Unrest: Part Six
"An' why exac'ly are ye not gorn ter tell us?"
"Knowledge has its price, and it exacts a heavy toll on those who divulge it lightly..."
At that familiar sentence which had (sort of) started it all, Massie sat up, and opened her eyes, immediately bringing the conversation to a screeching halt.
She had to blink a few times before her eyes adjusted to the windowless darkness. There were no knotholes or gaps in the planking for daylight to steal through, and though skinny candles guttered and wept on every table, the place was still the dusky color that came after twilight but before real night. Between tables were chairs, stools, and altered side tables meant to serve as chairs, though no one was sitting.
The speaker was a water faerie, hovering slightly to put her head at the same level at everyone else, garbed in fathomless black. Five other faeries were grouped around her, all watching her with half wary, half relaxed expressions—like they knew she couldn't hurt them (after all, they did teach her to release her powers), but might be able to say something that would hurt them.
And with their bodies turned towards the faeries but their heads turned towards her, were a large number of pets, all looking like they had seen better days.
Their weapons were sheathed and they had spoken to the faeries with as much courtesy as any bad-tempered Meridellan river pet could be expected to show, but the wary politeness and the distance that was too large to be simply respectful between the two groups spoke of uneasy, grudging alliance rather than trust.
They all seemed to be trying to keep a safe but friendly distance from her.
"Why'd you just say that?" Massie was surprised by her own voice; it was smooth, confident, totally different from the croaky rasp she had been expecting. Like I've been gargling with water and silk, she thought to herself.
"Knowledge has its price!"
"Because it does."
"No, no, I mean, why does it have a price? Like, can you give me an example?"
"Did you climb onto this boat simply to ask me a question no one can answer yet?"
"Well—no—" Massie flushed. Of course she didn't climb onto this boat—she flew, and of course she had better questions... she just didn't know which one was best to ask, and which one could be asked.
"Then wait until Maes has persuaded your sisters that we do not want to hurt you and Roshna has decided whether or not to bring your accomplice here to spill your better questions."
As she turned away from Massie, she sent out a call.
I'm coming, one voice answered as the door opened and the light faerie she had seen earlier stepped in with Dethrin in tow.
"Hi, Mass!" Dethrin waved cheerfully. "Guess what? She told me that I can probably fight faeries before too long, and that Jhudora—"
A cacophony of hisses, curses and snarls filled the dark room as the name burst from Dethrin's mouth; various pets grasped their weapons or made signs against evil, and though the faeries remained silent, they tensed.
"What?" asked Dethrin, looking around in confusion. "She's okay; she was Massie's teacher for five or six months, and she wasn't that scary. She didn't even make Massie drink Noxious Nectar when Massie went sneaking around in the library and read books she wasn't allowed to."
"Read books she wasn't allowed to?" a faerie asked sharply as she strode into the room after Annette and Raven. "What books?"
"Oh—I dunno, Mass just said she got a few cool books at the library and Jhudora took them away."
"I believe... Massie... can speak for herself," one of the faeries next to the water faerie said. "What book did you read?"
"It was just a book from the Old Levels," said Massie, thinking that everyone was focusing on the wrong stuff. "A book of speeches, about, you know, fighting."
"Well, maybe it was about a war."
"How much of it do you still remember?"
"Umm... something like where the spells flare and swords clash, keep the heart from trembling... and... um... our world has begun to rot at the edges, and this will slowly close in until the entire land has sunk into the sickness of the soul... we must remove this by letting blood... with a sword of light and a heart of steel... uh... I think that's all I can remember."
"That's it?" the fire faerie with Annette and Raven asked incredulously. "Any revolutionary seeking to rile up crowds could pull as much out of thin air."
"The words in between must have been bewitched, so that they'd be forgotten." One of the air faeries shrugged. "It's not a difficult spell."
"What else do you remember?" the water faerie walked closer to Massie, bending down so she could look directly into Massie's eyes.
"The cover was old and black."
"I think it was bound in Kau leather."
All of the pets except Annette shuddered with disgust; the Peophin blanched along with the faeries.
"The book... was probably written by Her."
"Because it is a monstrous thing to slay a sentient, living thing," the light faerie snapped. "Only those who agreed with Her bloody ideas would do so, and while many of those who were with Her killed, only She wrote speeches to stir up more followers, only She had the skill to make the carnage of the battlefield sound noble and glorious... and so of course the most important words had spells set upon them so that they would be forgotten instantly."
"However... the words still contain her essence... though the words are forgotten, they would still leave an imprint upon the reader's spirit..." Her gaze sharpened and turned to Annette. "Has anything odd happened to her lately? Any inexplicable changes?"
"Everything about her is odd, disgusting and inexplicable," Raven grumbled.
"She's lost control of her powers," Annette answered. "Though I think you already know that?"
"Yes." The faeries exchanged glances. "Any personality changes?"
Annette considered it. "...No."
The faeries exchanged glances again, this time ones of perplexity.
"Massie is Her avatar."
Fyora sighed, and leaned out of one of the ship's many portholes, admiring the pellucidity of the water and the polychromatic world below. Granted, they weren't far enough from land for the full glory of the ocean's flora and fauna to show, but it made a nice change from the ethereal solidity of Faerieland. If only this were a vacation, not a wild apprentice-hunt, accompanied by an obsessed dark faerie.
"You have already given me your views on this subject, Jhudora, and I have given you my views on your views as well. We will capture Massie and bind her, but we will not, as you seem bent on doing, torture answers that she does not have out of her."
"She has them." Jhudora's voice was flat with certainty. "She read those books, and they awakened Her... I thought her powers were abnormally strong for a regular pet. She far outstrips the normal faerie."
"She hasn't done anything wrong yet, though."
"Yes, she ha—"
"By Sarle's account, she made no use of her power; it used her. And going up to the old Hills is a foolish thing to do, perhaps, but completely legal—or is there something you have omitted?"
Tearing her eyes away from the teeming ocean life, Fyora pierced Jhudora with her amethyst stare. "There always are the unusually strong pets. It doesn't necessarily mean that she is Her puppet..."
Jhudora shook her head in frustration. "You don't understand—"
"You're right, I don't. I don't understand why you have torn me from my duties to our kind so we can chase one single powerful yet weak-minded apprentice, I don't understand why you're so obsessed with the possibility that She is awake, and I don't—"
"Your Majesty." A young Kacheek flung himself into an elaborate and possibly dangerous bow. "There's a storm coming along... for your own convenience and comfort, the captain respectfully asks if you would find it pleasing to stop it."
"She doesn't." Jhudora gave the pet a barbed look that made it clear he would be hurt if he continued to hang around.
As soon as she was sure the young Kacheek was out of earshot, she glared at Fyora. "You will see—" she gestured at the storm. "—the Sleeper is awake again, and she knows what we're doing. And she has conjured up this storm to stop us."
"When Jhudora realized that you had witnessed her performing a forbidden rite of dark magic, she immediately rushed off to Fyora and told her that you were the one secretly practicing the dark arts. Fyora delayed capturing you for some time... she didn't trust Jhudora's word, Jhudora being, well, Jhudora.
"But Jhudora hounded her until Fyora agreed to give her eight faeries to aid her in the search and capture of you, more to shut Jhudora up than to bring you to a justice you probably had never strayed from."
"Why don't you guys ever call Fyora 'Queen Fyora'?" Dethrin mumbled through a mouthful of spicy gruel sprinkled with brown sugar (his own recipe), sugar scattered on the floor around him.
The earth faerie—Elwyn—gave him a look of disgust. "It's as though you were raised by a pack of unbelievably moronic Grundos."
"What's that got to do with my question?"
"I said 'as though'!" Elwyn snapped at Annette as the air around her began to warm. "Calling her Queen is merely a gesture... to give the pets a sense of structure, if you will. Fyora does not truly rule us the way King Kelpbeard lords over his subjects... we are free to pursue our interests, be it Negg cultivating or creating new spells... and the documents she reads are mostly petitions, letters, not secrets of state or laws that need passing. And her orders, which she seldom gives, are only strong suggestions, which we are free to refuse. Every member in our army is free to leave at any time; our roads are built with Hidden Tower funds, not taxes."
"Then how come we have to call her Queen Fyora?"
"An elitist tradition She created... She was the first Faerie Queen."
"So... Fyora is descended from the Darkest Faerie?"
"The chances are slim." Elwyn shrugged. "We do not choose our so-called monarchs through ancestry... and where were we before you so unnecessarily interrupted?"
"Um... you guys went chasing Massie?"
"Ah... yes. We tracked your footsteps through a nasty mire to Meridell, and found the signs that she was losing control of her powers, so we tried to find her and convince her to come with us, back to Faerieland. But your sister—" here Aliss gestured at Annette, "—outwitted us by knocking Massie out and casting an invisibility spell, trusting the magic residue left behind by Massie to cover up the traces.
"Fortunately for everyone, Jhudora was so dismayed by your escape, Massie, that she lost control of her emotions for a few moments and her thoughts touched all of us... you have great power, far greater power than she—and we believe your abnormal strength originally belonged to the Sleeper, and the night you surprised her secret was a night when she was practicing arts to kill you and capture your powers... that was as much as we were able to hear, before she realized that she was broadcasting her thoughts and shielded her mind from us.
"However, it is not particularly difficult to guess at what she was planning to do next—absorb your powers and take over Neopia."
A silence followed this last sentence, broken only by the metallic shudders of the river-pets fingering their lucky charms.
Then Dethrin leapt to his feet and drew his Cobrall Dagger, a move made rather more impressive due to the lack of sunlight reflecting off its lovingly polished surface and fanfare of trumpets. Dethrin tried to make his voice as rich and stentorian as Zafaraly possible.
"We can't let that happen! It's mean and evil and unfair! We've got to stick together and stop her!"
"A fine speech," the green Kyrii said mockingly. "How do you intend to go about doing it? Don't tell me—you plan on storming Jhudora's cloud, sticking your puny little dagger into her, and announce that you have won?"
"Well, what's wrong with that plan?" Dethrin asked defensively.
"Hmm, let's see—you can't fly, you can't do magic, you are feeble-minded, and your physical prowess is really quite pitiful."
"Do not take offense... Dethrin," the captain said. "She should not have spoken so bluntly... though without such a frank manner, she could hardly be known as Kate the Shrew—"
"—d." said the green Kyrii firmly. "My husband said that I spoke too bluntly—he didn't say that I spoke untruths. Because they aren't. Words aren't swords. Save your fine speeches for afterwards."
"When we win?"
"No, when we're about to die."
"Against a power like the Sleeper's, for us, there can be no victory. We can only hope to weaken her, distract her, so that someone—perhaps Nassie—"
"—can bind her. So save your clever words for when we have done our job, and the Sleeper turns her wrath on us. Deliver a finely composed before-eulogy, or something of the sort."
Dethrin was spared the wit-wracking needed to compose a pithy retort by the barge stopping for a moment and the sound of heavy boots. He gave the Captain a questioning look.
"That would be our leader."
"Leader? But I thought—" Dethrin exchanged a glance with Massie, who seemed equally bemused.
"No, not really." Inman looked amused. "We've never really had a leader—before, we were just a group of pets who had been wronged by the faeries and thought that something needed to be done to bring the faerie's heads down from the clouds. We were just friends who did our best to bring this 'higher order' down on the side."
"Of what what?"
"On the side of what?"
There was a silence.
"We just provided the place to plan, and he was the best at planning." Kate jerked her head at her husband. "But he never wanted to actually lead. Our real leader came along, after... he's a good pet, a pet who knows how to do things, how they—" her voice grew sharp around the they that meant the faeries, "–do things, how to get things done."
The leader has got to be a really cool guy, Dethrin thought. He probably has eyes sharper than my dagger and a head that cuts through stuff like my dagger, and a pet with a dagger like my dagger. The leader is definitely a pet who's calm during everything, and has a smile that's half-evil, half-good.
From the curious expressions on their faces, he gathered that the faeries hadn't met this mysterious leader yet, either.
The door slid open, and a tall, burly figure stepped in. The smell of tomatoes and dirt and sweat hung like a miasma around him, but the pet who stepped into the room was ramrod straight, impressive, yet somehow redolent with the rare simplicity of a farmer.
The leader of the radical river-pets was the Tonu Guard who sold Massie-and-Dethrin-Squashed Tomatoes.
To be continued...