Cloud Flute: Part Six
It was only until she reached the tree she and Akorri had slept in previously that Laerya realized she had forgotten to bring something to light up the tunnel. She kicked the tree in frustration, cursing her carelessness. "There's no way I can go back now," she groaned, watching a flock of Beekadoodles fly across the darkening sky. She found herself wishing earnestly that she had a pair of wings she could use to fly back home, grab a flaming torch and fly back.
Leaning back against the tree, she closed her eyes and slowly fell into a fretful doze. She dreamed she was running through a narrow path in the woodlands, twisting and turning and getting her fur snagged on every branch. Urgency filled her mind and strengthened her motives; she was so close, she could see the exit, a beautiful purple beam...
But before she could reach the end, her feet no longer touched solid ground and she fell, deeper and deeper into an abyss of swirling, purplish black light.
Laerya awoke with a start, gasping and shaking with horror. Her gaze raked wildly over the clean grass and friendly trees, trying to remember where she was. Letting her breathing slow, she reacquainted herself with the birch tree she slept under and her objective returned to her.
Unsteadily, the Cybunny allowed herself to stand, pushing back the memories of her dream. Fearless explorers do not get nightmares, she thought angrily. Sharply drawing in breath to clear her head, she continued with her mission, leaving the birch tree behind.
After only five minutes of walking, Laerya felt the ground beneath her shake. She lurched sideways, taken aback by the sudden movement. Steadying herself, she exhaled deeply. "That must be one of those tremors!" she wheezed. This knowledge urged her to keep moving, and she broke into a jog. "I have to hurry!"
The tremors continued, and the closer Lae got to the Endless Plains, the worse they got. An ominous feeling of dread was quietly growing inside her, but Lae shoved it away. No time for doubts or cowardice – she was going to do this, and she was going to do it now.
But before she could even reach the hole, a cry stopped her in her tracks. "Wait!"
Laerya sighed; she knew whose voice that was. Yet she wasn't annoyed to see Akorri crashing towards her, and this surprised her. She waited until the red Xweetok caught up with her, puffing, his fur on end. "How come you came after me?" Lae asked him curiously.
"I... can't let you... go do stupid stuff and... get hurt..." Akorri panted, wiping his forehead. "The others would... punish me..." He looked quite flustered, as if he was hiding something.
Somehow Lae doubted that was the only reason Akorri came. She could tell in the way his red eyes looked cautiously at her, and how his hands were shaking as if with anxiety or relief that he had reached her. Was he honestly concerned for her safety? It definitely looked like it. Suddenly Akorri didn't seem so unkind – Laerya had to look hard, but she could see that rather deep down, Akorri genuinely cared about her. Her contempt for him vanished as she cast him a smile. "Thanks," she said.
Akorri's eyes narrowed. "For what? I'm only doing what the others told me to."
"You're watching out for me," Lae replied, her smile still broad.
"Because they told me to," Akorri repeated sternly.
Laerya sighed, but her smile stayed on her face. "You just keep telling yourself that," she replied. Dismissing the subject with a wave of her hand, she said, "Did you feel the tremors just now? They're really bad over here."
Akorri nodded grimly. "I was actually thrown back by one a minute ago," he said. "Things aren't getting any better here."
Laerya murmured in agreement. Gesturing for Akorri to move, she continued her journey around the plains, trying to find the hole.
Several minutes into the trip and she found the trail, quickening her pace to reach the hole. With a jolt, Laerya felt the ground reel beneath her feet. She cried out in shock as she toppled over, landing with a thud on the grass. It felt as though there was thunder in her head; she could feel the earth shaking violently. Rolling to the side and picking herself up, Lae struggled to regain her balance. The ground was still trembling.
"This is lasting much longer than a usual tremor," Akorri murmured nervously. Lae felt him staying quite close to her, and whether this was to calm her nerves or his, she was not sure. She only knew that Akorri was right – she could still feel the ground lurching, as if there was something fighting to get out.
A deafening roar resounded in the air, but Laerya thought she heard it below ground, too. Her stomach did a back flip and her heart froze as she saw a large, serpentine head emerge slowly from the ground not too far ahead of her. Rocks and mud fell from its scales as it rose up, causing the ground to shake so badly than Laerya could no longer stay balanced. She and Akorri toppled over, eyes fixed on the creature unburying itself from the earth.
Even from here, Laerya could see the monster's dangerous red eyes boring into her. It continued to rise until its whole head became visible – Lae could tell that it was a white Draik, but a very large one, and looked twice as menacing as any Draik she had ever come across. Its pallid head alone was truly magnificent – its ears were sharp, its whiskers long and elegant. A perfectly pointed snout opened as the Draik let out another freezing roar. Lae only just noticed how much Akorri was shuddering beside her – though she didn't show it, she felt much the same in the presence of this great beast.
Still the Draik rose; Lae watched as the largest wings she had ever seen unfurled at the Draik's back; a menacingly thick, spiked tail uncurled and thrust itself into the air, as if hoping to make contact with something. Laerya was glad she was not within range of that tail.
She was too stunned to speak, but her mind was whirling. This Draik was the biggest, most impressive thing she had ever seen, with a tail that looked so thick it could uproot mountains, and wings so massive they could blot out the sun...
Laerya felt the realization like a slap in the face, so sudden and painful it was. "It's Vacerus!" she squeaked, her voice lost in awe and fear. The tremors, so violent before, now ceased.
Akorri didn't even reply. Lae glanced at him and saw his eyes were as wide as dinner plates and his mouth was open, slack-jawed.
Laerya was so fixated on Vacerus that she barely noticed a blue Neopet flying beside him. She tore her eyes away from the Draik for a moment to stare at the creature. Upon closer inspection Lae saw that the Neopet was a faerie Bori with long silver hair streaming behind her as she flew, adorned in purple robes. Laerya caught a hint of light blue in the Bori's hand – it looked like a musical instrument of some sort.
It took several seconds for Lae to notice the Bori was flying towards her. She wondered idly how the Neopet was unafraid of Vacerus – she soared around him as comfortable as ever, even glancing at him admirably.
"I hadn't counted on two kids being here," she hissed, her voice stern.
Laerya kept glancing from the Bori to Vacerus, wondering why the Draik had stopped moving. "Who... who are you?" she asked warily.
"Oh!" Lae caught a flicker of recognition in the Bori's brown eyes. Confused, she wondered where she could have possibly seen this pet before, until she realized the Bori was not looking at her, but Akorri.
It appeared that Akorri recognized her as well. "...Lorelei?" he choked.
"I'm surprised to see you here, Red Rogue," the Bori murmured, smiling darkly.
Forgetting Vacerus for a moment, Laerya looked from Lorelei to Akorri and back again. How could these two know each other? Where had they met?
"Wh... what this is Draik?" Akorri asked feebly.
"This marvelous Draik is Vacerus," Lorelei explained, looking adoringly at the huge beast. "He's been asleep for a long time, Red Rogue. A really long time."
Laerya was finding this difficult to comprehend. "How did you wake him?" Her head was a mess of different emotions: fear, anger, surprise, anxiety, amazement, but most of all confusion.
"With the Cloud Flute," Lorelei replied, flourishing the beautiful light blue instrument from her robes. "Oh, don't look so shocked, girl. You know the story, I saw you at the campfire. Remember?"
"But I didn't see you," Lae spluttered, shaking her head.
"Of course you didn't. I was hiding in the shadows." Lorelei glanced at Vacerus, who was glaring at Laerya and Akorri, as if waiting for the first chance to flatten them.
Akorri let out something that sounded like a strangled gasp.
"You helped me get this, didn't you, Red Rogue?" Lorelei continued, her sinister smile widening as she showed Akorri the flute.
Laerya thrust her head so aggressively towards the Xweetok that it cricked; she winced in pain. "How? Why?!" she gasped, her voice high with disbelief.
Akorri looked away, hiding behind his hair. Laerya could practically feel his shame pulsing from him in waves. "I stole it from the Faerieland gallery," he admitted in a subdued, hushed tone.
"You did WHAT?!" Laerya stood up and jumped away from him. Her heart lurched with anger.
"I stole it so she could pay me," Akorri whispered.
Lae's ears drooped and she felt the energy drain out of her; suddenly, all she wanted to do was go to sleep and forget about everything. "You're a thief?" she rasped, disappointment clouding over her anger.
"Yes." Akorri's voice was slightly firmer. "That's how I get by. I steal for a living."
"That's... horrible..." Lae slouched down, her limbs weak. All this time she had speculated over what Akorri's life was like, and she had never expected Akorri to be something as disgraceful as a thief.
Akorri didn't say anything. Lae could do nothing but stare at him, not even flinching when Vacerus roared again.
"I don't know why you're so surprised," Lorelei piped up. Laerya glanced sideways at her, feeling sick as she saw the Bori's twisted smile. "Didn't the Xweetok always seem shady to you?"
Laerya nodded very slowly. Yes, Akorri had indeed seemed shady, but something inside her had hoped he was a noble pet inside. "Does my family know?" she croaked, narrowing her eyes at Akorri in suspicion.
"Yes," the Red Rogue replied.
Something inside Laerya snapped. Without realizing what she was doing, she screamed, "And they LET YOU GET AWAY WITH IT?!"
Akorri nodded in response.
His lack of speech infuriated Lae. "So they sit idle by and let you steal other people's possessions?"
Another nod answered her question.
"But how do you not feel bad about what you're doing? Don't you think of the consequences? DON'T YOU KNOW WHAT COULD HAPPEN TO YOU IF YOU GET CAUGHT?!"
"Shut up," Lorelei hissed, and with her words Lae's stomach turned over as she felt herself lifted from the ground and she flew across the plains until she crashed, away from Akorri and Lorelei.
"Wh-what was that?" she gasped, quickly standing up and rubbing her back, wincing in pain. She saw purple, ghostly wisps trailing from Lorelei's hand.
"Magic," Lorelei stated as Lae returned to her and Akorri. "It's just a taste of what I can do." Her eyes glinted with malice.
"You did that?" Lae murmured, though she wasn't all that surprised. She stared at the purple wisps surrounding the Bori's hand, her mind brought back to the dream she'd had earlier.
"I'll let Vacerus eliminate you, though," Lorelei said as casually as though she were talking about the weather. "I know he's been eager to cause destruction for a while now."
Lae's temple was throbbing with anger and dread, and with this threat hanging over her head, she felt as though she would explode. She fought to stop herself doubling over and succumbing to her emotions. Straightening up and drawing in a deep breath, she said, "Vacerus isn't going to do anything to us."
"I'd beg to differ." Lorelei snapped her fingers and Vacerus turned his head sharply to glare at Laerya and Akorri.
"Oh, dear Fyora," Lae heard Akorri's feeble voice behind her. "What have I done?"
Lae wanted to scream at him about how all of this was his fault, but in spite of her derision towards him, she didn't have the heart. It was enough to know that Akorri felt truly guilty about what he'd done.
"Why did you wake him?" Lae asked, her voice breaking with trepidation. "He's going to destroy Neopia."
Lorelei's smile vanished, her amused expression replaced by one of malevolence. "The story goes that Vacerus shaped the land. He has the power to do exactly what I ask for." Laerya thought she saw a purple tint to Lorelei's eyes. "He is going to send Faerieland back up into the sky and he will expand the Haunted Woods."
"...Send Faerieland back up?" As for as Lae knew, it had taken tremendous force to bring Faerieland down in the first place – she didn't want to imagine what it would look like to bring it back into the sky. It would be devastation on a massive scale.
"With Faerieland out of the way, the Haunted Woods will grow," Lorelei continued, her voice harsh. "My home will continue to expand until the Haunted Woods takes all of Neopia over."
Laerya wanted to curl up into a ball as Lorelei snapped her fingers once more and Vacerus snarled, exhaling green smoke.
"Vacerus," the Bori commanded, "take care of these two."
The Draik stretched its neck closer. Lae was rooted to the spot, unable to move no matter how much she wanted to. With a throaty snarl, Vacerus opened his mouth and a cloud of green mist enveloped her and Akorri.
However scared Lae was before, it was nothing compared to how she felt now. It was as if her heart had stopped beating; she had never felt so cold. Her mind was fogging up, her vision was obscured and growing fuzzier. Her mouth was parched, her body rigid. She was numbly aware that Vacerus had blown Demon Breath, a dark faerie ability, over her and Akorri to prevent them from moving.
From her bleary vision, she could see Vacerus raising his head, preparing to strike.
To be continued...