Overture: Part One
The fourth day dawned grim. Behind the thick cloud bank the sun rose, its radiance serving only to highlight the blackened skies looming above the Haunted Woods as shrieking winds rushed between the trembling trees, huddled close together for shelter against the lashing torrent of raindrops. All around echoed the terrible rumble of thunder as sheets of lightning danced across the charred skies, leaping into the trees with wild cries that returned with flares and sparks as the woods were left powerless to respond.
Alone amidst the cloying trees walked a single pet, borrowed cloak pulled tight about his shoulders, pressing his wings uncomfortably into his back, the tattered hood thrown over his face doing nothing to repel the tide of the storm. Roots clawed at his boots with every step, the trees seeming closer the deeper he travelled down the overgrown path. He had walked this path before on several occasions, but never had it seemed so suffocating, the air itself trembling with each additional wail of the wind or clap of thunder.
The trees were scared. No mere storm could do this.
Lucas halted, staring out into the distance. The trees were growing thicker across the path ahead, trying to block his way. Edna had warned him the way the trees shifted when you weren't looking, the slightest flicker in the corner of your eye the twisting of a root or branch, but it was nothing compared to watching it happen. Were they trying to stop him from heading deeper; to protect him against what lay ahead? Or were they just clustering together for their own protection?
Suddenly he was aware of the rain letting up. Feeling a fresh cheer in his heart he stared up at the slackening sky to find the trees had closed tighter while he thought, their reaching branches shielding him slightly against the deluge. In the grim half-light they seemed fingers wrapping about each other, as pets holding hands. Or, he thought uncomfortably, like the bars of a cage coming together.
He quickly pushed on again, back into the full force of the storm.
Beneath the cloak Edna had begrudgingly loaned him, his hand clutched the last neomail from headquarters tight. It had all seemed over when the first message arrived: the purpose of the Thessalium was known. The mission was complete. Edna had certainly been pleased to learn of it, pausing only to assure him she had been fully aware of the potential use, if only he had bothered to ask her the right questions in the first place. Before she could throw him out into the night however, the second neomail had arrived by priority, speeding through the neomail systems almost before the first could arrive.
The mission was not complete. The enemy had a means to utilise both magical and psychic energies together, yielding something far more powerful than either alone. All they knew of him suggested he would seek only the most powerful of both tools, and events almost two years ago had provided him half the ingredients he needed. All that remained was an item of unparalleled psychic energy.
Only one thing in all Neopia had that sort of power.
The pirate Shoyru paused again, listening to the eerie sound of shifting roots beneath the dense undergrowth. The trees were not gathering together for protection; it was merely a side-effect of their true purpose. It was an exodus: they were fleeing.
The enemy had already arrived.
He broke into a run against the tide of the shifting trees, free hand shooting to his hip. Steel rang out into the dawn, drowned beneath the roar of the storm. The cutlass was unlikely to be much use if the warnings in the neomail were true, but he felt emboldened by its presence in his grasp. Even the trees seemed to feel his new determination, their fleeing paths curling around him as he rushed through.
Suddenly the thinning trees began to grow thick again, the constant chilling creep of roots consumed entirely by the storm. Not all the trees were fleeing the scene; the rest were being drawn in by the enemy's performance. Just like us, Lucas thought grimly, there are always those who would stay to watch the show.
Around his feet he could feel the quick current of a slender stream that passed the clearing, overflowing as the storm continued to cascade into its path. A number of hulking shapes adorned what had once been its bank, the dark forms nestled between the roots of the trees at the edge of the ring encircling the clearing; the trees had paid them little heed as they closed in to watch with grim fascination.
Carefully he made his way to the other side of the stream, feet slipping on the pebble bed as the storm-enhanced current pushed against him, and approached one of the shapes. It was a pet, the grey Tonu clad in a thick cloak of deep, dark green that had once blended into the night. Evidently it had not been effective enough however: several gashes had been torn into the strong fabric, too much for the shifting trees to have managed alone, too rough for any weapon to have made.
Lightning flashed overhead, bringing with it a flash of hope into Lucas' thoughts. The enemy had already arrived, but they had not won yet.
Pausing only to pull the unconscious Tonu further from the still widening stream, Lucas moved on again between the trees, darting carefully between the thick trunks. Above the roaring storm he could hear the cries of pets from the clearing ahead, their voices tinged with panic. At least half a dozen pets still remained, even with so many of their colleagues thrown unceremoniously from the fight by their terrible opponent; if nothing more, they had failed to underestimate the might of their foe. An act Lucas himself had certainly failed to achieve.
A new voice rent the storm, its deep, earthen tones resounding with the cry of nature itself. All around echoed the response, soundless voices rising with creak of bough and snap of twig, the haunting whistle of wind sweeping through branches rising into the dark morning to join the mighty cry. The voices of mere mortals were drowned beneath the torrent, their hopeless cries consumed by the wrath of nature. Through the trees Lucas could hear fresh sounds, heavy thumps and crashes accompanying the thrashing snaps like whip-cracks, and huddled safely behind the sturdiest tree he could find, the Shoyru waited out the storm.
All fell quiet. The wailing storm rushed to fill the void, but it fell upon deaf ears as Lucas looked up and found another pet collapsed against a nearby tree, a polished silver axe resting in the undergrowth by the unconscious camouflage Chia's outstretched hand. Like the Tonu, his hooded cloak was covered in rough tears.
Cautiously Lucas peered out from his sanctuary and into the clearing. Against the clustered trees in the distance he could see others like the Chia, and with it he felt his hopes rise again. The enemy had been defeated.
Something stirred in the gloomy air. The Shoyru jerked quickly back into hiding before daring to peer out again, and instantly his hopes were dashed. One pet still stood amidst his fallen comrades, grey and white chequered fur soaked through until it formed a pale sheen that stood silver beneath the storm-ridden skies. His thick cloak was as yet untarnished, its hood finally thrown back to reveal the familiar icy, expressionless face of the Kougra.
Across from the stoic Kougra stood his towering opposite. Surrounded by an ethereal glow in the stormy gloom, the Brain Tree stood tall amidst its lesser brethren, exposed brain pulsating angrily. Two vicious red eyes glared at its foe, its thick roots stretched out toward the motionless pet menacingly, a blazing fury radiating thick from its every gnarled branch. Scattered about its clearing lay the discarded hatchets of its attackers, the only remnants of those foolish enough to attempt an attack.
'If you think that is all it will take to bring me down, Kougra, you have sorely underestimated me,' the Brain Tree boomed, its earthen voice ringing clear through the storm and echoing around the bowl of trees. 'For centuries I have been hunted by poachers, and for centuries I have left them fleeing with their cowardly tails between their legs. You will be no exception.'
A shrill note rang out through the storm. In his left paw Kribal's sword gleamed as fresh lightning illuminated the clearing, a shining light against the gloom of the wood. Between them, the Brain Tree's thick roots twitched and twisted, recoiling from the new threat.
'Do you still think me a mere poacher?' Kribal asked reasonably in his chilling monotone.
'I know you, Kougra,' the tree replied slowly, each note of its powerful voice resonating through the surrounding trees, 'and I know your master. Call yourself what you will, but you are both poachers more rotten than those who seek the hearts of my brethren; you instead seek the hearts of all this world through your vile deeds. I would rather the thugs after their own measly profits from my bark felled me; they at least are honest in their intent.'
'Honesty is just another form of stupidity.'
A root smashed heavily against the ground, sending a shudder through the sodden earth. 'Say what you will, Kougra, I know the truth! Knowledge is power in this world, and I know all. Every story of your exploits I have heard, every report of your master's twisted legacy, and from it all I have seen the truth. I know what you plan, and why you have come for me. But know this: I know how you fight. You will not find me such easy prey!'
'Knowledge is power,' Kribal repeated calmly, his expression almost bored as he watched the Brain Tree's anger begin to manifest, its roots thrashing the earth as they crept closer once more. 'But only when you apply it. Years of research are useless alone, whereas the minutes spent watching you now are invaluable. That is the difference between true knowledge, and the masked ignorance you prize so high.'
The woods trembled under the force of the Brain Tree's terrible cry, its voice once more reverberating with the full and unstoppable might of nature itself as it unleashed its wrath in one furious bellow. The watching trees stood taller in answer to the cry, their gnarled faces twisted toward the enemy in their midst, boughs creaking ominously as they shuffled closer, sealing off any chance of escape from the fearsome force of nature.
Escape was never an option. Thick roots lashed at his position, smiting the earth with the terrible rage of the wild tree, but Kribal had already moved calmly aside. Careful footsteps marked his dance across the clearing, honed senses combining with his intuitive experience to pre-empt every blow thrown his way, silver sword scoring another clean strike in riposte. Watching from between the shifting trees, Lucas could not help but feel awe at the sight, the stories of the Kougra's fighting skill paling against the breathless display that was the reality. So easily he had incited fury in the tree, pushing it into a fierce yet predictable assault. Having just studied the way it fought, formulating a counterattack was child's play.
Blinded by its rage, the Brain Tree hollered once more through the clearing. All around the ethereal glow of the psychic tree began to radiate, colourless tendrils of energy wrapping about the discarded hatchets of the Kougra's defeated colleagues. Their enchanted blades flashed threateningly as fresh lightning rent the skies, the deadly weapons hanging unsupported in the air like twisted dolls.
The thunder caught up, booming over them. Spurred on by the herald, the hatchets launched through the air, propelled by the Brain Tree's maddening fury. Calmly the Kougra twisted, sword cutting through the storm and turning aside each axe with ease. Metal-on-metal rang out clear, each note a taunt in the Brain Tree's mind.
Suddenly the Kougra snatched the last hatchet from the air, smoothly hurling it back at his attacker. Lazily the Brain Tree lowered a branch and knocked it harmlessly to the ground, revealing the form of Kribal hurrying in its wake. As one the great roots rose high into the air again and thrashed down heavily in his path. The ground trembled under the force.
Exactly as predicted.
Before the dust could settle Kribal was striking again, pouncing forward from a calculated back step. Using the roots as a step he bounded forward toward the tree. Suddenly the air was full of whipping branches, the tree hollering wildly as it brought its heavy boughs around into attack. Silver danced before him, his sword reducing the fierce attack to hopeless splinters that rained down upon the clearing.
He landed lightly before the great trunk of the tree, its wroth red eyes glaring down at him, a shining hatchet resting by his feet. Waiting.
Too late Lucas realised what had happened. Every act had been planned, every attack merely a brushstroke in a masterpiece, building the picture with each moment. At last he saw the final image, and knew there was nothing he could do to stop it.
Sound rushed over him, a single terrible note roaring out across the woods. From every tree the sound rose again, echoing louder as its shockwave filled the storm-ridden lands, chasing after the fleeing trees in their desperate exodus.
Silence followed in its wake. Cold and deep, it seemed to draw the very life from all it touched, leaving just an empty, soulless void behind. The cold kiss of rain against his skin was but a distant memory as he felt the chill creep through his body, a dreamlike haze settling across his vision. Clumsily he lurched from the shelter of the trees. His body was sluggish, the grey-soaked world around him swaying as he made his way into the clearing, lost in a deadened daze, staring blankly at the sight that awaited him.
The Brain Tree had fallen. Through the haze its mighty form still radiated the eerie, ethereal glow, but now it was quieter than once it had been, fading slowly into obscurity. Lucas wanted to rush forward, but his legs refused to move, as though the roots of the great tree itself had curled about his boots. All he could do was watch.
Suddenly a new sound pierced the silence. A heavy thud rang out clear, a silver bladed axe appearing in the stump of the fallen tree. Beside it the grey haze seemed to shimmer, and a dark shape was standing in the silent storm, his chequered fur shining silver in the gloom. Two points of yellow stood out in the monochrome, staring directly at the stunned Shoyru.
'Kribal!' he gasped, feeling a tremor enter his voice. Swallowing deep he mustered his courage before calling out, 'By order of the Defenders of Neopia, I am placing you under arrest!'
Without breaking his stare the Kougra drew nearer. Lucas felt what courage he had managed to summon falter under those penetrating eyes, analysing everything about him, assessing all he was.
'I said you are under arrest!' Lucas repeated hotly, but he could feel the words catch in his throat until just a hoarse croak escaped into the silent storm still raining around them. The look in Kribal's eyes had changed. His assessment was complete.
Calmly the Kougra paused beside the motionless jumble of roots that had once thrashed so fiercely, and reached out for the hilt of his sword. The blade seemed to shine through the gloom, mesmerising the Shoyru's eyes as he watched it arc gracefully through the air before snapping back to Kribal's side, the rainwater flicking into the air and sparkling like stars in the night.
In an instant it was over. Kribal moved like lightning across the skies. His shining sword cast aside Lucas' clumsy cutlass with one smooth motion. A heavy boot connected sharply with his ribs, throwing all energy from his body. Helpless he slumped to his knees, feeling the chill that had gnawed at him for so long rush into his body and freeze his very bones. Utterly drained, he fell forward, but a paw suddenly closed about his shoulder and held him upright.
'This is just the beginning of the end to our game,' a distant voice declared, the sound reaching his weary mind as though through a long, echoing tunnel. 'It is not your move yet. The requiem has not yet begun.'
The weight about his shoulder lifted, and at last the muddy earth rushed up to greet him, leaving just the echo of Kribal's last words ringing in his hollow thoughts.
To be continued...