Ghostfighters: Part Nine
The Mage’s Hall
For a moment, Jeri truly believed that they had walked right into space. A powerful blue light danced on the Bori and Aisha’s faces and filmed over everything else in the room, which happened to include a wide assortment of weaponry, empty food satchels, and scattered neopoint coins, all heaped against the walls of the cramped cave. None of this, however, was even remotely diverting when compared to the real focus of the room.
“What is that?” Tyra murmured, although there was no real need to ask. They both knew that there was only one way you could see all the landforms of Neopia at once: by looking at the planet itself.
Although Jeri’s Ice Caves heritage hadn’t given him the opportunity to learn much about the surface world, he had learned a few things by himself over the last few years. He had visited several school classrooms where he had seen numerous globe models of the planet. Some of them had even been complete with a revolving Kreludor fixed to a mechanical arm. But there was something altogether different about the view of Neopia he faced now.
For one thing, the shimmering, slowly revolving representation of the planet and its moon that was hovering in this cave stood taller than either of the two pets. Although there was nothing to hold them up, the spheres hung before them like a mirage, much less solid and at the same time somehow more real than any model. The detail Neopia’s deserts, jungles, and plains displayed was unbelievable.
“I can see the Ice Caves,” Jeri said, because there was really not much else to say.
Tyra was the first to snap out of the stupor. She realized that they had both unknowingly moved several steps closer to the giant orb -- Some sort of hologram? she wondered -- and she pulled at Jeri’s shirt collar, afraid for a moment that he was going to touch it. “Come on,” she said. “We’re not getting any closer to either Kiyoshi or Tarandya this way.” Struck by a sudden thought, she began to rummage through the weapons piled against the wall.
“I wonder what it’s for,” mused Jeri. He hadn’t moved from his position in front of the orb.
“I don’t think we really want to know,” Tyra said grimly. She selected a long wooden staff with a dangerous-looking crystal tip for herself, and opened her mouth to ask Jeri’s opinion. She caught sight of his pocket though, from which poked the head of a large hammer, and decided that he was well-equipped enough. She rose and tapped the Bori on the shoulder, who was looking far too interested in the orb of Neopia for her liking.
All but ignoring her, Jeri said excitably, “There’s another side on this one. The models they make now only have one side.”
“I can just about see it, too. It’s sort of squished up against the wall now, but it’s moving - if we just wait a couple of seconds, we can see it.” He made as if to squeeze behind the planet.
“Jeri, don’t!” Tyra yelled, scared. She grabbed him and pulled him back just as he was about to brush against the orb.
“What’s the matter with you?” Jeri said loudly. He was all of a sudden angrier than Tyra had ever seen him, and there was something wrong with his eyes. “It’s just a picture, it can’t hurt you!”
“It was made by a sorceress who wants to kill Kiyoshi!” Tyra said furiously, biting back angry tears. “That’s reason enough to leave it alone!”
“It doesn’t matter; it’s a picture!” he shouted. “Look, there’s Mystery Island! There’s Maraqua! It’s a picture! Pictures don’t hurt you!” He gestured madly at the map.
Overcome by the idea of him touching the apparition with one of those wild movements, she tried to push him away. Instead, however, the Bori stumbled backwards, a surprised look on his face, and Tyra overbalanced, dangerously close to the glowing sphere. Instinctively, she reached out to the wall to steady them. Unfortunately, the combined weight of the two pets was too much for the crumbling wall to handle, and it gave way in a shower of dried mud, sending them both into the heart of the sphere. There was a blinding flash, and Tyra felt the ground disappear from beneath her feet.
For Kiyoshi, it became hard to tell which bones were his and which were the skeleton’s. Farther and farther back they tumbled, down what seemed to be a steep chute built into the back of the tomb. Dust, undisturbed for decades, coated his limbs; the webs of long-dead spiders clung to his jacket; and an overwhelming darkness engulfed him as he fell.
Then suddenly it was over. With a sickening clatter, both Lupe and Shoyru bones met the solid stone floor in a tangled heap. Mostly from shock, Kiyoshi managed to pull himself up and stagger out from the pile of splintered bones. Every instinct in his body was screaming in the threatening silence and shadowed torchlight of this room, and for the first time this mission, his hand was instantly on his slingshot.
However, before he could so much as fit a stone to the weapon, a jet of lightning-like fire, blazing evilly against the darkness, knocked it out of his grip. Leaving Kiyoshi stunned, his slingshot spiraled off into the shadows of the room. Several pebbles from his pouch skittered across the floor and came to rest at the slender toes of a dangerously calm Korbat.
Tarandya’s eyes flickered, but she maintained an airy smile. “Nice of you to drop in on me, dearie.” She kicked one of the stones into a corner, watching it contemptuously. “I expected a little more originality than that, even from you. If you can’t use your little stick, maybe you should just magic up something else to help you.”
“I might,” Kiyoshi said, raising the tablet to his eyes.
Jeri shook his head as he sat up, feeling like a large Elephante had been standing on it for a good while. As he did so, he was surprised when his claws closed on a tuft of squelchy moss. The rest of his surroundings seemed to be formed from some sort of damp rock that was only just visible in the darkness. This registered as odd to him, but try as he might, the Bori could not remember what he had been doing before he passed out. He was still contemplating this when a familiar lilac-coloured hand reached out towards him.
The owner of the hand tried a small smile. “How are we doing?”
“Tyra,” Jeri mumbled, wishing that the Elephante would stop trampling his skull. He accepted the hand she offered, and stood. “We’ve been better, I think. If y’don’t mind me asking, what in Fyora’s name just happened?”
She hesitated. “Well... there was that hologram...” Jeri continued to look puzzled, so she decided to leave out most of his part in the map chamber incident. “There was some kind of holographic map of Neopia, and... and we accidentally touched too much of it at once. We’ve been transported to an entirely different part of Tarandya’s cave network We’re lucky; by touching that globe we probably could have ended up anywhere.”
“Tarandya.” Jeri looked at her. “The evil Korbat enchantress?” Tyra nodded as confirmation. “Right. I remember now.”
Knowing that he didn’t quite remember everything, Tyra was relieved. “I think that there’s a dangerous amount of magic lingering in these caves,” she said, glancing at him with concern, “and it might make pets act strangely. We need to stick close and find Kiyoshi.”
“And then get out of here.”
The Aisha grimaced. “We still need to deal with Tarandya.”
Jeri ran a paw through his hair. “If the three of us can make it out of here and live to tell the tale, that’s good enough for me.”
Kiyoshi’s dizzying journey through the all-too familiar Vortex seemed to be over very quickly this time. When the whirling colours faded and his surroundings finally solidified, he found himself landing hard on a cracked red rock. Disoriented, he found his footing, stood, and was greeted by the acrid smell of smoke in the air. All around him were crumbling mounds of the same red stone, some still recognizable as the collapsed remains of glorious pillars and carvings; a few small fires dotted the broken landscape, lending an almost volcanic atmosphere to the ruins.
He reached out to one of the fallen pillars and brushed the ash from a small area. Carved there was the same ‘K’ symbol that was on Tarandya’s tablet.
“I would assume this isn’t where you meant to end up,” a cold voice said. Tarandya, casually carrying a ball of red flame that seemed appropriate in this landscape, appeared from behind a heap of rubble. “You see, that’s the problem when you use someone else’s magic -- that someone might still have some control over it.” Noticing the defensive step backward Kiyoshi took, she rolled her eyes. “Don’t move, Paco. You may think this is imaginary, but if I let this fire loose on you here, I’ll destroy you from the inside out.”
“Where is this?” he managed.
“This, my little friend, is what is known as the Kauvara syndicate.” She smirked. “Or what used to be.”
“I know--” he started, then caught himself as she looked sharply in his direction. If she didn’t know that Tyra had retained that knowledge, it could be used against the mage. “I -- I know why you took us here. You did this, didn’t you?”
With an unpleasant giggle, the Korbat reached for a small slab of stone beside her. As if by its own accord, it leapt into her hand. Almost lovingly, she rubbed her sleeve over its surface to reveal the engraved face of a noble-looking Mynci in a pointed hat, decorated to be a sort of insignia. “Do you know how you become the most powerful, Kiyoshi?” In one swift movement, she tossed the slab up into the air and thrust both arms towards it. There was an earthshaking explosion that rattled Kiyoshi’s teeth, and the slab shattered into a million fragments. She let the dust settle at her feet, breathing hard, eyes glinting red. “By making sure that there is no one more powerful than you.”
It was at that moment, as Tarandya glanced down at the splintered remains of the stone slab, that Kiyoshi saw his opportunity. Acting with all the agility he could muster, he feigned left, then dived off to his right, pulling the tablet from his pocket. He had already whipped it up to his eyes when an invisible force suddenly slammed into him, seeming to light every sense in his body on fire. He fell awkwardly on his side to realize that he couldn’t move his feet from where they were in contact with the ground. In effect, Tarandya had glued him to the spot, and although he was still closer to the tablet than she was, it had been knocked too far away for him to reach it.
“I cease to be amused by this game!” Tarandya shouted. “It’s over, Paco! I want my magic back, and after I take it, you will pay the price for using it!”
She paused as she passed by the struggling Shoyru. “Besides,” she sneered. “The river is the power source; you need to be looking towards it in order to focus the magic. With this illusion around us, how would you know where to aim?”
“I figured I’d take my chances,” he coughed, leaning against a fire-tinted boulder in an attempt to stand up without the use of his immobilized feet.
Tarandya smiled contemptuously and shook her head, bending to pick up the tablet. As she did so, Kiyoshi summoned his strength, took a breath, and hurled his entire weight back against the boulder. Upon the bone-cracking impact, the stone trembled precariously, and a pile of head-sized stones and loose debris from its top came tumbling down like a landslide, breaking other blocks as they hit them. Kiyoshi ducked so that he was sheltered by the tall boulder, but Tarandya turned too late. The enchantress hissed as the landslide triggered another collapse behind her, and before she could properly summon her flickering red shield, the rubble engulfed her entire body.
Seeing the tablet skittering away across the stone floor and within his reach now, he pounced on it. He yelped as a good-sized block dropped onto his leg, and decided that if Tarandya didn’t escape the rubble and kill him first, those stones would. Throwing caution to the wind, he squirmed around until the tablet was pointed in the direction he was fairly certain was opposite to the way he had been facing when he first appeared. Please take me somewhere where I can finish this, he pleaded as he held the tablet in front of his eyes.
He waited to be thrown into the Vortex once more, but it never happened. Instead, the next thing he was aware of was the sensation of his breath being knocked away as he smashed into a hard surface behind him. Pain seared through him. When he could crack open an eye, he found himself face-to-face with Tarandya, her face twisted in a snarl and her eyes burning with the Kauvara Syndicate’s signature red energy. Although he could scarcely turn his head, traces of crackling energy were visible in the corners of his sight, and he dimly registered that he was against a sandstone wall, pinned by her magic once again.
“An illusion, Paco; that’s what I told you!” she hissed venomously. “You couldn’t honestly expect to get rid of me in a place that isn’t really there. Funny that you should magic yourself back to my lair, though -- the one place you don’t stand a chance of winning.”
Through a mental haze, he recognized the truth of her words. He wasn’t going to be winning any battles here. He had failed, and he had endangered his friends because of it... a dark cloud curled over the edges of his vision, and he knew he was about to pass out again, just like the last time he had used the tablet’s magic.
As if from far away, Tarandya’s voice sounded. “I know you’re used to your enemies delivering a nice long speech before they finish the job, but I’ve realized that’s why they’re always the ones defeated. Goodbye, Kiyoshi Paco. It’s been a blast.”
There was an earsplitting crack accompanied by a blinding flare, and Kiyoshi prepared for the world to be ripped away from him. However, it never came. Instead, he heard a high-pitched screech, and when he could open his eyes, he saw only Tarandya, the ball of energy in her hand rapidly fading as she hunched her shoulders and snarled in pain and rage. In her anguish, she dropped the binding spell on Kiyoshi, and he slumped to the floor of the hall, unable to find the strength to get up.
While Tarandya continued to thrash and roar in an attempt to shake off whatever was plaguing her, a new voice seemed to rise above the chaos.
Running footsteps, and then someone nudging his shoulder. “I’m still here,” he said thickly, and rather untruthfully since he was presently drifting between wakefulness and complete unconsciousness.
“What in Kreludor happened to you, mate -- no, don’t answer that, we have to get you out of here -- I don’t know how she did it, but Tyra sent something at Tarandya and it seems to be distracting her--”
“Thank Fyora you’re not...” a second, familiar voice murmured, and he felt himself being dragged onto his feet.
Struggling to stay conscious, he blinked, looking at Jeri and Tyra without really seeing them. He tried to support his own weight and his legs crumpled beneath him.
Tyra was staring. “You’ve been using that tablet, haven’t you--”
“Less talking, more dragging,” Jeri’s voice cut in. “We really, really have to--”
But he was too late. All three of them noticed the sudden silence at the same time, and the entire hall echoed a dangerous chuckle. Kiyoshi pulled away from Jeri to lean back against the wall, which was surprisingly damp. He wanted Jeri and Tyra to leave, to run away, but they just stood there, watching defiantly.
“Tyra, dearie,” Tarandya crooned. “We meet again. I did say you had a wonderful mind, and look at this, you’ve learned a new skill. Let me ask, though, how did you steal the magic you’re channeling?”
“I stole nothing,” said Tyra brusquely, taking a brave step forward and hefting her crystal-tipped staff defensively. “That’s your area of expertise.”
A muscle on the Korbat’s face twitched. “Don’t be stupid, girl, you couldn’t cast an offensive spell like that without Kauvaran influence. I should know, I was in your mind, and in your entire life you have done nothing more magical than even Mr. Paco here has.”
Tyra looked at her with disgust. “Let’s just say your interference in my mind has helped me realize my full potential.”
“Oh really?” She smirked. “I’ll see about that.”
She whipped up her arms in a complicated flourish, but Tyra was just as fast to raise her staff.
“NOX MORTIS!” Tarandya cried.
“FIAT LUX!” shouted Tyra.
The two spells, Tarandya’s jet-black and Tyra’s blinding silver, collided in midair and ricocheted off each other, sending bursts of energy off at odd angles. Jeri pulled the semiconscious Kiyoshi down and they both took cover under a sandstone ledge as the spells bounced around the hall. There was a crash from the other side of the room, and when the dust and magic had settled, Kiyoshi saw a collapsed wall and a heap of rubble where Tyra had stood. Shaking slightly, Tarandya drew herself up from where she too had been thrown back against the wall. She was livid.
“KIYOSHI PACO!” She had seen him from behind the ledge. With a jerk, the Shoyru was lifted from his hiding spot and dragged across the room, as if by invisible hands. With a flick of her hand, she threw him against the wall before her.
She spat. “That’s one down. Where’s that Bori friend of yours? I might as well deal with him first, as you’re not likely to put up much of a fight anymore... no... actually,” she said, her lip curling nastily, “I’ve no personal grudge against him. Who knows, he might even make a decent host when I’m done here... I’ll let him run... for now.” From behind Tarandya, Kiyoshi could just make out Jeri, sliding from his hiding place. The Bori gestured for him to be quiet, then crept silently to the opposite wall where Tyra was buried.
Even in his hazy state of mind Kiyoshi recognized the need to buy the Bori time. “The walls are wet in here,” he observed. Even to him his voice sounded weak.
The Korbat mage was nonplussed. “Of course they are,” she snarled after a moment. “They’re right up against the river; what would you expect?”
“They’re really wet,” he murmured pointedly. “And crumbly.”
From the look on her face, Tarandya evidently thought he was losing his mind. Behind her, two figures slipped by unnoticed. “I see you still have my tablet in your hand,” she said icily, by way of changing the subject. “That’s convenient, because I’m about to take it from you.” She raised an arm.
“Wait,” said Kiyoshi quickly. She did not seem to consider him a significant threat any longer, because she paused, surprised. “Can... can I ask you one last thing? A... a final request?”
The words sounded ridiculous coming out of his mouth, but the prospect of his final words being about her was too appealing for the Korbat to refuse. “Get on with it, Paco.”
He seized his chance. “Why did you have to create the tablet? I mean, why couldn’t you just keep all of your magic in your head, instead of having to store it all in the tablet?”
Underneath the hatred in her eyes glimmered the faintest trace of curiosity. “As any mage would know, the living body is a relatively weak container for magical energy,” she sniffed. “Too much power and the body is overwhelmed. I, for example, developed far too much power to hold in one physical entity, and created the tablet as a receptacle for the excess. Absorbing a significant source of outside power is often a mage’s downfall.”
“A source of power...” Kiyoshi mused. He wondered if he might have been better off passing out after all.
“That’s enough!” Tarandya cried, raising her hand again, this time with an unmistakable air of finality --
“Yes, it is,” said Kiyoshi, and with the last dregs of strength that he had been gathering for the last few minutes, he ducked behind her and flung the tablet through the air at the same moment as stumbling and falling to the hall floor.
Tarandya could only watch in horror as her tablet soared through the air like a falling star, only to be snatched up in the fist of a newly unburied Aisha -- a little battered, but very much alive and with an unmistakable, determined glint in her eye. Before Tarandya could so much as curse, the red Bori had leapt aside to allow the Aisha access to the hollow he had dug almost all the way through the crumbling wall, and without a backward glance, Tyra had driven the sharp edge of the tablet into the thin stone there.
To be continued...