400 Steps in the Darkness: Part Five
Two facts registered in my mind simultaneously. First of all, I finally knew what had happened to Jerieme. Second, I was in grave danger.
“Power?” I squeaked. “I don’t have any power.”
It was true. I was not particularly strong, nor courageous. Reckless, maybe, especially when I had made up my mind to solve a riddle. That was the reason I now found myself cornered between the Aisha Enchantress and the barrier to her realm. But powerful – never.
“Yes, you do.” The purple Aisha’s voice dripped with poison. “You have the power of a writer, the will to string words together to form sentences and tales. You’re much more powerful than you believe, and your skill will feed my magic.”
My palms were covered with sweat and my brown Moehog tail was shaking. The Aisha Enchantress came closer. I took a step backward before I remembered that once I had entered her realm, I would not be able to leave it anymore.
But it was already too late. A wave of cold swept over me as I entered the Sacred Grove. As soon as I crossed the barrier, I knew that I had left Meridell. At first glance, the forest did not look any different. Yet, it was unlike everything I had ever experienced before. The trees grew higher than in a normal forest, their leaves greener and more vital. A faint breeze tickled my skin, more refreshing and more enjoyable than any wind I had ever felt before. I was still standing in a forest, but all sensations reaching me were intensified compared to what I was used to.
For a moment, the horror I felt was replaced by fascination. What was this place? I had never come into contact with such strong magic before.
Something rustled in the bushes behind me. I whirled around to see a shadow Hissi standing there. “Another prisoner. How did she capture you?”
It was then that realisation hit me. I could not escape. Jerieme had been caught here for six years, unable to free himself. Despite knowing that it was useless, I turned around and tried to run.
The invisible barrier was back, this time keeping me from returning to the clearing.
“I’ve tried that many more times than I can count, and it never brought me anything but bruises.”
I did not turn around to look at the speaker. Instead, I stayed in my position, rubbing my forehead with one hand while hammering against the wall with my other hand. “But we need to leave. I need to get through that barrier.”
“You won’t.” Two words, and each washed over me like a wave of cold water.
“Yes, I will. There has to be a way. We have to find a way to escape.” I let go of my forehead and hit the barrier with both hands. Solid like steel, it did not budge at all. “Please. You need to help.”
Tears stung in my eyes. Jerieme did not move. He stood behind me, watching me hammer against the wall and cry for help over and over again.
* * *
When I finally stopped, my throat hurt from shouting. I had hit the barrier so many times that my knuckles were red and swollen and each time I moved my arms, every single muscle screamed with exhaustion.
“I want to go home,” I whispered one last time, dropping to the ground. How stupid I had been, thinking that I could just come here and talk to the Aisha Enchantress. Not even the Defenders could defeat the sorceress, but the idea that they might have come here before and left unsuccessfully had never even crossed my mind.
“I’m sorry.” Jerieme joined me, sitting down on a large root next to me and leaning against the tree it belonged to. “You came because of me, didn’t you? I heard you call my name.”
I nodded. “I’m Ze Smith and I work as a reporter for the Neopian Times. Issue 400 is coming up and I was told to work on an article with Sconch about previous reporters that had made the Neopian Times the newspaper it is today.”
Jerieme’s face lightened up at the mention of the Scorchio. “Sconch. So he’s still working for the NT? I never thought he would last that long. How is he?”
Lazy, I was about to reply when I remembered that the two had been good friends. So all I answered was, “He’s doing well, I think.”
Jerieme laughed. “He’s still as lazy as ever, isn’t he? What about the others? Is Mr. Bench still there?” The Hissi’s face darkened as he mentioned the name of my boss.
“Yes, he is. He’s my boss.”
Jerieme clenched his jaw and for a moment, I saw something flash through his eyes. Had I known him better, I would have been able to recognise the emotion, but all I could say at this point was that he did not look happy.
“It’s because of him that I’m here.” The Hissi balled his hands into fists and took a few deep breaths. “Back when I was still working for the Neopian Times, I had set myself the goal of being the first pet to get an interview with the Aisha Enchantress. I was just about to get promoted, and I hoped that an exclusive article would help speeding up the process. So when Mr. Bench told me that he had arranged a meeting with her, I was more than just excited.”
Jerieme narrowed his eyes. “He did not even lie about the meeting part; the Skeith had really arranged one with her. But he never mentioned that I would have to pay with my freedom.”
My jaw dropped. Mr. Bench had arranged for Jerieme to get captured? No wonder he had been so upset when I had decided to write about Pakers – he had been afraid that I would dig up what he had done. “But... why? And how did he arrange a meeting without getting captured himself?”
Jerieme laughed a hollow laugh. “The first question is easy to answer. He was the other reporter who was looking for a promotion. Instead of writing a perfect article, he got rid of me and thereby secured his position.
“Your second question is a little harder. I’ve pondered it myself for many months before finding an answer. You see, the Aisha Enchantress did not know how to use my power for her purpose until Mr. Bench found the magic explained in an old book. He sold the secret to her in exchange for a promise to let him go and keep me captured forever.”
I shivered, remembering why exactly the Aisha Enchantress was after us. Our power as writers was valuable for her, even though I still did not understand how she would use us. I mustered Jerieme as inconspicuously as I could. He did not look particularly weak or as though someone was drawing strength from him on a regular basis.
“How does it work? Does it... hurt?”
To my relief, the Shadow Hissi shook his head. “It’s actually quite easy. The Aisha Enchantress has cast a spell on the Sacred Grove. Everything we write down becomes reality. If she wanted me to, she could make me write about how mountains rise up in the sky right here and it would happen.”
“So we can just write that the barrier disappears and we escape?” Was it really that easy? Just write it down, and it’ll happen?
I wasn’t surprised when Jerieme shook his head. If it really was, he surely would have done so long ago already. “I tried that once. It’s better not to go against the Enchantress’s will. It took me weeks to recover afterwards. Plus, the more difficult the changes that we initiate with our writing, the more power it drains from us. Using too much magic at once could drain all your strength, until no life is left in you.”
Of course, there had to be a catch somewhere. “Why does she not do it herself? Write down what she wants, I mean?”
“Because it’s dangerous. You need to be a good writer to make sure that nothing you note down has several meanings. Every word has to be as precise as possible, written with a skill that only long years of practise can bring.”
I leaned back against a tree. “And if we combine our powers? See if we can escape if someone distracts the Enchantress with thick smoke and the other writes about the barrier disappearing?”
“I’ve never tried that before. I’ve always been here on my own. Maybe it’s worth a shot. But don’t forget that the Enchantress is a very powerful sorceress.”
Excitement rose in me at his words. The Enchantress might be powerful, but we were two and had our own magic. If we combined our strength, could we really escape her realm? But before I came up with a plan of escape, I wanted to test how the magic of this forest worked. A grin on my face, I pulled out the small notebook I always carried with me.
I saw Jerieme’s eyes widening from the corner of my eyes, but before he had a chance to say anything, I had already jotted down a sentence.
A Star of Paradise flower grows next to my left foot.
The moment I lifted my pen from the paper, the flower appeared. An instant later, the Aisha Enchantress was by my side.
“Stupid child,” she screamed, jumping on the flower until she had shredded it into small pieces. “Do you know what you’re doing? This forest stands in a careful balance. You cannot just bring in new species. Consider the consequences first before working magic.”
She stretched out her hand towards me. An invisible blast of power hit my side, throwing me to the ground. I winced as my cheek hit the earth.
“Never do that again, do you understand me?”
But I did not listen. Struck by a sudden inspiration, I tore off a sheet of paper from my notebook and threw the rest to Jerieme. “Write,” I screamed, already having formed a sentence on my page.
The ground everywhere in the Sacred Grove is covered by Star of Paradise flowers.
Another blast hit me, this time on my hand. I barely felt the pain. The moment I saw the first flowers sprout, exhaustion hit me like a brick. I gasped as the spell drew strength from me. Yet, even though the flowers would disturb the balance of the forest and distract the Enchantress, I was not sure if they sufficed.
Zerenia Smith puts as many pine trees on fire as she can with her energy without losing consciousness.
Even though I had chosen my words carefully, I had not considered the consequences. I did not lose consciousness, but I was close to it. Stars danced in front of my eyes and darkness crept up from the edges, making it impossible to see. I felt more exhausted than I ever had in my life – too exhausted to even roll away from the heat as the tree I had been leaning against previously caught on fire.
I could not make out the words the Enchantress was screaming. Maybe they were spells she used to control the damage done to her forest, maybe they were screams of rage. Another voice mingled with hers. It was only as I felt a hand on my shoulder that I recognised it as Jerieme’s.
“The barrier is down. Come quickly.”
I tried to stand up, but my legs gave in below me. If Jerieme hadn’t supported me, I would have fallen to the ground. Together, we stumbled towards the clearing. A beam of light passed by my head and missed me by mere millimetres. The Enchantress’s screams followed us until long after we had left the realm.
The memories of our escape would always be a blur in my mind. On the edge to unconsciousness, I was too busy fighting the darkness that threatened to overcome me. Jerieme must have dragged me all the way to Meridell, because I cannot remember making a step on my own.
The Enchantress, he told me afterwards, had only let us go because she needed to save her energy to restore the Sacred Grove. Her angry screams had cursed us and she had sworn to never take on more than one writer at the same time again. Personally, I hope that she will never capture anybody again in the future.
* * *
MISSING NEOPIAN TIMES REPORTER FREED FROM THE AISHA ENCHANTRESS
By Zerenia Smith
I grinned as I picked up the Neopian Times and read the headline. How many times had I already looked at my front page article? It was the first time someone had deemed my writing good and exciting enough to put it on the first page. Today, the whole of Neopia would learn what had happened to Jerieme Pakers after his disappearance six years ago.
Despite his laziness, Sconch had written the article on the second page. I had not expected him to finish in time, but it looked as though his returning friend and his anger towards Mr. Bench had been motivation enough to write about how the Defenders had come to take care of our boss.
My smile widened as I put down the newspaper. I had published my first front page article. Now all that was left for me to do was finish the collaboration with Sconch for Issue 400. But after what I had been through, I was optimistic that this would be a piece of cake for me.