The Mutant Prince: Part Ten
Chapter Ten: The Sands of Oblivion
That night the curse worsened for the prince, and this time his feet were transmogrified into hideous clawed paws, much like his hands. He could not fit his boots on anymore, nor any shoes Basile found for him in his house, and thus, he was forced to remain barefoot. Tarquinn did not want to appear before anyone; he was too embarrassed by his feet, and all that morning he agonised about having to step outside and meet Leywark in this pitiable condition. Absolon and Lella consoled him the best they could, and Tarquinn eventually sunk into a silent stupor.
That day everyone remained in a state of quiet suspense, waiting for the time to pass, gravely listening to the tollings of the grandfather clock. Another hour gone, another hour closer. To idle away the time, each member of the company occupied him or herself with something different: Lella and Absolon remained by Tarquinn, telling him not to fret about his feet, that soon he would have the cure; Basile, meanwhile, nervously paced back and forth all through the house as if he had lost something; Philippe stayed hidden away in the kitchen, still engulfed by remorse for cursing the prince. Noon passed by with a hasty lunch, and the last hours before five o'clock, which was the time Basile had set as the moment of departure, slowly ticked away.
Finally, the grandfather clock solemnly rang the much-anticipated hour, and Tarquinn, Absolon, and Basile bid their good-byes to Lella and Philippe. They put their coats on (it being a peculiarly chilly afternoon that Month of Collecting), and Absolon neatly folded the finished suits into a special box for clothing. Ready, they left for Leywark's -- or should I say -- Absolon's mansion.
Gracien answered the front door as before, and though his glinting eyes showed much surprise at the three guests, his tone remained low and disinterested. He took them to the parlour and quickly had them seated.
"What a disgrace," Absolon whispered while they waited for Leywark to be notified of their arrival. "All the houseplants have withered away, and that hedge outside the windows hasn't been clipped. The air smells of burning acid, like a laboratory. Why do you think that is? Has Leywark built himself a laboratory somewhere? I can't stand the thought of our great family's mansion being subjected to this degradation."
"You," Gracien called suddenly, as he appeared in the doorway. He pointed directly at Absolon and asked if he had completed the suits. Absolon inclined his head and lifted the large box.
"I have them all," he said, placing the box on a low table and pulling off the cover.
Therein were three magnificent Neovian outfits, with not a stitch out of place: one a blazing bronze colour, one traditionally black and white, and the third grey with starry silver embroidery along the breeches. Truly, they showed the outstanding talent of Absolon and his dutiful assistants.
"This one's not bad," Gracien said, lifting out the suit of bronze silk. "I think with these suits you'll have about thirty-thousand Neopoints erased from your debt."
"That is it?" Tarquinn called angrily.
Gracien looked up at the sudden exclamation and grinned, showing his teeth, which seemed unusually sharper than the day before. "That's ten-thousand Neopoints for each suit. That's how much they're worth to me."
Basile put a hand on Tarquinn's shoulder and hissed in his ear to be quiet.
"I think I would like to see this one on me now," Gracien said, stroking the fine material. Before the Lupe left to try on the suit in a different room, he announced that Leywark would be with them in a few minutes; his master was busy at the moment.
"You mustn't enrage that lout," Basile said to Tarquinn once they were alone again. "Gracien is a complete savage, though he looks suave and affable."
"I don't think he looks that well, Basile," Absolon said, sitting down beside his son. "He's sweaty and jumpy; did you see the way his eyes were flickering around the room? I don't like it..."
Footsteps in the hall signalled the arrival of Leywark, and seconds later the gracious little yellow Krawk stepped into the parlour. Today he wore a velvety old-fashioned suit of lavender, and a neat, matching top hat with a blue rose fixed to the brim. Absolon and Basile unknowingly clenched their hands into fists as Leywark sat down before them in an armchair.
"Good day, Mr. Harcourt, Mr. Fanshawe. I must say I wasn't expecting you to arrive together with Mr. Lockwood." Leywark's eyes gleamed, and he took off his hat. "Do you know one another?"
"We do," Tarquinn said, but before he could utter a word more, Leywark interrupted.
"Ah! I mustn't forget --" Leywark reached into his vest's pocket and pulled out a small, corked glass vial, "-- I have your potion here."
Whatever Tarquinn had meant to say was erased from his mind at the sight of that vial. He stared with bated breath at it hanging suspended from Leywark's fingers -- a potion of bright violet, the cure at long last. Leywark neatly placed the little vial beside the box of suits and sat back into his seat. He looked brightly at the three faces before him.
"Well, meeting you together like this is a surprise, indeed." Leywark chuckled. "How do you know one another?"
"Ah, this fits perfectly!" Gracien called, striding suddenly into the room wearing the bronze suit, a large mirror in one hand. He stopped before the guests, stuck his chest out, and spun around. Leywark did not look impressed; indeed, the anger flashing across his eyes was downright alarming.
"Come, you." Gracien beckoned to Absolon.
Absolon wordlessly stood up and Gracien thrust the mirror into his hands, telling him to raise it high so he could see himself from different angles. Tarquinn and Basile, meanwhile, gazed with worry at Leywark's thunderous countenance, and wondered what could be the matter with him. Basile whispered in Tarquinn's ear that they had better grab the potion and go now, forget the silly idea about buying back the mansion. There was something not right now.
Then, as if Basile's words had been a secret signal, a pale blue light, an ethereal fog appeared high in one of the parlour's corners, and it gradually grew brighter in the darkening room. The sun was setting; minute after minute the colours of the parlour deepened. Tarquinn and Basile immediately noticed the mysterious fog, but no one else did, for they were facing the opposite direction.
"What is that mist?" Tarquinn muttered to Basile nervously.
"It's a ghost, I think," Basile replied in shaky tones.
Leywark turned back angrily from Gracien, his chest heaving from silent rage. He looked at Tarquinn and said, "Let us cut to the chase, my good sirs. I know your relationships to one another. I know, you, Mr. Lockwood, are neither a cobbler's son, nor a resident of Neovia. I know you are the son of Absolon Harcourt -- you are Tarquinn de Quincy of Brightvale."
Basile squirmed in his seat with dread as he heard this, but Tarquinn was not overly shocked at Leywark's words. It did not matter to him that Leywark had discovered who he was. However he had done it was of little concern; Tarquinn had after all been planning to unveil himself that very moment. No, Tarquinn was much more frightened by the glowing light in the corner, which now seemed to be drawing lower to the floor and gaining in size.
"What was behind this little charade of adopting a false identity, might I ask, hmm?" Leywark raised his palms in a show of puzzlement. "Why did you not want me to know that you are Tarquinn de Quincy? Did you think I would not help you? Did you think I would -- Fyora forbid -- attempt to swindle something out of you? I am aware that there are in Neovia a few townsfolk who hold an unfounded bias against me, who do not trust me, and engage in spreading lies about me to others," Leywark fixed his now undoubtably evil gaze on Basile. "I hope you have not been affected by these lies, have you, Tarquinn? May I call you Tarquinn?"
"I don't like the way that light is nearing," Basile whispered, clutching the prince's arm.
Tarquinn looked past Leywark's head and saw the misty light floating inches above the ground in the corner, behind a collection of dead houseplants. Still, Leywark and Gracien did not take notice of it, for Leywark was still speaking, and Gracien was only focusing on his image in the mirror; but the light caught the corner of Absolon's eye and he turned his head hesitantly to it. Nervous lines etched into his forehead.
Leywark continued his speech. "It would not do good for you to believe that I am anyone but an honest, concerned citizen. I do help all who come to me with their troubles. I have made the cure to your curse, as you can see; surely this speaks of my desire to do good? Do not listen to the negative views of me. I insist..."
Absolon's hands were jittery with fright as the ghostly mist neared the centre of the room, hovering behind Leywark and Gracien. Slowly the mist grew stronger, a pale outline appeared, the shape of a tall moustached Kyrii in strangely-cut clothes worn a century earlier became apparent. Tarquinn, Basile, and Absolon tried not to stare too obviously at Maximilian Harcourt's ghost, but it was difficult to ignore. The ghost faced Absolon and pointed urgently to Leywark. He imitated moving something in Leywark's direction, something like a moderate-sized box. What? Absolon shook his head, not understanding the ghost's plea. Maximilian frowned and tapped his foot, though his foot was partially amorphous fog. He repeated the same motions -- move something over to Leywark.
"The mirror," Basile said.
Maximilian nodded and tapped his wrist, indicating time was running out. Almost immediately afterwards, his image began to fade away and the light vanished. Absolon stepped back nervously and eased the mirror in Leywark's direction.
"What are you doing?" Gracien said, noticing that Absolon was holding the mirror improperly. "Hold it like this, I can't see myself, hey -- what are you doing?"
The mirror reflected Leywark's back and was positioned just so Tarquinn and Basile could see the startling image within -- not Leywark's sunny yellow hair and the shoulders of his lavender suit, but the dark countenance of a entirely different figure... Leywark stopped speaking and curiously appraised Basile and Tarquinn's frozen expressions of surprise. He followed their gaze and caught sight of Absolon flashing the mirror directly into his face. Basile jumped out of his seat as he saw the sneering, beady-eyed face of Mr. Krawley unveiled in the mirror, the very villain who had brought the cursed elixirs to Neovia all those many years ago, the cause of the town's near-destruction.
"Gracien!" Leywark shrieked, clutching the sides of the armchair in rage. His eyes narrowed hatefully and the mirror in Absolon's hands suddenly shattered into hundreds of sparkling pieces as though it had been punched by an invisible force. Absolon dropped the frame and jumped back to dodge the flying shards.
"What?" Gracien said, completely nonplussed, not knowing where to look.
Leywark got to his feet, arms quivering, a very distinct bluish aura outlining his form. He glared at the Lupe and opened his mouth to shout, but at the last minute, through an incredible amount of effort, he relaxed his limbs. He turned back to his guests, a conniving grin on his face.
"Well, you have learnt my secret and I have learnt yours," Mr. Krawley said calculatingly, regarding Tarquinn, then Absolon. "I know you most likely want the house back and everything in it, and I say that you can have it. It is yours from this day forth. I don't really need it any longer, for it has served its purpose."
Mr. Krawley briefly checked the time on a pocket watch of his, then, as he stuffed the watch back into his vest, he glanced at the windows and his grin grew wider. "Indeed, you are all dreadfully short on time, so I must be concise. My sincerest good wishes to you all; may you enjoy your reclaimed property as well as you can, for however long that may be. It certainly won't be long, for my new potion to control Neovia is almost complete -- and this time the curse will be irreversible."
The Krawk gingerly stepped round the broken pieces of glass, each piece reflecting his true identity, unmasking the spell he used to cloak himself. He peacefully made his way to the door. "This house does not matter to me, you understand. It was a perfect, secluded place for me to develop the new elixir, and the textile factory I took over provided all the revenue I needed to purchase different ingredients and supplies. Alas, I say again, enjoy yourselves while you can, for once the town is newly under my control I will make sure a mob destroys every brick and stone of this WRETCHED GHOST-RIDDEN MANSION!"
Mr. Krawley shouted these last words ferociously and looked around the room as if expecting ghosts to seep out of the walls and challenge him. Apparently, Absolon's conjecture had been correct -- Maximilian's ghost really did not let the intruder have any pleasant nights in his house. Mr. Krawley donned his hat, and bowed formally. He glanced at Gracien, who was sweating profusely now and unable to stand still.
"Gracien," Mr. Krawley said sweetly, as though he were calling a Puppyblew, "you have my permission."
"What?" Absolon mouthed as Mr. Krawley smiled at him and left, swinging the door shut. A sharp click signalled he had locked the door as well, keeping them in with...
Gracien moved to the windowsill and looked out through the spaces in the wild hedge before the window; the sun had set and the full moon was rising over the dusky blood-red remains of the day. The moonlight shone into the room in small patches, dotting the carpet, the furniture, Gracien's chest. A small beam of white light reached into the Lupe's eyes, causing them to grow large and shine with a greenish radiance.
Absolon backed up, almost tripping over Basile in his haste to distance himself from Gracien. "Oh, I should have known..."
The Lupe turned around, stood before the three of them, moonlight on his shoulders. He was breathing in sharp gasps and sweating through the suit. His meticulously brushed silver hair was in disarray about his face, and his nails were visibly growing thicker, longer.
Gracien chuckled, but the sound was much closer to a growl. "It will be over shortly, don't you worry. Krawley has kept me from this for so long, so long... I began to think I would never get another opportunity to finish you off."
"You were one of the Werelupes who attacked us in the swamp, weren't you?" Absolon said, backing up, and pulling Tarquinn and Basile along with him.
Gracien laughed, half howled, as his voice began to broaden. "Exactly. I am the leader of the Werelupe pack of the Haunted Woods. Such fun we had that night hunting you runaways, such fun we sadly haven't experienced in years. Since Krawley's forbidding me to harm any Neovians I have had to console myself with feasting on Meepits... but now that his plan is ready to move into motion, I can hunt again with my pack forrr..." Gracien paused as his tone deepened and grew savage, "... desirrrable prrrey. Hmm... what a perrrfect way to starrrt things off tonight with you thrrree, the thrrree who escaped me last time."
"Go!" Absolon called, shoving Tarquinn and Basile into the direction of the door, while he dashed to a far wall and pulled out a dusty rapier from a glass display case.
"Come on, Tarquinn," Basile pleaded, but Tarquinn suddenly turned and ran back.
"No, I need the potion!" he shouted.
Gracien faced the window again and clenched his head as though he were suffering from a splitting headache. He leaned against the windowsill and doubled over, groaning in pain and breathing in great gasps. The seams of the suit began to rip, then fall to pieces as the body underneath grew larger and larger. Gracien's silver fur grew dark and wild, his arms and legs bulged with muscle, and his sharp teeth reached down the sides of his jaw.
The Werelupe's moans of pain slowly began to die away as the transformation ended and his senses returned. He opened his green eyes anew and picked off the remains of the beautiful bronze suit he had been wearing. Absolon held the sword out before him, slowly backing up, until he saw Tarquinn run forth out of the corner of his eye. He shouted in alarm as Tarquinn jumped over the couch and reached for the vial of purple potion on the table. Gracien followed his motions and leapt towards the prince. Absolon gasped and ran after the Werelupe, but he was too far to get there in time.
Tarquinn's face paled as he saw the giant dark creature lunging for him, his gaping jaws open, his arms held wide. Quickly, Tarquinn snatched the potion and dove under the table just as the Werelupe passed above him and crashed into the armchair. The Werelupe quickly got back to his feet, and in a rage he tore the armchair apart, into shreds of fabric and musty stuffing. Tarquinn sneaked out from under the table and raced to the door, grabbing his father by the shoulder along the way.
"The doorrr is locked, my trrrapped little Baabaa! Therrre is no escape frrrom me this time!" Gracien shouted exultingly in a terrible, rasping growl.
Basile rattled the doorknob in despair, and then Absolon pushed him aside, trying to turn the unyielding doorknob himself.
"Open!" he yelled, and to his amazement, there was a click and the door swung free. Old Maximilian was clearly watching over his family.
Tarquinn, Basile, and Absolon rushed out of the parlour and at Absolon's directions, turned left, right, left again, until they reached the front door of the shady mansion. This time, however, the door would not budge. Someone had bolted it shut and even secured a thick chain round the lock. Basile pulled on the chains, and told Absolon to try to pry the door open with the sword, but it was clearly a bad idea. Gracien had reached the end of the hall and found them. He fell to all fours and bounded towards them, howling in delight and causing the chandeliers to rattle.
"Basile! The statue!" Absolon hit the Wocky on the back.
In the front foyer, at the foot of the grand staircase, rested two large stone statues of recumbent Noils. Basile rushed to the Noil sitting on the right while Absolon pulled Tarquinn along, muttering, "Here, stand right here and don't move." Basile pulled on the Noil's front paw and then dashed to the little stone diamond upon which Absolon and Tarquinn stood. Suddenly the floor opened up and the three of them fell into darkness. They landed almost immediately on a large, dusty mattress and found themselves in a tiny hidden compartment under the stairs.
The hole in the floor above them quickly closed up and the footsteps of Gracien pounded above their heads. They heard him growl in frustration as he tried to discover whereto they had disappeared. Absolon slowly got off the mattress and held his hand out to Tarquinn and Basile. The roof was so low that they all had to lean down.
"Where are we? What are we going to do?" Tarquinn asked in a terrified whisper, looking around at the bare stone walls, trying to see in the blackness.
"Shh, shh." Absolon covered Tarquinn's mouth with a hand and listened as Gracien roved over and around the stairs, sniffing and growling. Absolon quietly explained that this was one of the many secret places of the mansion. "There are passages which connect these little rooms and compartments. Maximilian invented an entire system of hidden corridors; I told you he had always been a secretive eccentric. Even when he was alive, many thought his sudden appearances and disappearances in different places of the house were downright spooky. Come, we have to get out of this mansion. I daren't try absconding by the other main doors because they might be bolted and chained as well. I think we ought to escape using the cellar. Nobody knows about that passage. It will be open to us."
"But how can we see where we're going?" Basile whimpered. "We haven't got a light."
"I'm familiar with these passages, I think we can find our way --" Absolon was interrupted by the room suddenly brightening with a pale blue light. An airy glowing mist floated a short distance down the narrow corridor leading from the compartment. "That light is how we'll find our way," Absolon said, patting Basile on the shoulder and setting off towards the glow.
"Oh, now I believe you were led back to Neovia by a ghost..." Tarquinn whispered as he followed his father.
"Yes, it was true -- come along then, hurry, Basile," Absolon said.
"I can't. My leg aches terribly and I dropped my cane in the hall."
"Then, here, hold onto me. Tarquinn, you go in front. I will help Basile," Absolon said, pushing Tarquinn past him.
The spectral light slowly moved forwards; always it remained just a few metres out of reach, keeping the narrow cobwebby passage visible. Then, without any sign or warning, the light vanished, and Tarquinn hit his forehead into the wall before him. The passage had reached its end.
"Don't worry, the wall is a door. If I can just find the right... ah, there is the brick that opens it," Absolon said. With a heavy sound of dragging stone the wall slid open and Absolon peeked his head out. "We're in the grand drawing room, although I don't understand why we were led here..."
"What do you mean?" Tarquinn looked out into a vast silent room with terror, expecting Gracien to appear at any moment.
"The drawing room has no other safe passages that I know of. It's a dead end, unless we quickly run out and try to reach the library. There's a direct tunnel from the library to the cellar."
"Is it far?" Tarquinn asked.
"It's too far for us!" Basile hissed. "We can't traipse about the house while that monster is loose. Please, shut the wall and let's go back. Let's turn down a different passage..." Basile pulled on Absolon's arm, urging him to comply, but they both froze as they heard sounds behind them. Sounds in the passage, of scratching and sniffing. "Ack! He found the way in!" Basile cried.
From the black depths came Gracien's ragged voice. "Wherrre arrre you, my lost flock? I can smell that you arrre nearrr... I have found yourrr trrricky little Symol hole..."
"Come," Absolon gulped, helping Basile out of the tunnel and into the drawing room. Tarquinn rushed out and stood clutching his heart, looking about the towering walls and high ceiling like a frightened, trapped Miamouse. Lightless as it was and draped in cobwebs, the drawing room proved to be a magnificent space. Large portraits of Tarquinn's ancestors lined the walls -- stern-faced Kyrii lords and ladies, all of them gazing steadily down at the horrific scene about to take place.
Absolon forced the secret door closed and wrapped an arm around Basile's waist to support him. He waved to Tarquinn to follow, but then a sudden resounding crash dazed them into silence. Tarquinn spun around at the sound, and caught the sight of a giant painting of a moustached Kyrii lord slide off the wall and collapse onto the floor face-down. It lay right before Tarquinn's feet, and he knew the portrait was of none other than Maximilian Harcourt. He stared at the painting on the floor, shaking, until he noticed a strange little object taped to the back of the canvas. Tarquinn quickly leaned down to see it closer; he reached out a hand and touched a silver key. At the touch, a bell seemed to chime in his head. Somehow he knew that this is why the three of them had been led to the drawing room. This key was important.
Great rapid bangs pounded against the closed wall of the passage; Gracien had found the drawing room and sensed the presences just outside, but he did not know how to open the door.
"Tarquinn! What are you doing?" Absolon yelled.
Tarquinn ripped the tape off the silver key and pocketed the little object. He leapt across the room, darting past the furniture, and joined his father by the arched entryway.
"Rrr, I can hearrr you out therrre!" Gracien banged so hard now that the wall enclosing him was beginning to crumble and crack. Plaster was chipping and flaking to the floor.
Tarquinn, Absolon, and Basile hurried down the hall as fast as they could go, entering the library at the opposite end of the mansion just as the echoes of the secret wall falling down reached their ears. Absolon told Tarquinn to shut the library's doors while he regained his grip on Basile.
"Do you remember which book triggers this door to open?" Absolon asked his friend, but Basile could only mutely shake his head. Absolon sighed. "I don't, either."
Tarquinn's father stopped before an enormous, wide bookcase built into the wall, and, without a better plan in mind, he began to tug all the books he could get his hands on off the shelves. Tarquinn pushed two desks against the library's doors, and then joined his father. Books and books piled up at their feet and were flung behind them as they searched for the single special text that would open the secret passage. The library's doors suddenly flew open; the desks placed before them were knocked back -- useless barricades against Gracien's force. Basile screamed and redoubled his efforts as he saw the monster turning his head towards them.
"All in a corrrnerrr to make it easy forrr me." Gracien grinned as he crossed the room with the smooth amble of a predator on the prowl.
Absolon tore books off the shelves but still the most important book could not be found. He yelled at Tarquinn and Basile to keep trying, and he picked the rapier up and held it at Gracien's head. "Make a move and I will slay you, you monster," Absolon said fiercely.
The Werelupe laughed, but the sound was an echoing, unbroken howl. "Yooouu do not frrrighten me with that flimsy sworrrd."
"Here!" Basile shouted as he pulled on a large yellow book which was stuck onto the shelf and actually part of a lever. Its title was fittingly Secret Passages of the Deserted Tomb of Geraptiku. Almost immediately the bookcase split down the middle, opening the way into a narrow pitch black tunnel. Gracien looked past Absolon to see Basile rushing into the tunnel's entrance.
He growled. "Noooo, you cannot get away!"
The Werelupe tried to leap past Absolon, but was struck in the shoulder with the sword, and for the moment kept at bay. Absolon shouted for Tarquinn and Basile to hurry up and run, that he would keep Gracien occupied while they escaped. Tarquinn, however, would have none of his father's heroic self-sacrificing antics, and he twisted his way out of Basile's grasp and dashed back into the library. Tarquinn picked up the leg of a broken chair and he and his father circled the Werelupe. Gracien peered at them both, swiveling his head this way and that, wondering which Kyrii he should finish off first. Then, without warning, he swung a giant claw at Absolon, who barely managed to dodge unharmed. In a great rush, Gracien sprang upon Absolon and knocked him back upon a carrell.
"No!" Tarquinn gasped as Gracien ripped the rapier out of Absolon's hands and flung it back. Tarquinn ran to pick it up, exchanging it for the wooden chair leg. He held the sword high, directing the point at the Werelupe's back, and made a well-aimed thrust, but suddenly Gracien's arm reached out and batted the sword away. He looked back angrily at Tarquinn, green eyes glowing.
"You wait yourrr turrrn," Gracien smirked, but Tarquinn did not pause for a moment -- he placed himself into a formidable fencing position, as though he were at a fencing tournament, and shouted for the Werelupe to come forth, if he dared. Gracien narrowed his eyes and slowly got off Absolon, making sure to dig his claws into him before letting him be. Absolon fell to the floor, and Basile, who had been watching all this from the safety of the secret tunnel's entryway, rushed out to help him.
"We must get out of here!" Basile moaned, but Absolon shook him off, staring at Tarquinn and Gracien in fright. With a sudden idea popping into mind, Absolon ran off to the far side of the library, past all the rows and rows of looming bookcases, forcing a confused Basile to reluctantly follow him.
Meanwhile, Tarquinn and Gracien had begun their struggle in the forefront of the library. Tarquinn was a much more accomplished swordfighter than his father, and though the rapier he held was weak and small, it served him well enough to keep the Werelupe in his place. Gracien lunged at Tarquinn from every direction, but always the prince managed to swiftly spin around in time and face him with the sword's point. Gracien could not get near him without being run through.
"Rrr... stop flashing that worrrthless sworrrd beforrre my face. You arrre wasting time, you cannot save yourrrself..."
"If the sword is worthless, then come at me. See if your assertion is correct," Tarquinn called, acting with regal self-assurance.
Gracien lowered his head, baring his frothy teeth. He watched the prince's movements closely, waiting for a momentary break in his defense, but could not find one. Without a direct way to near him, Gracien tried to trick the prince with a feint -- a sudden rush to the right, then a lunge to the left. Tarquinn, however, was not thrown into a muddle. As Gracien came on, powerful limbs stretched out before him, Tarquinn raised the sword high and ducked his head. Gracien slid past, growling in rage for the claws of his right hand had been sliced off. The enraged Werelupe turned around and bounded at Tarquinn in a beastly rampage. The prince's face paled as he backed up and bumped into a row of old desks and chairs. He had no time to move now; Gracien leapt directly upon him, throwing him onto his back. The Werelupe opened his mouth hungrily and Tarquinn, seeing no other way out, thrust the sword into the gaping maw over his head. Gracien roared and bit down, snapping the sword into pieces with a lurid metallic crunch, while Tarquinn squirmed and forced himself out from underneath the monster's grip. The prince ran past rows of chairs and tables, Gracien behind him. Tarquinn at last stopped before a tall bookcase, so tall that it nearly reached the ceiling, and watched in horror as the Werelupe beat past the furniture, swinging his arms, smashing up everything in his path into splintery pieces. Gracien had cornered the prince.
"Tarquinn! Run!" Absolon called from a distance.
Suddenly, a thunderous drawn-out crash engulfed the library as the bookcases began to topple over. Absolon and Basile had pushed over the case farthest down, and, domino-like, all the cases were knocking into one another, all the books collected over the centuries falling. Tarquinn peered above his head at the giant cluttered shelves. They began to rattle, books fell off as the wave of destruction neared. Tarquinn made a crazed zig-zagging dive under the remains of a desk just as everything went black and thousands of books toppled over him.
Dust and loose pages floated in the air, settling down once the echoes of the magnific crash died away. Absolon and Basile rushed over to the last bookcase and searched for Tarquinn amongst the rubble. They found him wedged under a desk and pulled him out. He was greatly shaken, but his frantic heartbeat was calming down now that all was quiet.
Gracien lay motionless nearby, flat on his stomach under a massive pile of encyclopedias, his huge arms outstretched. Tarquinn, Absolon, and Basile fearfully watched the giant beast slowly shrink and change back into a silver Lupe.
"Is he dead?" Basile asked.
Absolon neared the Lupe and noticed his breathing. "No;" he affirmed, "he is but knocked senseless."
Basile sighed. "I hope he'll be senseless for a blooming long time!"
Absolon turned and looked critically at Tarquinn and Basile, asking if they were all right. Indeed, the two of them were largely unharmed, but Absolon was bleeding from claw wounds. Basile wrung his hands at the sight of his injured master, fearing that now he would be cursed just as Gracien, but Absolon shook his head.
"The bite of a Werelupe is what one needs to be wary of. Gracien merely scratched me up a bit. I am fine; it does not hurt so much." Absolon held his chest, insisting that he was well. "Come, we must get out of here. The way to the cellar is open. Let us go."
Tarquinn, Basile, and Absolon entered the hidden passage beyond the bookcase, this time making sure to bring a candle to light the way. The passage was narrow and musty, the walls of bare stone. For a time it kept on arrow-straight until unexpectedly a precipitous staircase opened beneath them, almost causing Tarquinn to trip down the stone steps.
"We're almost in the cellar," Absolon said, holding onto Tarquinn and Basile, afraid to let them go.
From the bottom of the staircase led another long, bleak corridor, and here, hovering about halfway down, shone again the bluish light of Maximilian's ghost. Tarquinn shuddered at the sight, for the Kyrii was fully visible, his features outlined as sharply as in his portrait. The ghost was waiting for them, arms crossed, comically tapping his foot.
"What does he want?" Basile whispered.
His question received no response, for neither Tarquinn nor Absolon understood the ghost's intention, but they knew it could not be bad. They hesitantly moved ahead, towards the light. The candle Basile held was suddenly blown out by a mysterious breeze, and Maximilian's ghost turned away. He strolled right into the wall on the right.
The three reached the spot where the ghost had disappeared and looked about curiously. Absolon touched the cool stone wall and sighed. There was nothing there, it seemed, until Tarquinn spoke up eagerly.
"This is a door!"
"Is it? I don't know of a door ever being here." Absolon examined the wall again. Sure enough, he could make out a pattern in the stones, and a deep but narrow line that outlined the shape of a door. Absolon pushed and kicked the nearby stones, trying to trigger the spring that would open the way to the path or compartment beyond, but he could not find anything. It was Tarquinn who discovered the way in. His hand passed over a stone just at the height a doorknob would be placed, and within the stone was a hole. A keyhole.
"The key!" Tarquinn immediately dug in his coat pocket for the key he had retrieved from the back of Maximilian's painting. He held it out for Absolon and Basile to see. "I think he wants us to open the door."
"Yes, but why?" Absolon wondered, watching Tarquinn stick the key into the hole.
There was a heavy whirring sound as the wall receded and slid out of the way. The blue light was shining again, brighter than ever before, as Tarquinn, Absolon, and Basile stepped inside. They beheld an amazing sight. A veritable treasure trove glimmered before them, a large compartment filled to the ceiling with gold, jewels, and priceless artifacts from around Neopia. Shelves were stocked with boxes and cases of amulets, of gemstones, of locked books and dusty scrolls, and the walls were plastered with rich Qasalan tapestries. In the midst of this unbelievable splendour stood Maximilian's ghost.
"What is this?" Absolon shook his head in disbelief.
The ghost raised its arms, as though it were gathering together a pile of objects. He meant that the property was his, he had collected it all. Indeed, Maximilian Harcourt's exploits and travels to the farthest corners of Neopia were famous, and his countless discoveries had forever affected the history of the lands he explored, making him in the meantime wealthy beyond measure. It was, perhaps, unsurprising that Maximilian had decided to hide a few of his dearest treasures, to stash them in a secret tomb-like room, away from prying eyes, including the eyes of his own family.
The ghost pointed to the top of a shelf in a corner and motioned for Tarquinn to climb up. Tarquinn hesitated, still too unsettled by the ghost's appearance (certainly, we would also be a little hesitant at looking into the incorporeal, glowing figure of a long-dead ancestor). Maximilian gave Tarquinn an impatient stare, and the prince hurried his step. There was a ladder placed against the wall, and Tarquinn climbed this to reach the top shelf. As he stepped higher he passed dozens of strange artifacts: Snowager teeth, shrunken heads from Mystery Island, intricate golden scarabs... Resting on the top shelf was a collection of objects from the Lost Desert. There were grey and tattered mummy bandages, scrolls of papyrus, golden masks, and a small teardrop-shaped bottle carved out of shiny black stone. Maximilian looked imploringly at Tarquinn as his hand brushed a Spyder web off the bottle.
"This?" Tarquinn asked, lifting the object.
Maximilian nodded vigorously and clapped, though his motions made no sound at all. Tarquinn climbed back down and gave the bottle to his father.
"What do you want with this, Max?" Absolon asked, twisting the bottle's gold scarab-shaped cork.
The ghost jumped about desperately, shaking its head.
"I don't think you should open that..." Basile said nervously, pulling Absolon's hand off the stopper.
Maximilian relaxed. He shook his fist angrily at his great-great grandson, as if insulting him for his stupidity.
"What is in here? Something bad?" Tarquinn asked.
Maximilian sighed thoughtfully, unsure about how to explain without the use of words or sound. At last, he pointed to a hanging tapestry of Qasala, specifically to a pyramid.
"It's from your travels to the Lost Desert. From when you explored the Qasalan pyramids and tombs," Absolon said.
Maximilian nodded, but curled his fingers up, indicating that more to the story existed. The ghost raised a misty hand to the tapestry's golden threads, all the bright threads that symbolised sand dunes, and then he pointed to the bottle. He tapped his foot, waiting for his charade to be figured out. Absolon was clueless about what this meant, but after an amount of consideration, Basile guessed, "There is sand in the bottle?"
Maximilian soundlessly clapped, then again motioned to the pyramid.
"Oh, this sand is from a pyramid in Qasala..."
Maximilian waved his hands -- there was more, there was more in the bottle than simple sand from a pyramid. The ghost looked sternly at them all, exasperated at their confusion.
"Maybe the sand is special -- magic?" Tarquinn shrugged.
Maximilian touched his heart in happiness. The sand indeed held a powerful magic, but whatever Maximilian tried to impart next in hand gestures left Tarquinn, Absolon, and Basile completely stumped. The poor ghost tried everything without success and became dreadfully torn and depressed. He paced back and forth, hands behind his back, shaking his head from side to side at each suggestion he was given. At last, Basile spoke in a quiet worried tone.
"I think I know what is in this bottle, though I hope I'm wrong... Maximilian, sir, did you get this from the tomb of the Qasalan Mummy?"
The ghost spread its arms wide, as if to say, "Finally!"
"What do you mean, Basile?" Absolon asked.
The Wocky twirled his moustache, eyeing the little bottle with fright. "Well... while Neovia was under the curse I wandered nearly around the world in boredom; some years back I trekked to the Lost Desert. There's a legend amongst the denizens about the tomb of the Qasalan Mummy... that all the sand within is black, that it's cursed. Whoever steps inside the Mummy's tomb with evil intentions in his heart will be swallowed by the Sands of Oblivion, never seen again... The legend says that even the memory of those lost in the tomb is erased. They fall into complete oblivion, as if they had never existed."
"Max, is this true? Have you really got some of this cursed sand?" Absolon said, so stunned that he nearly dropped the bottle.
The ghost nodded slowly.
"How could you keep this thing under our house -- so close to our family? Weren't you ever worried something terrible would happen?" Absolon persisted. "Look at all of these things you have hidden from us! How many of these are cursed? How many could be harmful!"
"No, don't yell," Tarquinn urged, for Maximilian's ghost was becoming more translucent, the outlines of his fine old-fashioned Neovian attire were becoming blurry and pale. "Please," Tarquinn called to the ghost, "what do you want with this sand?"
The ghost looked at them sadly, but with his hands he formed a 'K' and then imitated the cutting of a throat.
"Krawley!" Tarquinn gasped, realising the danger they were all still in. The smirking evil Krawk had been swept clear out of their minds during the struggle with Gracien. Krawley was intending to curse all Neovia -- he had to be stopped immediately.
"This will stop Krawley?" Tarquinn said, taking the bottle from his father's hand.
Maximilian nodded gravely and tapped his wrist, indicating that time was running out. He pointed to the door, motioned for them to go, but no one budged. Somehow they could not move; their eyes were fixed on the apparition before them, and they felt oddly sad at seeing the old noble Kyrii, that great world-renowned explorer of tombs and crypts, fading away into nothingness. It almost felt as if he were dying, though he had been dead for a hundred years.
"Oh, why are you going?" Tarquinn could not stop himself from asking.
The ghost sighed, hardly visible anymore. With a hand he reached out to touch Tarquinn's shoulder, as if wanting to give him an encouraging shake, but the hand became a pale mist. Slowly, Maximilian's form became a blur; he looked down gloomily, and his face, too, eventually evanesced.
"Where is Krawley?" Tarquinn asked, following his father and Basile down the black passage.
The three of them had solemnly left behind Maximilian's treasure trove of questionable artifacts and were easing their way towards the cellar and to eventual freedom. The entire house was ominously silent and lost in shadow; had Krawley escaped while he had sent Gracien to dispose of his unwanted guests?
"He may have sneaked off," Absolon shrugged, "but we will find him wherever he went to. He won't leave Neovia."
"Let's not concern ourselves about that," Basile added. "We need to get out of here finally! We'll think about what to do later... although I think the best plan is to pack up and leave Neovia while we can."
"Abandon town while Krawley is about to unleash some malefic curse upon everyone?" Absolon raised his eyebrows, then, most surprisingly he said: "Maybe that is what we ought to do..."
"I am stunned at what I am hearing!" Tarquinn said. "You cannot leave. What shall happen to the mansion? To the townsfolk?"
"Yes, what about them?" Absolon retorted. He sighed, and explained in a quiet, serious tone: "This mansion, this town have lost my love. After years of struggle, nothing but pain, I cannot feel comfortable here any more. I am alone, Tarquinn, in a mansion of the dead. In town, haunting memories of the curse drag down everything; everyone I see recalls that painful time. Neovia has become nearly unbearable to me, so much so that I sometimes wish oblivion really would swallow this place off the map. Don't look at me so horrified, Tarquinn. The town -- I loved it so long ago, when I had you, and Nadine, and hope. But now... it seems that it will become my tomb. I cannot leave it because of my promise to Maximilian..."
Tarquinn could not at first find words with which to console his father. He understood the loneliness and agony Absolon felt from years of being forced to wander these corridors by himself, and understandably hopelessness had lodged itself in his heart as his only constant companion, but Tarquinn would not for a moment allow evil to vanquish the town, for any reason, if he could possibly help save it. He would not give in and be despondent all his life as a result.
"Krawley nearly destroyed Neovia the first time through his cursed elixirs. Are you going to let him do it again?" Tarquinn demanded. "He tore apart our family! How can you sit back and allow him to have his way in all things? I don't know any of the townsfolk, I hardly know you, father, but I know I will fight with all my honour to save Neovia and you. No, do not despair or say you are unworthy. You are not alone anymore."
Absolon nodded stiffly and there was nothing more to be said. The end of the passage appeared -- a low little door of wood. Basile pushed it open and crawled out, Tarquinn and Absolon on his heels. The three stepped out from the back of an unused closet in the corner of the cellar. Absolon immediately held his nose, for the acidic fumes in the space were nearly suffocating.
A most unexpected sight waited in the candlelit space: a cluttered, smoky, heated laboratory. Long cabinets and shelves were stocked with thick manuscripts, books, and jars of gruesome floating body parts; dozens of bottles, tubes, and a particularly irritable-looking Negg Muncher lay upon a set of thick oak tables pushed together in the middle of the cellar. Off to the far right stood a black stove with a bubbling cauldron on it, and a bit nearer -- a great shelf filled with mysterious ingredients: all powdered, burnt, desiccated, or measured out into special piles. Some were still smoking and giving off putrid odours, others seemed to be glowing or even pulsating as though they were alive.
And then, beside the cauldron, nearly hidden from view by the many objects upon the tables, stood Mr. Krawley himself. The Krawk was no longer in his sunny disguise; his long expression was filled with cunning, his deep eyes twinkled gold in the light of the candles. Absolon stepped forth, and at the sound of his hollow footsteps, Mr. Krawley quickly looked up.
The Krawk stared momentarily in unabated surprise, but slowly, with a dark grin appearing on his lips, he reached for a blue rose placed on a near shelf. Before everyone's eyes the mysterious rose bloomed into a dark top hat, and Krawley set it upon his head. He cleared his throat. "What a surprise, my dear guests. Where did you come from? I thought I had the door locked?"
"We have other ways of moving about the house," Absolon said vaguely, helping himself to a smile upon seeing the Krawk's perplexion.
Mr. Krawley narrowed his eyes and peered into the boiling cauldron -- a giant amount of pale green potion was foaming and bubbling upon the stove. "And -- Gracien, I assume, is delightful company under the light of the full moon, no?"
"He's much better when he's knocked unconscious." Absolon's smile widened, as he felt more confident and determined, realising that Tarquinn was right, and that he wouldn't let this villain escape this mansion until he had paid for what he had done to his family and his lost friends.
Krawley frowned, still impatiently gazing at the boiling potion. He muttered angrily to himself about Gracien's incompetence, then said aloud: "You three are lucky to be alive, I think. I will unchain the doors, and allow you to leave peacefully. Although --" Krawley looked up menacingly, "-- I would not push my luck. I will not hesitate to dispose of you should you get in my way tonight. I have no patience for games now; my potion is too near completion for foolish quarrels."
"We are not leaving," Tarquinn said, slowly proceeding forward, past the tables of test subjects and vials, past the ensnaring vines of the growling Negg Muncher. He held the Sands of Oblivion close in one hand.
Krawley sneered. "What have you to do with this? Why get involved in things that do not pertain to you? My prince, you came here for a cure to your curse, not to challenge me to a futile battle. I have made your cure. I think you had better return home to your kingdom..."
"No, everything here I am involved in. You have cast unspeakable evil on this town once, sown despair, and wrecked my family. You cannot be permitted to continue your vile plans," Tarquinn said, reaching Mr. Krawley and staring defiantly into his eyes.
The Krawk clenched his fists, utterly enraged, his mind racing through hundreds of possible tortures he could inflict on these opposers. Suddenly, a powerful burning stench caught his attention and he turned to Absolon and Basile, who were lighting the potion books on fire and knocking jars and glasses off the tables! Krawley shouted, leaping towards his burning possessions, while Tarquinn took hold of the old stove and tipped it over, sending the giant steaming cauldron and all its contents flying into the wall. At the sound of this resounding clatter, Krawley turned back around; his face lost all colour as he saw the valuable potion spreading over and seeping into the floor. Krawley's eyes glowed with a fierce yellowish light, his whole form quivered. He leapt forth and gripped Tarquinn by the shoulder before the prince could even make a move to run off.
"You!" was all Mr. Krawley could sputter, his claws digging into Tarquinn like daggers. He struggled with the prince, knocked him into the potion shelves, the table, all the while shouting fiercely about his destroyed spell books and priceless ingredients. Tarquinn pried himself out of Mr. Krawley's hands, but the Krawk was too quick and could not be shaken off.
"I will have vengeance yet!" Krawley shrieked, pulling Tarquinn close and digging his hands through the prince's pockets.
He wrenched the tiny vial of violet potion from Tarquinn and displayed it before the prince's face. With a malicious glimmer in his eye, his long fingers enclosed the vial and he smashed it in his palm, letting all the potion spill onto the floor. He tossed the glass shards away and said: "Now you will see how it is to be cursed for the rest of your life, fool!"
Tarquinn could hardly comprehend what he saw. His mouth hung open, his heart pounded as he tried to take in the horrible fact: the cure had just been destroyed. Krawley cackled evilly seeing the prince's dumbfounded reaction, and he shoved him onto the table, pinned him down, and called to his ferocious Negg Muncher -- it was long past its dinnertime.
Vines latched onto the prince's arms as the vicious plant drew itself nearer. Tarquinn kicked and batted his arms wildly, trying to free himself from Krawley and his pet. Somewhere far off he heard his father's shouting; choking smoke was filling the laboratory, clouding all vision, dulling all sense. The Negg Muncher tightly constricted itself around Tarquinn's arms and waist, opened its leafy, fanged jaws and clamped down on the hand still clutching the bottle of sand. The prince screamed and tore his arm free. All of a sudden the Negg Muncher's vines loosened their stranglehold and Tarquinn saw Krawley look up in bewilderment. The golden scarab stopper had been pulled off the bottle and it seemed to have come to life; it opened its dazzling wings, twitched its legs, and buzzed around the laboratory, around Krawley. There was a horrible yawning silence, whereby the only sounds audible were the crackling of flames and the golden scarab's low humming. The potions on the tables, lining the shelves, all began to rattle as though an earthquake were approaching. Tarquinn took his opportunity and rolled off the table; he ran, as far away from Krawley as he could get. He rushed to Absolon and Basile, who were nearly lost in the smoke and smeared in ashes.
"The bottle is open!" Tarquinn yelled.
Absolon said not a word; he pushed in a brick in the wall and the door to an underground passage swung open behind a tall shelf. He helped Basile and Tarquinn inside, and then, rushing in himself, he chanced one last look back at the chaotic scene. A tumultuous wind had suddenly picked up, sucking all the flames and smoke away. The tiny black bottle lay on the floor, spinning round and round, shaking and wobbling, as a seemingly endless rush of glittering black sand poured forth from it. Absolon watched the sand lift and swirl into the air, whipped up by the vicious wind, as though a powerful Qasalan sandstorm were brewing in the cellar. Mr. Krawley backed up against the wall, staring at the roaring tempest in alarm as it blew away everything in the laboratory. The sand struck the shelves and tables, cracked the potions, and wherever the shining particles hit, a black smudge appeared and began to spread. A blackness spread over all the books, the smashed jars on the floor, the piles of vile contracts Krawley had made with Neovians asking for his help; the sand smote Mr. Krawley's face and coat and caused him to writhe in pain, for it seemed that everything touched by the Sands of Oblivion was withering, being consumed by an invisible, internal flame.
Absolon quickly sealed the tunnel and shouted, "Get away from the door!"
The Sands of Oblivion burned everything in the cellar to ashes. Mr Krawley shielded himself with his blackening arms. He looked up one last time at the laboratory, at the Negg Muncher now collapsing into a pile of soot, at the spilt cauldron of potion, and at the ashes of all he ever had or accomplished. He groaned in frustration and pain, and before he, too, were consumed entirely, he disappeared in a cloud of purple smoke.
The golden buzzing scarab, as if sensing its time had passed, peacefully flew through the black sandstorm and latched onto the little bottle lying on its side on the floor. The wind moaned fiercely and shifted its direction. All the particles of sand Maximilian Harcourt had taken from the Qasalan Mummy's cursed tomb were magically sucked back into the tiny glass bottle. The golden scarab crawled over the rim, folded its iridescent wings, and moved no more.
Mr. Krawley was never seen in Neovia again.
Tarquinn, Absolon, and Basile burst out of the underground tunnel into the fresh autumn night, shaking, their faces ashen. The cold air chilled their sweaty and tired limbs; the gauntly pale full moon and the pinprick sharp stars lit the peaceful black sky above them. Hardly could they believe they were outside at last, in the cool free breeze.
The three were at the edge of the swamp, walking along the border between the overreaching cypresses and the last stretches of Harcourt property. Absolon's mansion rose to their right at a distance; the house's lower floors were hidden partially by the wild garden, the turrets were darkened with ivy. A dewy, grassy plain lay before them, the water droplets stuck upon the grass blades sparkled in the moonlight. Without the energy or the immediate reason to go further, the three collapsed onto the ground.
Basile and Absolon talked nervously about all they had just been through, and they checked to see if they each were all right. Basile was especially worried about Absolon's wounds, but the gashes Gracien had landed were indeed surface scratches -- large and long (and painful), but far from deadly. Absolon held Tarquinn's hand, gently examining the bite by Krawley's carnivorous Negg Muncher, and he concluded that Tarquinn would be fine.
Fine! Tarquinn moaned. He sat in a lifeless heap on the grass and stared blankly into nothingness. He did not take notice of Absolon and Basile standing up. He did not see that Lella and Philippe had appeared in the distance and were waiting beside the mansion's front gates (the two had been inspired to leave Basile's house out of worry that something bad had happened). Tarquinn hardly noticed himself being dragged to his feet and overtaken by Lella's hugs. He did not feel her relieved heart beating; he just looked down with a dreary dead gaze.
"Oh, Tarquinn!" Lella cried. "I'm so glad you are safe!"
Tarquinn was let out of Lella's embrace, and he slumped back onto the damp grass, deaf to the chatter about him. Deaf to the sounds of relief, of relaxation, of any utterances of joy. The prince gathered his knees up to his face and sobbed in shaking gasps. The only thing that kept him from happiness, from salvation, was destroyed. The potion -- his blessed cure -- was smashed, and his time had run out.
To be continued...