The Orbs of Power: Part Three
As the daylight slowly faded, I soared over the mountains, flushed with the success of recovering the Orb of the Sky. My arms and legs were aching, my muscles were exhausted from the effort of navigating the Aura Chamber, but the flight back to Shenkuu City took far less time than the journey to the Orb's hidden cave. The Orb's power was somehow strengthening me; the brisk breeze that had rushed around the slopes of Mount Aura seemed to be following me, lifting my outstretched wings, carrying me towards my destination.
By the time I reached the city, evening had fallen and the temperature had dropped. The various shops and stalls were still open, and I caught sight of a familiar red Eyrie standing at the Fanciful Fauna Petpet Shop. Chenn was holding something, waiting in line to make the purchase. I tried to catch his eye, but his attention was fixed upon the small Petpet in his arms. Even from a distance, I could see how happy he was.
I returned to the dock, waiting to board the Cyodrake's Gaze again and head towards my next destination: Neovia. The second map I had copied from the ancient parchment indicated that the Artefact of Earth was hidden close to that town. Despite having just emerged successful from the enormous challenge of retrieving the Orb of the Sky, I was somewhat nervous about seeking the Artefact hidden in the Haunted Woods, mainly because I was already aware of the terrible dangers I might encounter along the way. The Haunted Woods, where I had lived prior to my owner's move to Altador, was home to many dark and powerful creatures that would be all too ready to eat me if they were given the chance. Even with my strength and experience, I would have to be extremely careful...
One week later, the ship arrived in the heart of the Haunted Woods. I disembarked and headed down the path that led to Neovia, hoping that the items I had brought with me would be enough to protect me if a particularly nasty denizen of the woods turned up. Seven days' rest after the strain of retrieving the Orb of the Sky had healed my sore muscles, and I was ready for my next challenge.
As I hiked along the path that wound through the twisted trees, there was a deafening rumble and the ground beneath my feet started to quake. Alert for any sign of danger, I reacted instinctively, spreading my wings and lifting myself to about two yards above the ground, out of reach. There was another rumble, and a deep, booming voice sounded:
I remained in midair, beating my wings, hovering over the rocky ground as two gleaming red eyes appeared right where I had been standing seconds before. The ground cracked and crumbled as the massive bulk of the Esophagor forced itself to the surface, ever-hungry mouth gaping, huge red eyes fixed upon me, his expression greedy.
I was prepared for just such an encounter; I had packed a large supply of food, far more than I needed, just in case. Still wary, I returned to the ground.
"IIIII AAAMMMM HHHUUUNNGGRRYYYYYY..." boomed the Esophagor, glaring at me with an ominous expression of eagerness in his scarlet eyes.
I took off my backpack, opened it and withdrew a cauldron of Scary Soup. Holding the cauldron above the Esophagor's greedy mouth, I poured in the soup, eyes still peeled for any hint of danger. The Esophagor's appetite was insatiable, and he was known to eat Neopets if he wanted a good square meal.
The Esophagor swallowed the soup and grinned. I watched carefully for any sign of further hunger, my nerves on edge. Eventually, he spoke. "Mmmmmmmmmmmmmm. Thaaaaannk yooooouuu."
I breathed a sigh of relief. Then a thought came to me. "Can I ask you a question, please?"
The Esophagor's greedy grin widened. "Yeeeesss, iiiff yooouuu giiiiivvve mmeeee mooooorrrre fooooood."
"Sure, I'll give you more food, I've got plenty here." I reached into my bag and took out a Spooky Raspberry Pie, then told the Esophagor, "I'm looking for an ancient artefact with the power of the earth, and I believe it to be hidden near Neovia. Can you offer me any advice?"
The Esophagor's red eyes met my own. He replied, "Thee aaannsssweeerrr yooouu seeeek liiiieess nnooottt iiinn theee mmmeeeeaaanniing oofff thee wooorrrrds, buuuut the wooooorrrrrds theemmssseeeelllves."
"The answer I seek lies not in the meaning of the words, but the words themselves..." I repeated, trying to figure out what he meant.
"Yeeeessss." His hungry mouth opened, waiting for the Spooky Raspberry Pie.
"Okay..." I said slowly, watching the Esophagor's eager mouth open even wider, and I held out the pie, hoping that at some point the advice would come in handy. "Thanks for the tip. Here - "
The Esophagor suddenly gave a deep, rumbling chuckle that made the ground shake. "Heh heh heh heh... thaaatt piiiiiee looooooks liiiike meeeeeee."
"As long as it's tasty," I replied, trying to smile as I dropped the pie into the Esophagor's enormous mouth. "Mmmmmmmmmmmmmm..." he said again as he chewed, and then, slowly, he sank back into the ground.
I walked on, my mind contorting around the Esophagor's riddle, and after an hour or so of encountering nothing more dangerous than a large spider, I reached a fork in the road. A signpost stood at the junction, indicating where the two paths led to. One sign read NEOVIA, and pointed to the right, down a wide, flat path that led to the town nestled in a gap in the dense trees. The other sign was marked with a symbol, a very familiar symbol: the Earth Mark, the same symbol on the ancient stone box and the second map that had been inside it. The sign pointed left, where a narrow, rugged path led into the depths of the forest.
I checked the map again. It definitely indicated that the Artefact was hidden close to Neovia, but not in the heart of the small town. I could only assume that the path I must take was the left path, the one leading to an unknown location deep in the woods. I stowed the map back in my travelling pack and set off...
The road was narrow and uneven, and bordered by countless thistles and low, twisting branches, making it very difficult to navigate. Just making my way along the path was leaving me with many cuts and scratches from the plants growing around it. It was a good thing I had packed plenty of bandages.
But not only was the path hard to travel, it was also extremely long. Although I was prepared for encounters with the various creatures of the woods, I was not expecting the journey to find the Artefact of Earth to take so long. Hours passed, and soon night was falling. Knowing that most of the dangers of the Haunted Woods were at their worst during the hours of darkness, I pitched my tent, zipped up the flap to keep the wildlife out, and stayed the night, determined to continue the journey when the sun rose the next day.
When dawn finally came, I woke from a troubled and disrupted night's sleep to continue my trek along the winding path. I crashed through the undergrowth, walking through dozens of spider webs, sustaining still more injuries from the sharp branches and thistles, for another full day. It occurred to me that at least the path that wound through the jungles of Mystery Island, the path I had followed to find the ancient map, had been pleasant to hike along - even though I had been clueless about where it led to.
Late in the afternoon, dark clouds rolled in and it started to rain. My sense of determination and curiosity was the only thing sustaining me, but it was starting to give way to fatigue and frustration. I fought to keep going as the gruelling journey became a test of my mind as much as my body. I was aching all over, with more scratches and bruises than I cared to count, and a cold, stormy night was falling when I finally found the end of the path.
But it wasn't the end of the journey. The Artefact was not here; all that was present in the small clearing at the end of this tiring hike was a stone pillar, bearing a cryptic inscription:
Seek a treasure from the past
Onward is the way to go
Under the surface
There lies a secret
Hiding what you need to know
Upon reading the riddle, I let out a yell of bitter disappointment. So this was all that lay at the end of an exhausting two-day trek through the Haunted Woods. Furthermore, it didn't matter how I interpreted the poem; I simply couldn't find the information I really needed. I had to find out where to go to reach the Artefact, but how was this stupid pillar supposed to help?
There had to be something else... I looked for more carvings on the stone, but there were none. "Onward is the way to go" - but which way would I have to travel to reach my destination?
My mind was slack and worn out from the long journey to reach the end of the path; I couldn't solve this riddle. This pillar was utterly useless...
Then something occurred to me. This wasn't the only utterly useless clue I had received about the Artefact. The Esophagor had given me worthless advice as well: The answer you seek lies not in the meaning of the words, but the words themselves. Maybe the two clues were exactly what I needed, if I could just work out how to put them together...
My eyes slipped out of focus as I struggled to concentrate. But really, it didn't matter now whether I managed to figure out the clues, it was getting dark and I had to make camp, unless I wanted to be eaten by some horrible creature during the night. I took off my backpack and put up the tent, taking one last glance at the pillar before settling in to sleep.
Dark shadows stretched across the stone, obscuring most of the inscription. Only the first few letters of each line were visible. In a flash of inspiration, I suddenly realised what was hidden in the poem: the initial letters of its five lines were an indication of which direction I should take in my search for the Artefact.
Somehow, by sheer dumb luck, the secret hidden on the stone had revealed itself to me. I knew where to search for the second Orb...
I found it exceedingly difficult to get to sleep, thrilled as I was at my inadvertent discovery, and aching all over from the harsh two-day hike. Nor was my sleep peaceful; again it was interrupted by the shrieks and cries of the woodland creatures, and the deafening thunderclaps and flashes of bright lightning as the storm that had loomed during the previous afternoon finally passed overhead. But I was so exhausted that I somehow managed to get far more rest than I had done after the first day of the journey.
The next morning, I was woken by an unpleasant surprise. A large black beetle had entered through a rip in my tent flap and crawled across my face. Startled, I slapped the beetle away, noticing as I did so that it was no longer dark outside. I checked my watch - it was half past nine, and time to get ready to continue the quest.
I ate breakfast quickly, hoping to proceed with the journey as soon as possible, when the beetle that had woken me earlier attempted to crawl up my leg. Impatient, weary and annoyed, I squashed it underfoot before setting off.
I had packed a compass, so I knew which way was south, but I also knew that if I veered even slightly off course, I might not find the Artefact... or whatever is south of here, I thought in frustration; it'd better not be another stupid riddle. Holding the compass up to my eyes to confirm my direction, I began the next stage of the journey.
There was no path leading south, so this hike was leaving me even more bruised and battered than the first stage as I clambered over bushes, under low branches, through so many spider webs that I now wondered whether my face would permanently resemble a silken cloth, and over muddy creeks and rugged boulders as I strived to keep moving in the right direction, checking the compass regularly. Again, hours passed and night fell; again, I stayed the night in the tent before continuing the journey. By now I was getting desperate - I was running out of supplies.
Fortunately, I knew that once I found the Artefact, I would be able to take the return trip by wing. The only reason I hadn't flown here was because I expected the Artefact of Earth to be underground; thus, finding it would require a search beneath the dense canopy of trees. It crossed my mind that if I knew how far I must travel, flying to my destination would have been easy - but since the location of the Artefact was as yet unknown, I had to assume it could become apparent at any moment. Weary and wounded, I dragged myself further and further south...
Eventually, after travelling for miles through the undergrowth, I found what I was looking for. I had reached the edge of a cliff, and the valley below was filled with trees... but these trees were different to the ones above them. Their trunks were bare and immensely tall - so tall that the tops of their branches were level with the canopy surrounding the ravine. Beneath these massive natural structures was a light, cool mist that rendered the bottom of the valley hidden from view.
For the first time in days, I had an opportunity to use my wings. I spread them wide and soared downwards into the depths of the ravine, eventually reaching a level patch of damp, dark soil, surrounded by ferns and cloaked in vivid green ground-cover plants. The mist was so cool, and the plants so green, that I was convinced this must be a rainforest. For a moment, I forgot about the Artefact and simply took in the beauty of this place, until I noticed that high above me, in the branches of one of the enormous trees, a bright light was shining.
I took flight and headed towards the source of the light, and after what seemed like a long time of flying upward, I reached the branches, which were twisted into strange shapes creating an opening in the centre. The Orb was inside this opening, emanating a strong, bright-green glow - I slipped my arm between the branches and tried to take hold of it, but it was out of reach.
Now what? I thought for a moment, then peered back into the cavity in the branches. Surrounding it were masses of twisted wood, making it inaccessible from where I was hovering; I took off my backpack and searched inside it for my hatchet. Gripping it tightly, I tried to cut the branches, but for all the effect the blows had on the wood, I might as well have been trying to cut through a solid block of steel. Having failed to leave even a scratch on the branches blocking my way, I looked back into their centre and realised that there was hardly any foliage immediately above the Orb - I had to get to it from overhead, by moving through the branches.
I spread my wings and flew to the top of the tree, where a gap in the leaves made it possible for me to enter and begin my descent. I was used to it by now, but it was still a struggle clawing my way through sharp-edged leaves and rough, thick branches. This particular tree was huge, and moving through the branches to reach the Orb was exceedingly difficult, so I took my time. By now I had been scratched, bumped and bruised so many times that my strength was declining... this was a gruelling test of endurance and perseverance. My arms and legs aching, my skin burning from my innumerous cuts, I kept going, until I caught a glimpse of bright green light below. Finally, I reached down, still in pain but triumphant, and grasped the Orb.
After four long, hard days, I had got what I came for. I felt healthier already as the Orb's power spread to me as it had done with the Orb of the Sky - my aches and pains were easing, my skin was healing as the power of nature strengthened me. This was the Orb of the Forest, the artefact containing the power of the earth. I reached into my bag and removed the Holder, placing the Orb into the brace opposite the Orb of the Sky. At once, the vivid green glow was extinguished, and immediately reappeared in the central stone of the Holder, blending with the turquoise light it had already absorbed.
Exhausted as I was, I was not as consumed by triumph as I had been upon finding the first Orb. My immediate thought was, now that I'm inside the tree, how should I get out? I tried the hatchet again, this time with success: the branches yielded to the sharp blade, and I was flying away at last, my second quest successful, bringing me one step closer to uniting all six Orbs...
To be continued...