Agent of the Sway: Departure - Part Seven
Falmouth made her way back to the Faerie Castle a few hours later. She found Captain Smith and his guards near the entrance hall.
"It is the same all over Faerieland, Jackson," she told him. "The Queen, and all the Faeries, have been turned to stone. I would suspect the Darkest Faerie if her statue was not still in our custody."
"It's not just Faerieland," Smith said. "While you were gone, we've been getting messages from across Neopia. No one escaped. Every single Faerie appears to have been petrified, even the Space Faerie in orbit."
"I think perhaps Quizara might be responsible," Falmouth suggested. "The attack is almost identical in style."
"No," Smith replied firmly. "Messages aren't all we've been getting - King Altador, King Jazan, and envoys from both the Shenkuu Empire and Brightvale have arrived - between them they have questioned a thief who claims to have seen Hubrid Nox casting the original magic."
"Nox?" Falmouth gasped. "This seems extreme... Even for him."
"Even so, King Altador appears quite convinced," Smith said. "Together, they are heading down to the Haunted Woods to confront Nox in his lair, with the help of a former student of the Academy... Xandra, I think it was?"
"I must go with them," Falmouth said.
"We need you here," Smith said firmly. "Faerie Haven isn't the only thing that was relying on the power of the Faeries. I haven't made a formal announcement yet because I didn't want to cause panic, but the magic field surrounding Faerieland will begin to fade without the Faeries to power it."
"That will take a few days at least," Falmouth said.
"Yes, and if all goes well in the Haunted Woods, it won't matter," Smith admitted. "But if things don't go well... We need to start preparations for an evacuation, Isobel. If Nox cannot be stopped, then Faerieland will fall."
Knight took the Crokabek and read the message with a smile.
"Falmouth is acting as expected," he said to Clayton. "She's taking charge of a full scale evacuation of all Faerieland citizens. That should keep her well out of our way for the foreseeable future."
"Speaking of which," Clayton said with a nod into the distance. "They are here."
The pair had positioned themselves on the main path to Hubrid Nox's lair in the Haunted Woods. The adventurers from Faerieland were heading their way, so Clayton and Knight hid themselves in the undergrowth.
The plan was simple, Xandra would deliberately trip one of Nox's many magical traps, alerting him to the raid and allowing him time to escape before King Altador and the others breached the main compound. Nox would undoubtedly flee to one of his many secret lairs, and the resulting search would take so long that Faerieland would fall before he could be found.
The party consisted of King Altador and two of his guards, King Jazan, Xandra, a knight from Brightvale, the old Ogrin who trained the Empire's soldiers in Shenkuu, and the thief that had been enlisted to give Xandra her cover story.
Clayton suppressed a little laugh as he realised that the thief was an old acquaintance - Hanso. He had, so he heard, been kicked out of the Thieves Guild since they last met.
Now, he was bound with rope. Clearly, King Altador did not trust the thief to be a full member of their little expedition.
"The knight from Brightvale is Brynn, I believe," Knight whispered. "A rising star with King Hagan's favour. If memory serves me correctly, she has a history with the thief."
Knight gave Clayton a critical look.
"But it appears a lot of people have that particular connection," he added.
The party were setting up camp at the outskirts of Nox's compound, drawing up plans of attack. In the confusion, Hanso took his opportunity to slip away, quickly followed by Brynn.
"I will follow them, find out what they are up to," Knight said.
"You don't want me to do the leg work?" Clayton asked in surprise.
"You have an unsavoury link with Hanso," Knight said. "It would be a conflict of interests. Keep watch here."
With that, the Techo disappeared through the trees.
As Altador and Jazan continued to discuss plans of battle, Xandra began to edge away as planned. Sure enough, she came across one of the magically charged trip wires, and deliberately crossed it.
The effect was instant, a magical alarm ringing out across the woods and the fortress that would alert anything living and plenty of things that were dead.
"Nox has been alerted to our presence!" Altador cried. "Storm the gates!"
Altador, his guards, the Ogrin, and Jazan all ran forwards into the castle, the doors sealing themselves shut behind them - another of Nox's security systems.
Xandra was left alone in the clearing - she quickly recovered from her feigned injuries, and gave a wicked smirk. With that, she ran off through the woods, skirting round the side of the castle. As she ran, her form blurred, her shape changing to that of Hubrid's.
"What is she up to?" Clayton whispered to himself.
He followed at a distance. Xandra wasn't moving according to the plan, and that was never a good thing.
A short distance away from the fortress, Xandra took up a position in the woods and waited. It wasn't long before the real Nox came along, too busy cackling about a successful escape to notice the imposter, who he ran right into.
Xandra wasted no time - while Nox was down, she charged the full might of her magic and unleashed it on him.
She gave a ruthless smirk, before turning and heading back to the clearing.
"What was that!?" Clayton demanded, bursting out from his cover.
Xandra wasn't taken by surprise, slowly returning to her original Xweetok form. Had she known Clayton was there?
"Nox was a loose end," she said without remorse. "If we left him running around he could bump into anyone and tell them the truth - as soon as it becomes clear Nox wasn't behind all this, then the finger of suspicion will move again. Nox had to die."
"You gave us your word that there would be no casualties!" Clayton hissed.
"Then you have learned exactly how much my word means," Xandra replied simply. "Regardless, I am still your only path into the Hidden Tower."
"No one is inexpendable," Clayton threatened.
"Then Nox dying should hardly matter," Xandra replied.
With that, she carried on back to her starting point, leaving Clayton to his rage.
"Did you not hear me correctly?" Clayton asked Knight. "Hubrid Nox is dead!"
"Yes, I heard you," Knight hissed in reply.
Knight had returned from tailing Hanso - the thief had broken into the castle early and alerted Hubrid, though with the help of Brynn he had freed the others from the mansion's traps.
"Xandra, and the Duchess I might add, both gave us personal assurances this was a no-casualty operation," Clayton said.
"Hubrid hardly counts," Knight replied. "And besides, he was a necromancer - the man will likely be beyond conventional death."
"We should contact the Duchess," Clayton insisted. "Xandra is operating independently now - we need to abort."
"Very well," Knight said with a withering sigh. "But you and I both know that with Faerieland about to fall we are all in too deep to abort. It is Xandra or bust."
A few minutes later, they got a reply from the Duchess which entirely confirmed Knight's thinking. They were to continue.
"This... This isn't right," Clayton insisted.
"It is a little late for a conscience," Knight sniped. "Besides... Do you feel that?"
Clayton did. There was a sudden change in the air. Instinctively, Clayton looked up - in the sky, Faerieland looked different. The natural glow of the city in the clouds had gone - and with it the magic that was keeping it floating. It would be a slow decline at first, but the course was now set. Faerieland would fall.
But that wasn't all that changed in the air. There was a tingle, one Clayton recognised from Neovia - and sure enough, the shadows began to move.
"This happened in Neovia when the creeping shadows invaded," Clayton whispered.
This time though, the creatures that were coming through the void between worlds were different - Xandra's Wraiths.
They swirled around the clearing, and the gathered adventurers readied their weapons for battle.
Xandra briefly looked puzzled, before aiming some magic at the nearest Wraiths and joining the battle. From their cover, Clayton and Knight did as best they could to help out without giving away their position.
The Wraiths eventually gave up, retreating back to the darkness that they had come from.
In the clearing, the discussion about what to do next continued. Between them, they eventually decided that most of them would stay in the Woods and fight any more Wraiths that appeared, while Brynn and Hanso would travel to Brightvale and use the resources of the Seekers to try and find a cure. Xandra, meanwhile, made her excuses to return to her library and continue her research.
Knight and Clayton caught up with Xandra when she had left the group.
"What was that?" Clayton demanded. "I saw your look of surprise... You weren't expecting that attack - I thought the Wraiths served you?"
"So did I," she muttered. "It would appear they were only pretending to ally with me in order to get a foothold in our dimension. With the Faeries out of the picture, the walls between worlds are getting weaker anyway, so they are able to breach them themselves - the situation will only get worse in that regard."
"So you no longer have control of the situation," Knight said.
"Didn't you see what I did?" Xandra asked. "That taste of magic seemed to give them an idea of who is in charge. Once they enter our world, they become mortal - they'll remember that next time, and should fall in line."
This seemed to be enough for Knight.
"Brynn and Hanso are heading for Brightvale, I see," he said. "We have planted a book there that will point them towards the second artefact in the ruins."
"Good," Xandra replied. "As soon as the Wraiths reappear, I'll send them to Brightvale to hurry things along."
"We'll stay in the woods and keep an eye on Altador," he suggested. "I get the feeling he will soon be sending for reinforcements."
To be continued...