Full Moon: Part Four
"I caught some food for us while you were gone," Seisan announced proudly, nudging a leaf-basket of silver fish towards the group as they reunited at the edge of the hermit's clearing. "Were you able to ascertain any useful information?"
Galadorith did not seem to hear the question, his face pensive as he went about constructing a fire.
"We did," Res took over hastily, then relayed everything he could remember to the Kougra.
Seisan sat up with interest at the mention of the tower. "That sounds dangerous."
"Any ideas about the countdown?" Res asked hopefully. "We have a few theories, but none that we can work with."
"I think it's related to the spell's potency," Aber interjected. "When it gets to zero-"
"We either get vaporised or released," Galadorith snapped, finishing the sentence for him. "It's not good enough to just hope for the latter. We need a plan!"
"I thought... I thought you already had one." All the colour drained from Ari's face.
"Don't worry, Ari. He's working on it," Ethel soothed the JubJub.
Tense silence reigned for an indeterminable time. Suddenly, Galadorith leapt to his feet and began pacing furiously.
"We'll have to do this systematically," the Gelert rambled. "If there is any hostile activity on the ground floor, it will be too dangerous to use the front entrance. Some of us will have to sneak in through a back window and clear the area before letting the others in. I suspect that the culprit we're seeking will be on the top floor, but we must silence any guards that stand between us and them. We can't afford to risk being ambushed from behind."
Galadorith paused, as if to mull over what he had just said. "This is a dangerous mission, so no one is obligated to come. However," he held up a hand, "every single one of you would be an asset."
"What do we do when we find whoever is behind this?" Ethel inquired.
"We will do our best to defeat them and restore Meridell to its former glory," Galadorith declared.
"How? We don't have any weapons," Res pointed out.
"We have approximately three hours until sunset," Galadorith reasoned, glancing at the sun's position in the sky. "We could use that time to make weapons from trees branches, if necessary."
"We could," Res agreed.
"Unless you have any other concerns, it's time to make your decision," the leader prodded. "Ethel?"
"What?" the elderly Ixi replied irritably.
"You don't have to come if you don't-"
"I'm coming!" Ethel bellowed with surprising force. "Do you think I'm going to cower out here like a frightened old peadackle while you whippersnappers go gallivanting off on an adventure? I may be old, but I'd bet my last neopoint I could still teach you a thing or two!"
Res had to bite his tongue to keep from laughing as Galadorith backed away from the intensity of Ethel's glare. "I-I meant no offense, Ethel. We would be glad to have you," he stammered, fighting to regain his composure. "What about you, Res?"
"I'm in," Res declared instantly.
The mysterious danger scared him, but the stakes were too high to allow fear to gain a foothold in his decision.
Galadorith nodded, his shoulders sagging with relief. "Aber?"
"I'm in, too," the Uni answered boldly.
"I'm not brave or strong like the rest of you," Ari shifted his weight nervously. "I would only be a burden."
"You wouldn't be a burden," Galadorith reached out to the JubJub, his eyes filled with compassion. "Speed and wit will serve us where strength may not. We will have great need of someone who can slip into small spaces and think on their feet. But whatever you choose, Ari, you have been very brave so far. Far braver than you ever had cause to believe you should be. Meridell is calling for you to serve now. How will you answer?"
Tears glistened in Ari's eyes as he pondered Galadorith's words. "I... I will serve."
A whoosh of breath flooded out of the leader's lungs. "Thank you."
A cheer rose from Aber, and he took his place next to the JubJub. "I'll watch your back," Res heard the Uni say to the younger 'pet.
"What say you, Seisan?"
The Kougra inspected a row of gleaming nails that extended from one paw.
"When do we start?" he queried impishly.
A slow smile spread across Galadorith's face. "Now."
An eerie hum filled the air moments before lightning struck the spire. Zap! Zap! Zap! Zap!
Four strikes, Res shivered with apprehension. From the corner of his eye, Res could see that the others were similarly perturbed. Galadorith gestured for them to move out, and Res shook off the sense of foreboding that had hung over him like a raincloud since the tower first came into sight.
Let's go, he mouthed to Aber and Ari, whom he had been partnered with.
Moving as a single unit, they crept along the stone exterior of the tower. There was a chance that they had already been seen as they left the forest, but there was no reason to draw undue attention to their movements. Res peered through the grille of a first-floor window.
"If we pull this out, you and Ari could squeeze through," Aber nosed the obstruction thoughtfully.
Ari visibly shivered and his eyes widened with fear, but he held his ground. "Let's do it."
Res smiled at the JubJub, doing his best to channel every ounce of warmth and confidence he had into the gesture. "Don't worry, we'll be fine."
It took a few minutes to pry the grating from the window frame, and a few more to boost Ari onto the sill.
"It looks like a storage room or a kitchen of some sort," Ari whispered. "I think it's safe to go in."
"Go on, Ari. I'm right behind you," Res encouraged.
The JubJub dropped to the floor and Res quickly followed suit. True to Ari's description, an array of large metal pots and bizarrely-shaped utensils were packed into nearly every available space. Res turned around to meet Aber's inquisitive stare.
"Want to come with us, Aber?" Res snickered, noting that the gap was too small for the Uni to comfortably follow them.
"Yup," Aber whinnied cheerfully. "Make way!"
With that, the exuberant Uni launched himself through the narrow opening. Cauldrons crashed to the floor as he landed, and Res cringed at the excessive noise. He hadn't really been expecting Aber to jump through the window, let alone make enough noise to wake up every living soul within a two mile radius.
"Sorry," Aber winced, giving Res an apologetic glance. "I thought you were being serious."
"That's what I get for being sarcastic." Res rubbed the back of his neck with a nervous laugh. "We'd best keep moving."
The door into the hallway was stiff and its rusted hinges creaked from years of disuse. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught a glimpse of a spyder skittering away. Fighting back a shiver of revulsion, Res led the way into the abandoned corridor. They walked in silence, dodging cobwebs and the writhing carapaces of falling insects.
As they had hoped, the ground floor was completely free of guards and there was no sign of a dungeon. Satisfied that they were safe from imminent danger, Res heaved open the front door. He was greeted by the relieved faces of his companions.
"Great work," Galadorith murmured. "Did you have any trouble with guards?"
"None." Res matched his leader's hushed tones. "The bottom floor is clear."
"Time to check out the other floors then," Galadorith squared his shoulders. "Ethel, you're with me."
The stairs creaked as they ascended, much to their leader's dismay. Most of the rooms on the first landing were unusually empty.
"Res! Give us a hand with this door," Galadorith called in a stage whisper from down the hall.
The door in question was made from a thick block of cedar that appeared to have expanded since it was installed. Since the gold-plated handle was stuck fast, the rest of the group was trying to shove it open by force. Res added his strength to the task, hoping it would be enough to grant them entry. Seisan sat a short distance away, keeping watch. He seemed to be harbouring a level of disdain for their efforts, as though he found their incompetence embarrassing.
After a full minute of struggling in vain, Seisan approached the door and brushed his paw over the locking panel. An audible click resounded and Res looked at the Kougra in surprise. Seisan merely shrugged and pushed the door open, inviting them to go inside.
The room - which was a library, Res realised - was far more expansive than he had expected. Floor-to-ceiling bookshelves lined the walls, which were filled to the brim with ancient texts. A knee-high slab of black marble drew a line through the centre of the room, embellished by ornate designs. Not a single imperfection marred the gleaming surface, which was laden with weightier tomes that did not fit on the shelves. As he approached the closest one, his stomach rebelled against him and he had to choke back the bitter taste of bile. Stars swarmed before his eyes as he lurched away from it, heart threatening to beat out of his chest.
"What is it, Res?" Galadorith lunged forward to support him.
"I don't know." Res blinked, leaning on the Gelert as he tried to regain his balance. "There's something wrong with the books on that table."
"They have most likely been contaminated with dark magic." Seisan eyed the books with a mixture of caution and disgust. "We should leave this room as soon as possible."
"I found something!" came Aber's muffled voice from the far corner.
Galadorith immediately hurried towards him and Res reluctantly followed, edging as far away from the cursed tomes as possible. They found Aber in a hidden reading nook that was squirreled away behind one of shelves. Beside him was a severe-looking chair that had been carved from the same unyielding marble as the table.
"Something really is wrong." Galadorith frowned as he approached Aber.
The usually jovial Uni was grim-faced as he held up a lone piece of paper. Res gasped as the defaced image of Illusen stared up at him. At that moment, the pieces of the puzzle clicked together in his mind. The dark faerie magic, the purple smoke, the green flash, the vandalised photo...
"This is Jhudora's tower!" Res hissed urgently. "We have to get out of here right now!"
"Very clever, little neopets," came a harsh voice from the shadows. "I wondered how long it would take you to work that out."
A tall, sneering dark faerie materialised in the corner, her arms bared. Words that crackled with power spilled forth from her bloodless lips, and Res suddenly found himself engulfed in smoke.
To be continued...