The most fantastic thing in the universe! Circulation: 196,098,192 Issue: 894 | 13th day of Running, Y22
Home | Archives Articles | Editorial | Short Stories | Comics | New Series | Continued Series
 

The River that Flows Eternal


by movie138music

--------

PART 4: DREAMS

      When Rikti awoke, it was early morning. The sky outside was pinkish blue, crisscrossed by scudding clouds. He sighed, enjoying the peaceful atmosphere, before massaging his neck. It was still sore after yesterday’s events. Then again, he supposed, it was a good thing soreness was the worst of it. He had been slammed into a banister, after all.

     Well, so what? His strategy had paid off. They’d all made it out in one piece; he’d protected everyone just fine. If there had been a flaw, it was that Evett and Tylix had had to rescue him. What was the point of saving Neopia if he couldn’t even defeat a few pygmies on his own? Forget Rosval the Righteous; at this rate he was better off joining Erick at the Babaa Temple.

     No use dwelling on the past. Today would be better, Rikti promised himself. He sat up and looked around. Evett was still snoring on the floor, but Tylix had already gotten up. Rikti found him sitting in the aisle a few shelves down, perusing an enormous book with the aid of Evett’s shiny lantern.

     “Good morning,” he said as Rikti approached.

     “Hi,” Rikti answered. “How long’ve you been up anyway?”

     Tylix rubbed his chin sheepishly. “…Not sure. A while.”

     “Sheesh. How do you scholars even function?” Rikti sat down and peered over Tylix’s shoulder. Columns of strange symbols greeted him, so densely packed that Rikti could barely make out more than a solid block of ink.

     “It’s an encyclopedia of magic spells,” Tylix explained, sensing his bafflement. “I’m making note of them, since there’s a lot in here that has been lost. Have you ever heard of mineral transfiguration? It’s in Ranris the Tall’s memoirs, but in modern times we thought that was an exaggeration. If you look here, though, the process becomes very clear—“ He coughed. “Sorry. It’s an intriguing book. Like I said yesterday, the magic of the Old Times is my passion.”

     “Okay,” said Rikti doubtfully, glancing over the pages again. Despite the conversation last night, he still couldn’t make himself care about all this dusty old babble. “Oh, that’s right. Is there anything about time travel in there?”

     “No, I don’t think so,” Tylix answered. “You’re asking for Evett, right? So he can go back to the future.”

     “Yeah. Wait, what?” Rikti gaped at him. “How did you know that?”

     “It’s kind of obvious, isn’t it? His bag, his things…” Tylix patted the lantern for emphasis.

     “I—I guess,” mumbled Rikti, embarrassed. In hindsight, Evett hadn’t done much to keep the whole thing secret. Then he perked up. “Hey, aren’t you curious or anything? Evett’s tight-lipped, but he’s still told me a bit. Flying ships, underwater kingdoms…” He sighed. “It’s amazing to think Neopia will be like that one day.”

     “I don’t really care. It’s the past that I’m interested in, after all. The future is what it is. We have nothing to do with that world.”

     “Way to be a downer,” Rikti complained.

     “That’s just reality,” said Tylix briskly, resuming his scan of the book. “All we can do is live in it.”

     Rikti curled his lip. Something in the Kacheek’s manner reminded him unpleasantly of his brother. Didn’t these types ever bother to dream? “Well, say whatever you like, but I think our Neopia can change for the better. The Old Times were great and all, but they’re over. We even stopped Xantan in his dirty tracks.”

     Tylix waved his paw with disdain, but then froze mid-wave. “What was that? Did you say Xantan?”

     “Oh right, we didn’t tell you about that either…”

     “Well, don’t stop now!” Tylix bellowed, suddenly resembling a miniature Denethrir. “Go on! This is essential! Who, what, when, where—“

     ———

     Evett woke up feeling refreshed. Sleep and food had done wonders on him, though at the cost of keeping him down till late morning. When he made his way to his companions, they were already buried deep in research.

     “Glad you finally decided to join us,” Rikti commented, his mop of curly hair barely visible above a pile of books. “I had to narrate our entire Xantan fight on my own.”

     “Uh…?”

     “Quite the tale,” Tylix chimed in, looking up from the massive cobwebbed tome he was holding. “Even more exciting than this compendium of conductive metals, and that’s a real feat.”

     Evett frowned. He couldn’t say his memories of the event were nearly as positive. “I’m… glad you liked it?”

     Rikti patted the spot next to him. “Anyway, you wanted time travel stuff, right? Tylix picked out some books that might help. No worries, they’re all readable. Oh, and he knows you’re from the future.”

     “…Uh. Right. Got it.” Despite only having been up for about ten minutes, Evett was feeling quite ready to reverse that particular decision. But the promise of information was more enticing than another bout of restless sleep.

     “Time to get started,” he muttered, lifting the first book off the pile. Magics of Time; that is, a Study of History, Futures, and Other Such Pursuits, as Compiled by Parwenna III, it read. It was almost a thousand pages long, and at least that many years old. Evett feared it would crumble to dust in his paws—either that or his brain would.

     Three hours passed, along with Parwenna III and several more like her. The trio was settling into their work. Tylix was making methodical notes, sometimes getting up to search other aisles; Rikti flipped through random folktales and what could only be described as ancient jokebooks; but Evett stayed where he was, swimming in the arcane words of a distant past.

     The various books, it turned out, disagreed on nearly everything when it came to time travel. Even during the Old Times, it had been regarded as something approaching legend. A few facts were constant, however. One: The energy required was orders of magnitude beyond the average mage. Two: It was a forbidden art—the catalyst of dissonance. What that meant, Evett had no idea.

     This dissonance is the downfall of a mage. To disturb the river of time is to sin against the World that protecteth us. A small sin shall be forgiven; a great sin shall be punished.

     Tylix scanned the passage with bewildered interest. “The capital-W World, huh,” he murmured. “I mentioned it two days ago when I was telling you about magic, if you remember. Many other texts talk about it. It’s supposed to be the magical energy of the land itself. A limitless force that keeps the order of time and space… that’s how the theory goes, anyway. I’m not sure if I believe it.”

     “So that’s what sent me here?” said Evett, puzzled. He wondered why something so large had taken an interest in him. “But what was the sin? Something like this couldn’t just happen by accident.”

     “I think so too,” said Rikti. “If time travel is as big as you’re saying it is, someone had to have triggered it. It’s a forbidden art, right? Think about all the evil that lurks around Neopia. The sin was probably a summoning—by Jahbal.”

     The room sobered in an instant. Tylix looked up, his face grim. “Is that what this is about? The reason you came here?”

     “…Well, it’s just a hunch,” Rikti hastened to add, in a voice that clearly suggested he’d spilled more than he should have. “Eleus Batrin thinks so, at least.”

     But Tylix’s only reaction was a sigh. “He’s not the first, unfortunately. I live in Sunnytown down south. I don’t know if you’ve ever been there, but there are dark rumors coming out of the First Forest to the east. The Two Rings are that way, you know.”

     “Two Rings?” Evett repeated. The name was more than a little ominous.

     “The mountains where Jahbal’s palace used to be, years and years ago,” Rikti explained tightly. “Not a good sign. So you think he’s back too, then?”

     “Maybe,” said Tylix vaguely. “With all the monsters in this day and age, it’s very possible. But even if he is, I’m not sure how time travel figures into it. The energy required…”

     “He can absorb energy,” Rikti cut in. “We think we saw him do it to Xantan. What if he’s been gathering magic for a really crazy time-travel spell? He could’ve used Evett as a trial run or something.”

     Evett shivered. “But what about Rollay Scaleback? What does he have to do with all this? With… Jahbal, and the World, and everything?”

     “No idea. He might not even be around anymore, for all we know,” said Rikti. “But I’ll bet twenty rooks it’s all got something to do with why you’re here.”

     The thought of being a pawn in these faceless villains’ schemes was disquieting. “Well, I want out,” Evett said. “Isn’t there anything in here that can tell me how to get back home?”

     “If what you say is true, no book is going to help,” Tylix responded tersely. “Nothing like this has ever happened in Neopia. Unfortunately, I think you’ll have to look somewhere else. Or find some more very old mages to talk to.” He paused. “Speaking of which, where’s Korabric? I need help deciphering this Kayannin text.”

     “Haven’t seen him,” said Rikti. He craned his neck and shouted into the air. “Helloooo? Lord Korabric?”

     No answer. Rikti’s voice echoed hollowly off the walls. The three looked at each other, all feeling the same fear. “Split up and search,” Rikti ordered.

     Evett headed for the northern wing of the library. The shelves here were tall, blocking most of the light from the windows. Row upon row of books and scrolls, immaculately kept, towered up to the ceiling. In the corner, half-hidden by shadow, was a stately door marked Head Office. Evett knocked, waited, then pushed it open cautiously.

     The tiny room was windowless; the air, clammy and foul. Potted plants sprouted every which way, their long stems trailing over the ground and up the walls. They looked like ordinary vines, but as Evett looked closer he saw reddish-purple thorns covering them like angry welts. Beakers and shards of glass littered the ground, along with a sticky puddle of some violet liquid.

     The desk was buried in stacks of parchment, and so too were the walls. Furious scrawlings had been left on every inch of surface. A dried-out inkpot lay tipped over in the corner, its quill still lying desolately in the black pool. Had Korabric spent a thousand years on this? Why bother, when it would all be forgotten?

     Evett picked up the scrap of parchment resting nearest to him. Pieces of it crumbled away in his grasp. The words were difficult to make out, having been apparently written in a desperate rush.

     It has been a century. Perhaps two. The days pass and I cannot recall them. But I must continue my work here. Yes, the antidote. I must stop Rollay soon. If only things could be as they were———

     Evett felt something brush his hind paws. He looked down to find that one of the plants was half-coiled around his ankle. Had it—had it always been there? A chill went up his spine. Quietly he set down the parchment, shook himself out of the vine’s grasp, and shut the door.

     He met Rikti and Tylix back by the windows. No one had seen Korabric, and the eerie office was seemingly the only clue to his whereabouts. “I think he’s cracked,” Evett said bluntly. “Either the pygmies got him or he left the library on his own.”

     “He could be in trouble,” said Rikti. “We’d better go after him!”

     “Hold on,” Tylix countered. “You don’t even know where he went. And what about the things Evett found in his study? There’s a lot more research to be done.”

     “Haven’t we done enough reading? It’s been hours! We can come back later, you know.”

     “I can’t waste any time,” Tylix continued stubbornly. “This place is a scholar’s paradise. So many precious things that we’ll never see again… There’s no point in me risking myself when I need to find out as much as I can.”

     “For what?” Rikti exclaimed. “There’s someone out there in danger and you’re going to read a musty book? Don’t you have a heart?”

     “I—“ Tylix stared at him blankly, his face frozen in some kind of shock. Evett winced. Even Rikti seemed taken aback, though not enough to swallow his pride.

     Finally Tylix looked down, his face red. “What did you expect? Not all of us are warriors. What I’ve come here for is more important than anything else.”

     “Anything else?” Rikti looked like he was dying to press the matter further, but after a beat he sighed and turned around. “Fine. We’ll find Korabric on our own. Let’s go, Evett.”

     Evett hesitated. At the last second, as he headed for the door, he turned back to Tylix. “Hang on to the slingshot, okay? The pygmies might come in here. You never know.”

     Tylix didn’t answer. The last thing Evett saw before he rounded the corner was the young Kacheek’s back, draped in shadow, hunched and unmoving over his books like a statue of some bygone age.

     ———

     “Well, here’s the courtyard,” said Rikti quietly.

     They gazed down over the balcony. The ground was a blackened mess. Twisted fragments of metal and charred wood, the last remains of the grand old spiral staircase, lay amid the ash. An acrid scent haunted the air.

     Rikti grimaced. “It wouldn’t have gone this way if I’d been stronger.”

     “We did what we had to,” said Evett. “Nothing you can do about it now.”

     “Huh. Some savior of Neopia I am.” There was a long pause before Rikti spoke again. “I bet Tylix hates me right now.”

     They were standing right where Evett and Tylix had been yesterday, right where Tylix had shot his ice crystal. Sorry, by the way… That look of unutterable sadness. …For making you think I’m a good kid.

     “I don’t think he hates you,” Evett said finally.

     “Could’ve fooled me.” Rikti turned away from the railing. “Let’s get going. Where do you think Korabric went? Probably up, right?”

     Evett hesitated before nodding. “Probably. We’ve seen the map—there’s not much downstairs.”

     “Great, that makes it easy. I bet the pygmies have a big hideout up there too.” Rikti gripped his sword-hilt. “Today I’ll be the one to fight back.”

     They left the atrium and explored the rest of the seventh floor. Aside from the library, it housed a few large lecture halls. All of them were in shambles, the old seats rotting away and gouged by spear-marks. It seemed the pygmies had been here recently.

     There was another staircase, made of plain stone, at the back of the tower; it went from the seventh floor all the way to the top. As Rikti and Evett were going up, they heard a distant chattering echo above them.

     “That’s them, isn’t it,” said Evett in a low voice.

     “Yep,” Rikti answered grimly. “The sound’s coming from the eighth floor, I think. There’s got to be a whole crowd of them.”

     The eighth floor, as it turned out, took Tower Gaia’s grandiosity to a new level. The walls were lined with relief sculptures that, though distressed by time, had evidently been preserved by caring hands. Rays of sunlight filtering through holes in the ceiling made them almost seem to shine. Evett paused briefly to look at one of them, and reluctantly Rikti stood by and waited for him.

     It was a floor-to-ceiling stone carving of a valley surrounding a lake. Forested hills rose up in the background, overlooking the water. Behind them was a craggy mountain range. The waves, the cliffs, and even the leaves on the trees had been fashioned in impeccable detail. At the center of the relief, standing atop an island on the lake, was a city illuminated by the sun. With its soaring turrets and sloping walls, not even the aged and chipped stonework could hide its beauty.

     Evett turned his gaze to the inscription at the bottom. Most of it had faded away, but the title was legible: Kal Panning, it read. Was this Neopia City in some forgotten time? Or another place entirely? It looked familiar somehow. Evett was mesmerized.

     “Done yet?” said Rikti dryly. He was steadfastly staring away from the relief, as if the very sight of it was a curse. “It’s the Ghost City, if you’re wondering. The old capital down south. I guess it used to look pretty nice. But all this stuff did, once upon a time.”

     Evett opened his mouth to ask a question. Something was itching in the back of his mind. But then, far up ahead, they heard the chattering sounds again. Evett whipped around. At the end of the corridor, nearly out of sight, was a small band of pygmies—seven or eight, heavily armored. They were guarding a large set of doors. Rikti was already charging towards them, his sword winking in the sunlight.

     “Hold on, I said!” Evett cried, racing down the hallway, but the fight had already begun in earnest. The exchange of blades, like streaks of light in the air, was too quick to follow. Halfway to the doors, struggling to make out what was going on, Evett realized to his shock that he was too late. Rikti had already won.

     The sight was beyond belief. “Wow,” Evett managed to say, after stepping over the prone forms of the pygmies. “You, uh. Really did a number on them.”

     Rikti grinned, flicking a bead of sweat out of his hair. “Not bad, huh? They caught me off-guard yesterday, but now I’ve got them all figured out.”

     But Evett caught sight of the look in his eyes. “Come on, don’t push yourself that hard,” he said. “What’s with you today?”

     “Don’t you get it?” Rikti’s smile faded. “Never mind. We’ve got a lot more to deal with.”

     He jerked his thumb at the doors behind him. Made of polished wood and decorated with the image of a tree, they were oddly reminiscent of the doors to the library. They were slightly ajar, and dreadful screeches echoed from within. Lying nearby, seemingly discarded, was a familiar cane.

     “This is Korabric’s,” Evett realized with a dawning sense of horror. “So the pygmies really did get him…”

     Rikti scowled, his mood darkening further. “Of course they did. Monsters are monsters. But you know what? That ends here.” He grabbed the door handle and began to pull.

     “Hold on!” Evett hissed, panicked. “There’s too many of them. Don’t you have a plan?“

     “Who cares? If I can’t do this, I might as well give up.” And with that, Rikti flung the doors wide open.

     ———

     Tylix looked up from his reading. A muffled sword fight was happening somewhere above his head. Another pointless battle in a world full of them.

     “Whatever happens will happen,” he said aloud. But the words fell on empty air.

     ———

     The room behind the double doors was a laboratory.

     Evett would have described it that way from his own experience, but there was no way a place like this could exist in such an ancient tower. It wasn’t possible. These polished surfaces—these vials lining the walls—these rows and rows of caged Meepits—

     “What…” said Rikti in a low voice, barely audible over the wordless cries. “What is this?”

     The room was a cavernous space even larger than the old courtyard. A large westward-facing window filled the room with bright light. Nondescript doors popped up on every side. The cages were arranged along the left wall, floor to ceiling; cabinets, tools, and colorful glass tubes covered the right. It was a laboratory both painstakingly clean and horrifically chaotic.

     “These pygmies…” Evett said, staring at the cages. “They’re not monsters. They’re just ordinary Petpets.”

     Wide eyes peering out from the darkness. Matted pink fur pressing against the bars. There were at least twenty of them. Evett had to look away, nauseated by the smell. The chittering that had been so ghastly before sounded more like a plea for help now. Evett felt a pit of horror open up in his stomach. Something here was terribly wrong.

     Rikti took a step backward, dumbfounded. “I don’t get it. Where’s Korabric? Why would Rollay do this?”

     “Why, indeed?” Suddenly one of the side doors swung open. A smiling creature stepped into the room. It was not a Neopet. The yellow-scaled, red-eyed thing before them was—a beast with a mind.

     “You foolish warriors truly astound me,” Rollay went on. “I admit I wasn’t expecting you to wander here quite so quickly and mindlessly.”

     Evett shifted nervously. The pit in him was growing. “That voice…”

     It was a rasping creak that trembled with great age. Although the reedy whisper was one of delight and not of wretched despair, there was no mistaking it. This was Korabric.

     “You’re kidding,” gasped Rikti. His drawn sword trembled visibly. “Hey, what’s going on here? Tell us!”

     Rollay chuckled. “If you desire answers, you must seek them out as all good scholars do. As for me… what I wish to know is how you fare against these subjects of mine. I meant to save them up, but an excellent experiment like this deserves my full attention. It has been so long… so long… since true-hearted Neopians last graced this hall with their presence.”

     His long arm snaked toward the nearest cage. The Meepit inside whimpered and shied away from the scaly fingers’ touch. “Cherish this sight. You are the first to see it in many a year. The greatest talent a mage can possess… the talent of life.”

     Rikti, realizing what was happening, dashed forward. But he was too late. A wind whipped up from the ground, blowing him back. Rollay’s hand was shining with green tendrils of energy. They raced over the rows of cages like sparks on a lightning rod. The Petpets shrieked and pounded on the bars, helpless to escape. Magic coated them. Magic sank into their bones. It lit the room with a sickly glow, drowning even the sunlight bursting through the window.

     When it stopped, Evett was blinded for a moment. He heard the low growls and the cages popping open before he saw them. The twenty Meepits were hunched on the ground, baring their teeth. Spittle ran from their mouths. One of them had grown larger than the rest; it was misshapen, with wild, beady eyes. All of them were fixed on Evett and Rikti. Evett was frozen to the ground. Rikti’s face was contorted with silent rage. Was this—the Corruption that Korabric had spoken of?

     Rollay retrieved a bundle of spears from a cabinet on the wall and tossed them on the ground. “Usually I would armor them as well. But as you see, I’m in a bit of a rush. Now… give me a good fight, will you? For the sake of knowledge. This is a school, after all.”

     “Wait!” shouted Rikti. Rollay did not wait. With a wheezing cackle, eerily like the old scholar in the library, he retreated through the door from which he had entered. Even before it had shut, the Meepits—no, now they truly were pygmies—had begun to swarm over the pile of weapons. Now they faced the two adventurers head-on. The cacophony was petrifying. Evett took an involuntary step back, though he knew he wasn’t going anywhere. One look at Rikti’s fierce expression made that painfully clear.

     “Monsters are monsters,” the little Korbat said through gritted teeth. “I’m sorry about this, but I have to win.” As always, there was not a moment of hesitation. He leaped into the air, buoyed by his tiny wings, and dove straight down into the seething mass.

     At once the fighting began, harder and harsher than anything Evett had witnessed before. It was all he could do to keep his staff in his grasp, much less blast it at will. And these pygmies were not easily cowed by fire. They set upon him from every direction, thrusting their spears through the air. Evett was caught unprepared. They were enemies—he knew they were no different from all the monsters he’d fought before—but the roiling nausea in his gut chilled his limbs. Slowly he was overwhelmed and crushed to the ground. He could hardly see, and with all the noise he felt like he was going deaf. Dimly he remembered his first grueling battle against the pygmies, down in the corridor on the ground floor. Except there had only been three pygmies to deal with back then. Only three. Sure, they had been armored and battle-hardened, but… Evett almost wanted to laugh.

     But even as he reeled, he felt the old spark of resistance rising in him. He wanted to live. He wanted to live. He wanted to live, and escape this crumbling tower, and free himself from all this suffering. In the pygmies’ looming shadows he glimpsed an echo of Xantan’s repulsive face, and the thought of giving in to it made him even more enraged. He had to fight back. But it seemed there was nowhere to go. Even the ceiling seemed far out of reach. He was sinking, slowly but surely, into the rising tide—

     Shining steel cleaved the air. A half-dozen pygmies dived to the side. “Move, furballs!” yelled Rikti. “Give him some space, why don’t you!”

     Evett raised himself shakily. “Thanks—“ he called out. But Rikti was already leaping back into the fray without so much as a backward glance. He looked disheveled, and half his tunic was hanging off him. Even at a distance Evett could hear the sound of his friend’s labored breathing.

     “You’re safe, right?” Rikti shouted. “Get some rest! Let me take care of this!”

     Now Evett could see exactly what Rikti had been up to. Six pygmies lay on the floor unconscious. Five more were attacking Rikti, and as Evett watched in horror the largest one joined in. Rikti was somehow managing to fend them off, spinning this way and that with his sword in one hand and a nicked pygmy spear in the other. He’d always had a refined swordsmanship about him despite his questionable etiquette, but that had dissipated. The young Korbat was swinging and slashing blindly, propelling himself with sheer momentum. He looked almost crazed.

     “That idiot!” Evett muttered. “As if I’d just sit back and watch!” He stepped back to give himself more range and then let off a blast. It was stronger than even he had expected—a vengeful, ravenous bolt of flame. He could feel power coursing through him and away, filling the room. The sensation was at once thrilling and terrifying.

     Three of the smaller pygmies were sent flying backwards, hitting the cages with a loud clang. Screeches resounded. The rest of the attacking pygmies were caught between two opponents now, and their uncertainty showed. Against his own better judgment, Evett grasped that split second of hesitation and rushed back into the fight.

     The combat was just as heavy as before, but now the pygmies were confused and scattered. Evett had an easier time keeping them at arm’s length. He swung at them over and over, shattering cabinets and vials with his staff and fists. The question was how long he could keep it up. Already his uncontrollable magic was draining out of him; he didn’t have the endurance to continue a battle like this forever. The same went for Rikti, no matter how tough he acted. He was barely holding his ground against the large pygmy. There wasn’t much time left.

     Strangely colored gases, residue from all the broken bottles and tubes, clouded the air. It took Evett a moment to realize that Rikti was nearly back to back with him. “Hey!” Evett yelled over his shoulder. “What now? We’re just stalling!”

     “Don’t worry!” said Rikti between breaths. “I’ll take care of it. You’ll see!”

     “What are you talking about?” Evett would have shaken him if he could. “Even if we win here, Rollay’s right behind that door! We shouldn’t have come, not without a plan.”

     There was no response for a moment. Evett turned fully, his heart beating fast. He squinted through the vapor and finally spotted Rikti in a half-crouch, blocking a blow from the pygmy’s spear with just the flat of his blade. With a pained grunt, Rikti put his whole weight into his arm and shoved the surprised pygmy off-balance. Its spear dropped uselessly to the ground.

     Rikti glanced back for a split second at Evett, who was staring in shock. “You can leave if you want,” he replied, before turning back to his opponent. “It’s okay. This isn’t your fight.”

     Evett‘s first instinct was to agree. But looking at Rikti’s strength, he wanted nothing more than to match it. To mirror it. He couldn’t turn away, even as the tides of battle swept them apart again. Shaking his head, Evett focused on the pygmies before him with renewed gusto. At the very least, he could clear Rikti a path.

     Evett inhaled and touched the depths of his magic. His energy flowed freely from the wellspring inside him to the orb sitting at the tip of the staff, and even the smallest motion coaxed it into ignition. Fire spewed forth. Every new tongue of flame seemed to burn brighter than the one before it and hit twice as hard. A spear arced towards him from one side, only to be scorched to nothing in the next second; and he scorched those spears again and again and again. He was alive with energy. Deep inside, he asked himself what was happening to him.

     Slowly but surely, the pygmies’ numbers were thinning. Many of them had crawled into a corner, or were lying on their backs helplessly. It was clear that they were relying on the large one for guidance. But even that great pygmy was beginning to flag. He’d picked up a bent spear and was still dueling Rikti to a standstill—yet Rikti, half-hobbling and badly injured, refused to go down. It was a contest of brute force.

     Then Rikti stumbled. Only for a second, but the opening was enough. The large pygmy hurtled forward and shoved him hard to the ground. Rikti let out something between a yelp and a cough. His sword spun away out of reach. Above him, the pygmy was raising its fist, ready to drive it down for an inevitable triumph. Evett started forward desperately. But then—

     “Got you!” Rikti yelled. He blocked the blow with the flat of his blade. Surprised, the pygmy staggered. Rikti raised his legs and, with a shout, drove them into the pygmy’s chest.

     The pygmy stood motionless for a second, hunched over in an exquisite mockery of some ancient monument. Then a horrible shriek resounded through the air, and the creature fell forward insensibly, toppling over Rikti’s head. It lay motionless in a daze. Rikti had won.

     A great tumult rose up. Smoke and fumes billowed ceaselessly. The pygmies, those who were still conscious, babbled in terror. Evett swung his staff at random, scattering them away. A few crawled back into their cages. The room echoed with the clang of spears hitting the ground. Perhaps it was because the Meepits had only just been ‘corrupted’—the cruel instincts of their kind had not yet manifested. Everywhere Evett looked, he saw finality.

     “It’s not over,” said Rikti, staggering to his feet. He pointed his sword at the door in the corner. It was half-open, and Rollay’s shadow spilled through it. He had been watching all along, of course, and noting down the results of his twisted experiment. Evett inhaled sharply, just as Rollay turned and disappeared through the doorway. Rikti immediately began to chase after him.

     “No! Quit it already!” Evett said. “Let’s run—let’s get Tylix and find a way out of here. Come on!”

     “It’s not over yet,” Rikti repeated fiercely. “I don’t care if it’s dangerous, or a trap, or whatever. Did you forget about Korabric? We have to save him!”

     Rikti’s pride as a hero could not be hindered. He stumbled forward. There was no choice for Evett but to follow him—follow him, and see this misery through to the end.

     The door concealed a narrow, musty stairwell that climbed steeply upward. There was only one possible destination, of course. When Evett and Rikti arrived at the top, they found themselves in a glass garden: the beautiful dome they had seen an eternity ago, on the grass outside Tower Gaia.

     Two dozen trees stood in a circle, their branches long and bowed in the afternoon light. Shrubs and flowers grew in elegant harmony. Light refracted off the glass panes and speckled the moss-carpeted floor. Clinging to the dome were vines with reddish-purple thorns, long and graceful. And at the center, waiting patiently, was Rollay.

     “I must say I’m impressed,” he remarked. “I don’t know you, nor your connection to him. But I like your grit.”

     “We passed your stupid test,” snapped Rikti, trying to keep his sword hand steady. “You owe us an explanation. What did you do to Korabric?”

     “Korabric?” Rollay laughed again. Behind him, the vines shifted slightly, uneasily. “Nothing. What could I have done? I am he, after all. There is no one I cherish more.”

     His croaking voice rattled in the back of his throat. In the quiet of this sanctuary, the noise was distinctly unsettling. Evett could hardly breathe, much less speak, through the fear erupting in his mind.

     “Though we have our own memories and lives, we are one being,” Rollay went on. “He has chosen to forget me and hide away, the old nitwit. But I will not turn from our wish. What do you think I have toiled all these centuries for?”

     “You… you….” Rikti’s hand was surely trembling now. His rage was boiling over.

     “Do you really want to know, little heroes?” Rollay gazed at them as if they were two particularly troublesome specks of dust. Slowly he walked towards them. The vines trailed behind, like a hideous cloak. “It is a story none now know, save the accursed lord of the Two Rings.” He spat derisively. On the ground, Evett noticed the remnants of an etched circle. A… magic circle? But it was crisscrossed by deep scratches. The faint lines were broken and scattered beyond repair.

     “Long ago, there was a scholar who studied botany. He loved learning, and soon he was famous throughout the land. But his talent was weak. He wanted more power, more knowledge. He wanted to transcend history.”

     An arm of ivy shot out like lightning. Evett shoved himself and Rikti out of the way just in time. He hacked away at the twitching vine, but Rollay raised his hand and twenty more rose to replace it.

     “So, aided by the mighty Circle of Twelve, the scholar began to experiment with life spells,” he continued calmly. “Stronger plants. Stronger Petpets. Stronger Neopets. Some called them monsters, or Corrupted, but he knew better. He was giddy at his success. He wanted to make himself strong, too.”

     Evett and Rikti ran through the twisting garden, desperately dodging Rollay’s attacks. Everything, from the flowers to the trees, reached out to entangle them. Anything other than a desperate defense was impossible.

     “He cast the spell on himself, and all at once a new side of him emerged. Strong, cunning, magical. Someone who could build great works with his own hands, for all eternity.”

     Creaking tree branches rose and blocked out the sky. The dome was shrouded in gloom. A whirlwind of magical energy filled the air almost palpably. Evett and Rikti ran around and around, too afraid to look behind them.

     “It was then that Jahbal began his rebellion. He seized the poor scholar’s creations for himself and lay new curses on them. They were bound to seek Neopets’ magical energy and bring it to him, enriching his wicked heart. Even after he was vanquished, they continued their wandering—separated forever from their true master!”

     The garden was a maelstrom now. Evett and Rikti were separated in the chaos, still running blindly. “Where are you?” Evett cried. Rikti was shouting something he couldn’t hear.

     “The scholar was furious. He destroyed every one of Jahbal’s prying circles and hid himself away, vowing to continue his work. But—a part of him felt guilty. He thought he’d been used, that he was blameless. And so he tried to return to his old self…” Rollay let out another laugh, the unhinged guffaw of an ancient fiend. “What a buffoon. Did he think he could turn back time? All he did in the end was impede me.”

     Evett set fire to vines, trees, everything he could see. The inferno raged, but the greenery here was of a power far above anything he could hope to match. The air was dry and bitter with the scent of burning wood.

     “So the good scholar went on dreaming, just as he always had. And his other self went on questing for wisdom, just as he always had. Doing what the scholar had always wanted. What he was too weak to do!”

     Rollay snarled, his red eyes flaring. At his order, the thorns of the vines exploded outward into reddish-purple limbs that shot towards Evett and Rikti. There were many—too many of them even to dodge. Evett raised his staff, knowing it would be futile.

     “Are you satisfied now, little ones? Do you understand? I have been working to continue my great project. My era is gone; everything in it will pass away with time. Who knows what will happen to my beloved beasts, if I am not there to nurture them? All I want—all we want—is knowledge. Knowledge, discoveries, fame that will shake the earth to its core! What do shadowy tyrants and half-baked heroes have to say to that? There is no greater pride—no purer wish!”

     The red vines wrapped around them and lifted them high into the air. If Evett had raised his paw, he would have touched the very top of the dome. But his arms were leaden, and his vision flickered. Next to him, Rikti’s head was bowed.

     “I respect Korabric, absurd though he is. But you! You, who haven’t seen even twenty winters, think yourself bold enough to face me? I am a wish given form!” The vines tightened. “Well, no matter. You have entertained me long enough. This is the end. You will—”

     “Enough!” shouted Rikti.

     Rollay looked up with a sneer. “Pardon?”

     “I said enough! I’m tired of your raving! Come up here and fight me, if you think you can!” Rikti’s voice was raw, but he was screaming louder than ever. “I’ve got pride greater than you’ll ever know! I’m going to save the world! So try me!”

     “…I see.” The vines holding Rikti shifted. Then, all at once, they whirled around and slammed him to the ground. Again and again they pounded into him. Clouds of dirt and dust rose, and Evett’s eyes stung.

     “How resilient you are,” said Rollay tauntingly to the heap of earth. From his hand came a telltale green glow. “I’ve changed my mind. It has been many years since I Corrupted a Neopet… it takes a great deal out of me. But for a specimen like yourself, it’s worth it. What do you think? You’ll have all the strength you desire…”

     Rikti raised his head from the dirt painfully. Somehow his sword was still in his hand, and he pointed it straight at Rollay. “Never.”

     But he was shaking all over, and from a distance Evett could sense his terror. Rikti was coming to his senses now, and he knew he had landed himself in something beyond his understanding. And yet still he would not bow.

     “Stop it! Stop it!” Evett yelled from up above, though no one could hear. He didn’t even know who he was yelling at. Rollay walked gleefully toward Rikti. He was taking his time, savoring his opponent’s defeat. Rikti struggled to his feet, still hefting his sword, but he was no match. Fear seized Evett. Would Rikti become a monster? Like the withered Korbats haunting Xantan’s cave, doomed to roam in some mage’s service forever? His heart beat at a desperate pace. That was the one fate he could never allow.

     Uselessly he sent a ball of fire out of his staff. One of the vines around him withered, but the fire skidded uselessly off the rest and dissipated into thin air. What was he doing? This wasn’t going to help. He needed more magic. He reached inside himself again, down to the deepest dregs. If he really was as powerful as everyone said—he couldn’t give up. He couldn’t turn back, not now.

     Inhale. Exhale. The orb sparked, and heat coursed through Evett’s body. Then, all of a sudden, three tongues of flame gushed out from the staff. Like a waterfall they flowed downwards, winding around and around the bloated vines in a dizzying display. With a start, they burst into flame. Crack. They crumbled, one by one.

     “You! Who—what are you?!” Rollay whipped around, shouting out in pain. “You’re no ordinary—”

     The sound of a thousand vines cracking to pieces interrupted him. Evett fell to the ground, and the flaming wreckage of the vines crashed down behind him.

     Rikti stared with wide eyes. “Evett…?”

     “You’re not alone,” said Evett, his words slurred by exhaustion. He had well and truly depleted himself now. “I’m… I’m here too.”

     “Are you crazy?! You can’t—“ Rikti gulped down a pained breath. “I did this. It’s my quest. I’m the only one who should see it to the end—”

     Rollay’s fists were clenched with wrath. “How dare you? First my precious Meepits, now my beloved flora? Corruption is too good for you, you wretches!” He strode toward them, followed by the creaking mass of every living green thing in his glass garden. It rose overhead in a nightmarish formation and snaked over the floor. The sunlight disappeared, replaced by blackness. Evett pulled Rikti to his feet and tried to hobble away. He knew they would not get far.

     “I will be eternal,” he said. “I will live on, and be Neopia’s greatest mind. I will take my Corrupted. I will fulfill the dream that we have always cherished. I will—”

     “—be caught off guard, it looks like.” A crystal of sparkling ice, spinning out of the dark, hit Rollay square in the chest. He lurched with a gasp and turned wildly, looking for the source of the sound. But he had grown his garden too far beyond its limits. He was as blind as his own enemies in the darkness. More ice crystals sailed through the air, pelting his scaly hide.

     “Who’s there? Who?!” Reluctantly, Rollay pulled the vines back. Sunlight streamed back into the garden. Evett and Rikti could move freely.

     “Now!” said a voice. “Come on, go!”

     Rikti gasped. Without thinking, Evett stumbled to his feet and charged headfirst. A few straggling branches snaked towards him, but inches from his face they were cut down by a gleaming sword. Rikti was right behind him, limping but upright.

     “You’re not alone, Evett. Am I right?”

     Rollay took one step back, then another. His vines turned and twisted in the air. Evett jumped forward and raised his staff like a club; Rikti dived down from the air. Ice flew from every direction. Even so, Rollay was more than quick enough to dodge their weak attacks. He would have evaded them easily—but then he froze in place.

     “What—you—“ rasped Rollay, struggling against some invisible force. “How dare you—interfere now—of all times…”

     The grotesque face was blurred. The slitted red eyes turned wildly in their sockets. Another voice spoke from Rollay’s mouth. It repeated a weary mantra, full of pain and unutterable fatigue.

     “Hurry… hurry…”

     Evett and Rikti wasted no time. In that bare, miraculous second, they struck Rollay down. All the vines and branches shuddered. The breath was driven out of him, and he crumpled to the ground. There he lay on the floor in the center of the garden, where Jahbal’s magic circle had been. Evett and Rikti watched warily. Then came the owner of the voice—a certain yellow Kacheek, holding the slingshot in one hand and a purple-stained rag in the other.

     “Sorry I’m late,” said Tylix, as if he’d stepped out for tea.

     Rollay stirred feebly, clawing at nothing. His time was running short. Tylix bent down over him and pressed the rag to his nose.

     “What’re you doing?” said Rikti.

     “Just watch. If my hypothesis is right…”

     The creature breathed in once, twice. Then slowly his monstrous scales began to recede back into the natural shape of an old, old Buzz.

     Evett stared openmouthed. “Tylix, how did you…”

     “I went back and dug through his notes in the office,” Tylix explained lightly. “It turned out the ‘antidote’ he was working on was a cure for Corruption. I collected a sample from the puddle on the floor, and here we are.”

     Rollay—no, Korabric—opened his eyes, startling them. “Ah… I never did get it to work. I kept forgetting what I wanted… losing myself in old thoughts. Even now it is all but useless. Its effects will vanish in a few minutes. Though in my case, that doesn’t matter.”

     The trio looked at him, uncertain what to say. The Buzz’s filmy gaze was fixed upwards at the sky. His garden was reasserting its normal shape. Even with half of it cut down or burned, the scene had an odd peacefulness to it.

     “I suppose I should thank you all,” said Korabric at last. “I never was able to resist him, after my first failure a thousand years ago. Without you, another thousand might have gone by. Those few seconds when I held him back… they cost me all my strength, but I don’t regret them.

     “I’ve finally remembered. My crimes, my hubris… they’ve all come back to me. It was silly to think I could run from them, wasting away in here as if nothing had happened. And even then I still toiled in my search for knowledge. I knew no other life. Rollay was right… what a fool I am.”

     “What is knowledge worth?” Evett muttered, remembering the question Korabric had posed the night before, sitting by the window. He had no answer to it. But Tylix raised his head.

     “Everything,” he said—not in a comforting voice, but matter-of-factly. “Fame is fleeting, but knowledge is its own reward. Your only mistake, sir, was striving to be remembered.”

     “Even Faleinn the Sage herself would not have been so dour… but perhaps you are right,” said Korabric. He laughed, and then coughed feebly. “—I’m sorry. I don’t have time to be conversing like this.“ Rikti tried to shush him, but the old Buzz waved him off.

     “Listen. No more Corrupted will be created now, but there are still thousands that roam the land. You must succeed where I failed. You must—“ he sighed, as if dreading his own words “—put an end to my work.”

     Rikti nodded. “Of course. We’re going to bring this land a better future.”

     “Good. I wish… I could see it. I wasted all these years, and I’m still running out of time.” Korabric laughed weakly. “There is a magic circle in the basement. Not Jahbal’s, but mine. It will take you to the Wide Plains. Find Aelon there… Aelon, my old friend. He resisted the shadow even after I fell into it. He will help you against the monsters—against their master in the Two Rings…”

     Evett narrowed his eyes. “So then Jahbal really is alive.”

     “Yes. He still lives, though confined to his palace. Through his monsters he gathers energy and learns the whereabouts of his ancient enemies. I—Rollay and I—hid here from him long ago. He never cared much for us once we had served our purpose, but we could never be too sure.” Korabric glared at the destroyed fragments of the circle beneath him. “He has surely grown strong now. Mark my words: he seeks to rule Neopia once more.”

     The three younger Neopets sat back, numb. So it was true. They were up against the sorcerer that even Xantan and Rollay had feared. He was the greatest of all mages: the tyrant of the ancient world, and the architect of its downfall. If he still walked the earth or surveyed it from some tower deep in the Two Rings, what hope did they have?

     But Korabric was smiling faintly. “There is a chance. A chance to save Neopia…to make something of it once more.”

     His voice sounded far away. He was still looking up above him. Evett was reminded again of the scene in the library from the night before. It had been gloomy dusk then. Now the sun was brilliant, the sky blue, and the world full of endless possibility.

     “Ah… Rollay was wrong after all,” he said. “I finally realize now. What my dream was.” The cloudy gaze dimmed. “All I ever wanted was to make something as beautiful as this.”

     The garden was silent. Every leaf and branch stood in motionless repose. The trio stared at the floor, deep in thought. Rikti felt hope bloom in his heart; Tylix saw darkness on the horizon; and Evett could think only of the merciless flow of time.

     Finally they rose to their feet. Down the stairs they went, back to the tower in all its mundane glory. The door swung shut behind them without a sound. Korabric and his glass garden disappeared from sight, slipping away into history.

     ———

     Back in the laboratory, the pygmies were gone or hiding away. Tylix picked through the wreckage of the cabinets. “It’s a shame there’s no better antidote,” he commented. “That would be really useful.”

     “I wish we didn’t have to fight,” murmured Evett, his head spinning from weariness. “All these monsters, they’re just ordinary Neopets and Petpets. They didn’t choose to serve Rollay and Jahbal. They’re lost…”

     Rikti shrugged and looked away. He was leaning heavily on one leg, and Evett had to wonder how the poor kid was even conscious. “It is what it is,” he said sadly. “I never thought about it before. Or about most things, really.”

     “Well,” said Tylix, looking as if he’d just stifled a particularly cutting remark. “Now that the threat’s passed, why don’t we go and find Denethrir and Margoreth? They’ll be thrilled to hear about this library.”

     They left and made their way through the winding corridors, looking for a way back down. The journey was a long one. Evett and Rikti said little, but Tylix took the time to inform them about all the things he had learned in the library. Hexes, folktales, remedies…

     Finally, on the fifth floor, they found a rickety staircase behind a nondescript door. Evett suspected even the pygmies had never dared to use it. He himself fell through more than a few steps. But in the end they managed to crawl back to the second floor in one piece.

     When they were passing the entrance to the old atrium, Evett spoke up. “Tylix,” he said, “why did you come help us?”

     The Kacheek stopped mid-stride. “What?”

     “You risked your life for us, even when you said you wouldn’t. I mean, we appreciate it, but—why?”

     “Oh.” Tylix shrugged. “Well, I happened to find that puddle in Korabric’s study, and I wanted to try it out. It’s simple, really. You don’t have to fret about it.”

     Rikti limped forward, his face solemn. “You don’t have to try to cheer us up. If you think we’re blundering idiots who walked right into a trap, you can just say it. And you wouldn’t be wrong, anyway.” He grimaced. “Can’t you tell us how you really feel?”

     There was a lengthy pause. “Do you want to know? Truly?”

     “Uh, yeah.”

     Tylix sighed. “What do you think I am? I mean it. When you look at me, what sort of image do you get?”

     “Huh?“ said Evett. “Well, you’re a scholar’s apprentice. You’re pretty smart. You like to read, and you want to learn about new things…?”

     “And you’re pretentious,” added Rikti. “But what about it?”

     Tylix chuckled. “It’s a scholar’s job to be pretentious. Since time immemorial.” His smile faded. He spent a long moment gazing over Evett’s shoulder at the ruins of the courtyard. “That’s… that’s the life I should’ve led.”

     Evett’s tired mind began to turn. “The things you told me, when we were standing on the balcony yesterday,” he said slowly. Rikti looked at him in confusion. “What did they mean?”

     “I came here for myself,” said Tylix, as if he hadn’t spoken. “For my own selfish sake, so I could see the inside of Tower Gaia while I had the chance. So I could get a piece of that knowledge—of the things Neopia used to be.” He cracked a rueful smile. “Even with monsters crawling the earth, I’m happier about seeing Rollay’s garden. It’s just how I am. Don’t you think that’s twisted?”

     “I don’t understand,” said Rikti, perplexed. “What’s the rush? You have all the time in the world. Even Korabric said it’s no use living in the past.”

     “Because he didn’t know. No one knows except me.”

     Evett and Rikti traded a confused glance. They’d asked for the truth, but Tylix seemed to be offering far more than they’d expected.

     After a long silence, Tylix finally looked them in the eyes. Something had shifted within him—or, more accurately, a deeper side of him had suddenly been revealed. The darkness in every line of his face was so profound that neither Rikti nor Evett knew what to say.

     “Remember when I told you about the different skills mages can have? Well, I’ve got one of my own.” Tylix took a deep breath, preparing to tell them the secret he had never once revealed. “I can see into the future through my dreams. And ever since I was born, there’s a certain dream that’s always followed me.

     “It changes sometimes—floods, fires, earthquakes. The faces change too. But there’s one thing I know for sure: you can’t save Neopia.” Tylix closed his eyes. “Because this year, it will be destroyed for good.”

To be continued…

 
Search the Neopian Times




Other Episodes


» The River that Flows Eternal
» The River that Flows Eternal
» The River that Flows Eternal



Week 894 Related Links


Other Stories


---------

Sharp Shards
“Oh benevolent, loving-“ “Give me a break.” Shard the Carmariller was currently bugging her Usul’s human caretaker Ribbon for more food at their family meeting. Food which the family simply couldn’t afford at the moment.

by ribbon_cute



Submit your stories, articles, and comics using the new submission form.