Illusen On Holiday
Like all things, it began with a letter.
I feel terrible about what happened the year before last. When Fyora put me in charge of your Glade for the day, I was furious, and I took that anger out on all of your dedicated questers. I’ve since learned my lesson, Illusen, and I’d like to make it up to you.
If you care to accept my apology--I know I’ve done plenty to make you think otherwise--I’ll come to Meridell immediately to watch over your Glade tomorrow. I’ve already reserved a dirigible for a day-trip to Shenkuu for you; all you have to do is accept.
I hope you’ll forgive me, Illusen.
Illusen set the letter down and sighed. The handwriting was crisp and certainly showed no signs of a struggle, both suggesting the words were sincere, but as Jhudora had said, the Dark Faerie had done plenty to make Illusen think otherwise. And yet, she had confessed to such and said she already had a holiday planned for her, so perhaps this was the beginning of a new Jhudora. Perhaps Fyora’s punishment the year before last had done more than merely teach Jhudora not to rampantly abuse her Dark Faerie magic.
Illusen smiled and made her decision. She could still recall the kind if at times stuck-up Jhudora she had been more than mere sisters with in her childhood, and the simple thought that such a person might be making a comeback demanded her attention. After all, a lot had happened to cause Jhudora to turn Dark; it was only natural for wounds these deep to take a long time to heal.
Grabbing a leaf and a quill, Illusen quickly scribbled a resounding “Yes” upon it and then passed it to the Bartamus that had delivered the letter. With a hoot of farewell, the purple Petpet rose up upon its bat-like wings and flew out of her Glade at once.
* * *
Morning rose over Meridell, and Illusen was just as fresh as the dew itself when she stepped out to greet Jhudora at the back of her Glade, away from the prying eyes of all the questers already huddled out front.
“I hope you don’t mind, darlin',” the Dark Faerie said, “but I brought a few supplies to make things easier for us this time.”
“Not at all,” answered the red-headed Earth Faerie. “What did you have in mind?”
“Not being me, of course,” Jhudora said, setting down a bag and simultaneously pulling out a potion bottle and green dress in the likeness of Illusen’s. She slipped on the latter, popped the cork from the former, and then emptied the contents in a single gulp. A moment later, the color drained from her face and her hair turned a soft shade of chestnut, almost identical to Illusen’s.
“Wow,” the Earth Faerie said, leaning in closer to inspect the disguised Dark Faerie. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d think I was standing in front of a mirror.”
“Good then,” Jhudora said, trying to bring up her heavy voice to match Illusen’s but not being entirely successful. She gave up trying without another attempt. “If they ask, I’ve got a cold.”
“Oh, that’s fine,” Illusen said. “I really must thank you, though, Jhudora. You really don’t have to be doing this.”
The imposter Earth Faerie smiled. “But I want to, darlin'. You understand, don’t you? We’re sisters.”
Illusen took a breath, feeling warm inside. “Thank you,” she said again, not knowing what else to answer with.
“The dirigible’s parked down near that Sinsi character.” She motioned to the front of the Glade, where the soft hum of questers drifted inside. “I suggest you leave them to me and get going before you miss your ride.”
“Oh, yes, of course,” Illusen said. “Thanks again, Jhudora.” The Earth Faerie spun on her heels and dashed out of the back of the Glade and into the open grass of Meridell. The last thing she heard was Jhudora yelling, “Form a line, or you ain’t questin’ today!”
Well, Illusen normally wasn’t so blunt, but at least Jhudora was trying.
The dirigible wasn’t hard to find at all, and for a moment she wondered why Jhudora had even taken the time to mention where it was; after all, the bulbous red monstrosity with all of its higgledy-piggledy ropes wrapped haphazardly around it, tethering the balloon to a small basket below, certainly stood out upon the Meridell horizon.
A red Scorchio tanned maroon greeted her and led her inside. “Give me just a moment,” he said after introducing himself as Ulrik, “and we’ll be on the way.” He checked a few weights hanging from the sides of the basket, and then motioned for Illusen to step back. When she did so, Ulrik took a breath, looked up into the massive balloon above them, and then breathed fire so bright it was almost as hot as the Lost Desert when she’d visited it the year before last. Instantly, the craft began to float upwards from the ground, and soon enough, her Glade was a swash of green color upon the earthen landscape far below.
“So this is a dirigible,” Illusen said as she gripped the edge of the basket and leaned into the wind.
“Actually,” said Ulrik, “this is only a hot air balloon. Dirigibles are much larger than this.”
Illusen eyes widened. Larger than this? She couldn’t fathom the possibility. “It’s so strange to be flying like this,” she thought aloud. “Normally, I’d just fly to Shenkuu if I were going on my own, but this... this is incredible.”
Beneath them, the gallerias of Brightvale and the dozen or so libraries and scroll shops boasting visitors galore became visible as small dots moving between stone circles and squares. In one alley, a poet seemed to be assaulted with tomatoes. No, Illusen decided, he was simply being thrown roses. She hoped.
“Aye,” Ulrik said, “there’s nothing like flying on ye own wings, but flying like this? Ye get used to it.”
“Of course,” Illusen said. Her hair fluttered around her and the sunlight stroked her skin with a delicate touch, its warmth spreading throughout her body and even filling her wings. Time seemed to pass by endlessly like this. Beside her, she felt Ulrik blowing fire into the balloon time and time again.
“Uh-oh,” he said.
“What’s wrong?” Illusen asked, eyes still closed. What could be wrong in such peacefulness as this?
“Uh, well, madam”--Ulrik gulped, an unsettling sound that caused Illusen to consider, perhaps, the fact that something could possibly be wrong in such peacefulness as this--“well, um, the balloon’s torn.”
Now Illusen opened her eyes. “Oh, dear.”
The basket struck the top of a tree and sent a slurry of splinters into the shadows below. It bounced once or twice, skirting the Haunted Woods almost gracefully, and Ulrik tried again to save the balloon from its demise. The tear had grown, however, and he failed. The basket finally ran out of forward momentum and plunged straight downwards through the trees, tumbling back and forth as it bounded from branch to branch. The balloon snagged a tree and they came to a sudden halt. Then the balloon broke entirely.
Ulrik moaned as he pulled himself up from the wreckage and offered his hand to the disheveled Earth Faerie at his feet. She took it without question. “This doesn’t usually happen,” the Scorchio assured her.
“I’m certain it doesn’t,” Illusen said and brushed away an assortment of wood chips, leaves, and dirt from her dress. The whole event suddenly reminded her of a story she’d once read in which a similar crash had left a bunch of pets stranded upon an island in the middle of nowhere. She was suddenly thankful that they were only in the Haunted Woods.
“Don’t figure ye got a map,” Ulrik said, looking into the darkened trees around them.
“No,” Illusen said, “but I’ve been here before.” It was true. Also true was the fact that the Woods were usually brighter this time of day and that they’d had the misfortune of landing in one of the denser parts of the forest. “We should go this way,” she added and began walking from the crash site. “I’m sure I’ll recognize a landmark soon enough.”
“I’ll trust ye,” the Scorchio grumbled and followed behind her. “Got nothing better to do.”
* * *
Back at the Glade, things were going smashingly well for Jhudora. She’d already had a dozen items crossed off her list and not a single quester had left as a Mortog yet. (And, hopefully, for her plan to succeed, none of them would.)
A purple Poogle approached her, eyes scrutinizing. “You look a bit puffy, Illusen.”
Jhudora patted her cheek. “I do?”
“Oh, yes, terribly so. Have you gained some weight?”
The Dark Faerie scowled. Was this insolent jerk calling her fat? She raised her hand, a green glow swelling around her fingertips. She caught herself just in time and shook her sleeve as the magic dissipated, leaving a flower in its wake (a lucky failsafe she was now thankful for having installed in the dress beforehand).
“Have a flower,” Jhudora said with a toothy smile and passed it to the Poogle.
“Thank you,” it said. “Um, Illusen, if you don’t mind my asking, why are you in sleeves today? It’s actually rather warm. And, well, your voice sounds a bit off, too, come to think of it.”
“Well, you see, I’ve got a bit a cold, nothing major, but it’s best to keep warm, isn’t it?” Jhudora faked a cough, hoping for the best.
“Oh, of course,” the Poogle said. “Might I make a suggestion then?”
“No,” Jhudora said as kindly as she could--and, even surprising herself, this was almost saintly at the moment--and stole another glance at the list in her hand. “If you’d like to have a quest, however, that much I can arrange.”
“Well, if it’ll make you feel better.”
“Oh, yes, it’ll make me feel much better.”
* * *
Illusen reared back with a start as a blue Krawk in an overcoat jumped up before them with no warning at all. “Krawley’s the name,” he said, shaking their hands with or without their participation, “and convenience’s my game.” He set down a briefcase, pulling forth legs from its side, and instantly opened up his own apothecary before them.
Beside her, Ulrik had practically fainted from surprise.
“Excuse me,” Illusen said, hating to interrupt such a well rehearsed act, “but can you point us in the direction of the Haunted Woods proper?”
“Of course,” Krawley said, “now please feast your eyes upon these.” He motioned a clawed hand over his array of various colored potions in various colored and shaped potion bottles. “Have a need, any need, and I’ve got a cure for you.” He plucked a small green flask with green fluid swirling inside it. “Genuine Hissi Oil, now half-priced.”
“We really would just like to get going,” Illusen said.
“Cures hiccups, doldrums, and unwanted facial hair.” He looked more closely at the Earth Faerie’s face. “And more than anything,” he said slowly, “it’s great for rejuvenating dry, pasty skin.”
Illusen put a hand to her cheek. “What’s wrong with my skin?”
“Nothin’s wrong with ye skin,” Ulrik said suddenly, coming to at last, “this guy’s just a cheat.” He faced the blue Krawk. “Could ye just tell us how to get to the city, man?”
“Absatively,” said the salesman. “Has anyone ever told you what magnificent eyes you have, simply gorgeous.” He bared his teeth. “And your scales are practically unblemished. You know,” he added, “the best thing to keep in tip-top shape is, of course, a moderate dose of daily Hissi Oil. Your eyes may be beautiful now, my man, but after you drink this for just one day, they’ll shine like they’ve shone never before.”
“I’m sure,” the Scorchio said. “Now can ye please just answer the question?”
“Questions come in many shapes and sizes, languages large and small with multitudinous opportunities for implications and inferations, but only one question matters here, my mate: Would you like to buy a bottle of genuine, all-natural Hissi Oil--now at a limited, thirty-percent off price effective only today?”
“If I buy a bottle,” Ulrik said whilst rolling his eyes, “will ye tell us the blasted directions?”
Ulrik paid the Krawk his money, and once the salesman had assured the bottle was safely stored upon the Scorchio’s person, he told them what they wanted to hear and then vanished as quickly as he’d come.
“That was... interesting,” Ulrik said as they went on their way.
“Indeed,” Illusen said, “but these are the Haunted Woods, after all.”
* * *
Jhudora had but three items left upon her list, and while her excitement was growing greater, her patience was quickly thinning. At least a dozen times now, she had nearly turned Illusen’s imbecile questers into Mortogs--or worse--but thanks to her superior willpower, she had caught herself every single time.
A young green Ixi came up to her. He was small enough to step on, and yet, he looked slightly familiar.
“Wow,” he said.
“Speak up, darlin',” Jhudora said.
“My, what big eyes you have.”
“Better to see you with,” the Dark Faerie said.
“My, what big ears you have!”
“Better to hear you with,” said Jhudora, grinding her teeth.
“My, what big--big--” The Ixi sneezed so hard he almost fell backwards. When he stood up again, he stared at the bottom of Jhudora’s dress where a large glob of who-knows-what now rested.
The Dark Faerie clenched her fist, the veins crossing her forehead suddenly bulging. “Why, you little--”
“Eebab? Eebab, where are you?”
“Oh, that’s my mom,” the Ixi said. “Sorry, Illusen, gotta go!”
As the urchin ran off, Jhudora blasted the snot-stain away with a bit of non-elemental magic and took a deep breath, counting to ten. There would be no Mortogs today, she promised herself. No Mortogs at all.
Well, perhaps one.
* * *
The trees were beginning to thin, but Illusen didn’t find this at all very much comforting. They had been wandering for hours, it felt, and the trees were still too thick for her to fly up and survey where they were at now. Not that she’d see much more than treetops anyway, but at least it’d make her feel better.
“Is it me,” Ulrik said, “or did it suddenly get colder?”
The Scorchio had been babbling about for longer than she’d cared to listen, but this time, she had to agree: “It did.” She glanced around, looking for the telltale signs of--yes, there it was, a black fog scraping across the bottoms of the underbrush, skirting the trees without ever rattling the fallen leaves.
“Ilere?” she called out.
A pair of vibrant green eyes lit up the trees beyond. “Illusen,” a hoarse voice answered. “So it is you.” The fog churned in the shadows and a tall Earth Faerie in bellowing black robes emerged with braided hair and ancient, skeletal wings that, although leaf-like, bore little resemblance to Illusen’s.
“It has been ages,” Ilere said.
“I know,” Illusen answered with solemnity.
“Wait,” Ulrik said, glancing back and forth between the two, “You know Ilere?”
“Of course,” Illusen said, “she was my mentor after I left Faerieland.” She looked at the elder Faerie for a long moment and then turned towards the Scorchio. “My apologies, but this is probably for the best.” She waved her hand through the air and a vine sprouted from the ground, entwining around the startled balloon-rider until it came to rest before his face. A pink flower burst open, spores thrust forward into his breath, and a moment later, he was locked in sleep.
“I am impressed,” Ilere said whilst nodding, “pleased that you have grown much stronger since you left the Woods.” She paused, examining Illusen’s face, almost deciding whether or not she should say what was on her mind. Finally, she asked, “How is Jhudora?”
Illusen frowned. “She was broken.” Her voice was quiet, a whisper hardly audible even to the forest itself. “When she put herself back together, she wasn’t the same. She hasn’t been the same since.” She envisioned Jhudora’s place in Faerieland and knew that Ilere saw it, too.
The elder Faerie nodded. “I had feared as such. What happened that night....” She shook her head. “It changed Neopia as much as it changed each of us.”
Illusen nodded. “What of... what of the others? Of the coven, I mean?” What she meant was the Coven of New Moon, of which Ilere had been high priestess, and she and Jhudora, her disciples.
The aged Earth Faerie was slow to answer. “Edna has her tower; Jhudora, her cloud; I’ve not seen nor heard of Avalie since then, though on occasion, some of the others stop by to visit. That leads me to wonder, Illusen, what has brought you into my Woods today?”
“I was taking a ride to Shenkuu, a holiday you could say, but the balloon we were riding crashed.” She sighed. “We’ve been wandering around all day.”
Ilere nodded once again, a sagely motion reflecting the centuries of wisdom she carried on her brow. “Then I shall assist you, if you may assist me a moment only, Illusen.”
She nodded. “Of course.”
“There’s a suspicious character in these woods, and I’m not very pleased with him. Only causes trouble, you see, trouble of the sort none of us need. I’m under the impression he can change his appeared as well; last I believe he was seen as a red Elephante, some years ago to my understanding at that.”
Illusen shook her head. “I’m afraid I’ve seen no one like that, Ilere. There was this... this Krawk, I believe, that we ran into shortly after arriving, but he seemed harmless, really, just a rather desperate entrepreneur and nothing more. I’ll be sure to keep an eye out, though, should he ever try to find refuge in Meridell.”
“Very well,” said Ilere. “Now allow me to assist you as well.” The black fog wrapped around them, but instead of darkness inside, there was only a soft glow which blurred the trees around them and yet, at the same time, accentuated the most minute details they bore. Suddenly, they began flashing, each disappearing to be replaced by another only to vanish once again a moment later. When the trees had changed no longer, the fog fell away from them, back to the earth, and gathered around Ilere.
“That was amazing,” Illusen said, breathless and somewhat dizzied by the experience. “How did you, how were you able to...?” She was speechless.
Ilere smiled, already melting back into the shadows. “You must remember, my student, I am as much the guardian of this forest as I am the forest itself.”
Then she was gone.
“Whoa,” someone said, and Illusen suddenly realized Ulrik had been transported with them, sans the sleep-inducing flower. “Where are we?”
Illusen had to look around herself to find that out, and right away, it was obvious. “We’re out of the forest,” she said, pointing. “You can even see Brightvale over there.”
The Scorchio blinked and stood up. “Wow, I was really out of it, wasn’t I? Must’ve just taken a nap, eh?”
“Pretty much,” Illusen said with a smile. In the distance, the sky was already beginning to turn dark. “Why don’t I just fly you back to Meridell? My treat.”
Ulrik nodded dazedly, obviously still under the influence of her spell. “My pleasure,” he said, nearly falling over.
The Earth Faerie scooped him up, swinging him onto her back, and hardly a moment later, even the soft sound of her flapping wings and the wind in her ears weren’t enough to drown out the sound of Ulrik’s snoring.
* * *
After having returned the dark-red Scorchio to his house (still sleeping), Illusen returned to her own Glade just as the last strokes of dusk crossed the sky. From a short distance away, she could see Jhudora handing away a prize to her last quester of the day and even waving nicely after him as he turned away.
The Earth Faerie smiled. Jhudora truly had changed.
The Dark Faerie (still disguised) jumped up and waved some more when she caught sight of the other, and Illusen ran over right away. “It looks wonderful,” she said.
“Of course it is,” Jhudora drawled. “The questers took their instructions well, and not more than two or three of them failed.” She grinned. “And best of all, no Mortogs.” Both shared a quaint little laugh about that. “How was your day in Shenkuu?”
Illusen frowned. “The balloon tore, and we crashed in the Woods.”
“Dreadful,” Jhudora said. “Simply dreadful. I’m so sorry you missed your holiday, Illusen.”
“It’s alright,” the Earth Faerie said. “The balloon ride was wonderful, and I had a nice stroll through the trees instead.” She paused, considering. “I even saw Ilere.”
Jhudora’s face hardened, and for a moment, Illusen was glad she didn’t look her normal self.
“Well then,” Jhudora said, “I’m glad it wasn’t all for naught.” She forced a smile. “I should really be getting going now. It’s a long flight back to Faerieland, after all.”
“Oh, of course,” Illusen said, “and you’ve done so much for me already. Thank you, Jhudora; I truly do appreciate it.”
The Dark Faerie smiled. “It was my pleasure, Illusen.” She spread her wings and smiled. “I left a little something for you on the table. I hope you like it.” She waved--“Toodle-oo!”--and then, with hardly more than a passing glance, flew away into the settling night.
Illusen smiled, sighing a happy sigh as she walked back into the depths of her Glade. Set squarely upon the table was a small purple box with a lime-green ribbon wrapped around it. How very Jhudora-like, and yet, how very sweet nonetheless. Happily, with a delicate touch, Illusen pulled the gift closer and tugged at the strands of the ribbon to untie the bow. Just a little tug more and then--
The box exploded in a cloud of green smoke, the echoes of a faint cackle wrapping around her. A warty green lump fell from the air and landed with a thud. The moment after, a lonely Mortog hopped from her Glade, hoping for a kiss.