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Uriela and the Chain


by turbomun

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On a warm spring night in Neopia Central, the faintest hint of a breeze traveled through the streets, creeping in through an open window that it found along the way. There it entered a little house – specifically, the bedroom of a young Usul, whose fur rippled lightly as it passed over her. The Usul herself took no notice of this, slumbering obliviously, smiling a little at her bright and happy dreamscape.

     The bedroom itself wasn’t spotlessly neat, but it was at least an organized mess. Scattered all around were signs of the young Usul’s passions: nail polish bottles lined up by color on a vanity table; fashion posters tacked to the walls; a straight-A report card proudly displayed on top of the dresser. Heaped in a corner by the door was her backpack, with her name written across the front in rainbow marker letters: URIELA.

     On evenings when the weather was fine, Uriela loved to sleep with her window open. The feeling of the breeze ruffling her fur never failed to lull her to sleep. And now that winter was finally giving way to spring, she was looking forward to many more nights of starry skies, fresh air, and gentle winds.

     But tonight, the wind wasn’t the only thing that entered her bedroom.

     Uriela stirred when she realized that she had become cold. Still more asleep than awake, she reached down for her comforter, but her wandering hands came up empty. As much as she would have loved to simply roll over and go straight back to sleep, she was getting colder by the second…so she reluctantly opened her eyes.

     All thoughts of her comforter were forgotten when she saw the silhouette at the foot of her bed, its dark shape blotting out the window, seeming to cast far more of a shadow across her than the pale moonlight should have allowed. She felt a stab of fear like an icicle through the chest, even before she knew what she was looking at. Now completely and instantly awake, her eyes sharpened, and she realized that the silhouette was in the shape of a Usul. A black, almost featureless Usul with searing yellow eyes.

     Every young Neopet growing up in Neopia Central, including Uriela, had heard – and spread – tales of the Shadow Usul. Supposedly, she was a pitch-black, Usul-shaped entity composed of pure shadow, who slithered into homes in the middle of the night and…that was it. Nobody seemed to know what the Shadow Usul actually did once she found you, though the hushed voices and fearful glances of the Neopets telling the stories suggested that it must be something horrible. Uriela had never paid much attention to that kind of talk because, honestly, she didn’t care much for scary stories. Not because she was frightened – simply because they didn’t hold her interest. There were so many bright, cheerful things in the world that she’d never given much consideration to the shadows.

     Now she was staring into the almond-shaped, flaming eyes of the creature that her schoolmates had whispered about, captivated and paralyzed. Before she could even decide whether this was a nightmare, a hallucination, or – unthinkably – really happening, the Shadow Usul’s eyes seemed to enlarge and deepen, as if they were becoming two flaming pits in a stretch of darkened ground. Unable to tear her eyes away, she felt the warmth flee from her body, leaving her cold as a shadow herself.

     Uriela finally wrenched her mouth open and screamed…a sound that lasted for all of two seconds before her voice faltered and faded. The Shadow Usul leaned closer, all of its other features seeming to vanish into the background compared to the intense burning of its eyes. She began to feel lightheaded. Her body grew numb, like it was slipping away from her.

     That was when her bedroom door banged open. Her parents had heard her scream and were here in the nick of time, thank goodness! She could see her mother in a dressing gown, racing through the doorway, while her father reached out and flipped the light switch. After the profound darkness brought in by the Shadow Usul, the lamp made Uriela feel like she’d been transported to the surface of the sun, and she instinctively flinched away.

     “Uriela?!” shouted her mother. “What’s wrong?!”

     Uriela, still feeling dizzy and cold, tried to point to the Shadow Usul at the foot of her bed, when she realized that she was no longer in the bed. She was pressed into the corner of the room, in one of the few pools of darkness left untouched by the lamp. How had she gotten over here? She didn’t remember getting up…

     Her gaze shifted to the bed, and for the second time that night, an icy pang of fear cut right through her. Because there was no Shadow Usul – but there was another Usul in the bed. One who looked just like Uriela, right down to the flowery pajamas.

     “There’s something in my room!” cried this other Usul, in Uriela’s voice.

     Uriela did her best to shake off her sick, weak feeling and stepped forward, ready to protest against the imposter. The movement evidently caught her parents’ eyes, because they both turned towards her, and an expression of horror dawned across their faces.

     “Mother…” whispered Uriela, her voice so weak that she could hardly hear herself. “Father…”

     Her mother responded by snatching the closest weapon-like object: a mop that had been left out in the hall earlier that day. Without hesitating, she charged at her daughter, brandishing the mop as though it were a sword. “Get out of here!” she shrieked, while behind her, Uriela’s father went to protectively embrace the imposter Uriela. “Leave us alone, you creature! Go, you MONSTER…!”

     Frightened out of her wits, Uriela darted for her only avenue of escape: the open window.

     By the time she realized how not smart it was to fling herself through a window without even trying to climb, it was too late to catch herself. But instead of plummeting to the ground and possibly breaking an arm, she drifted down like a leaf caught in the breeze. It was her gentle fall that made her realize that something was very wrong, even more than the appearance of the Shadow Usul, the false Uriela, or her parents’ extreme reaction to her.

     She glanced down at herself. Her fur had been replaced with some kind of black, wispy material; her red ruff was now deep purple. She would have felt a chill if she’d been able to get any colder. Although she couldn’t see her face, she was willing to bet that her eyes were the same blazing yellow flames that she’d seen on the Shadow Usul mere minutes before.

     She had become the Shadow Usul! It had swapped bodies with her somehow! Now what was it going to do? Live her life, with her parents, attending her school, and…there must have been other things besides school, right? Hanging out with her friends! Her friends, like…like…what were their names again…?

     The more she hunkered in the shadow of her house, frantically scanning through her memories, the more the horrible truth became clear to her. The Shadow Usul had snatched up her past, just like it had snatched up her body. Her family, her friends, her life: she had nothing left of them but the faintest recollections, as if they were all from a book that she’d read only one time, many years ago.

     “No,” she whispered. “No, no, no. I’m Uriela. Not her! I am!”

     But who would believe that when she looked like this? Who would listen to her when she now remembered little but her own name, while in her home, there sat a Usul in her perfect likeness who presumably possessed all of the knowledge that Uriela had lost?

     Terrified by the idea, she fled – to where or from what, she had no idea. Her new body, more shadow than substance, reached speeds that she’d never dreamed of before, flitting between dark corners and shady patches of ground. She pushed herself to go faster and faster, as if the darkness would peel away from her like a loose jacket, revealing her true self underneath. But all that happened was that the remnants of her memory grew fuzzier and fuzzier as she left her home behind, until nothing remained but the expressions of horror on her parents’ faces as they chased her out of the house.

     The farther she went, the more distance she wanted to put between herself and her past, and so her flight continued as the moon and stars moved across the sky. Perhaps a few Neopians, up burning the midnight oil, would catch a fleeting glimpse of her and wind up with another scary story to tell their peers, but Uriela didn’t even think of them, much less stop to try and frighten them. The only thing that she wanted now was to escape.

     ***

     It wasn’t until dawn lightened the sky that Uriela’s energy began to fade. Shadows became thin and scarce on the ground, and the brightening world added to her growing exhaustion, making it harder to keep up her breakneck pace. She slowed and glanced around, no longer recognizing her surroundings.

     Scraggly trees poked up through the ground, their bark sickly-colored, their branches free of leaves. They were sparse in the area where she currently stood, but westward of her spot, they came together to form a dense forest. She realized that she’d made it to the outskirts of the Haunted Woods, an astonishing distance to cover in one night. Nevertheless, she trudged towards the trees, skirting around the brightest patches of sunlight; they made her feel dizzy and weak when she wandered too close to them.

     Among the trees, the cool darkness welcomed her, creating something like a perpetual night even as the sun arched overhead. She found a sturdy-looking tree and scuttled up the trunk, like any ordinary Usul would do. Once she was safely nestled among the branches, her mind stopped spinning at such a frantic pace, and she began to think clearly about her situation for the first time.

     Her memories of her past may have been foggy, but the previous night’s events remained relatively clear. Mentally, she walked back through them, too numb to feel despair, and started to piece together the clues that she’d missed in the moment.

     In every story she’d heard about the Shadow Usul, there had been no real conclusion or final twist; the Shadow Usul just snuck into populated homes and looked menacing. Uriela had assumed that this was because the endings were too horrible to say out loud, but what if there was no ending? What if the Shadow Usul never really hurt anyone?

     If that was the case, though, then it must have had some motive for skulking around Neopia Central. Even if nobody else understood what the Shadow Usul was up to, Uriela couldn’t imagine that the creature she’d seen just did what it did for no reason at all. For example, maybe it went into houses and stuck to populated areas because it was looking for something.

     Like another Usul.

     Like a viable young Usul with a good life, a loving family, and a bright future ahead of her — all of it ripe for the taking.

     Uriela understood now, in a way that no other Neopet could have possibly understood. There wasn’t just one Shadow Usul. Instead, the role of the creature was passed from Usul to Usul in an endless chain. A young Usul would become the Shadow; after ages of desperate wandering, they’d locate a suitable replacement; and they’d slip into the life of that replacement, leaving a new Usul to transform into the Shadow. On and on it went, stretching so far back that legends of the Shadow Usul had been whispered about for generations. And last night, it had just so happened to be Uriela’s turn.

     She shivered, sending a quiver through the flickering shadows that composed her body. If the previous Shadow Usul had felt half as desolate and lonely as she did now, then she could hardly blame them for performing the life-swap. And the new Uriela…well, she’d surely be keeping her window closed from now on.

     But what about the original Uriela, who was now the Shadow Usul? Should she take up the hunt? Use her new abilities to slither through the shadows, searching for her victim? Reclaim the possibility of a life, a family, and a future…?

     “No,” Uriela said to herself. The firmness of her voice surprised her. “I’m not going to do that. I’d rather live in the shadows forever than do something horrible to somebody else. The chain ends with me.”

     She settled back against the branches. It was good that her memories had departed with her old body, she decided. It meant that her situation didn’t hurt as much as it otherwise might have.

     Eventually, she drifted off.

     ***

     Uriela woke at nightfall, not a bit gradually; more like somebody had thrown a switch to turn her brain back on. Smoggy clouds ghosted across the darkening sky, and the Haunted Woods seemed to have come alive with strange rustles and creaks and groans. In her former life, she would have been terrified to be in the Haunted Woods at night, but now she instinctively understood that nothing here could hurt her. And she could see in the dark as easily as she’d once seen in the light.

     Then, suddenly, some extra sense that she didn’t even know she possessed was informing her of someone creeping up her tree. That must have been what had woken her. Both annoyed and curious, she slipped from her perch and slid down the shadowy trunk. A moment later, she thrust her face through the lower branches, directly in front of the interloper.

     She heard a startled gasp, and someone who’d been climbing the tree trunk slipped a few inches further down — but didn’t fall. The someone was a Techo, their scales a dull black, their eyes sapphire blue. Thanks to the sticky pads on their fingers and toes, they were able to maintain their grip on the bark, even in the midst of their surprise.

     They gazed up at Uriela, not with fear, but with something almost like wonder.

     “You here!” they exclaimed in a distinctly feminine voice.

     Uriela blinked her yellow eyes. “Me here,” she echoed, not entirely sure what that was supposed to mean.

     The Techo hauled herself up an inch or two, regaining the ground she’d lost. “I never thought I’d see you in the Haunted Woods. You usually stick to Neopia Central. I’m very sorry — I was just trying to climb this tree to get a vantage point for my research. I’ll leave you in peace now.”

     She glanced down at the ground, as if plotting her route to get there. Uriela felt a sudden stab of loss. This was the first Neopet she’d spoken to since her transformation, one who didn’t seem to be afraid of her, and they were already walking away. “Wait!” she cried.

     The Techo froze and looked upwards again. “Wait…?”

     At first, Uriela didn’t know what else to say, especially since her reaction had been almost involuntary. Finally she said, in a quieter voice, “I don’t think I am who you think I am.”

     “…maybe you’re not.” The Techo inclined her head thoughtfully. “Pardon me for asking, but are you…new?”

     “Yes.” Suddenly feeling shy, Uriela asked, “How did you know?”

     “Because of how you act. You still seem unsure of yourself. The darkness hasn’t touched your heart yet,” answered the Techo. “How new are you? Do you still remember your name?”

     Uriela nodded. “I’m Uriela.”

     The Techo smiled slightly. “It’s nice to meet you, Uriela. I’m Tania.”

     Uriela nodded again, feeling a little silly for doing so, but unable to come up with a better response. A wild hope had sparked within her: somebody else understood what had happened, understood the chain. Maybe, if Tania knew about her plight, she’d also be able to come up with some way to change it.

     Tania reached sideways to a large, sturdy bough, where she hoisted herself into a sitting position. “Why don’t you take a seat?” she offered, gesturing to the empty space beside her. Uriela hesitated, then crept down the trunk and dropped onto the bough.

     “I didn’t think that anybody else would understand what happened,” she murmured, careful to sit far enough away to protect her companion from the touch of her shadowy tendrils.

     “Most people wouldn’t,” Tania replied. “But I’ve done some deep research about ghosts and monsters and dark magic. That’s why I come to the Haunted Woods at night — I’m looking for anything unusual I can find.”

     “Then you probably understand even better than I do,” admitted Uriela.

     “I’m happy to share,” Tania assured her. “Nowadays, most people just think of the Shadow Usul as a spooky monster that skulks around. But you and I – and a few others – know that it’s not that simple. Once a Usul becomes the Shadow Usul, they start out frightened and confused, but the longer they stay in their new form, the more corrupted by darkness they become. Eventually, they can think of nothing but finding a new target and stealing their life.”

     “Not me,” interjected Uriela.

     Tania arched a brow. “That’s what you think right now. But eventually, you’ll forget your name and everything else, and you won’t be able to stop yourself from hunting.”

     “No!” Uriela insisted. “I’m going to break the chain. I’ll always remember that I’m Uriela, and I’ll never do to another Usul what the last Shadow Usul did to me.”

     Tania didn’t seem entirely convinced, but she continued without comment. “Once they’ve taken another Usul’s body and memories, they no longer remember their time as the Shadow Usul. They also can’t have their life stolen again; I read in an old book about a Shadow Usul who tried to get her old life back, but couldn’t. The only way out is to find someone new.”

     Uriela interrupted again: “There has to be another way.”

     “You really are determined not to hurt anyone, aren’t you?” asked Tania, clearly taken aback.

     “Is that so strange?” demanded Uriela. “I think that most Neopians don’t want to hurt anyone! You think I’m suddenly evil, just because I’ve become the Shadow Usul? I only got changed last night!”

     Tania shook her head quickly. “Sorry, that’s not what I meant. I don’t think you’re suddenly evil at all. But if you’re really as new as you say you are – and I have no reason not to believe you – then I would’ve thought that you’d be more preoccupied with, I don’t know, being shocked and feeling sorry for yourself and things like that.”

     Uriela’s ears drooped a little. “It’s hard to feel sorry for yourself when you can hardly remember your past,” she mumbled. “But I you’re right, I am shocked. And scared, and lonely, and…and I just don’t think it’s right to make someone else feel this way. Besides, I don’t want to become someone else. I’d rather just stay Uriela…even if I don’t know exactly what that means anymore.”

     For several long seconds, Tania appeared to be pondering this. Above them, the smoggy clouds briefly retreated from the moon, making her eyes shine. “I’ve never come across another way to undo what’s been done to you,” she finally said. “But…even though I’ve learned a lot about the darker side of Neopia, I haven’t read every book, or talked to everyone who might know something. Maybe, if we look hard enough, we can find a different answer.”

     For the first time in – well, in as long as she could remember, even if that wasn’t a very long period of time – Uriela’s spirits lifted. “‘We’?” she said hopefully.

     “You and me,” agreed Tania. “I can’t cover much ground in one night, but you can. And two heads are better than one. You can help me with my research, including research into your situation…and in return, I’ll do my best to help you stay you. Keeping the darkness from consuming you. Making sure that you always remember your name.”

     “Like partners.”

     “Right. Partners.” Tania chuckled awkwardly. “A ghost researcher teaming up with the Shadow Usul. That’s not something I ever thought I’d see, let alone experience.”

     “I’m not your typical Shadow Usul,” said Uriela, hunkering into her ruff shyly.

     Tania smiled. “That’s right.” She hoisted her legs onto the branch and stood up expertly – Techos, like Usuls, spent a lot of time climbing trees. “Anyway, follow me. I’ll show you to my place.”

     As they descended to the ground and hiked through the dark, dismal forest, Uriela contemplated all that she had learned. She refused to let herself be frightened by the idea that the shadows which now comprised her exterior would eventually work their way inwards; instead, she clung to her conviction that she would be different. With Tania’s help, she would break the chain. Hopefully their combined intellect would dig up a heretofore-undiscovered solution…and even if it didn’t, Uriela could keep being herself. If she was alone, it would have been a struggle, but while she’d lost her family last night, she wasn’t completely on her own.

     And, thusly reassured, the Shadow Usul and her new friend walked together into the night.

     The End.

 
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