The Mutant Prince: Part Seven
Chapter Seven: Return to Neovia
The venture through the Haunted Woods was charged with frustration at every turn. It was impossible to find one's way in the endless forest; black branches blocked out the sky and the uncovered roots of trees and bushes hid many paths and warning signs such as 'Danger: Bottomless Pit Ten Metres Ahead' or 'Ghost Meepit Crossing.' As if the loss of directional perception wasn't enough, the storm of last night returned, and this time Tarquinn, Lella, and Philippe could not find shelter for themselves because they were trying desperately to locate a potionmaker or sorceror able to cure the curse.
The three wound around the dizzying muddy forest trails, Lella and Philippe asking all the strangers they met (and some of these strangers were very strange indeed) if they knew of someone who could possibly have enough knowledge on dark magic and potions to cure a powerful curse. Most times the answer offered was an unhelpful shrug or a gruff "I dunno," but on a few occasions Lella and Philippe received the names and addresses of Haunted Wood residents who might help. All these addresses were quickly looked up, but after each visit the only thing gained was a greater despair. No one could help, either by reason of incompetence, evilness, or insanity. The dreary grey day quickly flew by, and before anyone knew it, the cloudbound sun was setting behind the scraggly tree tops.
There was one last address on the list of names: Edna the Witch, of Edna's Tower. Tarquinn, Lella, and Philippe found the seemingly abandoned black stone tower in the south after much walking and wandering. The silent building loomed over an unkempt, weedy clearing. Tarquinn impatiently skirted round the thorny weeds and climbed up the tower's moldering front steps. He knocked loudly on the oak door and waited for a short warty green Zafara witch to answer.
"Ah, hahaha!" Edna cackled as she glanced at the prince with her beady eyes.
She bid him and his friends enter immediately, and slammed the door with a thud behind them. Tarquinn, Lella, and Philippe found themselves in the middle of a cavernous drippy tower lit only by candles and mysterious glowing eggs and potions that lined the many wooden shelves. The entire tower was used as a laboratory.
Lella stepped forward and described their problem to the witch, but before she could finish, Edna shrieked: "Eee! I need Gingerbread Korbats and Grackle Bugs! Hurry off and find some!"
Lella's eyes widened in alarm and she looked supplicatingly at Tarquinn and Philippe, but they only shrugged.
"Are these things, umm, ingredients for the cure?" Lella asked.
Edna shot her hands in the air and cackled again. "Cure!? What are you talking about? I want these for my supper! It's getting late! Hahaha!"
Tarquinn slowly backed up to the front door and felt for the doorknob.
"I think... we had better go," he said, watching the crazy witch prance about her dingy laboratory.
Lella and Philippe had no qualms with this. The prince pulled open the heavy door and the three rushed out without another look back at Edna's Tower of Madness. Alas, the last name on the list of possibly helpful witches and potionmakers was crossed off.
"No, l-leave me al-lone..." Tarquinn moaned, waving Lella away. The prince was sitting upon a damp mossy log at the edge of the clearing, in the shadow of Edna's Tower. He had fallen into utter despair after leaving the witch's place, and he slumped down, too depressed to go any further. Tarquinn covered his face with his gloved hands and lamented his fate. "Oh, surely I should h-have known this wouldn't have a g-good ending," he sniffed. "Nothing can help now; w-we've tried everything. It's h-hopeless!"
Lella and Philippe sat down beside the prince and sighed. They tried to console him, but their words of hope seemed hollow; not even they entirely believed the curse could be reversed now. There were only three days left. The two silently watched the shadows grow darker, felt the air blow colder. It had stopped raining hours earlier and finally the storm was splitting up and drifting away. A few stars peeked out from between the clouds, and the nearly full moon glowed with a chalky luminescence just above the tops of distant trees.
"W-what's going to happen now?" the prince begged of himself. If he had had hair, he would have been pulling it out in frustration. "This curse is really going to turn me into some kind of monster, isn't it? That sceptre really is all-powerful; I'm never going to be cured. How am I going to show myself in Brightvale? What will Father say, what will the court do, what will F--" Tarquinn almost said Fifi's name, but as he pictured her, he only burst into fresh sobs. He drew his knees up to his face and remained in that position till he got his tears under control.
"Tarquinn, I'm so sorry..." Lella said, her own eyes now watery. "If only I knew how to help; if only I knew how or where to get this cure -- I would do anything for it!"
"And I --" Philippe said with great remorse, preparing a sad speech of his own. The prince stopped him however, and told him to stay quiet. Philippe bit his lip and looked down. There was nothing the Kacheek could do, either; his moral anguish was his own punishment.
Time slowly ticked away and Tarquinn beat his head into his knees, complaining ceaselessly, until all of a sudden he cried out: "... ouch!"
The prince's mouth started to hurt; it seemed he had accidentally bit his tongue, but upon touching his teeth, he gasped in shock and froze. Lella and Philippe turned to look but Tarquinn covered his mouth with both hands. In a muffled voice he uttered, "My feeth are frooned!"
"What?" Lella and Philippe asked together.
Only after a great deal of persistent pleading did the prince slowly remove his hands. The curse had obviously struck again, and now its effect was impossible to cover up with gloves or a hat or clothes. The prince's pearly perfect teeth, his beautiful, beautiful smile had been ruined. His teeth had magically grown into sharp, uneven fangs.
There was not much to say about this most recent stroke of the curse; Tarquinn clutched himself, bowed his head and redoubled his moans. For a while his constrained sobs were the only thing to be heard in the night, excepting the steady drip-dripping of raindrops sliding off leaves and branches. As the night gained, the strange calls and chitters of petpets sounded through the surrounding forest. And then -- there was the nearby sound of a fallen branch cracking under a heavy foot. Lella and Philippe immediately jumped up in fright.
"That sound --" Philippe turned around to face the trees.
"Something is in the forest," Lella said in a high, scared voice.
The sound was repeated, and it seemed nearer than before. There was definitely something or someone in the forest, just out of sight, perhaps lying low behind a tree or in a dark shadow. Watching.
"We'd better go!" Philippe said, wringing his hands.
The prince remained sitting on the log, too miserable to be very frightened. He peered over his shoulder and gazed into the blackness behind him. Small twigs popped and leaves fluttered. Raindrops pattered to the dense foliage on the forest floor. Tarquinn slowly got up and moved before Lella and Philippe. He did not at all care if he was torn apart now by a vicious Bearog, but for Lella and Philippe's sake, he took out his sword.
"What- or whoever you are, I order you to show yourself at once!" the prince called.
Philippe chewed his fingernails and whined. "Wouldn't it be better to tell the thing to go away? Or at least stay where it is?"
The prince ignored the Kacheek and concentrated on the fringe of gnarled trees round the moonlit clearing. The dying leaves of a nearby branch began to shake and float to the ground. The sounds of muffled footsteps and snapping twigs neared, and Lella and Philippe looked on in terror, Tarquinn in sluggish anticipation. At last, the shape of a tall, thin Wocky appeared between two trees.
"Sorry for the disturbance I caused," the old Wocky muttered as he swept some yellowed leaves off his hat.
Tarquinn's heart skipped at sight of the familiar face, and he sheathed his sword.
"That's who fought off the thieves the night before?" Philippe asked Lella, and she nodded.
Tarquinn immediately strode to the Wocky and demanded to know what he had been doing. His voice sounded harsh, but secretly he was glad the Wocky had reappeared; his heart began to beat with excitement, almost as if he had regained hope. There were so many things he wanted to ask.
"I? I was only...." the Wocky looked off, and then he pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed. "All right, I will be straight with you. I was following you. I've been doing so all day."
"So you were the one I sensed all throughout the day, just out of sight?" the prince asked. He paused, confused. "But, why?"
"Well..." the Wocky hesitated, then forced himself to be honest again. "I suppose I was worried about your safety, sir. I mean, you're a foreign prince in a very dangerous region. I urge you to leave the Haunted Woods right away!"
Lella and Philippe gathered round the Wocky and watched him speak. "I'm steamed that you've ignored my previous plea, sir, it isn't right for you to be here and... my word!" The Wocky winced as he caught sight of Tarquinn's mouth. "What happened there?"
The prince grew red with embarrassment and covered his mouth directly by swirling his wet cape round his neck, chin and lips.
"Pardon, I didn't intend to deride you, sir. I didn't recall you having such a, uh, problem at our previous meeting," the Wocky said.
Tarquinn narrowed his eyes and asked in a stifled voice, "You still have not said your name."
The Wocky scratched the back of his head, reluctant to comply, but at last he imparted that his name was Basile. The name meant nothing to the prince, and at this the Wocky seemed much relieved. He slowly grew enough confidence to question the prince on certain matters he had overheard while following them throughout the day.
"You are cursed, sir?"
"Most unfortunately, yes."
"By this Kacheek at your side?"
"By none other."
"And now he is aiding you in trying to find a cure?"
Tarquinn acknowledged all and explained his delicate relationship with Philippe, described the events that had pushed the whole terrible struggle into motion, the visit to Jhudora the Dark Faerie, and the failure therein. Basile twirled his moustache thoughtfully all the while he listened; his eyes shifted as he was pushed into deep thought. At the tale's end, he asked solemnly, "And that problem with your teeth is because of the curse?"
Tarquinn nodded weakly. "And that is not my only problem. I cannot bear to show you my hands, or the ravages of my hair. As for the woeful state I shall be in three days hence, alas, I can only surmise how many problems I will have then!"
Basile offered a sorrowful sigh; the great magnitude of compassion in his tone was quite unexpected, and he left Tarquinn caught between confusion and a sense of hope. It seemed that Basile greatly wanted to help the prince; he was the most rational being met in days, and his intelligence was not doubted, either. Though he was old, shabby, and oddly reluctant to speak too much and explain his urgent desire to direct Tarquinn out of the Haunted Woods, the old Wocky exuded trustability. He definitely possessed important knowledge.
Now he shook his head as if fighting off invisible hordes of naysayers and uncertainties. Something troubled him, but he would not say what. He looked closely into the prince's eyes. "The reason you three are in the Haunted Woods is to try and find somebody to make a potion, a cure for this curse?"
"Of course," Tarquinn replied immediately. "But what would we be searching for in this deplorable hole otherwise?"
"I see..." Basile said, mostly to himself, stroking his beard. "I thought you had other plans -- but, nevermind."
"Other plans?" Lella repeated, and Basile swiftly shook a hand in dismissal.
"Upon learning of this dire affair, I cannot but feel compelled to help you. I..." Basile's voice faded away. His lip quivered, but he spoke on as if through a great difficulty, "... I know the one who can help."
The delight that rose in the prince at Basile's last words was unbounded, indeed, it was only kept contained by a rational (and horrible) suspicion that, perhaps, this would not all end well yet. It was too early to rejoice. Still, Tarquinn's dismal tone greatly brightened, and he eagerly asked Basile an abundance of questions. "Who is this character? Is he or she a potionmaker? What makes you think this individual can help?"
Basile twitched uncomfortably at the barrage of inquiries. Reluctantly, he said, "Please, I can't tell you all... The one I speak of is named Zoran Leywark, and he's a chemist, rather well known around these parts..."
"A chemist. And he would know how to make a potion powerful enough to reverse Jhudora's curse?" Tarquinn pursued.
"Oh, yes." Basile inclined his head seriously. "He will know, do not fret about that."
"All right..." Tarquinn took a deep breath. If only it were possible to shake off his fear with a single respiration. "And where does this Leywark live? Is it far?"
Basile nervously looked around the clearing. "No, it is not far. He lives to the east of the Haunted Woods. In... Neovia."
"Hmm, Neovia." Tarquinn said aloud, pondering the sound of the word on his tongue. It touched him deeply, much like the revived notes of a forgotten piano sonata: a heartfelt, warm sorrow melting into unrestrained pleasure at the moment of hearing the favoured tune after years of silence. Tarquinn knew of Neovia, but only from the many textbooks King Hagan had him study at Brightvale Castle. And yet, all during his lengthy learning sessions, his many history courses, he had never once felt the invigoration he did now at the pronunciation of the secluded, dreary town's name. Tarquinn did not understand why. Perhaps he had never truly listened to the hidden, drawing whispers in the word.
Tarquinn asked of Neovia, of what it was like nowadays; he had learnt the townsfolk had been under a curse for over a decade? Basile cowered under these questions and evasively interjected that time was valuable, especially to them, and that it would be better to act instead of discuss purposeless details.
"You say this curse is unshakable after the seventh day?" Basile asked pointedly. "How many days are left for us to find a stop to it?"
Tarquinn's cheeks grew white, and he stopped his interrogations. "This is the fourth night... which means there are but three days!"
"Then we had better move." Basile said, and swiftly he turned to face the east. "Are these two coming as well?" He indicated Lella and Philippe.
Both of them were veritably frightened, but they nodded and said they were with the prince till the very end, whatever that end may be. Basile did not urge them against their decision. The old Wocky himself shook with anxiety, but he had agreed to help because the prince's cause had greatly moved him. He felt that he needed to help, no matter what kind of danger he might possibly open them all to.
And so, without a word more, Basile led the way east. Though he plodded forward at a slow pace because of his stiff right leg, he never once got confused by the winding muddy paths. He lit a torch and that dim shaky light was entirely enough for him to judge the correct way ahead. It seemed that he had traveled these trails countless times before and was familiar with every corner and shadow. Basile's self-assurance gave Tarquinn, Lella, and Philippe an even greater sense of trust in him. They felt much less frightened by the spooky sounds of the nocturnal residents of the wood. At times when a sudden shriek or a distant inexplicable yelp would echo throughout the forlorn trees, causing gooseflesh to instantly break out, Basile would calmly announce, "Ah, that is the call of a lonely Furwitch" or "Don't let that give you a jump -- it was only a Melton; they're harmless." In short, Basile's company was closely appreciated.
After covering a good length of terrain, the ancient trees suddenly began to thin, and they disappeared before the breadth of a dirt clearing, now muddy from the recent storm. The gloomy branches hung over the edges of the bare, beaten-down land, and provided the thick boundaries for a gypsy camp. Basile unconcernedly approached the great campfire set in the middle of a loose circle of painted, covered wagons. Tarquinn, Lella, and Philippe stood at the edge of the camp, in relative shadow, and watched Basile negotiate with one of the gypsies warming himself by the dancing flames.
Basile quickly returned to the prince and said, "It's dangerous to go further east on foot. The storm has made the roads impossibly mucky and the bars of quicksand cannot be distinguished so late at night. I've arranged for a wagon to convey us to Neovia. It will be a slow but safe ride, and along the way we can get some sleep. Come, follow me!"
Tarquinn, Lella, and Philippe piled into a cramped but warm wagon. Basile followed, and sat down on the wood floor opposite the prince. All around were boxes of clothes and colourful shawls, blankets and hand-embroidered pillows. From the curved beams overhead which kept the thick cloth cover stretched over the wagon were festooned long treads of wooden and glass beads, dreamcatchers, and other odd twinkling ornaments. The waggoner hopped into the front seat and the vehicle lurched into motion, causing the beads to rattle and clink. The atmosphere was stuffy, and smelt of old clothes and incense.
The tired travelers divested themselves of their coats (Tarquinn's cape, which was still fixed round his neck and chin, was ordered off by Lella) and stretched out onto the many blankets and cushions. Basile took off his hat and patched overcoat and dropped it beside him. His clothes underneath were a bit peculiar -- he wore a black suit, complete with an old-fashioned periwinkle ascot tied with a pin of Maraquan coral. The suit, however, was dingy and threadbare, not really black but grey from years and years of constant wear and use. The lace of the ascot, too, was faded and coming undone at the edges. Tarquinn kept a hand before his mouth to keep his teeth out of view, and remarked on Basile's attire, asking casually if he had always been a 'hapless wanderer' as he had described himself earlier to be.
Basile did not appear inclined to respond, and Tarquinn was about to repeat the question when the Wocky finally spoke. "No, sir, not always... I don't have many clothes, for you might have guessed I am not wealthy at all. Although, many years ago, I worked in a household as a butler."
"And what happened?" Tarquinn asked.
Basile gnawed his lip and looked distrustfully into the prince's eyes, trying to discern some hidden meaning in his continual interrogations, however, he could see none. The prince was simply curious, and he didn't understand Basile's aloof and reluctant attitude.
"The master of the house dismissed me, that is all," Basile lied.
"Oh, why!? It does not matter. It was long ago!" Basile replied loudly, but he quickly repented. "Please, sir, do excuse the untimely outburst of an unworthy drifter. I'm merely distressed at what could possibly interest you in my dismal past. I have nothing at all engaging to tell."
Tarquinn considered Basile's words at length and said, "I will ask no more if my questions are bothersome to you," then, adding in a lighter tone, "and refrain from calling me sir, if you can."
"Yes, s... well, then." A wisp of a smile appeared on the old Wocky's face for the first time. "What may I call you?"
"Tarquinn," Basile said, tasting the sound of the word.
His mysterious smile widened, and then, almost guiltily, he looked down. This was the last thing said for a long while. The wagon rolled on, over bumps and ruts; it slipped past swamped trails and pools of muck, but the four large wheels never once got stuck. Lella and Philippe quickly fell asleep; they were so tired the rough ride could not disturb them, but Tarquinn and Basile remained vigilant. Basile at one point hesitantly asked the prince to perhaps, if it weren't too much trouble, detail him on what life in Brightvale was like? Tarquinn naturally obliged and recounted the first things that came to mind: his mansion, King Hagan, the royal court, the beautiful green slopes and towns of the kingdom, his faithful servants, his few friends, Fifi (but only briefly for this subject hurt too much). Tarquinn grew sadder the longer he spoke. Memories of his lost Brightvale and his former careless ways returned. He broke off entirely once he could not bear the heartbreak. Basile understood and kept quiet.
The prince crawled to the back of the wagon and pulled aside the large flap, peeking his head into the darkness outside. He saw only the road being left behind and the deep tracks the wagon's wheels cut into the squishy earth. An overwhelming bitter stench of rotting vegetation enveloped the area. It was unmistakably the cold smell of the swamp, and so striking was it on Tarquinn's mind that he immediately withdrew into the warmth again, gasping, covered in beads of sweat like one in the throes of a nightmare.
"What is the matter?" Basile asked.
Tarquinn rubbed his forehead and with shaky motions returned to his place opposite the Wocky. "Would you believe it?" Tarquinn broke into a bout of nervous laughter. "The smell of the swamp... I don't understand, but it seems that I have -- ha ha! -- been here before."
Basile, though, was far from laughing. He twitched uncomfortably and breathed in constrained gulps of air, until at last he had the ability to respond. "That is most unusual. You have certainly never been here before, have you?"
"Not that I can remember," Tarquinn said, covering his laughter with a hand. The muffled noises now sounded closer to groans of worry than those of hilarity.
Basile relaxed somewhat at this pronouncement.
"But in my dreams... I often visit a swamp very similar to this," Tarquinn continued, in a more serious tone. "All is extremely vivid -- the shadows, the sounds, the proportions of figures are not distorted as in many dreams, even the scent of putrefying weeds is perceivable."
"Most unusual," Basile commented.
"Indeed, it is," Tarquinn half soliloquised. "It occurs quite often, has been doing so ever since I was a child, but never have I understood why I dream such things."
"Dreams have no sense. It's not worth analysing the mad meandering of an unconscious mind," Basile suggested. "I think maybe, sir -- Tarquinn, it would be wise for you to try to get some sleep. The road is long and the wagon slow; we won't arrive in Neovia until early in the morning."
"Neovia..." Tarquinn sighed.
Undoubtably the prince was exhausted from the strenuous trekking of that day and the disturbed sleep of nights before. If given the opportunity he could have fallen asleep at the drop of a coin; the inside of this rickety gypsy wagon was a perfect place as any to rest. So, he did not complain at Basile's well-intentioned proposition. The prince gathered about him a few softer pillows and lay down on his back. Basile watched the prince silently stare up at the hanging threads of beads and little shiny gems, and, slowly but visibly, the Wocky's active trepidation was reduced. With Tarquinn asleep there would be no more troublesome questions.
Tarquinn's eyes fluttered and he removed his hand from his mouth and raised both arms high over his head, stretching. Before he closed his eyes, the prince muttered, to no one in particular: "A droll dream it is, always the same, always beginning in the drawing room of a mansion by the swamp. Unfamiliar faces crowd the dark room, but I feel I intimately know most of them in the dream, though, upon waking, I cannot recall who they were... Each time, the house is suddenly under attack -- the windows are smashed, the doors are ripped open or broken into splinters. I don't know who is attacking. There are screams; it's a veritable nightmare. Those in the drawing room have no choice but to escape the house, and I'm swept away with them. We run along a torchlit underground tunnel which starts from a cellar or some musty, stony place of that sort. The tunnel slowly inclines upward, and we reach the edge of the swamp. But we aren't free even then, and I see distorted black figures shuffling towards us from the distant streets of a town left behind. We, the hunted, have no choice but to escape into the swamp.
"The dream always ends bleakly: with the group of escapees breaking up and scattering into different directions as they are suddenly ambushed by unknown beasts of the wood. Myself, I always end up falling during this last struggle. Either I faint from fright or get hit in the head by a falling branch, I never am able to watch the entire scene take place, or to see how the whole wretched dream ends..."
Basile was frozen in silence.
The prince sighed, not realising the effect his words had on the old Wocky. "I don't know why, but this dream reminds me of Neovia, and though it is terrifying it makes me sad..."
No more was said. Tarquinn gazed at the spinning dreamcatchers and finally, for the first time in days, fell asleep in relative peace. Basile watched him for a long while, silently twirling his moustache in uneasy consideration. He shook his head lowly at one point and implored, "Dearest Fyora, I pray that it wasn't a mistake to bring him back!"
To be continued...