Drums echoed across the still woods. Every steady beat pounded with the rhythm of trees and earth, the heartbeat of nature itself as it swept through the waiting woods, a haunting wind of things to come. As it passed them by the trees stood to attention, gnarled faces turning to watch the commotion from afar. None dared move and risk disturbing it. Tonight was too important.
The drumbeat continued, sounding over the chill twilight of the cursed town of Neovia. No strangers to the eerie cries of the woods at night, the last stragglers of the day simply hastened inside, sturdy bolts slotting into place and shutting out the ominous sound with the gathering night. Candles flickered in the windows, but soon they fell quiet, and the darkness was left to reside in the gloomy streets, listening in solitude to the rhythm in the distance. The time was drawing near.
Another shape stirred the tense branches of the trees, breaking the trance for a fleeting moment before the drums pulled them back in. A flash of dirty blue lingered for a moment in their ancient thoughts, forgotten again as quickly as it had come. Only the beating drums mattered now, calling out for their attention.
Skirting the threadbare treetops, the shape continued through the thickening night. There were still hours yet; traditions were strong in this part of the world, the ancient magic that resided in every tree and shrub steeped in countless ages of ritual until it had become almost theatric in its ways. Tradition demanded midnight, and only at midnight would such magic deign to answer the calls. Plenty of time.
A sudden shaft of light appeared on the distant horizon, illuminating the blackened night sky with an eerie green hue like the first herald of a new sun. The figure paused in his flight, floating higher to hover above the trees and survey the new development. The glow was coming from the direction of the old manor.
The beat changed, quickening ever-so slightly with the coming of the green dawn. Stronger and fiercer the sound rushed through the trees, catching in every hollow and reverberating back louder, the tones deep and ominous. They were coming from all around now, echoing from every trunk and bough, rising from the earth itself and descending from the green-tinted skies.
He had been going in the wrong direction. Cursing to himself, the figure dropped back below the tree line and set off again, hastening his pace as he swept through the gauntlet of thick branches, their twigs snagging at his old brown cloak.
He should have known it would happen there; tradition demanded it, and tradition would not be denied.
At length the trees parted to reveal the seemingly abandoned husk of a bustling fairground. Once vibrant colours now stood faded in the darkness of night, paint peeling as the years weighed down, makeshift attempts at fixing the old, decaying attractions an eyesore against what had once been a place of laughter and fun. Still it stood as a place of laughter, but now it was the laughter of the doomed, fuelled by the chilling madness of the inhabitants with their twisted ideals and warped games. A ghastly spectre of what it once was, the fairground now stood as testament to greed and deception, and the false hope of those who still believed they could cheat it.
And in the distance, overlooking the devious playground of the Haunted Woods, stood the domain of the one who had funded its return long ago. It had been a blessing on the day two years ago when the lights fell dark in the windows of the great manor, and the denizens of the fairground were no longer bound to the one who had kept them in business. A lack of taxes had seemed a dream come true, the restrictions on play and fortune lifted at last, and a chance to truly fleece the unsuspecting visitors a gift from fate itself. But their golden age had not lasted long, and without their benefactor keeping the peace, trouble had spread until they longed once more for the manor to glow through the nights, wild laughter ringing out as the twisted soul came with new ideas, new ways to use his armies and conquer the woods. New ways to bring spectators into the Haunted Woods, and into the Deserted Fairground within.
The cloaked pet touched down gently on the sloping path leading to the dark manor. He had never once stepped foot within, he realised sadly. Though small by the grand standards of other lands, the dark manor was the grandest sight within the Haunted Woods, its turrets carving their distinctively silhouette against the eerie green glow coming from beyond. Stories told of windows shining with dozens of colours, each of the owner's many laboratories and experiments flaring a different shade long into the night as he busied himself, always on the cusp of greatness. Now the only lights came from the treasure hunters daring to search his vaults and falling prey to the labyrinthine passages within. It had become said the only pets to never get lost had been his spectral servants, and that was only because they could walk through the walls.
The pet pulled his hood further over his face as he looked up at the silent manor. Another reminder of that day. Another reminder of the foe he had been unable to defeat. He would correct that soon enough. Perhaps then he would have the courage to walk the halls at last, and see the lavish splendour of the Haunted Woods' grandest manor.
He took flight again, soaring silently around the edge of the manor and down into the woods on the far side. The source of the commotion was nearer now, the emerald flames clear against the grim canopy of barren branches. Carefully he dropped beneath the trees, the firm feel of ground under his feet, and approached the clearing.
Suddenly the air rippled with a new sound, soft at first as it echoed beneath the ever-present drum beat, but growing stronger with each passing moment. Thin and delicate it seemed, the echo of a glass flute, but somehow it almost felt alive. Words began to take shape amidst the solemn melody, intertwining with the rhythm of the drums, chilling him deep to his bones and back again to tickle his fur. He shuddered and pulled his cloak tighter, but it did nothing to stop the haunting sensation creeping through his body, his own heart starting to beat in tune.
At last he reached the edge of the trees. Ghosts filled the broad clearing before him, hundreds of translucent figures floating sadly above the bare ground, chanting in one haunting, unnatural voice. All eyes were turned forward to the far side of the clearing where a stone platform had been erected, surrounded by a dozen wide torches blazing with the unworldly green glow that filled the skies. In its very centre sat a simple wooden table, an old plushie resting atop it beside a jet black chalice.
In the shadow of the trees, the hooded pet narrowed his eyes. Just as he had expected: the last remains had been gathered, just waiting to be scattered. One blast, and it would all be over. Already the power was beginning to gather in his paw, its green glow lost amidst the glare of the torches in the distance. One blast of darklight, and it would end. For good measure he could probably even destroy the blue Cybunny plushie beside it; it seemed even ghosts had a sense of humour to choose such a vessel.
For a long moment he waited, darklight poised in his hand, awaiting his command. All around the woods echoed with the beating of drums, the unsettling chant of phantom voices raised as one. The spirit of nature that filled the Haunted Woods was waiting for the perfect moment, its magic ready to answer the call of the phantoms in the clearing and throw his world back into chaos. All it would take was one move, and he could finally put an end to the madness.
Something stirred in the back of his thoughts. He released the darklight.
'How long do you plan on standing there?' he asked irritably, his voice hoarse with disuse.
'I could ask you the same thing,' the unseen speaker answered calmly, her voice deep with the tones of the land itself.
He just snorted back. 'I am just waiting for the right moment. There is still plenty of time. I wouldn't want to blow my chance by being hasty.'
His companion chuckled to herself. 'Hasty? Do you have any idea how long you have been standing there?'
He glanced back at the speaker, towering above him in the darkness, her body draped in a deep, green glow that eclipsed the feeble blaze of the torches. From beneath a blackened hood, two bright green eyes stared out, a conceited smile twisted across her lips. She tilted her head up, pointing him toward the sky. Confused, he looked up and felt his jaw drop.
A cloudless sky was suddenly full of swirling grey, twisting above the clearing in an unnatural maelstrom. Silent forks of lightning rushed across its edges, sparking into the centre where the green glow had been before. The emerald flames had died, replaced instead by an onyx fire that made the darkness around pale and weak. The spirits had already gathered, drawn by the constant chant and unending drumbeat, summoned to the command. The time was almost upon them. Hours had passed while he stood, staring blankly at the makeshift shrine.
Quickly he recomposed himself and turned his back to the powerful Earth Faerie. 'It could be worse, Ilere,' he remarked, his efforts at a light tone feeling strained to even his scarred ears, 'I could have just stood around watching someone else do the same.'
Again she laughed, the sound strangely clear despite the storm building all around them. 'Magax, do you honestly believe I have nothing better to do with my time? I merely saw you earlier, and when I returned there you were, still watching with that foolish look upon your face. It was strangely entertaining, at least at first. In fact I was beginning to get weary when you realised I was here. So, I will ask you myself this time: how long do you plan on standing there? Surely you came for a reason?'
The blue Wocky continued to stare into the clearing, now fully aware of the dark shadows gusting through the trees all around. Despite the storm overhead, there was no breeze to disturb the trees this night. Only the magic was at work, drawing in all it could.
'I am here to stop this,' he declared at length.
'Then stop it.'
Darklight rushed across his paw again, its green glow suddenly alien and unwanted against the dark radiance that illuminated the clearing. The ancient magic could feel it, could sense its purpose, and it was scared. Against the darkness his shining light was unstoppable, a single piercing shaft that would destroy all that had been brought here. One shot, and he could scatter all that remained of his nemesis, and finally put an end to it for good.
So why was he hesitating?
In the back of his mind he could hear Ilere's infuriating chuckle again. 'Entertaining, indeed,' she muttered to herself, watching him struggle. 'Could it be you do not want him gone after all? I thought you hated him?'
'I do hate him,' Magax snarled, every encounter flashing before his eyes anew. 'He has tormented me for years, fighting the same battle over and over. He betrayed me; left me for dead!'
'But you never truly hated him for doing that,' she whispered, her face suddenly appearing over his shoulder. 'You just hated the fact he thought of it first. You were never a hero, Magax, you were just as much a villain as he. You were just waiting for the moment to betray him and claim all this for yourself, but he humiliated you by striking first. The betrayal was meaningless.'
'It was not meaningless!' he snapped back angrily. In his paw the darklight grew stronger, his old hate fuelling the magic he had commanded for so long.
'Then get your vengeance. Destroy the chalice, and put an end to him.'
He could see it before him, through the ghostly shapes of the chanting ghosts, the blackened chalice calling out to him. How many ghosts had he defeated like this? How many times had he unleashed the darklight against them, swung his axe against them, turned his fury and his hate upon the servants of his nemesis? Why could he not do it now?
'How tragic. It seems vengeance is not what brought you here after all. Do you not find it sad that you do not even know why you have come?'
'Does it really matter?' he said, still poised to fire. 'He was evil, and he needed to be stopped.'
'Why? Look at these ghosts. They are only lost because they have no shepherd, something they had when your nemesis still lived. They came here today to find direction, to be guided again. You could almost say the Haunted Woods needs him to give purpose to these lost souls. Stop them wandering where they will and causing chaos.'
'He was using them to fulfil his own ends!'
'They were letting him do it. Not all ghosts have a reason to return, not all spirits have a wish to return. Some are lost, without reason or purpose, with no way of finding peace. He gave them a reason, and you Magax, you gave them peace.'
He spun to face her, scarred face etched deep with a fiery hate. 'So what are you saying, Ilere? I should be thanking him? Thank the one who betrayed me? Thank the one who has made sure I have not slept in years? Thank the one who destroyed my life, and then kept trying to kick me when I was down? I could not rest until I had stopped him!'
'Then stop him now. Destroy the chalice.'
'That's not him!'
Silence fell between them, the haunting chant and encompassing echo of drums forgotten. The darklight faded from Magax's clutches, the will to fire lost at last. Before him Ilere just smiled to herself. Against the dark glow of the torches, a faint glistening was visible in the Wocky's eyes, his words starting to sink in. That chalice was not Hubrid Nox, no matter how much he wished to think otherwise. Xandra had put an end to him two years ago, and only the detritus of his body was left. The pet he was, the tyrant and the sorcerer, the bane of Magax's life for so long, had been lost when Xandra had struck him down that day. And with it, she had struck down the one they called Destroyer: Magax himself.
'I tried to find her,' he whispered hoarsely. 'Thought I could just shift my grudge onto her. But I couldn't do it. Someone else got there first, and it was all over. I figured this would be my chance instead. I could get rid of him here, but...'
'But a pile of ash in a cup is not the pet you hated,' Ilere concluded thoughtfully. 'You never hated him anyway, Magax. You say he destroyed your life, but look at you now. You are the closest thing to a defender the Haunted Woods has, with a lifetime spent shielding people from the power of Hubrid Nox. It may have been a side-effect of your real objective, but you are a hero to some now. You are even in the Gallery of Heroes, revered by young pets across Neopia. He did not destroy your life, Magax; he created it. Nox is not your enemy, he is your rival. You need him. Look at you now, a broken shell of a hero, a pet who made a journey without ever knowing why he did it. You are no different from them.'
Magax turned his attention to the ghosts, and for the first time truly noticed them. Their chanting was full and strong, bringing with it their hopes raised anew. Expectation was on their faces, not fear or dread. They did it because they needed him, they needed Hubrid Nox. Just like he did. Hubrid gave him someone to fight against, someone to compare himself against, and a purpose for which to push himself. In two years he had done nothing, whereas before every day had been a struggle against a tyrant, driving him on to achieve his vengeance. Until he defeated Nox himself, he would never be able to find peace. Just like them.
'I came here to see him rise again,' he said at last, staring at the dark chalice across the clearing. 'To continue what we started.'
Ilere sighed. 'Oh dear. Now you understand, I fear you will become tedious again.'
'And who's fault is that?' he asked, feeling a long-forgotten smile spread across his face. 'You should stick around though, you might find a bit of excitement to come afterwards.'
'I doubt it. Perhaps I should visit Hubrid instead, see if I cannot have some sport with him.'
Magax laughed. 'I doubt it. You said it yourself that I need him, but I figure he needs me too. We are both rivals. You'll just find the same problem, and I think you'd find that tedious.'
'Most likely,' she conceded sadly, but the Wocky could see a smile from the corner of his eye. 'Perhaps I can convince him otherwise. He'll have a new life, so perhaps he'll find a new reason to live it.'
'Not if I can help it.'
Abruptly their conversation was interrupted as a true silence fell, the chanting and drumming finally falling quiet.
Midnight. Ancient magic stirred in every tree around the clearing, in the earth beneath their feet, in the furious maelstrom of energy rushing through the skies above. With a tremendous roar the torches exploded, their blackened flames reaching into the tumultuous skies. Immediately the storm surged into life, terrible wails of thunder resounding across the clearing as purple lightning lashed against the enchanted flames, trapped within the incandescent darkness and flashing wildly through the gloom. The trees fell forward, bowing their heads to the unstoppable forces of nature as the winds swept back through the woods, passing unnoticed through the mesmerised spirits watching on. Visible gusts closed about the wild flames hovering far above, ensnaring the mighty storm in its cocoon and pulling it back down toward the earth.
As one the spirits gasped, old habits of their living bodies still present even now. The stone platform suddenly lurched up to meet the cocoon, the earth leaping into the sky and taking with it the last remains of what had once been Hubrid Nox. Earth met storm in a violent clash, contained bolts of lightning shooting across the clearing and vanishing into the clustered trees. As though from far away came the sounds of screaming and shouting, the trees themselves wailing as the flames leapt through their midst, but already their plight was forgotten as the mighty apparition surrendered at last. With an almighty crash it fell back to ground, rending the earth apart with tails of caliginous fire that engulfed the watching audience. Into the sky a thick cloud of choking ash erupted, and with it the ancient magic finally receded.
Silence settled once again. Shielded amidst the trees, Magax peered out into the thick gloom hanging over the clearing. One by one, torches began to flare into life, dispelling the darkness left by the dust and ash that was steadily raining over them, the natural flames strange after the magical display that had haunted the night. Slowly the spirits came into view again, unmoved by the chaos all around them, staring silently at where the stone platform had stood.
Broken and charred, the platform appeared again through the mist. The table was gone, its contents consumed by the magic to leave a single dark shape resting upon its surface. Even the ancient magic had a sense of humour it seemed, the plush form of the blue Cybunny taken life and left resting on the stone as though sleeping.
One eye opened slowly, red against the night. With a jerk the Cybunny bolted upright, both eyes wide and staring out over the clearing. Trembling paws were raised before its eyes, its disbelief palpable even across the full breadth of the clearing.
Suddenly its form shifted, big red eyes stretching into narrow black slits, white fur receding to reveal blue skin, a flash of black hair shooting from its upper lip. An elegant suit appeared from nowhere, draping the familiar shape of another pet, distinctive high collar rising into the night. Gratefully the Chia exhaled one long breath, a mist forming before him in the chill air. The breath of life itself.
Hubrid Nox was back.
In the shadow of the trees, a green light flared, twisting into the shape of an axe.
They were both back.