As the carriage passed over the bridge and through the city gates, Pharazon shuddered. The dark energy here seemed to dim the very sunlight. Even Neopets on the streets seemed to notice something wasn’t right, as they went about their day looking anxious and harried, like people trying to get all their business done before a storm hits.
“I get it,” Celice murmured. “Black Keep is a nexus.”
“What?” Kass asked.
“It was built with powerful magic,” Celice said, “and over a millennium it’s become a focal point for energy. The Dark Faerie Sisters are at an advantage here, not only because of the Darkest Knight but because the fortress itself amplifies their power.”
Jhudora’s lips thinned. “I hate to admit to this, but I may have underestimated things a bit.”
“We can do this,” Pharazon said. “We haven’t come all this way for nothing.” He looked at the faerie and Kass. “I’ve seen too many things work out for this to all fall apart now. If we’re supposed to be here, that means we can accomplish whatever we’ve been called to do.”
Celice smiled. “I do believe you’re right. We’ve not been set up for failure.”
“Where to?” the Uni driver called.
Pharazon stuck his head out the window. “Black Keep, please.”
One of the Uni’s ears flicked. “If you say so,” he muttered, pulling them around a corner.
It was as they neared the keep that dread began to wash over Pharazon, that highly uncomfortable “what have I gotten myself into” feeling that plagues everyone who is about to do something incredibly daring.
Well, I don’t know exactly what I’ve gotten myself into, Pharazon told himself, but that’s not a factor in my deciding to do it. Still, he couldn’t keep his hands from wringing in his lap.
Kass gave his shoulder a squeeze. “Be strong, my friend,” the Eyrie said. “Surely we are not made to fail. Those who would have us believe such are liars.”
The Draik smiled and said, “You be strong too. All of you.”
“I refuse to be anything less,” Jhudora said.
The carriage pulled up to the large wall surrounding the tower complex, and Jhudora tipped the driver as the four got out. He departed rather quickly after that, with a noise that sounded slightly like “have a good day”. Pharazon couldn’t blame him for his hurried exit.
The gates were still unlocked and ajar, allowing him and his friends to slip through easily. It seemed as though Guildswoman Griselda had expected them to be finished shortly the other day, and when they hadn’t returned, had forgotten about the entire business—perhaps on purpose. People here didn’t seem to like being reminded of Black Keep.
And for good reason, Pharazon decided. The magic here had grown downright oppressive. If he listened closely enough he thought he could almost hear voices, echoes of the past misfortunes this place had put Market Town through. He bit his lip and stayed close to the others. No matter what, he wasn’t leaving until he’d done what he came here to do.
“I’ll bet this place was beautiful back when it was still alive,” Kass said, gazing at the ruined buildings and ancient trees in the courtyard. “The architecture shows a remarkable artistry and skill. It seems as though there’s quite a bit of Draconian influence as well.”
“Do you know why that is?” Pharazon asked.
The Eyrie nodded. “The Draconians once traded more freely with their surrounding clans before becoming insular after the discovery of the Orb. They were known for their skills in magic and structural engineering, so it wouldn’t surprise me if the Darkest Knight commissioned some of them to help build Black Keep.” He smiled up at the ominous tower. “I rather like it, actually. It reminds me of home.”
“Bully for you,” Celice grumbled. “I’d like it better if it wasn’t so tall.”
Pharazon felt a burst of new magic pierce through the miasma of darkness that surrounded Black Keep. This energy was clean and bright, and just its very presence seemed to fill him with new vigour.
“Onward, sisters!” shouted a voice like a call from a conch shell. “Today, we vanquish evil!”
Descending from the sky were six faeries, one of each element, dressed in light armour and carrying swords The water faerie, who led the other five, rode on the back of a large faerie Lupe, also wearing armour.
Jhudora’s eyes widened. “Oh, no.”
“Do you know them?” Celice asked.
“Unfortunately,” Jhudora said. Closing her eyes, she pinched the bridge of her nose. “I ask Fyora for help and she sends me these goody-goodies…”
The six faeries and the Lupe alit in front of Pharazon and his friends, blocking the bridge to Black Keep. “Hold!” the water faerie said, brandishing her sword. “Jhudora! I should have guessed you were behind this!”
“If you please,” Celice said, “we’re trying to stop the Dark Faerie Sisters, not help them. I assume you’re the faerie knights we requested from Fyora?”
“Correct!” Misty said, striking a heroic pose. “SQUAD Squadron, in the service of Her Majesty, Queen Fyora!”
“SQUAD… Squadron?” Kass asked.
“It stands for ‘Special Queen’s Attack and Defence’,” the faerie Lupe said, looking quite proud of himself.
“Brilliant,” Kass said flatly.
“You’re a disgrace to the fair folk, I hope you know,” Jhudora said to the seven. “It’s because of you that Neopets don’t take us seriously! I’m especially disappointed in you, Penumbra,” she said, pointing an accusing finger at the dark faerie on the squad.
Penumbra tossed her black hair and said, “Your vile barbs shall merely glance off the armour of my valour, Jhudora.”
“That’s all well and good,” Celice said, stepping in front of them and shooting Jhudora an annoyed glare. “We haven’t come here so you faeries could have a spat, though.” She pointed to Black Keep. “The Dark Faerie Sisters are up there, and Jhudora and I want to help you defeat them. I’ve confronted them before, and I can show you where they are.”
Misty looked them over for a moment, then said, “Any help would be appreciated. Their threat level is extremely high. What of the Draik and the Eyrie?”
“Oh, don’t faerie Draiks have the loveliest colouring?” the light faerie knight said with a smile.
“And look at those darling wings!” the air faerie beside her cooed.
Pharazon blushed bashfully and said, “Thanks—anyway, my friend and I have some other business to attend to.” He felt he owed them a bit more information. “There’s something weird about the energy here and we’re going to fix it.”
“Will you be all right?” the light faerie asked.
“I’ll keep him safe,” Kass said.
“Then let’s go,” Misty said. She motioned to Celice. “Lead the way.”
SQUAD Squadron stepped aside to allow the sorceress to approach the bridge. As she did so, however, her fur bristled and she stepped back. “It’s heavily warded,” she said. “I suppose they didn’t want anyone sneaking in the front door again.” She frowned. “Oh, bother. We don’t have time for this.”
“Is there another way in?” Misty’s Lupe mount asked.
Celice grimaced. “Sort of—“
“See those terraces that run along the outside?” Pharazon said, pointing upward. “You can get in through there.”
Misty turned to her dark faerie companion and said, “Penumbra?”
The black-haired faerie extended a hand and closed her eyes. “The wards are weaker up there.”
“I think you’re all forgetting,” Celice said, “that there is a wingless individual in your midst.”
“That’s not a problem,” Kass said, picking her up.
The Lupe bristled. “Ohhh, no!” she yelped. “I am not going to be flown in!”
“We can’t climb!” Pharazon said. “By the time you guys dispel the ward down here, and we get up to the great hall, the sun could already have set!” It was low enough in the sky now to make him really start to worry.
Usually, spells that required that Kreludor be in a certain phase had to wait until the moon rose to shed its light upon the proceedings. But a new Kreludor was aligned with the sun and only above the horizon during the day—which meant a spell that required the night of the new moon could be activated as soon as Kreludor set, around the same time as sundown.
“Fine,” Celice said. “Just get it over with quickly.”
Misty raised her sword and shouted, “Excelsior!” Beating their wings, the five other faeries and Misty’s Lupe companion shot into the air.
Pharazon and Jhudora followed, and Kass snapped out his great purple wings and leaped into the air.
“By Hagan’s beard,” Celice said, clinging to his mane, “don’t drop me!”
“I’ve had quite enough of dropping people for one lifetime,” Kass said wryly, which was enough to elicit the smallest smile from the anxious Lupe.
“I thought you said you couldn’t fly,” Pharazon said as Kass pulled ahead of them and SQUAD Squadron so Celice could show them which terrace to aim for.
“Not sustained flight,” Kass said, “but I think I can manage a short burst like this.” He clenched his jaw and angled his wings to catch a better updraft.
Setting his sights on the terrace about halfway up the tower, Pharazon felt a concentration of dark energy so focussed it almost hurt, like a pinch.
“There’s the ward!” Penumbra said.
“All together now, ladies!” Misty shouted. The knights drew their swords and Jhudora pulled out her wand, and Celice managed to pry one of her paws loose from Kass’s mane to help.
Their weapons flashed with power, and the spell bulged and strained, so much that Pharazon could see the energy warp with his natural vision—and then it burst and the group poured through onto the terrace.
As Pharazon touched down on the black stone, he felt revulsion work its way up his spine and he shuddered. This magic felt just as wrong and evil as the Well of Souls two years ago. It was something he honestly hoped he would never have to experience again. But now, faced with just such a thing, he found he no longer wanted to run from it. He would defeat it this time.
“Are you all right?” Kass asked as he set Celice down.
“I’m never doing that again,” the Lupe said, straightening her robes. She paused and looked down at Pharazon. “Oh, you meant him.”
“I’m fine,” the Draik gasped. “The magic is just… overwhelming. But I know you guys can beat them. I’ll go do my thing.”
“I’m glad you’re all right, too,” Kass said to Celice.
She offered him a thin smile and said, “Thanks.”
“Where are you headed?” Misty asked Pharazon as the group made their way inside. The faeries’ swords shone with magic corresponding to their element, and green smoke swirled around Jhudora’s wand. Celice had two flames at the ready.
In their company, Pharazon felt woefully underprepared, and looking over at Kass he thought the Eyrie must as well. “I don’t exactly know,” he said. “I’m sure I’ll find out if I keep going.” It was really how he had lived the past few days, but to be completely honest it had worked out great. And now he had to put that to the test. Or perhaps he was putting himself to the test.
“Through that door,” Celice said, pointing down a large hallway that Pharazon remembered. Her nose wrinkled. “Oh my, yes, they’re definitely still in there, stinking up the place with that foul magic of theirs.” She looked over at Penumbra and Jhudora. “No offense, ladies.”
“My noble shadow magic is a different brand than that of these depraved creatures,” Penumbra said.
“I never could stand you,” Jhudora muttered to the knight. “None taken, Celice.”
It was as they started down the hall that Pharazon took notice of a staircase on one wall, and he wondered where it went. The sudden burst of curiosity struck him as odd, as he didn’t have time to absently wonder about architectural details.
Then he realised he felt like he was supposed to go up there. His steps slowed until he lingered behind the others.
Kass noticed his absence and looked back at him. “Pharazon?” the Eyrie asked.
“Follow me,” the Draik said, pushing off from the floor and fluttering toward the first landing of the stairway.
“On my mark,” Misty said from further down the hall, “we break this ward and then charge!”
A few wingbeats later, Kass touched down on the landing beside Pharazon. “Are you sure they’ll be all right facing the Dark Faerie Sisters?” the Darigan warlord asked.
“I know they can do it,” Pharazon said. “It’s not our fight.” With that, he continued up the stairs.
He found himself more curious than afraid now. Black Keep had been calling to him this whole time, and he desperately wanted to find out why.
Faintly below him, he sensed a sudden surge of magic and heard shouts, and he balled his fists, trying not to think of the struggle going on between magic users. He and Kass were needed elsewhere.
The two climbed further into the heights of the tower, and Pharazon noticed their surroundings were even more extravagant than anything he had seen below. These were residential areas, filled with cobweb-covered luxurious furniture and time-faded paintings and tapestries.
“This must have been where the Darkest Knight and his courtiers lived,” Kass said quietly. “These upper floors would have been the safest part of the tower, and they give the best vantage point to survey the domain.”
“I think so,” Pharazon said. “I wonder if you can get up onto the roof from…” He trailed off. Kass had stopped abruptly, and when Pharazon saw why, his blood froze.
Standing in the hallway in front of them were three spectral figures wearing dark cloaks. A faerie, a Gelert, and a Skeith clustered together, regarding the two with cold calculation and grave expressions.
“So, you return to us,” the faerie said.
Kass’s feathers ruffled. “We didn’t come for you,” he growled.
“You heeded our call,” the Skeith said, looking directly at Pharazon.
Pharazon wished he could disappear. “No—“ he choked. Had his heart betrayed him?
“You see, Kass?” the Gelert said. The Three began to spread out and pace around the pair. “You will always return to us. It is inevitable. Even that fool Lord Darigan will fall again.”
“No!” Kass roared. “You lie! You lied to me before and you lie now! Darigan is forever freed from your influence, and that means I can be as well!”
Pharazon felt a wave of panic wash over him. What could he trust in this situation? What if the Three were right?
The faerie laughed and said, “Wake up to reality, Kass. You are ours. You gave yourself to us, and you are forever ours.”
Pharazon shut his eyes, trying to drown out their voices so he could think—and then he remembered Terra’s timely letter from the night before. It seemed to ground him and clear his mind. He was on a mission of good and trying to do things better than last time, instead of letting his anger and hatred drive him. He would fight to make things turn out right.
And something felt wrong about the situation.
As soon as he figured it out, his eyes flew open. “You are lying,” he said, a bit surprised that he had the gall to talk back to the Three. “You didn’t call me here at all. The feeling I get from you is different than what’s been pulling me this whole time.”
The trio of phantoms paused, and Pharazon realised he’d called their bluff. He grinned fiercely and said, “I think—no, I know you’re lying to Kass, too! You’re just mad because Darigan turned away from you and now Kass is trying, too! Well, guess what? You won’t take him!”
“Impudent brat!” the Gelert snarled, raising his sword.
Kass rushed him. Despite the Three’s seeming intangibility, the Eyrie somehow tackled the Gelert to the floor and tried to wrest the sword away from him. “Pharazon, go!” Kass said. “I’ll be fine!”
“Kass—“ Pharazon took a halting step forward as the Skeith and the faerie moved in to attack the Draconian.
“Go!” Kass said again. “Do what you came here to do!” He batted the Skeith away with one large paw and kicked at the faerie, who fluttered out of reach.
Pharazon took a deep breath and ran past the scuffle and down the hall, to the next flight of stairs. Urgency fueled his steps, and he felt utterly alone. Why, he wondered, did he have to keep doing these sorts of things alone?
But he wasn’t really alone, he realised. Even though his friends could not be physically present, their faith in him stayed with him. They helped him get this far. They lent him the strength he needed to get where he needed to be.
Opening a door at the end of a stairway, Pharazon found himself in another large, lavishly decorated hall, with curtains on the tall windows and a platform where a few rusted musical instruments sat. A ballroom for the Darkest Knight’s lords and ladies.
The Draik wandered out into the centre of the room, wondering what it must have been like in its heyday. He could nearly hear the conversations, the laughter, and the music of a social event over a thousand years ago.
“Kass has fallen,” said a terrifyingly familiar voice from behind him, and Pharazon spun around to see the Three staring at him again.
His stomach clenched, but he knew by now not to take what they said at face value. “Prove it,” he hissed. “Show him to me.” When they took a moment too long to respond, he added, “I’ll bet he’s gotten rid of you for good, and now you’re extra mad about it.”
The Gelert growled, but said nothing. The faerie stepped forward, concern on her face. “Pharazon,” she said, “We’re just trying to help you.”
“Oh, like you ‘helped’ Kass and Darigan?” Pharazon said. “No thanks to that.”
“You’ve got it all completely wrong,” the faerie said. “Don’t you see? You know you can’t trust yourself. Don’t you remember what happened with Skoll?”
“Why are you bothering with this?” the Skeith asked. “It shouldn’t be your problem. Celice was wrong to make you come out here and get you caught up in this, when you could be back at home with your books and your family.”
Pharazon jutted out his chin. “No. She needs me. Kass needs me, Black Keep needs me. I think even Jhudora needs me, in a way.”
“Why do you trust them so?” the Gelert asked. “They only use you for their benefit.”
“We help each other,” Pharazon said, grinding his foot into the marble floor. “It’s called friendship. Something you’ll never understand.”
“You don’t really want to do this, I can tell,” the faerie said. “You’re ruining everything again. You will regret this.”
Pharazon gritted his teeth. Messing up on something this important terrified him. Who could he trust?
He could trust those who proved themselves trustworthy.
Breathing in the musty air of the sunset-lit ballroom, he snorted out a puff of faerie magic. “I don’t trust you!” he shouted, louder than he meant to. “I don’t trust you and I’m done arguing with you! I’m going to fix things here, if only because you don’t want me to! Because that means it’s definitely got to be done!” And with that, he turned and ran.
“Come back!” the Skeith called. “You’re making a grave mistake!”
Pharazon kept running and didn’t so much as glance back. The Three were wrong. But his own heart would always steer him right.
As he ducked into another hallway, he thought he heard the Gelert shout something else, but he paid it no heed. He was done dealing with them. He had to settle the matter of Black Keep, and soon.
At the top of the stairs, Pharazon pushed open one of a pair of large oaken doors. He found himself inside a sitting room that, if not for its age, would have been rather comfortable. The couches were plush and the rug thick and soft, and a large bay window at the far end of the room looked out over the sea.
And someone was sat in one of the couches.