Full Moon: Part Three
"Okay, spit it out," Res confronted Seisan the next morning. "Not your breakfast," he amended quickly, as the Kougra bowed his head and gave him a strange look.
A good night's sleep had done wonders for his splitting headache, and he was resigned to the fact that he would have to spend more time with the devious wraith if he wanted answers to his predicament.
"Where are we?"
Seisan gave Res a searching look, as if the question was too stupid to answer. "In an alternate dimension, of course."
"You're crazy! Why did you bring me here?" Res demanded incredulously.
Seisan whirled around to face Res, scowling. "This was not my doing, Draik. You would do well to remember that."
"I don't believe you," Res returned the scowl with one of his own. "You knocked me out and-"
"No!" Seisan growled loudly, startling Res into silence.
"No," he continued in a softer voice. "Far darker forces were at work in the forest that night, and I took it upon myself to save you."
"Save me?" Res repeated, unconvinced. "But you're a wraith."
"And you're a stubborn, snorkle-headed Draik," Seisan countered. "I may be a wraith, but I am not nearly so malevolent as your inhibitions would have you believe."
Res felt his cheeks burn at the insult, knowing that there was probably a grain of truth behind it.
"Okay, okay," he relented, crossing his arms. "How do you know there's a hermit nearby?"
"I went exploring while you were unconscious," Seisan admitted with a sly grin. "A teleportation spell does have its uses."
"So why haven't you teleported us out yet?"
"Faerie magic does not work that way," Seisan rolled his eyes, patience waning once again.
"How do you know that the hermit will help us?" Res backpedalled, knowing better than to question the Kougra's abilities.
"I believe it would be in his best interests," Seisan crinkled his nose. "This affects all of us now."
"Prepare to move out!" Galadorith shouted, his strident voice cutting cleanly through their conversation.
As Res turned to leave, Seisan placed one paw on his shoulder. "It was a pleasure to converse with you. I hope we can remain on civil terms."
Res gave a curt nod and the Kougra strolled away, apparently satisfied.
The unbridled path made for tough going that morning, with the group forced to wade through ankle-deep leaves that were slick with dew. Everyone was feeling the strain from the previous day's exertions. Even the trees seemed to empathise with their plight, their branches bowing and drooping towards the forest floor. Marrow-sized rocks littered the ground before their feet. Res had to help Ethel and Ari to navigate the treacherous path, knowing that the more frail group members must be suffering far more than he was. For all her stumbling footsteps, the elderly Ixi never complained. Ari, on the other hand, was more vocal about his displeasure.
More tragic, too, Res thought as he endured another self-pitying monologue from the JubJub.
Rather than his usual feelings of disgust towards any form of gratuitous whining, Res felt an unexpected surge of empathy bubble up inside him. He realised that Ari was only a kid, and that insight flooded his soul with a desire to protect the younger 'pet. The JubJub had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time, and it was no wonder that he was scared stiff. Any civilian would be.
The faint outline of a thatched roof came into sight just after midday. Galadorith took the lead, motioning for Seisan to join him. Res bounced on the balls of his feet behind them, unconsciously mimicking Aber, as he strained to catch a glimpse of their quaint destination. It wasn't long before he was able to make out the crouching figure of a blue Techo, who was rocking back and forth in a patch of dirt outside the dilapidated hut. The Techo's eyes were wide with frenetic movement, spittle flying from the corners of cracked lips that were perpetually twitching. His hands, which were sunburnt from his supposed toils in the nearby herb garden, were wringing nervously. He was garbed in rags which offered no protection from the elements. Res had difficulty believing that the hermit would be able to find his way out of a potato sack, let alone out of their current situation.
Res gave Seisan a scathing glance, but he didn't seem to notice. Instead, the Kougra stepped forward and proclaimed loudly; "Greetings, Tabor."
The hermit flinched and jumped away from him, gesticulating wildly. "Wr-wr-wraith!" he gibbered with fright. "Stay back, all of you!"
Res found himself being swept to the side as the deranged Techo brandished a pitchfork at Seisan.
"He is our friend," Galadorith began, but was quickly outspoken by his overzealous protector.
"Go with him," Seisan insisted. "I will make myself scarce until you need me."
With that, the wraith sauntered back into the forest. His departure struck Res with a strange sense of loss; he would have felt more confident with the Kougra by his side.
"Inside, quickly! Before he comes back!" the hermit wheezed, herding them towards his hut.
The musty odour of old books and stale air hit Res as soon as he walked through the door, but it took a few minutes for his eyes to adjust to the dim light. He had never seen such a disorganised jumble of outdated furniture and outright trash. Apart from a few scarce footprints, every surface was caked in a thick layer of dust that rose in tiny puffs with every step Res took. The hermit evidently did not spend much time cleaning - or any time, if this room was anything to go by.
"Tea?" the Techo asked, his crazed features dissolving into a semblance of normalcy. "My name is Tabor, by the way."
The confusion must have been clear in their faces, because Tabor winked at them and proceeded to heat the kettle anyway.
"I'm not really crazy, you know," he explained as he worked. "I have to keep up appearances. There's always someone watching, and there seems to be little distinction between friend and foe these days. It's easier to distance myself."
"Seisan isn't dangerous," Galadorith moderated. "You can trust him."
"You really believe that?" Tabor snorted condescendingly as he poured steaming water into a collection of hastily-scrubbed mugs. Res could not identify the crushed leaves that had been added to the water, so he looked to Ethel for guidance.
"It's not poison," the former forest ranger whispered to him. "You can drink it."
Heartened by her assurance, Res took a long draught of the tea. It burned his throat, but the taste was pleasant enough.
"Blergh!" Ari spluttered as he took a gulp from his own mug.
Tea droplets splattered on the floor in front of him, causing Tabor to make a face.
"That is so uncivilised," he said primly. "Has no one taught you proper manners?"
"Sorry to shatter your ideals," Ari muttered, eyeing his filthy surroundings with disdain.
"Do you have any maps here?" Galadorith asked, eager to refocus the conversation.
"I do," Tabor's gaze bored into each of them in turn, "but you should know that the full moon is just a symptom of a greater problem."
Veering over to the kitchen counter, the hermit began rifling through the papers that had been abandoned there. Clapping his hands in delight, he freed a large roll of parchment from the pile and unfurled it.
"This is where we are now," he poked the hand-drawn map with his index finger.
"You drew a map with your house at the centre?" Ethel raised an eyebrow.
"Why not?" Tabor challenged with a roguish grin.
"This is a map of Meridell," Galadorith's voice was voice flat.
"Of course it's a map of Meridell," the hermit retorted. "Where in Neopia did you think we were?"
"But that means-"
"That someone is corrupting our land, yes," Tabor interrupted with a sigh. "I have my suspicions, but there's only one way to find out for sure."
"How?" Aber blurted out, his eyes shining with determination.
Tabor hesitated, as if he was unsure where to begin.
"There's a tower... not far from here," he started tentatively. "When things started to change, green lightning struck the spire seven times. It spread over the countryside like a net waiting to drop. I saw a face - a cruel face - at the tower window. Then the smoke came and I blacked out."
"We saw green light and smoke, too," Res commented, listening with rapt attention.
"The next night," Tabor continued, leaning forward seriously, "there were six strikes."
"We didn't see anything that night," Galadorith sounded perplexed. "What about last night?"
"Five strikes," the hermit's voice trembled. "The lightning has been increasingly localised, which would explain why you didn't notice it."
"It's counting down," Res paled, the cogs in his brain turning.
Tabor nodded. "Exactly."
"Counting down to what?" Ethel asked sharply.
"I'd rather not find out!" Galadorith exclaimed, standing up suddenly. "Where is this tower?"
Tabor pointed to a small dot on the map that denoted an outcrop of rock. "Right here."
"That looks like one of the abandoned keeps from the war against Darigan," Ethel observed.
Galadorith took the map from him and pored over it hungrily. "We leave tonight."
"This is a fool's errand!" Tabor's expression was unexpectedly stormy.
"We have a plan," Galadorith asserted, in an attempt to placate him.
"Plan or not, you are going to your doom!"
"Can... can we go outside?" Ari shivered, obviously unsettled by the hermit's uninspiring contribution.
"Doom, I tell you!"
"Move out," Galadorith agreed, and Res obeyed readily.
As he was crossing the threshold, an icy hand wrapped around his wrist.
"You mustn't get too close to that tower!" Tabor shrieked hysterically. "This ill-fated venture will bring about the destruction of us all! Nothing but the shadows of darkness and despair await you there!"
As he escaped the vice-like grip and rejoined his companions, Res reflected that Tabor might really be crazy after all.
To be continued...