The River that Flows Eternal
PART 3: THE SCHOLAR’S HEART
M orning came with little fanfare. Evett and Rikti woke and stood slowly, squinting in the light. The rainclouds were gone, leaving only a muggy scent on the air. Today was a warm day, sure to get warmer. “Well, Evett, the road awaits,” said Rikti.
It was an old winding road, mapped long ago in prouder days. Once it had led many a student southward to the great libraries and schools of the peninsula; but now the schools lay empty, the libraries were choked with weeds, and the road itself had faded into a backwoods byway. The last of the bountiful wheat fields, near which Evett and Rikti had spent the night, soon trailed off into dim and deserted brushland. And beyond that lay a low, impenetrable mass of vines and fronds: the jungle itself. Though not much of one, really—what these Neopians called a jungle looked more to Evett’s eyes like a foul-smelling bog.
“Doesn’t hold a candle to Mystery Island, I’d say,” he said, staring glumly into the marshy depths. “How are we supposed to find anything in here?”
“Should be along the road,” Rikti replied. “Hey, if Eleus Batrin’s friends could find that old school, we’ll manage it too.”
He sauntered inside, and Evett scrambled to follow suit. As soon as he did, the world seemed to change shape. Low-hanging fog choked out the light as swiftly as a curtain passing over the sky, and a heavy, cloying presence in the air rose up to replace it. Ferns and moss sprang up from the ground to wind around Evett’s legs with every step. Though most of the crawling plants and trees hardly rose higher than his head, he felt as if a crushing weight had fallen upon his shoulders.
“What’s up with this place?” he whispered. Even speaking was difficult.
Rikti shushed him. “It’s some kind of magic thing from the Old Times. A weird experiment the Institute was up to, I bet. Be careful. And for Neopia’s sake, stay on the road!”
Easier said than done, thought Evett. He was already following Rikti so closely they might as well have been joined at the hip—and even then it was hard to tell where they were going. With only the rhythmic squelching of their feet in the muddy bogs to keep time, nothing but the occasional gust of wind offered proof that they were making their way anywhere at all.
An hour in, they met their first attacker. An enormous black Zafara came lurching blindly out of a hole in the ground, swiping its massive claws. Evett saw it look straight at him with horrible crimson eyes, and for a moment he was too frozen to move.
“Watch out!” said Rikti, drawing his sword. Too slow—the Zafara savagely knocked him aside. He landed in a heap, dazed.
“Rikti!” Evett cried, regretting his hesitation. He unlatched his bag, thinking at first of his well-worn bat and slingshot, before he remembered Eleus’ staff. He drew it from the bag and closed his paw around it, feeling the warmth surge through the wood. A light waxed from the tiny orb at its tip.
The Zafara turned and once more fixed Evett, or rather Evett’s staff, with its red stare. There was something more than brute anger in the gaze, though—was it longing? Recognition? Fear? No, no, focus. Focus! Evett screwed his eyes shut and channeled all his energy into the staff. Come on, fireballs!
It took a moment, but he felt heat rising from his paws, and saw a spark light up the dark forest. A tongue of flame rushed out from the orb. Wait… too far left. Evett waved the staff awkwardly, and like a whip the fire swung around at an angle, scalding the Zafara solidly across the chest. Crying out, it leaped desperately at him. Evett bounded forward, but too late he realized the Zafara was nearly on top of him. There was no time to prepare another blast. Without thinking he thrust the staff forward and struck the monster on its scraggly shoulder. He heard a loud thwack, and the Zafara fell back with a loud whimper. It retreated, still staring blankly at him, before disappearing into the brush.
Evett took a deep breath in the sudden silence. The fight had taken a lot more out of him than he wanted to admit. Then came a cheery voice: “Wow, Evett! That was fantastic!” It was Rikti, sitting upright next to the tree in perfectly good spirits and applauding with vigor.
“Wha—didn’t the Zafara send you flying?” Evett sputtered. “I was seriously worried about you!”
“Hey, it’s your fault you weren’t paying attention. If a lame jungle monster was enough to take me down I’d have just stayed home!” Rikti winked, evidently pleased with himself. “I’d have gotten up to help, but I think your little fireworks show was worth the wait. Next time it’ll be my turn, though!”
Evett snorted but couldn’t resist a smile. “Okay, suit yourself. Anyway, let me bandage you up. You’ve got a gash on your head, no matter what you say.”
“It’s just a scratch,” Rikti retorted.
They went on walking. The going was painfully slow; often the path broke off, obscured by undergrowth or side-trails forged by the monsters of the wetlands. And then there were the watchful eyes. Evett was sure the frightening pygmies were here somewhere, observing his and Rikti’s journey—and there were other things too, other strange forces at work. He could feel the buzz of magic in the close air.
In the evening, Evett and Rikti were attacked again, this time by a small creature covered head to toe in makeshift armor and wielding a short spear. Rikti, deciding that Evett needed to save his strength, took it on bravely—well, ‘recklessly’ might have been the better word. They were in a small clearing choked by ferns and creeping vines, after all. Hardly the ideal place for close-quarters combat against an unknown foe.
“Don’t worry, that’s not a real pygmy,” Rikti told Evett. “Just a second-rate jungle knight. I can take this.”
Evett gripped his staff and watched as Rikti strode forward to meet the monster. The young Korbat drew his sword and held it up almost lazily. Exploiting that opening, his opponent snarled and rushed forward. The gleaming point of its spear hurtled forward, readying an inescapable strike.
But it had overstretched itself. Rikti jumped backward easily and then ducked. The monster’s blow went wide. As it lost its balance, Rikti leaped into flight. With casual elegance he spun in the air and struck the creature’s helmet with the flat of his blade. The force sent it staggering forward. It stumbled into a tree and slid almost comically to the ground.
“That’s that,” Rikti said smugly, sheathing his sword. “And you thought I was in trouble!“
“No, I didn’t…”
“You did,” Rikti insisted. “But there’s nothing to worry about. See?” He stuck his chin up. Evett watched him quizzically for a moment before deciding to drop the subject.
Hoping to avoid any surprise attacks, they camped in a bushy glade not far off and went without a fire. Evett already missed the light and warmth. Rikti, though, was stretched out on the ground with a satisfied smile on his face.
“Gotta say, this takes me back,” he said. “I used to see this kind of thing every day.”
“You did? Oh, right, you’re from… Swampedge City, was it?”
“Yeah. Awful little port town.” But Rikti’s words belied the nostalgia in his voice. “That swamp’s a real one—not some conjured-up mess like this here. My family used to live right by it, and I always wandered off to explore. I had all these maps full of trails, caves, monster dens, the whole lot. ’Course, I always got yelled at by you-know-who. But it was pretty fun.”
“And that’s what made you want to be an adventurer?” Evett asked.
“Nah. Some other things happened.” Rikti opened his eyes thoughtfully. A few seconds passed before he spoke again. “I don’t really remember it, but the city was attacked by monsters. Half the swamp was burned straight to the ground. My parents, they… well, anyway, Mokti decided he didn’t want to stick around after that, so he took me and ran.”
The darkness suddenly felt much more oppressive than it had previously. “Sounds… reasonable.”
“Of course it is,” sighed Rikti, sitting up. “He’s that kind of guy. But I’m not going to sit by anymore. I’ll defeat every monster myself if I have to.”
And how are you going to do that? Evett thought. He didn’t—couldn’t—say it out loud.
Rikti looked at him curiously out of the corner of his eye. “Well, enough heavy stuff,” he said, clapping Evett on the back. “Can’t you tell me about your life? I bet you get up to all kinds of fun stuff in the future.”
Evett wished honesty came as easily to him as it did to his companion. “It’s nothing special,” he said at last. That, at least, was the truth.
Night passed into day twice more as they plodded through the marshes. At last, he began to sense they were getting somewhere; the path was easier and the wildlife less choking. It looked like someone had been haphazardly clearing the brush. Rikti inspected the surroundings with interest.
“Looks like the air isn’t as crazy here,” he said, squinting upwards. “I’m gonna take a look-see.” With that, he took flight and disappeared into the shadows of the lofty branches. Evett watched, a little worried again despite himself. When had he gotten so concerned about Rikti’s well-being, anyway?
A few moments passed. Then Rikti landed on the ground with a thump, his face as red as his hair. “Evett!” he said breathlessly. “We’re almost there! Come on, you’ve gotta see this!”
Grabbing the bewildered Lupe by the wrist, he took off down the road at breakneck speed. Evett ducked to avoid the masses of leaves hitting him in the face. “What? See what? Do you mean the—” They burst into the light. Evett blinked, caught off guard, and then gasped.
The enchantment of the jungle was lifted. It was noon or thereabouts, and the sun sat above him at the center of a spotless blue sky. He was standing in a large and pleasant clearing ringed by tall hedges that warded off the creeping growths beyond. The grass and hedges were overgrown and ragged with time’s inevitable intrusions, but Evett could still discern the care that had once gone into their keeping.
And behind the hedge, gleaming in the light, was a mighty tower of unutterable age. Its rounded white walls reminded Evett of Neopia City’s great turrets, though far wider—but this tower, as tall and beautiful as it was, stood in decrepit ruins. Jungle vines crept up and strangled it on every side. Its elegant stonework was crumbling to pieces, with ghastly holes peering out from the ivy at intervals. Wind whistled from the cracks in the windows as Evett and Rikti approached.
There was one place that stood out, however: an enormous glass dome atop the tower, built from hundreds of cunningly crafted panes. A few had been pierced, but the rest shimmered with an ethereal splendor unbroken by the count of years.
“Amazing,” breathed Evett. “It looks kind of… futuristic.”
“Yeah, I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Rikti. “All that glass. The Old Times really were something else, huh?”
Surrounding the tower was an array of outbuildings, smaller and humbler, all in equal states of disrepair. There were dozens of them; Evett and Rikti stood in the center of what had once been the crossroads of a great house of learning. They were at a loss for words. There was an unspeakable sense of sadness hanging in the wind, as if the land itself mourned the glory that had once been.
Then a loud voice split the air. “What’s your business here, rascals?”
A large Bruce was hurrying towards them, juggling several scrolls, an enormous pack, and a stout dagger. Following closely behind him were an out-of-breath Lenny and Kacheek, similarly burdened. They had come from one of the side buildings.
“Uh, good afternoon,” said Rikti nervously.
“None of that now!” said the Bruce, flourishing his dagger with aplomb. “If you’ve come for loot, you’d best be off. We’re doing research here, and we’re prepared to defend it!”
Rikti held up his hands quickly. “No no, we’re not bandits! Eleus Batrin sent us here. We’re, uh, we’re doing some research ourselves. I’m Rikti, and this big lunk here is Evett.” Evett elbowed him unsubtly.
“Friends of old Eleus? Well, I’ll be!” the Bruce bellowed, his mood changing instantly. He shook their hands with vigor. “Pleased to meet you both. I’m Denethrir, scholar extraordinaire! Rare to see young folks like you taking an interest in history! Why, you ought to meet Tylix here!” And he shoved the flustered Kacheek in front of him.
“Hello,” said Tylix, a slim type with neatly combed blue hair. He looked about the same age as Rikti, though decidedly more composed in manner. “I’m Tylix, and this—“ he gestured to the tall Lenny behind him, who waved self-consciously “—is Margoreth. We’re Master Denethrir’s apprentices.”
“Indeed! And they’re brilliant, too!” Denethrir clapped Tylix hard on the back, making him cough. Evett was seriously beginning to wonder what kind of life this trio led. “Anyway! I’m sure Eleus told you all about us. We’re investigating the libraries here for records from the Old Times. Mostly botanical, but everything’s of interest! Would you like to hear more?”
“Well—“ Rikti began.
“Perfect! We’re stopping for lunch now, so why don’t you dine with us?” said Denethrir, sitting down right where he stood and rummaging through his pack. His students meekly followed suit. Evett and Rikti looked at each other, shrugged, and joined them.
“So, ah… why did you come here, specifically?” Evett ventured, after a few bites of omelette. “Isn’t it dangerous with all the monsters?”
“Of course, but knowledge is worth the risk!” Denethrir answered. “There have been several expeditions to the Institute—that’s what this facility was called—that have made it relatively safe! No need to worry, unless of course you try the big tower! It’s a wonderful place otherwise, if you’re well-armed—” He choked on his bread. Margoreth hurriedly administered to him with a napkin.
“…Okay,” said Rikti slowly. “And what’s wrong with the big tower?”
Tylix sighed. “Tower Gaia, it’s called. It’s a pygmy hideout. I’m sure you’ve heard of those vicious things. They rarely venture outside their dens, whether here or in the jungle, but most who enter don’t come back.”
“Precisely!” said Denethrir, still staving off a bread-induced cough. “A shame, since Neopia’s largest library of magic is housed inside, but even the best scholars must make compromises!”
Magic? Evett’s ears perked up. “What kind of magic?” he asked. “I’m a mage myself, so I’m, uh, professionally interested.”
“A mage? Oh, it’s not often you see one of those.” Margoreth nudged Tylix. “Our friend here happens to be an expert, by the way.”
“It’s not that fancy,” said Tylix modestly. “This is really all I can manage.” He held one finger outstretched. A small, glowing sphere of ice fell from it like a raindrop and arced into a grateful Denethrir’s canteen. “But to answer your question, Evett, no one really knows what exactly is inside. Mages in the Old Times studied much that has been lost today—I doubt there’s anywhere else in Neopia with even half the lore. If there were some way to explore it…”
The words hung in the air for a moment, almost beckoning. Rikti and Evett traded a glance and nodded. Then Rikti leaned forward. “Well, there is. Because Evett and I are going in.”
“What?!” cried Denethrir and Margoreth simultaneously.
“Do you really mean that?” said Margoreth once she had recovered. “You’ve heard all the stories, haven’t you?”
“Indeed!” Denethrir chimed in. “What could possibly drive you to venture inside?”
“If what you’ve just said is right, then we have to go,” said Evett urgently. “Eleus Batrin himself told us to look here for information on magic, and that’s the best place.”
“Now hold on,” said Margoreth. “Surely Eleus meant one of the smaller storehouses. There’s still plenty of lore there—admittedly, it’s not as high-caliber, but—”
“Trust me, I need the highest caliber there is,” said Evett. “I’m after information on time travel. I’ve got, uh, a special situation on my paws.” Tylix tilted his head curiously at this.
“And we’re going to drive out those pygmies too,” Rikti vowed. “Make this place safe, like it used to be. A couple of monsters won’t stop us.” He jumped to his feet. “And with that, we’re off! Thanks for everything.”
“Good luck with your botanic research,” Evett added. With that they departed, heading for the base of Tower Gaia.
Tylix stared after them, silent in the noon breeze. He’d seen their faces before—once, twice, a thousand times. He knew what they would face, more surely than they did themselves. A few seconds passed. Then, as if pulled by some other force, he too stood up.
“I’m sorry, both of you,” he said, gazing up at the shining dome. “But I need to follow them. I have to see everything there is to see.”
He turned, expecting a reproach. But instead Margoreth and Denethrir were looking at him with a mix of resignation and, oddly enough, satisfaction.
“I figured it would come to this,” said Margoreth with a laugh. “You’re you, after all. The star student. I knew you wouldn’t turn down a chance like this.”
Denethrir nodded solemnly. When he spoke, his voice was quieter than Tylix had ever heard it. “I can’t approve of this, naturally, but neither can I forbid it. Do what you must.”
Tylix smiled, moved despite himself. “Thank you. I’ll be sure to bring you all my results.”
“Yes! If you are set on going, then go!” said Denethrir, his voice rising to a shout once more. He pushed Tylix in the direction of the tower. “Go, and fulfill your scholarly duties!”
“I’ll cover your notes for you, so don’t worry,” Margoreth called after him. “Hurry back soon! Don’t let those two sword-swingers get too big for their britches!”
“I won’t!” Tylix answered, setting off at a headlong run. “Goodbye!” There was no reply, at least none that he could hear over the heartbeat pounding in his ears. His fellow scholars were forgotten. Or perhaps, to a youth on a quest that only he understood, they had never mattered to begin with.
The meadow seemed a thousand miles long, and he knew only danger waited at the end of it. But he closed his eyes, remembering the dream he had seen on a distant night. He kept running.
Evett and Rikti were on the doorstep of Tower Gaia when they saw Tylix speeding towards them.
“Knew it,” said Rikti. Evett merely shook his head.
In another minute the yellow Kacheek had reached them. “Nice to meet you again,” said Tylix, smoothing down his tunic. “Please accept me on your expedition.” He stretched out his paw.
“Uh.” Evett took the paw and shook it, nonplussed. “Okay, we’ve got a grand total of one applicant, so… you’re accepted?”
“Great. Okay, then.” Tylix strode up to the rotting wooden door and, without the slightest hesitation, pulled it open. Inside was an ordinary-looking stone corridor, lined with moss and cobwebs. “What are we waiting for?”
Rikti eyed Evett as if to say, Guess he’s gung-ho at least. There was nothing else to discuss. As one, the three stepped into the tower. Behind them, the enormous door swung shut with a clang.
Evett expected to be greeted with the same darkness and stench that had permeated Xantan’s cave, but the tower was aglow with sunlight. It streamed through every hole in the moldering walls. Sculptures and plaques, decayed but still standing, decorated the hallway. Tylix studied them with excitement.
“Can you actually read that stuff?” asked Rikti in amazement.
“It’s not stuff, it’s Kayannin script,” Tylix replied. “It was already falling out of use by the end of the Old Times, but some formal inscriptions still bear it. See, this one names the Lords of the Institute. Inwyn, Sachiel, Kor… ah, Korabric? It’s a little hard to decipher.”
“Fascinating,” said Rikti in a monotone.
Evett waved his paw impatiently. “We don’t have time to mess around. The pygmies could jump out at any moment.”
“I suppose you’re right,” sighed Tylix. They went on.
The corridor, it soon became apparent, was hideously complex; it branched and split without rhyme or reason, and whatever signage had once existed had long since fallen away. Dozens of classrooms and lecture halls popped up on every side. The trio checked them carefully, but they held little aside from the rotting remains of desks, still perfectly aligned in rows. The sight of them, frozen in time, was unnerving.
“Why was this place abandoned?” asked Evett.
“Nobody knows,” said Tylix. “Except the pygmies, maybe. We’re the first ones to conduct a real investigation of this place in centuries.”
They pushed deeper into the interminable maze. Even with the smattering of sunlight, Evett was forced to pull his lantern from his bag. The walls were close, and every now and then the distant sound of scuffling feet made them freeze.
They were rounding a corner, half an hour in, when they suddenly heard the noise right before them. Footsteps and spear-tips beat rhythmically on the stone. Shadows drew closer. There was nowhere to hide. Rikti quickly pushed Tylix behind him and unsheathed his sword. “Okay, here we go!” he said. But, Evett noticed, his face was tight with apprehension.
The pygmies appeared, three of them. They were… scraggly Meepits in hide shirts and too-big helmets. Their fur, even in this somber place, was ridiculously pink; Evett was reminded of one of his neighbors’ Petpets back home. He could have laughed out loud—but then he caught their seething eyes and the gleaming spears, taller than they were, gripped in their paws. An evil aura lurked about them. This was not Evett’s home, and these were no ordinary Meepits. An absurd, belated trickle of fear went down his spine.
No time to lose. Rikti and Evett charged forward before the pygmies could react to their sudden appearance. Evett grabbed his staff. He felt heat flowing into it already, bolstered by his desperation. All he had to do was stand back and blast. They would never see it coming.
But then the pygmies leaped into the air. They were faster than either Evett or Rikti had guessed. Before Evett could so much as shout, one of them was behind him, driving him headfirst into the wall. Evett felt his breath being pummeled out of him. He turned, trying desperately to fire his staff in the attacking pygmy’s direction, but the shot missed and went wide, scorching the floor instead. Dust scattered through the hall.
In the confusion Evett was knocked on his back. The world spun. His staff rolled just out of reach. He caught a glimpse of Rikti not far away, locked in a desperate battle. He’d managed to wound one of the pygmies somehow, but the other one was parrying every strike. Evett wanted desperately to stand up and help, but in that moment a pygmy appeared right above him. Its eyes were ferocious. Chattering wildly, it pointed its spear at his face and brought it down hard.
CLANG! Evett jerked his head and saw the pygmy’s spear-tip strike the ground inches from his face. A bare miss. He was sweating. Where was his staff? He reached around blindly. Yes—there it was! But just as he closed his paw around it, he looked up and saw the spear racing down at him, the metal glinting like a shooting star. His heart caught in his throat. There was no time to think. Letting out a primal yell, he swung the staff upward with as much force as he could muster.
A piercing sound rang out like the note of a gong, followed by the rush of energy leaving him. By sheer luck or fate, Evett had struck the pygmy in the side of its helmet. The fire had melted half of it off. Shrieking, it staggered and fell. Its spear clattered uselessly to the ground next to Evett’s head. Somehow, he’d won.
He staggered to his feet, trying to get his bearings. Tylix was unharmed, rooted to the spot where Rikti had left him; Rikti himself was still dueling the lone remaining pygmy. Easy pickings. Evett pointed his staff and fired at its back without a second thought. With a piercing cry, it slunk away.
Silence. Evett slumped to the ground, exhausted. Rikti hurried to his side, with Tylix following more slowly.
“Hey, you all right there, buddy?” said Rikti, though he didn’t look quite well himself. “Thanks for helping me.”
“No problem,” Evett mumbled. “I feel like I pulled an all-nighter…”
“You fought hard,” said Tylix seriously. He didn’t look nearly as frightened as Evett had expected, though his face was pinched as if he’d witnessed something unpleasant. “I’ve never seen a fight like that in the flesh.”
“You’ll get more,” Rikti advised him. “Bet every pygmy in this place knows we’re here now. We’d better move.” His mood was a far cry from the high spirits and cheer of noon. Something in him looked deflated.
They took a few more minutes to stuff the pygmies in a nearby classroom, but after that they could spare no more time for dawdling. As tired as Evett felt, he would have to recover on the move. The corridor wound on through the bowels of Tower Gaia, seemingly endlessly. The constant fear of another attack made for a long and arduous walk. Several times they had to hide as bands of pygmies raced by. The dragging hafts of their brutish spears scored the ground; that hideous sound, and the tap-tap of their scurrying feet, echoed nightmarishly in the halls.
“All these dead ends,” Rikti whispered as they searched the winding passages for clues. “Amazing how these Old Times folk didn’t walk into walls on their way to class. But I guess they were smarter than us.”
“Of course they were,” said Tylix. “From what I’ve read, there used to be dozens of these universities all over Neopia—but even with all that knowledge, the Institute was the best of the best. It was founded by Anselt and Faleinn of the Twelve. Isn’t this place amazing?”
Rikti shrugged and pushed open the door of another lecture hall. “Dunno. I know my letters and that’s all I need. Speaking of which, here’s some more parchment on the floor. Think we can find a map?” He began to dig through the pile.
“Shh! And watch out! Those could be valuable.” Sniffing, Tylix delicately unrolled the scroll nearest him. “See? This one’s all about gems—hard refractors, as scholars call them. Evett, I’m sure you know about these.” He nodded at the red orb sitting on the tip of Evett’s staff.
“Not much, actually,” Evett confessed. “To be honest, I didn’t know I was a mage until, uh, two days ago.”
Tylix started. “What? You can’t be serious. How are you throwing fireballs like that with no training?”
“Hey, watch it,” said Rikti. “You saw yourself how good he is. Is it that weird?”
“For a total novice? You don’t know the half of it.” Tylix shook his head, looking half-awed and half-skeptical. “Well, Evett, I’d better tell you a little about magic while we’re in here. Somebody has to, and I don’t think Rikti here will be any help.“ Rikti scowled but was unable to refute this point.
And so, as they combed this room and then the next and the next, Tylix began to explain the powers that held this ancient Neopia together. Evett couldn’t say he had ever wondered about it before; it was just one more peculiarity of this peculiar world, a world that he longed to escape. But the more Tylix spoke, the more curious he felt.
“To start with, magic is energy,” Tylix said, adopting the voice and manner of a particularly wizened professor. “Nobody really knows where it originates. Some scholars think it comes from something in the air, or that it was granted to us by the World.” He pronounced this last word with particular emphasis. “But anyway, it’s a kind of energy that grows inside the mind. It’s something special to Neopets.”
“But not everyone’s a mage,” said Evett. He nodded at Rikti, who was thumbing through the latest sheaf of parchment with an utterly bored expression.
“Right. We all have energy within us, but only some Neopets can express it on the outside. It’s part bloodline, part training. In your case, I guess your bloodline is very powerful,” he added, looking Evett up and down.
Evett frowned. “Maybe it’s because of where I’m from,” he murmured. Tylix raised his eyebrow, but Evett was too deep in thought to notice. He couldn’t explain how, but he knew his heritage had nothing to do with it. He’d never done magic before, after all. It seemed to rise from the earth itself—from this strange, faraway land.
“…Anyway, mages specialize in different things,” Tylix went on. “Depending on their studies and natural inclinations, their power expresses itself in different ways. Some can disguise themselves, or read minds, or create illusions… all sorts of things. Oh, but all mages have a talent—a basic skill, you could call it.”
“There are five: fire, ice, shock, spectral, and life. You’re fire, obviously, and I’m ice.”
“So this orb on my staff, or refractor or whatever, makes the fire come out,” guessed Evett.
“Sort of. It just acts as a way to focus and amplify power. Yours happens to be a fire gem, so if somebody puts magic into it, they’ll produce fire no matter their talent. But it’s best suited for fire mages, of course.”
“Oh. Do you have one of your own, then?”
Rikti coughed. “They’re jewels, Evett, and he’s an apprentice. Come on.”
“He’s right,” Tylix said with a rueful laugh. “I’m just a hobbyist. You’re lucky you have an orb to play with. But be careful with it—you saw today that it’ll drain you quickly if you’re not prepared.”
“Uh, I’ll keep that in mind,” said Evett, beginning to feel as if he should have taken notes. Why was the magic of the past so different from what he knew? What had happened to it in his own time, and why did he have it now? He knew for a fact he’d never been a mage before. There were just too many questions.
“You sure know a lot,” he said.
Tylix looked pleased, though he quickly hid it. “Thanks. I was worried I’d said too much. I’ve always been interested in magic, though it isn’t my official area.” He grasped the parchment reverently, as if trying to divine its secrets. “Magic is what makes us Neopets special. I want to learn everything I can about it while I still have the chance.”
He cleared his throat. “Sorry. Saying too much again. Anyway, that’s an introduction. Judging by the time, we’ll have to stop there.”
Evett looked outside in surprise. It was getting dark. Somehow the whole afternoon had gone by. They’d explored probably a dozen corridors in that time, and hidden from as many pygmy bands. It was tiresome work.
“Let’s call it a day,” said Rikti, sounding snippier than usual. “Think I’ve heard enough mage banter for a while.”
“I don’t know what you expected,” Tylix answered crossly. “If we ever get to the library, there’ll be more.”
“Don’t remind me.” Rikti sighed. “So who wants to take first watch?”
Evett shrugged. “One of you should. Then you’ll be able to sleep soundly afterwards. I don’t mind being woken up, myself.”
“Neither do I,” said Tylix. “Rikti, I guess that leaves you.”
“You don’t have to go easy on me,” Rikti protested, flushing scarlet. “Just because I’m the youngest—“
“No one said anything about that! Just take it and be grateful.” With that, Evett lay down and shut his eyes pointedly. With a last round of grumbling, the others followed suit. What a long trip this was becoming.
The next day, fearing that the pygmies would catch wind of them, they moved quicker. The first floor was long behind them, and the second nearly a memory, before they finally found a map of the building.
“Great!” Tylix exclaimed. He lay the scroll carefully on a desk. Fine ink scrawlings covered it like a dense cloud. “Okay, let’s see… I’m guessing the Head Library is what we want. That’s on the seventh floor. There should be a stairway nearby. It’s in an atrium—seems like a big open space. We’ll be able to see clearly from there.”
They walked until they came to an ornate door, mostly rotted away. Behind it was an old courtyard tiled with white marble. There was a small, inert fountain standing in the center, lined with stone benches and plants. The greenery had been hacked at by pygmy spears, but a disheveled kind of allure still rose from it.
“Wow, look up there,” said Rikti. The floors above them, ten or more, all opened into a brilliant atrium; the concentric circles of each rising balcony stretched upward until, far above them, they caught a glimpse of light winking off the panes of the rooftop dome. Wan beams shone down, bathing the courtyard in a golden glow. It was a beautiful sight.
Evett imagined this place in happier days—full of young scholars chatting with their friends, or rushing from one hall to the next, or just basking on the benches after a morning of hard work. Even now a ghost of that happiness seemed to linger. For the first time he realized what the Institute had once been. He felt like an intruder disturbing something that had gone long ago to its final rest, preserved in eternity.
“Fantastic, isn’t it?” said Tylix. “Makes the Guild of Scholars in Sunnytown look like child’s play.” He pointed to a rickety wooden spiral staircase on the other side. It only went up to the seventh floor, but that was good enough. “Anyway, we’re headed that way.”
They climbed the staircase in single file. As they went up, the placid beauty of the courtyard receded into a familiar sense of fear. No one said a word, but the ominous sound of the steps creaking echoed throughout the atrium. Halfway up the stairs, Evett thought he heard something else mixed in with the echoes. He looked down over the banister. Six pygmy warriors looked back.
“Uh-oh,” said Evett.
Rikti turned around. “Did you say something?”
“I said pygmy alert! Run!”
They ran. Behind them, the pygmies were ascending the stairs at frightening speed. They were ten steps behind and gaining. The sound of spears and footsteps was like a rolling storm.
“We’re going to get caught at this rate,” Tylix yelled from the back.
Rikti growled in annoyance. “Okay. All right, leave this to me.” He shoved both Evett and Rikti in front of him. “Get to the top, both of you! I’ll hold them back!”
“Rikti, you can’t be serious—“ Evett exclaimed between breaths.
“Just do what I tell you!”
His voice was drowned out by the pounding echoes. Evett and Tylix raced up the steps, leaving him behind. They heard the sounds of pygmy yells and clashing metal. Evett looked down in alarm as he ran. Rikti was a few flights below them, swinging his sword in a frenzy. The six pygmies were practically on top of him with their spears, and as Evett watched they slammed Rikti into the banister. The whole staircase groaned and shook.
“We’re almost there,” gasped Evett. “Come on!”
A few steps more, and they were on the seventh floor, high above the fight. They peered over the balustrade. “Rikti! Rikti!” Evett shouted, his heart pounding. He was afraid. Afraid for—for his friend.
A voice answered, interrupted by the clang of metal. “Burn it down!”
“Burn it down!”
Evett and Tylix looked at each other, then at the wooden banister. There was no doubt of Rikti’s meaning. Gulping, Evett leveled his staff at the wood, channeled his energy, and released a blast. The topmost posts burst into flame.
The blaze inched down the banister; the wood blackened and split. Evett heard the staircase’s creaky protest, and the pygmies’ yells down below. He began to get an inkling of Rikti’s plan. But the staircase still stood; this wasn’t enough.
Evett gritted his teeth and fired again. And again, and again. His eyes were watering in the smoke. Sweat broke out all over his body. The flame was roaring now. With a loud crack, one of the posts toppled; the other hung by a thread. The staircase careened to one side.
“Last—time—“ Evett sank to his knees and lifted the staff once more. It was heavy, so heavy. How many times had he used it today? He concentrated the last dregs of his power into one final push. Boom. A tongue of flame shot out, shining brilliantly even in its maker’s exhaustion. It engulfed the air. The post split in half, teetered, and fell.
Though his head was spinning, Evett managed to look out over the balustrade again. The flaming staircase was in freefall. The pygmies were screaming, scrambling to flee, but they were already about to crash. And Rikti, still swinging his sword to the last, was taking flight. A streak of red soared upward, almost level with the seventh floor—
“There’s a pygmy hanging on to him,” Tylix shouted. Evett squinted through the haze in his mind. He saw Rikti flailing in midair, and then a pink blur hanging on to Rikti’s foot, its hide shirt already catching fire. It slashed wildly at Rikti’s wings with its free paw.
“It’s… trying to take him down with it,” Evett said in horror. He reached for his staff, but he already knew he couldn’t manage another shot. Spots flickered at the edge of his vision.
Suddenly Tylix spoke up calmly. “Well, if this is where we’re at, I’ll help.” Evett turned in astonishment. Ice began to form in the Kacheek’s fist. Larger and larger it grew, taking the form of a jagged crystal. His breath began to sound uneven.
“Wait, stop!” said Evett. “I thought you said you couldn’t do that much! What are you—“ He scrambled for his bag and finally pulled out his slingshot. “At least use this!”
“Thanks,” said Tylix, taking it. His voice sounded distant. Something in it, beyond the stress of maintaining his magic, carried a note of melancholy. “You’re right, I’m not that powerful… but this kind of thing doesn’t scare me. Sometimes I wish it did.”
In the air, Rikti was still struggling to no avail. The seconds ticked by with agonizing slowness. Finally Tylix held up the crystal; it had grown to a good four inches in diameter. He gave it an approving look, then glanced back at Evett. “Sorry, by the way.”
“Huh?” said Evett faintly. “What for?”
“For making you think I’m a good kid.”
He aimed the slingshot and, without hesitation, fired the crystal. It hurtled silently through the air, stoic where Evett’s flames had been bright. And it landed home, square on the pygmy’s chest. For a moment nothing seemed to happen; it was if the world had frozen in this one flash of perfect chaos. Then, soundlessly, wordlessly—perhaps fatigue and burns had taken their toll—the pygmy released its grip and tumbled down, down through the pillars of ash. Evett never saw it land. He turned away just as Rikti fell in a heap on the balcony.
There was no sound but the hiss of flames. All three of them were tired beyond words. For a few moments it was beyond Evett’s power even to crawl. Instead he stared out over the balustrade with stinging eyes. The courtyard was alight, burning in a hideous mockery of the soft sunbeams that had warmed it for so many years. Bitter smoke rose and filled Evett’s lungs. You had to do this, he told himself. It doesn’t matter. None of this matters… But a sick feeling took root in his heart.
“Rikti, what were you thinking?” he growled, though he couldn’t quite summon the energy for anger. “You’re lucky to be alive after that stunt.”
“I almost had it,” Rikti mumbled, getting to his feet. “Next time I won’t mess up, okay? Let’s just get to the library.”
“Right,” said Tylix, coughing and fanning his face. He looked perfectly scholarly, so much so that Evett wondered if he’d imagined that cold monologue. “As I recall, it’s down this way.”
Evett forced himself to stand and follow them. They left the balcony and proceeded down a hallway lit cheerfully by sconces affixed to the walls. Evett asked himself dimly why the pygmies would bother maintaining this place, but he had no time to consider the thought. At the end of the hallway stood a wide set of double doors, finely carved and polished. Unlike the others, they were in perfect condition. This, according to the plaque next to it, was indeed the Head Library.
Tylix pulled open the doors and beckoned the other two inside. The room they were in was hardly the grand, sweeping store of knowledge Evett had expected, though it certainly seemed to be large. The candlelight was dim, the air musty, and the aisles (hundreds of them) crammed with stacks of dimly-visible scrolls. Rikti inhaled a cloud of dust and sneezed, sending the soot on his face flying. After all the pain and effort taken to get here, the scene was almost aggressively mundane.
Evett and company stumbled down the main corridor to the center of the library. As they did, a large wall of floor-to-ceiling windows came into view. The windows faced southwest, gazing over the frayed ends of the great peninsula. Clear evening light shone over the jungle, painting the trees with the pleasant colors of sunset. Beyond them lay the twinkling sea.
Evett touched the glass. For a moment he could imagine that he was seeing this from far away; that he was wrapped up in his own blanket, watching a distant and serene world. A familiar pang of longing hit him. Here, even the mundane was a comfort.
“Say,” said Rikti in a low voice, “doesn’t this place look awfully clean for a thousand-year-old ruin?”
Thump. Thump. Uneven footsteps echoed unevenly through the room. The trio froze as a shadow turned the corner towards them. The wheezing breaths of some creature was approaching. There was no time to run, and in their condition they would not get far.
They waited with bated breath as the shadow drew nearer. But it was not a pygmy that approached them, nor some other monster of the jungle. It was… an old Buzz.
Actually, ‘old’ hardly began to describe him. He was bent double, limping with the aid of a gnarled cane; his long, disheveled beard trailed on the floor as he walked. Large, filmy green eyes stared out feebly, seeming to register the visitors only after several seconds had passed.
“You… who are you?” said the Buzz in a reedy whisper. “Is it over? Is it over at last?” His cane stretched forward, trembling.
By unspoken agreement, it was decided that Tylix would do the talking. The young apprentice stepped out in front hastily, raising his paws. “We’re scholars here to look at the library, that’s all. Who are you?”
“Me?” The old Buzz seemed surprised, as if he hadn’t heard the question in a long time. “It’s… why, it’s Korabric.”
“Korabric?” Tylix furrowed his brow. “Korabric, Korabric—wait. That name was on the plaque of Lords at the entrance, wasn’t it?”
“Lord… yes, I was the Lord of this place once.” He squinted at some undefined point in the air before recovering his train of thought. “That was many years ago. Before the wars.”
Tylix gasped. “Then you really are that Korabric?” he said. “But that would mean you’re from the Old Times! You must be a powerful mage to have lived all this time.”
“Am I? I suppose so,” mumbled Korabric. “The Old Times? Is that what they call it now? Ah, how the time passes. You three look so much like the students that used to roam these halls. I would shout after them as they scattered my papers…” He lowered himself to the ground. Cautiously the trio followed suit.
“You are in great danger,” he said suddenly. “Do you know of Rollay Scaleback?”
“Uh… no, sir.”
“Perhaps he did not attain fame. So much the better… ah.” Korabric squeezed his eyes shut. “I am sorry, young ones. My memory comes and goes. Every time I try to leave this library, I grow weaker.”
“Take your time,” said Tylix. “Um, who is this Rollay Scaleback? Does he have something to do with the pygmies, by chance?”
“Yes, indeed,” Korabric said slowly. “As I remember it… he came here not long after Xantan rebelled. The Twelve desired more strength, and his research was promising. But what he produced was a mutation of life. The Corrupted.“
Tylix stiffened. Rikti and Evett looked at him questioningly. “What’s that mean?” Rikti whispered.
“It’s the old name of the monsters,” said Tylix. “It looks like this Rollay made the creatures that roam Neopia, somehow.”
Rikti gasped. “Are you serious?!” Evett blinked in surprise. He’d thought the monsters were just some natural, unfalteringly evil phenomenon. It was frightening to consider the possibility of a single Neopian unleashing them upon the world. But then, for the great sorcerers who toyed with fate itself, what wasn’t possible?
“The Corrupted were of use to the Twelve for many years in their battle against Xantan,” Korabric continued distantly. “I remember seeing the armies and cheering them on. But then Jahbal cursed them to be his servants for eternity. I do not know what he did, or what happened in the wars after. What a scholar I am.” He laughed weakly. “How I came to be imprisoned here… the fate of Rollay and the Institute and Neopia… all is a mystery to me.”
He trailed off into a thin whisper. Then, with a note of hope, he spoke again. “Tell me, what do scholars learn in this age?” he asked. “No one has come here in so long. The Institute’s knowledge must be far surpassed by now. I am glad to have laid the foundations for your era’s greatness.”
They all winced. Tylix cleared his throat before responding as diplomatically as he could. “We scholars learn a great deal, sir. But we’ve yet to surpass you. The wars you mentioned were catastrophic to Neopia… so much was forgotten.”
“The Institute as well? The Lords? Even that was lost?” The silence was answer enough. Korabric bowed his head. “I see. Perhaps it was arrogant of me to expect better. The river of time washes all things away, as they say.”
He turned to look out the window. His hunched silhouette was a forlorn black streak against dusk’s violet hues. “What is knowledge worth?” he said softly. “I dedicated my life to guiding the wise. Yet here I am still, and wisdom has fled. The flower of Neopia will never bloom again. All I can do is hide.”
Tylix stared at Korabric with an unreadable expression. Rikti shifted restlessly. Evett, though, followed the old Buzz’s gaze to the clouded jungle outside. The sun was falling swiftly, leaving nothing but a drop of light over the horizon. All the tranquility Evett had witnessed earlier seemed now like the eerie stillness of a lurking beast: the beast that had devoured the Old Times and swept away the greatness of a fading land.
“Well, I will trouble you no longer,” said Korabric at last. With effort he rose to his feet. “Neither will the pygmies, as long as you rest in here. Good luck on your studies. I—still have something I must do…” Mumbling to himself, he took hold of his cane and began to hobble away down the aisle.
“Wait!” called Tylix, but Korabric did not turn back. The three watched him go in silence and more than a little bewilderment. The old Buzz’s words lingered in Evett’s mind. The flower of Neopia… Evett imagined a graceful blossom withering in the long shadow of evil, choked by the trampling footfalls of a hundred thousand monsters. Why did he have to be the one to see it? Where were the great sorcerers who could turn it aside?
Once Korabric was out of earshot, Rikti coughed uneasily. “Can we all agree this guy is off his rocker?”
Tylix was deep in thought. “There’s more to this than just senility, I think. Why don’t the pygmies come in here? Why are there so many pygmies in here to begin with? He never answered that. And how is he still alive when he’s so weak?”
“I thought strong mages could become immortal,” Evett objected. “That’s what Rikti told me.”
“Strong is the key word there,” said Tylix. “No one would ever make it to one thousand years in the shape he’s in. It flies in the face of logic.” He scratched his head. “Nothing here makes any sense.”
“It must have something to do with that Rollay fellow,” said Rikti, folding his arms. “Who knows what a crazy mage like that is capable of? We’ll have to beat the answers out of him.”
“If he’s still here, you mean,” Evett interrupted with a frown.
“I’ll settle for the pygmies too.” Rikti waved a hand. “I’m here to save Neopia, you know. All this about knowledge and history goes over my head.”
“If not for knowledge, we wouldn’t have any songs and stories of the past at all,” said Tylix. “The Old Times were our golden age. You can’t dismiss them so easily.”
“That’s different,” Rikti insisted heatedly. “Songs are songs. They’re fun.”
Tylix rolled his eyes. “In any case, it’s getting late. We’re all tired, and I don’t think we want to look around in here by candlelight. Let’s start tomorrow morning.”
Nods all around. They set up camp right where they stood, beside the large window. After a bite of dinner, they lay down to sleep.
Evett had thought himself exhausted, but in the darkness his thoughts ran away with him. Monsters glared out of every shadow. The faces of all those he had met in this strange world danced behind his eyelids mockingly, as if daring him to care for them. His mind turned to his home, searching for solace and cheer. He saw the marketplaces, the apartments, the wide streets lit by many lights—but suddenly the edges were hazy. And the figures walking alongside him in that world were fading, too: or maybe they had never existed to begin with. Hadn’t he always been alone?
The river of time washes all things away. He felt ill. He was so close, and yet…
Tomorrow was a new day. Tomorrow he would find the answers, he promised himself. And slowly, slowly, with that promise locked in his heart, he dropped off to a dreamless sleep.
Tylix sat up. It was late at night, and Rikti and Evett were both asleep next to him. They looked peaceful for once, scoundrels though they were. As for Tylix himself, he was used to sleeping poorly.
Evett’s bag was lying quietly by his head. Tylix eyed it suspiciously. On a passing whim, he unclasped the buckle and reached inside. His paw seemed to descend into a shapeless void, touching one object after another with no regard for the rules of space. Books with strange textures, coins of unfamiliar make, and… was that a stained glass window? Surely there was nothing in Neopia—the current Neopia—capable of a trick like this.
Tylix pulled his paw out. He was sure now. This bag, Evett’s odd accent, and his interest in the esoteric magic of the Institute… there was no doubt in Tylix’s mind about the strange Lupe’s origins and goals. It didn’t explain his strange overabundance of power, but who knew what other secrets the future held? Time travel was an outlandish concept to begin with.
“I guess it doesn’t really matter,” he said to himself, settling back down on his bedroll. “We all have our reasons to fight.”
Evett, a wanderer in search of answers. Rikti, an adventurer who wanted to save the world. Tylix found them a bit annoying, frankly, but now that he had really met them, he had to admit there was something endearing about their earnest ways. It was practically contagious. He had been honest with Evett for a bit—a brief moment of weakness—but here, alone in the shadows, there was no comfort but his own dark thoughts.
He remembered what he had told Margoreth and Denethrir, at noon on the swaying grass. I have to see everything there is to see. He swallowed, recalling their hopeful faces. If only they knew how selfish he really was.
Korabric had been right. The times were changing beyond repair, and soon this Neopia would meet its end. Tylix wished he was Evett, a foreigner from a distant era untouched by this age’s curse… but he had never been so lucky. Every night he saw its fate in his mind’s eye.
As he fell asleep again, he could only wonder how much farther he had left to go.
To be continued…