In This Together: Part Eight
The violet lights grew thicker as I struggled down the path. My eyes shut, I kept moving. Voltare was in trouble. I had to save him.
Suddenly, as it began to become unbearable, the rushing sound around my ears dwindled to a faint swish, and I felt Rachel pull herself up to her full height again.
I looked around. The lights were flooding through a small gap in the cliff face. I tapped it with one paw, but it wasn't big enough for me to climb through, let alone an enormous Kougra like my brother. That meant there had to be another way in.
Scrabbling at the rock with my hooves, I found it. The narrow passage had been disguised with a dust-covered cloth, scattered with pebbles and leaves. Without hesitation, I ducked my head and crawled into the stone corridor.
Above my head, a hint of violet light was still flickering. Ahead, a much stronger glow lit the passage in front of me. This must be where the lights were landing. Minette had called them dark magic, but that sounded evil and sinister; it could have nothing to do with my brother, of course. Could it?
But I remembered the strange look in his eyes, and I wasn't so sure.
My train of thought was broken by another loud roar. The passage was opening up, becoming wider and taller, and I pulled myself to my hooves and started to run. Lights flashed past me as I bolted down the corridor.
Suddenly, the ground beneath my hooves came to an abrupt end. Skidding on the rough stone, I managed to avoid falling off the sheer ledge, swinging Rachel round with me to grab the cave wall. My satchel, not so fortunate, flew off in the opposite direction, dropping to the floor far below. I watched as the Buzz doll, my favourite toy, was flung from the falling bag and hit another overhanging ledge, looking lifeless and forlorn.
Rachel's squeak of surprise echoed, and I looked around at my new surroundings: an enormous cavern, bigger maybe than Meridell Castle's own hall. The room was filled with a purple glow, looking very like the lights which had stung me on my way. And at the centre of the room, two figures were standing.
One was human in appearance, if you didn't count the wings that shone behind her shoulders, as deep as the ocean and as bright as lamplight. A Faerie. The other was four-pawed and two-winged, standing before her in armour that gleamed in the magic's shine. His bare fangs and claws stood out from his shadowy appearance as he watched the Faerie, apparently unable to take his eyes off her. The purple lights centred on his chest, sinking deep into his fur.
The woman's voice echoed across the room. "That's right, little Kougra," she purred. "Remember it. Remember it all, and learn to be what you can become..."
I began to run again, pebbles skidding away from my hooves as I hurried down the sloping curve. Too late, I saw what looked like a cloud of glitter in my path, sparkling lazily in front of me. This time, my reflexes were not enough to save me from falling straight into it, Rachel clinging on in terror.
I'm standing in a field in the middle of Meridell. But this isn't the Meridell I know. There's devastation everywhere. Bullseye targets have been torn down, Illusen is nowhere to be seen, and a whole crowd of frightened Neopets are leaving their homes. How did I get here? Where is Fiona? What is going on?
"The spyders are coming," a worried-looking Aisha tells her friend. "Again. I don't know if we can stand another invasion so soon after the last."
"I'm taking my kids to Meridell Castle," nods a Korbat, his face lined with anxiousness. "It just isn't safe here."
Oddly, I can hear a voice coming from... from me. It seems to be my voice, though it doesn't sound like mine. "Let me help," it says— I say— earnestly. "I can carry some of your stuff to the castle."
What is stranger still is that the Korbat looks terrified. "Get away from me!" he shrieks, pulling three smaller Korbats behind the shelter of his wings. "Monster!"
I feel tears running down my face. Why, how, would anyone be so cruel to a Neopet who had simply offered them help? What have I done wrong?
Suddenly a dark-haired girl, stylish and elegant, appears on the scene, and I freeze. I know this girl. She created Voltare, and me too. What is she doing here?
"Off," she snaps simply. "There's not a single worthwhile shop left in this place. I thought I'd get some cut-price souvenirs, but everything's unsellable now."
She has Neopoints jangling in her pockets, enough for a hired Eyrie, or a hotel room. She could offer her help to these pets if the thought would only strike her for one single minute. It doesn't. Taking me by the collar, she pulls me after her, leaving the frightened pets and the ruined town behind her.
All at once, Meridell was gone. I was standing only a few steps from where the cloud had met me, looking down into the rocky depths. I gasped for breath. "Rachel? Rachel! What in Neopia happened there...?" As the little Miamouse climbed back onto my head, I saw a way down to the floor of the cavern. It was scattered with more shimmering smoke-clouds, but it was the only way for a Neopet without wings. I ran a short distance, staying out of sight of the Faerie and the Kougra. A new cloud formed itself in front of me, glittering innocently as I approached. Bracing myself, I dashed into it head-on.
I expected Meridell. Instead, I've run into the front room of my old house.
It's far grander than Fiona's. In the living-room, a piano stands on the polished wooden floor, and a tall, antique globe takes pride of place on its elegant table. Everything here is beautiful, well-crafted, perfect. This house is a mansion, and it's my home— no, my house. This place was never a home to me.
I hear an odd sound on the stairs. It's something familiar to me, yet strangely out of place. It's the sound of hoofbeats.
A tiny Neopet enters the room. It is, she is, a little Ixi, hardly more than a baby. As she looks up at me with her dark eyes, I have an odd feeling of dizziness. This window into my old house has become a mirror.
This Ixi is me, you see. Or rather, she was. This little girl is how I used to be.
I look down, for the first time, at myself, and see dark paws as soft as velvet, sharp claws kept carefully sheathed, rough unbrushed fur. I am not myself. This is not my memory.
"I don't feel any better, Voltare," the little Novella whispers. "Sorry." She runs towards me, and I feel my forepaws lift from the ground as I hold her tight.
"It's OK, Ellanova. No matter what she says, it's OK." I feel myself turn round to face the girl who stands watching, unmoved, in the doorway.
"And don't you say anything," I snarl in Voltare's voice.
"Is that Ixi hankering after medicine again?" There is more than a little disdain in the girl's tone. "Stupid pet can't even get better on her own. Give it up, you. This thing's been going on far too long. I need someone to work in the shop when he's away."
And again, I feel Voltare's burning anger. How can she act this way? What gives her the right to make a young Neopet, whose name she can't even remember, feel ashamed of being ill?
I want Fiona, badly. But here, Fiona isn't even a memory. She's a dream of something that hasn't happened yet. I turn away.
The Faerie's voice startled me out of my vision. "Concentrate, young Kougra," she stressed, leaning one hand on what had to be Voltare's head. "If you lose your concentration, all this will be wasted. Six years of spellwork, all gone to waste. We don't want that."
And Voltare, for some reason, nodded in agreement. This couldn't be my brother, who had faced down my old owner in full fury, backing down to a Dark Faerie. Surely not?
Running the last few steps of the slope, I stumbled into another cloud. Knowing there was no escape from the visions, I let this one capture me, leaving Rachel to her own thoughts and devices.
This isn't my old home. I breathe a sigh of relief. I'm in Voltare's cosy bed, in Fiona's Meridell home. A glance through the chink in the curtains shows me only the peaceful landscape that I know.
But something is wrong. I hear a scuffling noise in the hallway. Climbing out of bed, I pad out onto the landing, and see that the noise is coming from my own, Novella's, room. It won't hurt to look, I suppose.
Inside is a scene of chaos. The blankets have been scattered across the room, the window stands open with the curtains flapping in a gale. And standing at the centre of the room is a Dark Faerie.
In her hands she holds a small white Ixi, sound asleep.
"So, the knight in Darigan stripes has decided to join us," she smirks. "Not before time. Were you rescuing Kadoaties from trees again?"
"Put her down!" It's as much my demand as Voltare's, though it comes out in his familiar voice.
"Should I?" She flicks the Ixi's ear, obviously toying with me. "I don't think I should. Let me look at you." Hovering above the ground, the Faerie inspects me more closely. "Hmmm. I would like you, little Kougra, if it wasn't for that sickly personality of yours. You're sweeter than a chocolate-covered toffee, but you don't act on your feelings. No good at all." She tosses her hair lightly. "But that could change. You could be my pet, and be the strongest pet in the world. Then you'd never need to be afraid. You could do whatever you wanted..."
"No." Voltare's voice is firm and level. "You won't make another Vira Acara out of me."
"Vira? Oh, my dear." The Faerie chuckles. "The sister who tempted that pretty creature was an amateur at best. Do you know, Jhudora had me banished from Faerieland because she thought I was too powerful? And how right she was."
"That's as may be," Voltare interrupts through me. "Get out of my house and leave my sister be."
"Oh no, no." She giggles now, her laughter as cold as ice. "Not when there's so many wonderful things I could do to her. And you—" she reaches out a finger and casts a spell, freezing me in place before I can leap at her—"are going to see everything. Now, should I start by turning her into a Mortog, do you think? I hear they can be quite fun to kiss."
"What do you want?" Voltare snarls. He is furious now, angry as I've never seen him. I feel it in his memory. "Did you come here just to hurt my sister?"
"I didn't come here to hurt your sister at all," she responds. "I wouldn't lay a single finger on her precious Ixi fur... if you were my pet."
"Your pet?" Voltare spits out the words. "Working for you?"
"Yes." She smiles sweetly. "And I promise I wouldn't hurt her. Or perhaps you'd prefer a brief demonstration of my magic before you make up your mind? I have lots of very interesting spells to try out. And if one of them happens to make your sister disappear, there's always that human girl with the red hair to experiment on."
"Enough!" My brother's voice is almost a roar. "I'll do it. Whatever you want me to, I'll do it."
"Say, I want to be your pet, Mhairia." Now her smile is a smirk of evil. "Say it, and I promise, she won't be hurt."
The tiny part of me that is still Novella, watching from the spell-cavern, shudders with a sudden cold feeling of fear. Because I know, now.
"I want to be your pet, Mhairia." Every word is like a curse. "Now PUT HER DOWN!"
In a whirl of wind, the Faerie is gone, with no trace of her presence. The window is tightly shut, and the blankets are neatly heaped on the bed, covering the sleeping form of a White Ixi. Her name is... her name is... what is her name? I don't know. I don't know who the human is in this house, either. This place is called Meridell, that I remember. And my mistress's name is Mhairia, and I must serve her...
The word escaped from my mouth like a sob. The next moment, I glanced fearfully down into the cavern, but no-one had heard.
This was the solution to the mystery. This was the key to the puzzle. I was the key.
The words of the Defenders came back to me. No Dark Faerie can take control of a Neopet without that pet's willing consent. But I had assumed that all such possessions were born of greed and selfishness, not from the beauty of a perfect heart. Voltare had become a vicious, ruthless criminal... because he couldn't stand to see a Neopet being hurt for his sake. He had done it for me.
I wanted to cry, but I couldn't. Not yet. I had to do something to make this right, before anything else.
Now the Dark Faerie was stroking the armour she had placed on Voltare's body. "The spell is almost complete, my darling," she crooned. "Soon you'll be the most powerful pet in Neopia. Let those memories fill your mind. Don't run from them. Let the anger flow through your body, and learn the art of destruction."
A Barbat flew into the cavern, seeking shelter from the dark magic that was still flowing outside. Quick as a flash, Mhairia froze the Petpet with a spell before Voltare could see it. "You dare distract him," she growled. "Once I have this Kougra, the whole of Neopia will kneel before me. Or be destroyed."
I hesitated, close to the pair but still hidden from sight. My mind was tangled up with thoughts, almost unable to reason. Still, one echo of what the Dark Faerie had said flashed through my mind, glowing in brilliant colours.
If Voltare was distracted, the spell would break.
The whole of Neopia, she'd said, would fear my brother's power when the spell was done. I had seen what Mhairia's instructions would do, and I knew she would not stop at hurting other Neopets. Something Voltare would never have wanted.
It would take someone as brave as they were stupid to distract a lethal, brainwashed Darigan Kougra who was in the process of receiving the power boost of his life.
Even if I did manage to divert him from the spell, I knew, neither of us would get out of this place. Once her charm was broken, she would destroy him on the spot. I had travelled across Neopia to save my brother, and instead I would be the cause of his loss.
But this was no ordinary Kougra. This was my Voltare, and the whole of Neopia was on the brink of being in his terror. Because of me.
Save my brother, run for my life, watch as he destroyed Neopia?
Or save Neopia, and lose everything?
Somewhere behind those flaming eyes and that spiked armour was the heart of a Kougra who wouldn't have hesitated for a moment over that question.
I stepped over the trails of magic, into the shadows behind my brother.
G'bye Fiona, Minette, Ladorna, Ricky. Thanks for everything. It's been an adventure.
Taking a deep breath, I ran forward, putting everything I'd got into the single word.
To be continued...