Enter the Snowflake's lair... Circulation: 124,395,024 Issue: 250 | 28th day of Swimming, Y8
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The Price of Faith: Part Seven


by mutedsanity

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We set off first thing the next morning. It wouldn't be wise to mosey about around here, what with the scene we caused. I could only hope that Wira would be all right. But he would be. I could feel it.

     Once we had woken up enough and gathered ourselves, Radom and I set off. We had decided to search in the nearest place, and reasonably so. But what that place happened to be was repelling enough. The Haunted Woods.

     But it was quite a long walk indeed, to put it lightly. We traveled all day and collapsed as the sun set to sleep, and were only on the outskirts of Neopia Central. Then we were up with the sun, and spend another day trekking through the woods. We made a point to go around Neopia Central entirely, because there were just too many people and we didn't want to risk it again. Once was enough, thanks.

     Travel was relatively uneventful. We chatted idly about minor things, things that made no imprint on my memory. But by the time we had reached the Haunted Woods, we had been walking for nearly three days and I was utterly exhausted. I was grubby from all that time in the forest, and what I could really use was a good bath and bed. I did so miss my lovely bed back home with the silk sheets. We had very little luck finding any food at all, either, and I regretted not stopping by Neopia Central, because now I was weak and tired after three days of walking and no food.

     The forest had been gorgeous. Curtains of sunlight draped the lazy trees and bathed the flowers in gold, everything was peaceful and breathtaking. But now my outlook on forests had been tweaked, let's just say. The closer we got to the Haunted Woods, the more things started to vanish or die. What greeted us now couldn't possibly be a forest. It was more like a dark reflection of one, like a landscape hanging inverted in the water of a lake.

     The trees were no more than bare silhouettes, wiry and twisted, their misshapen branches reaching blindly like shakings hands toward a lightless sky. Roots coiled up out of the cracked black soil, and what little excuses of vegetation there were on the otherwise bare ground were no more than dead shrubs or tufts of weed. It was so empty. As silent as the grave. Not a sound, not even an insect, no smell but that of mold and dry soil. The sky above was blank and grey, heavy with menacing rain clouds, and everything was so colorless and vast that I could hardly tell where the ground ended and the sky began.

     Something about this place made me want to step lightly. Made my heart beat like a drum in my chest. Made me not want to even breathe or close my eyes for any longer than it took to blink. It was cold, in a still, windless sort of way, like there was something heavy in the air. The damp air hung in a wet mist over the area, shrouding the already eerie shapes in haze and blurring things even more.

     I walked like I was afraid to leave behind footprints. I moved as if not to stir the air around me. Already, I hated this place. I couldn't believe two places could be so incredibly different. One moment, a beautiful forest. The next, a barren wasteland that insisted it was a forest as well.

     I was almost angry at Radom for looking so casual. How could he not be afraid? He was walking normally, his paws making no noise against the soil, but the occasional click of his claws against a rock startling me. He walked evenly, his ears perked, eyebrows raised in an almost curious manner. It was both of our first times here, and not on our own free will, no less.

     "Radom," I whispered, feeling unable to raise my tone, but the sound of my own voice startled me. "How big is this place?"

     "Pretty big." Even Radom's voice was lowered. I found myself walking right alongside him, so close he could easily trip me if he made any sudden movements. "I mean, there's a place with all the shops and everything. But then the forest goes on for a while. And there's a deserted Fairground, too, and who knows what else. But I sincerely hope we won't need to go too far."

     He didn't need to say it. There were dangerous things out here, that was for sure. And I could only hope we wouldn't have to stay until nightfall. I swallowed back a whimper that wanted to escape, hugging myself to keep from shivering. I had put my coat back on, and the knapsack was slung over one shoulder, the Crystal in my pocket.

     "How do you know so much about these different places?" I managed to ask. It was curious. He had lived on Terror Mountain forever, after all. I had learned my fair share about Neopia back home, but he still knew more than me.

     "My father told me about them," he replied simply, and though it was casual enough, there was something about the way that he didn't look at me when he spoke that told me to drop the subject. Radom's family ... I wondered a lot about them. He was all alone when I met him, after all. What had happened...?

     But I didn't press. Now was no time, anyway. We fell into another silence, and the utter silence around us only managed to spook me even more. I glanced down at Radom, whose bright amber gaze was set ahead at the dark trees that looked just the same as all the others, and I felt a twinge of fear at the thought of us getting lost. It was very dim in here, but what little light that managed to peak through the blanket of clouds shone through the bare branches overhead and dappled his face in a mosaic of light and shadow. But what little light there was was quickly swallowed up.

     "I wish there were paths," I whispered, weaving in a broad circle around a tree and half expecting it to grab me.

     Radom smirked and glanced up at me. "Pandora, there are no paths, because paths are made by walking."

     I would have smiled if I wasn't so scared, exhausted, and starving. Maybe. "Fair enough." After all, who in their right mind would be out here?

     Soon, the trees gave way to a throng of shops and broken buildings. They were all dull in coloring, poorly taken care of, some with broken windows or holes in their roofs. There were very few people outside, but those that I saw were mostly Mutant or Halloween. Well, at least being a Darkness Faerie wouldn't be near as bad here. I could imagine, with all the evil and scary things running around, my kind would be right at home.

     So right now that wasn't at the top of my worry list. I glanced down at Radom and saw him eyeing people that passed us for a moment. "Be careful," he muttered to me. "The people here are grinning smooth talkers who pat you on the back with one hand and pick your pocket with the other."

     "I can believe it," I muttered back, glancing at a Mutant Buzz who stared at me as we crossed paths.

     Our footsteps echoed off the buildings, and our shadows walked ahead of us. My mind wandered to all those scary stories I had heard when I was young. Woods. Old dark house. Horrible menace on the loose. 'Let's split up.' Muffled screams in darkness. I winced and looked back at Radom, hating the way my voice shook a little. "Uh ... We'll stick together, won't we?"

     "Of course," the Lupe replied, looking up at me with the tiny reassuring smile, his unkempt brown fur looking out of place set against all of the grey and black of this place. "Wanna check the Crystal?"

     "Oh. Right." I fumbled it out of my pocket, almost afraid to see. But, of course. Just my luck. It was glowing decently, and I bit my bottom lip as I pocketed it once more. "It's in here somewhere."

     So we pressed on. Needless to say, we made a point to avoid things such as the Castle of Eliv Thade, the Brain Tree, and so on. Combing through the woods without getting too close to anything if we could help it, the Crystal didn't seem to be glowing any more or any less than the last time I checked it.

     Soon, my stomach seemed to have seized control of my brain, and I felt I would pass out if I didn't get something to eat soon. "Radom, we haven't eaten in days," I whimpered, feeling light-headed. "Where can we get some food around here?"

     "As far as I know ... the Deserted Fairground." He didn't look at all weak. Then again, living up there on that mountain and judging by how lean he was, I could safely assume that he was used to not eating very often.

     Well, so much for being deserted. And although I hated the very name, I nodded reluctantly. "Let's go there."

     So we wove among the trees, avoiding everything we could. My strength was almost nonexistent at this point. I felt faint and needed to stop and rest every once in a while, though the eerie stillness prickling my skin got me moving quickly enough again. But as we made our way to the Fairground, I could have sworn I heard something moving somewhere in the trees all around us. At first, I though my mind was playing tricks on me. But even Radom had gotten more alert, and a minute later, I heard something moving again.

     Radom heard it too. His ears perked and his pace quickened gradually, eyes flicking about warily. I followed right behind him, trying to keep myself from breathing too hard or taking my eyes off of the woods on all sides for a moment. Something was out there. I had no idea what, or quite where.

     I had to keep myself from running. I walked quickly after Radom, and although it couldn't have taken more than a few minutes, it felt like hours walking in this manner. Jumping at small noises, finding it harder to breathe all the time, my heart beating so loud that I wouldn't be surprised if Radom could even hear it.

     But we made it. The trees parted and came to a stop on the top of a hill, which overlooked the Deserted Fairground. Radom and I both stopped there, utterly silent. We didn't hear the noise anymore. That noise like somebody walking. It was gone, and with it whatever was making it, I hoped. I couldn't help but let out a sigh of relief. Out of habit, I quickly checked the Crystal. It was glowing more now. That meant the next piece was down here somewhere.

     I was about to tell Radom this, but he was looking at the Crystal too. I pocketed it and we exchanged nervous smiles. I dreaded this all. I glanced back at the woods apprehensively, and could have sworn I saw something move. That was enough for me. Next thing I knew, I was fast-walking down the hill and to a place that had to be better than the woods back there.

     "Someone's playing a game with me," I hissed, my eyes wide as I hurried away from whatever was left back there.

     "And you're losing, apparently," Radom muttered back, but even his eyebrows were furrowed and a frown touched his lips. "Well, whatever it was, it didn't sound terribly big."

     I may have replied, but my eyes finally registered what it was I was looking at. The Deserted Fairground. The most foreboding place I had ever seen and probably ever would see. The slope of the hill led right down to the black wrought iron gates, towering and rusted from age and rain, bars missing and the gate doors opened on broken hinges. And I could have sworn I saw a scrap of clothing stuck to one of the sharp props atop the gateway. The ground was bare and cracked, tufts of weed sticking up here and there, and nothing but a few crumbling stones embedded into the earth where paths might have once been. The old rides were now boarded up and decrepit, entrances blocked by boards with twisted nails, spider webs hanging from corners that hadn't been used in years. A few lopsided booths were set up here and there, the only things occupied now by people trying to earn some money off of travelers. The gates creaked in the wind behind us, and the wind swept over the abandoned place, chilling me to the bone. I felt as though every nerve was standing on edge, every breath and step increasingly difficult.

     What had driven everything away? What had happened to this place? I didn't want to know. I really didn't. I was shaking now, from a lot more than being famished. Even Radom looked a little uneasy by now, which didn't help my condition at all.

     When I saw the pile of boards that served as a shop counter with a chunk of wood over it, the words painted in red - I tried to keep my mind from blood-labeled "Spooky Foods" - I just about sprinted over. Finally! Food!

     Behind the counter sat a wheezy little Halloween Bruce that shifted his eyes around a lot and smirked a little too often for comfort. "I-I'd like to buy some-some food," I managed, my voice shaking almost out of my control by now. I didn't want to look anywhere but at him right now. I was afraid if I took in this place anymore my sanity would kick in and I'd get myself out of here before I found the Crystal.

     The Bruce looked at me, flinched, and wheezed. "Come back..." His voice sounded raspy and underused. It just about made me cringe.

     I was a little too faint right now to think twice. I hurried around the counter and into his tiny shop, where spooky foods sat on countertops and shelves. It was all packed-in, dusty, and spider webs and must were everything. But there was food. Radom followed me in, watching the shopkeeper warily. I thought the Bruce stared at me a little too long.

     I took to looking at the different foods, and thought since I was this hungry I could eat anything. But I couldn't be more wrong. The more I looked at these foods, the more I felt my eyes widen and a sick feeling rise up in my stomach. Jellied eyeballs. Tongue with veggies. Sun dried Techo claw. Suddenly, eating seemed to be the last thing I wanted to do.

     "That's disgusting," I gagged, covering my mouth and looking away from a Blumaroo steak. Why was this, of all places, where we had to get food? Go figure.

     The Bruce just stared at me. But when I returned his gaze, his eyes flicked away. "I have ssssomething for you, I'm sure. Yes. Loooook, I think I have milk there." He lifted a flipper toward a high shelf.

     Yes, that looked like a carton of milk to me! I hastily grabbed it, but the moment I opened it I was greeted with a foul stench. I stifled a moan and quickly shoved it away from me, and found Radom glancing into the container a moment later. He wrinkled his nose with distaste and I shoved it back onto the shelf.

     "No milk?" The shopkeeper was staring at me again.

     "There's only this carton of fuzzy green stuff in there not even you could drink. You might want to donate it to science, or take it to your leader, but..." Radom trailed off, frowning at the Bruce.

     The Bruce laughed-if you can call it that-a shrill cackling sound that made me jump. "There must be something!" he croaked, sweeping around to observe one of the shelves.

     Radom and I exchanged a hesitant look. "He's ready for the nuthouse, he is," the Brown Lupe muttered.

     I bit my bottom lip and nodded in agreement, casting my eyes about the small shop and trying to avoid looking at the so-called food. There were a lot of packed-in shelves, a sink that looked as though it hadn't been used in years, rusted and cracked, perhaps in the distant past once used to wash food. But not much more.

     "Sit, sit!" The Bruce yowled, making me jolt again. "I have found something for yoooou!"

     Radom and I exchanged another look. He sighed through his nose and went to poking around the shop while I hesitantly set myself down in the one wooden stool I could find, which had one broken leg and sat at a slant. I half expected it to collapse under me. My wings folded tightly at my bag, I slowly set my knapsack down on the dirty floor, watching the Bruce uncertainly.

     I crossed my legs. Uncrossed them. Sat with my shaking hands on my knees. Did that make me look nervous? I clasped them together, decided that was worse and just crossed my arms at my chest.

     "Looook!" he was hissing, slinking back over to me. He held up an armful of food, and I hated the way his eyes danced about. "Nooooothing disgusting here..."

     I willed my eyes to flick down to his arms. To my relief, I found no brains or eyeballs. Instead I found several innocent-looking Chokato Ghostkersandwichs, Spooky Shakes, and Deviled Delights. "Thank Fyora," I breathed in relief, hastily taking the food out of his clammy flippers and gathering it into my lap.

     But then I paused as I remembered something. "We... um... we don't have much money," I admitted, clinging to the food in my lap for dear life.

     The Bruce looked me up and down. Then he wheezed and smirked in that unnerving manner and shook his head. "For you, a discount."

     I paused. Why would he give me a discount? I remembered what Radom said, about how they would pat your back with one hand and pick your pocket with the other. He must want something. Or maybe it was just because I was a Darkness Faerie or something. Whatever the reason, I had to be very careful. "Thanks," I replied cautiously, keeping my eyes on him as I stopped over to fish whatever Neopoints we had left from the bag.

     His eyes lingered on my bag until I closed it. Then he smirked again, staring unblinkingly as he took the money from me. "Very good," he hissed, tossing the small sack of Neopoints on the counter. He didn't blink very often, I noticed.

     Well, that was the last of our money. But we had food now! Radom was at my side in a moment, and we divided the food evenly between us, though he insisted that I take more. Soon enough, he was sitting on the floor and chewing on some Deviled Delights and I was devouring the sandwich in my hand, both of us watching the Bruce guardedly. He was up to something...

     The shopkeeper turned away to shove the Neopoints I had given him into a drawer, and Radom looked up at me. "I'm not one to gossip, but there are things crusted in his sink that have not simply developed intelligent life but have in all probability by now evolved their own political systems," he muttered out of the corner of his mouth, and I bit back a laugh.

     "No kidding," I mumbled sarcastically, finding that not at all difficult to believe. This guy was pretty creepy.

     The Bruce turned on his heels and leered at me. "Awfully far from hooome... what are you doing way out heeere?" There was a constant crackling edge to his voice that made me cringe.

     I had to keep myself from being completely rude and just telling him it was none of his business. "We're looking for something," I replied simply, slurping on my Spooky Shake. It was sweeter than I had imagined it. But perhaps that was just because I was so hungry.

     "Ooooh?" His eyes danced about in his head again. "I know thisss place like hooome, Faerie... What are you looking for? Maybe I can heeelp..."

     "Doubt it," Radom muttered, furrowing his eyebrows at the Bruce.

     He looked about to reply, but stopped, his eyes fluttering from Radom to me. Then he shrugged and swept around us and started pointing at things on the shelves, muttering under his breath as he took inventory. Maybe I would have found how over the top this guy was to be funny, but right now I was too spooked out.

     Radom and I looked at each other again, and I must have had a funny look on my face, because he smirked very slightly. "Charming, isn't he?" he mumbled, and I rolled my eyes.

     It hadn't taken me long at all to finish the food. Now I slurped up the last of my shake as Radom finished the last of his sandwich. Well, I felt much better. Now all we needed to do was find that Crystal in these Fairgrounds somewhere and we could leave and never have to come back. "We should get started--" I began to say, but was cut off as Radom quite suddenly leapt to his feet.

     I looked back quickly just in time to see the Bruce crouching on the ground behind the stool I was sitting on, reaching for my knapsack. He jolted and recoiled when he saw Radom and I looking his way. But just as he started to scramble away, Radom acted first.

     Radom was sweeping around the stool, closing in on him. I hopped up and turned to face them just as the Lupe stood defensively in front of me and the bag, eyes narrowed and ears lowered as he stared at the Bruce, who had backed across the room. "What do you think you're doing?" Radom's voice was as even and oddly careless as always.

     "I-I-I know what you want!" the Bruce yelped, fidgeting and casting quick looks around. "You want the Dark Crystal, you dooo!"

     My eyes widened at once. "How do you know about--" I blurted out, taking a step towards him.

     "I am noooo fool! Stay where you are!" he snapped, and I stopped dead as he drew something out from under his bright red bow tie. It was-I couldn't believe it-the Darkness Crystal. It was smoothly curved into the shape of a crescent moon and glowed a deep purple. "It is miiine!"

     And suddenly I knew. This Bruce was the thing that was following us into the forest. He knew we had the rest of the Crystals. That's why he was being so lenient with us-he was trying to get the rest. And I was willing to bet for less than pleasant reasons. If he got a hold of them all, I didn't want to think about what could happen. Total chaos.

     "BUT, I am willing to strike a deal," he added, a frightening excuse for a grin twisting across his face.

     "You want to fight for it?" I snapped, my fists clenching at my sides.

     "Nooo nooo... I am noo fighter, Faerie. That would be unfaaair. I willl COMpromise, howEVER."

     I didn't want to know. But I just frowned at him and waited for him to continue anyway. This wasn't going anywhere good.

     "I will play a gaaame. I will get to choose the game AAAND the rules. The two of you can play my game together. And if yooou win, you get my Crystal. But if I wiiin..." He trailed off, grinning horribly as his eyes danced down to my knapsack.

     I quickly snatched it up and held it to my chest. "No way!"

     "Oh, but it's only faaaair..."

     I glanced helplessly down at Radom. Half of me wanted to just attack the Bruce now, grab it, and run. But my pride was holding me back. And I knew Radom wouldn't approve of that. But the risks were so high... It was all or nothing, really. If we lost, he would get them all. But no. No, I wouldn't let that happen.

     And I knew Radom was with me there. "Alright," he said, smirking challengingly. "We'll play your little game."

     The shopkeeper grinned again, and I instantly regretted ever coming here. "Exxxccellent..."

      ~*~*~*~*~*~*~

     Perhaps half an hour later, Radom and I stood in the front of the shop. The slice of sky peeking between the dreary clouds was the purple of twilight turning into night. That in itself was enough to make every nerve and ounce of common sense within me kick at my mind for even agreeing to this. My knapsack was slung over my shoulder once more, and I was clinging to it for dear life, my bright eyes hardly blinking as they never left the shopkeeper, who had just returned from vanishing for thirty minutes. We had been waiting for him to come back.

     The Halloween Bruce stood in front of us and explained his little challenge. "I don't like fiiiighting. So NO violence." Because he knew he would lose, I couldn't help but think, the little coward. "I want to see how clever you are. I have hidden the pretty jewel somewhere. If you can fiiiind it, you can keeeep it."

     Radom and I exchanged a skeptical look. Waited for the catch.

     Yup. There it was. "But you only have twenty minutes to fiiiind it. If you can't find it and bring it here to shooow me that you found it, it's miiine, and you have to give me all the jewels you have instead. There are nooo rules other than that," he concluded, a wry smirk wriggling across his beak.

     Well, it sounded simple enough. But this was the Haunted Woods, and it could be anywhere, and would take us all night just to find alone. I had no doubt that it may be in a dangerous place, or that he could cheat. "Alright," I replied, eying him warily. "But we can't possibly comb the whole place in that time."

     "I will give you a hint," he interjected, nearly speaking over me. "A riddle. If you are clever enough to solve it and find the jewel quickly, it is yourssss..."

     Radom quirked a brow, his bushy brown tail giving an absent flick behind him. He was just as confident as always that we could do this, I was certain. "Alright. Shoot."

     The Bruce grinned in his own self-satisfied way. "Very well. The riddle." A pause and flicking eyes for dramatic effect. "Who makes it has no need of it. Who buys it has no use for it. Who uses it can neither see nor feel it. This is where you will find your Crystal. You have twenty minutes starting nooow."

     "You got it," Radom agreed, with no trace of humor, no irony, a comment of the casually arrogant. And in but a moment, we were out the door.

     It was bitterly cold outside, but I hardly paid it any mind. The air was still, heavy, lifeless, eerily silent. The fairground was just as terrifying as it was about an hour ago when I last looked at it, only now it was dark out, and every last nook and cranny was bathed in cold shadows and somehow looked even more ominous.

     The gates across the barren grounds creaked rhythmically in the wind. Everything was so still that even the tiniest movements of inanimate objects in the wind caused me to jump. The last streaks of bloody color were scratched against the sky, and those clouds still threatened a downpour at any given time.

     "He's going to cheat," I said abruptly, subconsciously hugging myself and staring down at Radom, who was looking up at me with a casual raise of his eyebrows. "We're going to figure it out, and he's going to try to stop us."

     "How optimistic of you." He just smirked. "Though it's true. But you know what? We know something he doesn't know."

     I was rolling my eyes skeptically already. "And what's that?"

     His smirk tweaked the corner of his mouth and he arched a brow. Glancing at the shop behind us, he lowered his voice. "We're looking for a Crystal. We have the other Crystals. You do the math."

     I could practically feel my brain click. And suddenly I had this wild urge to burst into laughter. This was just too good! The Bruce, clearly uninformed, had hidden the Crystal and thus spared us the trouble of getting it from him. So that meant it was on its own somewhere out here, and WE had the other Crystals, which would lead us to this one, like they were doing anyway! We just had to follow the glow, like we would have done anyway, and find the shard before something else did. I couldn't believe this! One moment bleakness had snuck like a pickpocket past me and stolen the hope from my heart, and the next I was giving him a good kick in the shins and taking my hope right back.

     "You've got to me kidding me." I couldn't suppress an almost stunned laugh.

     "I should hope not." Radom offered another of his quirky smirks.

     I drew the Crystal out of my knapsack and sized it up. It was glowing nicely, but I noticed with a bit of a damper that now that we were in the general area of the other Crystal, this one wouldn't be glowing terribly much brighter. We'd have to be pretty close to notice much of a difference. "That's not good," I said aloud, tucking it into my pocket and casting a quick glance around.

     Radom seemed to understand without need of explanation. "Then let's solve his riddle and spare us some time."

     "Just full of ideas, aren't you?" I mumbled, pausing for a moment in thought. I wish I had paid more attention to what the Bruce had said. But, to be perfectly blunt, I wouldn't be terribly surprised to find that his little riddle was the extent of his vocabulary.

     Radom, on the other hand, had paused but a moment before reciting it. "Who makes it has no need of it. Why buys it has no use for it. Who uses it can neither see nor feel it." He cast a quick glance around. "And it's around here somewhere, apparently."

     I followed his gaze. I remember some of the more youthful Faeries would sometimes play little games like this, with riddles and solving minute mysteries. They never let me play with them, but what I did overhear I could solve quickly, always keeping the answer to myself. It seemed that hadn't worn out much. "A coffin," I heard myself say, my eyes falling on the coffin-shaped Furniture Store. Easy enough.

     Radom's bright grin was plenty enough praise for me. "Bravo."

     We both paused in unison. At first I thought I had imagined the sound. But apparently not, as Radom's ears perked and he frowned slightly in the general direction of where it had come from. "It's that Bruce," he muttered, and though I couldn't see the shopkeeper's little lump of shadow hunched over anywhere, I didn't doubt that. "Let's hurry."

     He was no doubt spying on us, and now knew what we were up to. Oh goodie. Just what we needed. Cheating. Radom and I took off for the furniture store not terribly far off, but I wasn't at all surprised to find the doors locked and nothing but darkness behind tattered drawn blinds. I can't imagine that the Bruce beat us there, but he had hid the Crystal there previously, so he and this shopkeeper were no doubt working together on this. And now we had very little time to get inside before the Bruce did.

     Radom and I immediately each took a different side and circled around the building, searching for a way in. I didn't much want to break any windows, but that was sounding increasingly more pleasing as the seconds ticked by. We met at the back of the shop, but before I could say anything, both of our eyes fell in unison to my feet. The shop itself was certainly not in the best of conditions by any means, with cracked windows and flaking paint, and on the lower portion of this wall I saw a metal grate stained with rust. It no doubt led through the pathetic excuse for a ventilation system and smack into the shop. But it wasn't all that big-somebody as thin and low to the ground as Radom was could just barely fit, but there was no way I could shove myself in there.

     I laid out my rather improvised plan quickly. "Let's pry this open and you slink in there. I don't know WHAT disgusting form of life could be in there by now, so be careful. I'll break a window and get inside that way. Maybe I can distract whoever's inside while you get the Crystal." Well, what did we have to lose here?

     Radom nodded in confirmation and I kneeled down and twined my fingers into the grating, wincing at the crust that had formed on it. It took a bit of straining and pulling, but it soon snapped off, and in a moment I had thrown it on the ground and darted back around the shop just as Radom started to slink into the vent. The first window I found was promptly pelted with whatever large objects reached my hands first, mostly stones and a few gnarled sticks. I made short work of enough of the glass, though I knew the sounds of shattering and the shards littering the ground now certainly didn't help to buy me time, and in a moment I had my boots up on the sill and had climbed inside.

     The inside of the shop was just as dank and dark as I would have imagined it. I had practically fallen into the back room of the store, which was virtually empty other than a few soggy boxes and broken planks of wood here and there, and all in all it looked as though this wouldn't be the first time anyone ever broke in. The glass on the floor didn't seem out of place at all. It was a small room, one door and one window-though now more of a hole in the wall-and I went for that creaky wooden door next. I burst through it at the exact moment somebody had been coming to check on the crash, apparently, as it swung out smack into a black-cloaked Grundo on the other side and sent him sprawling back. Half of me wanted to apologize, but that was quickly stifled by that other half that wanted to laugh at my good fortune. I had knocked him clean out on the floor.

     I stepped over him and hurried into the front of the shop, pausing to peer around the corner into the main part. There were various pieces of Spooky furniture here and there, drab walls and a few cracked windows hardly covered in dirty attempts at curtains. There was a small hole taken out of the roof by who knows what, and I could see that night had fallen quickly outside. At the broken wooden hunk of a counter sat the Halloween Bruce from before, who must have used the front door while Radom and I snuck in, and he now shifted about uneasily in the dark. I'm sure I could see him much better than he could see me, and I stayed peeking out from behind the corner.

     My eyes quickly scanned the walls. They caught on where the vent fed out into the room, high up on the wall, and I couldn't see anything moving behind it in the shadows. I hoped Radom had gotten to the end alright. Well, that Crystal was in this shop somewhere, and my bet went with the anxious Bruce that was hesitantly beginning to stand.

     "What was that noise?" he called in my direction, to the unconscious Grundo on the floor behind me.

     At the silence that followed, his already minuscule nerves seemed to shrivel up. He leapt to his feet and made a dash for the door, but I had intercepted him in no time at all thanks to my long legs and that I was significantly larger than him. "Going somewhere?" I narrowed my eyes down at him as I barred the door.

     He stared up at me in terror, stumbling a few steps back. "How did you-YOU CHEATED!"

     "I cheated?" I scoffed, my eyebrows twitching into a furrow. "Well, I suppose you can't cheat if there aren't any rules. Now give me that Crystal."

     "No! It's miiiiine!" he hissed, drawing back and clapping his flippers to his large red bow tie. Well, that was awfully subtle of him. Psh. At least now I knew where it was.

     I frowned and advanced on him. "Listen, it's just you and me. I know you're not a very intelligent creature, but think, or as close to it as you can, for a moment. I'm a Darkness Faerie. You're a little Neopet. I want that Crystal. Now who do you think will win here?" The cold evenness in my voice surprised me a little.

     Well, that seemed to register in there somewhere. I had been backing the Bruce up, and now he had stumbled right into the wall, with me standing in front of him, knapsack over my shoulders and Crystal safe in my pocket. He suddenly made as if to bolt, and I made a move for him. But I stopped short as the grating of the vent came crashing down with a clatter on the floor, and Radom leapt right out of it.

     As usual, he fell right from the sky and to my aid. Literally. He landed right on top of the Bruce, and that took care of him. Now we had two unconscious foes and one Crystal to grab. I laughed at the sight of Radom, relieved and a little amused by his odd methods, shaking my head at him as he sat on top of the Bruce as casually as ever and smiled pleasantly at me. "You took your time," I teased, kneeling down as he got off the Bruce. I turned the fellow over and fished the Crystal out from where it was tucked under his tie in a feeble attempt to keep it safe.

     The crescent-shaped gem glowed a vibrant purple, and as I drew out the other Crystal from my pocket, they both cast a blinding light about the room and a warm glow in my palms. I clasped my hands together and gasped at the light that sprang forth. I had to look away and close my eyes tightly, as usual, and when the light beyond my eyelids had faded, I opened them cautiously again.

     Now but one Crystal sat in my hands, a mass of four now combined ones. It was beginning to take a spherical shape-- three more and it would be complete. Radom and I exchanged a relived look as I tucked it away into my bag. Another one down. Now we could get out of this place. I would have said something along the lines of 'that was too easy,' but the last thing I needed now was for my words to backfire on me, so I simply said, "Let's get out of here."

     We hurried out of the shop, leaving the two lumps laying out cold on the floor. But that wouldn't last long. We had to get as far away as possible, and fast. I wouldn't argue to that, though walking in the Haunted Woods at night was certainly not at the top of my list.

     I stood in the silver tarnish of a half moon and glanced up to a sky riddled with stars. Ribbons of fog choked the fairgrounds and muffled the shapes, and I knew those clouds wouldn't hold out much longer. But we had the Crystal, and no further excuse to stay here, so we wasted no time.

     We set off at once. But, sure enough, thunder rolled in, painted the sky iron grey. Within minutes, sheets of rain were sweeping in, the steady hiss swelling in my ears. The world to every side of me might as well have been painted grey. Radom and I hurried through the downpour, with not so much as a tree to keep us dry, all around lifeless twigs pretending to be trees instead and buildings that I would much rather freeze to death outside than go inside any day. The rain painted the Haunted Woods in muted colors and heavy raindrops draped on every surface. What little light the moon could offer was diluted by the rain and served little purpose other than to glint off puddles and cast everything in gloomy contrast.

     Plus, I expected every strange shape or other person that stared to be sent to kill us. Two things compounded my fear. One, there are a lot of strange shapes in the Haunted Woods, and two, everybody stares. Every tree stump I passed seemed to take on the shape of a lurker in the dark, and I once even brandished my hands in an attack on a shrub that looked like a crouching Blumaroo.

     A bone colored moon hung in the sky and did a very poor job at attempting to stand out against the sheets or rain. Radom walked ahead of me, and at odd angles he would eclipse the moonlight, temporarily outlining himself in an eerie silver. That night blends together in my memory. All I can remember clearly is being scared out of my wits the entire time.

     But we made it out in one piece, miraculously, and left that wretched place far behind. And ever-onward trod our journey.

To be continued...

 
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Other Episodes


» The Price of Faith: Part One
» The Price of Faith: Part Two
» The Price of Faith: Part Three
» The Price of Faith: Part Four
» The Price of Faith: Part Five
» The Price of Faith: Part Six
» The Price of Faith: Part Eight



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