Ultimate Decision: Part Six
“Jerdana is gone.” Renelle did her best to let out a shocked gasp, but all she could manage was a sort of choked sob. Finneus was looking down at the floor, his eyes full of concern. “There is only one explanation. Someone has been into the Hall of Heroes and broken her statue.”
Renelle nodded but said nothing. Her body felt as if it had been submerged in a freezing pool of water; her very blood ran cold. And yet she was still here, sitting next to the Archivist as if she had done nothing wrong, discussing the dangers that lay ahead. “What can be done?” asked the red Aisha, smoothing out her apron under the table. Her hand rubbed against a small hard lump; she had forgotten to take the piece of Jerdana’s statue out of her pocket.
“I don’t know,” said the Lenny. The candles that lit the Archives flickered weakly in the silence; evening had fallen but night had not yet arrived. “I had hoped that perhaps Jerdana was planning to use her powerful magic to repair King Altador’s statue, if the missing piece was ever found. But now that she too is gone, I know of no one powerful enough to wield such a spell.” He sighed. “Who could be behind this? Who is so intent on freeing the Darkest Faerie and imprisoning the guardians of our city?” Renelle shook her head, frowning on the outside but screaming on the inside. This wasn’t supposed to happen! I didn’t mean to go this far! “It must take someone of the purest evil to dream up a scheme like this,” said Finneus, his eyes sad as he stared at Renelle. “What is the world coming to?”
She could not bring herself to speak. Instead, the Aisha merely sat there, across the table from the Archivist, her eyes dry and blank, looking at the ground, wishing with all her might that she could tell Finneus everything, but knowing in her heart that she could not. She could not tell him or anyone else, not only because she thought it would bring a terrible punishment upon her, but also because Renelle knew that she simply did not have the strength to admit to anyone the terrible magnitude of the things that she had done... not even to herself.
* * * * *
Night had fallen, and Renelle hurried through the busy Altadorian kitchen to find Darwin standing in the doorway. Stacks of dishes were being cleaned with hot water, and a cloud of steam hung in the room as the two Neopets shared stories.
“Can you believe it?” asked Darwin. The green Zafara shook his head. “Whoever’s doing this sure has guts, let me tell you. Imagine kidnapping the two most important Neopets in the city and trying to free the Darkest Faerie! That’s some kind of evil.”
Renelle tried to remember a time when she had not felt butterflies in her stomach, but it was impossible. She had been feeling guilty for days now, but it was never any easier; the feeling just got worse. Desperate to change the subject, she asked, “So are they going to continue with the questioning?”
Darwin nodded. “Definitely. They want to catch the criminal who’s been doing all this stuff, and they’re pretty sure that it’s someone who has access to the castle. Marak is taking over, calling each servant individually to a room in the dungeons. I already had to go down there earlier; it was awful. He’s not messing around.”
“So that means I shouldn’t go home yet?” asked Renelle, trying to appear curious. “Are they going to keep questioning us through the night?”
“I’d be surprised if they even let you out of the building,” said Darwin. “They’re really locking things down. Torakor, Kelland, and Fauna already got sent up to the Hall of Heroes. Siyana and Psellia just left a few minutes ago, after dinner, to watch over the Archives. It’s amazing that word of this hasn’t leaked into the city yet; it’d be total chaos.”
So Renelle would not be able to go back to the Archives. Even though she appeared innocent, it was always possible that the two faeries would cast some sort of spell that revealed a thief, or would question her when she tried to enter the building. No, she could not visit Finneus again. “This is pretty scary,” she said to Darwin. “I’m going to go check around and see if I can help with anything.”
“All right,” said Darwin. “We’ll probably be here overnight; they’re not taking any chances. Talk to me after they interrogate you, all right? We’ll try to figure out what’s really going on.”
“Sure.” Renelle drifted away through the cloud of steam, her mind racing. If she was brought in for questioning, it would be over. There was no telling what Marak would do to extract the truth; as Darwin had said, he wasn’t taking any chances. There was no way that Renelle could explain the situation that would portray her in a good light. No, she would be caught and severely punished if they got her alone. She had to get out of the castle....
Renelle hurried through the hallways, nodding at other Neopets politely as she passed them. Was Darwin right? Would they be guarding the exits of the palace? She had not been checked when she had entered a few moments ago. Perhaps the surveillance had not yet been set up.
So she had to leave, but she could not go to the Archives. Where, then? Renelle felt hopelessly alone as she navigated toward one of the obscure back doors to the castle. There was only one thing she could do now. She had to go to the Hall of Heroes.
At last, the Aisha made it to the door. No one was nearby; she was in a distant branch of the palace. Her heart pounding, Renelle pushed open the heavy wooden door and peeked outside. It was quite dark now; no light from the sun lingered in the sky. She could barely see the shadowy grounds, but it was clear that no guards were watching this back part of the castle. She hurried out the door and began to walk swiftly across the palace lawn.
It had all come down to this. She had known that it would happen eventually, ever since she had first heard the whispered words of the Darkest Faerie, but Renelle had been prolonging her fate for as long as possible. She did not want to do this. All she had to go on were the words of perhaps the worst creature ever to walk Neopia, and the Aisha could not be certain of anything. However, it was the only thing left to do. She had to destroy every statue in the Hall of Heroes. She had to break the spell.
Renelle’s hair whipped around her face, even though it was a still night. She was walking so quickly that her dress billowed and the air beat against her face as the Aisha made her way through the streets of Altador toward the looming tower that contained the Hall of Heroes. Her breaths were short and strained, and her body felt tense and nervous all over. She had everything that she needed; three small objects bumped against each other in her apron pocket: the small piece of stone that she had broken off from Jerdana’s statue, and... the knife....
It was better not to think about it. This fate had been hers ever since she had taken the amulet from Jerdana’s room. Every action after that, every move she had made, had led up to this moment, this decision. She did not want to go through with this, but there was no other way. She couldn’t confess, she couldn’t ask for help... she had to go on alone....
Each stair felt like she was ascending the cliffs of a high mountain, preparing to throw herself off the edge. Renelle’s legs burned as she ascended toward the tower, but worse than that her heart burned with a fiery guilt that threatened to consume her. Why had this happened? She had not wanted this. She had only wanted a comfortable life, and now it seemed that such a dream would never be fulfilled. How could she live with herself after this? Renelle knew that by sunrise she would have to bind each and every one of the remaining protectors to their statues. And then, it was a mystery.... Would the spell be broken? Would the Twelve Protectors be freed from the enchantment? Questions burned in her mind, feeding the fire of emotion that was building inside Renelle as she climbed higher and higher, finally reaching the summit of the flight of steps.
When she had been alone with her thoughts, Renelle’s guilt and fear had risen in her mind and body like a growing flame, but as soon as she reached the doorway to the Hall of Heroes and saw Fauna standing there, everything vanished as she concentrated on her plan. “Good evening,” said Fauna politely, giving Renelle a small smile. “I’m sorry, but the Hall of Heroes is closed.”
“Oh, I don’t need to get into the Hall,” said Renelle, approaching the Acara. Doing her best to appear innocent and casual, she said, “I just need to climb up to the Observatory.”
Fauna paused, seeming to consider the proposal. “No,” she said, shaking her head. “I’m sorry but I can’t allow anyone inside. You’ll have to come back later.”
“Oh, but it’s a beautiful night,” said Renelle, glancing at the starry sky. She pulled out the third object from her pocket; her Astronomy Club membership badge glinted in the dim light. “I really need to go to the Observatory and get my telescope. I left it there by accident after a club meeting, and it’s the only one I have.”
Fauna hesitated. “I’m not sure....”
“We don’t have to take the stairs from the center of the Hall,” said Renelle. “We can go around the side and go straight to the Observatory. That way we won’t disturb whatever’s going on inside.”
Renelle’s insides turned as she watched her strategy succeed. “All right,” said Fauna, giving her a kind smile. “It is a very clear night.”
“Thank you so much,” said Renelle, trying to smile back but only managing a nod. “It’ll just be a minute.”
The two Neopets headed toward the stairs that led up to the Observatory. As she climbed up in silence, Renelle’s emotions surged inside of her once more, and she felt weak and dizzy with guilt as she ascended to the upper room. The retractable ceiling of the Hall of Heroes was closed; she could not see down into the ring of statues as she normally was able to. A sudden worry flashed through the Aisha’s mind as she glanced around the room for the control that would open the ceiling.
Fauna climbed up behind her. “I’ll help you look for your telescope,” said the Acara with a smile. “What does it look like?”
“Well,” began Renelle in a distracted tone, searching every corner of the Observatory for a button or switch, “it’s gold, and... not large....” There! A lever rested in the shadows in one corner of the room. If she could only get over there without arousing suspicion....
“Do you remember where you might have left it?” said Fauna, bending down to search beneath a pile of star charts.
“I think it might be in one of those boxes,” said Renelle, pointing to some wooden chests that lay at the opposite end of the room. “Could you look through them? I’m going to look on these book shelves.”
“Of course,” said Fauna, bending over to open one of the boxes. Renelle hurried over to the corner of the room. Her heart had begun to pound once more, and a hot sensation crept over her body as she grabbed the lever. Hopefully the ceiling would open up quickly. With a quick glance to make sure that Fauna’s back was turned, Renelle threw her weight down on the lever.
With a scraping sound, the ceiling of the Hall of Heroes slowly began to move. Renelle gripped the lever with all of her strength, pushing as hard as she could and carefully watching the space that was opening up, waiting for it to be just enough for her to climb through.
“What are you doing?” asked Fauna. The Acara had turned around and was staring at Renelle with a surprised expression.
The Aisha did not answer. Instead, she let go of the lever; enough space had been created for her to drop down into the Hall below. Renelle reached into her pocket. Her fingers brushed against the stone that had once been part of Jerdana’s statue, and then gripped the small knife. She withdrew it and took a step toward the hole.
“What are you doing?” asked Fauna again, her eyes widening at the sight of the knife. The Acara moved toward Renelle.
Renelle sat down at the edge of the hole and peered below. She could see neither Torakor nor Kelland; apparently they were not standing guard in the center of the ring of statues, but at the doorway. Letting her legs dangle through, the Aisha held the knife tightly in one hand and prepared to drop down to the floor below.
“Stop!” cried Fauna, but Renelle pushed herself through the hole and tumbled from the Observatory. She landed with a thud in the center of the ring of statues, and immediately the Grarrl and the Techo turned around.
Torakor and Kelland were apparently too shocked at the sight of a maid dropping from the ceiling to react immediately, and Renelle knew that she had no time to spare. With the knife held high, she dashed toward Torakor’s statue, and with one swipe severed a piece of the stone toe.
Without even a cry of pain, Torakor vanished, his spirit bound to the statue by the power of the ancient spell. Realizing that he was in great danger, Kelland made a lunge for Renelle, but she was too quick. The Aisha leapt over to the Techo’s statue and sliced off the hem of his cape. Kelland vanished in mid stride.
“What are you doing?” cried Fauna. The Acara’s face could be seen in the hole in the ceiling, and Renelle paused for a moment to look up into her eyes. The two Neopets shared a split second glance, and Renelle could see that fear filled Fauna’s kind eyes, and the burning sensation crept up her throat once more. Tearing herself away from the Acara’s gaze, Renelle leapt across the room once more and raised the knife over Fauna’s statue. “No!” cried the Gatherer, but with a powerful swipe Renelle severed a piece of Fauna’s long, trailing hair.
With a scream that seemed to tear Renelle’s very soul from her body, the Acara’s face vanished from above, and the room was silent.
To be continued...