Unrest: Part Three
The ripples seethed and hissed around their Mistress.
She has taken the Forbidden Stair, Mistress...
That will never do. The water darkened. She will never be able to escape, and then all of my plans will have been so meticulously laid for nothing.
Mistress... she claims that is possible to escape the stairs by jumping off...
Impossible. A wave tore through the ocean. Go and bring her back to Neopia. And follow her... protect her from harm... but not too much. I need her alive... though she doesn't have to be too much so...
"This is stupid," Raven grumbled. "We've definitely gone ten thousand feet by now."
"I don't think so," answered Massie cheerfully. "We can't see Neopia yet, so we can't possibly be there. If we jump down now, we might fall forever, or maybe land with a SPLAT." She yelled the splat loudly and enthusiastically, as though nothing pleased her more than the prospect of having her blood arranged in pretty splatters on the sidewalks of Neopia.
“You make the prospect of making intricate splatters on the Neopian pavement sound like a happy one."
"What does 'intricate' mean?" asked Dethrin. "And is it?"
"Sure!" said Massie cheerfully. "Remember that time when we painted in the middle of the streets in Neopia Central? That was fun, right?"
"Right!" Dethrin's eyes brightened as he recalled the ice cream they had enjoyed afterwards, and the crunchy, creamy texture of Mecha ice cream, and the tooth he had accidentally swallowed. "Let's go then!"
"No, wait, Dethrin!"
"Numbskull," muttered Raven as Dethrin flung himself off the steps. Then, "WHOOOOOOAAAA!!!!!!", as Dethrin flipped over in midair and yelled, "Aren't you guys coming too? The renforsnents are here!" and Annette shoved her off the stairs.
The sound was deafening, different from the gentle whooshing and whistling of regular Neopian winds. It was a wild serpent-voiced shriek; the sound rushing, a beating of the wind against her body, and she couldn't so much feel it at first, only hear it. Her ears were swallowed by the deafening sound. She couldn't comprehend the power of the absolute rushing, beating, rumbling sound of the wind as it whipped by.
At first, her body sprawled all over the place as she tried her hardest to make sense of her body. Air was beating against her, using all of its power to try and make her collapse into a tumbling ball of mortality, but she summoned her strength and managed to spread her limbs, to try and allow the wind to support her as the world curved below her. So high up, through a gauzy veil, she could see the curve of the planet so well that it was daunting. Any pet who had attended Neoschool would know that the planet was a sphere, but until seeing it, she really had no perception. Below her, the world sprawled in greens, blues and browns, the patchwork design cliché yet all too real. She could see faint lines of grey and dusty yellow—roads; and glistening glassy beads that were lakes and ponds.
It’s very pretty, she thought to herself. But it's so unclear—and it's not just the atmosphere either... it was as though the world was just a hazy memory, and the only real thing was the Staircase...
But then the panic kicked in. It was as though the weight of her guts had suddenly increased, and they had plunged to ground without her, leaving room for sharp, unadulterated fear. She turned her head to one side, then the other, like a Chia fleeing a Lupe, but she had no way to run and doom was only minutes or maybe however long it took for them to death away.
Massie, a scream somehow stuck and choking in her throat, turned to look behind them and felt the air flee her lungs in a howl of shock—screaming down from the darkening sky were what looked like solidified... ripples. It was hard to make out any real shape, but there was an impression of wings and claws, as well as eyes and flames. But only while she wasn't looking directly at them. If she did, it just seemed to be a large patch of nothing hanging in the air.
"Nice," snorted Raven, also looking up at them through narrowed eyes. "More trouble. I suppose we're lucky that we can only die once."
"Huddle!" yelled Annette.
"You don't need to be ashamed of getting all disgusting and sentimental at a time like this; you could just say hug. And increased weight does not increase speed during freefall, it merely—wuh!"
As the four of the pets drew together, their combined weight had gravity racing to keep up with them in a terrifyingly breakneck plunge from their pursuers.
Dethrin chanced a look back—right into the ripples. (Or the "renforsnents", as he still thought they were.) The pale shimmers were cruising along them with gelid grace, seemingly keeping up with ease, amused by their efforts.
They were unable to escape—held in gravity's embrace, unable to even crawl, much less run away. Hissing, the ripples descended upon them and he felt their claws snatching at him, binding him, enveloping him.
He was defenseless now, and buried in... thingies. They held him tightly, whispering in wisps of whispers amongst themselves, seeming to slow down, and he could see his siblings, similarly wrapped inside cocoons of ripples. They were completely trapped and helpless and he screamed loudly, hoping to attract someone's attention.
"HELP! Help, anyone! Help help! We're being held captive by a bunch of somethings who are doing something to us! HEEEEEEEEEEELP!"
A shadowy hoof came whistling through the air and struck his face, sending him staggering. "Shut up," snapped Raven. "We're on solid ground again, and they're gone."
"What did you do that for?" Dethrin rasped, as blood trickled down his cheek.
Raven scowled at his stupidity. "We're supposed to be avoiding attracting attention... remember?"
"There's no attention here." Massie looked around at the wincing sunlight, the ragged plant life and the slow-blinking wings of the moths fluttering about. "Where are we, anyway?"
"There's no attention now," Raven agreed. "But sound would attract attention eventually."
"No, sound unattracts attention," Massie argued. "If you yell at a bunch of wild petpets, they'll run away from you."
"Yes, because the yell would direct their attention to the fact that you were nearby, thus attracting attention towards you, and they would run away, to avoid your attentions."
"Well, that would mean that sound disattr—"
"Everybody, be quiet," Annette ordered. "Hear that?"
They could hear the racket of crude wheels over rough stones. In the distance, beyond the yellowed greensward, could be seen the tottering crest of a high-loaded cart.
"Okay, we'll get on that cart and—"
"Why can't we just follow it?"
"That's too conspicuous."
"Why do we even have to go with it?"
"We have to find out where we are, don't we?"
"Halt!" Annette froze as the cart stopped and dozens of statuettes rattled.
"Smooth move," muttered Raven. "I wonder if they'll do that old trick guards did during the Meridell-Darigan Wars, when they suspected smuggling."
"What did they do?" whispered Dethrin, although he had a sneaking suspicion he didn't want to know.
"They stick their spears into everything, to make sure there's nothing—or no one—hidden inside. Mind if I move under you?"
"Cast a spell, 'Nette!" Dethrin demanded in a panicked whisper.
"No," said Annette firmly. "They might smell the magic. Then they'll know for sure that we're here. Besides, it's a very old trick. They probably won't try it."
"What've you got in there?" From somewhere above her, she could hear the gravelly tones of a guard. Gravelly wasn't good. Most of the time, gravelly meant big and strong.
"J—just some books and things b-bound for Faerie City," stuttered the driver. "I'm on my way to the docks..."
"Books, eh?" Through the rough weave of the blanket, Massie could see a bulky figure—a Tonu or an Elephante?—moving towards them, raising his spear...
Her mouth was dry and felt full of dust. Swallowing hard, she fought the urge to jump out and scream, like she did when she knew she was about to be discovered during games of Kacheek Seek. The pounding of her heart seemed loud enough to betray her. Could he hear that? Or was he listening to the rapid pace of Dethrin's breathing?
She closed her eyes tightly. He can't hear us, she told herself. We're not here. He won't stick us. Because he can't see or hear us. We're invisible. Or something like that.
An odd sensation stole over her, as if the blanket had grown thick and smooth, muffling her senses.
Massie! She winced as the mental equivalent of a shout echoed in her mind. Stop the spell!
Spell? Surprised, she opened her eyes and found herself staring into darkness. But I'm not doing a spell...
"I have sensed someone using power," Fyora said quietly. "Not much, and never for long. I think she is experimenting with them, possibly with her siblings, trying to test the properties of her new powers. And it is only power that is being released, not spells..."
Jhudora stared at her in consternation. "And you don't think we should send out all of our forces to capture her?"
"No, I don't." Fyora turned away from her, towards the window, sipping from her glass of juice. "Doing so would lead to suspicion, panic, hysteria... people would think that some great menace stalked Neopia."
"That would be a small price to pay if we could stop her—"
"Enough!" Fyora's glass shattered and the juice splashed onto the floor and her dress, though it left no marks on the latter. "By your own admission, she is unskilled and not particularly clever."
"Then even if she were studying the Dark arts—which, I must tell you, I find hard to believe—she cannot have advanced very far and does not warrant the use of our entire race's power, and the alarm it would cause. However..." Fyora stared out the window at her realm. "I will give you eight other faeries, and you may spend the next week combing Neopia with your minds for her presence. Every time she uses her power, you will be able to close in on her location and..." her voice trailed off delicately.
Jhudora sighed. "Thank you, your Majesty."
"But be quick." Fyora began casting the spell to summon the other faeries. "If what you say is true, the more she uses her powers, the closer she comes to losing control."
"Calm down, Massie." Annette watched her warily. "Take deep breaths, don't think. Control yourself. Stop thinking about spells... are you okay?"
Massie opened her eyes. "Did I do anything?"
Annette grimaced and gestured around. The abandoned hut had once been filled with various pieces of stone furniture, which were now lying around in a jagged rumble of stone and dirt.
Massie felt her mouth go dry, then her mind slipped again and the stone became flames.
Annette seemed to struggle with herself for a moment before putting out them out. With a touch of fatigue, she said, "Control yourself better. They're getting harder and harder to put out."
"I'm trying!" Massie exclaimed as a stray rock splinter flew at Dethrin. "Sorry..."
"How is this happening?" Annette muttered to herself as she paced back and forth. "Powers released randomly without spells or even intent to do so... whenever you have any strong emotions inside you—"
She ducked as another stone shrapnel flew at her. "Massie!"
"I'm sorry!" wailed Massie. "I told you I didn't cast a spell when I threw the rock at Dethrin when we were back home! And now—"
"Don't you go blaming any of this on us," Raven warned from her place outside.
"I don't know how this stuff keeps happening! I—"
She stopped as Annette held up her hoof and frowned.
"What?" grumbled Raven. "Has she finally run out of power?"
"No... I think someone's found us!"
Pausing to rest in an alley, Jhudora closed her eyes and drew up a trickle of power to chase away her weariness, then quickly stood up as a familiar buzzing began at the back of her head. Leaning against the wall, she cursed under her breath as she realized how far away she was from the source. Shaking her head, she stepped out into the street.
We've heard her. She's a few streets away from us now.
Has she moved?
Jhudora frowned. If she had fled, why was she still using her powers?
Who else is near?
We're closer, Aliss called. She must be no more than fifty wing-beats from us.
Sarle and I are about the same distance away, Roshna sent.
Move closer, Jhudora told them. Don't approach her alone.
She crossed the street and hurried down another, cursing her luck that they were all closer to her treacherous apprentice than she was herself.
Jhudora? Sarle called. Look at this.
A picture flashed into Jhudora's mind of a house cloaked in bright flames, belching smoke into the sky. A feeling of suspicion and apprehension accompanied the image.
Do you think she's...?
We'd see something much more dramatic, Aliss replied.
At the end of the street, Jhudora stepped into a wider one. She checked her stride as she saw the burning hovel. Pets were already gathering to watch, and as she drew closer, she saw the occupants of various nearby homes emerging from their own huts, arms laden with belongings.
Two air faeries, one short and one tall, emerged from an alley and strode towards her.
"She'll be close," Syldris said. "If—"
They stiffened as a stronger, shorter buzz struck their minds.
"Behind that building," Jhudora said, already flying.
Yna quickly followed. "I know the area. There's an alley beside that house that meets with two others."
They landed softly in the darkness between the two buildings. Jhudora paused as she felt another sharp plucking at her senses, thirty wing-beats to the right of the previous one.
"She's moving fast," Syldris muttered, breaking into a run.
Jhudora hurried after. "Something's wrong. She must know we're after her."
Yna shrugged. "Perhaps she can't help it."
"Then Fyora was right."
Jhudora sent out a mental call. Roshna?
She's moving towards us.
She crossed our path a moment ago, heading south.
She's to our right.
Okay, we have her surrounded, Jhudora told them. Be careful. She may be losing control. Roshna and Sarle, move in slowly. Aliss and Ellemel, keep to her left. Elwyn and Maes, close in. Be careful. Do not alarm her. She might panic and... combust.
She felt mental winces travelling through the link.
But then... Ellemel became thoughtful. Our problem would be solved, no? A rogue Dark mage taken care of without any injury to us—it seems ideal.
No! exclaimed Jhudora. We have to take her alive!
Were those our orders? she heard Roshna ask. Fyora only said to find and stop her. She didn't say anything about alive. Besides, if she combusts, it would save us the trouble of subduing her. We could just put out the fires and our job would be done.
Then how will we know if there's anyone else with her? If there's someone else directing her, teaching her? She may only be an inexperienced pawn.
That won't be difficult to discover, Sarle insisted. We'll just rip the knowledge from her mind before she loses control.
No! Jhudora put as much force as she could behind the order, but it was too late—all of the faeries had already rushed into the intersection to find... nothing.
To be continued...