The Orbs of Power: Part Seven
With the Orb of the Sun settled into its bracket in the Holder, the central stone was now too bright to look at, and I had to cover it with my hand in order to place the instrument back into the inside pocket of my backpack. Mysteriously, the Orbs attached to the Holder were now regaining some of their light. I left the Spectral Temple, pausing to glance back into its beautiful entrance hall. The skylight in the centre of the ceiling had stopped glowing and the beams of coloured light were gone, but the windows were still magically lit. Outside, the sun was sinking and the wind was picking up, so I took to the air at once, heading back to Sakhmet before the sandstorm set in.
By the time I reached the edge of the city, night had fallen and the temperature had plummeted. My journey had now reached a standstill, because I didn't know where to go next. I decided to stay in Sakhmet for the night, and made for the nearest Cheap Hotel - which turned out to be a vast tent containing several rooms, each one equipped with a small table and a pair of hammocks. I paid the Scorchio at the entrance and retreated to one of the vacant rooms, where I took out the last map and stretched out on the longer of the two hammocks.
I examined every line, every detail. I was trying to identify the type of structure that was abundant on this mysterious terrain, according to the drawing. These features were circular, of varying sizes, and laid out on a plain that was almost completely flat except for a few cracks in the ground. Five of the circles formed a pattern that resembled the number five on a domino, with the largest circle in the centre. There was nothing else drawn on the landscape except for the dotted line that led to the symbol of Darkness.
Of course, this was my drawing. The real one had been lost with the parchment - and I suddenly remembered, shuddering at the thought, that the Darkness map had been the first to be destroyed, the first to break away from the parchment. Was it an omen? Marina's warning cut through my train of thought, as fresh as a cold wind: Don't go after the power of Darkness.
The doubts that had gripped me when I entered the Spectral Temple began to return. There was a very real possibility that once the Orbs were united, something could go wrong. There was also a possibility that I might fail the final quest. The decision I had made as I took the Orb of the Sun seemed to solidify in my mind; I decided that I had been reckless enough already, and I would find Queen Fyora as soon as possible and tell her what I had found and how. I put the map away and closed my eyes; I would travel back to Faerieland in the morning. I couldn't complete this journey without help...
After a short and fragmented sleep, I woke up before dawn, gathered my things and flew north-east, reaching Faerie City as the rising sun filled the sky with fiery colour. I approached the Faerie Castle as the residents of the city started to emerge from their homes, and strikingly, their attitude towards me had changed. They were now regarding me, not with fear, but with awe. The doors to the palace were guarded by a fire faerie and a light faerie, both of whom seemed amazed.
"I need to see Queen Fyora," I told them. "I have some very important information for her."
"I'm sorry," said the fire faerie, "but Her Majesty is currently in Altador, attending the Rulers' Council. What information did you wish to pass along?"
"It's about some ancient faerie artefacts that I discovered. The map to their locations was lost, but I managed to track down all but one of them. The remaining one is the most dangerous, so I need advice."
"We can introduce you to the castle historian," suggested the light faerie. "She may be able to help you." The fire faerie agreed, and the two faeries led me into the palace, through a magnificent crystal hallway, into an office on the ground floor. It was still dark in this room, because its window faced west. After a few minutes, a water faerie entered, carrying a few books and a pair of glasses. She took a seat behind the desk and turned on the lamp. "My name is Sofi," she said. "I am told you have information about ancient faerie artefacts. Could you tell me what you have found?"
"As a matter of fact, I can show you what I have found..." I took the Holder out of my backpack and laid it on the table along with the map that led to the final Artefact. Sofi examined the Holder carefully, especially its central stone, which had absorbed most of the Orbs' magic. She then consulted my hand-drawn map. When she looked up, the expression on her face was astonished, but wary.
"These objects come from an ancient period of faerie history," she told me. "The records are vague about the reasons for their existence, but there is some evidence as to how and why they were hidden. This," she pointed at my drawing, "is not the original map. What happened to the original?"
I recounted my discovery of the cave on Mystery Island, and my exact duplication of all six maps before the parchment disintegrated. Sofi nodded gravely. "Ah - the original map was destroyed. Your copies must have been good, since they allowed you to find five of the Orbs. This last map," she glanced again at the sketch I had made, "is of the Great Plain on the far side of Kreludor. The final Orb is located there, and it is the hardest one to master."
I swallowed. "I'm hesitant to try and recover the Artefact of Darkness, in case it's dangerous," I said cautiously, "so I decided to pass the Orbs I've already found to Queen Fyora. Since they were created by ancient faeries, they must be rightfully hers."
But Sofi shook her head. "Actually, our oldest records indicate that these objects were hidden in such a way as to be a test of merit for anyone who tried to reach them. Tradition holds that whoever pursues the Orbs of Power is obligated to continue the quest either until they fail, or until the Orbs are united." She drew a deep breath. "These artefacts cannot be simply passed from one hand to another; nobody can take true ownership of them until they have completed the quest. You have to go on; if you succeed, the Orbs will be rightfully yours."
This news came as a profound shock. It looked like I would have no choice but to take the risk, and hope I could overcome the Artefact of Darkness and the protection surrounding it. As I struggled to digest the truth, Sofi spoke. "I cannot help you any further," she said quietly. "Go to Kreludor, and retrieve the final Orb. If you fail, we will have to return the other Orbs to their sanctuaries and create a new map. If you succeed - you'll have to find out for yourself what will happen." She rose from her chair and shook my hand, and I thanked her for her help.
As I moved slowly towards the door, Sofi called softly after me.
"Good luck," she said.
The only way to Kreludor was by shuttle. Not far from Neopia Central, the main launch pad sent tourists to the moon and the Space Station every day. After flying here from Faerieland, I was very excited; I had never been into space before... but I was also nervous, afraid of taking the final challenge.
The Lightwave 5-AU Shuttle was a short-range spacecraft regularly used for the commute between Neopia, Kreludor and the Virtupets Space Station; a speedy shuttle that could seat 50 Neopets, and take them from one launch pad to another in less than half an hour. I boarded the spacecraft and prepared for lift-off. Once I and all the other passengers were securely strapped in to our large plush seats, the engines roared with a sound like an earthquake, and I felt myself pressed hard into the back of my chair as the shuttle picked up speed. Then it pulled upwards sharply, heading for the moon.
After a short while, the shuttle's acceleration slowed down and I was no longer buried in my seat, but the sensation of zero gravity was bizarre. I didn't know which way was up; it actually made me feel a little unwell, as though my stomach was no longer settled into the right position. I felt dizzy and light-headed, but after just fifteen minutes of weightlessness, I was wrenched forwards as the shuttle approached the landing pad and began to slow down. With the force threatening to rip me out of my safety harness, the spacecraft descended to the lunar surface and came to rest with the gentlest bump. I had arrived on Kreludor - my final destination.
The air here was thinner than I was used to, and the gravity was much weaker than Neopia's gravity; I only weighed about a quarter of what I normally did. The lightest of steps carried me forwards in long, slow bounds; beating my wings produced so much lift that it was like falling upwards, spiralling into the sky. When I folded my wings again, I came down like a feather and landed softly on the rocky ground. I wanted to savour this place, enjoy the sensation of micro-gravity and see the sights, but I was here for the Artefact of Darkness.
To reach the Great Plain, I would have to fly halfway around Kreludor, to the side that faces away from Neopia. I spread my wings slowly and beat them gently, rising into the air at a more measured pace this time. With so little body weight, I could cover vast distances simply by gliding, conserving the maximum amount of energy. The Kreludite mines, the cafe and furniture shops, the AstroVilla Hotel and dozens of small Grundo villages sailed past, far below, as I drifted effortlessly onwards like a leaf carried by the wind.
When I reached the edge of the plain, I began to climb higher. The best way to search for the Orb was to sweep the area from far above, searching for the domino-like pattern of craters that marked the location depicted in the map. After a couple of hours, I finally spotted the distinctive cluster of craters, so I wheeled downwards, following the course on the map that led to the location of the Artefact. There appeared to be nothing at the end of the path, but I kept flying - and suddenly, a lonely building loomed out of thin air, isolated on the deserted plain. I steered down towards it; it was an ominous-looking stone fortress, its gate forged from thick steel bars and its blank grey walls surrounded by sharp spikes driven into the ground. Inside, the main corridor was lit by small white lamps embedded in the rocky walls, and a staircase led down into the basement chamber, where I could almost feel the presence of dark magic. This had to be the place.
As I landed a few hundred yards away, I realised that this fortress was sure to be cursed, just like the Spectral Temple. My fear returned; I was unsure of whether I wanted to enter this eerie building. Marina spoke again inside my head: Don't go after the power of Darkness... but Sofi's voice echoed as well: You have to go on - to continue either until you fail, or until the Orbs are united. I closed my eyes, and in my mind's eye, the Holder's single empty bracket swam before me. If you succeed, the Orbs will be rightfully yours.
I suddenly felt like I was being pulled in two directions. The same spell that had guarded the Orb of the Sun was urging caution, but the magic that lurked in this fortress wanted me to throw that caution to the wind. I couldn't just rush in... I backed away, trying to clear my head.
But I couldn't dispel the effects of the magic; neither the magic of the Artefact of Darkness, which was now easily within reach, nor the powerful curse that surrounded the dark fortress. The protective charm was conveying a clear warning: This challenge is about overcoming temptation. But it was also about overcoming my own fear. I didn't want to pick up the Orb and succumb to an overwhelming urge to take over Neopia. Neither, though, could I leave it in place... I had no choice but to take the Orb.
Walking back towards the fortress was easily the hardest thing I had ever done. With every step, the urge to keep going was stronger, but my terror of the dark magic that was pulling me forwards was mounting rapidly. I lifted the steel gate, which was much lighter than it looked because of the low gravity, then entered the hallway and descended the staircase as though in a trance. I could now see the Orb sitting on a stone pedestal surrounded by metal spikes - but this Orb, unlike all the others, was jet black, even drawing the light out of its surroundings. I kept walking, as two opposing forces struggled against each other. My heart felt like the central knot in a tremendous game of tug-o-war. At the end of this dimly lit basement chamber was the unity of all six Orbs, which would bring me power beyond anybody's wildest dreams... but at the same time I struggled to resist the greed, the thirst for glory, because I was only here to retrieve the Orb, not to use it...
I was now within reach - my soul was screaming, both to do it and not to do it - I couldn't think - I had no choice - I reached out my arms and touched the Orb - and at once, the fear was gone, replaced by a horrible glee. It was mine! I had captured all six Orbs! I could use them to master the faeries, I would have wealth and power beyond imagination - then I caught sight of my reflection on the Orb's shiny surface; my eyes were bright red! I dropped the Orb like a hot potato and leapt away in horror, flying backwards in slow motion...
Crouching by the pedestal on which the Orb was perched, I closed my eyes again. I must put this thing into the Holder as quickly as possible, before it corrupted me and destroyed this mission... I took out the Holder and gripped it in one hand. I shouted at myself inside my head, summoned up all my focus; it was the only thought, the only conviction, that could properly direct the greed that consumed me as soon as the Artefact was in my grasp: The Orbs of Power are no good until they are united! Clinging to the Holder as though for dear life, I made the motion as fast as I could to get that little black sphere into its bracket - there was one split second of evil insanity - then a loud click - the Orb was in place! I chanced a terrified glance at it, watching it lose some of its menacing aura. This was the Orb of the Night, the artefact containing the power of darkness. I didn't dare to think about it any more than I had to, as I fought with all my strength of heart to suppress the horrific wickedness that the Orb had tried to conjure up... but my eyes, now returning to their normal yellow, had fallen on something else.
The central stone of the Holder, which had been held in place by six small clips, had been released! Its light was blazing, as bright as the sun, pure white and dazzling: clearly, I was supposed to take it. If you succeed, the Orbs will be rightfully yours. Nothing else occurred to me; I didn't think about the faeries, about the risk of failure - I didn't think about the consequences... Slowly, I reached towards it, with a sense of purpose and power in my mind - this had been my goal all along...
And then my hand, pitch black against the burning light, made contact with the stone, and in that one split second, the worst happened. The stone's magic, the sum of all six Orbs, flooded through me in an instant - my whole body seized up as though I was being hit by lightning - all the breath was knocked out of me as I was thrown from the Holder, and the Orbs' power was unleashed, the fortress above me was blasted apart by sheer magical force, and I felt a pair of arms close in around me as the world went black...
My eyes were closed and my body was limp, but my heart kept on beating...
To be continued...