Monday, October 30, 2023

The Spirit of Black Keep, Chapter 5

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

Pharazon opened his eyes to cold daylight. Above him stretched tangled, budding tree branches, and past them a cloudy sky. He had no idea what he was doing lying on a muddy forest floor. Where was he? Not home—these were not the cypresses and olive trees of his Altador, but oaks and birches of a more temperate climate.

Like the Meridell region.

Everything came back to him like a sock in the gut and he sat up from the shock, earning himself a head rush. Celice lay nearby – breathing, thank goodness – sprawled awkwardly across dead leaves, her hair and clothes in disarray.

But Pharazon had gotten them away from the Dark Faerie Sisters—for a price. As he picked himself up, he felt woozy and weak, like he’d gone days without sleeping or eating. His body seemed hollow, and he knew he’d exhausted his magical reservoirs.

“Celice—“ he croaked, making his way over to the Lupe. Crouching down, he gently shook her shoulder.

She stirred with a whine, one ear flicking. Snapping her jaws groggily, she rolled over, opened her eyes to look at him—and growled. “You blooming idiot!” she barked, sitting up to seize him by the shoulders and shake him. “What were you thinking?! You could have teleported us to the middle of the ocean, or halfway down to Neopia’s core!”

“B-but I saved us—“ Pharazon stammered, eyes wide.

“You could have killed us both by attempting a spell of that magnitude untrained!” she snarled, pushing him away to wobble to her feet. “Do you even know where we are right now, you witless fool?!”

Pharazon’s heart dropped. “I—I thought maybe you could tell me—“

“Oh, silly me,” Celice said, pacing around him with ears held high like a Gruslen cornering her prey. “I forgot that I’m supposed to do everything for you!” The strands of hair falling loose from her messy bun just made her look all the more dangerous. “That’s why you’re friends with me, right?!”

“I didn’t mean it like that,” Pharazon said, backing against the trunk of a tree.

She stopped and glared at him. “You don’t know what you mean!” she said. “You’re not committed to anything, not even your own feelings! And when you do somehow manage to make a decision—it’s the worst one possible!” Letting out a frustrated groan, she spun around and clutched her head in her paws. “If you had actually been practising your magic for the past two years, we wouldn’t be in this situation!”

“I’m sorry—“ Pharazon said.

Celice walked away from him, waving her arms like a raving lunatic. “You think you can just apologise after the fact every time you ruin everything?!” she said. “Like that absolves you of all responsibility?! Because of you, we’re lost out in the middle of nowhere, and the Dark Faerie Sisters are going to resurrect the Darkest Knight in two days and nobody else knows about it—“

Her voice quavered, and with a whimper, she sat on the ground and said, “And I’ve a horrible headache—“ She wrapped her arms around her knees, buried her snout in her legs, and began to sob.

Pharazon watched her, fidgeting with his scarf and generally feeling awful about life. He had never seen her this angry, least of all at himself. But she was right. He was so intent on not being intent about anything that it put a strain on everyone else. And because he had pushed away cultivating his magical talents, it made him useless in times when they were desperately needed.

No, worse than useless. It made him a liability. He and Celice could have suffered a much worse fate from his panicked attempt to teleport. Being out in the depths of the forest when they were the only ones who knew that malicious faeries were plotting to take over at least several kingdoms was not much of a consolation prize.

This had to stop, he decided. For everyone’s sakes.

But what to do from here? Pharazon scanned the thick woodlands around them, but could see no sign of civilisation, not so much as a footpath. His gaze wandered back to the irate Lupe sorceress, and the thought occurred to him that he could do this alone. He could fly, so he could get places much sooner by himself than with a landbound Neopet in tow. And, well, she hadn’t exactly been nice to him, even if she was right. He didn’t particularly feel like being nice to her.

Pharazon grimaced. He couldn’t do that. If he was going to profess to be her friend, he was going to need to start acting like it. Friendship wasn’t just about palling around museums and being a studious little sidekick. He needed to be there to help her, just as she kept trying to help him. Even when it was hard.

Especially when it was hard.

With a sigh, he trudged over to her and put his arms around her shoulders. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I mean it this time. I’m really, really sorry. I will never do anything that dumb again.”

Celice sniffed, removing her spectacles to dab at her eyes with her sleeve. “I forgive you. Thanks for apologising. I’m sorry I was so cross with you… everything came at me so quickly… But that’s no excuse for taking it out on you.”

Pharazon considered telling her to keep her temper in control, but thought better of it. She already felt bad. “I’m sorry I made you that angry,” he said. “I shouldn’t have been so stubborn, all those times you told me to practise my magic.”

“I’m just worried about you,” Celice said. “In all the years I’ve known you, you’ve shown such great potential—but never wanted to use it. The incident with Skoll just made it worse.”

The Draik pulled away and rubbed one arm, looking at his toes. “I’m afraid,” he said. “With Skoll, I tried, and I just ended up putting everyone in danger. It’s—it’s easier not to do anything than to have that kind of responsibility.”

“Is it really easier in the end?” Celice asked quietly. “Your owner didn’t hatch you so you could be an inert lump. Are you truly happy living like this?”

Pharazon thought for a moment. “No. I’m… comfortable, to some degree. But I wouldn’t say I’m happy. Rather, I’m just… anxious all the time. Afraid of what might happen.”

“What do you want out of your life, Pharazon?” Celice asked. “I mean, what do you really want out of it? Be honest with me and with yourself.”

Pharazon closed his eyes. When he peeled away all the expectations of others, the pressures of various sides, how life experiences had conditioned him through fear and doubt, what were his true desires? Finally he opened his eyes and looked back at Celice. “I want to be there for my family,” he said, “and whoever else might need me.”

Smiling, she reached over and squeezed his hand. “Then let’s start with that,” she said. “I think right now, Brightvale needs us more than anything else. Which means we won’t just sit around and wait for those faeries to bring back the Darkest Knight, will we?”

“Nope,” Pharazon said. He pulled on her paw to help her up. “We need to tell somebody. Master Seradar—or maybe even Fyora.”

“My thoughts exactly,” Celice said, clinging to him as she got to her feet. She staggered and put a paw to her forehead, her eyes bulging like she was going to be ill, but ignored it. Extending a finger, she flicked her wrist to the air.

Nothing happened.

She frowned and stepped back before repeating the motion, again to no effect. Frantically, she began waving her arms, but it only resulted in her getting dizzy and having to lean against a tree to steady herself. “No… augh, no!” she said. “Those barbaric banshees! They’ve scrambled my magic!”

“What?!” Pharazon asked. “Are you going to be okay?”

Celice pounded a fist on the rough bark of the tree trunk. “The energy fields usually re-stabilise within a few days, a week tops… drat.” Whimpering, she wrapped an arm around her head. “That explains this awful migraine. I haven’t had one this bad since that time I drank twelve crates of Achyfi during finals…”

“I… could I try a contacting portal?” Pharazon asked. “You could tell me exactly what to do, and I won’t mess it up this time, I promise.”

She peeked out at him from beneath her sleeve and asked, “How do you feel?”

“Uhm…” Pharazon paused. “Like the magical equivalent of being run over by a carriage.” He took a deep breath and tried to blow a puff of magic – his faerie colouring’s version of the fire breathed by other Draiks - but only a few stray, tired sparks swirled past his lips before fading.

“As I thought,” Celice sighed. “Improper casting will do that to you. You’re out of commission for the time being as well.”

“I wish I knew where we were,” Pharazon said. “I remember trying to think of Brightvale when I teleported us… but I don’t think I got it accurately enough.”

“Well, judging from the foliage we seem to at least be in the same region,” Celice said, “so good job with that.” She glanced up at the sky. “Can you fly up a bit and try to get our bearings?”

“Sure thing,” Pharazon said. He found a gap in the forest canopy, and called on what little physical strength he had left to flap his wings and boost himself into the air.

The trees stretched before him, as far as he could see in all directions. They undulated with the gentle rise and fall of the land, and off in the distance were lofty peaks whose tops were obscured by the clouds, but Pharazon didn’t know if they were the Drackon Mountains. The only other object of interest was a thin line of white smoke, twisting up to the sky nearly at the edge of his vision, and he made a mental note of the direction in which it lay.

He only had a few seconds to observe before fatigue won out and he lowered himself back to the ground to return to Celice.

“See anything?” the sorceress asked him. She was inspecting her cloak, scowling at all the mud and muck that had gotten on her clothes.

“Forest everywhere,” Pharazon panted. “No Brightvale.” He paused. “But I did see smoke near the horizon. Probably from a chimney.”

“Then that’s our best bet,” Celice said. “If nothing else, it could be the cottage of a woodspet who can point us to a road.” She tugged her cloak back around her shoulders. “Lead the way—oof, it’s getting cold.”

As they marched through the woods at as quick a pace as they could muster, slaking their thirst at every stream they came across, Pharazon noticed it was indeed getting colder, and darker. It had to have been afternoon now. He remembered it being lunchtime when he and Celice discovered the Dark Faerie Sisters, and the after-effects of his teleportation seemed to have knocked them out for a few hours, so above the clouds the sun was sinking lower. After today, they would only have two days to stop the faeries before they completed the summoning.

And another curious thing occupied Pharazon’s thoughts. He couldn’t seem to get Black Keep off his mind. It felt like the fortress was calling out to him, urging him to return.

While he followed Celice, Pharazon turned these impressions over and over in his head. They did not give him the same dread and anxiety he felt around the Dark Faerie Sisters. Rather, it felt like someone was calling for him to help, like he had unfinished business at Black Keep. Pharazon considered telling Celice, but neither of them could do anything about it at this point. Their first priority had to be to reach civilisation, and then tell someone about the danger brewing in Market Town.

“I doubt we’ll reach the source of that smoke tonight,” Celice said as they splashed through an ice-cold stream, “and I don’t fancy not getting any sleep. I’m about ready to lay down and pass out as it is, and despite the time constraints, we’re no use to anyone if we collapse from exhaustion trying to get to Brightvale. Let’s find a place to camp. Would you happen to know anything about foraging?”

“Yes, actually,” Pharazon said. “Hyren’s taught my family a lot about wilderness survival. I might be able to find some edible roots this time of year.”

“Better than nothing,” Celice said.

“Do you think this glade up ahead looks okay?” Pharazon asked, waving at her to follow him past a pair of ancient yews.

“It’s no Presidential Palace, but it’ll do,” Celice said, patting his head as she strode past him to inspect the small clearing. “Let’s make a space for a fire.”

They prepared their campsite as best as they could, sweeping detritus from the ground and collecting fallen branches for firewood. Pharazon helped Celice arrange the wood for efficient burning, and then the Lupe snapped her fingers over it a few times before remembering her magic was out.

“Well, so much for a fire,” she muttered, pulling her cloak around her. “It’s going to be a long night.”

“We could probably make a fire the other way,” Pharazon said, grabbing for a few twigs. “You know, with the laws of physics.”

“Oh. Right,” Celice said. “Do you know how to do that?”

Pharazon sat down and began to rub the twigs together the way his brother had taught him. “This might take a while.”

“I hate doing things without magic,” Celice grumbled, curling up. “So much more time and effort.” She sneezed. “Sorry—I’m just a grumpy fussbudget.”

“It’s okay,” the Draik said, watching the twigs for signs of heating. “You get some rest.”

It took a good ten minutes, and Pharazon’s arms felt like noodles by the time he was done, but he finally managed to get the twigs to smoulder, and from there ignited some kindling. With careful tending, he gradually got a blaze going, much to his relief.

As he readjusted his scarf and eased himself onto the ground, Pharazon looked up at the sky and realised how much darker it had gotten already. Whoots had begun to call to each other, and Petpetpets chirped with the onset of evening. And he still felt the call of Black Keep.

“Do you think we’ll reach that smoke tomorrow?” the Draik asked Celice, folding his claws on his stomach.

“Mm-hm,” she murmured, already half-asleep.

“I’m really sorry about everything that happened today,” Pharazon said. “There were so many things I could’ve done better—“ The sudden snapping of branches cut him off. Holding his breath, he sat up and listened to the crunch of heavy footfalls on the forest floor.

Celice had noticed the sounds as well, and she sat up, instinctively holding out her paws even though no flames formed there.

The noise grew closer, accompanied by a guttural clicking. The two friends exchanged a glance and rose slowly to their feet, backing toward the campfire.

From the gloom, a pair of red eyes caught the light. “Who’s there?” Celice asked, putting a paw on Pharazon’s shoulder.

A hiss sounded in the darkness. Slinking slowly into the circle of firelight came a Darigan Eyrie. He walked on all fours, wearing tattered black trousers, and despite his large frame, he was emaciated. His purple fur and feathers were wet and matted with mud, and his long grey hair hung limply about his soot-coloured mane. Wings and tail low, he hovered near the trees, watching Celice and Pharazon warily. The look in his crimson eyes was pleading and hungry.

“I think he’s cold,” Pharazon said.

“What?” Celice asked.

“Maybe he’s lost like us,” Pharazon said before turning back to the Eyrie. “What’s your name?”

In reply the Eyrie hissed again, tensing as his fur bristled and feathers fluffed.

“You can share our fire,” Pharazon said. “There’s plenty of room here for you.” Tugging on Celice’s sleeve, he led the Lupe to the opposite side of the fire where they both sat down.

“Are you sure this is wise?” Celice asked, watching the Eyrie gingerly sniff around the campsite. “He doesn’t quite look like he’s got his wits about him.”

“I know,” Pharazon said, “but if we don’t help him, maybe nobody will.” He shifted his weight, curling his tail around himself. “My owner always says that a little kindness goes a long way. I never really thought about it much until now… but I think she was referring to situations like this. It’s… why she befriended the Werelupe King.”

Something that Pharazon had fought her on, he remembered. But he wanted to change, and that meant taking her lessons to heart. If she believed in compassion, then so would he.

The Eyrie seemed to find conditions satisfactory, and he lowered himself to the ground in front of the fire, stretching out his wings to dry them and glancing between the woods and his hosts. He was so thin that his ribs showed through his fur, and they heaved up and down with each breath. Slowly, his eyes drooped closed.

“I think we’re doing the right thing,” Celice said. “Maybe if we can get him to talk to us, we can determine where he’s from. It seems like he might have accidentally gotten separated from the Citadel or something.” She yawned. “Tomorrow, though.”

“Yeah… we’ve had enough excitement for one day,” Pharazon said, moving back to his own space. “Good night, Celice.”

“Night, Pharazon,” the Lupe said as she curled up, tail tucked between her legs to conserve warmth.

Pharazon was about to lie down himself, but something kept him looking at their guest. The Eyrie seemed as though no one had ever done him a good deed, and as he buried his beak further into his folded arms, it was evident that even the fire could not fully warm him.

Getting up again, the Draik made his way over to the Eyrie, unwound the scarf from his own neck, and moved to put it on their visitor.

As soon as the wool touched his mane the Eyrie’s eyes snapped open, and he glared at Pharazon, making him freeze.

“It’s okay,” Pharazon said. “I’m just—trying to get you a little warmer. It’s harmless. See?”

He held out the scarf and the Eyrie inspected it, rubbing the cloth between his paw pads and taking a few test nips with his black beak. Finally he dropped it and looked back at Pharazon.

The Draik wrapped it round him, although due to their size difference it could only go round the Eyrie’s neck once. “I know it’s not much,” Pharazon said, “but it’s better than nothing. You can keep it,” he added, stepping back. “I think you need it more than I do.”

A breath caught in the Eyrie’s throat and he arched his neck, appraising his new accessory. “Thhhaahnkh youh,” he rumbled.

Pharazon’s ears perked. The sound was gravelly and coarse, but those were definitely words, although it sounded as though the Eyrie had not spoken in a long while. Pharazon grinned and said, “You’re welcome. What’s your name? I’m Pharazon and that’s my friend Celice.”

“Nnnaaame…” the Eyrie said. His brow furrowed and he clicked his tongue. “I… donnn’t knowh.”

Pharazon put his hands on his knees. “Well, that’s all right. Do you remember where you’re from? Darigan Citadel, maybe?”

“Darr… eeh… gannn…” the Eyrie said as he squinted, thinking hard. “Cih-tah-delll…” He shut his eyes tight and shuddered, shaking his head. “I donnn’t knowh.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Pharazon said, standing up again. “We’re on our way to Brightvale, and you’re welcome to come with us. Maybe something will jog your memory.” It was probably best to not mention the Dark Faerie Sisters at this point, he thought.

“Thhankh youh,” the Eyrie said again.

Pharazon nodded and said, “Well… good night, then.” His visitor said nothing in return, just watched him with those piercing eyes. They followed him as he returned to his sleeping spot, and when Pharazon curled up, the Eyrie was still watching him, but the Draik couldn’t be uneasy about it. Despite the unusual circumstances, he felt better about life than he had in a long while. Like he was becoming more of who he really wanted to be.

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