever so completely mad, should not be. It should never have been.

And it declared, I AM ALL THAT IS THE OPPOSITE OF LIGHT. I WAS, I AM, I WILL BE. I WILL CONSUME, I WILL DESTROY. DESPAIR YOU, ALL LIFE, FOR I AM THE TERROR AND THE BANE, THE CHILD OF EVIL, THE DARK SUPREME!

“You should no longer be. I annihilated your life. You should be as you once were; vanished.” Solana’s voice sounded small and inconsequential against the vastness of the voice:

WHAT A FRAIL, PITIFUL LIGHT YOU ARE. I AM THE SHADOW AND FEAR OF INNUMERABLE WORLDS, AND YOU ARE OF ONE; NOW I AM GATHERED AS THE GREAT OBLIVION, AND YOU ARE LESS THAN YOU WERE.

From some recess, driven fastly and iron-strong into the soil of his memory, Alex recalled a faint whisper of a rhyme more ancient and hallowed than he could have imagined; useless and irrelevant, he thought: Once bane, twice again; once bane, thrice slain.

“Run. Now. You have never faced anything like this before.” Solana’s voice was a whisper, but at that moment she turned and unleashed a pulse of light at the bulging, liquefying wall. It exploded outwards, and in moments both of them were through it, Alex’s feet running on pure adrenaline.

Behind them, the dark solidified yet further. It exploded into the air as if to blanket the sky, unleashing a mushrooming cloud of ghastly terror over Neopia. Children cried, and mothers had no words to comfort them; the sick shivered, the faint collapsed. In the wake of the outburst, grey wisps burrowed into the earth, turning it pure black.

I AM STRONG, INFINITELY STRONGER THAN YOU, intoned the resonating waves.

Solana sank to the ground, clutching her head; Alex felt as if he had been turned to jelly. It was impossible to be brave in the face of this. They were going to be obliterated, and that was that.

But Solana was chanting, the same words that Alex had heard in the timeless land, except now he could hear them, words nearly sobbed out:

‘Elentári, nai elellya tírë ni. Elentari Tintalle! yé, tári táriron, laitanyel, nai elyë varyatan! Nai elyë varyatan Númenello, Elentári!’

He didn’t know what they meant; but as the darkness in the soil gathered, pulsing hideously, and began to rise into the air again, while the fear rushed against him – he felt some great uplifting strength from them, and he stood from where he had collapsed, barely knowing what he was doing, focusing his mind entirely on one goal.

That towering thing of madness and hate, rising above him, the sheer weight of its humongous bulk crushing the earth, grew and grew, as if it would never stop. I AM FOREVER, it exulted. THOSE YOU CALL TO HAVE NO POWER HERE, AND LEAST OF ALL AUTHORITY OVER ME.

Barely standing, terrified out of his wits, against all reason and against the endless chasm that opened up before him, as the ancestors who bore the hypocritical stupidity know as sentience have always done before in some universal sense of denial, Alex shouted – his voice but a whisper on the breeze in comparison to the roaring that filled his ears – “I’m not afraid of you!”

Solana laughed, then, while the monstrous entity cried its wrath like a maelstrom. At first, Alex wondered if she might have gone insane, so sudden and out-of-place was the noise; but that laugh was neither senseless nor gleeful, but bitter and pitying rather – even amused, perhaps – and after, she turned to him and said, “Thank you.”

Then she raised the whip again. “Illinehtar, you are released.”

Freed! Freed at long last from the iron grip of a wielder, the All-Slayer struck, a single white thread shooting out and piercing the great behemoth. The thread began to glow, and then widened into a cord, a rope, sucking hungrily. The Xweetok stood fully, and Alex saw the golden vial in her other hand. She uncorked it, placing the mouth against the glowing cord, and a thin stream of gold began to trickle into it, filling it at an almost visible rate.

Superimposed over the whip, Alex could almost see another figure, not quite that of any living being he knew, shrouded in a white cloak and holding a tall staff.

WHAT IS THIS?

“It is that which you do not know,” Solana said. “Here, you are not known. This world rejects you, because you refused to become a part of it. I knew this universe at its beginning. I am the power that be here. I, not you.”

NO! I AM THE DARK SUPREME! THIS IS NOT ALL. THIS CANNOT BE, SHALL NOT BE! WHEN YOU ARE WEAK AND UNWARY, WHEN THE STARS HAVE ENDED THEIR FEEBLE STRUGGLE AGAINST ME, I SHALL RETURN, AND THEN SHALL I BE VICTORIOUS. I SHALL NOT DIE!

Then, whatever it was, it faded and was gone.

***

The Xweetok and the Shoyru stood there for a long time. They were silent, merely watching the brilliance that had returned to the world. They watched until the sun had begun to set, and the clouds had begun to pull back, revealing a rare glimpse of the sky’s true radiance.

“It’s gone now,” said the Xweetok at last. “I don’t think you’ll ever see it again, either. It would be best if you forgot all about it – but no; that is impossible. Rather, at the least, try and put it out of your head.”

“I’ll try, then. Where’s the wraith?”

“He has gone already. All kings have duties.”

“I didn’t see him arrive.”

“You’d be surprised.” Solana smiled. “There are thousands upon thousands of things that can be done unnoticed. Daniel Harrier knew all of them. Do you believe that, having assimilated a name and taken on that name’s solid form, he would be the same as before? I think that he only came to observe, and to remember.”

“How about the faerie?”

“Something evil was done to her. She was gone before we came.”

“By gone, do you mean dead?”

“Worse – perished into deep oblivion. Death is not final, you know. There is something after, a further path to walk, for the immortal soul. But it is not wise to speak of such things, for they are deep and profound secrets, and ones which even I do not know – yet I am sure that something must lie beyond the gate which the Seventh King guards.”

“So, where will we be going now?”

“I thought we would be separating. No doubt you, having more than the barest hint of common sense, will find your way back to the town from which you came, where it is safe.” Solana glanced at the forbidding silhouette of the trees. “Relatively.”

“Absolutely not. You’ve yet to finish with me. I can hear it in your voice.”

Solana looked at him in mild shock. “You appear to have grown more observant than most pets. But this could be the last chance you have to choose that happiness that pets so untiringly seek. I don’t rest much, you know.”

“My last chance? A shame.” Alex shrugged, and looked up at the sky again. The sun was setting, and through the gradually widening gap in the clouds it was a deep, pure, hypnotic blue. In dusk, the clouds were not black, but a beautiful midnight shade, and the sun gave some of them a brilliant golden halo of dancing light.

“We will go to Faerieland next,” said Solana. “The Queen will require our aid. We’ll go now.”

“Yes, but not yet. I’ve one more thing to do.” He looked down at the strange imprint that the enemy had left behind, where he had noticed something glittering in the loose, sandy soil. Climbing quickly down into the huge crater, he found it – a small silver flute, with intricate symbols engraved along its length. Hardly knowing what he was doing, he raised it to his lips and began to play.

It was a short, simple tune, but his fingertips glowed bright, and trails of white and gold light danced in the air as he played, whirling through complex patterns, expressing the song in a beautiful light display.

It was only when he finished that he turned around and noticed Solana watching him curiously. “What? That bad?”

“Quite the opposite,” she replied, breaking off her stare, “and as for what, I don’t know, which is what disturbs me. But you just played a faerie tune on a faerie flute, and neither mortal nor mage has ever managed to do so, not even at the highest peak of visionary revelation. The magical intensity in the flute alone should have burned your fingers. In Neopian myth, that music is called the song of evening; evensong. You’re a curious one.”

Then she turned. “There is a lot of residual magic left over here. Something on the other side might find it if too many people come close.” She extended her arms to either side and closed her eyes. Almost immediately, stones began to bounce along the ground, gathering at the centre of the hollow. After a few minutes of this, she murmured, “Meld,” and the rocks glowed white-hot, fusing and forming seven crude pillars, each standing taller than she, and of a brown-red hue.

“Marker stones,” Solana explained. “I raise them on occasion, to ward people away from places of danger – places like this. The message is quite direct. May I borrow that flute?”

Alex gave it to her, curiosity piqued. She examined it for a few seconds, then began to play it.

The tune was a strange one, with echoes to each note that suggested there were parts he couldn’t hear. Sometimes it alternated rapidly from low to high to low, and then suddenly slowed and began to steadily rise, and many strange little variations and riffs were mixed in. It made his skin crawl and his fingers twitch, and his feet feel as if they wanted to dance. And as he watched, the stones did just that.

It was quite abrupt; all of a sudden they lifted into the air, moved outwards, and dropped down again with a thud. Then they began to spin, slowly clockwise, then pin-wheeling anticlockwise. Thud. Two moved forward while the one in between stayed still. Thud. Then another pair moved backwards, and just as quickly another one moved to the centre of the circle, and the other six spun around it: Thud-thud-thud, thud. And it went on, so that the sound of the stones hitting the ground beat out an accompaniment to the tune, moving according to some inexplicable pattern. A second one moved to the centre now, and later a third, then a fourth, and when all seven were clustered together Solana stopped. There was a shift of perspective for Alex, and he realised they were in the same position as they had been in when they began. He felt quite dizzy from watching.

“So they will dance, every time someone comes close; until they have learned to avoid this place and its magic, and until, perhaps, it is safe again.”

Alex didn’t see what she had done with the flute, but in any case, they left, rising into the air, one floating as if carried by the wind, the other flying happily ahead of her, over the gold-lined clouds and the setting sun, into the future, never looking back.

At least, the Shoyru did not, but the Xweetok was wiser; and as she meditated on the elaborate expanses of immeasurable past, she heard a faint, pervading note sing out, like the ringing of a tiny glass bell…

The End

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Categories: Stories
  1. AA
    June 12, 2010 at 4:16 am

    Error: unable to locate real world references.

    • AA3
      June 12, 2010 at 4:41 am

      Maybe it’s the standing stones? (geography)

      In my personal opinion, Neopia in general has quite a lot of ‘real world references’.

      • AA
        June 12, 2010 at 4:46 am

        That’s folklore! It’s a universal element of all worlds!

  2. Uyu
    June 12, 2010 at 4:10 pm

    Erm, I haven’t read it yet, but the best thing to do it email TNT about it. You need them to specify the real-world references, someone has read it so they should know.

    You want to know:
    What the references are
    If they could be let off

    You need to know so you won’t have to change your plotline drastically. Glad too see Alex is still around (saw his name while skimming)

    • AA3
      June 12, 2010 at 9:53 pm

      Wow, a fan! :0 xD

      Well, he’s going to be around until Fayfire (that’s the next one), after which point he’ll only appear somewhere near the end. Also, thanks for your suggestion! I’ll put it into practise at once. But how do you contact TNT about NT submissions?

      • Uyi
        June 13, 2010 at 5:48 am

        I think I know what the problem is! From what I’ve read, I think it’s the talk about the bar and drinking.

      • Harbinger
        June 13, 2010 at 5:52 am

        Ah yes, good point. I’m pretty sure that in the Ski Lodge Murder plot-thingy there were some references to wine…? Also Kraku Berry Juice as an intoxicant. I should probably edit it all the same. xD

        Honestly, I’m surprised I didn’t notice. I shall have to redo the whole scene. 0.0 In the meantime, keep looking, if you please.

  3. Harbinger
    June 14, 2010 at 5:09 pm

    Okay, the bar wasn’t all, it seems. Any other suggestions? (I also changed Solana’s alternative name.)

  1. January 2, 2011 at 4:55 pm

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