Celandine: Part Five
Breanja tried to relax in the depth of the Neopian sea, but she couldn't. With the enchanted pearl necklace around her neck she could breathe easily, but she could not keep her mind off Lanshar and Para. She hadn't wanted them to go alone but since she was the cause of their Petpets being in danger she could hardly object to them going to their rescue. She only wished she had parted with Lanshar on better terms. Lanshar had seen her transportation spell as cowardice, that was clear. She wanted to tell her the real reason.
Breanja felt a little nervous being underwater. Mainly because of the silence. No wind, no rustling trees, no chirping birds. Just silence, profound silence, broken by the occasional call of a distant underwater creature, like the ghost of a song, traveling alone. Then there was the cold beauty of it all, cool blues broken here and there by streams of light penetrating the depths. It was solitary, then all at once teeming with life as creatures swam by in the thousands, heading towards colorful coral reefs further north.
Breanja was not aware of the beautiful sight she cut against the backdrop of the silent depth, long and slender purple limbs glistening in the faint light. Her turquoise wings were spread as though in flight, gleaming like translucent gems. She found herself relaxing despite the deadly quiet. Swimming came easily to her and there was something magical about being surrounded by water always, it was like flying. The sense of freedom, of not being pulled down by gravity.
She ought to have more faith in her girls.
The little Searex swam by her side. It went where it was told to go and stopped when it was told to stop. Her, not it, she told herself. But it was hard to assign a gender or give a name to the apathetic Petpet. What was wrong with her? Had she always been like this? Was she merely sick? And was she truly as powerful as the book had led them to suspect? She could feel a restrained sort of power exuding from the little creature, but that was all.
Her eyes went to Jaime, swimming elegantly along in the depths before her. He was a rather dashing looking Peophin, she thought, though she could not bring herself to like him. His long red mane splayed out behind him in a thick, flowing mass. In contrast his face was set like stone, his eyes focused and intent. He did not admire the beauty of his surroundings, merely plowed right through them. He was bringing them to the ruins of Maraqua, where Breanja would try and locate an old friend of hers, who could tell them all they needed to know about the Searex.
Cutting a much less striking figure was Jedd, swimming along with the ease of an Acara but being dragged down somewhat by the thick scarf he had adamantly refused to leave behind.
"Suit yourself, but don't expect me to save you when you get strangled in it," had been Jaime's only comment on the scarf.
Breanja looked back at the Searex.
"Tell me, little one, do you have a name?" she asked in a gentle voice. The Searex looked around as though awakened from a dream, blinking. She met Brea's eyes. Breanja was startled. There was something there, something more to those eyes than she'd expected. The small, slender Searex swam closer to Breanja than before, leaning a little bit against her.
And then she was drifting along again, the blank look back in her eyes. Breanja could not be sure if she had only imagined it all. "Celandine," she said out loud.
"Hmm?" grunted Jaime, looking back at her.
"Her name," said Breanja. "Is Celandine."
"Fascinating," he drawled, clearly uninterested.
Charming fellow, thought Breanja.
She wanted to make some conversation as the noiseless surroundings were unnerving her but could think of nothing to say. Jaime was curt and untalkative. Jedd was wrapped up in his own thoughts, quiet for the first time since she had met him. She wondered what was on his mind.
After a time she saw the lights of Maraqua in the far distance. Not far now, she thought.
"We're almost there, Celandine." The Searex swam near her wings, rubbing up against them and making a vibrating noise much like a purr. Breanja laughed softly. Then Celandine was gazing upwards again.
"What is it you're looking for?" asked Breanja. "Is it just the light? Or is there something up there you want? I wonder."
But the Searex did not reply.
Jaime led them to an underwater mountain and through a series of passages. It was obvious he did not want to be seen. Breanja knew there was an easier way to access the Ruins, but it was probably open and traversed by all manner of Neopets. With the Searex in their company they could not take any risks.
The passages were narrow and dark. Breanja's wings were cramped and she was aching to spread them after they'd traversed more passages than she cared to count. The Searex shared her feelings. She had been reluctant to follow her into the passages, waiting outside for as long as possible before Jaime had snapped at her to move it. Celandine was in complete awe of Jaime.
Jedd had been equally reluctant to enter. The three of them were quite unhappy in the dark tunnels that twisted and turned, with only the faintest light breaking through the cracks above. Jaime alone swam steadily, without a hint of reluctance. Breanja felt a stir of admiration despite herself. She had to admit that it was fortunate for them that he was helping them.
Suddenly, Jaime turned, stopping them all and hissing, "Shh! Listen!"
Brea hugged Celandine close, feeling the little heartbeat race. She had a feeling the absence of light and sight of surface was troubling her more than the cramped space. She closed her eyes and focused, using her magic to extend the strength of her hearing. There were Pets outside the tunnel.
No one knows where Jaime is or what he's doing, but Dore is certainly not pleased about it.
Well, he's certainly not around here, why do we need to keep guard day and night? Really.
He's one of the few Pets who know of this entrance to the Ruins; it’s the best place to hide. Dore thinks he's stolen the ultimate weapon for himself. He smells treachery.
Really? Jaime treacherous? I'd never have thought it of him.
Brea had heard enough. She related the conversation to Jaime.
He snorted. "A shame. He's quicker than I thought."
"Now what?" asked Jedd glumly. "Seems like it’s the end of the line, doesn't it?"
Brea shook her head. "Not at all. I may not be very good at transporting, but I can do other things."
Jaime raised his eyebrows. "Can you now?"
Hearing the skepticism in his voice, she said, "When you've been around as long I have, young Peophin, you pick up on some things." Throwing him a wink, she rushed ahead to the mouth of the tunnel where the two bored guards were lounging. Breanja began to sing. Her voice echoed through the water, against the tunnel walls. The Searex, who had refused to stay behind with Jedd and Jaime, hummed along. Breanja could feel an old magic coming from the tiny creature.
Truly this creature could be used as a formidable weapon, she thought with a tinge of fear. But her voice remained steady. She sang on.
The guards gathered around the edge of the cave mouth, looking inside and muttering about the music. The lure being set, she began weaving stronger strands of sleep magic into her song, singing louder and stronger, a sweet melody she had often sung to Lanshar when she couldn't sleep, haunted by nightmares of things she could not quite remember. The Searex hummed in unison.
The guards eyes closed slowly and they sank to the floor in a heap, weapons falling from unclenched hands. Brea ended her song.
"Thank you, little one," she told Celandine. "They'll be asleep for some time now. Let’s go," she called to Jaime and Jedd.
Jedd rubbed his eyes. "That's quite a powerful spell you cast on them. I'm feeling drowsy."
"Continue to be on the alert for any more guards. We don't want them to even know we've been down here; it’s crucial that they don't see us. Even if we put them to sleep after they've seen us, we'd need to make them forget as well, or can you do that also, Breanja?" asked Jaime in clipped tones.
"I can," she admitted. "But I would not do it."
"Why ever not?" asked Jaime.
Breanja shook her head and did not reply. She doubted he would understand that she would never tamper with someone's mind on principle, even if it put herself at risk. Jaime shrugged.
It didn't take them long to get to the Ruins as there were no further interruptions. Once out again in the clear seas, the mood of the group lightened. Even Jaime seemed glad to be out of the tunnels.
"Jaime," asked Brea, "who exactly wanted you to get the Searex?"
"A Maraquan Warlord by the name of Dore," he replied. "I've been leading his forces for quite some time; he was a good leader before he became power hungry. He led me to believe the 'secret weapon' was something that had been stolen from him. An old rival of his found out about it soon enough. I believe he is the one who hired Narcis."
"Hmm," murmured Brea. "How much do you know about the one you... took her from?"
"Not much. His name is Romaine, a Maraquan Eyrie known for his cunning and brilliant strategy. As far as I can tell he's had that Searex for quite some time. I don't know how word got out, but I'm sure someone is suffering for their wagging tongue even as we speak."
The temperature of the water seemed to drop, the sunlight dimmed. Jaime stopped and faced her. "We're here. Care to lead the rest of the way?" They were at the ruins. It was a dark, lonely place, long since abandoned by the citizens of Maraqua after its destruction. You could, if you really looked, see the remains of the once great city, but blink and it was gone. All that was left were broken down buildings covered in seaweed and other debris. Brea took a good look and was relieved to find that places that looked familiar, even after all this time.
"Yes, I remember the way," she said.
"Oh, that's a relief," sighed Jedd. "I was sure we were going to end up completely lost--"
"And the guards would catch us and we'd rot down in some cell until the end of time. Yeah?" interrupted Jaime.
The sarcasm went right over Jedd's head. He nodded quite seriously. "Yes, exactly."
"Not to worry, darlings, we'll be fine. I'll take care of you," laughed Brea, enjoying the frown Jaime gave her. She swam off, spreading her wings and doing a quick roll, enjoying the sensation of not being cramped in a little tunnel any more. The Searex watched her, head tilted to the side, then dashed after her, spinning around in awkward circles, unused to the activity.
She lead them through the dark underwater ruins, along pathways long covered in sand and shells, through abandoned, broken down buildings and forests of overgrown seaweed. There were all sorts of fish and other wild Petpets hidden around the Ruins, even Searexes, she noticed with interest. Watching them swim by she could see the difference between them and Celandine. None of them were near as sleek and so brilliantly colored, their eyes were bright but lacking depth and she felt no aura coming from them. And yet she sensed Celandine watching their playful antics wistfully. They were beautiful and agile, flitting here and there with ease.
A few came by and called to Celandine, but she merely drifted along by Breanja's side, watching them, her eyes round and dark.
Lilith was a witch. Brea had met her as child and they had kept briefly in touch over the many years of their acquaintance. Breanja knew that Lilith mingled in the darker sides of magic, but she wasn't a bad sort. She'd always helped her in the past and she was long due for a visit. She had morphed herself into a Maraquan Uni with one of her spells and had since lived in the Ruins. She had never been quite clear as to why she wanted to live there, only that she liked being alone and that there were forces brewing down by the underwater ravines that she could channel in her spells.
If you didn't know exactly what to look for, you'd pass by her dwelling completely. It was built underneath a pile of debris near a wrecked ship. Brea headed towards it, impatient to find out what her old friend could tell them.
Jedd was getting anxious, looking all around him and fiddling with his scarf. It didn't take him long to get completely tangled up in it and he sank down to the unkempt sea weed below, struggling and yelping for help. Jaime sighed and muttered something under his breath about how that Acara was the greatest idiot he'd ever met. Brea swam over to help and Jedd was soon swimming alongside them once more, after thanking Brea profusely and looking very embarrassed.
At last they reached the door, a mismatched collection of driftwood, planks and wreckage. Brea knocked and called out, "Lilith? Are you in? It's Breanja."
She heard noises, the clinking sound of glasses bumping into each other and the scraping of metal over wood. Then the sounds of locks and chains being unlocked and moved. The door creaked open. A pair of dark blue eyes looked at her. Then Lilith opened the door wider and smiled. She might have been pretty if she hadn't been so long and angular, as if she never ate enough. Her eyes were too big for her long face and her long, pale mane was a wild mess. She looked every inch the witch.
"Breanja! What brings you..." She trailed off once she caught sight of the Searex. Her eyes widened. "No."
"Yes," said Jaime. "Romaine's big secret that everyone now knows about."
"So that's what all these disturbances have been about." Eyes narrowed, she looked past them at the desolate ruins. "Come inside, at once."
Brea looked at Jedd, expecting him to rush past, but he merely gestured for her to enter first. Jaime followed and Jedd was the last inside, looking behind him as he shut the door.
The inside of Lilith's home was an entirely different matter from the outside. It was huge, for one thing, and immaculate. Everything was arranged in perfect order, from her rows of books, to the shelves overflowing with all sorts of odd ingredients and supplies.
"I knew Romaine was harboring some great power for quite some time now, but I had not expected that it was... alive," said Lilith once they were all inside and Breanja had introduced everyone to her. Jedd alone remained at the back, near the door, tugging his scarf and biting his lip. Lilith did not ask them to sit or offer any sort of refreshment. Her eyes gleamed as she went around closing windows, lighting the interior with a strange underwater lamp that glowed a pale yellow and cast dark shadows.
Jedd reached forward and tugged at Brea's wing. "Brea," he said in a low voice, "This isn't a good idea."
Brea frowned at him. "Don't be silly, Jedd. She's my friend." Annoyed, she ignored his protests and moved away, leaving him to fret in the darkness of the hallway.
"Is he quite all right?" asked Lilith with a smirk, gesturing with her long tail in Jedd's direction. Her voice was loud, meant for Jedd to overhear. Brea wanted to defend Jedd but she was angry at him for questioning Lilith's loyalty, so she said nothing.
Jaime spoke up. "It’s really none of your business. We're here because according to Breanja you can tell us what's wrong with this creature and the extent of its powers."
Lilith blew a stream of bubbles at him. "Tact is a useful trait; you might want to acquire it. But for Brea I will make an exception and not teach you a lesson. The Searex," she continued, turning her back to Jaime and facing Breanja, "is the single most powerful Petpet I have ever encountered. I can feel it deep within me. I could test her for form's sake and give you exact details but I don't think that is quite necessary. She is restraining her powers, holding them back; it is using up most of her energy, but should she let go, be prepared for a storm."
"So she's dangerous," said Jaime.
Lilith glanced at him. "Yes. A shame we've never perfected communication between Pets and Petpets; I should like to know her story. She has not been taught to use her powers, merely to hold them back, as far as I can tell. "
"But that doesn't make any sense," said Breanja.
Jaime nodded. "The rumors were that Romaine was harboring a powerful weapon. Untrained, taught not to use her powers? What use would she be as a weapon to anyone?"
"Truly I cannot say," said Lilith. "Romaine knew she was powerful, this much is obvious to me. What his plans were for her I do not know."
Jedd, sulking in the hallway, said without looking in their direction, "Maybe it was never his intention to use her."
Lilith laughed with derision. "Silly young Acara, that much power cannot exist in the hands of any person without tempting them to use it for themselves."
He looked over his shoulder straight at her, his gaze steady. "Your view of the world is constricted by your own character. Not everyone thinks like you."
Her expression took a darker turn. "I think I've heard of you. You're the new owner of that old shelter. The lab experiment that escaped."
Something flashed through his eyes. "Does the name Firestop ring any bells?"
The Maraquan Uni gave a high-pitched laugh and turned her back on him. "You said there was something wrong with the creature?" she asked Breanja.
Brea, not liking how things were going but caught between which of her two friends to back, nodded. "There's nothing physically wrong with her as far as we know, but her condition is getting worse every day. She's dying."
Lilith swam over and grabbed the Searex. She held her in front of her face, close and stared into the Searex's dark eyes. Then she grabbed a bottle from one of her shelves and broke it against the floor, never losing eye contact with Celandine. A cloud of bright violet liquid burst from inside and surrounded them. Jedd gasped and made as if to go closer, but Jaime grabbed on to him and held tight. His eyes were narrowed.
"Don't interfere, Jedd, not yet. We need this information if we are to help her," Jaime said in his ear. Jedd nodded reluctantly.
The violet cloud dissipated and Lilith let the Searex go, her arms falling limp. "She is sick. Sick with longing. Desire. The ocean is the cage she was born into. She wants escape. She hates her power. She cannot control her emotions any longer." Lilith looked directly at Brea. "She must be taught to harness her own powers before she lets loose and hurts someone, or herself."
Brea was inclined to agree. She nodded. It seemed logical that the creature would need to be taught.
"Firestop too is a powerful--" said Jedd, bringing up the name again.
"Enough of your miserable Moltenore, I don't care--" snapped Lilith, cutting off as she realized her mistake, mid-sentence.
"Jed never told you Firestop was a Moltenore," said Brea slowly. She remembered Jedd telling her how he'd found the creature in dreadful condition. She had not known it had been due to a previous owner.
"You're known as Dark Star in the underground, aren't you?" asked Jedd, fire in his eyes, not a sliver of timidity in his frame. "Trading in powerful Petpets, selling them off, performing tests on them. If you only knew how many of your--your--experiments ended up in my care--why I--I--" he was shaking with rage.
"I am." Lilith's voice was deadly calm and even. "No more pretense is needed now, it seems. I am keeping this Searex. She will be of great value to me once I have trained her. She's already quite obedient. I suggest you all leave now. Any... disturbances would greatly bother this creature and that would be unfortunate for all of us. She's a little bomb waiting to explode."
"If you think we're just going to go quietly," said Jaime, drawing a sword and leveling it at the witch Breanja had thought of as a friend, "you'd better think again."
"I would hate to hurt an old friend, Breanja," said Lilith in a low voice. "But I will if I must. You'd better take your companions and go."
Brea stared helplessly at Lilith, wringing her hands. Was her magic, old and powerful though it was, any match for Lilith's dark powers? She didn't know. Any attempt she made to help the Searex would result in a conflict that could injure the Searex and lead to disaster.
She remembered the storm that had saved Jaime. Was it really just a coincidence that a storm had saved him in the nick of time? She doubted it. It was the Searex's powers being released in fear that had caused the storm, she was sure of it. The storm had injured the two of them, badly. What would happen down here, in the confines of Lilith's home?
She thought of her first Petpet, Alyssum. She had been so beautiful. And Brea had lost her in one reckless move. Lost her forever. She had never been bold and reckless again since that day. Could she risk all of their lives for Celandine? Should she?
She never had the chance to decide. Lilith made a sudden aggressive move towards the Searex. Jedd lunged at Lilith with a speed and ferocity Breanja never knew he had in him. Lilith swung her tail derisively at him with smirking confidence, and met nothing but water. He had dodged the hit and dove behind her. His scarf was in his hand, one end of the scarf was wrapped around Lilith's tail. He swam around her once, tangling her in it as she tried to swipe at him and grabbed the Searex. It was only good for a moment's distraction. She untangled herself and whacked him, hard, scratching through his fur. He was flung through the water, curled protectively around Celandine. Jaime caught him.
Brea could already feel Lilith gathering her forces, ready for the attack. Jaime, putting Jedd to the side, told Brea, "Get of here. Take Jedd and Celandine. I'll hold her off."
"Do it!" he yelled, rushing forward to meet Lilith.
Breanja grabbed the nearly unconscious Jedd and used all of her concentration and focus, all of her magic to throw them through space, through the Neopian worlds, the foremost thought in her mind was the shelter where Lanshar and Para would be, where there would be a moment of safety before Lilith followed them, before more Pets were sent to retrieve the Searex. A wave of hopelessness washed over her as she felt a tugging sensation that meant her transport spell was working.
When it was all over she found herself alone in Lilith's house, facing her new enemy.
To be continued...