We are Beings Lost in Shadow
Branches snap and tear at her fragile wings, leaving a trail of pink glittering dust. There is the heavy sound of silver hooves thumping down on dirt ground, before she coils the muscles in her forelimbs and springs into the sky again. The damp, dark air of the Haunted Woods whips furiously against her streamlined tail as she fights for balance while twisting about in the air.
There was a ferocious burn coursing through the veins of her delicate wings, but it has now transformed into tingling, pulsing throbs. Her overworked muscles complain and scream, becoming splotches of liquid fire and acid. The wind is like ice, cooling the droplets of sweat matting her white mane with frightening rapidity.
She ignores it all, and flies.
Days, months—no, years ago—she would sit across from Hanoh at the long stretch of classic dining tables. Her Baby Aisha sibling would be snuggled cozily in the green antique chair, small limbs supporting a large book. Something like A Guide to Neopia or The Big Encyclopedia of Worlds.
She would lift her head from its pages, turning squinty little eyes to the Faerie Peophin down at the opposite end.
“Here,” she’d beckon gently to her sibling, and Aquialin would lean forward, hooves on the polished surface of wood. “Let me tell you of this world I just read about.”
And Aquialin, she’d smile, and listen.
Below her, behind her, and before her, slinking shadows hum.
For as far back as she could remember, it would happen like this, time after time:
At the start of a new week, they would sit at the dining tables, and Hanoh would tell her about a world. She would speak of culture, of history, of famous Neopian figures pertaining to that land of mystery, and Aquialin would always listen. Absorbed. Enthralled.
Every time, she would hang onto her sister’s every word, and every time afterwards, she would dart off to said world to see those softly voiced words warp into a tangible reality. Absorb again, with sight, smell, and touch.
And a few days after her travels, she would come back home, plopping herself onto an antique chair, tail flickering with a mixture of exhaustion and breathtaking exhilaration.
“I went!” she’d exclaim in a chipper, bubbly voice. “I saw it! And the things you told me about, like this and that and...”
She would flap her wings at an amazing frequency at this point, the translucent appendages becoming a blur of mellow pastel colors in the chandelier’s dull light. Gesticulate excitedly with forelimbs and glinting hooves.
“...And it was so amazing! It was everything you said it would be, but even better! So unique, so strange, so vibrant!” She’d pause momentarily, before continuing. “So... so alive.”
Her sister would laugh then, deceptively diminutive body (because she really was days upon days older than Aquialin, and many months the wiser) trembling as soft chuckles rattle her frame. Her large ears, perched on small ear stalks, would twitch and flicker about in a picture of quiet merriment.
She’d hop lightly on to the table. Take light, silent steps across the cool wood, until she was right before Aquialin. Place a soft, periwinkle paw on Aquialin’s muzzle.
“I’m glad,” she’d chime softly. “You are right, you know, about the need to really be there to experience it.”
And, a few minutes later, after thoughtfully tracing small circles on Aquialin’s silver head mask, she’d tack on:
“You’re so smart.”
You’re so smart.
There's more now. They come in ceaseless torrents of pitch-black darkness and glowing eyes of crimson, blanketing the landscape so the only thing that can be seen is Oblivion.
They come wave after wave, but none of them are the right one.
Aquialin continues to fly.
One day, she flutters into the dining hall like always, but something is different.
As she settles into her plush chair with a casual grace, she realizes that Hanoh is sitting across from her without a book in paw.
The Baby Aisha’s sensitive ears prick and jerk towards Aquialin upon her entrance. Aquialin tries to catch her sister’s gaze, but they remain staring straight ahead as she sinks small teeth into her lower lip.
Her sibling stiffens, before relaxing back into the cushions as she shakes her bauble-like head.
“Here,” she murmurs. “Let me tell you about something recent...”
It was a normal day, the two of them sitting at the table, speaking of worlds far away.
It was a normal day, except there was no book.
But if she looked to the floor below the Aisha’s chair, she would have seen a copy of The Neopian Times, a picture of Faerieland burning on its front page.
If only she had looked.
(Perhaps things would have gone differently?)
There is little to see, little to know, in this place. Much is lost to the dark, dark sky and the dark, dark woods and the dark, dark shadows.
There is little to know in this slithering void of black, but in the midst of nothingness Aquialin remembers one thing:
Once upon a time, her sibling spoke of a Speckled Xweetok, of Faerieland crashing down to earth, of Shadows invading Neopia.
Once upon a time, her sibling had spun a wild tale (except they were always true, but the stories had always, always sounded too fantastic to her ears), and she had jumped up into the air, eager to venture to the Haunted Woods.
If Hanoh’s eyes weren’t already slits, they would have narrowed to become so. Right now, they simply furrowed, and her lips became pursed.
“I advise against you going.”
Aquialin spins about, frozen in the process of calling out to her beloved and faithful traveling companion, Piquali the Faerie Peo.
She stomps one hoof on the floor, and huffs. “Why, sis? You’ve never stopped me before.”
“You heard the story,” Hanoh almost whispers, tone admonishing. “It’s too dangerous.”
She scoffs and flings her head back in response, flipping white hair out of her eyes. “You know,” she says nonchalantly, voice light with a fond lilt. “This isn’t the first adventure thriller that you told me.”
In contrast, Hanoh’s voice becomes more flat, bordering frigid. “But, as I said,” her voice carefully level, “this is a recent event. So recent, in fact, that it is still occurring as we speak.”
Aquialin opens her muzzle to speak, then closes it. She sees her elder sibling almost sigh from relief. But then she shrugs, a glimmering spark lighting up in her beady black eyes, and Hanoh’s breath catches mid-sigh.
“That’s what will make this trip so cool!” She pirouettes and spins in circles mid-air. “I’m going! I’m definitely going!”
She remembers, and it compounds to one single thing she knows in this land of darkness and shade:
Once upon a time, she acted like a fool.
(“You’re so smart,” she would always say. “You’re so smart.”)
Once upon a time, she had been too reckless.
And it had cost her.
She enters the dining room, omelets and jellies slung in an Air Faerie Backpack over her back. There, Hanoh paces back and forth in agitation.
On the classic dining table, right where she usually seats herself, is a book. But this one, Aquialin quickly notes, is different from what Hanoh usually reads. (Her sister’s range of reading was wide, very wide, but this book just seemed to have a different aura to it.)
She flicks her lavender tail over to the blue-bound, crescent moon decorated book. “What’s that?”
Hanoh snaps out of her reverie, and looks to the mysterious book that glows with a faint blue light. “Ramtors Spellbook,” she replies succinctly.
“A... spellbook?” Aquialin’s head quirks to the side. “What for?”
Hanoh pivots to face her directly, expression serious and grave. “I’m coming with you.”
It takes Aquialin a minute for this to sink in, before real comprehension dawns upon her and she gives her Aisha sibling a beaming grin.
Because Hanoh never accompanied her on her trips before.
In her flight, in her search, Aquialin suddenly eyes a lone wraith below a grove of dead trees. The sight motivates her, giving her a fresh boost of strength and speed as she dives down to the swampy ground.
The transformation of the Shadow before her is incomplete. Slits for eyes have yet to open up with films of glowing crimson. In the cloudy haze of darkness, two sets of ears can still be distinguished, situated above a head that still looks too large for its body.
Aquialin looks on, and flashes a brilliant smile.
Panicking, Aquialin takes to the skies, wings beating desperately to ward off the swarm of wraiths.
Below her, down in the middle of the violent swarm, is Hanoh. Her grip on her spellbook is tight and unrelenting as incantations fall incessantly from her lips in a stream of rushed whispers.
Bursts of light flash all around Aquialin, batting away and singing the shrieking wraiths as they withdraw from the Faerie Peophin.
Flashes of light and darkness, coexisting, contrasting, rendering the Peophin’s eyes blind as she blinks unseeingly...
“I went to the Haunted Woods—am still here, actually,” Aquialin laughs as she settles beside the wraith. “Faerieland crashing, the living darkness, it really is as impressive as you said.”
Beside her, the shadow grumbles and hisses. It does not smile at her, and it does not perk up its ears attentively.
“Just as frightening and spooky as you made it sound,” she says, her tone tinged with a shade of regret. “An amazing adventure, and....”
She trails off into silence, shifting to stare straight at the wraith’s closed eyes.
“Every bit as real as you warned that it’d be.”
There was one.
Now, below twisted knots of ebony wood, intertwined branches and spindly, clasping hands of twigs...
There are two.
Fires die off to fading embers; silver glitter and sparkles burst forth; the fog of darkness is dispersed; shadows are banished and vanquished.
Time flows differently from that of Neopia, in the deep, deep depths of the Abyss. The wraiths fall back in, and for them, time ebbs and flows in a speedy rush. Endlessly. Mindlessly.
A hundred cycles later, a pinch of golden faerie dust glows in the dark, and the fallen Neopets are reborn.
In the time of the surface world, it is a month later. A Baby Aisha sits on an antique green chair, an orange book propped onto the edge of the classic dining table. On the cover is a light faerie, and the title The End of the Tunnel.
A Faerie Peophin flutters in, accompanied by a matching Faerie Peo. The Neopet settles in the chair on the opposite side, and the dainty Peo flaps aimlessly around her head.
“Morning,” Hanoh replies easily. “Today isn’t a story of Neopia’s worlds—do you mind?” She tilts her head to the side, ear stalks casually swaying with the motion.
“No,” Aquialin laughs, wind chimes clinking in a summer breeze. “That’s fine for today.”
They glance at each other in the lulling silence, and then together, they smile.