Monty and Tarkin exchanged glances. No words were needed.
"We will take you to Verril, if you would just follow us..."
The dark faerie's lips curled back into a vicious snarl, but she didn't say anything. They were free to lead the way.
"I don't like this, Tarkin..." Monty whispered when he thought the faerie couldn't hear. They were walking across the barren black-violet wasteland, toward the underground entrance of the present-day Neopia Central.
"Neither do I." The Aisha's head was bent, staring at the ground, concealing her emotions.
Monty sighed. "The Grundo... he seems so young and innocent. Naive, he's like a child. Can he really be this... this hero she speaks of?"
Tarkin didn't say anything. Swiftly, she bent down to the ground and stood up, grasping something in her hand.
It was a flower, or at least it could've been, centuries ago. Its stem was twisted and burnt into an arc-like shape. The only thing recognisable about the flower were its petals. They were shrivelled and the unhealthy colour of ink, and yet...
It had survived.
"Look at this, Monty," Tarkin whispered. "Don't you wonder what this looked like before? Before everything? Don't you wonder what the world -- our world -- was like before? When it was full of colour and life. Magic."
Monty didn't say anything. Tarkin closed her eyes, as if picturing something in her mind. But it was a scene she had only heard about -- she couldn't really see it,; it was out of her reach, lying on the edge of her mind.
"You remember the stories the elders told us when we were children? The tales of beautiful places, the way the world looked before, the way it should look now."
She opened her eyes again. "I want to see that world. I want to see the flowers and the ocean. I want to see a blue sky with fluffy white clouds. I want to see the colour green.
"I want Neopia to be that way again. More than anything. And even if it means..." She hesitated. "Even if it means resorting to this, I'll still do anything I can. Everything I can."
Her fingers curled around the remnant flower, crushing it. "And I won't stop until the sun shines again."
The ashes of the crushed petals slipped through her fingers and were carried away by the wind.
* * *
Crina stared at the world around her.
She saw nothing but rock. The sky was made of granite, the clouds were discoloured rocks. Where were the trees? Where was the grass? Where was the Rainbow Pool? The shops and the houses?
She looked around her. The faces were grimy and pale from living underground for so long. Smiles lasted for mere seconds, flickering like a dying candle. They seem defeated, forlorn.
Where were the constant happy faces? The laughter?
This was not Neopia Central. There was no way this could be her home...
Verril sat beside her on the ground, legs crossed. "Somehow I don't think this is the Neopia you were trying to show me..."
Crina surprised herself by laughing. But her mirth sounded hollow, empty. She shook her head. A sudden thought struck her. She gave her hand to Verril.
"Come on, let's explore. Monty and Tarkin obviously don't seem to be coming back, so there's no use waiting for them."
Verril gave her a wary glance. "You sure?"
Crina blinked. "Well, yeah. I promised I'd show you Neopia. Even if it... even if it is..."
She didn't need to finish. Verril took her outstretched hand and pulled himself up. "Let's go then."
There wasn't much to see. The once familiar sights and landmarks of the old Neopia Central were long gone. No colourful shops greeted them here. The houses appeared to be carved into walls, their doors simple, dull cloth.
Crina blinked back tears she hadn't even noticed. How could her world be turned upside down like this? How could anyone live this way?
Beside her, Verril frowned. "I hate this," the Grundo said quietly.
Crina glanced at him. "Hmm?"
He looked up at her. The Blumaroo was slightly surprised by the look in his eyes. He didn't look sad or scared or anything like that anymore. He looked almost... angry.
"Why?" Verril almost snapped. "Why do they have to live this way? Why can't they live on the surface?"
"You've seen what it looks like up there. There's no way any one could survive in a place like that..."
"But why don't they try? Why does it have to be that way? Why can't they change it? Where are the faeries? Why don't they help?"
His eyes seemed to blaze. "Those stories you told me about Neopia... beautiful and magical. Why can't it be that way now? Why is it like this?"
Crina had no idea how to answer any of his questions. She shifted uncomfortably, searching for a way to distract him.
"Um, what's that over there? Come on, let's go see."
She hadn't seen anything, of course. But that didn't matter. She just wanted to distract Verril. She hadn't moved fast enough, however. She had heard the Grundo whisper a ribbon of words that sent a shiver down her spine before she tugged him away.
"I want to save them."
The way he said it... she didn't like it. It was almost as if he were making a promise. And she knew this would be a promise he could never keep.
Crina looked around her, searching for something that could pass as the thing she had "spotted." She found it rather easily; it was almost as if she were drawn to it, as if she had actually really seen something.
It was easy to see, it contrasted so easily with the grey and brown patterned walls of the cavern. Something gold, sticking out of the rocks.
She gasped as she saw it. She recognised it instantly. How could she not? After all, it was something she knew by heart, something that reminded her of home, something from the old Neopia...
"Look, Verril..." she breathed.
It was a giant feather, long and golden. Part of a statue that had broken off, judging by the jagged metal of the tip. It was from the giant Chia statue that led to the Catacombs.
Crina didn't know when she started grinning. Somehow, this comforted her. Seeing something from her time in a place like this. The way it shone even in the dusk of the cave -- it was obviously treasured here. Proof that the old world had not been entirely destroyed...
The Blumaroo looked up, startled. Monty was bounding toward them. Despite his size, he moved through the cave rather easily. Mainly because everyone seemed to move out of his way, not wanting to be squished.
"Hi Monty. Where's Tarkin?"
He didn't answer. "You have to come with me. Now. Tarkin, um, wants to see you."
He looked nervous, his eyes darting back and forth rather fearfully.
Crina frowned. "What for?"
"She, umm, she, uh, thinks she knows a way to get you two back home. Yeah, that's it."
All Crina's suspicions washed away as she heard those words. "Really? That's great!"
Verril didn't say anything.
"Um, yeah. Follow me please."
The Skeith started moving through the crowd, Verril and Crina tagged faithfully behind him. He turned into a nearby tunnel and led them through a twisting passage way.
The tunnels seemed to get darker with every step; they were going deep into the maze of tunnels, deeper than they ever had before. But Crina hardly noticed. This was it. They were going home!
He stopped at an entranceway, turning to them. "You can go in here."
"Aren't you coming in with us?" Verril asked.
Monty blinked furiously. "N-no. I-I'll stay o-out h-here."
"All right..." The Grundo sounded unconvinced.
Crina was practically jumping with delight. "We're going home!"
They entered and stopped short. All happiness evaporated, replaced with gasps and frightened stares.
The sight that greeted them was one neither had expected. Tarkin stood in the centre of the cavern. She looked terrified, but she stood tall. She seemed to have a lot more confidence than one would expect considering who her companion was. The dark faerie was practically oozing with malice, every element about her dark and foreboding.
She didn't even look at Crina -- her indigo eyes locked with Verril's and she smirked.
"Finally... revenge will be mine."
Crina looked at Tarkin, frightened and confused. "W-what's going on?"
The Aisha shook her head. "I'm sorry. I-it was the only way..." She turned to the dark faerie. "There he is. Now will you please turn our world back?"
The faerie laughed. "Foolish Aisha. Don't you know any better?" Her eyes narrowed into dangerous silts. "Dark faeries always lie..."
"But - "
Tarkin was silenced as the faerie waved her hand. Crina whimpered and Verril flinched as the Aisha hit the wall with a bang.
The dark faerie looked at Tarkin with disgusting contempt. "Silly Neopet... after I worked so hard on poisoning this world, did you really think I'd throw away all my hard work?" She smirked maliciously. "I've come back to finish the job. Neopia will be destroyed. But for the moment, I have more ambitious plans."
She approached Crina and Verril, eyes threatening to burn holes into them. She stopped no more than three paces away.
"Hello Verril, remember me?" She spoke his name as if he were a disgusting bug she were about to squish.
Crina stared at her young friend. What? What was she talking about?
He didn't give anything away. He didn't know anything more than she did. Or so she thought.
"No, sorry, I'm afraid I don't."
The dark faerie was outraged. "How dare you forget me?" She raised her hand, as if preparing to strike, but then stopped. The smirk returned to her face.
"I, the one who you imprisoned in that timeless jail. Destined to be locked up for eternity by your doing."
Her smirk grew wider, darker, more dangerous.
"Well, I've escaped. But that dungeon of stars is waiting. And it will have its prisoner. Only this time, it won't be me..."
She was laughing now. "Maelstra. Remember that name. It will be the last thing you'll know before I destroy you."
She leapt forward, and the world exploded in silver light. It was as if every star in the sky had fallen and this cave, acting like a net, had caught every one. The pinpoints of blinding lights surrounded Maelstra and Verril, a tornado of starlight.
Verril searched over the whirlpool of stars for Crina. "Crin-- " His voice was lost in a rushing that sounded like wind, his words left unspoken.
Up until this moment, Crina had been paralysed. Unable to do anything. But Verril's cry seemed to pull her back into reality.
"Verril!" She screamed.
The twister was brighter, spinning faster. She felt herself being pushed away from the vortex, away from Verril.
So, of course, she ran toward it. Fighting against the wind, it took all her strength to do the one thing no one would even think of doing.
She jumped into the vortex.
The light beamed brighter than ever before and with one final, blinding flash, everything was gone.
They disappeared along with it.
* * *
She was floating. Floating...
She tried to open her eyes, but saw nothing. Perhaps they were never closed in the first place. It didn't matter.
Pinpoints of light flashed in the distance. Stars? They were gone before her mind could register.
Where am I?
Who am I?
The Blumaroo floated. Not in time, not in space. Not anywhere. Hovering on the edge of nothingness.
Completely oblivious. Completely unaware.
That above her, below her, all around her.
A battle was raging.
* * *
Light flooded into darkness. Darkness folded into light. Forming something that was both, but at the same moment, neither. A ring. A square. A straight line.
So, what do you think of the place? Hope you like it. You'll be spending a lot of time here. Darkness taunted.
Verril was still.
What do I do?
What can I do?
Is she okay?
Soon, you'll sleep for eternity, locked away in this prison of time...
I don't want to be here.
I want to go home.
I want to see Crina.
I want to see Neopia.
And after that, I can finally destroy your puny planet once and for all.
It was then that the pieces of the puzzle came together. Clicked.
And suddenly, he knew.
No. The light started to pulse, stronger, brighter. You won't.
The darkness seemed to laugh, cackle like lightning. What? You think you can stop me? This time I have the upper hand. I will not make the same mistake.
You already have.
In all those years imprisoned in the stars, she had remembered. Remembered the name of the one who trapped her there in order to keep the fires of her revenge going.
But she had forgotten... forgotten how she had gotten there in the first place.
Light exploded. Darkness filled the sky. And then... there was nothing.
Maelstra was sleeping once more.
I don't intend to make the same mistake either.
This time, he'd do everything he could to make sure she didn't escape.
* * *
She didn't see him coming, but she knew he was there.
"Verril!" She tried to cry out, but nothing was heard. Her lips didn't even move.
You can't talk here, Crina. It's impossible.
But then how do I- Oh. Verril, where are we?
I'm not sure how to answer that.
Oh, okay... Um, Verril, where's Maelstra?
Maelstra's locked away. She won't wake up this time.
...How'd you do it? What happened? Verril, what's going on?
Her friend seemed to have changed. Or maybe, he was like this in the first place.
I'm... I'm not so sure myself. It's as if I've remembered something... no, that's not it. It's almost like I haven't forgotten. I just... knew... it's... He trailed off, there was no possible way to explain what had happened.
It's okay... I think... Verril, what do we do now?
You go home. To Neopia. It's not safe for you to stay here much longer.
Really? How can you send me back -- wait. You mean you're not coming back with me?
I can't. There are still things I need to do. I can't go back, not yet.
If it were possible to cry in a place like this, Crina would've. She thought she felt something wet roll down her cheek but when she reached up, nothing was there.
Will I ever see you again?
Someday, maybe, someday...
Pinpoints of light started to dance around her. Like the tornado of stars that had brought her here, this one would take her back.
She looked around for Verril, hoping to see him one last time, but her eyes met with nothingness.
The light spun faster, the warp opened.
May we meet again...
Then everything was gone. As if it had never been there in the first place.
* * *
Tarkin woke to a dull throbbing in the back of her mind. The Aisha flinched as she rose. Her mind worked slowly. What happened?
When she remembered, she burst into tears.
"Oh, how could I do such a terrible thing?"
"It's all right. You just wanted to save Neopia. Any of us would've done the same thing..." Monty was standing in the cavern with red-rimmed eyes. "I'm sure they're okay."
He didn't sound like he believed his own words.
She was cut off. Lights began to appear in the room. Small and silver. Little stars. They danced in circles.
Tarkin's mouth dropped open. Monty stiffened.
"S-she's not coming back, is she?"
The vortex spun and then ended abruptly. Tarkin wordlessly reached for the object that had appeared on the cave floor.
A flower, its petals soft and covered with dew. Its stem and leaves fresh and green.
She looked up at Monty in bewilderment, but the Skeith did not meet her gaze. He was looking past her.
Some of the ceiling had crumbled away, thanks to the first time warp. Now, golden beams were slipping through the cracks like liquid and illuminating the cave floor.
* * *
The tears were what awoke Crina.
"Verril..." she croaked.
How had everything gone this way? She just wanted to show her friend her home, Neopia. Now it was like she barely even knew him anymore.
Her fingers curled around something soft. Grass?
She leapt up, looking around her. It was nighttime, dark, but she didn't need light to tell her where she was.
Up ahead, amber lights of the city shone, as if reflecting the night sky. Neopia Central...
She was home.
For a moment, Crina just stared. Absorbing the beauty like a sponge. But she didn't dare smile.
How could she?
Verril was gone...
She turned her head up to the sky, where the stars were. She had never gotten to show him the magic of the world she called home. Even if it was just for a second, she wanted to show him. Show him everything... show him the world the way it was supposed to be.
Something caught her eye. A streak of silver, a shooting star, flying across the inky sky before vanishing.
Her smile finally found her. Somehow, somehow, at that moment, she just knew.
Verril had gotten to see Neopia after all.
A world of beauty and magic and brilliance. Neopia, the way it should be. Neopia, the way it would stay. For decades, centuries, millennia.
Maelstra would not rise again.