Carpenter and the Dark Sun
The rain was falling quickly now, a light mist, which obscured objects in the distance.
I caught a handful of raindrops on my claw, watching as they retained their shape for just an instant and then were lost in the rainbow streams that trickled down my white fur.
Pressing myself closer to the trunk in a vain effort to avoid the rain that had developed into sleet, I narrowed my eyes against the mist and waited.
It hadn’t rained this much in Meridell since the day I left; the parched fields needed a good watering, but there can be too much of a good thing, and nobody likes floods. I played with the idea that I had brought the rain down from Faerieland. Carpenter’s curse, maybe.
It had been six months since the day Shard and I had been banished from the gallion clan we used to belong to. Six months, and the scars still hadn’t healed; maybe they never would.
I forced my mind onto more cheerful topics and thought about my master, Ace. His full name was Jander Silvano, but everyone called him Ace; me included. It suited him; suited his huge violet eyes, his striped white skin, and his gangly limbs. Suited every bone in his body, and more importantly, suited the keen mind behind those purple eyes.
Only three weeks since I’d met him, but already I knew something of his past. He had come from a land neighboring Maraqua that I’d never heard of, some place called Merfalana... an aquatic city that’s only defence had been its secrecy, and that had failed.
He was using me for this mission because I was small enough and insignificant enough to escape the notice of the king’s guards. Seeing that the item I had to bring to him had probably been stolen from King Skarl’s treasury, this was a good thing.
I wondered what the item was and what it would be used for. Thankfully all I had to do was carry it to his camp, not steal it.
My searching eyes spotted a speck in the distance, flying with difficulty, grappling with the rain. It came nearer, and I felt my heart quicken as I saw its shape. Darigan? What would –
I breathed a sigh of relief. Not Darigan, a Darigan korbat.
Zeekaye settled on the branch next to me and shook his wings to dry them.
I thought it might be you, I said, and then added, Nice horns.
“Ace told you what to do?” Zeekaye said cautiously.
I inclined my head and he pulled out a pendant.
It hung from a cord that looked like leather but that I knew was a kind of dried seaweed. It was circular, made of heavy silver, and in the centre there was a gleaming black stone. There were triangles carved from the silver all around the stone, as though it were a black sun.
I lifted it and wound it three times around my neck. Zeekaye turned around and took flight. I did the same.
Meridell Forest was different in the rain; all its sunny cheerfulness was stripped away, leaving a world of strange and wonderful beauty. I was disappointed when the downpour slowed and stopped.
It was a good thing it did, though, because now I could see a black shape darting behind trees and bushes, keeping on the ground, following closely behind me like a shadow.
I flew on for a few hours, watching the shadow out of the corner of my eye, then settled down on a stump to rest, knowing my destination was near.
A shape emerged from the underbrush; the last person I’d expected to see.
The last time I had seen Sharden was when Ace had rescued me from Andy’s humble little petpet shop. I remembered, with a lurch, looking over my shoulder as we had left, remembered her amber eyes watching me go.
And now she was here, and I couldn’t get my head around it.
Seeing this, she said quietly, I broke out of the shop. It wasn’t hard. With a hint of wry humor, she added, it would have been easier if I could fly, though. How’s Ace?
He’s fine, I said. Why are you here?
Shard lunged forward without warning, snatching at the pendant about my throat. I jerked backwards in shock and the cord broke. Clutching the heavy silver Shard turned and ran, face set in determination.
I took to the air and flew rapidly behind her, dodging between the trees, my mind sluggish. What would Shard want with Ace’s pendant? Come to think of it, what did Ace want with Ace’s pendant?
Shard dived into the entrance of a smallish cave, and I followed.
There was a long, narrow tunnel, shrouded with cobwebs and thick dust, and it was dark; so dark I could barely make out Shard’s spade-shaped footprints on the grimy floor.
They led to a massive underground chamber, filled with a dusty light. It felt somehow timeless, ageless, as though millennia could pass and it wouldn’t change at all.
In the centre was a slightly raised circular platform, and huddled on it was a dark shape.
I flew down and alighted on the ground next to the platform, snarling, then stopped and blinked.
Carved into the stone was a shape that I recognized, the dark sun, and in the centre where the dark stone should be was a small indentation.
Shard, holding up the pendant, placed it carefully into the depression.
A nimbus of light blossomed from the platform, turning the black stone in the centre of the pendant a blinding white. Shard’s black face turned briefly towards me, and then turned away, into the light. I flew back furiously, my wings beating desperately to escape from the light that scourged the tunnel of every last cobweb, and after what seemed like hours I flew into the more natural light of day. I turned around, watching as the light flashed briefly and then faded, before warily re-entering the tunnel.
Shard was still perched on the platform, but she looked... different somehow. She turned round and faced me, her amber eyes sparkling, and then I knew.
You’re healed, I murmured. Shard’s tattered wings were smooth and unscathed, her black fur sleek and unmarred. She smiled brightly, but I bared my teeth and snatched up the pendant from the stone platform, knotting it around my neck once more. Then I left.
I heard the flitter of wings behind me, and I flew faster. Shard matched her speed to mine, so I flew high above the forest canopy. She rocketed after me, and I hung in the air for a few moments, hovering, then folded my wings to my sides and plummeted in freefall. The sky shimmered past, a beautiful azure blue. Then I was under the tree cover and green was flashing by almost blindingly, whipped by branches as I tumbled past. I unfolded my wings with a snap and spun round in midair, skimming upside down over the forest floor. I rolled over again as I flew over a small forest lake, dipping one claw through the water and leaving a trail of ripples behind me. I was beginning to enjoy this too much for my own good, but it was a joy to be flying so fast and so free; I couldn’t help it.
I flew over the shore of the lake, and then, unable to resist, I stooped down, snatched a pebble from the shore and skipped it over the water. Then I spotted Shard again, her eyes laughing – with me or at me? And I whirled around and flew back into the Forest.
I could hear her behind me again, smooth even wing beats, and I dodged into a clearing.
She was catching up, and I frantically flew as fast as I could.
I felt the touch of a claw on my back, and heard a voice say, You’re it!
I smiled, and then chuckled, and before I knew it I was rolling on the clearing floor laughing as the sun shone down through the trees in shafts that patterned my white fur with strips of light and dark.
Shard laughed and offered me a clawful of some kind of berry. Whatever it was, it was delicious, and its juice stained my fur purple. She waited until I’d finished.
Where were you going?
To Ace, I explained. Many years ago pirates – possibly the same pirates that invaded Maraqua, invaded his birthplace, Merfalana. His people fled and went into hiding somewhere near Meridell. He wants to retake Merfalana and I think the pendant is some kind of royal symbol.
Royal? she said. You mean he’s a king?
Well – I said hesitantly, when you put it that way... I suppose he is.
Shard nodded. I wouldn’t be too surprised. He had a kingly look about him. Then, before I could answer, Mind if I come with you?
I hesitated. I wasn’t sure what Ace would have to say to that. But –
Of course I don’t; you’re welcome to come. Let’s go.
Typical of Ace that his camp would be near the sea. At least it was by a cliff, not on a sandy beach, so it wasn’t a complete strategical disaster. The cliff also proved a convenient launching platform for the Aviants.
The head of the Aviants, a mutant korbat named Bane, was talking briskly with Ace when I arrived.
“Troop morale is getting at an all-time low, both Aviants and Silvanos. We need to make our move soon or we won’t be able to make it at all, boy.”
Ace shook his head. “Your Aviants are well-trained, they exist to help out in situations like this one.”
“True, but I’m not so sure about your little band... they call themselves the Silvanos after you and your father, which is a sign that they’re proud to be serving under you, but they want to return to the land of their parents very desperately indeed.”
Ace stood his ground. “People fight harder to retake what is theirs. My Silvanos will be just fine, Bane.” He caught sight of me and grinned. “Carr –”
He held out his hand and I settled on it, pulling the dark sun pendant from my neck. Ace tied it around his, and as he stood there he looked every inch the warrior. I noticed the dark sun device carved on his heavy silver dagger and tooled onto his tough-seaweed helmet. I looked backwards towards the Forest, my eyes searching for that darting shadow I knew would be there, but I was surprised to see a larger shadow fly out of the trees towards the camp.
A mutant draik settled down, folding its tattered wings close to its skin. I tensed, but Ace didn’t seem worried, so I relaxed. The Silvanos acted as though nothing untoward had happened, but the Aviants were looking nervous.
The mutant draik cocked its scaled head to one side and hissed, red tongue flicking between white fangs, “Ace Ssssilvano... how good to ssssee you again.”
Ace narrowed his purple eyes. “You.”
There was an air of tension that seemed to crackle and hiss between the two draiks. The mutant was the first to break it, lunging towards the Maraquan with wings outspread. Ace jumped to meet him and they collided in midair before crashing to the ground, wrestling and exchanging punches.
I wasn’t worried. Bane would never let a security threat inside camp, and he was watching, perfectly calm, albeit a little annoyed.
Ace straightened, lifting the mutant with one hand and saying, “You took your time, Daneel.”
Daneel... that explained it. I remembered fragments of a long ago conversation... ‘Daneel isn’t just any common soldier. He’s my brother... and that means he’s the best.’
Daneel winced and said, “Yessss, I did. It’s a long ssstory, but not necesssssary to go into here. How are things going?”
Ace looked unusually sombre. “We’ll be going for the Blessing tomorrow. I only hope it’ll go well.”
The Blessing? I wondered, thinking ruefully that even I didn’t know everything.
We crossed through the clearing and emerged on the shore of the lake. I must admit I was puzzled; whatever the Blessing was, I hadn’t imagined it taking place here. Shafts of early morning sunlight reflected off the surface of the water and pebbled shingle crunched underfoot. I caught a glimpse of black on the opposite shore and knew that Shard was following close behind.
Most of the Aviants had stayed back, but almost all of the Silvanos were coming. I perched haphazardly on Ace’s shoulder and squinted for the cave, which must be our destination.
Ace had to stoop through the low entrance and I jumped off his shoulder, hanging back until the last of the party had passed. Shard ran up and looked around at the shining walls.
Here we are again, I said wryly. Wonder what’ll happen this time?
There was a figure standing tall by the dark sun podium, but she was tall, too tall to be a neopet, and there was the outline of wings gracefully extending from her back.
Ace lowered his head respectfully. “You honor us with your presence, guardian,” he said, in a low tone that nevertheless resonated off the walls of the chamber.
The faerie’s deep red eyes glimmered with gold, silver, indigo: all the colours of the rainbow and more besides. But mainly red. Her voice rang out; strangely, it didn’t echo.
“The solar winds have been fortunate these past weeks. I greet you, Jander of Merfalana.”
I was piecing together facts that I knew, small fragments of information that might or not be related to this mysterious faerie. I glanced up and found myself drawn into those shining multicolored red eyes... except now they were void, vacuum, pit, darkness, as black and empty as space.
The Space Faerie? What was she doing here? Guardian? What did she have to do with Merfalana? I was confused.
Evidently Ace wasn’t, because he raised his head and continued. “Since Merfalana was founded you have guided it, always appearing when we have most need. We ask for your guidance now.”
The Space Faerie’s eyes flickered over the company and rested on Shard and I. Her impassive face showed on change of emotion, but those eyes gave her away as they flashed with confused recognition, and then cleared.
“Curious...” she murmured, almost too low to hear. “Black and white, light and darkness, as it should be; but too soon, much too soon.” She glanced at Shard’s newly healed wings. “Surely not already, before time, before need... but no–” and now she saw the scars that marred my white fur – “perhaps not too soon. There is yet hope.”
The company appeared not to have noticed the mysterious faerie’s gaze, but gave a collective sigh of relief as they heard her conclusion. I began to think I had imagined the whole thing, but I knew better, I’d had too many people looking at me over the years to mistake it now. Shard and I had been the only strange ones in the entire colony of gallions, black and white against orange and purple. I knew when we were being singled out, all right.
Ace bowed low, as did the other Silvanos. “We thank you for your time, guardian.”
They turned and walked back out through the tunnel.
I flew to Ace’s shoulder, glancing over my own at the Space Faerie, and settled down.
Guardian? I said, suppressing the desire to laugh.
Ace gave a rueful grin. “It’s a tradition. I couldn’t not do it without risking the combined wrath of all of them –” he gestured at the Silvanos, adorned as they were with assorted fins, webs and flippers – “something I would rather be without. Besides, it doesn’t hurt to have the approval of a faerie, hmm?”
Evidently he hadn’t noticed anything out of the ordinary either. Strange, he was usually so perceptive.
We passed the lake and entered the clearing. My fur tingled with a sense of foreboding. The Meridellian Wood was quiet, unnervingly so. I shifted around uneasily, glancing over my shoulder again. Shard was padding on the ground near Daneel, her amber eyes flitting round, scanning the trees on either side of the open space. We exchanged a look that said, something’s wrong, but we couldn’t do anything about it until we knew what it was.
Ace’s earfin flicked and his expression became unreadable. “Zeekaye, Bane, Daneel!” he called. “Battle noise about eight hundred metres southwest.”
The three rose to the air, wings almost invisible with speed, and shot towards the camp. After a moment’s hesitation I followed, Shard trailing behind.
Everywhere people were fighting. Aviants rose in the air to dive-bomb the attacking pirates, sometimes dodging the pirates’ retaliation, sometimes not. As I watched Zeekaye, Bane and Daneel died into the fray, skeletal wings beating furiously, fangs bared, sharp claws outstretched.
Ace and the Silvanos came running. I watched my master, my pulse quickening.
Long sharp iron spurs extended from his claws, attached securely with leathery seaweed gloves. The dark sun pendant swung on his armored chest, and a length of shining silver gleamed proudly in his hand.
Zeekaye was holding off a knot of pirates on his own, moving too fast for thought, his shell-like ears predicting their attacks almost before they moved.
Bane was hovering above the throng, diving down and lashing with his arrowhead tail.
Daneel was crouching down, venom dripping from his deadly fangs.
But for the most part, the pirates were winning. If we had only known they would be coming, perhaps we could have done better. We had been intending to strike at them first, pick our own battleground.
I saw Ace raking at enemies with the spurs on his claws. A Wocky ducked in under his guard and slashed with a scimitar. Ace jumped back, narrowly avoiding the searching blade, but a Kougra was waiting behind him and swung at his head with a hefty wooden club. Ace dodged to the side, but not quickly enough. It caught him a glancing blow. He recovered swiftly, but how many more hits like that could he stand?
The dark sun pendant reflected a shard of light into my eyes, momentarily blinding me.
Wait a minute...
I felt like there was something I was missing, something I didn’t quite understand...
Again I pieced together fragments of conversation and thoughts, frantically trying to puzzle out the solution.
...And I think the pendant is some kind of royal symbol...
...Since Merfalana was founded you have guided it, always appearing when we have most need...
An image flashed in my mind; a podium made of stone, with a black sun carved in the centre. Must be generations old... since Merfalana was founded...
...Black and white, light and darkness...
...Surely not already, before time, before need...
...The only strange ones in the entire colony of gallions, black and white against orange and purple...
Shard’s tattered wings were smooth and unscathed, her black fur sleek and unmarred.
Then it fit together in my mind, a solution of breathtaking clarity. I knew that I must be right... but was there time?
SHARD! I yelled. We have to hurry!
I dived into the fray.
Ace was still struggling stubbornly against the pirates, but I could tell he was tiring.
I yanked the pendant from his neck, breaking the tough seaweed bond, moving too fast to doubt my actions. Ace looked at me, confusion written on his face, and the flat of a sword slammed against his head. He fell like a stone.
I stared for a horrified second then tore myself away.
I don’t think I’ve ever flown so fast. The trees blurred past me, and then there was water, I saw water. I could hear Shard’s labored breathing behind me, and her slowing wing beats.
I stooped down into the winding tunnel.
The chamber was as huge as I remembered. There was no silhouette beside the podium this time. The Space Faerie’s work was done.
I alighted on the podium, turning around and waiting for Shard.
She tumbled to a rough landing and ran the last few metres. What’s this about, Carr?
I explained as quickly as I could. The Space Faerie is a faerie; she’s practically immortal, I’m certain she was one of the founders of Merfalana. She can, I don’t know; predict the future or something like that, and she did something about it. She took two ordinary gallion eggs and changed them somehow, made it possible for them, for us, to use this. I showed her the dark sun pendant. She understands the equilibrium between dark and bright, black and white – she knows how it works. And when this healed you –
I didn’t know it would do that, I just saw you flying through the forest and –
I know, I said impatiently. Are you ready?
I placed the pendant into the hole. Meeting Shard’s amber eyes, I placed my claw on top of it, and she did the same.
Light! Shimmering, glorious, pure energy, the ultimate, the supreme;
I/she/we hovered over the centroid and understood what must be done and I/she/we flew.
The greater energy shone with all its power in the blue above me/her/us. I/she/we sensed the expanse between the blue and the greater energy, and understood more. The blue did not reach the entire expanse to the greater energy, and past it was the black, but the black was beautiful, wonderful!
I/she/we sensed pain, a dull purple energy that throbbed and detracted from the blue around me/her/us. I/she/we didn’t like it. It was bad.
There was a field. Smaller energies, but none the less beautiful, were littered across it. I/she/we filled, them, healed them, so that they could defeat the bad pain.
I/she/we went to the last energy, which was almost extinguished, and filled it and healed it, and I/she/we was/were glad.
Ace blinked and saw a bright light, then faded back into unconsciousness. I shouldn’t be alive right now, his brain reasoned.
Well, you are, his body replied. Deal with it.
Gasping, I removed my claw from the pendant, which shattered and lay on the ground. The light faded.
Well, that was... interesting...