There was a deafening explosion as power raced through the
tunnel walls and ceiling. The ground below my feet shook but I held firm. The
tunnel entrance crumbled and then collapsed. Stones rained down and smashed into
the earth with shocking force. For a moment I was scared I'd overdid it but the
collapse slowed and then stopped. The tunnel was suffused with dust and I coughed
as I breathed it in. I had to get back. Still coughing, I staggered away, pulling
my spear out of the solid stone.
I met back up with the group at the next bend
in the tunnel.
"That should hold them," I gasped, trying to
wipe the dust off my face and hair.
It was a lost cause. I gave up and took the
lead with Sabreur, quickening our pace to put distance between us and the shaft.
"Where are we going?" Netsuko asked.
"Don't know. Just trying to loose anything."
"Why did the shaft end so suddenly?"
"Again: don't know. I guess the earth tried
to seal Aldrai away. Anyway, we've got to get some ground between us and those
Korbats before we can stop."
No one argued with my plan. We kept moving,
pressing on. Our pace didn't allow for as careful travel as before and as a
result several of us wound up stumbling and almost falling as the tunnel floor
"What were those things anyway?" Melody asked
"Korbats, I think," I replied, "Korbats that
have never seen the sun."
"The Infernals," Sabreur said in a strange voice.
The name seemed to resound around us, an ominous
sign of what we were up against.
"This is bad, isn't it?" MoonFall asked in a
"Perhaps. Depends on what else we find down
We didn't stop moving for about the next hour.
Finally Sakuko demanded a halt and everyone slumped to the stone floor gratefully.
I stayed near the entrance to the small cave area we were in, stretching my
magic to detect anyone coming. There was nothing. That still did not reassure
me though, as I had felt nothing when the Korbats had attacked. These things
must've found some way to shield themselves from magical detection.
"So where do we go now?" Terraile finally asked.
"I don't know. We're off the map," my brother
I frowned and picked up one of the light threads
burrowing deep into the earth, left from Aldrai's flight.
"I think we'll just have to do this blind,"
I said thoughtfully, "Take whatever cave goes deeper into the earth and hope
we can get close enough. If worse comes to worse I'll start blowing stuff up."
Sabreur beamed at me proudly.
"I trained you well," he said, wiping away an
"Oh, come off it," I replied irritably and stood,
gathering up my backpack and spear.
I was in the lead now. I used my magic like
a compass, blindly following the light strand deeper into the underground. We
ran into many dead ends and false starts but we were making progress. The air
grew steadily warmer and more humid.
"That underground lake," Sabreur murmured.
I nodded in agreement and kept going.
We finally stopped for the night in the most
defensible cavern we could find. Sabreur chose our sleeping spots for us this
time, with me at the most vulnerable entrance.
"Keep a sharp eye," he ordered everyone as we
drew for watches, "we don't know what might come."
It took a long time to get to sleep. My wings
ached from the mad freefall battle and I was still feeling the strain of following
Aldrai's thread. The task before us seemed impossible. Find a way to wherever
Aldrai was while avoiding the Infernals. But I could not give up on my pet.
Not now, not ever.
I eventually drifted into a fitful sleep. My
dream was dark and instinctively I knew this was more than just a dream.
"Shi'tri!" I called. "You're there, I know it."
"My, aren't we the clever one," he said, appearing
before me with a satisfied smile.
"Can it. What else is down here besides the
"Oh, so you've found the Infernals then, have
"Yes. They attacked us. What else is down here?"
He studied his nails thoughtfully and appeared
to be debating on what to tell me.
"I'm warning you…"
"Warning me?" he said in mock fright. "You don't
even know who or what I am!"
I growled low in my throat and flexed my Kougra
"Oh very well, no need for violence."
"I did warn you to turn back. There is no hope
for Aldrai. But, if you insist… You do have the Infernals to deal with. They
don't like outsiders although they are not entirely unreasonable. You also have
some darker things, left over from when Neopia was still a very dangerous place.
They make your above ground evils look like child's play. I'd suggest you avoid
them at all cost."
"Stay away from dark places," he said cryptically,
"Now, there's the usual dangers of traveling underground… poisonous gases trapped
in caverns - you're lucky you haven't found those yet - the underground lake
has a tendency to flood some tunnels and caves depending on the time of day,
and ah yes, supposing you do make it past all that, you'll have to face the
"The Guardians?" I asked dumbly.
"You've fought them before. Or are you so dense
that I have to spell it out for you?"
My mind reeled. Surely not…
"Wait," I said, "Shi'kly. Shi'tri. You're… you're…"
"The physical embodiment of the element of darkness.
Precisely," he said, folding his hands behind his back and giving me a small
I gasped and staggered away from him.
"Think about it," he said coldly, "I was able
to enter your mind while you were in a coma simply because you were in darkness.
From there you've allowed me access to your dreams when you sleep."
"I - I have?"
"Get away from me," I snarled.
"I daresay I shan't. In case you forget I've
been trying to help you."
"Oh, yeah right," I said sarcastically, "trying
to get me to turn back. Sending those Infernals after us. And besides, your
best attribute is lies."
"I had nothing to do with that," he retorted,
"and my best attribute is not lies, although that is a part of what I am. I
am mostly concerned with my own selfish interests. And keeping you alive as
the Essence of Neopia just happens to be in my own self-interest right now.
Never before has my very existence been threatened and thankfully you were able
to stop that. I expect you to continue to protect Neopia - and me -- in such
a way for many years."
"Then why are you keeping me away from Aldrai?!"
"My, you are a dense one," he marveled. "If
you can't figure it out on your own then I'm not going to spend all night explaining
myself. By the way, you might want to look to your friends. Since you will not
heed my warning we have been forced to take drastic measures."
But he was gone.
Look to my friends. What on Neopia did that mean…? I struggled to wake but
it was like moving through molasses. What had Shi'tri done to me? I could not
wake. And I felt his presence behind it all. I sank into dreamless sleep.
I woke. I was bound, my hands pulled behind
my back and tied to a wooden pole. My ankles were also bound together. I shook
my head and opened my eyes. My friends were all arranged nearby, similarly bound
in a semicircle. Sabreur was to my right, a cut on his forehead.
"You're awake," he said dully.
"Wha-what happened?" I gasped.
"We were attacked in the night. It was Infernals,
lots of them, and not just Korbats. And you wouldn't wake up."
"It was Shi'tri," I said darkly, "He's the guardian
of darkness. The one I fought in the realm of the Shadows."
"What's he got against you?" Sabreur asked,
"I don't know. But he's bound and determined
to not let me get near Aldrai."
"I thought the guardians were just the physical
manifestations of the different elements. They have a mind of their own?"
"Obviously. Don't you think they're human though
- they most certainly are not."
I gazed around us. My friends showed various
signs of combat and I frowned. Un-eairkagh was slumped to the side, apparently
still unconscious. Infernus was breathing with difficulty and I guessed a broken
rib or two. After I had inspected my friends I looked around our surroundings.
We were by the underground lake. It stretched
out into darkness, a flat surface of pure black. The cavern was enormous, the
ceiling stretching up into nothingness. Light emanated from clumps of lichen
and moss that glowed with a pale green light. All around us were tents and the
occasional small campfire. Pets moved around us, pale furless creatures with
huge distended eyes and ears. I shuddered. The Infernals. Pets lost to the underground,
never seeing the light of day.
"What do they want with us?" I whispered to
"I have no idea. They just ambushed us in the
night. We did quite a good job fighting them off though. Especially Infernus.
It took seven of them at once to finally drag him down."
I detected a note of pride in his voice and
smiled grimly. A movement of white in our direction caught my eye. A Techo was
walking our way, a hunched creature with skin stretched so tightly across its
frame that you could see the veins underneath. A massive collection of necklaces
made of shells hung on its emancipated frame and bracelets rattled on its ankles
and wrists. It wore a tattered loincloth and a head-dress of leather and shells.
A twisted wooden staff embedded with shards of glass was clutched in one bony
"Betcha ten to one this is the shaman of whatever
culture they have down here," I whispered as the creature approached us.
My brother nodded slightly. The Techo stopped in the middle of the semicircle
we formed and glared at us in turn. A small crowd
of the Infernals was growing around us and out of it stepped a massive furless
Kougra flanked by two Gelerts. The Kougra walked up to stand by the Techo, the
Gelerts staying a respectful distance behind, like an honor guard.
"Chief," I whispered to my brother.
"Intruders!" the shaman hissed, glaring at us,
"Intruders into the sacred grounds of the Infernals!"
"Are these the ones that were foretold?" the
Kougra said in a deep voice.
"Yes… I have seen them in my dreams. The elements
have warned of their coming. They are not to pass! Kill them!"
"They have done no wrong," the chief replied
The shaman shot him a poisonous glance. Right
then I realized that some sort of power struggle was going on. I quickly thought
on how to best exploit it.
"They are intruders! We must not suffer them
to live! The elements demand it! Kill them!" the shaman shrieked, waving his
"The elements commanded no such thing," I said
evenly, "Shi'tri only wants us to turn back."
The shaman turned to me, his eyes bugging slightly.
"She dares claim to have spoken with the elementals…"
he hissed in outrage.
"Since when has someone other than the shaman
speaking with the elementals been a crime?" the Kougra asked.
I detected a soft smile on his furless muzzle
and he favored me an appreciative glance.
"How is it that you even know the elements?"
I asked the shaman, "I thought normal people could not communicate with them.
Only very powerful wizards can detect their presence, much less allow them to
manifest in physical form. And I sense no magic in you."
The shaman gaped at me like a fish and the chieftain
"So you've seen them in physical form," he said,
duly impressed, "That's something our shaman here cannot claim."
"I am their chosen voice!" he howled, shaking
his staff ever harder, "I have journeyed to the Elemental Forge where the elements
"So the deeper you go the closer you get to
the elements," Sabreur said lazily, "That's interesting. Well, Kiddo here has
seen them on the surface of the earth. Can you beat that?"
The Kougra burst out into laughter then and
smirked at the shaman.
"No, I don't believe you can. Get on now, and
remember who runs this clan."
The Techo hesitated for a moment, then drew
himself up violently and stalked away. The Kougra then turned his large pale
eyes on me.
"I am Chief Raitos. You have done me a small
service today," he said gravely, "Ilk'nios has been causing trouble for years.
That should keep him in his place for now. But the fact remains that you are
intruders here and that the elements do not want you to continue on whatever
quest you are on. You will be escorted to the surface by our warriors."
He turned to go and the crowd surrounding us
drew back. Suddenly I heard frenzied shouts from a tunnel leading out of the
"Ni'cri! Almon duos frasi-ni! Kraim cios!"
The frantic cry continued as the furless Acara
neared us, panting. The crowd quickly drew back to allow him through where he
collapsed at the chieftain's feet.
"Ni'cri. Almon duos frasi-ni. Kraim cios."
The reaction was instantaneous. Gasps of fear
rippled around the assembled pets and a babble of voices burst out.
"SIRENE!" the Kougra howled and everyone froze.
With the crowd settled the chief started barking
out orders in their own language, almost too fast to follow. Pets started moving
immediately, running to grab weapons and scattering throughout the cavern.
"What's going on?" I called.
One of the Gelert guards answered me.
"A creature of the underground is coming," he
said evenly, "You above-grounds have dealt with something similar before, I
believe. We call it the kraim. You called it the Monoceraptor. They are very
rare. We have not had one come to the village in eons."
I turned and looked at the tunnel the Acara
had come running out of.
"Release me," I said softly.
The Kougra chief turned to stare at me.
"Release me," I repeated, "I'll fight it off.
Might not be able to kill it, but I bet I can drive it away."
"You are mad."
"Perhaps. But if I succeed, I will have saved
"And what do you want in return?"
"You release my friends. And I want you to take
me to the Elemental Forge."
To be continued...