Stand behind yer sheriff Circulation: 196,068,964 Issue: 891 | 14th day of Awakening, Y22
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The River that Flows Eternal


by movie138music

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     PART 1: DISTANT DAYS

     Have you ever heard it? The music of the World?

     Evett opened his eyes slowly. He heard echoes of sound in his ears, like the song of waves in a seashell, but it soon faded into silence. He was lying on a craggy hill, one of dozens that rippled uniformly towards the horizon. Grey clouds rolled lazily overhead, speckling the desolate landscape with shadow. Nothing moved.

     “What—“ Evett gasped. His own voice sounded foreign to him. “Wasn’t I just—at the Rainbow Pool?” Where were the buildings? The street lights, the crowds, the cobblestones? He turned wildly. It felt as if the silence was swallowing up his memories. Surely he had been there just moments ago, looking up at the shimmering fountain. The sunlight on the water had changed its seven hues into a thousand. To anyone else in Neopia Central it must have been an ordinary sight. But Evett, watching the colors arcing over the still pool, had found it nothing less than spellbinding. He’d crept up to the rim, clutching his paint brush, and then, and then—

     Well. His fur was blue now. He had that, at least. And his inventory bag had made the trip too. Delightful.

     It took Evett all he had not to let out a panicked sort of laugh. He covered his face for a moment to stem his racing thoughts. But when he opened his eyes and faced the barren world before him once more, his dread deepened. He knew, though he couldn’t explain how, that this was a different Neopia: not some hidden country in the back of a moldering Brightvale atlas, but an older and wilder place altogether. How he’d arrived here, he couldn’t even begin to guess. The very earth felt hostile; the thought of it continuing on beyond the horizon, stretching its cursed limbs out in every direction, made Evett feel sick. The only thought on his mind was returning home.

     Thankfully, tunnel vision was a talent of his. If he had to survive in this blasted place to make it back, then so be it. With a frown and a few calming breaths, he took another look at the hills. It wasn’t quite true that nothing was moving, as he’d first thought. The breeze was picking up, and the tough grass and rocks beneath his feet quivered. Out of the corner of his eye he saw shadows jumping from one hiding place to another. Everything had an ominous look to it. As he fumbled in his bag, he managed to find an old baseball bat and a slingshot. Not exactly high-end weapons, but they would have to do.

     He was wondering which way to explore first when a scream ripped through his thoughts. It seemed to be coming from the valley below. Just what I needed, he thought tiredly. Though he usually made an effort to avoid this kind of thing (a habit cultivated by city life), he supposed it wouldn’t be a bad idea to see what the wildlife around here was like. Gripping his makeshift gear, he crept to the other side of the hill and peered down a cliff he hadn’t seen before.

     Just below him, down the steep and rocky slope, was a Korbat running from a snarling black monster. No, not a monster, a Bearog—Evett could hardly believe his eyes, but it was as much a Bearog as the cheerful yapping Petpets he was used to. It ran after the Korbat, its claws digging into the thin soil. The poor fellow was doing his best to evade it, but Korbat wings evidently weren’t good for much other than a few weak bursts of speed. In the blink of an eye his pursuer closed the distance.

     The Bearog’s paw swept out with terrifying speed, knocking the Korbat down. It padded closer to its soon-to-be victim, its mouths slavering. Evett made a face and stood abruptly. He should have run for it after all. But even as he turned to make his escape, free from guilt and all its irritating weight, the Bearog looked up at him. The Korbat looked up too and began to scream even louder. “Help! You there! Help me!”

     Oh no you don’t. Gulping, Evett turned back as the Bearog leaped up the slope toward him. Rocks scattered under its paws, echoing down the bare hillside like panicked drumbeats. Evett reached for a pebble and fitted it to his slingshot. Okay. He was fine. This was just like the Battledome. Just like the Battledome.

     The shot went wide. The Korbat ducked with a squeak. Evett nearly dropped the slingshot from his sweaty grasp. The Bearog was upon him. Too frazzled to even remember his bat, he fumbled for another pebble. Another shot, another shot—this one glanced off the Bearog’s front leg, making it stumble. Evett took a breath of relief, but then he realized the Bearog hadn’t even slowed down. It slammed into him head-on.

     Evett gasped as the breath was driven out of him. The sky tumbled overhead, and then the ground rushed up to meet him. The pain shooting through his skull was like a thunderclap. He felt the rocks digging into his back. I’m—I’m still here? His eyes focused. The Bearog was a few feet away, winded from its charge. It bared its fangs, preparing for another charge.

     Evett knew nothing of battle or tactics. All he could think of survival. That blasted Korbat had cut off his escape route, so the only thing he could do now was win. Roaring, Evett balled his paw into a fist and launched himself at the Bearog. He dodged its claws by some luck or instinct and, putting his whole body into the strike, sank a punch into its flank.

     The Bearog staggered backward. It was injured, but it could still fight. Evett drew his paw over his mouth, readying himself for another brawl; behind him, the Korbat came clambering up the hill with a small dagger in hand. The Bearog’s beady eyes flickered from foe to foe. Clearly it was taken aback by even this token resistance. With a last growl, it turned tail and retreated down the hill.

     Evett sat down on the grass and watched the black silhouette disappear into the valley. He was dizzy from the adrenaline, but somehow unharmed. Was he really this strong? Him, a poor Lupe on the dole who’d hardly ever trained? It didn’t seem right.

     “Amazing!” The Korbat ran up to him, breathless. Though his accent was strange, Evett still understood every word of the language. “That was amazing! You’re a real warrior.”

     “Me? Oh, please,” Evett said. “I haven’t so much as set foot on Mystery Island…” He trailed off, seeing the Korbat’s blank look. Well, Evett realized, it was no wonder he seemed like a powerful warrior if this place didn’t even have codestones. “…Forget I mentioned it.”

     “In any case, I owe you my life,” the Korbat said, patting down his shock of red hair. He certainly looked like the fastidious type. “My name is Mokti. I’m a traveling merchant. And you?”

     “I’m Evett, and I… uh.” Evett stopped, at a loss for words. “Actually, could you tell me where we are?”

     “The Hills of Jub, of course. Are you lost? I suppose you were too caught up in your warrior training to realize, but Neopia City is back that way, to the south.”

     Neopia City? Evett thought about this for a second. He couldn’t be sure, but he thought he’d seen that name on a plaque once. It was the old name of Neopia Central, from an age lost to record. Had he traveled back in time somehow? Mokti’s attire—a plain belted tunic and trousers, with an old-fashioned wool cloak—seemed to suggest as much. And there was the feeling in his gut as well. So the clock had turned back after all.

     Then Mokti cleared his throat and shuffled awkwardly. “This might sound presumptuous, but do you have some time on your paws? I… I‘ve been searching for someone like you out here to help me. See, I’m looking for my little brother. He’s gone missing.”

     “Missing?”

     Mokti sighed. “For the past few weeks we’ve been traveling to the villages around Neopia City with our wares, but two days ago he just up and vanished on the road. I’ve been searching as best I can, but… well. You saw what happened to me just now.” He looked at his dagger ruefully. “Rikti’s in great danger—I know it. Someone like you could…”

     The request hung in the air unspoken. Evett cleared his throat awkwardly, not quite willing to accede to it yet. “Do you think he might have just run away?”

     “If he had, I would have found him by now,” Mokti assured him. “He’s a funny little rascal, always going on about Rosval the Righteous and all that, but he’s not too bright.” He smiled fondly before growing serious once more. “I’ll wager Rikti’s been taken to the cave north of here. There are powerful creatures there, and I’ve heard rumors of strange magic too. Quite frightening.”

     “Magic?” Evett squinted northward. The lifeless hills marched onward to the horizon. In the distance the grey clouds were gathering. Mokti’s brother hardly concerned him, but this could be a clue to his own bizarre situation. It couldn’t be a coincidence that he’d traveled through time and landed mere miles from someplace mystical, could it? And if that cave was the cause, it could very well be the solution. The lead wasn’t much to go on, but…

     “All right, I’ll look for him,” he said finally.

     “Really? You mean it?” Mokti’s face lit up, and he shook Evett’s paw with vigor. “Thank you! You’re a hero, you are. Please, take this too. I’m sorry it’s not much.” He handed Evett some food and a small bag of silver coins. Evett accepted them with some bewilderment.

     Mokti looked up at the sky. Evett wondered how it was possible to discern anything from those flat grey clouds, but it seemed Neopians here were used to telling time without clocks. “It’s getting late,” said Mokti. “I need to be back in Neopia City by nightfall. Of course, you can come find me if you need anything. I’ll be in the lower ring with the other merchants.”

     He sighed and continued in a small voice. “Rikti’s all I have. I’ve got to keep him safe, no matter what. Please—please find him.” Then, shaking Evett’s paw one last time, he went away down the hill. Though he didn’t seem too much older than Evett himself, his back was bowed with worry. Evett opened his mouth and shut it again. There was nothing more to say.

     Traversing the featureless hills was tiresome. There was the occasional roaming Bearog to pummel or run from, but more frightening was the emptiness. Evett missed the comforting presence of civilization at his back. He had a few omelettes in his bag and a couple rounds of Battledome training under his belt, but how long would either of those last? Evett cursed his misfortune, to have ended up in this blasted wasteland of all places.

     There was that strange feeling within him again, almost like an ember leaping out of a fireplace. He couldn’t tell if it would grow, or if it would blow out with the next breeze. But somehow the sensation led his paws in the right direction; whenever he faced north, the heat turned uneasy. Maybe it was just indigestion. He hoped it was.

     And so, after the day had fallen into the long shadows of evening, he stood before it at last: a massive hole carved into a northerly hill, looming over dead rocks and dying grass. A rotting smell wafted from within, making Evett blanch. It had a terrible aura about it, an ancient evil that he felt in his bones. He knew without thinking that Rikti was inside, along with—maybe—a clue to his journey through time. His stomach twisted, and he regretted his curiosity. He hated caves. He should never have agreed to this. Why had he? “I shouldn’t have said yes,” he said under his breath. “Should’ve turned around and left…” But even as he spoke, he was already stepping over the threshold into darkness.

     The cave was a maze of tunnels, each damper and fouler than the one before it. Evett could only guess how far the procession led. He gripped the bat with clammy paws. Slorgs and Spirkles, hideously mutated like the slavering Bearogs of the hills, nipped at his fur. He swung at them, but the further he descended the more numerous they became. Then came an even more terrifying sight. As Evett rounded a corner, waving his bat blindly in front him, he hit something solid: a massive brown Lupe, crouching on all fours.

     “H-hello,” Evett said, trying to talk around the lantern gripped between his teeth. “Uh… sorry I hit you just now…” The Lupe didn’t answer, but growled wordlessly, like a Petpet. He stepped into the light, and Evett saw at once that this was no ordinary Neopet. The cave Lupe’s scraggly fur, long and untrimmed, was crisscrossed with mud tracks and old scars. His beady red eyes looked about madly before settling on Evett. There was a ravenous look in his eyes. Evett shrank backward, horrified.

     “Can’t you talk?” he managed in a squeak. “You’re a Lupe like me, aren’t you? Why can’t you—“ Fear silenced him, and strangely, an unspeakable sense of compassion. Then, without warning, the Lupe lunged. Evett scrambled to raise his bat, but he knew that at this distance he would be too late to fend it off. He shut his eyes in terror, feeling the Lupe’s breath on him—

     WHUMP. A sound reverberated through the cavern. Evett opened his eyes. The cave Lupe was lying unconscious on his side, and in his place stood a young red-haired Korbat wielding a torch and a sword nearly as tall as he was.

     “These Lupes don’t talk,” said the Korbat, sheathing the blade. His odd accent matched Mokti’s perfectly. “Can’t you tell they’re monsters? You’ll be in hot water if they catch you off guard.”

     Evett gaped at him. “Hey, you wouldn’t happen to be Rikti, would you?”

     “Yeah, what about it? And who are you?” The Korbat looked at him quizzically. He was a youth all right, though a much tougher youth than Mokti had implied.

     “I’m Evett,” he replied. “Your brother’s been looking all over for you. You’d better leave this place.”

     Rikti bristled suddenly. “What? Did Mokti send you? Of course he did. Look, I’m perfectly fine, all right? Go tell him that!” And he gave the motionless cave Lupe a hearty kick for good measure.

     Evidently Mokti’s assumption that his brother had been kidnapped was off the mark. “Okay, whatever,” said Evett, raising his paws. “I’ve got nothing to do with your family quarrels. But I’m not turning around until I get what I came for.”

     “Really? And what’s that?” asked Rikti, looking more interested.

     “Er… I’m not sure exactly, but there’s some kind of magic in here, right? Is there somebody leading these monsters?”

     Rikti’s eyes brightened. “There sure is! I’m after that very same goal, myself.” He stood up tall, though ‘tall’ didn’t mean much on a Korbat. “These creatures have been terrorizing Neopia since the Old Times, and I’m going to put a stop to that.”

     “The Old Times, huh,” mused Evett. Even this era seemed impossibly ancient to him; the reminder of an even greater abyss of forgotten years was unnerving. But then again, it might be the answer to his time-travel dilemma.

     “Want to come along with me?” said Rikti eagerly. “I could use somebody to talk to.”

     Evett sighed. He supposed a bit of companionship would drive away the evil aura of this place. “Why not? A guide might do me some good.”

     “Guide?” Rikti chuckled nervously. “About that…”

     ———

     “I can’t believe you’ve been wandering around this place for two days without a map,” Evett grumbled. “Kids these days, I swear…”

     A few hours had passed. Evett and Rikti were still fumbling through the network of tunnels; their surroundings looked much the same, but the air seemed to be changing, and that at least was a good sign.

     “Are you kidding? No one makes maps for places like this,” said Rikti. “You’d have to be a mage to figure it all out. I don’t suppose you know any magic?”

     “Uh, no,” said Evett. “I mean, I did a faerie quest once, but I don’t think that counts.”

     “Faerie? What’s that, some kind of monster?”

     “…Forget it.” They plodded onward. Evett briefly wondered what kind of magic these Neopians had if it wasn’t faerie magic, but then decided it didn’t matter. This world was strange enough as it was.

     “Watch out,” Rikti muttered. “There’s two trolls and a cave Korbat up ahead. We’ll sneak up on them.”

     Evett gulped and nodded, clutching the (now quite worn) bat. He crept forward. A pair of small white trolls—Triffins, rather—came into view, trailing a thin and mangy-looking Korbat. Evett and Rikti leapt, brandishing their weapons. Evett flailed his bat wildly at the cave Korbat, relying on his strength to carry him; it retreated quickly. He turned to Rikti, ready to help if need be, but then he saw Rikti’s swordsmanship for the first time. The little warrior lacked Evett’s sheer size and power, but he was dodging both trolls’ ungainly blows with speed that outshone anything the Bearogs outside could offer. His feet traveled lightly from one practiced stance to another. Every now and then he would leap into the air, punctuating his blows with a burst of flight. Korbat wings weren’t good for much… but for this, Evett had to admit, they were unparalleled.

     The battle ended quickly. “Nice work!” said Rikti, giving Evett a clap on the back once the monsters had gone. “You seem new to this, but you’re pretty strong. Don’t forget to put your shoulder into those hits—better for your elbows.”

     “I’m nothing special,” insisted Evett, feeling a little embarrassed at being praised again. “But thanks.”

     He wiped his brow, thinking of the cave Korbat. It was impossible to shake the uncomfortable feeling that it looked like Rikti somehow. “What exactly are these things? Why don’t they act like… like normal Neopets?”

     Rikti shrugged. “Monsters are monsters—they’ve been roaming Neopia since forever. Jahbal used them as his army ages ago, so you know they’re evil to the bone. Anyway, it doesn’t matter, does it? Just beat ‘em up when they attack.” He sat down heavily on a rock. “I’m starving. Got any food in that bag of yours? All I’ve had lately is waybread.”

     “Ah—yeah.” Evett retrieved a few large omelettes, carefully wrapped, from his bag. “Let’s see, chokato, carrot, onion, pizza… hmm… “

     He looked up to find Rikti gaping at him. “How did you fit all that in there?” he cried. “The thing’s tiny!”

     “Huh? Oh, you know, it’s just a typical bag. Bigger on the inside and all that.” Evett demonstrated by pulling out a few books, a coat, and a stained-glass window he’d won the other day. Looking at Rikti’s astonished face, though, he remembered belatedly that inventory magic was a fairly recent innovation. “Oh… I bet yours doesn’t do this.”

     “No! Of course not!” Rikti sputtered. “That’s some crazy spell! This bag and your new-fangled lantern and your ‘omelette’ thingy… I bet Mokti would have a thing or two to say about that.” But at the reminder of his brother, he fell silent.

     Evett passed him an omelette, and they ate awkwardly. “So what have you got against Mokti, anyway? He seemed all right to me.”

     “Sure he did. He also told you I was a poor, helpless infant begging to be saved from the clutches of evil. Am I wrong?”

     “Well… maybe.”

     “And there it is.” Rikti rolled his eyes. “All he thinks about is safety and security and the family business. He doesn’t care about the monsters, plain and simple.” A long sigh. “They’ve been multiplying, you know. Everyone says so. Even with Jahbal gone, these things are still happening. And I’m not going to stand by while they happen. I—I want to save the world. With or without Mokti’s say-so.”

     “What, all on your own?” Evett raised an eyebrow. “Didn’t you say this place is stuffed to the brim with monsters?”

     “I’m up to the task,” Rikti retorted, grinning. “It’s busy here, sure, but I’m still looking forward to the main event. The one all the stories talk about.”

     “Stories?”

     “Yeah. Villagers around here say Xantan the Foul lives in this cave. Crazy, right?”

     “Uh, I don’t know who that is,” said Evett. “I’m… visiting from overseas.”

     Rikti stared at him. “Seriously? I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, since you don’t know about monsters either. Well, here’s the gist. It’s one of my favorites.” He lowered his voice.

     Long ago in the Old Times, there lived a group of brave sorcerers called the Circle of Twelve. Neopia was united in those days, and the immortal Twelve ruled it for untold centuries. Rosval the Righteous was one of their number, as was Faleinn the Shape-changer, and Mirnar of the Sunrise, and many great heroes renowned even today for their skill and wisdom. But two among them were brilliant beyond compare: Jahbal, the mighty mage who led them, and Xantan. Now Xantan was a powerful warrior, beloved throughout the north. With his sword he brought peace to the land and prosperity to its citizens. Yet he desired still greater authority. He turned on the Twelve and formed his own nation. There began the first of the great wars that wracked Neopia—that still haunt it one thousand years later.

     “He did all that just for power?” said Evett. “I can’t imagine it. And then what happened to him?”

     It was Jahbal, cunning and proud, who—

     “Okay, enough with the voice. It doesn’t suit you.”

     “It’s for effect!” Rikti huffed. “But fine. To sum it up, Jahbal won, and Xantan was forever sealed away within his fortress. Of course, Jahbal went bad himself a few years later, but that’s a whole different war.” Evett winced. The Old Times had not been pleasant, it looked like. “Basically, the villagers swear he’s still around, and he’s in here running this band of monsters. What do you think?”

     “I don’t know…” All this about myths and legends was going over his head. “I mean, I don’t see why it couldn’t be true. You said the Twelve were immortal, right?”

     “Yeah, but he was cursed. And this is the Xantan we’re talking about. What are the odds?” Rikti tapped his chin, smiling. “You know, the more I talk about it, the more excited I get. Xantan or no Xantan, let’s find the boss of this cave and pulverize him! Are you ready?”

     Evett looked away. The thought of all this ancient evil was unsettling. He let himself drift into memories of his home city’s twinkling lights—his little apartment—the winding streets and marketplaces of Neopia Central. The images were already indistinct, and they ached all the more for it. His gut twisted. I’m not here to save the world, he thought, but the words withered in his mouth. “I guess,” he said.

     Rikti beamed at him and stood up. “Thanks for the food. Let’s get going.”

     They went on, farther and farther underground. The air seemed to become less oppressive, however, and the stench of the mud less foul. The duo’s mood lightened with their surroundings. Evett even laughed at a few of Rikti’s awful jokes. He asked plenty of questions, and got plenty of answers.

     It seemed Rikti and Mokti were from a town to the west known as Swampedge City. They had left it in their childhood, though Rikti didn’t explain exactly why. Now they spent their days traveling around northern Neopia, selling to the towns and villages dotting the landscape. “And it’s as boring as it sounds,” he declared.

     There was more land south and east of Swampedge, beyond the Wide Plains, but Rikti had never been there. As he explained it, the overland route through the plains was all but abandoned, and passage by ship on the Summer Sea usually cost a fortune. All he knew about that part of Neopia was that it was warm and pleasant, with a few exceptions. “Like what?” Evett asked, curious despite himself, but even as talkative as Rikti was, he wouldn’t quite spell it out.

     Then Rikti stopped dead, interrupting the talk. “Look!” he said, pointing ahead. The ceiling, which had hung low over their heads for hours, suddenly soared up into spacious darkness. Evett stepped forward, and his paw touched stone—not the misshapen rocks of the Hills of Jub but a floor of square tiles, neatly laid by some ancient builder. The sound of his movement echoed off distant walls. “What… what is this?” he said.

     “I saw a ruin like this once,” said Rikti, holding his torch up to the cavernous space. “This is a castle from the Old Times. I bet it sunk underground at some point. Wow!” The beam passed over what had once been a proud hall lined with sumptuous tapestries, now ground to dust. Only the silent stones remained. Evett and Rikti walked down the central path, surrounded by fading echoes and pillars looming out of the empty shadows. Evett’s fear, so long suppressed, returned in full force. There were no monsters here, but a greater presence was stirring. Could it be…? His skin crawled.

     WHO ARE YOU? A voice spoke unbidden in Evett’s mind. He looked around in shock, but Rikti didn’t seem to have noticed anything. They went on, straight to the center of the ancient hall.

     YOU ARE NOT OF THE CORRUPTED. NOR ARE YOU AN EMISSARY OF THE ENEMY. WHO ARE YOU? WHO ARE YOU? WHO ARE YOU? The voice came again and again, reverberating madly in Evett’s head. It was an old voice, worn by time, but its strength sent him reeling.

     “I hear something,” Rikti whispered urgently as they walked. “Like… something dripping, or… “

     “…a voice?” Evett suggested weakly.

     WHO ARE YOU? WHO ARE YOU? WHO ARE YOU? WHO ARE YOU? WHO? WHO? WHO?

     “Huh? Voice? What’re you on about?”

     ANSWER ME. ANSWER ME.

     “Leave me alone!” Evett cried out finally. Rikti stared at him, baffled. They reached the center of the hall and stopped dead. The tiles here formed a concentric ring, lit by a wide ray of moonlight from a hole far, far overhead. Strange marks were carved into the stone. In that unearthly glow, Evett thought for a feverish moment that he and Rikti looked like ghosts.

     WHAT ARE YOU, YOU BEAST?

     Something wet and cold wrapped around Evett’s paws. Before he knew it he was stumbling, then trapped in it. Like quicksand, it enveloped him. Was it sludge? The bat slipped out of his paws. “Help! Rikti, help!” he cried out.

     “Evett! Evett!” Rikti drew his sword and hacked at the muddy tendrils.

     USELESS. THAT SWORD CANNOT TOUCH ME. FOR I AM STILL XANTAN, HE OF THE CIRCLE OF TWELVE.

     “Xan… tan…?” Evett repeated faintly.

     “What? Wait. Hold on. That’s Xantan?” Rikti’s eyes widened. “No way. This can’t be happening!”

     HOW DISMAYED HE IS. AT MY FORM. AT MY LAST DISGRACE.

     Evett struggled to speak, but no words came out. Every movement brought him closer to being swallowed by this monstrosity. As if hearing his thoughts, the sludge pulsated with hatred. A half-formed face rose out of it, with bulging eyes and a hideously gaping mouth. YOU… YOU… ARE AN ABOMINATION. The force of the creature’s vicious hold on Evett’s body grew stronger, until he nearly cried out. He began to feel dangerously light-headed. All the while, Rikti’s sword bounced uselessly off its surface, never quite penetrating.

     “What in Neopia is going on?!” yelled the little Korbat. “I don’t know if you’re really Xantan or not, but you’re far past your bedtime, you old mud heap!” Summoning all his strength, he brought down his sword. The blade sank into the heart of the sludge, just below the face, and Xantan let out a roar that shook Evett’s mind to the core. Rikti was sent flying. Yet the sludge did not relinquish its grip.

     “Why—me—“ Evett gasped. Breathing was difficult. The mud was rising, nearly to his eyes. The sound of Rikti’s yells grew distant.

     TRY, LITTLE HERO. TRY AND DESTROY ME.

     And the mud washed over Evett’s head.

     ———

     “Evett!” Rikti stretched out his hand, but the Lupe disappeared beneath the surface with horrifying speed. Rikti backed away, shaking. He didn’t really know what was happening, but it was clear something had gone terribly wrong.

     Xantan… This had never happened in the stories. The Xantan he knew was a sturdy Shoyru warrior with a winning smile, charismatic even in his darkest hour. That was the kind of villain Rikti had always dreamed of going up against. But this? What kind of curse had Jahbal placed on Xantan to make him into this?

     I’m—scared, Rikti realized, and almost laughed. How was he going to save the world like this? He swallowed and stood, quelling his tremors. No, he couldn’t stop here. So what if this was the first time he’d ever been in a real fight? Evett was waiting for him—Neopia was waiting. He had to be like the Twelve, like Rosval the Righteous striding with his golden shield. He had to live up to that pride. If he lost that, he had nothing.

     Grabbing his sword, he lunged at the heaving sludge one last time.

     ———

     Evett was trapped in darkness. His limbs, his face, even his mouth were frozen in place. I’ve been swallowed, he realized dimly. He was dizzy from the lack of air, and he dared not open his eyes. The weight on him was terrible to withstand. This place, this terrible place—

     UNGRATEFUL BEING. UNGRATEFUL, UNNATURAL BEING. The words, louder than firecrackers, sank painfully into Evett’s skull.

      I don’t understand, cried Evett. If you’re going to do this, at least tell me why!

     YOU ARE WHAT SHOULD NEVER BE. A MONSTER OF ANOTHER TIME.

     I haven’t even done anything—I just want to go back home! Evett almost laughed at the absurdity of the situation. You’re the monster, Xantan. Attacking Neopia with those creatures…

     FOOL. THE CORRUPTION WAS NOT MY DOING. I WAS CAST OUT. I WARNED THEM OF THE ENEMY. THEY HEEDED ME NOT. NOW YOU COME TO REOPEN MY WOUND. Bitter resentment and hatred roiled in the mud. And with it, a desperate grief. RETURN TO THE ABYSS. THIS IS YOUR END, TRAVELER OF DISTANT DAYS.

     The cold and pain were unbearable. Evett struggled desperately to move, but without air he knew it was only a matter of time. Spots of disjointed color flickered behind his closed eyes. They looked almost like the home he had left behind just hours ago. The white wall of that little bedroom, with colorful clothes thrown and scattered every which way—he’d meant to clean the place, but had never quite gotten around to it. Tears came suddenly to Evett’s eyes. No, stupid, this isn’t the time to think about your wardrobe… But the memory ached in his heart, and set it ablaze.

     Heroism and Neopia meant nothing to him. In that moment all he thought of was life. His life, and his home. I want to live. I want to live. I want to live. He would see that little room again, no matter what it took, no matter what had to be done. His tears dried and hardened. There was a fire in him that brought his heart to a boil. It rose from a vein that bound him to the earth itself. A sudden light burst forth into the narrow darkness. He gasped, and the fire poured from his mouth. It leapt out of him in every direction. Slowly the cold slime of Xantan’s body was repelled. Evett had space to move now, if only a little. He opened his eyes a crack, and faced the ancient mage.

     WHAT ARE YOU? The voice was screaming, distorted with rage.

     At that moment, a sword pierced the sludge. Only barely did it reach, but it was strong and unyielding. Again and again, the gleaming point stabbed the darkness. Air and sound penetrated into Evett’s prison. Xantan shrieked wordlessly. “Rikti!” shouted Evett. “Rikti, I’m coming!”

     A tongue of flame soared from within, and a blade of steel sank down from without. The two met and joined as one. The sludge was broken. Evett lifted his head and burst out into the waiting cavern of stone. The fire followed, scorching away at Xantan until the mud was ash on the floor.

     WHAT… ARE YOU… Still Xantan asked, almost in desperation. Evett glimpsed for a moment the mind of a proud sorcerer brought low by the ravages of time; a ruler that dreamed only of looking upon the long-lost world he had cherished, until at last the empty years and the fear of infesting beasts finally drove him mad—

     Evett blinked, and the vision was gone. The flame had gone out, but somehow, somehow, he was alive. What lay before him now was mere sludge, still reaching impotently for him with a final curse.

     THE ENEMY HAS SEEN ME. THE ENEMY. THE ENEMY LIVES. As it drew closer, half-chanting in Evett’s mind, the ground began to shake. A few stones high above trembled and fell. Half-dazed, Evett thought he saw the markings on the floor begin to glow.

     Rikti tugged Evett’s sleeve. “We have to go,” he said breathlessly. “There’s a cave-in coming!”

     “What…?” With effort, Evett disentangled himself from the wretched tendrils of Xantan’s voice. “What did you say?”

     “I said move!” Rikti shouted. A boulder the size of Evett’s head hit the ground with a deafening crash. That did it. Evett and Rikti turned and, not daring to look back, raced down the long pathway. The whole earth was groaning, keeling to one side like a listing rowboat. Energy shot through the air. Evett’s fur prickled on end. Was this Xantan’s last attack?

     Rocks were falling everywhere. With a horrible creak, one of the great pillars began to fall. He and Rikti managed to dodge it. It landed, throwing up a gust of wind that nearly blew them off course. They half-ran, half-fell the last ten steps, skirting blindly past the rubble. Finally they stumbled over the border separating castle and cave. As the stench of the cavern assaulted them once again, Evett finally looked over his shoulder. There was Xantan, still in the tiny patch of moonlight where they had left him. He had not moved, though his voice implored Evett ceaselessly. THE ENEMY… THE ENEMY—

     Then, at long last, the ceiling of the castle came down. The voice shut off abruptly, drowned out by the grinding of rock against stone. Then silence. Evett’s breath caught.

     They waited for a second, too afraid to speak. “Amazing,” Rikti said at last. “We made it. We beat Xantan. The Xantan! I can’t believe it!”

     Evett clapped him on the back. He felt drained enough to pass out. And Xantan’s words made him shiver. “Let’s just get out of here for now.”

     “Sounds good,” said Rikti, following him with a spring in his step. The fear and chaos of only moments ago seemed not to touch him. “But really, what a fight! You never told me you could do stuff like that.”

     Evett exhaled deeply, trying to return his mind to reality. “What? Oh, the fire? I have no idea either.” He’d nearly written it off as a hallucination, but apparently Rikti had seen it too. “And you were pretty good too with that sword of yours.”

     “Thanks.” Rikti grinned. “We make a great team, don’t we? It’s a shame you’re going back to your own country.” He gave Evett a sidelong glance, as if challenging him to continue the lie.

     “Well, I think I’ve got a fair few adventures ahead of me too,” Evett answered. He’d hoped for a quick return to his time, but of course it couldn’t be that easy. There was something darker happening here, some beast of evil machinations stirring in the distance. For now he refused to think about it. He let his worries pass him by.

     The cave’s twisting paths fell away behind them, step by step. The air lightened. Somewhere outside this cave, the moon was shining. He was reminded of another day, long ago and yet a long time ahead, when he had looked up at that same moon. That had been the happiest day of his life. He swore to himself that he would do anything to get it back.

     “…Listen, Rikti, I want you to know something. I am from another country, but it isn’t here. It’s the future.”

     There was a pause. Then Rikti shouted at the top of his lungs: “Sorry, what?”

     The night, it turned out, was a long one.

To be continued…

 
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