The Price of Greatness: Part Five
EYour head reels as you get sucked through the void. An instant later, you materialise with your flailing companions on what appears to be the main street of a large city. From the dumpy, pastel-bricked cottages and the gaudy high-rises in the distance, you deduce that you have arrived in Neopia Central. As usual, the hubbub of Neopian life fails to impress you. It is far too hectic, far too disorganised and, above all, far too ordinary for your liking.
A brown Skeith shoves you to the side as he walks past, completely oblivious to his blunder. You briefly consider verbal retaliation but push the thought out of your mind. There are far bigger fish to fry.
Marvin is the first of your companions to recover. You offer him a hand and he takes it, rising slowly to his feet.
"This place is huge! It's going to take forever to find him."
The casual observation doesn’t exactly fill you with confidence. His negativity doesn’t faze you though – it only serves to exacerabate your stubbornness.
"Come on," you growl, tugging Thanksalot and Eridor upright as well. "We have to get moving."
"Can you sense any magical traces?" Thanksalot asks the Draik mage.
Eridor squints plaintively at the orb. "I think there might be something, but it's faint."
He shakes his head and growls in frustration. "Maybe if we get close to the scientist, it'll warm up."
The other members of the group look to you for reassurance.
"Your logic is sound," you concur with a nod. "Since, for all intents and purposes, our Scorchio may not even be a Scorchio anymore, there is no sense in splitting up to find him. I suggest we stay with the orb."
"Any questions before we begin?" Thanksalot asks, staring intently at each of you in turn. "Comments? Concerns?"
Your companions are dutifully silent, unwilling to voice their apprehension regarding the fate of the mission. The air is thick with uncertainty.
"Then let's do this."
You decide to follow the knight's lead. After all, relinquishing responsibility will make it easier to pin the blame on someone else if – no, when – the harebrained scheme goes awry.
Suddenly, Eridor yelps in surprise. "The orb’s getting warmer!”
He picks up the speed, and you follow him with gritted teeth. Running around like headless chickens was not what you had in mind for this mission. If you had been in charge, there would be no such frivolity. You would have expected your companions to comport themselves in a dignified fashion. However, you are not in charge, so you resign yourself to sprinting through the streets like a commoner. It surprises you when no one laughs at your foolish charge; you know that your fellow wizards would turn their noses up at such a display.
Eridor comes to an abrupt halt, and you can barely keep from running into him.
"It went cold!"
The shock in his voice is evident, and you glance around to check for an external cause. You don't have to look far.
Less than ten metres away, separated from you by the bustling crowd, is the very Scorchio you were hoping to find. He's pointing something at you, his wild eyes focused on the orb in Eridor's hands. You approach him quickly, taking long, powerful strides while the rest of your party struggles to catch up.
"You're the lab ray scientist," you utter in a deadpan whisper.
Although you posed the question as a statement, your target feels compelled to answer anyway.
"Yes. You can call me Rufio."
You take advantage of his temporary daze by snatching the device from his hands.
"Miniature lab ray," you confirm aloud, handing it over to Sir Thanksalot before focusing your attention back on him. "We've been to your lab, Rufio. What happened to all those 'pets? Why are they ghosts?"
"They're not ghosts," Rufio protests, his eyes wide. "They're just stuck in ethereal form."
You have to admit, you're impressed by his bravery. Not many 'pets can hold their own against your piercing gaze without stuttering.
"Yes, we know," Marvin steps forward boldly. "Myra told us all about your little stunts. You're going to fix it."
"It's not that simple!" Rufio wails, eyes darting between you and the other members of your party. "That would require an astronomical amount of power. That's why I've been mooching around here with my miniature lab ray, sucking up whatever stray energy I can find. You've got to believe me, I want to help these 'pets. I'm trying to help them."
You take a step back. The Scorchio’s sincerity is unmistakable, and that foreign feeling is starting to squirm in your chest again. Pity? No, that’s not right. It’s closer to genuine concern. You haven’t felt this way in centuries, and it disconcerts you that you’ve become so invested in the afflicted pets’ future.
“How much power?” you ask, proud that your voice barely wavers.
“Considering how many ‘pets were affected, we’ll need the energy equivalent of at least twenty mortals,” Rufio keeps his head low as he speaks. “Or a single wizard, but we’ll never find one of those in time.”
You freeze, unable to process his final statement. Your companions are staring, wide-eyed, in your direction. You’re relieved when they don’t speak.
“And if you were to somehow acquire a wizard,” you conjecture smoothly, “what would happen to them during the energy transferral process? Would the wizard survive?”
“Oh! Yes, of course,” the Scorchio’s head bobs up and down earnestly. “But, like I said, it’s impossible. We’ll never be able to find a wizard in time, much less one who would be willing to permanently give up their ability to use magic.”
The dizzying mixture of concern and determination swirling in your chest reaches a fever pitch. The words spill out of your mouth before you can stop yourself.
“Well, it must be your lucky day, Rufio, because you’re looking at him.”
The Scorchio’s mouth drops open, and he babbles like a fool for a span of seconds before regaining his senses.
“Do you really mean it?” he practically squeaks in excitement. “You’re really a wizard?”
“Well, I don’t wear these robes for show,” you tell him dryly.
“Apologies, sir,” Rufio grovels. “This is just so unexpected! And you would really give up your powers?”
“I’m also not in the habit of making jokes.”
Rufio’s eyes bulge and he bows low to the ground. “I don’t doubt it, sir. If you’re ready, we should make haste for the laboratory at once!”
“Very well,” you concede.
Thanksalot hands him the portable lab ray device, and Rufio fumbles with it for a moment.
“I’m transferring some power back into the orb,” he explains as his fingers dart frenetically across the buttons. “It should allow you to take us back to the lab.”
Eridor offers the orb to you, and you grasp it tightly with both hands. You don’t dare to look at his face.
Without waiting for the others to prepare themselves, you envelop them in the teleportation spell. As you land, spluttering, in the laboratory, it occurs to you that this might be the last time you ever cast magic.
Rufio is the first one to recover. He gazes at you in equal parts wonder and trepidation.
“Take a seat,” he gestures to the reclining chair.
It’s just as creepy as before, but any second thoughts are quickly burned away by the memory of Myra. The resignation in her face is seared into your mind. You sit down stiffly.
“The process is reasonably simple,” Rufio explains nervously. “Pain levels seem to vary, but some subjects have lost consciousness–”
“Just get it over with,” you interrupt his discomfiting spiel.
The Scorchio hesitates for another few seconds, then nods curtly. An intense weariness takes over your body, and you find yourself sinking lower and lower into the chair. It feels like the fabric of your being is unravelling. But for some reason, the sensation doesn’t disturb you. The voices of your companions buzz in the background, but you’re no longer alert enough to make out what they’re saying. Part of you wants to say something in return, but your lips have gone numb. A stray thought passes through your mind mere moments before you lose consciousness.
This has been the weirdest day of my life.***
The unidentified voice is high-pitched and exuberant, much to the chagrin of your aching head. Being awake is not at the top of your wish list at the moment, so you draw the blankets closer and burrow your head into the pillow. Mornings are overrated.
"Rise and shine, sleepyhead!" the chipper voice continues, attempting to wrest the blankets from your grip. "Everyone's dying to see you."
You relax as she gives up on trying to pry the blankets from you, only to be caught off-guard as a stray pillow crashes into your cheek.
"Argh!" you exclaim, rolling over in disgust. "Can't a wizard get some sleep around here?"
As soon as the words leave your mouth, you freeze. Wizards don't sleep.
"Sorry," the white Kacheek that woke you bites her lip sheepishly. "It's just that we've been waiting for two days."
Two days? Your mind reels and you try to make sense of the confusing haze of memories that are assaulting your faculties.
Your attention snaps back to the present and you glance up at the Kacheek. Concern is written in every line of her face and it is painfully obvious that she is scared about how you are going to react. You smile warmly at her, letting her know that it's really okay. After a moment, she smiles back at you.
"Let's go and see your friends."
Friends... You test the word out, letting it roll off your tongue just like the glib comments you’re so fond of. You’ve never really associated the word with anything positive before, but things are different now. Besides, there’s a first time for everything. You climb out of bed, wincing as the cold air hits you. You grab an orange bathrobe from the foot of your bed and drape it over your shoulders. It’s not the most fashionable garment, but one should never underestimate the importance of staying warm.
You follow the Kacheek through a tangled web of intersecting corridors, trusting her sense of direction over your own. Without your magical instincts to guide you, getting lost would otherwise become a certainty. After several minutes of walking, the steel pathways converge on the laboratory door. It glides open without warning, and a ball of brown-and-green fur hurtles towards you.
It’s Myra. You barely recognise her corporeal form, but the melodious voice is unmistakable.
“Thank you,” she hugs you fiercely. “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”
You pat her back awkwardly. The horde of ‘pets that swarm you a few seconds later only make you feel more self-conscious.
“We know what you sacrificed to save us,” Myra tells you solemnly when she steps back. “No wizard in the history of Neopia has ever volunteered to give up their powers, especially for the sake of mortals like us. You have our deepest gratitude.”
You’ve never been in a position like this before, and your brain scrambles to come up with an appropriate response. “I just wanted to do the right thing.”
Marvin and Thanksalot join the crowd of ‘pets. Their thousand-watt smiles almost blind you.
“Sulker the Great,” Thanksalot honours you by bowing.
“It’s just Sulker now,” you shrug. “I’m not a wizard anymore.”
“We’re proud of you, Sulker,” Marvin adds. “What you did back there took a lot of guts.”
An unexpected surge of emotion wells up in you, and it takes every ounce of willpower to stop yourself from tearing up.
You pause for a moment to collect yourself. “We should really get everyone back to the surface.”
“Good idea,” Thanksalot inclines his head in agreement. “I already sent Eridor to locate our boat. It won’t carry many people, but I’m sure we can take one of the lab ‘pets with us on the first trip.”
“I’d like to volunteer,” Myra spoke up shyly. “I was one of the first ‘pets to come here, and I’d give just about anything to see the sun again.”
“We’d be happy to have you,” Thanksalot agrees readily. “What about you, Rufio? Are you going to return to the surface at some point?”
The Scorchio shakes his head wistfully. “Someone has to clean up around here. This place was my life...”
He trails off, seemingly lost in thought. You wonder what he’s going to do here without the lab ray. Maybe he’ll be able to piece together what went wrong in the code. Or perhaps he’ll find a less destructive way to harvest energy.
Marvin nods understandingly. “Well, if you change your mind, you’re always welcome to come and visit.”
Before the Scorchio can respond, Eridor bursts into the room.
“I found the boat,” he announces proudly. “Thanks to Sulker the Great, my magic was strong enough to detect it through the water.”
“It’s just Sulker now,” you remind him glumly. “Titles are for wizards.”
“That’s funny,” Eridor’s voice resonates authoritatively, “because you’re greater now than you’ve ever been.”***
The return trip is less unpleasant than you expected it to be. In a matter of minutes, the water has evaporated from your fur, and the whole ordeal has faded into a memory. It feels strange to be surrounded by people who genuinely care about you, but you conclude that it’s a feeling you could get used to.
You wander back into the reception area together, radiant with the joy of success. You signal for your friends to wait outside, then enter alone. Swallowing your pride is difficult enough without a crowd of onlookers. The concierge seems uncertain when he sees you, but offers a nervous smile anyway.
"How can I help you?" he asks tentatively.
You give him the warmest, most genuine smile you can muster.
"I just wanted to offer my sincerest apologies for scaring you before," you say earnestly. "It was childish and uncalled for."
The Lenny seems taken aback for a moment before the grin spreads across his face. “I... appreciate your apology, sir. And... I accept it, of course. No harm done.”
“I’ll be on my best behaviour from now on,” you promise.
You have no idea if you’ll be able to live up to that promise, but you fully intend to try.
“Now, I’d like to discuss a matter of business,” you continue. “Some friends of mine are in need of a place to stay, and I’d like to hire the resort for them.”
“Very good, sir. How many rooms will you require?”
“Oh, twenty would do nicely,” you inform him.
For a moment, you considered moving Sir Thanksalot and Eridor to their own dwellings. But, after all you’ve been through together, you realise that you don’t want to be alone. You don’t need to be alone. From the courtyard, Eridor flashes a smile in your direction, as if to confirm your thoughts. Things will be different now.
“I will have the rooms prepared immediately,” the Lenny gives a little half-bow before scurrying off.
With that taken care of, you exit the reception area and rejoin your friends. Sir Thanksalot and Marvin drape their arms over your shoulders in a gesture of solidarity. You still think it makes you look a little bit foolish but, for the first time, you don’t care. You walk across the beach with the group, listening as they talk and laugh about the whole misadventure. Myra flashes a smile when you glance over at her, and you return it without a moment’s hesitation. It may have taken losing your magic to find it, but friendship is a power well-worth having.