The weathered double doors swung open with a loud creak and a gust of wind rushed between them. It landed in the middle of the floor with a splatter of dark mud, twigs and dead leaves. All movement ceased and a hush fell over the great hall. Even the fluttering of wings had been snuffed out like a candle flame.
The light faerie closest to the puddle dropped her tools and cast a magic shield around the intruding mud. Beneath the shimmering bubble, bright lines came into view, as if they had been traced in the mud all along. They formed a single faerie rune.
"A distress call," the light faerie told the rest of the assembly.
"It could only have been sent by one of our own!" said an air faerie who had come closer.
"I'm not so sure."
Chatter erupted in the hall once again, but died down almost immediately when an athletic earth faerie entered and slumped against the doors.
"Breach," she said breathlessly. "North-west perimeter."
This time, the faeries in the hall looked at each other uneasily, too hesitant to react. The piles of broken things waiting to be reenchanted, the remaining rubble and debris, and the innumerable cracks in the walls were too much to ignore. Only one week had passed since their entire land had fallen from the sky.
A tall faerie all in purple rose to her feet at the back of the room; all heads immediately turned towards her. Queen Fyora's clear voice rang through the hall.
"I will investigate the breach and the source of this message," she said as if it was the simplest thing in the world. "All of you will remain here and continue our repairs."
Most of the faeries in the room turned back to their tools and scrolls, relieved; but the sentry walked up to the queen. "Majesty, we won't have enough sentinels left around the border if we send a party to escort you..."
"The sentinels are to remain at their posts and continue their rounds. But I will not wander into the woods alone, of course," Fyora added with a reassuring smile.
The queen rested her arms on her simple wooden chair woven from branches. She gazed at the sky while she thought. The slowly trailing clouds seemed so distant. Fyora now held court in an open-air room of the palace, not only because many of the ceilings had caved in, but also to offer a little comfort to the faeries who felt confined on the ground. All of them were still reeling from Xandra's petrification and had yet to adapt to their new land. They needed her more than ever.
"Aethia will go with me. Her protection will suffice," said the queen.
Copious amounts of smoke poured out of the crooked chimney that was perched precariously atop the Faerie Weapon Shop. The rickety building seemed to be held up only by magic after landing haphazardly among its neighbours.
The Battle Faerie let out a raucous cough, tossed aside a shield that was dented beyond repair, and stomped over to open the front door. "Yes?" she snapped, sweaty and dishevelled.
The visitor's sleek violet hair and willowy figure offered a striking contrast to Aethia's tousled purple mane, broad shoulders and sharp jaw. Fyora's delicate features were as tranquil as the surface of a lake. She scanned Aethia with violet eyes almost identical to hers.
"It is a pleasure to see you again, dear friend."
The Battle Faerie gave her a terse nod and stepped aside to let her in.
"You have been busy. Please pardon my intrusion," said Fyora. She tactfully avoided looking at the piles of forlorn broken furniture and the debris that littered the shop.
Aethia stood rigidly near the entrance, her arms crossed over her chest. "What is your request, my queen?"
Without further ado, Fyora brought her up to date on the mysterious magical message from the forest.
"Must be a diversion to lure some of us out of the city," said Aethia. "It'll be tough to defend in our... current state. But our warriors haven't lost their tactics."
"I am going to investigate this, Aethia."
"Good luck. Be safe." She took a small step back towards her workshop. Fyora didn't miss it.
"I was hoping that you would honour me with your company."
"Why were you hoping that?"
"Because you can be as efficient as an entire squadron, by yourself."
Aethia snorted. "A fat lot of good it did us during the Ruin." Fyora fixed her with a gentle, concerned, yet penetrating gaze - the queen's trademark look. "Well," Aethia continued with a tense shrug, "that curse showed us I've got a long way to go before I can protect this city, didn't it. And I'm still weak after coming out of it."
"We are all weak, Aethia. I am weak. And I require your protection." Fyora took a step towards Aethia, bowing her head humbly and clutching her staff at waist level. "Our magic is not yet fully recovered, but you are the faerie with the greatest skill in non-magical combat."
When she heard no reaction, Fyora looked up at Aethia from beneath her eyelashes. "You are, in truth, the strongest of us all -"
"Fine, fine, no need to lay it on so thick." The Battle Faerie shuffled away, untied her old leather apron and began to rummage through her equipment.
Once she had donned the rest of her light armour, she and the queen exited through the shop's back door. They took off discreetly in a narrow street. The greeting of the wind on their faces made them squint with delight. They ascended together in one of the rays of sunshine that spilled through the clouds. The sky opened around them, wide and welcoming, yet still so far above. It was with reluctance that Aethia stopped their ascension and flew towards the west instead. Fyora's dainty petal-like wings fluttered above Aethia's shield-shaped wings; the bodyguard stayed below her charge, watching the ground like a Horus.
Faerie City was unrecognisable in this shadowy crater. The few buildings still standing looked ashen without their magical sheen, and entire blocks had collapsed into dirty pink crumbs like the stale remains of a cake. Some of the inhabitants who weren't faeries had bravely returned to the residential districts, to help with the repairs; but most of the evacuees were still housed in other parts of Neopia.
Outside the city, the startlingly green plain dotted with pink was a more refreshing sight. Loud bangs, shrieks and clouds of acid green smoke were coming from a gloomy bluff, and even these familiar signs of Jhudora's presence were comforting to Aethia.
As the pair flew over pink rock formations that shimmered like crystals, Aethia raised her voice to ask the queen: "Are those from your caves?"
Fyora looked down, pleasantly surprised. "Yes. I used all those puzzles to quench young explorers' thirst for adventure, so that they wouldn't wander into more dangerous places." She took advantage of Aethia's improved mood to chat. "Can you believe there was a time when we would play games?"
"I only used games as a training method."
"You've always been so patient with young Neopians."
"Not only young Neopians. During one-on-one self-defence lessons, I did spar up and down the Hidden Tower with an overenthusiastic faerie."
Fyora gave her a soft smile. "You remember?"
The corners of Aethia's mouth twitched, threatening to break her stoic expression. "It's not easy to forget, Majesty. You were pelting me with Starry Battle Dung."
Fyora's smile turned cheeky and she let out a rather unqueenly giggle.
They were nearing a sentries' outpost at the edge of the crater, in one of the few places where it was possible to climb down the rocky slope. Aethia raised her arm above her head and traced a luminous signal. Seconds later, a similar signal appeared over the turret, green in colour. Fyora and Aethia angled their flight towards it.
A wide band of grassy ground separated Faerieland from the twisted bluish mass of the Haunted Woods. It was empty. Only the distant calls of Crokabeks broke the silence. Morning mist rolled over the ground like a pale imitation of their former home's clouds. The sentry assured them that no activity had been sighted. An enchantment cast around the border had been their only warning that an intruder could be lurking out there.
"I don't like this," said Aethia, squinting at the horizon. "We should rally some more sentries -"
"For what purpose? I am only stepping out in peace, to greet and negotiate," said Fyora. Her glassy staff had shrunk to the size of a teaspoon and hung from a cord around her neck. "And I'm with you. Now, if you're ready, then off we go."
The queen's voice was as serene as always, but Aethia could tell that she was steeling herself. They began to walk across the plain. Fyora did not take flight again. She was taking the time to observe, and to be seen.
"Well," she said when they were almost halfway across, "it looks like whoever rang our doorbell couldn't wait for us to answer."
Spiky black legs shot out of the grassy ground and clawed into the earth like scythes. They heaved up six massive bodies twice as tall as the faeries - giant Spyders. Their numerous legs slammed down with resounding thuds instead of the typical scuttling sound. Atop each Spyder rode a well-armed Werelupe.
"We come in peace! Stand back and lower your weapons," Aethia shouted for formalities' sake, as the band charged towards her and Fyora.
The queen gazed at them almost absently. "Ah, they must have been waiting in a cavity."
The growls and barks were growing louder. Aethia waited, her hands still in her pockets. "Whenever my queen wants."
"Oh dear. They don't seem to be stopping, do they? I suppose you could assist them -"
Aethia was gone in a flash. She moved so fast that she seemed to materialise in front of the leading Werelupe. Her boots slammed squarely into the rider's chest and unseated them, sending them flying right into the Werelupe behind them. Aethia stood on top of the leader's Spyder; the four Werelupes on the sides of the formation had stopped in their charge and were shifting hesitantly to face her. She had not yet unsheathed her swords.
Behind her, Fyora floated in front of a backdrop of lavender sparks as her dress transformed into light armour. Her hair rippled behind her head and braided itself of its own accord. As she drifted back to the ground, four glowing shields surrounded her - all in shades of purple, naturally.
Aethia was a whirlwind of blades leaping from Spyder to Spyder, dodging Werelupes' spiked clubs and making the mounts wobble dangerously in a tangle of spindly legs. More and more yelps were heard between growls. A net opened over her head and was instantly shredded by her flaming sword. An open bottle flew at her, vibrating ominously; she caught it and crushed it in one hand. "There's no such thing as a Bottled Battle Faerie," she growled, purple fire blazing in her eyes.
Fyora's shields spun to deflect spears and arrows and redirected them towards other assailants. Aethia threw down a potion vial that exploded in a cloud of smoke, and several of the Spyders immediately shrank to ordinary Petpet size. A quick spell cast by Fyora made the cloud spread to the remaining Spyders and shrink them too.
Their mounts gone, the last pair of Werelupe riders jogged after their limping teammates and vanished down a hollow in the ground. It was nearly invisible in the middle of the grass that rippled like green water.
Aethia peered after them, frowning. "They were just testing us. Almost for sport. Probably wanted a hostage." She glanced at Fyora in her pristine battle attire. "I wish you hadn't made such a show of yourself."
"Oh, but it's been such a long time," said the queen brightly, as if she'd just visited her favourite gardens again.
"If you go back home quickly, I could track them - where are you going now?"
Fyora had started walking towards the woods again. "They went south. The distress call came from the northwest, deeper in these woods. It was not sent by them. They would not have known how to send a runic message."
Aethia put away her swords of ice and flame and hurried after the queen. They reached the first gnarled trees without any more incidents and entered the Haunted Woods. Gloom closed around them; the outside world was instantly hushed as thick silence pressed into their ears.
The faeries' glowing auras stood out like a sore thumb; their wings were bright enough to light their path. With every few steps they took, something could be heard scurrying away from them. Creaking limbs leaned over them, crept alongside for a few paces. Though Aethia was alert as always, those sounds had no effect on her. She'd already had more than her fair share of adventures in the woods.
"Are you really going to search this place for someone who sent us a runic mud pie?"
"Oh, but I do have a very good idea of who sent it." Fyora was hiking merrily through the mud and roots, admiring the sights around her like a tourist.
"What kind of wise old ruler would I be if I gave you a straight answer, Aethia?"
Aethia shot Fyora an exasperated look that few others could get away with. Then the ground shook in front of them and they had to stop short; bony black boughs were weaving themselves into a thick, creaking lattice that blocked the path.
"That's the third blocked road. Are you sure you know where you're going?"
"I might know better after conversing with the spirits of this place. These are the Haunted Woods, after all." Fyora's now muddy armour shifted back to her dress in a lavender blur. She kneeled on the ground, clasped her hands together and closed her eyes.
A deep, booming rumble sent shivers down Aethia's spine. She gripped the hilt of her sword; her head whipped round as more rustling and groans were heard from all directions. From the corner of her eye, she caught sight of a huge dark mass sinking. She leapt in a heartbeat. It was all she could do to grab Fyora and dive out of the way.
What looked like a mountain crashed on the spot where the Faerie Queen had been kneeling a second earlier, an endless heap of monstrous tree trunks as thick as small towers. In Aethia's arms, Fyora was breathing fast, her eyes wide open. Aethia caught a flicker of fear in her eyes, but it was gone in a second.
"You're quite comfortable, Aethia. You should carry me more often," she said airily, still squeezing Aethia's shoulder in a vise-like grip.
"Your Majesty is not as weightless as your grace suggests." She lowered Fyora gently to the ground and inspected their surroundings. The entire forest seemed to have bent itself into a dome above their heads.
Even as she watched, more branches slithered down like Hissis in a pit. Two wide slashes of Aethia's twin blades repelled them; the Battle Faerie stood right in front of Fyora and widened her stance, ready to fight on all sides.
"Please avoid hurting them," said Fyora. "We have come in peace."
Aethia craned her neck to stare at her in disbelief. "I can't fight this, this... is an entire land going after us. Please, pull out a special queen power, anything..."
Fyora gave her an apologetic smile. "I have no power over this land." She conjured glowing shields again to help Aethia in her task.
"Then why did you waltz into this pit for some... some wood-messenger!" The Battle Faerie hacked desperately at branches left and right, burning and freezing, while backing away. Keeping her sword of ice raised to block attacks, Aethia plunged its twin into the ground; she drew a wide arc and the ground burst into flame in the wake of the blade. The fire rose into a wall around them, buying them a moment's respite.
"It is my duty as our queen," Fyora continued in a gentle tone.
"You're not just my queen," Aethia said hoarsely. "You're Fyora. I couldn't even protect you during the Fall."
Fyora laid a hand on her shoulder. "If I had not failed in my duty with Xandra, there would have been no Fall."
Aethia turned to face her and put an arm around her; then she looked up, distracted by something above Fyora's shoulder. "Who goes there?" she barked.
Deep in the tangled mass of branches, a pair of leaf green eyes were glowing; they scowled at Aethia when she dared to discover them.
"Oh, there you are," said Fyora, relieved.
The eyes rolled and a raspy voice replied: "While you're trampling my lawn, prune those branches, as many as you can. They're getting out of hand."
Aethia was quite literally fuming. "Avoid hurting them," she hissed under her breath, shaking her head at Fyora. She raised her swords above her head. As soon as the tips of the two blades came together, both were engulfed in crackling white energy. With a roar, Aethia charged the overgrown weeds. Blazing slashes cut through the growth; more and more light seeped through the dome until it fell apart. Aethia wiped her forehead with a satisfied grin. This was proper gardening.
Fyora stepped gingerly over gnarled roots and nodded politely. "Hello, old friend."
Ilere stared her down, utterly unimpressed. The towering earth faerie turned away. "Hello, older friend."
Five minutes later, the three faeries were seated at a rough wooden table in the middle of a small glade. Dark trees were packed so tightly around it that Aethia couldn't tell if they were indoors or outdoors.
"I don't need any help," said Ilere. "Go home."
Aethia choked on the drink Ilere had served them. It tasted like concentrated essence of nettle.
"A message called me to help, so I came," said Fyora.
Ilere avoided her gaze. "Maybe I did throw a rune into the wind without thinking. Can't remember. I can't have you here, in any case. These woods don't take kindly to queens or other rulers!"
"Ah, but I am no queen in this land. No power here."
"You keep saying you're weakened, but you sure had an easy time reversing the Ixi's petrification," said Aethia. "And right when you woke up, too."
"Hanso had fulfilled the greatest quest a Neopian has ever done for us. Our magical debt was so powerful that the spell practically cast itself," said Fyora, waving her hand airily.
"Either way, the woods will not accept you. Chaos is what rules here, so when a heap of sky magic crashed next door, not a single thing in this forest liked it, I can tell you that." Ilere pointed at specks that twinkled like stars in her ceiling. "Some of your magic rubble even landed in here. There are crystal formations growing and upsetting the local fauna. I have enough trouble keeping this land somewhat balanced without all your glitter. Those Werelupe raiders you met were just the first opportunists. They'll take anything they can get from you. You can tell things are going wrong when Wood-creatures start getting organised."
"That's good to know. But are you sure you're all right here, Ilere?" said Aethia. Her eyes trailed over the vines that slithered around the edges of the glade, and the numerous holes and cracks in the ground.
"Yes. I am fine here." As Ilere spoke, paws dug their way out of the earth and a ghostly Meepit poked its head into her glade. Ilere aimed her glowing green glare at it; her scowl was so venomous that the grass between her and the Meepit wilted in fear. "Shoo," Ilere said pointedly. The Petpet dived back down.
"Of course you are not fine," said Fyora. She was gazing worriedly at Ilere. "You are one of us, and none of us are fine. You were petrified. Just like the rest of us. Except that you awoke here, in the middle of this mess. Oh, it might have grown all around you while we were cursed. And you were alone, with no one to explain what had happened."
Ilere stared down at her crossed arms. Fyora reached out and placed a hand on her shoulder. "You poor dear."
Ilere turned her head away and stared as far into the distance as she could. "I am neither poor nor a dear," she drawled.
Fyora patted her shoulder. "That's the spirit. If you don't want my help, I don't suppose you could help little old me?"
Ilere raised an eyebrow.
"You put a lot of effort into upholding the balance of this land, as you said it yourself, and that is of even greater importance now that we are neighbours. Won't you please help us, Ilere? We will sweep all of our magic back into Faerieland, and with your help, we could make peace with the woods." Fyora looked at Ilere from beneath her eyelashes. The earth faerie seemed confused. "Pretty please?" Fyora added with a mischievous smile.
Ilere sighed. "You did help me a lot back when I moved here... You cleaned things up nicely behind me. Got some people off my back. So... yes, I supposed I could do a few things for you."
Fyora beamed at her.
"You actually fell for that," said Aethia with a mocking grin.
Ilere shrugged. "She is rather good at asking for things."