Beautiful Chaos: Part Four
The sun was setting over the lands of Neopia as the Draik and the Lupe known as Cedrik and Leo made their way through the Pass to the Citadel of the Darigans.
They came to a spot in the path where the road divided in two and went separate ways. In the middle there was a big old oak tree, with thick leaves that glinted in the evening sunlight.
"Oh, that's just perfect. Which path are we supposed to take?" Leo asked, sounding irritable as he stretched as high as he could on his feet so he could see where the left path went after it dipped over a small hill. "It's impossible to tell which one will take us where, they get lost in the hills." He sighed as he relaxed his posture. "This journey has been destined to fail from the very start. The Citadel. Ha!"
"It has not failed, and it's not like I suggested we go for a casual stroll up Darigan alley just for the fun of it;, we are here for a reason, you know. Maybe you need to eat something. You didn't have lunch. I'm always grumpy when I don't have lunch." Cedrik looked at his friend sympathetically.
The Lupe rolled his eyes.
"Back to the point, which path do we take?"
"Ok, so I'm fairly sure the river is up that way a bit," Cedrik said, gesturing with his wand. "And you'd think the Citadel would have been built near the river. I mean, even a floating mass in the sky needs a source of water. So we should probably follow the path of the river."
"But that's too simple," Leo pointed out. "If the Darigans wanted to keep unwelcome visitors like us out, they would have built these paths to stop them getting to the Citadel. Only a Darigan will know which one to take."
"Shame I don't have a spare Darigan on me," Cedrik said dryly. "Still, there are only two roads. A fifty-fifty chance of getting it right. Or... we end up totally lost."
"There is another way, you know," piped up another voice. Cedrik and Leo spun wildly around but couldn't see anyone.
"Who's there?" Leo called out, gripping his wand tightly in one hand and his rucksack in the other. "Show yourself!"
"Alright, don't get ya trousers in a twist," the voice said, and a spotted Meerca jumped down from the tree. He grinned cheerfully at them. "Hello!"
"Er... hi," Cedrik said, frowning as he tried to peer up into the tree. The leaves were so thick that he couldn't tell if anyone else was up there, and it unnerved him. "Who are you, then?"
"I'm Milo, and that's Chen!" The Meerca kicked the trunk of the tree and a Darigan Kacheek's head appeared upside down under the blanket of leaves.
"Hullo," she called down to them, somewhat shyly compared to her companion.
"Hello... " Leo replied cautiously, taking an unconscious step closer to his friend.
"Couldn't help but notice ya'll are in a slight, ah, predicament here," Milo said, leaning back against the tree as Chen jumped down. She landed cleanly and gracefully despite her brutal appearance, and Cedrik was rather impressed. She smiled pleasantly at them.
"Predicament? Ah yes, well we just need to get to the Citadel, and it's getting late..." Cedrik trailed off, gesturing at the darkening sky. "We don't know which path to take."
"Oh yeah, that happens a lot." Milo nodded sympathetically at them. "Why are ya'll going to the Citadel, anyway? Y'ah Meridellians, aren't ya?"
"Yes, we're Meridellians," Leo said. "We have, uh, business, to attend to there. Can you tell us which path to take?"
"Course we can!" Milo said, and Cedrik decided that he was the chattier of the two. "But I'll tell ya, it ain't one of those paths there. Ohh, no, sir! They'll take ya round in circles for days! Oh yeah, many a Neopian has been lost over them hills. And some were never found! Ha!" He chuckled deeply, nudging his companion with his elbow.
"Well, how do we get there then, if none of the paths will take us?" Leo asked, frowning as the sky slowly darkened to night. The last rays of sunlight were just visible over the hills and they cast the scene in a shadowy light.
"What business did you say you had to attend to at the Citadel?" Chen asked curiously, looking Cedrik up and down.
"We didn't," he replied evasively. "We just have some things to do there," he finished lamely, looking uncomfortable.
"Do my spikes put you off?" The Darigan smiled at him, and it was a sad sort of smile.
Cedrik was quick to defend himself.
"No, it's not like that, honestly. It's just with the day we've had, and there are things going on in Meridell, and I can't really explain, but it isn't you."
"And lo, not a true Meridellian at heart!" Milo grinned broadly and nodded at the Draik. "Wouldn't have pegged ya, that's for sure. I mean, ya look like simple Meridellian folk through and through, but hey, I guess ya never can tell!"
"Well, Meridell and the Darigans have been on good terms for many years now, for as long as I can remember," Cedrik said, and Leo nodded in agreement.
"Too true, too true!" Milo said loudly, as he seemed incapable of speaking quietly. "Now, ya'll want the way in, yes?"
"That would be ideal."
"Then ya've got to go the wrong way!"
"Oh, Meridellians, I love them. So simple and sweet. We've had many come by this way, and there will be many more, I do believe. Now, the way ya want to go is backwards."
Cedrik and Leo looked at each other.
"Nope, still don't get it," the Lupe said wearily.
"Okay then, think of it this way. The left path will take ya somewhere weird and ya could very well end up on Krawk Island. The right path is the same. There is no path leading forwards, therefore logically there is only one way – and that is backwards," Milo finished, looking pleased with himself. Chen was watching them curiously.
"Okay, yes, that does make sense, but it still won't take us to the Citadel. We're on a tight schedule, you see, and we really need to get going," Leo tried to explain.
"Right y'are!" Milo agreed heartily. "So we'll keep this short and sweet, like my good friend Chen here. Back the way ya came, on the right, well it'll be the left, won't it, as ya'll be walking the other way? So back the way ya came, on the left through the thicket of trees, there's a path. It'll weave through the Dark Forest, and ya'll come to the River. Follow it along, er, north-ish, and ya'll eventually come across a bridge. Cross it, and the path picks up on the other side. It'll take ya right to the Citadel!" The Meerca finished, waving his hands in a flourish.
"Great! That's brilliant, thanks!" Cedrik exclaimed with a grin. "We'll be off then. Right, Leo? Leo?" He turned to the shadow Lupe, who was staring at the dark sky with an oddly thoughtful expression on his face. "Leo?"
"Huh? Oh, sorry. Yes! No... But, I was just thinking, how do we get in the sky?"
"Heh?" The Meerca frowned at him. "What are ya talking about?"
"What I mean is," Leo corrected himself, "the Citadel floats in the sky, independently, yes? How do we get from a path on the ground to up in the mass floating in the sky?"
"Oh, what clever Meridellians y'are!" Milo said delightedly. "No one's ever asked us that before."
"We have no idea," Chen spoke up, her voice much softer than her appearance. "The science is nothing to do with us. But rest assured, the path will take you to the Citadel. Safely, I hope."
"You hope?" Cedrik asked nervously. "But the treaty..."
"This has nothing to do with the treaty. There have been... rumours. Talk of strange creatures living around the path, in the Forest, preying on the lost. So don't get lost. Stay on the path. Whatever happens, DON'T wander off. And count the shadows. Always remember to count the shadows. Good luck."
"Well, thank you. Both of you," Cedrik said, as the last thin ray of sunlight disappeared over the hills. Night had fallen.
As the Lupe and the Draik turned and walked back the way they came, keeping a careful eye on the thicket of trees on their left, the Meerca and the Kacheek looked at each other and sighed.
"They're never going to make it through the Forest, are they, Milo?"
"That's what I thought," Chen said with another soft sigh. "I suppose we should-"
Each grabbing a rucksack from up in the tree, the odd couple ran after the disappearing shadows of the magicians.
"Hey, wait up!" the Meerca called out loudly. "We're coming with you!"
Cedrik and Leo looked at each other and sighed.
It was going to be a long night.
To be continued...