The Spirit of Black Keep: Part Three
The augurs were right—the next day was still overcast and cold, but the clouds looked much less likely to rain as Celice rented a carriage to take them to Market Town.
As the carriage bounced over the dirt highway that connected Brightvale’s communities, Pharazon fingered the thick woollen scarf Celice had given him. It sported a beautiful striped pattern of browns and greens, perhaps more suited for autumn than spring, but it was the largest, warmest scarf she had. He had wanted to merely loan it from her, but she insisted that he keep it, as some sort of recompense for accompanying her.
“Just think of it as an errand,” she had said, “a quick one to take you sightseeing before we settle in for some good scholarly fun at the University.” After supper the night before, she’d made no further mention of Pharazon’s magical skills. It seemed as though he had at least won that round.
Now she was once again sitting across from him, one elbow propped on a windowsill, her fingers interlaced in front of her mouth as she watched the trees pass by. Today she wore cream-coloured robes under a forest green, ivy-patterned cloak that complemented her snowy fur nicely. Her golden eyes gleamed, the Lupe sorceress lost somewhere in her thoughts. She emanated power, and not just in appearance alone—Pharazon could feel her magic buzzing around her.
All magic users had focussing tools, she had once explained to Pharazon. Many, especially battlemages, used wands or staves, which could double as physical weapons in a pinch. Others utilised items like jewelry or scrolls, while a number preferred verbal recitation of spell-words.
And some, like Celice, focussed their power through the very clothes they wore. Mages’ robes were not to be taken lightly. Their tailors were mages themselves who crafted goods that were as much magical implements as they were dapper apparel.
Celice, of course, felt it was really the best of both worlds.
The ride would take about an hour, so Pharazon had brought a book with him and settled down to reading, although occasionally he would glance up at the scenery. Brightvale was hill country, with grass-covered downs interrupted by stark white chalk cliffs, waterfalls that poured into deep ponds, and thick patches of forest in between farmland. The shadows of clouds rolled over the countryside in a parade of dappled light and shadow.
It was the sort of thing, Pharazon thought, that someone would paint a relaxing picture of. Even now it made him feel more at ease about his situation.
“How are you holding up?” Celice asked. He turned from the window to see her watching him with a friendly smile. “I think we’re almost there, from the looks of it,” she added.
“Good,” he said with a nod, on both counts. He was tempted to dip his snout back into his book, but she kept looking at him, and he remembered his owner telling him that was usually a sign someone wanted to engage in conversation. It was only fair, since he’d been reading this whole time.
He closed the book, keeping a claw between the pages to mark his place, and readjusted himself where he sat. “So… how’s work been?”
“It’s going quite well,” Celice said, placing her paws primly in her lap. “Last month I accompanied Lord Isengrim to Meridell to work out trade relations. He and Skarl get along famously—due in no small part to their mutual love of feasts, I’m sure.” She grinned. “I fear our dear Werelupe King may begin to develop a bit of a paunch.”
Pharazon forced a smile. “Heh.” He was sort of hoping she would talk about her scholarly work rather than her side job as a diplomat for the Werelupe Woods. After the events of two years ago, the Woods had been recognized as a legitimate kingdom by Meridell, Brightvale, and Darigan. The Werelupe King, had asked Celice to assist him in establishing the proper connections with his neighbouring kingdoms, and now she divided time between that and her studies at the University.
But Pharazon still didn’t like being reminded of Werelupes. Even if they were technically “good guys” now.
Celice sat up suddenly and pointed out the window. “Oh! Here we are!”
The cliffs on one side of the road had dropped off and the carriage now ran right alongside the sea. Off the coast ahead of them was a sizeable island, connected to the mainland by a high stone bridge.
The island itself was filled to the brim with buildings. Multi-storeyed, with whitewashed walls and red tiled roofs, they crowded every bit of space on the island, with a few even partly built into its cliffs, jutting out toward the ocean. Cyodrakes wheeled overhead, letting out plaintive cries, while sky-ships and sailing ships alike bobbed at their moorings at the port that networked around the isle.
“Is that Market Town?” Pharazon asked. “It’s gorgeous—“ His voice cut off. It was indeed an elegant, cheerful city—except for the enormous black tower that loomed ominously over the far side of the island. Pharazon felt nearly like it was watching them, and that idea made him shudder.
“Oh yes, it’s quite the place,” Celice said, not seeming to notice his discomfort. “Second largest city in Brightvale, after the capital.”
“Yeah, I remember reading something about that,” Pharazon said, shifting in his seat. He couldn’t draw his eyes away from the tower. “Since Brightvale Castle is landlocked, Market Town handles most of the imports and exports for Brightvale, right?”
Celice nodded. “A relic from the days before sky-ships, but old habits die hard.”
Scarlet and gold banners snapped in the sea breeze as the carriage rattled under the high stone arches at the near end of the bridge. Traffic on the bridge was lively, with other Uni carriages and Petpet-driven carts moving to and fro, but Pharazon barely noticed. His eyes kept being drawn back to the town’s proverbial Elephante in the room, the massive fortress that cast its shadow over an entire quarter of rooftops like an ominous sundial.
Finally he turned back to his Lupe friend. “That’s Black Keep, isn’t it.”
“Indeed it is,” she said, casting her golden gaze up to look at it as well. “Over a thousand years old, they say.”
“The histories in the university library said a little about the Darkest Knight,” Pharazon said. They went under the town gate, and the tower was briefly obscured by the thick stone wall edging the island. The Draik felt a strange sense of relief, like he was hidden from something hunting him. “He was once the Black Knight, Meridell’s greatest champion, but all of that glory went to his head. He tried to seize the throne, but was stopped and exiled for treason.”
Celice smirked. “Not very bright with their laws back then, were they? Exile’s the worst place to put an upstart like that.”
“Exactly,” Pharazon said. “The records say he came to Market Town and took control of the city, building Black Keep as his home and headquarters. He was a despot who taxed the people heavily, ruled them with cruelty and unfairness, and started to exert more and more autonomy. Finally he attempted to secede from Meridell and make Market Town its own kingdom.”
“Ah, right—the entire Meridell region was unified in those days,” Celice said. “I always forget that. That’s why you’re the history buff, Pharazon. I’m just the fire-flinging madwoman.” She grinned, showing a bit of fang, as they emerged into the city and sunlight bathed the carriage again.
Pharazon smiled modestly. “Anyway, at that point the townsfolk decided they’d had enough. They stormed Black Keep… and that was the end of the Black Knight.” He sighed and looked back up at the tower. It seemed nearer than ever now, and it filled him with an uncomfortable foreboding, despite how nonchalant Celice was about the situation.
“At least until eleven years ago,” Celice said with a nod, “when the Darkest Faerie resurrected him. But good old Princess Roberta and Sir Tormund took care of him again. And the place has been abandoned ever since.”
“Why didn’t the townsfolk just tear the tower down in the first place?” Pharazon asked. “Then maybe the Darkest Faerie would never have been able to resurrect the Darkest Knight… not to mention the thing’s kind of an eyesore.”
Celice laughed. “And waste tax money? Not worth it. That thing is enormous, and has probably got a fair bit of magic holding it together—it’s in remarkable condition for something over a millennium old. Demolishing it just isn’t worth the effort. I suppose the townsfolk think that if they wait long enough, it’ll go away eventually.”
“If only life worked like that,” Pharazon muttered. “I think they’re going to be waiting for a pretty long time.”
The carriage took them down wide avenues lined with stucco-faced buildings. Pillars and arches were prominent in the architecture, every plaza had a fountain, and well-trimmed spruces added a splash of green to the lively town.
Pharazon watched the cityscape go by for a few minutes before he realised why it all seemed so familiar. “… This looks like Altador,” he said. “Or, what you’d get if you mixed Altador and Brightvale, I guess.”
Celice smiled. “Mm-hm. Did you read anything about the founding of Market Town?”
“Oh—that’s right,” Pharazon said. “The histories said it was founded by a son of Gordos the Collector.”
“Who may be an ancestor of Their Majesties Hagan and Skarl, if the genealogies are correct,” Celice said. She leaned in closer to the Draik and cupped a paw by her muzzle. “Although, between you and me, nobody’s quite sure how much of those family trees are accurate and how much Hagan made up to make himself sound more important.”
Pharazon snorted in amusement, sending a puff of faerie dust out of his nostrils. “Well… whether or not that’s true,” he said, “this son was evidently a travelling merchant who sailed the ocean, trading with other lands like Shenkuu and Lutari Island. On one voyage, he sailed clear across the sea and discovered Meridell. Realising how much Altador could benefit from commerce with the region and its abundant resources, and likewise how much the local clans could gain from Altador, he befriended the clan chieftains and convinced them to begin trading with his native land.”
“Meridell was really a different place back then, wasn’t it,” Celice murmured. “I hear the magic users back then were powerful nature wizards.” She smiled, as though pleased with the prominence of mages in any historical society. “Oh—sorry. Please do go on.”
The Draik complied. “His settlement on this very island became the trade ships’ destination, and it was because of his hard work and genuine goodwill toward the Meridell clans that they began to unite and develop themselves into a kingdom. By the time Altador was sealed off from the rest of Neopia by that time bubble, Meridell was well on its way to becoming a major power on the eastern side of the continent.” Pharazon felt himself becoming more at ease. Market Town reminded him of home, and all of these buildings did a fair job of blocking the view of the omnipresent Black Keep. Soon this errand would be over, he reminded himself.
He was about to ask Celice if she thought there would be any good places to have lunch here, when the carriage stopped in front of a large, important-looking building. From the way it dominated the plaza, it was clear that this was from where the town was administrated.
“Thank you kindly,” Celice said to the yellow Uni driver as she swept out of the carriage, extending a paw to Pharazon to help him down. She deposited a handful of Neopoints into the driver’s saddlebag and then looked up at their destination, pushing her spectacles up her snout. “The Market Town Traders’ Guild. I’m sorry to say that these folks might be even more snobbish than Brightvalians, so do be on your guard, Pharazon.”
“I’ll just stay quiet and let you handle everything,” he said.
She glanced down at him and patted his head. “Enjoy yourself, all right? We’ll go out to lunch after this.”
He nodded, and followed her up the steps and through the thick wooden doors of the guild hall. The foyer inside was lavishly decorated with lush carpet, potted plants, and chandeliers whose flickering glow played across the high ceiling beams.
Pharazon fiddled with the fringe of his scarf while Celice spoke with the receptionist, who directed them to an office on the second floor. His claws sunk into the thick hallway rug - imported from Sakhmet if the patterning was any indication – as the Lupe sorceress knocked at the door, and for a moment they waited.
“Come in,” said the occupant of the office.
Sitting at a desk, by a window that overlooked a courtyard, was a well-dressed blue Kau who looked like she always had plenty of butter at her supper table. She peered up at the two over her paperwork. “Can I help you?” she asked, one floppy ear flicking. Her eyes lingered on Pharazon, giving him the distinct impression that she was trying to judge how wealthy he was. He stopped fidgeting with his scarf, afraid that was making him look poor.
Celice put a paw to her chest and bowed. “Lady Celice Anfel of Brightvale University, and her assistant ArPharazonTheGolden. You are?”
“Guildswoman Griselda,” the Kau said, extending a hoof which Celice shook. Pharazon wondered if he was supposed to shake it too, but Griselda seemed to be dismissing him. Which was all fine and well for him, as he would rather stay out of this as much as possible. “Am I to assume you are the Brightvale mages we requested to look into the Black Keep?”
“The very same,” Celice said. “Well—Pharazon isn’t from Brightvale, but he is a magic user and is accompanying me on this assignment.”
I’m not a magic user, Pharazon thought with some ire. Just because I know some magic doesn’t mean I use it—or want to use it.
Griselda seemed satisfied, and she reached into a drawer under her desk and pulled out a set of worn iron keys, looking them over briefly before pocketing them. “The Guild extends its gratitude for your assistance in this matter, Lady Anfel.” With some effort, she hefted herself out of her chair and strode to the door. “I shall accompany you to Black Keep. Please, follow me.”
Pharazon took to fidgeting with his scarf again as Griselda led them down the hall and back to the ground floor. “What sort of magic do you specialise in, Lady Anfel?” the Kau asked.
“Sorcery,” said Celice, who was doing a better job of keeping up with her than Pharazon. “To be specific, I’m a pyromancer—that was my major at the University.” She grinned. “Perhaps I should have been born a fire Lupe—but no, I think white suits me best. I like how fire purifies, wipes away corruption and gives a fresh start to things.”
Griselda raised an eyebrow. “They’ve sent me a pyromancer to investigate Black Keep?”
“Well, I’m quite proficient in general spellcasting,” Celice said, flicking a nonexistent speck of dust off of her cloak. “As is pretty much everyone trained at the Academy of Magic. So I’m certain I’ll be able to help in this instance.”
“And your associate?” Griselda asked.
There was a pause, and Pharazon realised he was supposed to answer. He glanced up at Celice, who gave him an exasperated look that silently told him she was not going to bail him out of this one. “I’m—just starting out,” he managed to stammer. “I came along for—observational purposes.”
“He’ll be fine,” Celice said with a smile. “He’s a trustworthy fellow.”
“If you say so,” Griselda said. She led them out a side door, where a red Uni and carriage waited in a small entry tunnel, which led to the courtyard Pharazon had seen out the guildswoman’s office window.
The Uni, who had been sitting on the cobblestones reading the Neopian Times, stood up when she saw the three approach, tucking the newspaper into her saddlebag. “Where to, milady?” she asked Griselda.
“Black Keep, if you please,” the Kau said, pulling herself into the carriage. Celice and Pharazon followed, sitting next to each other across from her, and the vehicle began to move.
“Pardon me for asking, Guildswoman,” Celice said as they joined city traffic, “but does Market Town have no resident mages? Why did you request help from the capital?”
Griselda waved a hoof. “Oh, we have mages, but we’re not especially known for them like the capital is. Ours mostly deal in charms and hedge magic. Not to mention the various safety regulations surrounding the Keep. The other council members and I ran the numbers, and it actually involved less time, money, and red tape sending for a court magician.”
“Fair enough,” Celice said. “I’m glad to be of some assistance. The capital is lovely, but it’s nice to stretch my legs a bit, too.”
The carriage turned a corner and then, looming up in front of them, was Black Keep. It was so tall that Pharazon couldn’t even see the top out the carriage window, and he got the impression that in the mornings, when the sea fog rolled in, it obscured the tower and made it look like it extended into the sky forever. Certainly, he thought, the Darkest Knight had done a great job of making his fortress as imposing as possible.
The Keep was separated from the rest of the city by a high, thick wall, and there was a good bit of space between the wall and the tower proper, probably room for a lawn and a few outbuildings. As the three clambered out of the carriage, Pharazon looked across the street. Pedestrians strolled past a building with a colourful spice shop on the ground floor, seemingly oblivious to the piece of history that brooded nearly on top of them. Celice was right—people here preferred to pretend Black Keep didn’t exist. The effect was unsettling, like Pharazon was standing on the boundary of two worlds, one of light and life and one of lonely darkness.
“Well, here we are,” Griselda said, fishing the loop of keys out of her pocket and rifling through them. “As we mentioned, this isn’t anything too worrisome. We’ve just had a number of reports of strange lights in the tower at night. Sometimes people hear voices, although they can’t make out what they’re saying.” With a satisfied grunt, she held up a key and moved to the gate. “There have always been rumours that Black Keep is haunted by the spirit of the Darkest Knight, but this is the first time there’s been any substance to them.”
Pharazon twisted his tail. “Of course it’s haunted,” he muttered under his breath. “Wouldn’t want to make this too easy, would we?”
Celice shot him a pointed glare before looking back to Griselda. “There’s magic running through this place, isn’t there.”
The Kau nodded absently. The lock seemed to be giving her trouble, suggesting it hadn’t been opened in some time. “Most likely. I’m a businesspet, I wouldn’t know the first thing about magic, but our records do say the Darkest Knight employed quite a few sorcerers to build the Keep.” Finally the key turned with a heavy thud. Griselda sighed and pushed open one of the immense doors, just wide enough for the three to slip through.
“My suspicions confirmed, then,” Celice said, casting a glance over her shoulder to make sure Pharazon was following.
He took a deep breath and forced himself through the gap in the doors.
To be continued…