Obsession: Part One
Desolate. Abandoned. Hopeless. This was the land where darkness prevailed, where the lost and lonely denizens sought any escape from that which plagued their lives and their lands. Far away there were rumours of prosperity and bounty, but here the lands were barren and the crops were failing. Countless moons had passed since last the lands beyond had been seen, or heard from. Here they were but a forgotten country, a land left to wallow in its own despair.
High above the wasteland floated the beating heart of the lands, an ominous spectre cast against the pale moon, the high turrets of the Citadel forever visible as both as a constant reminder of who ruled over them, but also an unlikely beacon of hope, for within those walls researchers forever searched against futility for their salvation.
Slaving by the light of a single fading candle, one researcher was still awake this far into the night, the scratching of his quill the only sound in all of the Citadel, poring over his long and complicated notes. He could see the future of the Darigan people and it was one of prosperity and opulence, but still he could not see the means of achieving his prophecy. Every experiment conducted throughout his life had ended in catastrophic failure, the ghost of every one haunting his projects; poltergeists determined to drag him into their despair.
Mid-sentence the quill paused, tiny drops of ink splashing over his tidy handwriting. His body became perfectly still, listening intently to the reverberating footfalls of the intruder, heedless to his own sounds, advancing steadily on the researcher’s back. The quill fell into the ink pot. The Darigan Lenny leaned back thoughtfully in his chair, and cast his eyes to the reflected silhouette in the window. Did they really think it would be so easy to sneak up on him?
Long and heavy, his wing closed around his favourite paperweight as he turned, the trusty weapon slipping immediately from his grasp as he looked into the yellow eyes of the young grey Korbat, a look of peculiar amusement adorning his features. It hit the ground with a resonant thud that echoed through the many draughty hallways of the great Citadel.
‘Young master Darigan sir,’ the Lenny garbled, bowing low before the heir to the Citadel’s throne. ‘Do forgive me, sir, I meant no disrespect; I was just worried someone might be trying to...’
He fell into silence before the Korbat’s raised hand. ‘Lismuth, shut up,’ Darigan said simply, advancing still further and looking over the Lenny’s notes. ‘It is far too late to be dealing with insane pets who can barely string two words together. You should try this new idea called “sleep”, and perhaps it would help your coherence. Although,’ he added, looking over the latest sheet with interest, ‘it may obscure your unquestionable genius. Someone has been busy.’
‘Indeed, master Darigan, it has been a productive evening,’ Lismuth replied in the oily tone that always prevailed in the presence of the upper classes. ‘I do believe I am drawing near to unlocking the secret to our salvation from these dark times, and finally attaining prosperity.’
‘You researchers say that at least a dozen times every week, always remember that,’ Darigan retorted, taking another paperweight from Lismuth’s desk and tossing it between his hands.
‘But this is different, this is an epiphany,’ Lismuth explained, flourishing his incomplete notes in the Korbat’s impassive face. ‘It has finally struck me that all this desolation in our lands cannot be natural. Something else has been causing this, and all we need do is find it and reverse the effects. Something able to cause this level of vile destruction to us... imagine the opposite young master. Prosperity will no longer be the factor, for we will have something greater and more profound. Darigan will be a thing of magnificence, the shining star of all Neopia!’
Darigan gently laid the paperweight to rest on Lismuth’s desk again and shot the Lenny a pitying look. ‘Get some sleep, Lismuth,’ he said simply, shaking his head as he turned to leave. Suddenly something caught his attention hanging around the Lenny’s long neck. The Korbat wondered why it had taken him so long to notice the vibrant green glow.
Noticing the source of his young master’s interest, Lismuth recoiled slightly and cradled the peculiar charm in his wing, somewhat loathe to let Darigan even set eyes upon it. ‘It is just something trivial I found on a walk around the Citadel,’ he mumbled.
Seemingly satisfied, Darigan just shrugged and swept from Lismuth’s chamber. The Lenny breathed easy again. The young master Darigan grated heavily against his nerves, but he was forever hanging around. If only he would learn to grow up like his father, a wise and powerful ruler, not to mention the greatest sorcerer in the realm. Lord Darigan was truly a great figure, and one for whom Lismuth had the greatest level of respect. The thought of His Lordship’s son taking over always terrified him.
Collapsing back into his chair he took up the quill once more, raising the strange charm to his eyes and scrutinising it carefully. It had certainly been a strange find during his walk, and he strongly suspected it had originally been the property of that hag Moehog, Morguss. She had been away from the Citadel for a long time prior to her shock return, and Lismuth had long distrusted her. It was just the sort of arcane relic she would pick up somewhere and not share with the world, hoarding its incredible inspirational power. Since finding it he had not been able to stop, and he strongly suspected it was at the root of his latest thoughts and discoveries.
It was a good thing Darigan had paid it no further heed; without its guidance, Lismuth held no hope of finding that which stood at the heart of the land’s plague. All his life he had toiled in vain, like so many others, but now with this amulet the world was finally open to him.
His destiny awaited.
* * *
Mist hung over the Darigan lands, its soft veil leaving a gentle grey light to illuminate the darkened world of the denizens, hopeful that today would bring an end to their despairing lives. Every day they woke with the same hope, for anything less would be to concede defeat and surrender to the darkness that forever threatened to consume them. Shrouded in the thinning mist far above, the Citadel floated patiently, the upper classes housed within finally roused from slumber and facing the new day.
Awaiting the call to breakfast, a handsome young Darigan Draik stood out in the pale sunlight, enjoying the chill to the air. Silent beside him a Darigan Aisha stood vigil, seemingly unfazed by anything happening around. The Draik however looked cheerful, waiting on the coming of his old friend so they could face down the other students in the academy together. As always.
Suddenly the tranquillity was broken by a manic figure rushing across the inner courtyard. A malicious smile formed on the Draik’s face at the sight. An opportunity to enjoy his morning had just arisen.
‘Lismuth!’ he called. The Lenny jerked to an untidy halt at the mention of his name.
‘Ah, master Quai,’ Lismuth replied oily, bowing low to the approaching Draik. ‘I was not aware you would be out and about this morning.’
‘I came to enjoy the peace and quiet, which you were prompt in shattering, you selfish wretch,’ Quai declared sharply. ‘I do hope you have an exceedingly good reason for ruining my day so early on?’
‘My deepest apologies, sir,’ Lismuth grovelled. ‘I meant no harm. It is no excuse, but I have been up all night with my research and I think that I am finally on the cusp of something. Again, my apologies for the disturbance, sir. If you will excuse me.’
Quickly Lismuth tried to escape, but Quai’s sharp tone cut through and held him fast. ‘Considering you have done me a disservice, Lismuth, I feel I am entitled to know a little about this research of yours. His Lordship holds it in such esteem after all, as does his son. What has put you in such a frantic state so early in the day. Lismuth?’
‘Really, sir, it is something so trivial I would rather not waste your time with it,’ Lismuth replied dismissively, feeling the sweat beginning to build beneath his feathered brow. If there was anybody he disliked more than master Darigan, it was master Quai. The second-in-line to the throne and someone Lismuth wholly believed would go to dangerous lengths to seize the power he felt he deserved. Yet as Lord Darigan’s nephew and the closest friend of master Darigan, it was not prudent to show animosity toward the unpleasant Draik.
A deep tone rang out over them, the first toll of the morning bell washing relief over Lismuth; Quai’s time was up, and the academy beckoned.
‘Quite,’ Quai concluded, shooting Lismuth a suspicious look. Without another word he turned his back and stalked back into the Citadel, his Aisha companion close behind. Just within the entrance Lismuth could see the Draik cross paths with Darigan, the pair glancing out at him before the rush carried them away.
Such an interfering pair when they got together, but now they were safely incarcerated in classes. He would be long out of their reach by the time they were free.
Shaking out his feathers slightly, he took flight, the familiar queasy sensation filling his stomach within moments of his feet leaving the ground. Unique among aerial pets, Lismuth had a chronic fear of heights and rarely strayed from the Citadel. The day it first took flight, he was so terrified to find the ground suddenly rumbling and his study lifted into the skies that he was found two days later cowering under his bed. Now he had adjusted, the prospect of life away from his floating haven was unthinkable, even if it did mean he had to keep away from any edges and allow others to conduct his field research.
This was too important a discovery to delegate, however, and with his glowing green pendant safely tucked away beneath his robe, resting against his fast-beating heart, he braved his fears and flew through the thinning mist, facing the bite of the sharp wind that circled him throughout.
Thankful to find ground beneath him again, he touched down barely fifteen minutes flight from the Citadel. A blackened forest sprawled out before him. Like all else in the lands of Darigan, it was a cursed place devoid of the sanctity of life, yet this forest was regarded as darker than any other. If there truly was something that had cast this dismal, desolate landscape upon them, it would be somewhere in the dark woods.
Reaching into his robe, he found the amulet once more, drawing strength from its eerily beautiful glow, while in his free wing a magical flame burst atop a fallen tree branch. The aged grey trunks of the forest seemed to contort away from the fresh light, the shadows that danced between fleeing deeper into the abyss, desperate to escape.
After the evil of the flight, the darkness held no fear, and taking one last breath Lismuth stepped into the shadows of the blackened forest, his flaming torch held aloft and casting its meagre glow against the gnarled trees. Cragged faces watched him pass, the movement of his shining beacon making their eyes follow his progress. Lismuth’s strong rationality shuddered under the unnerving sight.
He lowered the torch and quickened his pace.
About him the shadows grew thicker as he came closer to the heart of the twisted forest, and the ancient shrine he had often visited as a child. Even today it remained a popular dare among the children of the Darigan lands to enter the forest and venture to the shrine. Nobody ever had the courage to go inside, the charred and blackened stones an insatiable terror to the most hardened of warriors from all generations, but to touch the stones of the perimeter wall inspired an incredible sensation beyond description to each and every pet to dare go so far.
It was the ultimate rite of passage for Darigan youth, and one Lismuth was still proud of to this day. Yet now his destiny was fated to take him further than even Lord Darigan himself had ever dared.
He hesitated at the outer perimeter wall, its crumbling remains barely visible in the thick darkness. The gentle flicker of his torch sparkled on the damp stones, crafting the mysterious beauty that enveloped the legends of the ruins. He hoped the dark legends were false.
Lismuth tossed aside his torch and marched into the darkness, knowing the light would do him no aid now; no light had ever revealed more than an outline of the formidable shrine, and right now the thought of being unable to see what lay ahead was oddly reassuring.
Darkness closed in deeper as a frigid draught swept around him; an opening lay ahead. Lismuth’s feet found the path sharply changing underfoot to what had once been polished stone. Time had left a corroded feel to the steps, his tentative movements dislodging further dust and emitting a ripple of sound through the still, stuffy air. The draught passed to leave a thick, hot sensation in the air, the breeze incapable of removing it. His confidence shuddered in the heart of such darkness, and his wing automatically closed about the pendant hanging from his neck.
Suddenly the shadows retreated, an unnatural dark light filling the staircase and smothering his other senses. Descending steadily before him, the staircase was marked by a series of subtle outlines carved against other shadows, guiding his feet irresistibly deeper into the subterranean shrine. Lismuth was but a passenger, watching on as the world passed by under someone else’s control.
Beneath the shelter of his wing he could feel the pendant throbbing with power, leading him deeper with a strange certainty of his path, and along the dark, grim passages to the very core of the shadows’ domain.
Purple flames burned in the grand black chandelier overhead, crafting an elaborately mysterious air to the vast chamber. The higher level that overlooked its heart on three sides was lost in the deepest shadows. Directly beneath the eerie source stood an immaculate pedestal of black obsidian, a perfect orb of absolute darkness hovering minutely above its surface, spinning gently in the still air; the draught that had swept about him long ago had become but a memory, lost in the depths of his groggy thoughts. Slowly he felt his eyes drawn past the majestic orb and to the towering gateway at the far end of the chamber. Looming ominously over all else, its surface was as smooth and untarnished as the pedestal, no imperfections able to give face to what struck Lismuth as an unnecessarily sentient object.
At least the trees in the forest had faces in the right light.
He shuddered, a sudden sharp pain stabbing into his thoughts. For a fleeting instant, a trio of figures were burned against his closed eyelids, all clad in dark robes, watching with frightful anxiety. He tried to keep their hooded features in his mind’s eye but they had vanished with the same speed they had appeared. Only a bearded Gelert lingered for a fraction longer, the tip of his aged muzzle with copious white hair protruding from beneath the hood sticking in the Lenny’s thoughts. He made a mental note to investigate deeper later.
Finally in control of his own mind again, he advanced on the pedestal, the magnificence of the dark orb overshadowing even the horrific visions of what lay beyond the door. There was no doubting it; this orb was at the heart of Darigan’s plight.
Increasing his grip on the faintly green pendant, he reached one with one wing for the orb. The air grew thick all about and made him hesitate. Was it just the peculiar purple light that tricked his eyes, or was something stirring in the darkness? The unpleasant sensation on the back of his neck, was it just nerves, or was he being watched? His eyes scanned the dark floor above, but the shadows were incorrigible and refused to allow his sight deeper.
Resolve hit hard, bringing with it the mighty weapon of his duty to the lands of Darigan and her citizens. His life had been leading to this moment, and it would be a travesty to turn back now, spurring him on with both wings to close about the silky, lightweight object, strangely pleasant to the touch.
On cue the shadows leapt, thick and strong, practically alive in their single-minded intent of removing the threat to the orb. Panic took over. Lismuth recoiled into a ball like a Turdle retreating into its shell as the shadows spiralled above, masking the eerie light in a wall of impenetrable darkness, lunging to ensnare him in its inescapable web.
Something flashed. Lismuth dared to open his eyes a fraction but shut them again instantly as two further shadows were cast against the walls; one a terrifying great Dragon of legend, from which they say the Draik once evolved, the other of a mighty winged demon, fire leaping from its clawed hands.
Defying possibility, the petrified Lenny curled tighter on the spot, the orb clutched safely to his chest out of harm’s way. Laughter rang in his ears, arrogant and brimming with a deep-rooted contempt. A second voice joined in, no better than the first, cackling with joy at the sight of Lismuth, lost and alone in the heart of the shrine, completely at their mercy.
‘I thought they’d give a bit more challenge than that,’ one voice suddenly remarked. Lismuth’s eyes snapped open with a raging, passionate fury. It was Darigan.
Spinning back to his full, unimpressive height, the Lenny stared between the cocky, self-confident expressions adorning the faces of both the young Korbat and his Draik companion.
‘What in the name of Fyora are you two doing here?’ he roared, the pair exploding with laughter as his expression sharply changed, realising to whom he was speaking. ‘I mean, I mean, forgive me, master Darigan, master Quai, I-I-I meant no disrespect; I was merely startled by your sudden... by your arrivals, sirs,’ he garbled madly, bowing low and trying to hide the orb behind his back. ‘Apologies.’
Darigan shot Quai a disappointed look, resting his staff on one shoulder in what he believed to be a confident, dashing pose. ‘And here I thought he was finally growing a backbone,’ he quipped.
A scathing look flashed across Lismuth’s face, but he quickly dismissed it.
‘Keep dreaming, Darigan,’ Quai scoffed, sneering in disgust at Lismuth. ‘A runt like this will never grow a backbone. Some pets are just pathetic, and incapable of ever flourishing into warriors worthy of the gift of existence. He is of a different kind to us, Darigan. A lesser kind.
‘What are you hiding anyway?’ he added sharply, spotting the orb as Lismuth tried to keep it from sight.
‘What?’ Lismuth tried innocently, but Darigan was quicker and plucked the orb from his wings, spinning it playfully on one clawed finger. It caught the soft light from above and danced majestically in the semi-darkness, finding perfect balance on even the finest point of his claw. It rolled delicately into his waiting palm, the Korbat fixing it with a mesmerised, almost manic stare.
‘Be careful with that!’ the Lenny cried, snatching it back from Darigan’s clutches.
‘I was only looking, Lismuth, so perhaps you should show a bit respect,’ Darigan snapped back. ‘Or maybe a bit of gratitude, as we have risked our lives to come to this dump. If you had not been so... suspicious this morning, you may have been dead by now. Is this the correct way to show your thanks to us?’
Lismuth bit back the angry retort that leapt to his mouth, and instead replied in his smoothest tones, ‘Of course, master Darigan, you have my most profound gratitude. Now, if I may ask you to extend your generosity, perhaps you could escort me out of here. Evidently for a pair such as yourselves this place holds no fear, but for a lowly scholar as myself it is truly a formidable place.’
‘Learn some sincerity, Lismuth,’ Quai snarled. ‘I hate to say this, but you are correct and we should get out of here. I do not like the look of that door.’
Lismuth and Darigan followed his sight to the ominous gateway, a faint trail of jet black smoke beginning to seep through an invisible crack. Fresh light radiated from Darigan’s outstretched claw and revealed more fissures in the obsidian.
‘Whatever it is, I will put an end to it when I finally cleanse these lands,’ Lismuth said firmly, his mind already scouring his collection of potent alchemical solutions and dangerous spells he had hoarded over the years. Tonight he would finally write himself into the pages of history.
Tonight, he would become the saviour of the Darigan lands.
To be continued...