Monday, November 6, 2023

The Spirit of Black Keep, Chapter 7

Kass looked utterly confused, while Celice’s jaw dropped. “Pharazon—“ she sputtered. “Are you quite sure you know what you’re doing?”

He grinned self-consciously. “I told you already, I’m not quite sure of anything. I’m just doing what feels right instead of waiting around for fear to drive my actions.” He looked up at Jhudora. “We should find those mushrooms first, milady.”

“Right,” Jhudora said. “Now, how to go about this best…” Cradling her chin in the crook of her finger, she began to pace around him. “I could use you as a magical amplifier to send an echo-request down the ley lines.” She tapped his head with her wand. “Stand up straight and hold out your arms.”

Pharazon wanted to ask if this was safe or if it would hurt, but he felt he owed Jhudora an implicit trust. She was not an evil dark faerie, just a grumpy one, and every faerie stuck to their bargains. He took a deep breath and raised his arms.

“What’s going on?” Kass asked.

“It’s all a bit much to explain,” Celice said, moving him aside so Jhudora could work her magic unimpeded. “But don’t worry about it. We’ll get you somewhere safe.”

He snorted, his long tail lashing, as they watched Jhudora wave her wand at various points around Pharazon. “I’m not a fledgling,” the Eyrie said. “This sounds important. And I seem to remember having combat skills.”

“Well, I suppose I can’t stop you getting involved,” Celice said. “But you’re under no obligation to help us.”

The Eyrie smiled faintly. “Of course I am.” He readjusted his scarf and puffed out his chest. “I have people who need me now. I’m not sure you understand how good it feels just to have a purpose.”

It took a moment for Celice to respond. “I’m glad you feel that way.”

“I hope this works,” Pharazon said as Jhudora came to a halt behind him. “My magic’s out. I, um, cast a spell out of my league yesterday.”

“It should be fine,” the faerie said. “I’m just going to use you to magnify my own abilities, and if you are as sensitive to magic as you say, it should be enough to help me find those mushrooms.” She tapped her wand to the top of his head. “Now stay still.”

Pharazon nodded and planted his feet firmer into the ground. No sooner had he done so then a nonphysical force shoved him from behind, making him stagger. It felt as though Jhudora was pushing magic through him. Before his eyes, the ground lit up with a network of glowing lines, Spyderwebbing away in all directions from the tips of his claws. Through his magical senses, he felt them pulled taut and vibrating with power.

Each of them connected to a different energy in the forest, he realised. If he concentrated, he could discern what they belonged to. Trees, Petpets, various minerals in the soil, even the air itself. It was all a bit much to take in. And one thin blue-grey strand, so tenuous it was barely there, stretched far into the distance. Black Keep. Pharazon drew in a breath. So it had connected to him, and he wasn’t just imagining things.

“Which one is it?” Jhudora asked.

“Can’t you tell?” Pharazon asked. He tried to glance over his shoulder at the faerie, but the lines felt fragile, like if he moved too much his connection to them would snap.

“Don’t get sassy with me,” Jhudora said. “I’m no earth faerie. I can’t read the ley lines so well in this life-infested place. I thought using you as magnification would help, but—“

“Wait,” Pharazon said. “I think I’m getting something.” One of the lines vibrated with a strange power that he didn’t recognise. It was faint, but distinctive enough that it caught his attention. As he tuned out the other lines and focussed on this one, it reminded him of the smell of a neutron star’s light, or what the colour of a nebula tasted like. Magic always had a funny way of mixing up the senses if one thought about it too much. “I think I found it.”

Jhudora gripped his shoulder. “Where?”

“That way,” Pharazon said. He gestured, ever so slightly, to a thin string of indigo.

“Excellent,” Jhudora said. “Let’s be off.” With a swipe of her wand she severed the other ley lines, leaving Pharazon connected solely to the Space Faerie mushrooms, and ushered him away.

“Are you sure we have time for this?” Celice asked as she and Kass jogged after them.

“I’m not breaking my word,” Pharazon said. “I told her I’d help her, and that’s what I’m doing.” With his short legs, he struggled to keep up with the tall faerie, and finally resorted to taking to the air in fluttering hops.

Celice snorted. “You remind me of nothing less than a Blumaroo when you do that, Pharazon.”

“I shouldn’t tire myself out with full flight just yet,” the Draik replied. Never mind looking ridiculous—he needed to keep up his strength. They still had Black Keep to worry about, after all.

They followed the ley line for the better part of an hour, and all the while Pharazon felt the energy at the end grow stronger and stronger. Finally, nestled in a copse of ash trees, he saw a small cluster of radiant fungi with midnight-blue, red-starred caps and bronze stems.

“I can see why they call them Space Faerie Mushrooms,” Celice said.

Pharazon moved toward them, but Jhudora grabbed him and pulled him back. “Don’t get too close,” she hissed. “Remember what I told you about them being dangerous? If you so much as pick them the wrong way, you could unleash a supernova.” Her grip softened and she patted his shoulder. “Just stay there.”

He stayed behind with Celice and Kass as the dark faerie strode over to the mushrooms, holding out her wand.

“How are you holding up?” Celice asked.

“Good,” Pharazon said. He gave her a shy smile. “Thanks for having faith in me. I think this is going to work out.”

She mussed his head tuft. “That’s what friends are for, old sport. I dare say you do have a knack for getting into interesting situations—and gaining unusual allies.” She motioned with her muzzle to Jhudora and Kass.

The Draik looked up at the Eyrie and said, “Sorry for dragging you into all this.”

Kass shook his head. “I owe you a debt. You saved me… although I am still not quite sure from what.” He grinned. “And I would much rather be doing this than tromping through the forest like a Petpet, cold and alone. It feels good to have…” He looked aside bashfully before returning his gaze to the Lupe and the Draik. “Friends.”

“We’ll be your friends,” Pharazon said, patting his arm. “Right, Celice?”

The sorceress blinked and pushed her glasses up her snout. “Er—“ She sighed and shook her head with a snicker. “Sure. Friends. What have I gotten myself into…”

Jhudora, meanwhile, approached the mushrooms tentatively, wand out in front of her, glowing with green energy. Once she was only a metre away from the fungi, she spread her arms and held her wand high, like the conductor of the Neopian Philharmonic about to start a symphony. The Faerie quivered, her nostrils flared, and then something snapped in the energy of the place. She had broken a barrier, Pharazon realised.

Muttering a spell under her breath, Jhudora swirled her wand, and a stream of green twisted from it toward the mushrooms. The dark faerie concentrated as her magic wove its way through whatever enchantments protected the rare growths. The magic paused in front of them, and then spread out to envelop them like a coating of gel.

Jhudora took a deep breath and flicked her wand at the mushrooms. In a puff of green smoke, they disappeared.

She grinned and put a hand on her hip. “Nicely done, if I do say so myself.” Turning to Pharazon, she added, “And I mean that for you, too. Good to know there are Neopets I can rely on in this crazy world.”

Pharazon smiled. “Thank you, milady. I’m just glad I was able to help.”

Kass wandered around the ash trees, tilting his head up at their branches. “Where did they go?”

“I sent them back to my bluff,” Jhudora said. “There’s much you don’t recall about magic, isn’t there?”

“I have no idea what I did know before I found myself in the woods,” Kass said. “I mean…” He blinked and looked at his paws. “I believe I was aware of magic, but I don’t think I ever practised it myself.”

Jhudora wore an impish grin, and for a moment Pharazon was afraid that she would reveal Kass’s identity, but instead the faerie just shook her head and said, “It’ll come in time. Now then—“ She turned back to Pharazon and put her hands on her knees, peering down at him. “In what manner would you like me to fulfill my end of the bargain?”

“Er…” Pharazon reached to tug on his scarf and grasped only thin air before remembering Kass was wearing it. “I… didn’t really think that far ahead, to be honest.”

“Milady, could you contact Queen Fyora and ask her to send help?” Celice asked.

“Why not Master Seradar?” Pharazon asked.

“Like Jhudora said, it takes a faerie to fully defeat a faerie,” the sorceress said. “And anyone Her Highness sends should get there in time. We have no such guarantees for Brightvale.” She kicked the dirt. “Knowing them, it’d take a day or two just to decide what action to take, not to mention preparations. And all that awful red tape.”

Jhudora laughed. “It is amusing how your kind’s most powerful magic users constrain themselves under so many regulations to the point where they’re barely effective. What do you say, Pharazon?”

The Draik thought for a moment. “Yes, we had better contact Her Highness.”

“Fyora it is, then,” Jhudora said, and she snapped her fingers. A porthole-sized gap in the fabric of the universe appeared in front of her, floating at her face level. It fizzed with magic for a moment, and then the visage of the Faerie Queen came into view, as clearly as if she had just been standing on the other side of a window. “Jhudy?” Fyora asked.

Jhudora flinched and cleared her throat. “I don’t have time for chit-chat. We’ve got trouble in Market Town. The Darkest Faerie Sisters are back, they’ve occupied Black Keep, and they’re going to resurrect the Darkest Knight tomorrow night. Send the best you’ve got in rogue faerie detainment.”

The queen’s purple eyes widened. “I had no idea—“

“Of course not,” Jhudora said. “That’s practically why magic cloaking was invented.”

“Well, I sensed dark energy there,” Pharazon said. “But I definitely didn’t think it was something of this magnitude. I just assumed it was left over from the Darkest Knight.”

Fyora noticed him and nodded. “No matter. I’ll send in a special ops detachment of faerie knights, ASAP. Thanks for letting me know, Jhudy—ahem, Jhudora.”

“No problem,” Jhudora said, and flicked the portal closed.

Celice put a paw to her muzzle to disguise a grin. “’Jhudy’?

The dark faerie scowled. “No one else is allowed to call me that, are we understood?” she said, shaking a menacing finger. She folded her arms. “There, that’s done. What will you do now?”

Left scarfless, Pharazon turned to fidgeting with his tail. “I don’t feel right about just dropping this and going back to Brightvale.”

“What do you mean?” Celice asked. “Fyora’s knights are more than capable. And we’re not exactly in any condition to confront power-hungry faeries.”

“I know,” Pharazon said. He swallowed hard. “To be honest… I keep feeling this weird tugging in the back of my mind. Like Black Keep wants us to return to it.” The confused expression on Celice’s face urged him to continue. “But it’s not a bad feeling, not the same vibe I was getting from the Dark Faerie Sisters and their magic. It’s more like… somebody there needs us.”

Well, needed him, to be more specific. But he didn’t want to go back there alone.

Jhudora put a hand on his head and leaned on him casually. “I had better go, too,” she said. “Those goody-two-shoes knights tend to be pretty clueless about dark magic, and the Dark Faerie Sisters are not your garden-variety troublemakers.”

“I want to help,” Kass said with a nod. “Put a sword in my paws and I’ll…” He paused and frowned. “Yes… swords seem familiar.” Clenching his fists together, he began pantomiming strikes and blocks, slowly at first, but then with escalating levels of grace and skill.

Celice watched him somberly for a long moment. Finally she looked down at Pharazon and said, “You realise I won’t be able to assist magically in any way. I’m basically dead weight.”

“No, you’re moral support,” Pharazon said, “and plenty smart besides.”

The sorceress pulled her cloak tighter around her shoulders. “I suppose so…”

Pharazon thought she did not sound entirely convinced, and he reached over and gave her paw a squeeze. “It’ll be okay, Celice. Thanks for believing in me. I won’t let you down, I promise.”

She gave him a weak smile. “Thanks.”

“Well, let’s be off, then,” Jhudora said. “You lot were saying something about an inn? That’s the one on the main highway from Faerieland to Market Town. You’ll need plenty of food and sleep in you for tomorrow.” She turned and ducked under a low branch.

Pharazon scrambled to catch up with her. “Wait—we’re walking? Why? Only one of us doesn’t have wings.”

Jhudora looked back at Kass and asked, “Can you fly?”

The Eyrie stretched his wings tentatively. “I don’t think I’ve flown for a very long time. The muscles are weak.” He sighed. “I doubt I could sustain flight for very long right now, much less if I’m carrying someone.”

“Trust me,” Jhudora said, “it’ll take less time to walk than it will for our feathered friend to remaster powered flight.” And that settled that.

“What I don’t get,” Kass said as they began to follow her through the woods, “is why your faeries cannot simply teleport into Black Keep and cut this problem off immediately.”

Jhudora tossed a grin at him over his shoulder. “Can you imagine how many wars would have been cut short if every hero just teleported straight to their foe? Way to remove all the drama.”

“Teleportation is immensely powerful and draining magic,” Celice said. “Even for experienced casters, it takes a lot out of you, and that’s the last thing you want if you’re about to enter combat.”

“There’s also the fact that teleportation creates a huge and uncloakable magical signature in the energies of the target area,” Jhudora said. “The Dark Faerie Sisters would be alerted to any incoming opponents, and could strike before the teleporter fully rematerialised. In that state, you’re extremely vulnerable… yes, not pretty at all.”

“Magic’s a lot more complicated than it looks,” Pharazon explained to the Eyrie. “Good magic users can make it look effortless, but there are a lot of risks and technical details that most people don’t stop to consider. That’s why associations like Brightvale University and the Order of the RedErisim have so many regulations.”

“Not to say they don’t go overboard,” Jhudora said. “But put too few regulations in place and, well, you get gangs of wizards trying to evade the law, cutting corners and putting both others and themselves in far more danger than they realise.”

“Yes, this is a lot to take in,” Kass said. “No offense, but it makes me glad I don’t use magic.”

“It’s not for everyone,” Jhudora said with a shrug. “Like you mentioned before, some people prefer the weight of a blade in their hands.”

“My brother Hyren is like that,” Pharazon said, smiling up at Kass. “I think you two would get along well.” After all, Hyren and the Werelupe King had turned into sparring partners. The Grundo seemed, Pharazon thought, to gravitate towards other swordspets like himself.  Pharazon wondered what his own choice of friends said about him.

He looked around at Celice, Kass, and Jhudora, and decided it meant he was the type of person who could be trusted to follow his gut. And if it was telling him they needed to head back to Black Keep, that was what they would do.

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