Monday, November 13, 2023

The Spirit of Black Keep, Chapter 9

Pharazon’s tongue felt like lead. This was the moment he and Celice had been dreading, and although Pharazon had put on a brave front earlier, the only thing he could think of to do now was, perhaps, hide under the bed. But fear kept him rooted to the spot.

“Why did you not tell me sooner?” Kass asked, tilting his head. His tone, though proud, carried no anger, just curiosity.

Everything Jhudora said ran through Pharazon’s mind. He could not keep messing things up. He forced himself out of bed and edged closer to the Eyrie. “We were afraid,” Pharazon said. “You—you’re kind of notorious, you know—and Celice has family in Meridell, so she got really scared—“ He shook his head. “But you’re right, we should have told you, and I’m sorry. We were just enjoying your companionship so much, we worried that if you knew… you’d leave us. Or turn on us.”

Kass searched his face in the dim light for a moment, then smiled and said, “I appreciate your honesty. I meant what I said, though, amnesia or no. I owe you for your kindness and I will accompany you to Black Keep.”

Pharazon’s eyes widened and his stomach unknotted. “Oh—thank you, er, sir. Um, Your Lordship?” What, exactly, did one call a ruler who was no longer a ruler?

“Just Kass,” the Eyrie said with a rumbling laugh. “To my friends, it’s just Kass.” He extended a paw to Pharazon.

The Draik did not hesitate to take it. “I’m glad we’re friends, Kass,” he said.

“Me, too,” Kass said.

The adrenaline in Pharazon’s system ebbed and was replaced with a rush of relief. All he could think was that he’d finally done something right this time. Terra would be proud of him. He couldn’t wait to tell her—after they got everything sorted out at Black Keep.

“Are you okay?” Pharazon asked. “When did you remember?”

“I’m fine,” Kass said. “I had a bit of a headache earlier, but it’s gone now.” He glanced toward the door. “That song downstairs brought everything back. I didn’t want to believe it at first, but I’ve woken up to discover it wasn’t just a bad dream.” He examined his paws and smoothed down the matted fur on his forearms. “My goodness, but living in the woods does terrible things to a Neopet’s hygiene. How long was I gone for?”

“It’s Year 18,” Pharazon said.

The Eyrie’s eyes bulged. “Twelve years, then. How’s…  how’s the Citadel getting on?”

“Quite well,” Pharazon said. “It’s still above Meridell. Relations between the two nations are good, and the Citadel’s economy is stable. A number of Draconians live on the surface now, but it’s mostly because there’s been such a population expansion on the Citadel.” He smiled. “It even has its own professional sports team, and they’re quite popular, if you can believe it.”

Kass chuckled. “We always did have a roguish charm to us. That’s good to know. I’m glad.” The smile froze on his face and he turned back to the window, his eyes narrowing.

“What’s wrong?” Pharazon asked.

It took a long while for the Eyrie to reply. “The Three have started speaking to me again,” he said quietly. “They tell me you will betray me.”

Pharazon’s breath caught in his throat. “Do you believe them?”

Kass took a breath, and then looked down at the small Draik and said, “No. I believed them once, and look what good it did me.” He leaned a hand on the windowsill. “They are desperate now. They want me back.” His claws extended and dug into the wood. “They will not take me.”

“Lord Darigan escaped from them,” Pharazon said. “I know you can, too.”

“I have to,” Kass said. “If not, they will continue to torment me until I either go mad again or give in to their lies. And I do not prefer either of those outcomes.”

Pharazon put a hand on the Eyrie’s arm and said, “I’ll help. In whatever way I can.”

“Thank you,” Kass said, although he still looked pained. “Pharazon… I was a monster twelve years ago. I’m so sorry for all the grief and pain I’ve caused. I don’t know how I can ever make things right.” He dragged a paw over his face, mussing his feathers. “By all rights, I should never show my face in the Citadel again. I deserve to spend the rest of my days in the woods.”

“I’ll bet that’s what the Three want you to believe,” Pharazon said. “I don’t think it’s true. You’re still here, which means you have another chance. Don’t throw it away, Kass. You have so many strengths—you just need to learn to use them for good now. It will be worth it.”

Kass turned around to rest his elbows on the windowsill. “I hope so. I just have no idea how to even begin to do that.”

“Just start with coming with me to Black Keep,” Pharazon said. “That’s a good thing. Don’t overwhelm yourself thinking about too much at once. Believe me, I do that all the time and all it does is give me a stomachache.”

The Eyrie smiled down at him and said, “That wouldn’t be good.”

“Will you be okay tonight?” Pharazon asked.

“The Three will not get to me this time around,” Kass said. “I swear it.” Reaching down, he patted the Draik’s head. “Just having friends helps immensely. When I’m with you… their voices are harder to hear.”

“Good,” Pharazon said. “Then I’ll stick with you for as long as it takes.”

“They will regret attempting to take me back,” Kass snarled. His feathers fluffed for a moment before his expression softened. “You should get some sleep. We’ll probably leave fairly early in the morning.”

Pharazon nodded and made his way back to his bed. His nerves were still jittery, but he knew he needed the rest. It would be a bad idea to return to Black Keep without a full night’s sleep. “So you’re sure there’s nothing I can do for you?” he asked.

Kass, who had been staring at the wall pensively, glanced over at him and smiled. “Your friendship is already an immense boon to me,” the Eyrie said. “Sleep well.” He paused. “Let us look forward to brighter days ahead.”

“Yes, let’s,” Pharazon said. Lying down, he continued to watch the Eyrie for a moment. He still trusted Kass. Pharazon had just gone through his own time of doubt and come out victorious, and he was confident Kass would, too. The innocent Eyrie that Pharazon and Celice had met in the woods was gone—but perhaps something better had taken his place. Kass was a fighter, there was no doubt about that.

Pharazon rolled over and said, “Good night.”

“Good night,” Kass said, and in the hush that followed, Pharazon fell back asleep.


The chirping of Beekadoodles woke Pharazon, and with a lethargic snort he realised it was morning. The closed shutters allowed in only thin slivers of morning light, and he shivered with cold as he pulled himself out of bed. Kass’s bed was neatly made, with the Eyrie nowhere in sight.

Panic squeezed Pharazon’s chest. He scrambled to the door and out into the hallway, and thought to go to Jhudora’s and Celice’s room. The door was unlocked, the room empty.

He hadn’t wanted to jump to conclusions, but now Pharazon was honestly starting to worry that they might have taken off without him. He tried to tell himself there had to be a better explanation. They wouldn’t abandon him now, not after all they had gone through together.

Pharazon had to keep himself from flying in a rush down the stairway, continuing to reassure himself that everything would be okay. On the bottom floor of the inn, the hubbub of last night had died down, and scattered patrons sat around tables, eating breakfast.

“Pharazon!” said a familiar voice. Waving at him from one of the tables was Celice. To either side of her sat Jhudora and Kass, with mugs of steaming borovan and plates of eggs and sausage spread out in front of them.

The Draik’s heart leaped. “I’m so glad you guys are still here!” he said as he nearly collided with the Lupe.

Celice wrapped him in a big hug and scooted a plate and a mug toward him. “I’m sorry, we must have given you a scare,” she said. “But we decided to let you sleep for a little longer. Our friend was just about to go wake you, actually.” She motioned to Kass with her snout.

“Don’t worry,” the Eyrie said. “They know. That I know, I mean.” He was still wearing Pharazon’s scarf, but had tied back his long grey hair with a strand of yarn from one of the scarf’s tassels.

“Good,” Pharazon said with a smile before tucking into his eggs.

“Pharazon, I’m so sorry about last night,” Celice said. “This is definitely one of the strangest things I’ve ever gone through. But Jhudora and I got to talking… and I’m all right now. We’re heading to Market Town after breakfast.”

“It’s okay,” Pharazon said. “I think last night was hard on all of us. Except for you,” he said to Jhudora.

“Of course it was annoying watching you run around in mental circles,” Jhudora said. “But to make up for it, I’ve managed to restore Miss Anfel’s magic capabilities.”

“To a point,” Celice said. “They’re not back to a hundred percent yet, but she certainly expedited the healing.” She grinned. “Now I can be more than moral support.”

“As if that wasn’t important by itself,” Kass said.

Pharazon took a gulp of borovan and said, “I’m so glad we’re friends.”

“I’m glad, too,” Celice said.

“Hear, hear,” Kass said. He raised his mug. “A toast to the finest friends I have!”

“Huzzah!” Celice said, bumping her mug against his. Pharazon did the same, and even Jhudora joined in with an embarrassed smirk.

Everything seemed better in the morning. After everything Pharazon had been through, coming out the other end to find things getting better felt like the best reward he could have asked for. Pharazon thought he should be more frustrated at the entire process of struggle, but with all the peace and comfort and hope that filled him, who had room for frustration? This was already going so much better than the incident with Skoll.

After breakfast, they set out with their Uni driver. He was not a talkative sort, which everyone appreciated, as it left them with plenty of time alone in the carriage to plan for their arrival at Market Town.

The standard-sized carriage was not built to comfortably accommodate a Draik, a Lupe, a rather large Eyrie, and a tall faerie. Kass and Jhudora had to sit slightly hunched over, their heads brushing against the ceiling.

“We’re going straight to Black Keep,” Celice said as they bounced along the narrow dirt highway. “We can’t waste a moment’s more time.”

“How far up the tower are they?” asked Jhudora, who was sat next to the Lupe.

“Pretty far,” Pharazon said. “About halfway up. And it’s a long climb.” He grimaced. Just the thought of attempting that ascent again made his feet hurt. But flying would mean leaving Celice behind.

“They may have set additional wards,” Celice said. “I doubt they’d take any more chances after we stumbled upon them.”

“Good point,” Jhudora said. “All right, you and I will take point and disable any wards or traps. Kass will accompany Pharazon on his mission. If Fyora’s knights get there in time, we can work with them. We’re going to need to lob everything we’ve got at those sisters.”

“They’re that powerful?” Kass asked.

“Extremely powerful,” Jhudora said. “They were the Darkest Faerie’s right-hand women. Even if they’ve not yet fully manifested back onto this plane, they are not to be trifled with.” Snorting, she blew a stray strand of hair out of her face. “Despite what their irritating personalities would have you believe.”

Pharazon swung his feet anxiously. “You guys can beat them,” he said. “I know you can.”

“Thanks,” Celice said. “We’ll certainly give it our all.”

“If I only had a sword,” Kass muttered, “I would be more help.”

“Well, you’ve got your beak and your claws,” Jhudora said, “so that’s something.” She paused and steepled her long fingers. “At any rate, your fight may not be entirely physical.”

Kass shifted uncomfortably. “I know.”

Pharazon gave him an encouraging smile, which the Eyrie returned. Just as Pharazon believed in Celice and Jhudora, he believed in Kass’s ability to rid himself of the Three somehow. And Pharazon would stand by him, as his friend.

In theory, they should have arrived at Market Town by early afternoon. But that was without stops, and Uni drivers could not be expected to travel nonstop. This one in particular had a few deliveries to make along the way, and they also paused for lunch at another inn in a busy village. Pharazon and his friends ate quickly, but that did nothing to lessen the urgency hanging over the Draik’s head. He couldn’t get back on the road soon enough.

The sun had passed its apex by the time they started moving again. “We’ll get there soon,” Jhudora said, but even she wore a scowl and kept tapping her fingers on the windowsill.

“I’m sorry,” Celice said. “I thought he was going to be faster than this.”

“It’s not your fault,” Jhudora said. “Shame there were no Eyrie cabs around.”

For the next couple of hours, none of them talked much. Pharazon pulled out from his travel bag the book he’d been reading and immersed himself in Elephante Fossils for a bit. After he finished it, he lent it to Kass, who seemed happy for anything to keep his mind off of what was going on in his head currently.

As the old forests thinned into the coastal fields of the Brightvale region, Jhudora explained to them a little more about the history of the Darkest Knight. He had been an ally of the Darkest Faerie’s back during the Golden Age of Altador, and she secretly supported him as he built up his reign over Market Town. He was her accomplice in her bid to take over Altador, and he had pledged to send troops to support her in a war they both anticipated, but nothing of that ever materialised due to her sealing. It was only a few years afterward that he, too, fell to his own hubris.

“Nasty fellow,” Celice said. “No wonder bad faeries keep trying to bring him back. All of his loyal followers would probably return with him, I’ll wager.”

“Of course,” Jhudora said. “The Dark Faerie Sisters would have not only a tyrannical warlord at their disposal, but the legions he commanded.”

Kass shifted uncomfortably again.

Pharazon patted his arm. “The nice thing about tyrannical warlords,” the Draik said, “is that they can change.”

“I hope so,” the Eyrie said. “For all our sakes, I hope so.”

Jhudora glanced out the window and her grip on the windowsill tensed. “And here we are.”

Market Town had come into view again, its white cliffs and buildings tinged golden by the afternoon sun. But Pharazon felt like Black Keep was casting an even darker pallor than usual. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it. Certainly nothing looked different. It seemed more like a sensation in the back of his head that caused a pressure in his mind, an energy malevolent to the point of being agitating.

“They’ve grown stronger,” Jhudora muttered. She stared out at Black Keep as well, and her hand moved to the wand in her pocket.

“I can tell,” Pharazon said.

“Shades preserve us, those knights had better be punctual,” Jhudora said.

Celice looked nervously over at the faerie, adjusting her spectacles on her snout. “How long does it take to fly from here to Faerieland?”

“About a day,” Jhudora said. “If you’re not pushing it. And they shouldn’t, considering what they’re up against.”

“Well, whether they’re there or not,” Kass said, resting his ankle on his knee, “we’re doing what we need to do.”

Pharazon nodded. “Something’s wrong about Black Keep that needs to be set right.” This was about more than the Dark Faerie Sisters. Pharazon had felt something broken ever since he’d first laid eyes on the place. And it had been calling out to him to get to the bottom of it.

After the events of last night, though, he felt more confident in his ability to do so, and he determined to try his very hardest. Something good had to come out of his efforts.

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