Where there's a Weewoo, there's a way Circulation: 196,084,698 Issue: 892 | 28th day of Awakening, Y22
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The River that Flows Eternal


by movie138music

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PART 2: A GREAT CITY

      If there had been any mages walking the Wide Plains that morning, they would have felt the wave of energy in their very bones. As it was, there were none—and the sorcerer arrived on the ocean of yellow grass unnoticed by all, save one far to the east. And his gaze did not matter, not as he was now.

     The sorcerer stepped out from the magic circle and looked out over the flat plain. This was an unexpected place to end up. It was an unfamiliar and terrible sight. Winter was close at hand. A biting wind blew. Ignoring it, the sorcerer began the long trek southward. Even in this utter solitude, there was no room for the slightest doubt.

     There was a month left, or thereabouts. What was a month compared to a thousand years? Two thousand? An eternity? The sorcerer had seen destiny and wanted no part in it. This would be the last gasp.

     ———

     “Okay, so go on with your story,” said Rikti eagerly. “You bought your magical… paint brush thing, and then?”

     It was late morning, and the sun was just beginning to peek out from behind its cloudy raiment. Evett and Rikti were hiking south out of the Hills of Jub, still fresh off the previous day’s battle. Rikti, for his part, was in high spirits. He wasn’t sure about Evett, but then again there was plenty he didn’t know about this Lupe—as was rapidly becoming clear.

     “Right, yeah,” Evett said. “So then the next day, which was yesterday, I went to the Rainbow Pool. That’s where we use paint brushes. It was about… hmm, probably eight o’clock, since I’d just checked the mail...“

     “Ohclock? What’s that?” Rikti frowned, trying to wrap his head around Evett’s crazy stories. “And wouldn’t your mail be better off with an armorsmith?”

     Evett groaned. “…Never mind. Anyway, forget all the details. Long story short, I got myself painted blue at the Rainbow Pool in Neopia Central, and right at that moment, I sort of fell asleep. After that, I woke up here. That’s the long and short of it.”

     Rainbow what? It was better not to ask, Rikti decided. Some things were just too advanced for his poor ancient-Neopian brain. “Well, I don’t know what kind of magic stuff goes into those paint brushes, but I bet that had something to do with it. Say, what color were you before?”

     “Before? Oh, you know…” Evett trailed off and made a face. “Well, it wasn’t anything exciting, that’s for sure.”

     “What, and blue was better? For someone from the future, you sure are ordinary,” said Rikti, giving Evett a playful punch in the side. “I’d have thought you made the whole thing up if it hadn’t been so boring. Next to you, the Ballad of Erick and the Babaa Temple sounds like a downright thriller! But forget all that. Look, we’re here!”

     They were at the foot of the hill, and as they rounded the side of it, a beautiful plain came into view. Waves of barley and wheat, tinted gold by sunlight, sloped gently downhill to the silhouette of a great walled city in the distance. Rikti had seen it many times by now, but it never got old. It was quite a sight compared to the swamp he’d used to call home, at least.

     The city was closer than it looked. Rikti took to the air and practically dragged Evett most of the way, which helped. When they were finally standing at the Common Gate, telling the guards their names, hometowns, and professions (or a somewhat edited version, in Evett’s case), it seemed like no time had passed at all.

     And then, with little fanfare, they were passing under the enormous stone arch into Neopia City itself. A large plaza lay before them, surrounded on all sides by a maze of narrow cobbled streets and, above them, an equally chaotic procession of buildings. There were mere thatched dwellings in the outer ring, but farther off Rikti could see tall stone turrets, climbing higher and higher above the warren of streets. They were gleaming white, and the tallest of them seemed to touch the clouds themselves. It was said the inner ring was two thousand years old—built by Xantan himself, before he had turned to evil. Rikti didn’t know if he quite believed that story, but it was a good one.

     “Well, what do you think of the grandest city in the north?” he asked eagerly. “Does it hold up to your Neopia Central?”

     “A bit,” said Evett with a wan smile. “So what’s our plan now?”

     “Well, we need information. You want to find out how you got here and how you can get back. Me, I want to find out who’s been controlling the monsters that roam all over Neopia. And I have a hunch these two are related. That’s how it always is with magic stuff.” Rikti folded his arms and nodded sagely. “Anyway, I think I know someone who can help us. This way!”

     “Wait up! I just remembered,” Evett interjected, pulling Rikti to a stop. “We have to tell your brother that you’re okay. He was pretty worried yesterday.”

     “…Was he?” If there was one Neopian Rikti didn’t want to see right now, it was that overbearing busybody.

     “Oh come on, don’t be like that. Can you just show me where he is? Somewhere in this marketplace, right?“

     “Yeah, yeah. This way.” Feeling decidedly less optimistic, Rikti led Evett through the crowd and around a few corners. It was a slow day at the market, and he quickly found the familiar rickety wagon. There, sitting by it and fidgeting worriedly, was—

     “Mokti!” called Evett. “Here’s your brother!”

     The taller Korbat turned and leaped up from his chair. “Evett, is that you? And Rikti! Goodness, you really found him! Was he in the cave after all?”

     “Yeah, actually we—“ Evett began.

     “I wasn’t kidnapped,” said Rikti abruptly, glaring at the floor. “I left.”

     “What?” Mokti stiffened. “You’ve been through too much danger to think straight. Put away that sword. We’ve got a lot of work to do today—“

     Suddenly Rikti couldn’t bear the old rants and lectures any longer. “I’m not going to sit back and sell trinkets!” he shouted. He couldn’t believe his own stupidity, running back to his brother mere hours after his incredible adventure. What kind of hero was he? “Can’t you even tell why I ran away? Do you know anything about me?”

     Mokti sighed exasperatedly. “Yes, I’m familiar with all your nonsense about quests and heroes. But I never imagined you’d be foolish enough to reenact them. The fate of Neopia doesn’t concern you, all right? Our business concerns you. Is that clear?”

     “No! No, it’s not!” The passersby were giving them a wide berth now. Rikti paid them no mind. His anger was boiling over. It didn’t matter if he told Mokti about Xantan. It didn’t matter what he said at all. Had he lifted the whole continent on one finger, his brother would be there the next day to complain that he’d muddied the wagon wheels.

     “I’m not a kid anymore!” he yelled. “I’m stronger than you think I am! You and I both know what the monsters are capable of. Just because you prefer to cower behind walls—”

     Mokti recoiled as if he’d been struck. “You have no idea what you’re talking about,” he snapped. He was shaking, from anger or fright or both. “I don’t care about your little escapades. This is for your own good!”

     “For my good?” Rikti scoffed. “Give it up, Mokti. Mom and Dad aren’t...”

     He stopped himself on a reflex. Even he knew that was too much. Mokti gaped at him wordlessly.

     “Okay, Evett, let’s go,” Rikti muttered in the silence. He turned on his heel and rounded the corner.

     Evett hesitated, then followed him. “Are you okay with just leaving like that…?“

     “Yeah. I am. But anyway, let’s get going! Time waits for no Neopet!” Rikti set off at a jaunty pace, making an effort to put the whole conversation behind him.

     Evett shook his head but thankfully didn’t seem to care enough to intervene. They pushed their way through the stalls and shops. The sun was high overhead now, and business was heating up. With all the energy the air, it was easy to forget about family squabbles.

     “Anyway, about the magic stuff,” said Rikti in what he hoped was a normal voice. “I’m not an expert. Most non-scholars aren’t, really. But one of the weaponsmiths here is an exception. Name’s Eleus Batrin. He’s a friend—made this sword for me. You can trust him.”

     Evett nodded vaguely. He looked overwhelmed and painfully unassuming. On any other day, Rikti wouldn’t have given a Neopian like that a second glance. But after their adventure in the cave, there was no doubt Evett’s strength was something special. And then there was his crazy story about traveling through time. No matter how he acted in the daylight, there was some brilliant spark in him. Rikti wondered how deep it lay.

     Soon they passed into the old city: the inner ring, or Xantan’s Pot as the more uncouth locals liked to call it. The air itself felt ancient, and the lofty white walls seemed to watch over the chaotic district below with elegant disapproval. Though the arts of their construction had long been forgotten, their majesty remained. The atmosphere always made Rikti feel a little out of place. There were no shouting shopkeepers or children playing in the dirt. The few passersby were finely dressed. Even the scholars’ apprentices, the only residents who seemed remotely close to Rikti’s age, had a stuffy look to them.

     Just off the main avenue was one of the old spires Rikti had glimpsed from afar, carpeted in ivy. Eleus Batrin’s smithy occupied its first story. Rikti pushed open the door cautiously and led Evett inside. The shop was dark and appeared deserted, but even in the gloom, he could make out the glint of countless swords and axes lining the walls. The sound of hammer and anvil was faintly discernible from the room behind.

     “Who’s there?” A voice echoed from the back.

     “It’s me,” Rikti answered loudly. They heard the back door creak, and then an elderly Kyrii with a snow-white beard emerged.

     “Ah, another morning gone to history,” the old fellow—Eleus Batrin—mumbled, throwing open the curtains. “And what brings you here, Rikti? Quarreling with your brother again? For goodness’ sake…”

     “It’s not about that,” Rikti retorted, a bit snappier than usual. “And besides, he doesn’t own me.”

     Eleus shrugged. “I never said he did. But be patient with him. He’s doing his best.”

     If only Eleus knew how bad the quarrels were now. “Forget that,” said Rikti urgently. “I’ve got something bigger to ask about. Eleus, do you remember us talking about magic the last time I was here? You’re a lore expert, aren’t you?”

     Eleus frowned, suddenly looking much more alert. “Yes indeed, though I’m no mage myself. But as I recall, you seemed uninterested in the topic before…?” His gaze drifted to Evett, who tried to look nonchalant.

     “The situation’s changed.” Rikti wondered how to begin. “Basically, this Lupe here is a mage from the future, and he and I defeated Xantan the Foul last night.”

     The old Kyrii raised his eyebrows so high that Rikti thought they might disappear into his forehead entirely. “Let us discuss this in the smithy,” he said.

     ———

     “…and after that Xantan disappeared, and it was over,” finished Rikti. He and Evett were perched on a grimy-looking bench in Eleus’ cluttered workshop. They had just finished recounting the past day’s events, time travel and adventure and sludge-slaying included. It was a miracle Eleus had any eyebrows left to raise at all.

     “Quite the tale,” said Eleus. “If not for that astounding bag of yours, good Lupe, I’d have disbelieved it entirely.”

     “It really is something, isn’t it,” sighed Rikti, eyeing the bag enviously. “Hey, but you agree with me, right? He’s a mage. Natural prodigy, too.”

     “No way,” Evett protested. “The fire stuff surprised me too, I’ll have you know. I’m not some kind of professional sorcerer.”

     “A mage is merely someone who can use magic,” said Eleus. “Your skill has nothing to do with the name, and as such, I agree with Rikti. Evett, would you perhaps demonstrate this ‘fire stuff’?”

     “Uh.” Evett stared blankly at his paws. “How?”

     Eleus rubbed his chin. “Perhaps imagine that you are in danger, as you were last night. Picture the energy.”

     Evett screwed his eyes shut and arranged himself in a more meditative pose, which to Rikti looked downright comical. “I’m not really sure,” he said slowly. “I felt angry. There was something inside me that was beating, like another heart. All twisted up…”

     Rikti frowned. He was no expert, but that didn’t sound normal. Eleus looked uncertain as well. But as Evett exhaled, they saw a small mote of flame appear on his paw-pad. Although it went out quickly, the warmth lingered.

     “Quite good for a beginner,” said Eleus approvingly. “I’m not convinced that this could defeat Xantan the Foul, however. As I’m sure Rikti has told you, he was known for his strength.”

     “He must’ve gotten weaker,” Rikti commented. “Since the stories left out, you know, the whole sludge thing.”

     “Yes, it seems so,” said Eleus. “Jahbal’s curse must have stolen away his magical energy. For terrible ends, I’m sure.”

     Evett mulled this over. “Jahbal… didn’t that name come up in your story yesterday, Rikti?”

     “Yeah. He’s a bad guy. The worst of them all. He was the leader of the Twelve and fought to seal Xantan away, but then in the midst of the confusion, he started a war of his own. He wanted to oust the Twelve and rule Neopia alone.” Rikti plowed on through the details, heroically resisting the urge to slip into his storytelling habit. “Neopia’s never seen a villain like him. Even with the rest of the Circle fighting back, his power was something else. And he managed to get an army of monsters on his side, somehow. The war went on for years, until…”

     “Until what?”

     Rikti’s voice stopped. Kal Panning. The Ghost City. At the gates of the old capital, the final blow had been struck. He shot Eleus a silent glance. They both knew. Every Neopian knew, but none knew more than a far-off whisper of the truth. “…Well, it’s not important. But the Twelve are gone now, all of them. Except Xantan, I guess.”

     He rubbed his chin, thinking about this last part. “Maybe Jahbal wasn’t worried about him, since the… the curse Eleus mentioned was keeping him down. But isn’t that kinda overpowered? Just taking energy willy-nilly?”

     “That was one of Jahbal’s greatest skills, though not one you hear much about nowadays,” Eleus replied. “It’s no wonder the great wars were so hard-fought. Given a proper magic circle, he could even manipulate energy in the earth from afar. That was among his many… Evett, what is the matter?”

     The Lupe had a disturbed look on his face. “It’s something Xantan said,” he began.

     “You talked to him?” Rikti gaped. “How? When?”

     “It was telepathy or something,” said Evett shakily. “He told me he’d tried to—to warn everyone. But then the ‘enemy’ had ruined him, and he had been forsaken by them all. He hated them, he said. Over and over.”

     “Enemy? So he betrayed the Twelve because he knew what Jahbal was planning?” Rikti said slowly. Then… he really was a hero? Until the very end? His head hurt. No, surely not. Xantan the Foul, a hero? It didn’t make sense.

     “That’s not all,” Evett went on. “At the very end, he started to panic. He said he felt the ‘enemy’ watching him. I thought he meant me, but… the thing you just said. About Jahbal using magic circles.”

     “Slow down. What?”

     “Rikti, those markings on the ground in the castle. They started to glow right before the rocks fell. Do you remember that?”

     Rikti thought back. It had all been very chaotic, but he did recall seeing something glowing. And he thought he remembered feeling the buzz of magic in the air, even after Evett had put his fire out. His mind raced. “Wait. So you think Jahbal put that circle there ages ago? And, and he sensed the energy somehow, and saw that Xantan was there, so he made the cave collapse? But that would mean he’s alive! Alive right now! That’s—that’s—” It couldn’t be.

     “…Bad news, huh,” Evett said, with a grim chuckle. Rikti almost wanted to shake him. Bad news? What did he know? A monster from the Old Times was walking this earth. An Eyrie, green-eyed and wreathed in darkness—a sorcerer-king who led the nation to its greatest heights—a fiend who sacrificed his own heart on the altar of strength. The Jahbal had returned. Rikti was caught between sheer terror and surpassing awe.

     “It is possible you were mistaken, Evett,” Eleus said after a while. “Another mage could have activated that circle, if they came across its partner in Jahbal’s fortress. I do hope that is the case. But—“ he exhaled heavily “—I fear it is not. Perhaps we are on the brink of something terrible.”

     “Then we’ve just to got to fight it!” Rikti said, practically on instinct. “Right?”

     “What good do you think you can do? Think for a moment!” Eleus cried. “Xantan was a fluke. You know it as well as I do. Neither of you are prepared for true danger. You must not risk drawing attention to yourself, not if this talk of Jahbal is true.”

     “I—well—“

     Eleus stood up and dusted himself off. “I think we could use some fresh air. What do you lads say?” Without waiting for a response he pushed open a door in the back. Sunlight flooded into the smithy. There was a little porch there, overlooking the avenue behind Eleus’ shop as it sloped down gently back to the outer ring. Rikti had spent many an afternoon there before.

     Shading his eyes, he stepped outside and sat on the balcony. Eleus came and stood next to him, while Evett leaned on the doorframe. Ancient white walls rose up around them. The serene towers seemed to mute all sound, and the conversations of Neopians walking by were hardly above a whisper. Even knowing about all the monster attacks, even knowing that Jahbal could be watching them at this very moment, it was hard to shake off the feeling of peace.

     He felt a warm touch. It was Eleus, patting him on the head. Normally Rikti would have raised a complaint, but he didn’t mind it all that much today. He wanted to bask a little before confronting the future. Peace itself was a treasure worth enjoying. Looking out over Xantan’s Pot, he was reminded of its namesake’s monstrous face. Amid those piercing screams, he recalled now, had been a pitiable feeling of regret. The cry of a creature who had wanted only to live, even when life itself became a torture too great to bear. But his city had outlasted him in the end. It had forgotten him.

     Rikti let his eyes travel over the high spires and fluttering leaves. He couldn’t imagine anything worse in this world than losing what he wanted to protect. Losing his pride and glory. Suddenly he thought he understood the pain in Xantan’s voice a little better. A hero… huh… And the last shred of doubt in his mind was erased.

     “I’m going, no matter what you say—“

     “Rikti, we first met on this street, didn’t we?” said Eleus, interrupting him. “Years and years ago. The day when you climbed that tree.” He pointed. There was a line of tall beeches going down the avenue, their reddening fall leaves draping over the cobbles.

     “Well, now that you mention it…” Rikti squinted at the nearest tree with a rueful grin. “It was my first time in Neopia City. I was trying to make an impression, you know?”

     “I was reading on one of those benches, and when I looked up, lo and behold! I saw a little Korbat, barely half my height, clinging to the highest branch.”

     “And then I fell out, of course, and you were rushing to catch me. But I did a backflip and stuck a perfect landing—”

     “—on my head, as a matter of fact!” Eleus gave his beard a grouchy caress. “And so I learned this timeless adage: when Rikti aims for something, it is best to get out of his way.”

     “Did you have to put it like that?!” Rikti turned to pinch Eleus’ cheeks, but to his surprise, the old Kyrii’s eyes were brimming with tears. “Eleus, what...“

     “Really, you’ve always been so straightforward.” Eleus wiped his face hastily. “I knew you would go, of course. You and your brother really are too easy to read.”

     “Even I know that much,” said Evett with a chuckle. Some deep emotion crossed his face, as if he were thinking of something far away. There it was—the spark Rikti had seen before. But it was a passing flash. His eyes were flat, almost like the surface of a calm sea. Or like a mirror hanging on some rich fellow’s wall. The sunlight crossing them seemed not to penetrate their depths.

     “I have to go home,” Evett said finally, his voice thick with that strange emotion. “You’re right, I should lie low. But if this Jahbal guy is here, and I’m here, I can’t help but think there’s a connection. I have to find it. There isn’t a choice for me.”

     Eleus was silent for a long while, surveying the city. It was just past noon, and the light was brighter and more cheerful than ever. When he spoke at last, it was with an effort at joviality. “All right, then. I suppose it falls to me to think of a plan that will keep your hides out of trouble.” He thought for a moment. “There is one thing. Some acquaintances of mine in the Guild of Scholars are conducting research in the jungle south of here, by the ruins of the Institute. Have you heard of it, Rikti?”

     “Uh, a little. It used to be a school or something, right? Though it’s overrun by jungle pygmies and other monsters now.”

     “Yes. I hear it holds a great store of records on magic and history. Perhaps even something about time travel. I think it will be of use to you, and relatively safe as long as you stay close to the scholars.” Stay close to those quill-pushers? Rikti winced at the mere thought.

     “But you’ll need more than just your fists, Evett,” Eleus continued. He hesitated before speaking again. “Go back inside and look in the broom closet on the left. There’s a staff in there with a red orb.”

     Evett nodded quizzically and disappeared indoors. “Whoa,” said Rikti. “Is that really okay? It’s a memento for you, right?”

     “I haven’t done magic in years. He’ll need it more than I ever have.” Eleus gave Rikti a long look. “Are you sure about this? You know far better than Evett what you’re up against.”

     “And that’s why I’m doing it,” Rikti answered simply. “What else would I do? I’ve always been up for crazy things, ever since the day I fell out of that tree. You know how I am.”

     “I do. Though I wish I didn’t.” Eleus patted Rikti on the head again. This time it was like… like something he had felt a long time ago, back in the little house by the swamp. He forced himself to duck away.

     Just then Evett returned, gripping a gnarled staff topped with a tiny red jewel. Ornate carvings ran up and down its length, which was nearly Rikti’s own height. It was his first time seeing it out in the open like this, and it looked… expensive. He was quite relieved he wouldn’t have to be the one using it.

     “This is a weapon that will focus your magical power,” Eleus said to Evett. “I don’t remember enough to explain in more depth, unfortunately, but I’m sure my scholar friends can help. One of them is quite knowledgable on the topic, though he’s just an apprentice.”

     “Wow. Thank you, Eleus.” Evett weighed it in his hands thoughtfully before putting it into his mystical space-warping bag. “I’ll be sure to use it well.”

     “As long as you survive all this, that’s well enough for me.”

     There was nothing left to say. Eleus led the duo back to the front of the shop. The room was still dark, almost mournful. “You don’t need to put the weight of the world on your shoulders,” he said. “Nor the weight of your future home. Out there, it’s easy to forget what you really want.”

     “Don’t worry so much, Eleus,” said Rikti. “This’ll be an adventure! I’m going to save everyone, and Evett’ll end up right where he belongs. The Institute’s just the start, mark my words!”

     Eleus seemed not to hear him. His face was wistful. “Stay safe, both of you. You’re not alone, no matter what you may think.”

     And with that, Evett and Rikti were blinking in the noon sunlight of the busy street. The old smithy before them, its door once again firmly shut, seemed a world away.

     “What’s that all about? He really is the moody type, huh,” Rikti remarked. Evett shrugged.

     The day flew by quickly. They had to stock up on food, and there was also the matter of armor; the jungle pygmies were apparently known for their dangerous spears. Rikti worried about paying for it all, but it turned out that Evett’s stash of shiny coins—’Neopoints’, he called them—converted quite well into the local currency.

     It was mid-afternoon by the time they were finished shopping, and the streets were crisscrossed with long shadows. The skies darkened. A cool breeze rushed in over the stone and thatch roofs, making Evett and Rikti pull their cloaks around them.

     “We’d better leave before it starts pouring,” said Rikti.

     “What? Why not just start tomorrow?” asked Evett as they descended the winding roads.

     “The southern peninsula is a ways off. And we’ll need all the time we can get—from what I’ve heard, the jungle is a bit of a trek.” As Rikti spoke, the first raindrops began to fall. The streets quickly emptied, and before long a few stragglers hurrying over the slick grey cobbles were all that remained.

     “Come on, we’re almost out,” said Rikti impatiently. He was going faster now, practically flying. This district was where Mokti’s stall had been in the morning, and he didn’t want another unpleasant run-in.

     Evett grabbed Rikti by the wrist. “Hey, are you sure about this? You won’t get another chance.”

     “I know what I’m doing, okay?” said Rikti. He brushed Evett’s paw off and ran even farther ahead.

     The rain really was coming down harder now, and the world was misty and indistinct. The sound of Evett’s footsteps faded. Rikti looked around for a moment, squinting at the foggy windows of the little storefronts lining the streets. He’d turned a wrong corner somewhere in his haste. Where was the gate?

     Pulling his cloak over his head, he wandered down the street. Then he caught sight of Evett a few yards away, facing a familiar red-haired figure. Grimacing, Rikti ducked under a canopy before they caught sight of him.

     “Tell me where you’re going, at least,” said Mokti heatedly. “I’m his guardian. I have a right to know.”

     Evett said something in response that Rikti couldn’t hear, but it evidently wasn’t enough to please his brother.

     “I’m serious! Once I lay eyes on that rascal, it’s over!” Mokti seethed. “Who does he think he is? I’m all he’s got! I’m all he’s got…” He trailed off. When he spoke again, his voice was quieter. Curious despite himself, Rikti strained to hear the words.

     “Just promise me this, all right? Promise me you’ll…”

     Spy on Rikti? Take his sword away? Lock him in the city jail? Rikti imagined a hundred possibilities, each less (or, knowing Mokti, more) plausible than the last. But whatever the promise was, he never heard it. And Evett never answered.

     When the Lupe had gone, Mokti stood squinting after him. Rikti could just barely make out his brother’s face, blurred amid the raindrops. It was angry—furious, even—but then, at the last second, it looked defeated. Rikti couldn’t bear to watch any longer. He crept away onto a side street and then broke into a run, a blind dash down that street and the next. Down he ran, down to the wide plaza and the waiting gate. Evett stood under the arch, his arms folded.

     “Took you long enough. I’m drenched.”

     “Let’s go, then,” said Rikti, putting on a brave face. He didn’t need anybody. That was how it ought to be.

     He turned around one last time as they went through the Common Gate. The city’s tall spires gazed watchfully down, as they had that same morning. But now the gleaming ramparts and bright windows, tiny points of light in an ever-darkening sky, seemed like the eye of a brewing storm. And as Evett and Rikti walked farther into the distance, Neopia City—the shining beacon of this ancient plain—looked more and more like a fortress besieged by the oncoming tide of night.

     ———

     Promise me you’ll look after him.

     The words echoed in Evett’s mind as he walked. He didn’t mention them out loud. It was better if Rikti didn’t know. And what could Evett promise, anyway? This wasn’t his world. He wasn’t bound to anyone in it.

     The thoughts circled around and around but brought him no comfort. It took until evening for the rain to stop, leaving the world damp and gray. It fit the mood. Evett and Rikti set up a soggy camp at the edge of a wheat field near the old road that led south. A bit farther off, the outskirts of the jungle lurked menacingly—but they could wait until tomorrow.

     “Why don’t you use Eleus Batrin’s fancy stick and light us a fire?” Rikti complained, poking the long staff with his foot. “I’m freezing here.”

     Evett, in the midst of rummaging through his bag for food, waved a paw irritably. “Can you do it? I’m a little busy.”

     “I can’t use magic, remember? If you’re going to make fun of me, at least be logical about it.”

     “Can’t use magic?” Evett looked up, frowning. “But this is just a weapon. You’re saying you can’t do anything with it at all?” He’d assumed Eleus’ staff was like the typical Battledome trinket: a charmed object that anybody could pick up and use. But this staff was different. No, not just the staff—

     “This world’s different,” Rikti said. “I don’t know how things work where you come from, but magic stuff needs a mage to wield it. ‘Cause it’s just an amplifier, see? The real power comes from inside you, and you have to be born with it. Or something.” He tapped his chest. “I mean, I’m no expert, but everyone knows that much. You’d better brush up fast, Master I-Didn’t-Know-I-Was-A-Mage.”

     Evett grimaced. “Hey, it’s not my fault I’m new here. I’m used to faerie quests and spellbooks and things, not all this ‘inside you’ business.” Nevertheless, he picked up the staff and turned it over in his grasp. He wasn’t sure what to expect. But as soon as his attention was fixed on it, he felt a dam in his mind burst. A wellspring of warmth bubbled up inside him. It rushed through his limbs and into the staff, whose gnarled surface seemed at once to become searingly hot. A tiny, bright flame leaped up from the orb at its tip.

     “See, I knew you could do it!” said Rikti. “You’re a natural. Now let’s put that fire on these logs I gathered.”

     Evett squinted at it. “Rikti, they’re soaking wet.”

     “It’s the best I could do!”

     Rolling his eyes, Evett hefted the staff and carefully pointed it at Rikti’s miserable pile of timber. Come on, go already, he thought. To his amazement, the flame shot forth obediently from his staff and, in an instant, set the logs ablaze. Somehow he’d gotten it to work. Magic fire was magic, he supposed.

     He sat back, suddenly feeling rather drained. But the heat and light were worth it. Their dismal camp on the border of the wilderness suddenly looked... cozy, almost. As tired and lonely and homesick as he felt, Evett couldn’t help but bask in it.

     Rikti seemed to be thinking the same thing. He turned to Evett, smiling. “You’re really something else, you know that? Let’s reward you with some supper.”

     He broke off some waybread and offered it to Evett. They ate together, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder by the fire. The air was quiet, but no longer quite as somber.

     Rikti spent much of the time asking questions about the future. Evett answered them as best he could; he hadn’t had the money to travel much, and Neopia Central was what he knew best. Still, that was enough to impress anyone from the distant past.

     “You’re telling me you can fire a beam at yourself and change your species?” Rikti exclaimed. “I can’t believe it! How does that work?”

     “It’s science or something,” said Evett with a shrug. “Dunno. I can’t afford the lab ray anyway.”

     “Labray? Laaabraaay. Huh. What a weird word.” Rikti absorbed this information. “Say, there’s something else I’ve been wondering. If you’re from the future, can you… I don’t know… change it somehow? Since you’re here and all. I mean, what if you met your own great-great-grandfather or something?”

     Evett had read enough novels to know where this was going. “Hopefully I won’t be here long enough for it to matter,” he said dryly. But then he thought about the question seriously. “Actually, I’ve never heard about this era before in all my life, other than maybe the name of Neopia City. Not the Old Times, or mages, or any of it. I don’t think any modern Neopian knows about this time. So… I doubt anything I do will make much of a difference.”

     He took a breath. The whole reality of this situation was finally impressing itself on him. ”We’re a long time apart, Rikti.”

     “That long, huh?” said Rikti wistfully. “But even so, I’m glad there’s a Neopia out there where folks can live in peace. It sounds nice.”

     At that Evett could find nothing to say. The fire went out not long after, reduced to a few glowing embers on the grass. The duo rolled out their blankets and lay down, staring up at the darkness.

     A few moments passed. Rikti drew in a long breath and let it out again. Maybe he was thinking of Neopia City, or his lonely brother. “I think I like it better here, though,” he said. “Not that your Neopia isn’t a great place—it is. But this is my home, you know? This is the world I’m going to save.”

     His cheerful voice cut through the gloom like a knife. Evett couldn’t understand it. Who would risk their life for something like that? “Why?” he said out loud, almost without realizing it.

     “Because that’s what heroes do, silly,” Rikti answered. “Travel the world with their friends and make things right. Isn’t it obvious? Look at all the great stories. Rosval and Faleinn’s journey—the war for the Valley of Song—even Erick and the Archmagus of Roo—”

     “I thought you said you didn’t like Erick. That he was boring or something?” Evett smiled despite himself.

     “Even Babaa herders have their good side.” Rikti chuckled sleepily. “There’s something worth telling in every tale. I’ll have to perform it for you sometime…”

     He rolled over and, after mumbling a ‘good night’, drifted off. Soon the Korbat’s slow breathing and the rustling stalks of grain were all Evett could hear. He was alone again.

     Traveling the world with friends... Evett wondered if he’d ever had a friend. There were acquaintances, strangers… his memory was a bit hazy there. Nothing of substance. But that world was where he belonged, wasn’t it? What had he fought Xantan for, if not to grasp a chance at returning to the life he loved? He couldn’t let himself think of this Neopia, this doomed imitation, as anything but a distraction.

     But then he heard Rikti’s voice, and he saw Mokti’s face in the rain, and suddenly he didn’t know what to believe.

     Evett slumbered fitfully. He dreamed of the city he had just left, or some version of it: a great city with white walls and twinkling turrets. He dreamed of his home: the stolid high-rise, the golden lights, the clothes piled everywhere. And he dreamed of a cave. A dark, decrepit cave—not as loathsome as Xantan’s lair, but far more terrifying in Evett’s mind. Even in sleep, he shrank from it.

     Far away, in the depths of the jungle, the music of the World played on.

     ———

     In the great forests of southern Neopia, there stood a pair of mountains. They were named the Two Rings, for the way they curved to meet each other. Snow capped their peaks and clouds skirted their slopes. The paths that zigzagged up their sides were long barren. No living Neopian dared come near.

     Nestled in those mountain wastes sat a tumbled and broken palace, its tall black spires one step removed from myth. Within it lived a sorcerer from ancient times—only a formless shade now, but the winds were changing. Through his magic circles he saw all that passed in the world of Neopia, and he saw too that his long-laid plans were coming to fruition.

     The sun was rising. Slowly Jahbal rose. “Something has happened to the west.”

     The wandering of two little Neopets meant nothing to him. The fall of that decrepit traitor was but a trifle. No, his eyes were fixed on the movements of the great. Though he was not yet strong enough to command his beasts as he once had, that would soon change. The curse he had laid on them long ago brought him Neopia’s energy day by day. Every unthinking swipe of their claws was another drop of sustenance. The hour of his vengeance was near at hand. As he stared through his circle at the flattened blades of dry grass on those faraway plains, he could think of nothing else. The last gasp of Neopia, indeed.

To be continued…

 
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