Friday, October 27, 2023

The Spirit of Black Keep, Chapter 4

It really was like stepping into another world. The thick wall behind them muffled the sounds of the city, leaving the ruins eerily silent. Overgrown thickets of brush carpeted the ground, and gnarled old trees, their bare branches devoid of the slightest hint of spring, pushed their roots against cracked stone like they were attempting to escape.

And the whole place was drenched in magic, of a weird and dark flavour that set Pharazon even more on edge.

The ability to sense magic was not exclusive to mages. Just like hearing or smell or any other sense, some people had a better aptitude for it than others for various reasons. Pharazon’s Grundo brother, who had spent most of his life in Dr. Sloth’s galactic military where Neopian magic was nearly unheard of, was almost completely numb to it. Their Zafara sister Blynn—well, Pharazon rarely understood how her strange brain worked, but she seemed to have an uncanny intuition for just about everything, including magic. While Terra did not practise magic, she seemed to be just as sensitive to it as Pharazon. And for a trained magic user such as Celice, learning how to recognize and tune in to mana frequencies had been a necessary part of her education.

But strong enough magic could be felt by anyone, as evidenced by Guildswoman Griselda. The Kau’s ears flicked uneasily, one after the other, as she led Celice and Pharazon down an overgrown path that took them around roofless outbuildings and yawning gaps in the flagstone that led to who-knew-where. Pharazon knew she didn’t like the feel of this place, either.

As they made their way over a hastily repaired stone bridge that stretched across an empty moat, Pharazon craned his neck up at the keep that awaited them on the other side. It soared above them, so high that he felt it was nearly a caricature of a more reasonably-sized tower. “Why is it so tall?” he asked.

Griselda jumped at the sudden noise, although she tried to play it cool as she turned to him and smoothed down her skirts. “Because land is at a premium on this island, obviously,” she said, eyeing him critically again. “When the Darkest Knight and his subordinates constructed this place, there was nowhere to go but up. So they built almost the entirety of his estate into one tower.”

“Not to mention it’s downright intimidating,” Celice added, pushing her spectacles up her muzzle.

“Did they at least use it as a lighthouse?” Pharazon asked.

Griselda ignored him, huffing and puffing the rest of the way over the bridge. “Well, here we are,” she panted, fitting another key into the lock of one of the tall doors of Black Keep. She had to put all of her weight on the key, but it eventually turned with a rusty thump. “It’s all yours, Lady Anfel,” she said, waving at them to enter while she fanned herself with her other hoof.

Celice clutched her cloak as she mounted the steps and put a paw on the door. “Will you be all right, Guildswoman?” she asked. “You didn’t have to come all this way with us.”

“City regulation,” Griselda said, pocketing the keys again. “I appreciate your concern, but it would really have taken more time and effort to get you cleared to use these.”

The Lupe smirked. “It’s not Brightvale without bureaucracy.”

“I should say not,” Griselda said with an amused grimace. “I’ll send a Uni carriage to wait for you out front. Good luck.” She turned and headed back to the bridge.

The two friends watched her leave for a moment before Pharazon clambered up the steps to stand next to Celice. “I think I get now,” he said, “why you’re always dressed so nicely.”

“Oh?” Celice asked.

“Because people take you more seriously,” Pharazon said. His claws returned to his scarf, and he rubbed the scratchy wool fibers against his scales.

The sorceress sighed and ruffled the wavy cyan tuft on the top of his head. “That’s part of it, yes,” she said. “But there’s also the fact that spell-weavers don’t generally like to craft magic robes that look like someone’s been through the Rubbish Dump a few times.” She smiled. “And when you look good, you feel good, and that helps your confidence immensely. But I hope you don’t think you’re shabby-looking—your faerie colouring is quite nice on you.”

“Thanks,” Pharazon said, inspecting one of his wings. If he looked good, then why didn’t he feel good? Because he was missing the confidence part of the equation, but he didn’t know how to fix that—or if it could be fixed at all.

“At any rate,” Celice said, “Let’s see to this Black Keep business and then go out for lunch.”

Pharazon stood aside and let her push the door open with a slow creak. Dust sifted from the doorway, and with a flick of her wrist Celice had a moderately-sized yellow-white flame at her fingertips. She thrust the fireball through the gap in the door, the light glinting off her spectacles as she looked around for a moment. Then, with a satisfied nod, she opened the door wider and ushered Pharazon in. “All clear,” she said. “There’s nothing on the ground floor, at least.”

With a sigh, Pharazon trundled inside, still fingering his scarf and wondering how in the world he was ever going to be confident enough to earn Guildswoman Griselda’s respect. He had become rather weary of Neopets looking down their snouts at him.

Celice’s flame, which she had engineered to produce more light than heat, revealed a vast entrance hall covered in dust and scattered debris from broken furniture. A few chunks of crumbled stone littered the floor, but for the most part the tower’s structure held up quite well. High above them, a set of stained-glass windows let through weak shafts of multicoloured sunlight which barely penetrated down to where the two stood.

“I don’t like this,” Pharazon said.

“I know,” Celice said, picking her way across the floor to a sweeping staircase. “There is an awful magic about this place, Pharazon—all tangled and sad. Perhaps it is haunted.”

“We’re not ghost hunters,” the Draik said.

She turned to him and said, “We’ll do what we can here. Even if the Market Townsfolk are in no danger—we can’t leave the energy of a place feeling so wrong like this.”

“Can’t we?” Pharazon asked.

Celice frowned. “Do you remember what it felt like around the Well of Souls?”

Pharazon winced. Clutching his arms, the Draik clenched his eyes shut, trying not to relive those awful memories of how the Werelupe Sage betrayed him. “The energy there was… bad,” he choked. “Twisted. It—it made me sick just being there.” Opening his eyes, his shoulders sagged. “That’s sort of what it feels like here.”

“Sorry,” Celice said quietly. “I didn’t mean to… make you relive that.”

Then why did you bring it up, Pharazon thought to himself.

“But you understand why we must investigate,” Celice said. “If we get into any trouble, I’ll bail us out.” She grinned. “It’ll be a fun adventure.”

“I don’t like adventures,” Pharazon said. “My last one nearly resulted in the destruction of Neopia.”

“That was a fluke,” Celice said. “No one’s luck is so miserable that those sorts of things happen to them twice in a row.”

And with that they began the climb. Black Keep really was an entire fortress built vertically, and Pharazon and Celice passed through level after level of storage areas, kitchens, servants’ quarters, and even a chamber that held the aged remnants of musical instruments.

Black Keep had a sort of dark elegance about it. Its architects had not been blind to aesthetics—the walls were studded with breathtakingly ornate stained glass windows, although many of them now had cracked or missing panes, and the exquisite wrought-iron work everywhere complemented the soot-coloured stone the tower was built from. This place really would have been a sight back when the Darkest Knight was still alive, the Draik thought. But this was also a home for tyranny and corruption, he reminded himself. It would not get his sympathy.

As they ascended, they found nothing but abandoned ruin—and a growing sense of oppressiveness that Pharazon realised was coming from above them. It was different from the magic he had felt at the bottom. The best way he could find to quantify it was that if magic had colour, the energy surrounding Black Keep was grey-blue, but now he found himself heading into a cloud of deep purple, almost black.

“Nowhere to go but up,” Celice said as she opened the door at the top of yet another flight of stairs. Her long Lupe tongue hung from her slack jaw as she panted a bit, wiping her sweaty paw pads on her cloak. “Well, at least the residents of Black Keep were kept in good shape. But would it have killed them to have installed a few magic lifts?”

Pharazon could only nod wearily in agreement. His legs ached from so much climbing, and lunch was really starting to sound good. At least he could fly down, but then he’d have to wait for Celice to descend on foot, and he did not like the idea of being separated from her here.

“Maybe the spell for that hadn’t been formulated yet—oh my,” Celice suddenly said.

The tone in her voice made Pharazon’s stomach plummet, and he froze where he stood, his wings and ears drooping. “What?” he asked.

The sorceress chuckled nervously. “Nothing, it’s just—“ She pushed the door open wider, allowing sunlight and a cool breeze through. On the other side, Pharazon could see cloudy sky. “It seems some of these passageways were built into observation terraces running along the outside of the tower…” Scanning the outside, she cleared her throat and moved to fix her hair. “Well—come along, then.”

Pharazon found the terrace much more agreeable than the musty indoors of the fortress. Here the wind played with his wings, and below stretched Market Town, the Brightvale countryside, and the sea.

A smile worked its way up the Draik’s snout and he moved closer to the stone balustrade, leaning between two Gallion gargoyles to enjoy the view. The Neopets in the streets looked like magically animated minatures, the ships and carriages like toys. Far in the distance rose the Drackon Mountains, which separated Brightvale from Meridell with the Werelupe Woods in between, dyed a misty blue by so much atmosphere between them and him.  If he squinted, Pharazon could have sworn that he saw a dark speck hovering over the mountains—Darigan Citadel.

“Ugh, this dratted tower has gotten on my last nerve,” Celice said. She clung to the wall, slowly making her way down the balcony to the door on the other side. Her ears were low and her tail hung limp beneath her cloak. “I don’t know how Bobbie did it, I swear…”

Pharazon moved to catch up with her. “Are you okay?” he asked.

“We’re so far off the ground,” she said. “How are you not unnerved by that?”

Pharazon extended his wings, which shed aquamarine sparks of magic. “I can fly, you know.”

“Oh. Right,” Celice said. “Do you happen to know your carrying capacity, by any chance?”

“With our weight combined,” Pharazon said, “I’d drop like a stone.”

“Brilliant,” Celice said, her golden eyes trained on her destination. “Let’s get this over with and get back to solid ground.”

“Yes, let’s,” Pharazon said, happy to hear the urgency in her tone. He found it strange that Celice had a fear that Pharazon didn’t. That was a first.

They moved back inside the Keep, and ended up passing through several more terraces on their way up. They reached the levels of the fortress where the Darkest Knight likely housed and entertained his guests, as these rooms were richly decorated—or at least they had been before the Keep was sacked over a thousand years ago. Still, much of the original furnishings remained. It seemed even looters did not like Black Keep, preferring to leave it to moulder.

And all the while, the strange magic grew stronger, and Pharazon found himself disliking it more and more. But he held his tongue on the matter. He did not have to do anything, he reminded himself. They would see what the problem was, and if Celice could not handle it herself, they would report it to Master Seradar, and then Pharazon could enjoy a week in Brightvale with his best friend.

“How far up do you think we are now?” he asked Celice. They had come to a long, wide hallway with a set of large doors at the end—the sort that would make anyone believe they were approaching something important.

“No idea,” she said curtly from ahead of him as she stalked toward the doors, flame in one hand. “I’m not the one who’s kept an eye on the ground.”

“I think we’re about halfway up,” Pharazon said. “I remember from the outside, the terraces didn’t start until about a third of the way up the tower.”

“Ugh, only halfway?” Celice groaned as she reached for the door handle. “I should have asked Guildswoman Griselda where exactly those lights were—ouch!” She hissed and pulled away from the handle, shaking her paw.

Immediately Pharazon perked up and rushed to her. “Are you okay?” he asked. The feel of bad magic was stronger than ever here, and it made his stomach twist.

Celice inspected her paw with a furrowed brow and rubbed her finger pads together. “Someone put a ward on the door.”

“It felt like dark magic,” Pharazon said, and the sorceress nodded. “Can you dispel it?”

“I could,” she said, “but generally I find it easier to do this.” Nudging the Draik back, Celice narrowed her eyes and shot her fireball at the doors.

For a moment the fire and darkness elements strained against each other, and then the ward snapped and the doors flew open. Now with a fireball in each hand, Celice strode forward. “Show yourselves!” she barked, ears high and fur bristling. “I’ve come on business of the kingdom of Brightvale!”

Despite his nerves, Pharazon could not stand by and let his friend get hurt, so he shuffled after her, into the largest room they’d encountered in the tower yet. It was an immense great hall with windows that stretched nearly the length of the soaring ceiling. Petpetpet-eaten rugs still carpeted the marble floor, and elaborate chandeliers hung lightless far above them. This, Pharazon thought, was where the Darkest Knight must have held his rebel court.

But it was not the sights that most attracted his attention—it was the magic. Here the air felt heavy with it, pushing him in on all sides. This dark magic felt different than the chaotic earth magic Skoll had amassed two years ago. This energy felt organized. Or, more accurately, in a state of being organized, like someone had been pulling its strings and arranging it in a certain way.

As they stepped further inside, he saw why. In the centre of the floor, three figures staggered to their feet amidst a collection of small items: bones, crystals, bits of metal, and even tatters of parchment. It was from these that the magic emanated most strongly. A spell circle, Pharazon realised. Although he didn’t use magic himself, he’d learned plenty about it in his studies. This wasn’t about ghosts any more. He swallowed hard.

The figures rose to their full height, taller than Celice. Even in the gloom, Pharazon could see that they were willowy in build, with multiple sets of Korbat-like wings sagging from their backs. “Who disturbs us?” one of them rasped in a female voice.

“Lady Celice Anfel,” Celice said, “sorceress of the Kingdom of Brightvale, acting under Master Magus Seradar. Who are you?”

In reply, the three figures laughed. Despite their seeming fatigue, it was a high-pitched, flippant noise that reminded Pharazon unpleasantly of teenagers gossiping about someone. “Hear that, girls?” another of the figures said. “This little hedge witch thinks she’s a sorceress!” Another peal of laughter erupted.

“Hedge witch?!” Celice snarled. The orbs of fire in her hands flared as her upper lip twitched, exposing her fangs. “And I suppose a trio of minor dark faeries playing at spellcasting are ones to judge my power?”

They were indeed dark faeries, Pharazon could see, although they looked and sounded as if they’d been sleeping for ages and had just awoken. Their movements were slow and tired, and their black dresses were old and worn. The faeries themselves even seemed a little faint, nearly translucent, as if they struggled to cling to this plane of existence. He wanted to ask Celice about it, but this was no time for a lesson on magical beings.

One of them put her hands on her hips and asked, “Wait—do you really not recognize us?”

“Am I supposed to?” Celice asked.

“Ugh,” another one said, throwing up her hands. “And after all that lovely trouble we put Meridell through? I thought Skarl would have put up wanted posters, but I guess he’s too stupid for that.”

“The Dark Faerie Sisters,” Pharazon breathed.

Celice glanced down at him. “What?” she asked.

“Your little lackey’s right,” said the third faerie, attempting to look nonchalant by inspecting her nails. Like the others, though, her wings still drooped and her voice was hoarse. “It’s nice to know someone actually remembers our takeover of Meridell for the Darkest Faerie.”

“Roberta banished you!” Celice growled.

The three faeries bristled at the princess’s name. One smiled wickedly and said, “Which is why she’ll be first to get a taste of our power once we’ve recovered. They don’t call me Spite for nothing, you know.”

“Meridell will be ours again,” one of her sisters said. “And oh, the havoc we will wreak.”

“Perhaps you’ll wreak havoc, Malice,” the third said. “I’m looking forward more to becoming a queen to rival Fyora! I’ll have that purple-haired pansy kneeling at my feet!”

“I’ll leave that up to you, Vanity,” Malice said, rubbing her hands together. “I’m having fun just thinking of ways to make everyone’s lives miserable.”

“Then why aren’t you in Meridell?” Celice asked, edging toward them, flames still extended. “Or is your sense of direction just that poor?”

The three faeries paused their planning to glower at her. “That brat Lisha worked with Illusen to set up wards around the whole kingdom,” Spite said. “Thanks to your idiotic Princess Roberta, we don’t yet have the power to breach the barrier.”

“But we figured, why wait,” Vanity added with a smirk. She gestured to the spell-circle. “We’ll just use the old-fashioned way to get to Meridell—by overthrowing neighboring lands first.”

Celice clamped a paw on Pharazon’s shoulder. “Pharazon, go,” she said. “Fly—get help—get Master Seradar.”

“I can’t leave you—” he started to say.

Malice flicked a hand at the two, and thick tendrils of shadow rose from the floor and globbed onto them, holding them fast. Celice yelped, and her fireballs fizzled and died. The only light now came from the tall windows, and it somehow did not reach the centre of the room.

Pharazon tried to move, but the darkness surrounding him felt like putty. The magic crowded his senses, rendering his hearing and even his vision dim. His thoughts suddenly became difficult to grasp, and overall he felt like he was on the verge of passing out but somehow couldn’t. It was some of the worst discomfort he thought he’d ever experienced—except for when he’d been in the Well of Souls. Strange whispers began to tease at the edges of his hearing, although he couldn’t pick out any words.

The faerie’s body strained from a magical effort that was evidently a bit much for her in her current state, and her sisters extended their hands as well, lending her their power. Malice rubbed a hand over her face, but shot a grateful glance at her sisters before sneering down at the two Neopets. “Oh, I don’t think so,” she said, wagging her finger at them. “We can’t have word of this spreading, not yet. The spell will take a little more time to complete.”

Celice bared her fangs. “What… are… you going to do,” she wheezed, evidently having the same reaction to the magic as Pharazon.

“Wow, you really are dumb if you haven’t figured it out by now,” Vanity said. She tossed her hair. “We’re resurrecting the Darkest Knight. Again.”

Pharazon’s eyes widened. “No—”

“Working with him,” Spite said, “we’ll easily have the power we need to take over Brightvale, and from there to Meridell. And from there—well, why not the whole world?” She giggled. “I can’t wait to see the look on Roberta’s face when I crush her stupid kingdom!”

Malice smiled approvingly at her, then looked back at Celice and Pharazon and said, “And lucky you, getting to watch us put the finishing touches on this spell in two nights, during the new moon. You know what’s even better? You’re both magic users!” Her smile grew downright terrifying. “That means we can pull your power from you to assist us.”

“No!” Pharazon shouted, struggling in vain against the shadows. Skoll had attempted to use him for the same thing two years ago. Pharazon had told himself it would never happen again. And now, unless he did something, not only would it happen to him, but to Celice as well.

The sorceress growled and said, “You think I’ll just let that happen?” She gestured with her chin, and the air in front of her face sparked and began to swirl into a portal.

“Hey!” Vanity said. “That’s cheating!” She clenched her fist and the shadows tightened around Celice, who let out a pained whine and slumped over. The magic in front of her disappeared, and Vanity folded her arms smugly. “Let’s see the hedge witch try anything now.”

They had to get out. Pharazon didn’t care how. Panic overran him, shooting adrenaline through his system. In his desperation, he could think of only one thing to try.

He took a deep breath and willed forth his magic.

It was not like the times he practised with Skoll. This time, there was no technique to it—Pharazon just shoved all of his power to the forefront of his being, hoping it would somehow help them. The chaotic energy zinged through his body painfully as it fought against the shadows. Summoned without a purpose, it careened through existence trying to do everything at once.

“What are you doing?!” Celice barked, suddenly alert again. Her eyes were wide with horror as she stared at him.

Even the Dark Faerie Sisters looked astonished—and concerned. They moved to the spell-circle, hovering over it protectively.

Pharazon tried to say “I think I’m saving us,” but the words found no voice. He could only think about getting them out of there.

All of a sudden it was like the universe – maybe even several universes – exploded around him. He could see in dimensions he didn’t even know existed, but everything flashed before his eyes like flipping through the pages of a book. Places, he realised. He was looking at places, most of which he’d never seen before. And they all tugged at him, trying to pull him in.

The energy was too much. He had to make a decision or the magic would tear him apart. Closing his eyes, Pharazon tried as hard as possible to focus on Brightvale Castle, although his mind’s-eye image was fogged and shifting, influenced too much by all of the magical input.

The magic snapped, the world went white, and that was the last thing Pharazon remembered.

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