..."Let's not waste another moment cooped up in this place, then!" she exclaimed, pushing her chair back as she stood with the power of twenty Lupes.
"There's the Winifred I knew from so long ago," the Kyrii piped in from where he had been listening. "Strong, brave, and not willing to yield to something as trivial as a storm -- no matter what beast it's named after. I wish you two the best of luck on your quest, and I sincerely hope it ends on a good note." Aspen nodded toward the Kyrii and turned from the window. He looked over at Winifred, who seemed so different now than she had before. Was she -- dare he say -- an entirely different Lupe?
"I feel as spry as a young pup, and it's all thanks to you, Aspen. If you hadn't stumbled through that door earlier, I would've still been sitting by the hearth, wallowing in my regrets. Now, though... now I can do something about the past. I may be old, but I can still change my future." Aspen was touched and couldn't help but smile as he swung the pack over his shoulders.
"We should be able to make it to Taelia's in a matter of hours, give or take a few considering the storm will whipping us around," he said. The Lupe grunted in acknowledgement, beginning to stumble toward the door. When she was almost there her left leg twitched, and she collapsed.
"Are you alright?" Aspen exclaimed, rushing over to her side. The Lupe nodded and picked herself up before she could hit the floor. Propping herself up against the doorknob, she breathed heavily for a moment before speaking.
"Don't worry about me. I just got up too quickly, that's all." She turned her paw and opened the door. A blast of icy air hit the two 'pets, but she didn't falter. "Let's go. You've got everything in that pack of yours, correct?" Aspen nodded breathlessly, amazed by Winifred's tenacity, then stepped in front of her as though to block the wind.
"This is going to be quite a hike... but we are ready!" he yelled, only glancing back once to see the Kyrii bidding them farewell with a sad wave.
It must have been at least an hour before Winifred and Aspen reached the large estate Taelia resided in, maybe more. The Acara hadn't bothered to keep track of the time as he had been too concerned with making sure Winifred didn't collapse in the snow before they reached their destination.
"We're so close to meeting the Snow Faerie. I can't believe you got me to do this..." Winifred wheezed once they reached the towering doors, her breath short. She seemed grateful, however. Aspen could tell she was worn out.
"Let's just get you inside; I'm worried you'll catch frostbite or something!" Aspen half-joked. The Lupe smiled and extended her right paw to knock on the door. Once the echoing had faded, the two proceeded to wait.
"What do you plan to say to Niella?" the Acara questioned, shivering as a snow-fringed gust struck the exposed fur on his face. Winifred gazed down at the doorstep, which was just beginning to get dusted with snow, her eyes cloudy.
"I'm not entirely sure, to be honest. I was just going to--" Her reply was cut off by the sound of a door opening. The Lupe jumped back mid-sentence to dodge the heavy object, then exchanged a look with Aspen.
"You were saying?" he offered, but Winifred had already moved on to gazing at the interior of the castle. All the Acara could do was shrug and follow her. As soon as they were both inside, the doors closed with an echoing thump. Aspen didn't bother to glance back at them for fear of losing sight of Winifred.
The Lupe had already begun to walk around the castle, gazing wondrously at ice sculptures of various Neopians and oohing and ahhing at the pointed icicle chandelier hanging overhead.
"Ah, guests. Welcome," a regal voice said, emanating from somewhere within the castle's main room.
"Taelia," Aspen whispered, glancing around to see if he could catch sight of the faerie.
"What are your intentions, coming into my castle during such a baleful storm?" she asked, still hidden.
"We'll tell you if you reveal yourself to us," Aspen said calmly. "We carry good intentions, if that's what you're worried about." A laugh echoed through the room and the coated figure of Taelia appeared from behind an ice sculpture.
"You are a smart Acara, young traveller. What is it you want?" she asked, her voice showing trust.
"It's not what I want -- it's what my friend Winifred desires."
"Ah," she murmured, turning her attention to the elderly Lupe. "Did you trek all the way out here to see me?"
"Yes," Winifred stated proudly, "and I would like to speak with your sister, Neilla." There was a moment of silence, then Taelia replied.
"It's been years since I've spoken with her, but I suppose it would be worth a try to call for her..." She trailed off, and the castle was plunged into another silence. "Wait, I have a better idea. I can teleport you two to where she lives, but after that point the rest is up to you. I can only teleport two at a time if I want to have enough energy to make a round trip."
"Really? That is more than we were expecting. Thank you very much..." Winifred replied. Taelia smiled warmly and extended a palm toward the Lupe. A small orb materialized in it, a small flame suspended within.
"Just throw this on the ground when you wish to return," she instructed. The faerie handed the orb to Aspen, who took it gingerly and placed it in his backpack's side pocket. "I wish you the best of luck..."
Those were the last words the two heard before beginning a plummet into darkness.
"Aspen, we're here!" The Acara was brought to by the sound of Winifred's voice. He opened his eyes slowly, partially expecting to be sitting by the hearth in the inn. He instead found himself in a cavern, with Winifred standing by his side. He pushed himself up, quickly making sure the orb was still in his pack.
"Who's there?" a malicious-sounding voice screeched from above the two 'pets. Aspen frantically looked up but could see nothing in the darkness. A moment later, an invisible force knocked him against a wall. He felt the earth crumble against his backpack, but he couldn't move any of his limbs, let alone attempt to escape.
"Winifred!" he gasped out, feeling the air around himself grow cold. "It's Neilla!" The elderly Lupe shivered, but remained standing.
"Your magic will not work on me!" she proclaimed loudly, her feeble voice seeming much more firm than it actually was. There was another screech, and for a second Aspen could swear he saw a flash of onyx.
"You have no power against me as long as this storm is raging!" she shouted louder than Aspen had ever seen a Lupe roar. "I have become the Lupe your ring showed, and I have invincibility here!"
"You stole my ring, then!" the voice shrieked accusingly. "I want it back!"
"You'll have to come and get it from me, then," Winifred bluffed, holding up her hand as though she were beckoning the faerie down. There was a grunt of indignation, then a form appeared before her. Aspen was surprised at how different she and her sister looked; she had long hair so white that it appeared as though she had just been hit by a snowstorm and eyes that were grey like ash. She wore no coat, instead letting a torn black cape flow over her knee-length grey dress. The dress was just as ripped as her cape, and two obsidian wings framed either side of her body.
"Where is the ring?" she demanded, one hand resting on her hip.
"Like I said, I've become the Lupe it showed, so in essence, I am the ring," Niella scoffed.
"What do you mean by that?" she asked, clearly impatient.
"I mean, I've become a Lupe that I once thought I never could be," she said with a smirk, "and guess what? I didn't even need the ring to do that for me. The truth is that old ring never meant anything. It simply reflected what was in the viewer's heart, what they truly wanted to be -- and what they could be -- if they tried. That's where your ring stopped functioning and began hurting you more than it was helping you."
"Lies!" the faerie sputtered. "I was beautiful with that ring! I-it--"
"Who's saying you're not beautiful now?" She waited for a reply, but there was none. "Only you... and that supposed magical ring. What I'm trying to say is that the ring kept pushing you to be perfect, someone you couldn't possibly be, and that made you bitter. I was like that for many years, until this young Acara quite literally got me out of my chair and made me realize that I couldn't be exactly like the Lupe I saw in the ring -- but I sure as Fyora could be the best one I could be. I never would've come to that realization if someone hadn't intervened. So, that's what I'm doing for you."
"But--" Niella started. She didn't even get halfway through her sentence before Winifred continued.
"But nothing. You know, deep down, that the ring is just a glorified mirror, and you've been whipping up this snowstorm to block that truth from yourself. All I'm asking for you to do is realize you can be the faerie you've always aspired to be without the help of some fancy piece of junk that's just going to make you feel bad about yourself. All you have to do is believe that you can come out of this cave and start turning into that faerie... from the inside out." Aspen felt a smile spreading across his face, certain that, if he could move his hands, then they would be applauding Winifred. Niella looked down at the cave floor dejectedly.
"You're right," she sighed, for once sounding sad instead of angry. "I have regressed into this cave for most of my life and turned into a recluse, and all because I thought I needed some ring to be beautiful." She turned her gaze toward Winifred and then to Aspen. "How could I not have noticed myself slipping away? I mean, Taelia must be worried sick about me." She made a downward motion with her left hand and Aspen felt the compression leave his chest. He fell back against the wall, gasping for air that he hadn't realized he'd been missing.
"Don't feel bad, Niella," Winifred began, her eyes burning with a fire that could melt the coldest of snow. "I didn't know I was falling until Aspen came and offered me a hand." She extended a paw up to rest on the faerie's shoulder.
"How will I begin piecing my life back together?" Niella asked, her voice breaking. "I don't even know where to start. My heart is so cold; I'm worried it's too broken to be repaired."
"Don't say that. No one is too broken to be fixed, not even a faerie like yourself. The first step to recovering your true self is to cease the storm you've brought upon Terror Mountain." The Lupe removed her paw from the faerie's shoulder, then walked over to where Aspen stood.
"I-I'll do that at once," Niella whispered, bringing a hand up as though she were attempting to touch the sky, then sending it down toward the earth. She muttered a few words that Aspen didn't quite catch, then brought the hand to rest by her side. "It is done." She nodded toward Winifred, giving her thanks that couldn't be expressed through words.
"The second step, if you're willing to take it, would be paying your sister a visit," the Lupe said. Shock flashed through Niella's eyes, but only for an instant.
"Will you two be able to make it back safely?" she asked. Winifred nodded, gesturing to Aspen. The Acara pulled the orb from his backpack and showed it to Niella, who in turn smirked. "Typical Taelia giving random travellers a teleportation sphere. Just tell it where you want to go and it will take you there. Tyrannia, Mystery Island, wherever. It even caters to specific buildings and shops, so long as you know the name." Trusting the two would know how to use the sphere based upon the instructions she gave them, Niella waved once and was then gone in a puff of smoke.
"I can see she's already become a better faerie," Aspen stated, his grip tightening around the ball. "Hey... Winifred, look at this." The Lupe glanced down at the orb, a smile spreading across her face as she realized who was being displayed in its interior. The fire had disappeared, and in its place was the flickering image of two sisters embracing for the first time in years.
"She's going to be alright," Winifred whispered before turning to look at Aspen. "As am I. I feel better now than I did in all the time I had the ring in my possession. Thank you." Aspen smiled at the Lupe, seeing her true self.
"Shall we head back to the inn?" the Acara suggested. Winifred nodded, placing a paw atop the orb.
"Together." The two were sucked into another onyx embrace before they heard the glass sphere shattering against the floor.
Aspen awoke and instantly recognized his surroundings. The fireplace crackling before him was identical to the one in the inn. Beside him, Winifred reclined, intrigued by the dancing flame in the hearth. Had the whole thing -- Niella, the ring... been a dream?
A wide smile crossed the Lupe's face when she noticed her friend was awake.
"We really did it," she stated triumphantly. In that moment, everything came back to the Acara. The storm must have...
Without a word, Aspen jumped up from his seat and rushed to the window. Greeting him was a tranquil scene. Other than the few inches of snow that remained clinging stubbornly to the ground, there wasn't a storm to be seen.
"It looks like someone's excited for eggplant!" He heard the jolly voice of the Kyrii innkeeper echo from behind him. Whipping around, he noticed Winifred already sitting at the table. Sometimes I wonder if she's really as old as she claims to be, the Acara thought with a chuckle. Winifred beckoned for him to take a seat next to her, so he did. The Kyrii placed steaming plates of eggplant before the two 'pets, then proceeded to sit across from them.
"So... what happened?" he asked, picking up his fork and hovering it over the food. Aspen and Winifred exchanged a look, then the Lupe began to recall what had happened while they had been on their trek to Taelia's castle.
Aspen was sure that their eggplant would be cold by the time she finished telling the tale, but he didn't mind.