Spectre in the Night
It was her favourite time of the day, when the dying sun set the heavens ablaze and painted the sky red and gold. In contrast, the land below was cloaked in shadow, fingers of which spilled over the ledge to stroke Sayidah's fur. Sayidah rested her head on her forepaws and closed her eyes, revelling in the tranquility of the moment. Pawsteps shuffled towards her; a moment later she felt her father's presence at her side.
"A beautiful evening, is it not?" the older Cybunny remarked indulgently, lowering his brown head to nuzzle his daughter.
Sayidah nodded happily. "Brightvale's evenings are beautiful too, of course, but I miss desert sunsets. I miss the crunch of sand beneath my paws and the warmth of the desert air."
Farisem chuckled. "I'm afraid that there are some who are less than charmed with the heat." Still amused, he gazed out into the distance. "The Princess will no doubt be pleased with our return as well. I only hope that she will show some restraint with the welcoming ceremony."
They watched as the last of the sun slipped beneath the horizon. The desert, so stifling and oppressive during the day, turned into a completely different world as the first stars of twilight twinkled into existence. The wind sighed, her touch a feather's caress. A flock of Djuti took flight, stirring the air with their wingbeats. Now that the sun no longer ruled overhead, the creatures of the night emerged one by one from their dens.
Her father nudged her. "It's time to head back," he reminded gently.
Camp had been set up in a nearby oasis. They entered through a small path that led to a clearing in the heart of the sanctuary, where a fire crackled merrily. A yellow Pteri perched within range of the firelight, skimming through a sheaf of scrolls and trying to ignore the Desert Kougress opposite him. The guards had stationed themselves throughout the clearing and were either tending to the Apis or polishing their weapons. All of them acknowledged the Cybunnies' entrance with a slight bow. Farisem nodded in return and went to inspect the Apis' loads before warming himself by the fire.
"How much longer until we reach the city, Zalil?" he asked.
The Pteri straightened and fluffed his feathers importantly. "Not long, sir. Going at our current pace, and barring unforeseen delays such as accidents, volatile weather conditions, a swarm of ravenous Selket—"
"—or the incessant babbling of an excessively garrulous bird," the Kougress interjected with a smirk.
"—three hours at the most," Zalil ended, but not without a glare.
Farisem pretended not to have noticed. "Thank you, Zalil. You have been most helpful."
Sayidah turned to the Kougress and chided, "Must you always interrupt him so, Nuruki? It's not good manners."
The Kougress dipped her head in contrition. "Forgive me, my lady," she said formally. Sayidah caught Zalil muttering something about directing apologies to whom they were rightfully owed. She was sure that Nuruki had heard it as well.
"As a sign of my repentance," the maidservant continued in a voice like silk, "allow me to go pick some berries for you, my lady. I saw some particularly juicy ones growing near the entrance just now."
"That's very thoughtful of you, Nuruki," Sayidah replied, suppressing a smile at the contemptuous expression on Zalil's face. "Yes, I would appreciate that."
Nuruki rose to her feet gracefully and bowed. Dusting off her skirt, she gave a final flick of her tail — which she did deliberately close to Zalil's face — before disappearing into the brush. None of them knew it then, but she would never come back.
In the distance, a strange, sinister cackle split the night air. A blue Elephante guard frowned and raised his gargantuan ears, but no other cries were forthcoming.
"Only one," he remarked. "A bad sign."
Farisem turned his head sharply towards him. "What do you mean?"
"That was an Erisim," the Elephante explained. "They usually call together as a pack. It is odd to hear just one. They say that if you ever hear the cry of a lone Erisim at night, it is a sign that great misfortune is about to befall you."
Just then, the fire went out.
As they scrambled to re-ignite the wood, a startled yell suddenly arose from one of the guards, followed by the rasp of drawn blades. Sayidah thought that she could see dark shapes swarming the open space, and then she was knocked to the ground. Gasping, she jumped to her feet at once and began to blindly feel her way about the clearing, which was suddenly thick with metallic clangs and the oaths of engaged opponents.
Like a ghost, her father reappeared by her side. Together, they weaved their way out of the fracas, into the protective cover of the trees and shrubs. Sayidah realized that her mind was still hazed in confusion, and shook her head to clear it. "What...?" she whispered.
"Bandits," Farisem said grimly. "After the treasures we're escorting, no doubt. A Mynci among them nearly took this, but I managed to snatch it back from him." He held up one paw from which dangled an exquisitely crafted amulet in the shape of a gold scarab. The jewels on its body glittered faintly in the starlight filtering through the canopy.
"They nearly stole that?" Sayidah repeated in horror.
Her father slipped the amulet over her head; it all but disappeared beneath the thick ruff of her neck fur. "Take this and go," he hissed urgently to her. "Head for the Valley of Maiden's Tears. I'll meet up with you there."
Her eyes turned wary. "Why are you saying this? Surely you aren't planning to remain here?"
Before he could answer, an explosion of colourful language caused the two Cybunnies to jerk their heads towards the direction of the offending source. Farisem reflexively pressed his daughter's head down, and both of them edged their way carefully towards an Apis tethered to a tree on the outermost edge of the oasis.
A bound Desert Kougress was slung across the back of the Apis, although the strip of cloth across her mouth had fallen and she was currently busy venting her obvious displeasure. The masked green Ogrin guarding her made no move to reapply the gag, and indeed was regarding the Kougress with an almost bored stare.
His expression became a lot more animated, however, when someone tackled him from behind.
Sayidah sprinted towards the Apis as her father wrestled with the guard and wasted no time untying Nuruki's bonds. The Desert Cybunny's lack of experience with knots proved an obstacle, but one which she quickly overcame through the provision of sharp teeth. Nuruki's first act upon liberation was to pick up a rock and bash her erstwhile captor over the head. He fell with a grunt.
"Nuruki," Farisem commanded as he disentangled himself from the Ogrin's fallen form, "you and Sayidah are to head for the Valley of Maiden's Tears immediately!"
Nuruki nodded, at the same time Sayidah cried out, "I'm not leaving without you!"
Farisem gently but inexorably guided his daughter onto the Apis' back. "And I'm not leaving my men — or my duty — behind." He kissed her forehead and smiled. "You'll see me again very soon — I promise."
Nuruki mounted the Apis behind her mistress and tugged at the reins. The Petpet broke into a slow lope, then gradually sped up. Sayidah twisted in her seat to look back at her father. He stood silently on the edge of the trees, watching as his only child was carried further away from him. His features rearranged themselves into a smile which she knew was for her sake, and then her father turned, to be swallowed up by the shadows.
Nuruki tried to think of something reassuring to say. "Don't worry, Lady Sayidah. The guards are more than capable of dealing with a ragtag band of brigands. They're probably sending those cut-throats screaming for their mothers even now!"
Sayidah turned to stare disconsolately ahead. "Of course," she said without conviction.
They eventually reached a valley that lay somewhere to the southwest. This particular valley derived its name from a legend concerning the stream that wound through its floor, which was supposed to have been formed from the tears of a bereaved Eyrie maiden. After quenching her thirst, Sayidah wandered up to examine the pile of rocks that the maiden's body was said to have turned into. It did vaguely resemble an Eyrie, and the two crevices from which water trickled out were at approximately the same position the eyes would have been. She had to marvel at the likeness, as well as at the imagination of generations past.
The sound of approaching mounts caught her ear. She and Nuruki exchanged surprised glances, and hurried to the entrance to see.
The vast expanse of endless sand was broken by the shapes of four riders. All of them were masked, one a green Ogrin. Moonlight glinted off the steel hanging by their sides.
The two girls turned and fled into the valley.
"They've seen us! Blackest of black luck, they've seen us!" Nuruki kept muttering as she and Sayidah squeezed themselves into a small hole at the base of a hill. The Kougress released the scraggly bush she had been holding back so that it was restored to its original position shielding the entrance. That, as well as shadows and luck, was all they had to depend on to prevent their discovery.
Several minutes of silence passed, and then Sayidah caught the tread of soft feet. She couldn't see through to outside very well, since Nuruki blocked most of her view, but she guessed that their trackers were nearby. She found herself unconsciously holding her breath. There was a crunch of movement again, this time closer to their hiding place.
Suddenly, Nuruki shot out from the hole and streaked past two masked figures, who immediately gave chase. After getting over her shock, Sayidah scrambled to follow suit. She caught a glimpse of a Krawk's diminishing back before he vanished around a turn.
Sayidah bit down on her lip before sprinting out of the hole, no longer safe now that its existence was made known to the bandits. She wondered whether she should go try to help Nuruki, or whether she should trust the Kougress to be able to take care of herself and consider her own safety instead. She did not miss the reason why Nuruki had risked her life to lure their pursuers away...
A shadow detached itself from the surrounding darkness to stand in her path.
Sayidah jerked to a sudden halt. The Shadow Techo side-stepped and forced her back with the point of his scimitar. It was only when she felt the hard rock at her back did Sayidah realize that she was being maneuvered into a corner. Moving swiftly to block her exit, the Techo raised two fingers to his lips and whistled. Three answering whistles resounded from another part of the valley.
Dread filled Sayidah to the pits of her stomach. Conversely, her captor adjusted the grip on his weapon with nonchalant ease before looking her over from head to toe. Frightened as she was, the Desert Cybunny felt a spark of defiance flare up within her in the face of such impudent scrutiny.
"If it is valuables you seek," she said, lifting her chin, "then I can tell you that you should have stayed back at the oasis."
The bandit's gaze sharpened. Without warning, the tip of his blade darted forward to lift up the front of her neck fur. Sayidah was suddenly aware of the cold weight of the amulet nestling against her skin. She heard the Techo's sharp intake of breath.
"Give that to me," he hissed. It was the first time throughout their encounter that he had spoken.
Tremors ran up and down Sayidah's body, perhaps in foreknowledge of the consequences of her decision. Slowly, heedless of the cold steel hovering so closely to her skin, Sayidah shook her head.
Dark irises flashed like chips of obsidian. Snarling, the bandit drew back his scimitar... and suddenly emitted a strangled gasp. It was followed by the thump of a solid object hitting the ground.
Sayidah dared to prise open one eye. She stared at the motionless body of the Techo lying at her feet, then allowed her gaze to meander upwards.
What stood before her was an apparition from beyond the grave.
The apparition's eyes blazed crimson. Beneath it, fraying bandages trailed the ground, reeking of tombs and centuries' old dust. Shafts of yellow bone jutted out through rotting flesh, the wings in similar tatters. A sudden breeze stirred the unruly mane, which framed a horn that was stained from the point down.
In the silence there came the patter of running feet. A strange male voice called out a name. Three masked Neopets — the Ogrin, along with a Fire Krawk and an orange Mynci — burst into view, before stopping short in horror.
The spectre abruptly whipped about to face them. Flames springing to life about its hooves, it bore down on them with a menacing canter. The bandits screamed in a manner unbecoming of members of their profession before turning tail. They were relentlessly pursued, and it was not long before the shrieks of terror were joined by the bellows of frightened Apis. The frenzied clatter of fleeing paws failed to drown out the single, earth-shaking neigh that challenged them to stay and meet their doom.
She found Nuruki's inert form lying by the stream. The Kougress stirred at a touch, to Sayidah's immense relief, before suddenly shooting up and feeling for the back of her head with a suppressed groan.
"Lady Sayidah! You're safe! Someone" — Nuruki glared accusingly at their surroundings, as if the inanimate features could be responsible for her suffering — "bashed me over the head with a rock! It must have been that Ogrin!"
"We won't have to worry about them anymore," Sayidah said quietly.
Something in her tone caused Nuruki to pause. "What do you mean?"
"The bandits found me, but a... Uni... chased them off. My saviour vanished before I could thank him, however."
Nuruki's eyes were the size of Ptolymelons. "There was someone else here?"
"I... assume it was a someone."
No words passed between them after that. Nuruki sat back against the valley wall and massaged her head, tail fidgeting impatiently. Sayidah sat parallel to the stream and stared off into the distance, lost in thought.
Finally, a yellow silhouette appeared above them in the sky. It checked its flight and called down to them.
"Lady Sayidah! Insolent feline!"
"Nice to see you too, birdbrain!"
"Is my father all right, Zalil?"
"Yes, and approaching as we speak! I'll go inform him of your exact whereabouts."
With a swerve of his wings he was gone. Barely minutes later, Sayidah found herself wrapped in the tight embrace of her father, as several Tonu guards scoured their surroundings. Zalil and Nuruki could be heard trading barbs in the background.
"Thank the Spirits you're safe," Farisem whispered. "When I discovered that some of the bandits had followed you, I swear that my heart stopped!"
"What happened at your end?" Sayidah queried, pushing away so that she could better inspect her father. She gasped when she saw the missing tip of his right ear.
Farisem smiled away her concerns and reached up to lightly touch the bandage. "It's nothing serious; just a little cut. And think of what a story it leaves me to tell. There were no fatalities, fortunately, although I'm afraid one of the guards will be limping the rest of the way home."
"Did the brigands leave empty-handed?"
Her father cracked a small smile. "Oh, you need not worry about that. At first they had managed to make off with the load of two of the Apis, and led us around in circles when we gave chase. But then suddenly a flare lit up the sky in the distance, and they relinquished all their spoils and beat a hasty retreat. It was all most peculiar..." He stared absently into the air. "But that is behind us now. Is the amulet safe?"
Sayidah nodded, showing it to him. Later, she thought, there would be time to tell him how close he had come to losing both amulet and daughter.
"Good, good... We will resume travelling immediately. Hopefully, we won't run into any more trouble on the way back." The brown Cybunny creased his eyebrows inexplicably upon completion of that sentence, only to let out a low chuckle of amusement. "I hope I'm not turning superstitious; now that I've said that, I worry that I've inadvertently jinxed our return journey."
Sakhmet's resident population of fortune-tellers and talisman-makers seemed ever the more assured of their minister's future patronage when, halfway home, Zalil swooped down to announce that a large group of unidentified Neopets was swiftly heading their way.
"Is it possible for you to fly closer so as to better ascertain their motives?" Farisem directed, even as he signalled to the guards to ready themselves for any imminent skirmish.
Zalil nodded and flew off. When he returned, he had in company with him a blue Shoyru whose first act upon landing was to race up to Farisem and grip him by both shoulders. "Minister Farisem! Are you all right? What of your charge? Spirits Above, your ear!"
Farisem was staring at him as if debating the odds of the other being a mirage. "We are all quite well, Advisor Enarka, if not completely unscathed. As to the artefacts, I can swear on my honour that every single one is present and intact."
The advisor nodded before turning and issuing orders to the regiment of soldiers he had brought. After some reshuffling, they proceeded towards the city in substantially greater numbers than before.
"I cannot begin to express my relief at seeing you all safe!" Enarka was repeating for what seemed like the umpteenth time. "Princess Amira was gravely concerned when she heard that—"
Farisem's mouth turned down in a perplexed frown. "Wait — how did you know we had encountered difficulties?"
"A guest of the Princess saw you last night. He ran back and told us."
Farisem raised his eyebrows in surprise. "I must personally extend my thanks to him, then. What was a royal guest doing out in the middle of the desert at night?"
Enarka hid his awkwardness behind a cough. "This guest is... unique. I'm sure Princess Amira will arrange an introduction once you have returned."
The topic turned towards the latest developments at King Hagan's court. Sayidah did not listen; she turned her head aside and watched the desert landscape. A pink glow was just beginning to suffuse the horizon when the city walls rose into view. She heard her father give a nostalgic sigh.
"It's good to be back home again," he mused. "I trust that things are well?"
Ominously, the Shoyru grimaced at the question. "Well... do you remember the letter I sent you in Brightvale a few weeks ago? Explaining why Sakhmet had suddenly vanished off the face of Neopia?"
Farisem scrutinized him closely. "Yes, I do. Never in my wildest dreams would I imagine that all the trouble had been caused by a two-hundred-year old prince who needed to wed a Sakhmetian princess in order to lift the curse on his city. In less wilder dreams, however, I probably could have imagined the long-lost daughter of Princess Neera turning up to resolve the situation. Speaking of whom, when would I have a chance to meet Her Royal Highness Nabile?"
If anything, the advisor looked even more ill at ease. "Sooner than you would think. She is currently at the palace, recuperating from the wounds she received a few days ago protecting her husband Jazan from his power-mad father who had risen up from the dead to go on a fiery rampage through Sakhmet. But don't worry, we managed to save your Chomato garden."
"My ears seemed to have malfunctioned just now. Could you repeat that again, Enarka?"
Now that they were closer, Sayidah could see scorch marks along parts of the outer wall. Scanning its perimeter, she felt her breath catch in her throat.
A dark silhouette stood atop the city walls, tracing the gradual ascent of the sun. As if sensing her gaze, it turned to look in her direction. Wild locks of mane, stirred by the movement, brushed against the base of a spiral horn. Azure eyes that might have once flashed crimson regarded her with familiar impassivity. Wordlessly, the blue Uni turned and vanished beneath the ramparts, leaving behind a young Cybunny and her rapidly pounding heart.