Thursday, October 19, 2023

The Spirit of Black Keep, Chapter 2

Five days later, on a grey drizzly afternoon, Pharazon stepped off the gangplank of the sky-ship liner and into Brightvale’s bustling skyport. He pulled the hood of his travelling cloak closer around his face to protect himself from the chill air, watching his breath pool in front of his snout every time he exhaled. Spring was just getting under way here in the Meridell region, which meant the snows had left for another year, but it was still too cold for Pharazon’s liking and he envied furred and feathered Neopets in this weather. On days like today he would much rather be curled up on a couch with a good thick book.

With a sigh, he heaved his trunk into an upright position in order to sit on it and wait for Celice.

Before he could, a voice called out, “Pharazon!” He turned to see a familiar white Lupe waving at him from the window of a Uni-drawn carriage. “Get in before you catch Neomonia!” Celice said, gesturing inside with a smile.

“Coming!” Pharazon said, dragging his trunk across the wide dock where other Neopets unloaded cargo or boarded carriages. He should have brought a scarf, he decided. It had been deceptively warm back in Altador.

“Just toss it in the back hatch, there,” the blue Uni driver said with a toss of her horn.

Pharazon did so and then climbed into the carriage, on the seat across from Celice’s. He wiped the moisture from his forehead and tried to dab himself dry with his damp cloak.

The Lupe flicked a finger and a flame burst from the tip of her claw. The small fire gave off an unusual amount of heat for its size.

“Thanks,” Pharazon said, placing his claws up to the flame to warm them.

“How was the flight?” Celice asked as the carriage lurched into motion. Still holding out the flame, she crossed one leg over the other and watched him over the rims of her spectacles, her bright yellow eyes glistening in the firelight.

Her white hair was tucked back into a prim bun, although a few strands hung loose at the sides of her face, curled slightly with the humidity. Celice was nearly twice as tall as Pharazon, about as tall as his owner, and her proportions were more owner-like as well—even Neopets of the same species could vary widely in size and physiology. Always the snappy dresser, today she wore robes of rich purple and gold, with a fur-lined cape to keep out the cold.

Pharazon leaned back in his seat and said, “Good,” in the vaguest fashion possible.

“Just good?” Celice asked. “Do anything fun?”

“Lots of reading,” Pharazon said. His eyes lit up. “Actually, I just finished A History of Krawks today. Really interesting stuff. I guess there are three competing theories right now about the workings of the Fungus Cave.”

“So I’ve heard,” Celice said. “How’s the family?”

“Same as always,” Pharazon said. “Not much new to report. Hyren’s getting excited for the next Altador Cup.”

“That’s in three months,” Celice said.

“As he reminds us every day,” Pharazon said with a laugh. He gritted his teeth as the carriage passed over a rough patch of cobblestone. “Are we headed to Market Town?”

“We’ll go tomorrow,” Celice said. “The augurs say the rain should clear up by tonight, and I want to set out bright and early so we can be back in Brightvale in time for supper. Then you can spend, say, a week or so at the University before going home.” She grinned. “I have so missed your company.”

Pharazon smiled. “Thanks.” As much as he wanted to get back home as soon as possible, spending the week with Celice did sound like fun. If she was going to make him come all the way out here, he might as well enjoy himself after they got her chore out of the way.

He looked out the window at the shops and businesses passing by. They were headed straight into the heart of Brightvale’s capital city, and traffic began to slow down accordingly. It was even slower on this wet day.

“What do you think’s going on at Black Keep?” Pharazon asked Celice.

“It’s likely just some ghost Neopets who decided to move in,” Celice said, “or kids playing with sparkshooters. We’ll go to Market Town, find out what the trouble is, and we’re done. Then I can show you the library’s newest acquisitions!”

“Could I maybe get a scarf, while we’re at it?” Pharazon asked. “I underestimated how cold it would be here.”

“Sure, you can borrow one of mine,” Celice said.

The Draik was just beginning to be grateful that she hadn’t asked about magic at all, when—

“So,” Celice said, extinguishing the flame with another flick and folding her paws on her knee. “Have you given any thought to studying magic?”

“I have,” Pharazon said honestly. Which was to say, he had thought about how he didn’t want to study it.

She scrutinised him for a moment and then said. “I’m sorry, I think I came off as a little harsh in my Neomail. I just want you to fulfill your potential. You have a great gift, you know, and I think you ought to decide how you want to use it.”

Pharazon’s jaw tightened and he pressed his back into his seat. “What if I don’t want to use it?” he asked quietly.

“Then you’re missing out on an important opportunity,” Celice said with a frown.

The Draik’s tail swished anxiously and he drew his knees up to his chin, unable to meet her gaze. Every time they talked about this he could feel a strain on their friendship, and he wished she would change the subject.

An awkward silence passed between them before Celice cleared her throat and pointed out the window. “And here’s Brightvale Castle. We’ll get you situated in the guest housing. Where would you like to go for supper? The food court or a local place?” She smiled, but it didn’t quite reach her eyes.

“Food court’s fine,” Pharazon said.


Brightvale University was the largest and most prestigious learning institution in Neopia, and it made sure its campus reflected that position. Brightvale Castle itself served as the main building, although the campus also sprawled to one side of the palace, and the castle town itself generally revolved around university life, catering to the needs of the students and faculty.

The central hub of the school was the atrium in Brightvale Castle’s east wing. It consisted of four storeys of terraces, connected by a network of bridges, which housed all manner of shops and services from book stores to apothecaries. And capping it all was an enormous stained-glass dome that depicted various prominent scholars in Brightvale history, reminding Neopets of what they could achieve with the knowledge they gained here.

The fourth storey was completely dedicated to food. Vendors cooked cuisine from every Neopian land to give anyone a taste of home—and show off the culinary department’s skills. Once purchased, meals were best consumed sitting by the large windows that offered a stunning view of Brightvale and the forests and mountains beyond. The setting sun made the rain look like curtains of dark smoke that smudged out parts of the landscape.

“Remind me again why I have to go along on your assignment,” Pharazon said as he and Celice shuffled past occupied tables. The steaming bowl of chunky cauliflower soup on his tray wisped its tantalising aroma into his nostrils, making his mouth water. “I mean, I don’t see how I’m going to be any help—“ Distracted by the soup, his foot caught on the leg of a chair and he stumbled, barely managing to keep his food on his tray.

“Hey, watch it!” someone barked. Pharazon turned to see a scowling blue Chia in the chair next to the one he had tripped over. She moved to hover protectively over that chair’s occupant. It looked like a brass typewriter with too few keys, and on top, instead of a paper-holding carriage, a loop of metal stuck out like some sort of Virtupets antenna.

“S-sorry,” Pharazon said.

The Chia pulled the chair closer to herself. “This is a prototype hex generator, you know! One wrong move and you could’ve been speaking backwards all week!”

By this point Celice had noticed Pharazon was no longer following her, and she returned to loom over his shoulder. “A hex generator?” she asked.

“That’s right,” the Chia said, sitting up proudly. “Utilising appropriated technology from Moltara, I’ve built a device that will allow anyone instant access to any curse imaginable!” She gestured to the keyboard. “One simply needs to type in the corresponding code, and the machine does the rest!”

“But how do you know the codes?” Pharazon asked.

Celice nodded. “You’ve got an enormous number of potential combinations, there. They’d be impossible to memorise.”

“I had to make sure there was one code for each hex!” the Chia said. “It’s no trouble at all—the user has merely to consult a booklet.”

“Are you going to write the booklet, then?” Celice asked.

The Chia paused and put a paw to her chin, her beady eyes widening. “Oh my. That would… take quite some time.”

“You didn’t quite think that far ahead, did you,” Celice said.

The student stuck out her chin. “Oh, bother that! The point is that I’ve made a breakthrough! We can worry about the details later.”

“I’ll leave you to that,” the Lupe said, taking Pharazon’s shoulder and steering him away. “Dratted engineers and their lopsided way of looking at the world,” she muttered under her breath. “It’s a wonder they ever accomplish anything.”

Pharazon felt like that was sort of a hypocritical thing to say, as most mages had the same problem to some degree, but he held his tongue. Rather, as they sat down at an unoccupied table, he said, “You never answered me before.”

Celice popped the tab on her can of jumbleberry Achyfi. “You won’t have to do any actual magic. Your task is just to watch me do my job. I’m trying to help you understand how useful and harmless magic can be. It’s not all about selfish destruction like Skoll thought. The beneficial uses far outweigh the malevolent uses.”

“Yeah… okay,” Pharazon said as he sipped at his soup.

“Pharazon,” Celice said. He looked up to see the Lupe wearing an expression of concern. “I also invited you because you’re my friend and I thought this assignment would be pleasanter with you along. We don’t get to see each other often and I miss you when we’re apart, so I thought this would be a good opportunity for us to pal around.” She gave him a hopeful smile. “Let’s just have fun, all right? It’s not a big deal.”

The Draik managed a small smile back and said, “Okay.” He figured as long as she wasn’t expecting him to enroll in the Magic Academy as a result of this, he would at least be able to enjoy spending time with his friend.

“Great!” Celice said as she reached for her curry hot dog. “Would you like to visit the library after this? Oh, and the geology department’s museum has a wonderful new exhibit featuring samples collected from Kreludor’s north polar regions!”

“That sounds awesome,” Pharazon said. “Let’s do that.”

He thought his worries were over. He couldn’t have been more wrong.

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