In the far north of Meridell was a small town dubbed “the lifeless village”.
It was so called for the alarming shortage of permanent residents within its walls. Upon first spotting this town, you could even have been forgiven for thinking it deserted. Its borders had become almost completely overgrown, with the outermost houses usually missing at least one wall. Gruslen nests could be found beneath the ruins of former staircases.
But as you got nearer to the castle, the town began to exhibit signs of life. Young children playing hopscotch by the roadside, or two merchants arguing over which of them had the better wares.
And in the very middle of the town was a medium sized castle, with stained glass windows and banners flying the standards of both King Skarl and its occupant. Here dwelt Lord Darkeye: a stocky red Pteri and former knight of Meridell. Having since been granted noble status, he spent his days neglecting his brilliant mind to a seemingly pointless task.
His servants began to worry for him.
“Are you alright, Lord Darkeye?”
“Of course. Why do you ask?”
The Korbat looked at him with such acute apprehension that Darkeye was forced to lay down his book at last.
“I ask,” the Korbat began nervously, “because, each day for the past three weeks, you have drawn images of Halloween Unis. Such as this one.”
Darkeye inspected the drawing thoroughly. Then, without even blinking, he returned his gaze to the book.
“They are for an acquaintance. The one that you hold was an early concept. Throw it away.”
The Korbat nodded, somewhat relieved, then turned to face the door. After the smallest of instants he paused, looking back towards Darkeye.
“If you don’t mind my asking, sir: who is this acquaintance?”
“She is of no importance to yourself, my young friend. Simply a neopet who once helped me to navigate the Lost Desert.”
“A nomad, Lord?”
“Why so many questions? Throw that scrap of paper away, and fetch me my messenger. I wish to send the finished designs to my guide at once.”
The Korbat nodded. He knew when his master’s patience was being tried. And so, with a humble bow, he went to find Darkeye’s trusted messenger.
It was near noon when the knock at last was heard on the door of Lord Darkeye’s study. After a moment, a gaunt Kacheek stepped into the room. He gently closed the door behind him.
“You sent for me, Lord Darkeye?” he inquired.
The old Pteri nodded. “Yes, Spottiswoode. I have some images that I wish you to take to Rebecca. You remember her, yes?”
He nodded, and Darkeye went on, “See that wooden chest on the edge of my desk? It is full of those images, drawn by my very own hand. It is imperative that you lose none, understand?”
Again, Spottiswoode nodded. At a gesture from Lord Darkeye, he lifted the box. The Pteri’s eyes remained focused on the wooden container, until Spottiswoode stood fully upright. Then, leaning forward across his desk, Darkeye forced the Kacheek to meet his gaze.
“Number six, Sanbranta lane, Brightvale,” he said slowly, as if ensuring that, in a thousand suns, his friend would never forget.
Spottiswoode nodded. “I won’t forget, sir. Your pictures are safe with me.”
Darkeye reached for a book. “Go, then. May fortune be on your side.”
This was not an uncommon farewell, but one that the Lord himself scarcely used. Spottiswoode couldn’t avoid frowning a little. However, he was of an unquestioning and focused nature, and soon was leaving to saddle his whinny.
Once the sound of the messenger’s pawsteps had faded altogether, Darkeye leaned back in his chair and sighed deeply. In his peripheral vision he saw a winged petpetpet dart past the window. All was still until several minutes later, when a whinny galloped past with Spottiswoode on its back. Darkeye turned to follow their progress, until they were devoured completely by the vast expanse of jungle.
Having then stretched, an enormous yawn escaping him, Lord Darkeye rested a wing on top of his book. Absently he stroked the ornate cover. He would just have to keep faith in his messenger, and trust that the box would safely reach its destination.
Beyond the study door, the young Korbat servant stood on tiptoe, eye pressed to the keyhole.
“What do you see?” came the delicate whisper by his side.
The Korbat glanced at his Acara companion, face alight with puzzlement.
“I see nothing, Amaira. He appears to be reading,”
Amaira gently guided the younger neopet away from his spy hole. Her gentle green eyes grew sympathetic.
“Go downstairs and help yourself to some of my brownies. If you’re not quick, the new girl will eat them all,”
The Korbat saw unspoken concern in her eyes, and knew that she doubted his suspicions involving Lord Darkeye’s sanity. Nodding reluctantly, he left the Acara to her duties.
Amaira plucked the meal tray from the banister. Wordlessly, she knocked on the door and waited for Darkeye to call her in.
She didn’t have to wait long. Once inside, Amaira glided with practiced ease to the immaculate desk. Having set down the tray, she was just leaving when he called her back.
“Was someone with you at the door, my friend?”
Amaira hesitated, then moved back towards him.
“Only the maid. Why, sir?”
He shook his head. “I could have sworn that I heard the voice of the Korbat. Only the maid, you say?”
Amaira nodded. “Yes, my Lord. The Korbat is downstairs eating brownies.”
Darkeye turned to his meal. Vaguely, he gestured for Amaira to leave. The blue Acara quietly exited the study and hurried downstairs.
The Korbat was leaning on the bench, talking to the new girl. Both looked up as Amaira entered the room, their eyes wide and eager for news.
“Were we right, Ms Amaira? Is he mad?”
Amaira glanced at the excitable young aisha. Then, with a genuine sigh, she shrugged.
“I don’t think so. It looks like he really was just drawing the Unis for his friend.”
“But who would need a whole box of almost identical images?” asked the Korbat, frowning. “It still seems very unusual.”
Amaira held up her paws hopelessly.
“I really don’t know, dear. Maybe it’s just one of those things that we’re never meant to find out.”
Just then the door of the servants’ entrance was flung open, and an infuriated Kyrii stormed in.
“Rala!” he exclaimed. “Get back out there! You still have to bring fresh hay to the whinnies!”
The new stable hand, Rala, leaped down from her stool and scurried past him.
“I’m sorry, sir!” came her voice, as the door swung shut behind her.
Shaking his head helplessly, the Kyrii looked at Amaira. The seasoned cook was standing beside the Korbat, who nervously avoided the groom’s gaze.
“My apologies, Amaira. Rala is full of energy, but regrettably short on discipline. This is the third time she’s done this.”
Amaira nodded. “I’m sure she’ll learn eventually. Would you like a brownie, Mister Smythe?”
The Kyrii, who had always been greatly fond of Amaira’s baking, was unable to refuse the offer. Once he had gone, along with four or five brownies, Amaira returned her attention to the Korbat servant.
For a while neither spoke while they gathered their thoughts. Then, the Acara began:
“I say you stop obsessing over this thing. You’re a good kid, and I hope you’ll come to realise that this is just one of those strange things.”
The Korbat folded his wings tightly around his frame. Reluctantly, he nodded.
“Okay, Amaira. But if Lord Darkeye turns out to be as mad as Thade himself I will, regrettably, be unable to remain here.”
Amaira smiled, lightly patting him on the shoulder. Then she busied herself with cleaning away the remnants of her brownies. Taking that as his cue, the Korbat quietly exited the kitchen.
He had almost reached the servant’s communal bedroom when something captured his attention. It was a small Uni statuette, shining brilliantly in a ray of afternoon sunlight.
The boy glanced around to ensure that no-one was watching. Then, with the utmost delicacy, he reached up and lifted it from its stand by the window.
The item was heavier than expected, and presumably crafted from real gold. As the Korbat inspected it more closely it became obvious that it was, specifically, shaped like a Halloween Uni.
Curiosity further aroused, he turned the statuette over in his paws. There were some words on the base, which the Korbat studied with extreme interest.
Rebecca Mulligan was sitting down to breakfast, a hot mug of coffee in hand, when someone knocked quite unexpectedly at her door.
She placed it on a coaster and stood, making her way to the front of the house. It was a gaunt yellow Kacheek who, in both paws, was carrying a wooden chest.
“Spottiswoode?” she asked, a note of disbelief in her voice.
He nodded. “I bring a gift from Lord Darkeye.”
Rebecca accepted the box, puzzled, and looked up.
“Would you like to come in, Spottiswoode?”
He shook his head. “No. I am expected back at the castle. Goodbye, Miss Mulligan.”
She gently closed the door behind him and carried the box, which was surprisingly light for its size, over to the table. When Rebecca opened it, the first thing she saw was a sheet of paper graced with a silver border.
There were words on the sheet of paper. Reaching for her glasses, Rebecca leaned forward to read them.
I remembered. Here’s one image for every day we spent on research.
Rebecca smiled suddenly, looked up at the pile of notes carefully stacked on a nearby chair. Then she peered back into the wooden chest, carefully moving the note aside. Beneath it were seemingly hundreds of drawings of the Nightsteed.