Unrest: Part One
"Knowledge has its price... "
She ignored the little whispering voice, pulling books from the shelves and tossing them to the floor after the briefest of glances.
Where is it?
A yellowed, well-travelled chapbook, its pages long ago worn to rags and tatters under the heavy soles of time, fell out of the latest book to be yanked from its proper place, Mlaer Derettahs Eht.
There! She bent down to pick up the chapbook. The print was so crisp and black, so new and lustrous, one could think it had sucked the life out of its host.
Yes, this was it. How to end it all.
She would have to be quick. Opening the book, she quickly skimmed the last page, ignoring the multitudes of whispers, looking—
The wind of a thousand whispers filled the room, flipping the pages madly... Knowledge has its price price price price price price...
Outside of the room, thunder boomed. The barge swayed. Someone screamed.
She screamed as well, in frustration, and crammed the book into her pocket, running out of the cabin...
And suddenly felt that by now sickeningly familiar sensation of magic slipping.
"Knowledge always has its price," Jhudora had said to her when she caught Massie reading a book from the Old Levels.
But it had been so tempting... as seductive and as treacherous as the Meepit spirits that stalked the swamps of the Haunted Woods, leading lost travellers to their doom with the bright, comforting light they exuded... she had felt the pull of it, and come closer than she would have believed to being lured into the gaping abyss.
It began with a voice, with the requisite bell-like tones of the Faerie folk, that first directed her attention to Knowledge, big, serious, real Knowledge, the type spelled with a capital K. Massie could remember it still, Jhudora gesturing at the conjured flames, ordering them into the fireplace, then motioning at the picture in Massie's book.
"It's one of the old faerie hills. Where the ancient ones once prowled," she added, foreseeing her apprentice's question. "That which the faeries of the present fill with their absence... or lose their presence."
Enthroned in her magnificent winged armchair, the fiery glow of Massie's practice flames dancing in her hair and flickering in her eyes, she made the speckled Shoyru think of some sort of fearsome stepmother queen rising from the fiery pits of doom in all her wrath and glory. Not exactly the sort that seemed jittery of an old mound of cloud.
"Stay away from the place."
"So, how's life as Jhudora's apprentice?" the scruffy White Zafara asked his sister as they strolled down the boggy streets of Ghoul Close.
"You have to ask? " the Shadow Uni by his side shuddered with disgust. "Easter Egg pastels always in fashion, mindless giggling from all around, every dish slathered in—"
"Sugary goo! " shouted Massie, swooping away in pursuit of a Walking Carpet. "Life's great—"
"—ly improved since you've taken your sickening love of all things brainless and fluffy to the land where everything is brainless and fluffy. Now, why don't you go and pack your overflowing cup of sweetness into your suitcase and go back, to the land of sweetness, hmm?"
"Nette," the Zafara pouted. "Raven's trying to destroy my dream."
"Raven," the Halloween Peophin warned.
"Since when have you had dreams of drenching everything in sweetness?"
"No, no, NO!" the Zafara was now pouting so heavily his mouth was gone. "I mean my dreams of fighting a real, live, faerie!"
"Then you should give Massie a good, hard kick in the behind and hope she goes crying back to Jhudora. Who knows? Maybe that'll make her angry enough to blast you."
"Hey, good idea! C'mere, Massie! Hey!!"
Massie came flapping over, "Yeah?"
"Can you do me a favor? Please?"
"Sure," the Shoyru answered, completely oblivious to Annette's look of growing alarm and Raven's smirk.
"Close your eyes, wouldja?"
"To make it more cool!"
"No, Dethrin! Durdurmak!"
But The Zafara had already sunk his foot into Massie's behind, his mouth frozen in a silent scream of glee, Massie's in a perfect "o".
Annette scowled fiercely at the Uni. "What were you thinking?!" she snapped. "Kicking Massie isn't going to help him get a faerie to fight—if this kick makes Massie angry, most likely she'll just zap Dethrin herself. Even if Jhudora did deign to come down from that cloud and blast Dethrin for her apprentice, it wouldn't be fighting—it'd be butchery."
"As though Jhudora really would bother coming down for anything so stupid," Raven scoffed.
"Then what are you doing?!"
"I'm hoping Massie will cast a spell strong enough to severely injure him. Then we'll be free of his disgusting stupid energy... for a long time. Just imagine what it would be like to have a minute of peace and quiet again. You know, quiet? You still remember that, don't you?"
Annette ignored her and studied Massie's expression. Surprise, yes; anger and other destructive emotions, no. She sighed with relief and muttered the counterspell.
Massie fell to the ground. "Ow! " she squealed. "That really hurt!"
"Yep, it did, didn't it? " Dethrin gloated.
Massie's look of confusion and surprise changed into one of playful anger. "Yep!"
She bent down and picked up a smooth pebble, drew her arm back and pitched it.
A ripple of white light flashed outward, and the pebble hit Dethrin's stomach with a dull thud. He stood motionless, staring at Massie in surprise, then his knees buckled and Annette rushed forward to catch him.
The Peophin was breathing out long strings of spells, plucked individual parts out of their places and pushing them into Dethrin, cursing softly as they flared menacingly, or, more often, became pale and transparent, eventually disappearing into his fur completely.
"Way to go," Raven said to Massie. "I think you actually killed him."
Finally, when the last shimmering golden mark had been plucked from the air, pressed into Dethrin's face, and sunk in, leaving nothing but a pale memory of its shape behind, Annette straightened up and glared at Raven. "Now are you satisfied?" she snarled. "He's gonna be out for the rest of the day."
"Ah well." Raven shrugged. "It's better than nothing at all, I suppose."
"Massie." Now Annette had turned toward the young Shoyru. "I know it's hard, but could you please refrain from using magic out of school? At least until you can control your strength?"
"I know you didn't mean to hurt him that badly, but you did. He's knocked out, and when he wakes up, he's going to have the mother of all stomachaches. So—"
"But I didn't use magic!" Massie protested. "It was just a rock!"
"Oh, come on." Raven rolled her eyes. "We all saw the flash, didn't we? You're not even in trouble. All she's saying is that you have to exercise restraint while you're here."
"No, that's NOT 'all' that I'm saying. I'm also saying that you don't know your strength yet, Massie, and that makes any magic you use potentially dangerous."
"But I really didn't use any magic!" Massie protested. "I really didn't."
As she spoke, she imbued her words for spells of truth, letting the power of her spell roll in the air like waves, like waves that engulfed the stunned face of a swimmer when they went wading confidently into the shallows of a sea, only to realize that there was a deep and powerful undertow, and that they were out of their depth.
Dethrin tried to open his eyes but found that he couldn't. It was like someone had sewed his eyes shut, but without strings and holes, or glued his eyes, but without glue.
My stomach hurts, he thought, and remembered something he had heard at the Beauty Competition the other day; "Testing. Testing. Is this thing on?"
The thought of asking whether or not he was on, like some sort of toy, struck him as rather funny, and he started giggling. Or tried to.
"Huuuuuuuuuurgh," was all his treacherous lips could manage, and he bit on them hard, to show them who was boss.
"I think he's waking up." A voice came from somewhere above him.
"Finally," another voice grunted. He felt the ground beneath him tilting, and he was tumbling, finally hitting the ground with a thunk.
"Oof." Well, now his lips worked. He'd shown them who was boss, all right. But his voice was still slurry. How do you bite a voice, he wondered.
"Raven!" Annette snapped. "He's just recovered; can't you at least pretend to show some sympathy?!"
"I already have," Raven snarled back, flexing her back muscles. "I've carried him all the way to Faerieland, haven't I? Oh, and by the way, you might want to think about feeding him Bloat-B-Gone from now on, because he weighs a ton."
"Er—Jhudora isn't here right now. How'm I supposed to ask her about my magic now?" Massie said as she came back down the stairs, eyeing the flames wreathing Annette's hooves nervously. "Maybe you should put those out. You might burn someone. You're not supposed to play with fire, 'member?"
Annette sighed and extinguished them, glaring at Raven. "Look—"
"There's Jhudora!!" Dethrin cried, suddenly sitting up.
They followed his finger and stared at the dark hill shape.
"I don't see anything," Raven grumbled. "Go back into your coma, Dethrin."
"No, no, no, look! There's a shadow there!"
"I can see something there," said Annette, squinting at the hill. "But what makes you think that's Jhudora?"
"Stuff like this always happens in the stories," said Dethrin with all the wisdom of an adventure story connoisseur. "People look for something and then suddenly, there it is! 'Cause, like, if they'd actually have to go look for them without clues or anything, the story would be really boring. And way too long."
"Well, we aren't IN a story," Raven said caustically. "So stop spouting your pale incompetent faerie-tale experience."
"That's not very nice, Raven," said Massie seriously. "But actually Jhudora wouldn't go there. She told me to stay away, because it's an old faerie hill."
"It is?" Annette brightened. "Then we should definitely go there!"
"But Jhudora said—"
"That's an old superstition." Annette waved a hoof dismissively. "They say that some who wander there disappear, and the others come back touched. The wrath of the Ancient Ones at being disturbed, and all that. And there have been some... odd... incidents... but really, it should be pretty safe. Most of them have old spell residue still hanging around, and echoes of old faerie song, which makes it interesting. I went up there once, when I first started learning magic and had strange expansive dreams."
Massie seemed torn between curiosity and caution, but Raven stamped a hoof in disgust. "Why'd anyone want strange expansive dreams? " she asked. "Sounds stupid."
"Hey, look!" said Dethrin. "The person's moving!"
A shadow had detached itself from the mass and was slowly walking up the hill. As they watched, an emerald star winked into being. No, not a star. Miles away, high up, flames kindled and caught, blossoming into what must have been a great fire atop the hill.
Just below the peak, Massie paused, her heart pounding. What am I doing?
If Jhudora were up here, she would probably have her apprenticeship dissolved for disobeying her. But she could hear faint snatches of faerie voices, melding together into melodies with no beginnings or ends and no in-between... and beneath it all, a tiny voice hissing, knowledge has its price...
Then Annette reached down and pulled her up, into a small clump of bushes.
A breeze whistled, and the fire caught with a whoosh, emerald and verdigris flame licking upwards at the sky. From behind it, a figure stepped out. A dark faerie, with purple hair cascading down her shoulders, her acid green lips moving, singing unintelligible words with the shades of the past. Jhudora, in an ebony dress shimmering with cobweb lace.
She began to raise her arms, her voice a low throbbing chant now, lyrics without melody, melting into the air.
Smoke began to rise from the fire, shadowy violet, slowly at first, the accepting of a stranger's invitation, then with confidence, twisting into weird shapes, curling around the dark faerie...
Something began to flutter in Massie's ears, and she shook her head, thinking that perhaps a Vernax had crawled in, but the buzzing continued. She stopped, then felt a chill as she realized that the noise was inside her head.
Annette watched the smoke drifting towards her, menacingly—
—and with it came a smell of Neopia's finest chocolate, coating lung-destroying acid, and the realization of what Jhudora was doing.
"Shady stuff," muttered Dethrin. "H—"
His voice withered away as Jhudora's eyes roamed the hilltop, green flames reflected in them.
"Strange," she said. "It's almost as if... "
The Zafara took an instinctive step back, and a twig snapped. In an instant, Jhudora had fixed her eyes on him. Eyes with verdant flames dancing within, though she was no longer looking at the fire.
No, not me, he realized with a sense of mingled relief and terror. On Massie.
Then he felt someone tug on his sleeve, and turned around to see Annette, eyes wild. "Close your eyes and be quiet!" she commanded, and Dethrin felt himself falling...
"We have to go."
The voice was female, forceful and familiar. Where am I? Massie thought. On something soft, for starters. A bed? And a faint smell of potions permeated the room, so...
I must be back in my room at Jhudora's Cloud, Massie thought with delight. It was all just some weird dream, and now I've woken up, and Jhudora will expect me to come down and tell me that she's going to teach me to detect different stuffs in potions like she promised last month...
The Shoyru opened her eyes to flickering candlelight, the warmth of a sturdy bed, and heavy, itchy sheets. A fire burned cautiously in a grim fireplace and stone walls gleamed only with the mystery of age. Two small windows stared at each other from across the room, but the blinds were pulled down, so Massie had no idea when it was, no more than any remembrance of how she'd gotten there.
Uhm... well, 'Nette told me and Raven to jump, and then she pushed Dethrin down and jumped down herself after trying to put the fire out or something... I think somebody screamed... and then she screamed too, to tell me to make the air cushion us so we wouldn't go SPLAT... and then Dethrin grabbed my tail or something... and I think I cast the spell... and then...
Gingerly—for even her neck hurt from her drop and SPLAT, Massie sat up and swung her legs onto the ground. "Where is this?" she croaked, jumping slightly at the voice of the hag caught in her throat.
"Where else?" growled Raven. "The Sign of the Three Flouds. Worst inn in all Neopia. Business must be poofing; they've sold all of their decorations."
"It'll be a safe place to lay low for a while," said Annette, her bright red mane glowing in the firelight. "Faeries don't come here; this is just a tourist trap for pets who want to see that Faerieland is a place like any other. Faeries think this place is disgusting. And hopefully, they'll think that their apprentices think so too."
"You're forgetting Jhudora," Raven muttered. "She was here last year, remember? Some faeries know this is a good place to hide."
"Where's Dethrin?" asked Massie, as the flames in the fireplace spat sparks.
"Out." Annette nodded at the window. "Looking for some food. And scouting around for danger."
"You mean doing his very best attracting unwanted attention," Raven muttered darkly, but subsided when the flames flared menacingly.
Silence slowly filled the room, squeezing out all room for talk. Massie could feel it, powerful and oppressive, almost visible in the half-light. It's up to my ankles now... my waist... my neck... and soon we'll all be drowned in quietness...
To be continued...