Monday, October 12, 2020

Worth Searching For, Chapter 20


“Skoll, where are we going?” Pharazon asked as he trudged down the steep-sided forest path after his Werelupe mentor. Even filtered through a thick layer of clouds, the setting sun’s light hurt the faerie Draik’s eyes at first, a side effect of living underground. It was only a few days, but it already felt like an eternity to him.

“Somewhere special, my boy,” Skoll said. “I think you’ve earned a break from your studies.”

Terra and Isengrim had been absent still at breakfast, but Suhel received a Weewoo from Isengrim, asking for a number of available Werelupes to meet him in Caxton Bank to help the two get back to the Burrows. Pharazon hoped that meant his owner would return soon. Even though they were not on the best of terms right now, he still felt better having her around. And he wanted to show her how strong he had become.

After lunch, in spite of Suhel’s clear disapproval, Skoll had decided to take Pharazon on an excursion outside the Burrows. The rather unconventional entrance to the caverns, Skoll explained, was heavily warded and enchanted to open only for those who wore Werelupe-pack bones, so even if outsiders were to stumble upon the Burrows, they would not be able to simply stroll in.

As Pharazon walked down the muddy woodland corridor, he began to see glimpses of stone among the twilit trees. Scattered blocks led to crumbled stacks, and then to ancient walls covered in brown vines. “What is this place?” he asked.

Skoll tapped his staff on the ground and the skull’s empty eye sockets started to glow with a warm orange light, illuminating their way. “It was a city, once, I think,” he replied, leading Pharazon under a vaulted stone arch that ages ago could have been the top of a castle gate. “Long ago, before Meridell ever existed.”

Tree branches reached out of windows, tiny vines scrolled around intricate patterns in the stone, and thick roots enveloped massive chunks of granite in their embrace. To Pharazon it looked almost like its builders had constructed around the trees, weaving the forest into the architecture, rather than the work of bygone Neopets being slowly returned to the earth by the forces of nature.

“It’s very pretty,” he said.

“It is,” Skoll said, “but that’s not what I wanted to show you. Look here.”

Ahead of them, tucked into a glen that the trees circled around like sentinels, sprawled what looked like a miniature metropolis of stones. Slabs of marble and weathered statues seemed to have been placed haphazardly in a maze of rusted iron fencing, lit by fire mote-powered braziers. A gauzy mist lurked among the bent old trees.

 On the risen land that surrounded the vale stood a ring of fully intact buildings with no windows and darkened doorways. They looked like tiny palaces—no. Mausoleums.

“It’s a graveyard,” Pharazon breathed.

“Very good, my boy,” Skoll said. “Come now, don’t be afraid. It’s really quite a peaceful place. There’s a powerful magic that lurks here, preventing it from decaying at the same rate as the rest of the city.”

“Yeah, I can… I can taste it,” Pharazon said. The magic hung in the air, acrid and heavy, and it seemed to stick to the roof of Pharazon’s mouth. He couldn’t shake the feeling that something was watching them, which just made the place even more unsettling.

“Just you wait, I haven’t shown you the best part,” Skoll said. The Werelupe led him up a set of rocky stairs to one of the crypts. Inside was a single room containing a heavy stone sarcophagus, as well as a few jars full of funerary offerings tucked into the corners.

Pharazon held his arms and asked, “What is this place, a cross between the Haunted Woods and the Lost Desert?”

“The civilisation that built this may have been inspired by both lands,” Skoll said, his staff thudding hollowly against the floor as he strode to the back wall. “Or, it may have inspired both lands.”

He moved his paw along the designs chiseled into the limestone and muttered a few unintelligible things under his breath. As he did so, the carvings swirled with green light, and after a moment the entire panel slid into the wall, forming a wide doorway into darkness.

A chill ran up Pharazon’s spine. Instinctively, he grabbed his tail and asked, “W-we’re not s-seriously going in there, are w-we?” As bad as the Burrows were, suddenly they seemed like Faerieland in comparison to this.

“You trust me, don’t you?” Skoll asked with a smile. He stepped into the shadows, gesturing with his staff for Pharazon to follow.

“O-of course,” Pharazon said. Still clutching his tail, he trudged after the Werelupe. The wall slid shut behind them with an echo that rattled the back of Pharazon’s head.

“My boy,” Skoll said, “I’m about to show you something very few people have ever seen before.” The skull-staff cycled up and down with the sage’s plodding steps as he led Pharazon down a ramp neatly squared off by blocks of limestone. The ancient masonry had lettering carved on it that hurt Pharazon’s eyes to look at too long, even though he had no idea what it said. It was as though the symbols themselves held an archaic and powerful magic. The air smelled of magic as well, and dust and dryness. The heavy silence made Pharazon’s ears ache, like it built up a pressure in his head.

The passageway opened up into a narrow chamber with a tall ceiling. Covering the walls were reliefs of various species of Neopets wearing ornate robes and headdresses, surrounded by more of the strange writing. Taking up the centre of the floor was a neatly cut pit, two metres in diameter.

“Careful now,” Skoll said. He held out his staff to block Pharazon from approaching. “That’s one hole you don’t want fall into.”

“I don’t want to fall down most holes,” the Draik replied, fluttering his wings to get some height. The magic felt thickest here, and in the shaft’s depths he thought he could see a pale green glow. Something about it was strangely nauseating and made being airborne difficult, so he settled back onto the stone floor.

“Don’t get too excited,” Skoll muttered. He edged forward, still guarding Pharazon with his staff. Some of the warmth in his voice had left, replaced by a terse and cautious edge. Pharazon wondered what was in here that would make even the confident sorcerer tense.

As they neared the rim of the pit, Skoll set his staff firmly across Pharazon’s chest and said, “Go ahead and take a look. But don’t lean too far.”

The abyss seemed to stretch for fathoms, appearing somehow much deeper than it should have been, as though it plunged to the very core of Neopia. In spite of that, Pharazon could clearly see at the bottom, almost as though it was magnified by a giant lens, a churning, writhing mass of eerie green light.

As it frothed against the stone, it looked almost alive. Focusing harder, Pharazon let out a sharp gasp and recoiled. The pallid tendrils slapping against the sides of the pit were actually ghostly arms and hands of a variety of Neopet species. They grasped limply at the stone before sliding back into the spectral swill. Faces surfaced and submerged like oil in soup, their features faded, stretched, and pained. 

Pharazon realised that the pressure on his ears was being caused by a cacophony of deep moans, so low that the sound barely registered to his hearing range and manifested mostly in the form of unearthly vibrations in the stone.

“What is it?” he whispered, stepping away from the sight. All of the warmth in his body seemed to have been sucked out just by looking at it.

“The Well of Souls,” Skoll said. He continued to gaze down into the pit, its ghastly light reflecting in his milky eyes. “It’s a magical vortex that siphons life energy. The stronger the victim, the more energy the Well accrues.”

He sighed and took a step back. “I believe sacrifices were once performed here,” he said. “Neopets of might were offered to the Well to increase its sum power and make it available for the sacrificer’s use.”

Pharazon felt ill. “S… sacrifices,” he mouthed.

“They’re still down there,” Skoll said. “Mere phantoms now. Don’t worry, they cannot get out. I don’t want to imagine what might happen if they did.”

“You… you wouldn’t throw anyone else in there, would you?” Pharazon asked.

The Werelupe chuckled and shook his head. “Of course not, boy! I discovered this place long ago, before even Isengrim’s arrival in the area. It’s fascinated me for quite some time and I find it a good place to meditate. I’ve even managed to decipher some of the inscriptions here. It keeps my mind nimble—one can only re-read books so many times, after all.”

“R-right,” Pharazon said. He personally didn’t see how anyone could like it here.

Skoll’s smile faded. He turned and leaned down to the Draik, and said, “Pharazon. Do you want to know why I brought you here? Can you keep a secret?”

“O-of course,” Pharazon said, reaching for his tail again. “You can trust me, Skoll. I promise.” Except for the time I disobeyed you to tell Celice where I was, he reminded himself. He frowned and dismissed the thought.

The old sage drew a deep, haggard breath and glanced around. “I’m going to overthrow Isengrim,” he said.

Pharazon’s heart leapt. “I—I hoped so!” he said. “I mean, I had a feeling—“

“Yes, it’s true,” Skoll said with a smile. “Ever since they took me in, I’ve been biding my time, waiting for the opportunity to strike and be rid of that barbaric nuisance for good. Once I have control of the pack, you and your owner can go free, and I can finally educate these beasts in the ways of civilised Neopets.”

“But what does the Well have to do with it?” Pharazon asked.

The Werelupe clutched his staff behind his back and looked over at the hole, his ears perked. “Tomorrow is the full moon,” he said. “It is also a lunar eclipse. From what I’ve gleaned from these inscriptions, I’ve been led to understand that this is when it will be most effective to summon the Well’s power. With it, there will be no doubt who is the strongest in the pack, and the other Werelupes will pay obeisance to me, their new king.”

“A lunar eclipse…” Pharazon repeated. The fortune—he could just barely remember the words now, but it said something about shadows consuming the moon. It was another warning. About the Werelupe King? But the next line was something about spectres of the fallen rising. That didn’t sound like Isengrim’s style. It sounded an awful lot like what he saw in the Well of Souls.

Skoll reached over and gave Pharazon’s shoulder a squeeze. “And I want my faithful apprentice by my side,” the sage said. “I want him to be able to say that he helped rescue his owner. That he was worth something to her, after all. Will you side with me?”

“Yes!” Pharazon shouted, clenching his fists and looking up at his mentor. “You’re right! I’m not weak any more, and I’m going to prove it, to her and to everyone! And we have to get rid of Isengrim!” Never mind the fortune for now—this was his ticket out, and he would make those beasts pay for what they did to his family.

The Werelupe’s dusty grey tail wagged and he said, “That’s my boy. Hold out your hands.” He reached into a pouch on his belt.

Pharazon’s eyes widened as Skoll drew out a string of fangs and lowered it into the Draik’s waiting claws. “For… me?” Pharazon asked.

“You’ve proved your strength to me, boy,” Skoll said. “Go ahead and take off those idiotic knucklebones.”

“Gladly,” Pharazon said. He tore the bones off his neck and tossed them into the well.

Skoll stiffened and his hackles rose. Pharazon wasn’t sure why, until he saw a few unnaturally long tendril-arms rise to meet the necklace in mid-air. A glob of paws, claws, and feathers enveloped the bones in an ectoplasmic cocoon and sunk back into the depths with it. For a moment the moaning increased in intensity until it made Pharazon’s bones ache, and then it subsided down to its normal level.

He swallowed hard and said, “Whoops.”

His teacher let out a nervous chuckle and smoothed down his fur. “Now you see why I didn’t want you getting too close,” Skoll said.

Pharazon took another few steps back from the Well and fastened the fangs around his neck. “Y-yeah,” he said. He thought finally wearing the coveted symbols of strength would make him feel better. Instead he just felt confused and sick to his stomach. He knew Terra wouldn’t want this. But he wanted it. It was time for him to assert himself.

“All right,” Skoll said. “I think I’ve put you through enough for today.” He used his staff to shepherd Pharazon back toward the corridor to the surface. “We ought to rest up a bit before dinner. Just think,” he added, his fangs flashing in the light, “by this time tomorrow, the Burrows will be mine and you and your owner will be well on your way home.”

“I can’t wait—“ Pharazon paused. “What was that?” He thought he’d heard noise up the hallway.

Skoll paused and narrowed his eyes. “A stray Karren, perhaps,” he said. “It would not surprise me if they roost in here sometimes.”

The near-full moon was high as they exited the mausoleum and Skoll led the way back down into the graveyard. As Pharazon followed him, the Draik thought he saw something duck behind a large tombstone—he just barely caught a glimpse of curly black hair and small bits of white glinting in the moonlight. “D-does anything else come here?” he asked, his wings throwing out a shower of sparks. He wished the fangs would have automatically made him less skittish.

“Just a few Petpets…” Skoll said as he stopped and turned toward the grave marker. He frowned slightly and his tail rose, and he gripped his staff tighter. “Never mind it, Pharazon. Those who skulk around here would be wise not to do so, nor to meddle in the affairs of wizards. Let us return to the Burrows.”

He said nothing more for the duration of their return. They reached the Burrows without incident, but once or twice on their way Pharazon thought he saw green eyes glow in the trees.

Chapter 1 - Chapter 2 - Chapter 3 Chapter 4 - Chapter 5 - Chapter 6 - Chapter 7

Chapter 15 - Chapter 16 - Chapter 17 - Chapter 18 - Chapter 19 - Chapter 20 Chapter 21

Chapter 22 Chapter 23 Chapter 24 Chapter 25 Chapter 26 Chapter 27 Chapter 28

Chapter 29 Chapter 30 Chapter 31 Chapter 32

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