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||You are on Week 478
Every week we will be starting a new Story Telling competition - with great prizes! The current prize is 2000 NP, plus a rare item!!! This is how it works...
We start a story and you have to write the next few paragraphs. We will select the best submissions every day and put it on the site, and then you have to write the next one, all the way until the story finishes. Got it? Well, submit your paragraphs below!
Story Four Hundred Seventy Eight Ends Friday, October 1
Eight pairs: eight pairs of hooves cloven and battle-worn, and the memory of arrows whistled in their ears to mingle with echoes in the alley.
It should be said that the four were not travelling together this dawn; long since had bonds been slashed, and longer ago still had four Ixi silhouettes walked as one.
But perhaps they soon would again, because at that moment, each of them had a sole destination in mind, without knowing that the other three were thinking of one and the same.
Hear this: one carried something that always has an answer but only knows numbers, while the other brought a toy that danced to forget; the third Ixi held a shaft, while the last, something the world had never seen before.
As for who had the correct interpretation, well, that depended on who was doing the interpreting.
Sander glanced quickly at the paling horizon, his unease materialising from fleeting and numerous thoughts to every noticeable sign -- the way his white fur arched away above his front hooves, the contrary tilts of his ears, the swing of the pocket watch around his neck, and how he was staring at the dawn with such avidness at this moment.
Luckily, no one was there to notice. He was the first; it was just that he also thought he would be the only. After all, he was one of just five who could navigate the myriad that was the alleys of Old Neopia Central. Fallen so deeply into disrepair were the sandstones that a step too loud -- an accidental brush -- could confine you to these ancient lanes forever.
Hadn't Hanna once said that because of this, the window-cracks would whisper at night? The name itself was a pang.
No matter. He had gotten through safely enough, as he had been taught years ago. Sander waited, eyes raised toward the coming light.
He thought of the war, the lies, his own necessary betrayal... and the one final command that the captain had breathed into his ear as he lay on the shifting sands. There was something with him and memories: no matter how much he wanted one to blur, it would wedge in with time and never let go.
Time. He let a breath of frost touch the surface of the tarnished instrument that hung from his chain, watched the puff crystalise. Time would end all this.
And how much the Ixi had wanted to forget...
Editor's Note: This week's Storytelling beginning was written by _Razcalz_. Please keep sending in your entries for next week's Storytelling beginning!
Date: Sep 27th
His memories swirled about his mind in a neverending cycle. He had tried so hard to forget everything, but his memories only became stronger and louder. At times he feared he was losing his mind, but he knew that that was simply his punishment. Tired of the struggle, he allowed himself to be swept under a wave of memories -- no longer worried that he might drown.
They stood side by side, the expressions upon their faces perfect reflections of one another. Even their breathing was in synch, as if they truly were of one body and mind. Only their tools were different, sparkling in the sun.
For the first time, one allowed his gaze to slip and drift upon each of the faces. What did they look like to those who faced them? Deep in his heart he knew even if he dared not speak the words -- just as he knew what he must now do. Betrayal was such an ugly word, spat from the lips as if laced with venom, but no other word aptly described the actions that had already been planned.
The forest was unusually quiet as if a great shroud had been cast over it and the sound of his steady hoofbeats drummed like an eternal heartbeat. Walker was dreadfully tired, his hooves feeling as if they had been coated in lead, but he didn't allow it to show on his face. Even if he had wanted to, he had been too well-trained to hide his emotions.
Ahead, he saw a large clearing of soft, emerald grass and he knew his destination was close.
He also knew that he wasn't alone...
Date: Sep 27th
...and he knew she knew he was aware of his company.
There were no hoofprints in the windswept grass, no sounds of movement and snapping branches in the trees, but he did not need such tell-tale sights and sounds to know he was not alone. They had stood together for years, after all, side by side and sword by sword, moving as one, every action synchronised. He could not see her, he did not know where she was, but he knew she was there. Her presence was so familiar, after all, like an old nursery rhyme, a song you used to sing as a child. He knew it was her immediately, despite the chasm that had formed from the distance, the absence...
They had only known each other for centuries.
He did not nod, smile, or speak. His face remained impassive, his mask absolute. He did nothing to acknowledge her, nothing at all. He kept walking, straight as the arrows they used to send flying over barricades. He did not turn; he did not look back. He already knew she was there. He knew she would follow.
As he entered the cave, he wondered how many more of them would be there.
Asher hid the letter in the music box.
Really, it was such a silly place to store it. The music box is what they sought, after all, not the letter. If they took the box, they would find the letter. If they found the letter, she would have no choice.
Did she even have one in the first place?
Even now, in the middle of the city, with the sounds and smells of ignorant bustling her sense, she could still feel it. Pulling her, drawing her in... a kite to a string, a fish on a hook, a ship to the siren singing on the crooked rocks...
Who was she to think she would ever be free?
Who was she to think she would never go back?
Someone had carved their initials on the Inn's table. And there, by the lower-left corner, she could see the poetry some traveller had written in ink. The wood was like her skin -- rough and battle-scarred. She stared at it, stalling, carefully avoiding looking at the music box. She wondered how many years the table had seen, how many memories were stored in the dark wood, how many strangers had touched its smooth surface, turning it rough, changing it forever...
Inevitably, her eyes snapped back to the music box. Somewhere in the Inn's lobby -- it seemed so much farther than that -- a clock struck twelve. She reached over to the box, snapped the lid open.
The box had been beautiful, once, as they all had. But now the velvet was flaxen, the ornamental-flowers faded and gone. The only reason she could see them, still, was because she alone remembered what the music box had looked like, once. The compartments were empty. No jewels were ever kept there, nor would they ever be. The only thing inside was the letter, the letter, always the letter. It stood out against the velvet, ethereal and alien. It should not be there, the box was full enough as it was, but she could not bear to take it from its place...
On the underside of the lid, there was a mirror, broken and dust-spotted. In front of the mirror was a tin ballerina, balancing on a single foot, arms raised over her head. The paint had long faded, and the dancer was nothing more than a white figurine, but the magic was still there.
Asher's paw twitched. The key was still there. It shone silver and true. Of all the things in the box, it alone had not degraded with time. Oh, to turn it, to send the gears turning, to watch the clockwork ballerina turn and come alive... it had been so long since she had last seen the tantalising dance. And to think, all she had to do was turn the key and --
Asher closed the lid with a snap. She pushed the box away and stood up shakily, feeling nauseated. The box had been in her possession for years... how could it still hold such power over her? She was growing weaker by the second, by the years... soon... soon she would not be strong enough to resist the temptation.
Her mind drifted back to the letter, but carefully avoided the box... there were answers waiting for her. There were exits, too. She would not find them, staying here.
She gathered her things quickly, making sure to pack the music box last. Pulling her hood over her head -- force of habit -- she left the room.
Somewhere, a meeting place was calling...
Date: Sep 28th
The cave spiralled downward. As it turned, the last guiding rays of sunlight faded and only darkness remained. But the Ixi didn't need the light -- or even a hoof stretched out to the wall, as she had her first time following the curving corridor -- to find her way. No, she had her memories, though ages old and very recently relegated to the part of her mind reserved for things of questionable authenticity, and the nearly inaudible tap, tap, tap of Walker's hooves to guide her.
She had been surprised when he'd passed her in the woods, but as she descended farther and an unnatural light started to push back the darkness, she realised that the only true surprise would be their absence.
The footsteps ahead of her stopped. She paused too, and checked herself. Mask airtight. No sign of emotion: no fear, no longing, no rejoicing crossed her stern features. She took one last, long breath, and fell into the easy pattern that could give nothing away -- not her exhaustion, not the sharp pain that stabbed her leg every so often, not the hint of trepidation at resuming her former place.
She took the last few steps and turned into a small cavern.
Mould lined the walls and floor, stifling the voices and hoofbeats that came from within. An orb rested against the back wall, glowing brighter than an object of its size had a right to, casting three long shadows through the doorway, even into the cavern beyond.
"What is the meaning of this?" She looked into each face, one by one, inspecting their features for any sign of a thought or a feeling. There were none. Even after years apart, even after years leading normal lives, their masks were unmoveable stone, their postures unreadably rigid. Hanna struggled to force back a smile: she was pleased with them.
Walker stepped forward and nodded, ever so slightly.
Asher lowered her hood and bobbed her head, ever so slightly.
Sander stepped back ever so slightly, into the shadows.
Asher reached for her bag, untied it, and withdrew the music box. She held it out for all to see, then lowered it to the floor. "It's time to find someone else to bear this charge," she answered.
Sander whispered his agreement: "It's been long enough."
"You would break your oath?" Hanna accused them. "The weak-hearted should not be charged as guardians of great and dangerous ancient magic."
"You know as well as we do," Asher's mask slipped away, "better even than we do! No one should have to bear this charge. No one should decide when, if ever, it should be unleashed. Not even ones who have all of time as their mentor and those like them as peers. It's too great a task."
"It is a task that cannot be laid aside," Hanna answered. "What would you have us do? Leave the box here for the world to find?"
"In ten centuries no one has found this place," Walker whispered. "Ten centuries our sanctuary has gone undisturbed. But no, that is not what Asher wants. She wants to destroy it. She wants to break the power that binds us. She wants to break our curse of immortality."
Asher nudged the music box away from her with the point of her hoof. Hanna bent double to scoop it up and caressed the lid. Once, the power that stirred inside the ballerina's song had been unable to touch her, unable to tempt her. Over the years, it grew stronger, begged to be released... and so they traded. She smiled, the box now back in her possession. "You would end the cycles of war and death, rebirth and discovery, destruction and life anew?"
"Only for us," Asher answered. "Only for us."
"Yes," Sander echoed. "My sister is right."
"I agree," Walker whispered. "It's not right that this should exist."
Hanna found herself nodding her assent also, though she had not long considered what would come of her, of her companions, if they destroyed the artefact she held tightly. There were too many questions for it to answer still, too much to know about it and how it had caused so much to come into existence. "Asher, perhaps we hand the box to Walker. It's his turn. We'll see what comes of it... in the future."
"The same thing!" Asher broke in. "The same thing we've done for years! It won't work. Hanna, you know this better than us all. You've borne it more than the rest of us, for longer. You know that it's destroying us... us who cannot be destroyed! If it were to break our control..."
"Very well," Hanna silenced her. "We are in agreement, then. But..." she trailed off.
"But we need the fifth," they all answered.
"Perhaps I can shed some light. Open the box."
Hanna lifted the lid and caught her breath. The inside of the box was dusty and smelled of wet things -- much worse than the last time she remembered opening it. Stuck to the top, blocking the panel of mirrored glass, was the letter. Hanna opened it, and began to read it.
"Hanna. Walker. Asher. Sander. Pay close attention. Once you've started on this course, there is no turning back..."
Date: Sep 28th
"You started your journey as mere mortals, four mortals with four desires. You paid the price, trading your old curses for the curse of immortality. You gave me your lives, and I gave you these artefacts to have and to hold for as long as time flows.
"However... time is beginning to slow down. Soon, it may grind to a halt as the line between the transient and the eternal blurs, as the Keeper continues to hover within the Rift, a place untouched by time."
A ripple of unrest. A gasp, maybe two. Mouths moved, repeating important names silently. But not a single whisper broke Hanna's pause, and she continued.
"These four artefacts bound the Keeper once, long before any of you were born, before I was born. But she has been released from the bonds that keep time moving forward, and she and the item she holds will tear the temporal plane apart unless you enter the Rift and use the power you hold to contain her once again."
Hanna's words echoed all around the cavern as if an entire chorus of Ixi were reading the letter aloud, the sounds lingering before fading into nothingness. Behind her, the light from the orb began to pulsate as if it had come alive. Sander squinted at the light, which seemed to mock him and the others, and Asher twisted a portion of her hood, but still they said nothing.
"You hold the ancient keys four,
The toll you must pay to open the door.
You hold a curse others wish for,
The shield against the power of the Keeper.
But when all is said and done,
The curse will depart only one.
Four will enter, four into the Rift,
One will receive mortality's gift..."
Date: Sep 29th
There was a long pause once Hanna was done reading. Although there were no words on the page that had been left unread, Hanna's eyes lingered on the last few lines of the poem. She was able to keep her face blank only thanks to years of training, and it took a good deal of strength not to reveal her horror and revulsion. They had betrayed each other once before, and that had been bad enough. But now they were being told that only one of them would escape this curse? Their chances of avoiding petty squabbling, jealousy, competitiveness, and betrayal seemed slim.
Instinctively, Hanna's mind began to race as she calculated who would be her most formidable opponent. Sander? He had been trained most extensively for battle. Or could it be Asher, who could solve Neopia's toughest puzzle in the time it took to say, "I give up"? Or maybe even Walker, whose speed made up for his lack of strength?
She fought against these thoughts almost as soon as they presented themselves to her. Hanna was sick of feeling this way, constantly on the alert, paranoid and threatened. She had never been as close to anyone as she was to Sander, Asher, and Walker, but even so, she had to struggle to suppress her innate competitiveness. That's the kind of thinking that got us into this mess in the first place, she scolded herself. Vigorously, Hanna shook her head as though the simple movement could knock some sense into her, forgetting for a moment that anyone else was there.
She looked up expecting to meet three pairs of expectant, anxious eyes, but they were all too caught up in their own racing thoughts to give any attention to hers.
Underneath her hood, Asher's green eyes gleamed, her brows furrowed and her gaze fiercely directed toward the music box, as though she could make it explode through sheer will. She regretted bringing the letter, almost wishing that she'd torn it up before any of them were exposed to its disastrous words.
Next to her, Sander was looking into the face of the pocket watch that dangled from his neck, the rusted chain hidden underneath his white fur. The globule of the glass surface protruded from his neck, and the constant, rhythmic ticking of the hands seemed to mock him. It told the truth, but only in numbers. Since the day that had begun all of this, it had never once frozen, the hands moving exactly the same distance, exactly once every second, slowly making their way around the circle of time. Sander had to concentrate in order to banish the memories that seemed to leak into his mind with doubled determination every time the pocket watch ticked. The shifting sands, the face of the captain, his mouth as he formed the words that changed everything: "Take these, and don't forget." As if he could ever forget!
Walker was equally troubled. By his side lay the shaft, no more tarnished than the day it had been handed to him, and his eyes strayed to its gleaming surface as memories leaped into his mind. Sander, galloping toward him that day with a pocket watch around his neck, a music box, and the shaft held aloft in his hooves. "This is yours," he'd gasped, dropping the shaft at Walker's feet. "It has caused much destruction in its time, but the captain told me to give it to you, and that one day it would serve a more noble purpose."
"My companions," Hanna whispered, her voice startling them all back to attention. She tried to swallow the lump in her throat, but it wouldn't budge. "This... changes everything. We can't just destroy the music box, although we all want to, now more than ever. You know what needs to be done as well as I do."
"But how?" Walker said, panicked. "Sander has the pocket watch, Asher brought the music box, and I have the shaft. But the fourth item? We can't pass through the door without it, and even after centuries of searching we have no idea where it is."
"That's not true." Asher spoke in a whisper, but her voice reverberated, bouncing off the walls of the cave and startling all four of them with its confidence and clarity. "I know where it is..."
Date: Sep 29th
The casual observer wouldn't have noticed the nearly imperceptible, seemingly insignificant changes in Hanna's expression -- the smallest crease between the brows, the subtlest darkening of the eyes, the slightest tightening of the mouth -- but Asher saw all of them and knew that each and every one of them were significant. The crease implied that Hanna didn't -- perhaps couldn't -- comprehend why Asher knew this and she didn't; the darkened eyes suggested that the Ixi was plotting something; and the tightened mouth said that she would carry it out if it was the last thing she did. But Asher swallowed the fear and explained, "It's located in the heart of Neopia --"
"That isn't possible," Hanna interjected. "The... whatever it is can't be located in Neopia's core because the magma would've dissolved it upon contact."
"We were told that this fourth artefact is 'something that the world had never seen before'," Asher said. "Perhaps this artefact is able to withstand the heat."
"Even if the artefact is indeed located in Neopia's core and hasn't dissolved," Hanna said, "how are we supposed to retrieve it?"
"The artefacts that we already have will protect us," Asher explained.
"But none of them have the ability to prevent the magma from burning us," Hanna protested.
"It isn't as if we can die," Asher pointed out.
Hanna had no response to that.
"Now that that's settled," Asher said, "I propose that we travel to Moltara City, venture down into the Moltara Caves, and continue down from there."
"Agreed," Sander and Walker replied.
"All right," Asher said. She scooped up the music box and cradled it in her arms as if it were a child. Walker followed suit, grasping the shaft and holding it up. "I'll lead the way," Asher said. She turned around and began the short ascent upward. Sander and Walker followed closely behind. But Hanna hung back, eyes dark and mouth tight.
The four Ixi were squeezed into the dead end of a tunnel, three of them pressing into the rocky walls of the tunnel to make enough room for the much taller, much more muscled Sander. But even so, Sander had to hunch down to avoid hitting his head against the rocky ceiling.
"I think this is the farthest we can go down in the Caves," Sander said.
"How are we supposed to go deeper?" Hanna asked.
"I don't know," Asher admitted.
"I think I might know," Walker spoke up. "This shaft will be strong enough to break the rock bed."
"But what if it's too strong and causes an earthquake?" Sander asked, examining the shaft as if he could somehow measure its power.
"I'll tap it very lightly against the ground," Walker assured, holding up the shaft and, like he said, lightly tapping it against the ground.
As soon as the shaft so much as touched the rock bed, the ground began shaking and shifting beneath the Ixi's hooves. Cobweb-like cracks began forming beneath the bottom end of the shaft and spreading outward. The cracks grew into small fissures that in turn grew into a large enough hole through the rock bed that even Sander could fit. Inside the hole appeared to be nothing but hot, bubbling magma.
"How are we supposed to travel through that?" Hanna asked.
"I don't know if it's true, but the Captain told me that my pocket watch is supposed to have the ability to freeze time for a while," Sander spoke up. "We should be able to safely wade through the magma if time is stopped because it should stop generating heat."
"It's worth a try," Asher said, remembering what she had said earlier: it isn't as if they could die.
"Okay," Sander said, grasping the pocket watch and holding it up. "I think I'm supposed to re-set it to 12:00 to activate its powers." He twisted a small dial located on the side of the watch and re-set it to 12:00.
As soon as both the hands reached 12:00, the magma ceased to bubble.
"I think it worked," Sander said, peering down into the now still magma. "I don't know if we should wait until we think the magma has cooled down, but the watch doesn't freeze time for long --"
"We should probably go," Asher interjected. "Follow me." Without waiting for a response, the Ixi leaped through the hole and into the magma...
Date: Sep 30th
...and landed on the edge of an even larger hole, one made in cool granite beneath the magma. She knocked a pebble over its edge and slowly counted to twelve under her breath before she heard it clatter faintly to the bottom. She was soon joined by her companions.
Eight sets of hooves stood completely still as four pairs of eyes sceptically plumbed the depths of the crevice. With an impatient snort, Hanna broke the silence. "Well, the sooner begun, the sooner done."
Asher clutched the music box, her weighty charge, more tightly and, feeling much less careless now, said, "What exactly is it we're looking for?"
Hanna spun with enough violence to whip her mane in front of her scowling face, obscuring the creased brow, the dark and challenging eyes. "Do you not trust me now? After all of this time?"
As Asher moved to answer, with her whole body quivering and tensed for confrontation, Walker interceded, placing his staff between the two old friends. "I think that's the point, Hanna," Walker said quietly. "After the... betrayal... that began all of this, who of us could ever know trust again?"
A silence hung over the four like a hunched and predatory creature.
Relaxing her face into her placid mask, Asher said in a smooth and emotionless tone, "Before we jump into yet another hole, maybe we could have just a few answers. Do we have time for that, Sander?"
Sander breathed on the glass face of his timepiece, and as the fog disappeared, he noted with satisfaction that the hands remained fixed at 12:00. He nodded slightly at Asher, who continued, "That's fine. Okay, Hanna, what is in there? What is the object that the world has never seen? How do you know about it if we do not?"
Hanna's eyes flashed with a crazed light. "How could you not know? It's in your precious letter, Asher. And you know what? That's so like you to contaminate the music box with that letter."
Asher shook her head in confusion and protested, "The music box was the only place to keep the letter. What if, somehow, the key had been turned and the music had started? What if it caused us to forget the pledge? And besides, I've read that letter, thousands of times, It doesn't mention the fourth key. It says..."
"I know what it says, fool. 'The Keeper continues to hover within the Rift, a place untouched by time.' What do you think the Keeper is protecting? What do you think it keeps?" When the other three remained silent with varying degrees of shock and scepticism, Hanna added, "Use your eyes! Walker here has created a rift with the shaft. Sander has caused this place to be untouched by time." The triumphant grin Hanna wore as she concluded began to fade as she turned her focus from face to face to face of her silent companions, each firmly hiding their emotions behind stony masks. Hanna barked out a laugh of disbelief. "Well? Do you not see it even when it's right before your eyes?"
Asher was the first to speak. "I assumed 'the Rift' referred to the distance that has grown between us all. That we, who can not die, have been untouched by time..."
Sander coughed politely to interrupt and said, "If I might interject?" When no one protested, he continued, "As the expert on time in this group, I believe the letter means that there has been a rift in Time itself. That the Keeper inhabits a different dimension but is on the brink of crossing over into ours..."
Hanna began to shout over him, "No, no, that might be what the Keeper is, but it's not where the Keeper is..."
"That's far too literal, Hanna," Asher howled in protest. "We need to interpret the letter..."
Walker touched his staff down once more to the ground and the tremor that it caused startled the other Ixi into silence. "We could always waste time and go into Neopia Central, to the bookstore and look for a thesaurus. We could debate the meanings of every word in that cursed letter, and that would not change the fact that this is the time for action. That fact is not up for interpretation. I say we go into the rift, into the hole in the ground here, and see what is to be seen. Asher knew this is where we had to go to find the fourth item."
Hanna sighed heavily with satisfaction and said, "Excellent. I'll lead the way."
Asher began to slowly step backward, away from the lip of the rift, saying, "Long ago I followed you into battle, Hanna. I have followed your orders for longer than I can remember. But I will not follow you into that hole."
Hanna smiled and walked slowly toward Asher, saying, "Then you need not follow me." With a lunge, she pushed the other Ixi, who slid along the frozen magma, scraping and grasping for purchase. As Asher fell into the rift, Hanna cried, "If you will not follow me, you will lead the way. It was you who led us to this place to begin with!" Turning to the other two, she said, "It is clear that all four of us must enter, even if only one will make it out alive." Slitting her eyes challengingly, she asked, "Either of you need a nudge...?"
Date: Sep 30th
Hanna turned to face the magma, which by now was showing signs of wakening.
"Well? Hurry it up. We don't have all day!" she snapped.
She made a dive at Walker, but he jumped out of the way. Hanna then turned her flaming eyes toward Sander, who held out his palms beseechingly.
"Hanna, this is madness. I don't want you to--"
"I don't care what you want! I've spent the last dozen centuries doing what you want! Thanks to you, my life is forever devoted to these artefacts!" She raised a hoof and pointed at the hole. "Now I recommend that you jump. It won't hurt," she said, adopting a sugary-sweet demeanour. The other two Ixi glanced at each other fearfully.
"No, Hanna. We won't do it," said Walker.
Hanna's eyes flamed.
"Asher is gone, and I remain the only one who knows the location of the last key. Unless you do as I say, none of you shall ever be free of the curse," she paused to revel in her former comrades' fear. The magic had at last taken its toll, after eating away at her soul for centuries.
"But... but... Asher was supposed to be the only one who knew the location! Just her..." protested Sander.
"Intelligence can only get you so far," murmured Hanna, "and in Asher's case, so far was not far enough."
When the others did not reply, Hanna laughed, a twisted and manic laugh.
"Well?" she asked, "are you not going to ask me how I know the location of the final key?"
No response once more. They stood there, at the brink of the hole, as though frozen into stone. The magma was bubbling now, ever so slightly, but it wouldn't last long before the lava heated up again and they would forever be separated from Asher.
"The only ones who know the hiding place of the final key are Asher... her and... her and the Keeper... and since Asher is gone, then..."
They laid horrified eyes on Hanna, as the realisation struck. Hanna smiled, satisfied.
"Then I must be the Keeper..."
Date: Oct 1st
Things suddenly made perfect sense in Sander's and Walker's minds. Hanna had unanimously been elected the leader of the foursome because they had somehow sensed that she possessed an ancient magic that was much more powerful -- perhaps uncontrollable and therefore, dangerous -- than one of the artefacts; they had somehow known that she shouldn't -- perhaps couldn't -- be challenged lest she unleash the magic on them.
Perhaps the three of them could've defeated Hanna together -- the prophecy stated that they possessed 'the shield against the power of the Keeper' -- but three had turned into two and two may very well turn into none unless they stop the corrupted Ixi.
"You knew that we had 'the shield against the power of the Keeper'," Sander said, voicing his thoughts. "You knew that you'd be able to push us into that pit" -- Sander shivered in spite of the growing warmth of the magma, thinking of poor Asher -- "and prevent us from stopping you. But you forgot that the fourth artefact is down here, that once we find it --"
"Haven't you figured it out yet?" Hanna interrupted, chuckling humourlessly. "The prophecy states that you three 'hold the ancient keys four'; it doesn't state that you hold the four ancient artefacts. Yes, the first three keys were the artefacts. But the fourth and last key -- the most important one -- was trust."
"I don't understand --" Walker protested.
"The key to defeating me was trusting in each other, relying on each other. But it's already too late because I pushed Asher into the pit," Hanna said, barking out a harsh laugh. "Can you figure out who's going to be next?"
"You are!" a familiar voice shouted from behind Hanna, seconds before the owner of the voice -- Sander and Walker was overjoyed to see that Asher had managed to crawl out of the pit -- tackled the Ixi and they plunged beneath the magma with a splash.
Seconds later, Asher stood back up, a hoof gripping the collar of Hanna's robe, and dragged Hanna toward the pit.
"No!" Hanna screamed, thrashing and spraying the magma everywhere. "This isn't supposed to happen!"
"Think of it this way, Hanna," Asher said, pausing in front of the pit. "You're about to 'receive mortality's gift'."
With that said, Asher shoved Hanna into the pit.
"She's gone," Sander whispered. Walker nodded mutely, too overcome with shock and grief to speak.
"I had to do it; I had to," Asher said, uncertain if she was trying to convince herself or Sander and Walker.
"It's okay," Sander said, wading through the now hot magma and squeezing Asher's shaking shoulder -- he realised that she was sobbing -- in an attempt to soothe the Ixi. "Anyway, we have to get out of here before the magma gets too hot."
"Okay," Asher hiccupped, wiping away tears.
Sander easily lifted Asher up and out of the hole. He turned to lift Walker through the hole, but the Ixi stepped back.
"I'm not leaving unless you both leave your artefacts behind," Walker said, crossing his arms.
"What? Why?" Sander demanded, noticing that Walker had already dropped his shaft. "Don't be foolish --"
"It'd be foolish to take them with us!" Walker interrupted, dropping his arms and clenching his hooves into fists instead. "The artefacts' powers corrupted Hanna and they might corrupt us too. I can't... I can't lose another one of my best friends."
"Okay," Sander whispered, throwing the pocket watch without looking to see where it fell into the magma.
"I dropped the music box when Hanna pushed me into the pit," Asher called down, having heard everything.
"Good," Walker said, relaxing.
A minute later, Walker and Sander joined Asher outside of the underground cavern and the three of them began the long ascent upward.
"Do you think we'll stay immortal without the artefacts?" Sander wondered out loud.
"I don't know," Walker admitted, shrugging. "But I do know that I won't mind staying alive forever if I have my two best friends."
"That was so corny," Asher muttered, rolling her eyes but nonetheless smiling.
Date: Oct 1st
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