An Illusion Spun: Part Five
Cherry blinked in the sudden blinding light. Her body felt stiff, as if she hadn't moved in days. She had been struck with a pounding headache, and she groaned inwardly, though outwardly, she was incapable of producing a single sound.
Where am I?
She waited impatiently for her eyes to adjust to the light. When they did, she found herself staring at a bright white ceiling.
Fascinating. Real helpful. But where am I? A hospital?
She gained her bearings for a moment and then painfully lifted herself into a sitting position, grimacing but managing to keep silent, her eyes scrunched up against the pain. She was gripped in a dizzy spell for a moment, but it passed, and she slowly opened her eyes.
The room was circular and blindingly white. There was no visible door, and Cherry glanced downward to see a tile floor the color of the purest snow. She was on a bed that was not like any bed that she had ever slept in; it was hard and rather uncomfortable, more like a countertop table at the doctor's.
But this isn't the Neopian Hospital...
It all came back to her in a tidal wave of memory: the island, the storm, the disappearances...
Karik, Adriana, Dash.
For a fleeting moment, the idea that it had all been one horrible nightmare crossed her mind, but then she spotted three tables to her left, one for each of her castaway friends. But where were they? Other than the four tables, the one on which she perched included, the room was completely empty.
"Well, Cherry, thank you for joining me."
A wall slid open without warning, and Cherry reacted with a sudden intake of breath. From the thin opening, a lithe Dark Faerie emerged, smirking as she tossed back her long, flowing black and purple hair, her powerful wings furling and unfurling themselves experimentally. Her eyes gleamed with malice; her smirk was taut with mocking hate.
"Who are you?" Even in her dazed state, Cherry's voice was harsh, brutal.
"That isn't for you to know." Her smirk was more pronounced than ever. "But I know you. You're Cherry, sister of Arak, Neopet of Laura, resident of Guild Street."
Cherry's voice was icy. "Where are they?"
The faerie's lip curled. "All in good time. You're very special, Cherry."
The Xweetok's voice now shook with the emotion she was holding back, quavering as she struggled to keep it level. She weighed each word as she repeated, "Where are they?"
The faerie approached her, and a slick, icy dread crept its way into Cherry's body. A long finger caressed Cherry's cheek. "What better way to command the whole of Neopia than to put them under my rule -- by force?"
"What do you mean?"
"A bout of trickery. A mind game, so to speak."
Cherry's thoughts plowed over one another as she tried to gain an understanding of the faerie's riddles.
"If I were to put the whole of Neopia under my spell, who could stop me? They'd be playing a game -- a mind game. My game. And it comes with a whole new set of rules."
Cherry felt panic working its way through her. "We were just your testers. You used us. It -- it never really happened, did it? Just in our minds... it was all magic."
"I needed to be sure that things worked according to plan. Of course, there is a whole universe enclosed in my spell -- the four of you merely endured the agony of one tiny island, a dot in the middle of one of my many vast oceans. It's a place large enough to fit the whole of Neopia, don't you think?"
The faerie began to pace, circling Cherry as she spoke.
"Of course, first I needed test subjects. I sought four Neopets at random and offered a large sum of money so that I could use their pets as my -- specimens." She cackled wickedly. "Obviously, they had no idea what my long-term goal was."
Cherry felt her insides melt away. Her voice was nothing more than a squeak. "You mean my -- my -- Laura gave me up... just like that? She sold me out...?"
The faerie permitted herself one chuckle but did not reply, and in Cherry's mind it all came together: Dash's owner was obsessed with Neopoints, always saving, always keeping; Karik's was a gambler, an arcade addict, intent on playing and winning, but never calculating the chance that he might lose more than he won; but what possible reason could there be for Adriana?
"What about Adriana? Her -- her family was rich..."
The faerie held up a finger. "Ah, but they weren't. Not after a misfortune occurred and they needed money fast."
It all fit. And it answered the biggest question of all.
How had four pets awoken on an island without any memory of having gotten there?
Because a Dark Faerie had paid their owners to use them as test subjects for her wicked plot that could one day result in world domination.
I'd never have guessed that.
But a mystery still remained.
"Where are they?" demanded Cherry, tensing herself for action as if expecting the faerie to attack her. She gestured toward the other three beds, glaring at the Dark Faerie.
The faerie laughed. "You don't need to know."
All at once, Cherry fired right up. "How do you know what I need to know? How do you know anything about me?" The Xweetok, despite her weakened state, sprang from the bed and lunged for the open slit of white wall just ahead. The Dark Faerie, shocked by the Xweetok's sudden, unexpected departure, made a grab for Cherry, abandoning her magic. Cherry dodged her and darted through the tiny opening.
How do I get out of here? How? How?
But Cherry's legs were churning in windmill motions as she sprinted through the darkness -- anywhere away from that faerie was the right direction, in Cherry's mind. It was a long hallway -- straight, no winding corridors, no twists, no turns.
And then a hand reached out and grabbed her.
A second hand clamped around Cherry's mouth to stifle her scream and yanked her into suffocating darkness.
"Please, don't scream."
The Xweetok's thrashings ceased immediately. This was not the deep, mocking voice of the faerie but a softer, gentler, slightly frightened voice. A spark erupted in the darkness. A candle flared to life, and Cherry glanced around to see that they were in a closet of sorts. The candle illuminated a face before her, the face of a faerie Aisha.
"Wh-who are you?" Cherry was bewildered by this sudden turn of events, breathing hard as she strained for sounds that would indicate the faerie approaching.
The Aisha's eyes were twin emerald gems with a stir of fear within a circle of warmth and kindness. "My name is Leigh," the Aisha whispered, leaning forward. "I am a personal assistant of Rhina. Not by choice, though -- she forced me into it." The Aisha waved an airy paw. "But that's another story."
"Rhina?" Cherry blinked in the candlelight, the flames dancing and licking at Leigh's chin as she leaned further still, peering at Cherry.
"The Dark Faerie. The one you met. Back in the room."
"She's one of the lesser known faeries around here, but she's just as cunning as the rest of them -- even more so. She's like a clone of Jhudora. She's never been caught, just because she hasn't quite done anything to inspire terror. But that will all change."
Cherry's heart hammered against her ribcage.
"She plans to trap the whole of Neopia within her magical walls. A place with boundaries more binding than rope and far greater than a fence or wall." Leigh tapped her head. "The mind. She plans to start small -- to capture a couple of wandering Neopets, a family or two. Disappearances will be noted. But soon it will escalate into a rising terror. Children will not be spared. No one will."
The Xweetok found herself shuddering.
"Rhina will end by capturing the Faerie Queen, Queen Fyora. Her Highness will have no say in it. She aims to capture the whole of Neopia in her mind trap. And no one will be able to stop it. You were never really there, Cherry. You were there only in your mind."
The candle flickered.
"If she controls the terrain, the weather, the sky, time and space in her own twisted form of reality, what do you imagine will happen?"
"Everyone will be at her mercy," whispered Cherry. The thought chilled her to the bones.
"Exactly. She'll rule over everyone. It's taken her years to perfect the magic she's been working so hard on. The spell was cast with careful precision. Everything had to go according to plan." The Aisha swallowed. "And then she needed to test it. She needed to see if there were any flaws in her brilliant plan." Leigh now grimaced. "There was one."
"What was it?"
Leigh looked at her, long and hard. "You possess admirable qualities, Cherry, that few other pets do. You know who you are. You know what you want. Not many can say that about themselves. I can't."
Cherry was stunned. "Wh-what do you mean?"
"Most people's minds yield to a formidable power. Peer pressure. They give in to it, let it shape them. But not you. And that is... an immunity, so to speak. It changes the magic. The magic can yield to you. You can, for fleeting amounts of time, control it."
"But... but I couldn't control it on the island! Back there!"
"You could," the Aisha said quietly. "You wanted, with all of your heart, for 'it' to take you. You wanted it to end, in a moment when the magic wavered and chose you. And you awoke. Don't you see?"
Cherry was beginning to see, or she thought she did. It was still so unreal, she couldn't quite comprehend it. But she could see a murky image, something that Leigh was leading up to. She thought she could see where this was heading.
"So... so wh-what do you want me to do?" Cherry fumbled. "What can I do?"
"The magic is truly powerful," the Aisha explained, quieter still. "It is a spell so unique that it can never be truly cancelled, deleted, erased, or undone. It will always exist. But without someone to control it from the outside, like Rhina, it will merely exist. It won't imprison anyone, and it won't capture. That is only Rhina's doing. She places them there, but the magical spell does nothing but serve as a jail."
"So... so if I can stop Rhina," breathed Cherry, "turn her over to Fyora, maybe..."
"There is one last thing you need to know." The Aisha looked truly sad now, her face falling, her eyes aglitter with sympathy. "The magic is very strong. So strong that it demands... payment."
"It needs a token. It needs to capture someone. It needs one living soul inside of it at all times."
Cherry's eyes widened. "That's where they are, then? Karika and Dash and Adriana? Why did they disappear, though, on the island? What happened?"
"Rhina could sense that one of you held the power. One of you could control the magic. She felt a tug on the magic, because she wasn't completely controlling it. Someone else was -- someone from inside. And so she removed one pet at a time, and when there were less pets inside, when there was less interference, she could feel the pull on the magic. It was stronger. And she knew it was one of you. She removed the second pet and felt that the tug on the magic was stronger still. By then, she realized who had the power to control the magic. To be sure, though, she removed the final pet. And that's when she knew -- it was you."
The Xweetok stared into the flickering candlelight. "So -- so when I was able to get myself out of there -- she put the three of them back inside? Karik, Adriana, Dash?"
"Not quite. Do you remember the room you were in? The white one?"
"That is where the magic is contained. The one for this spell that she has used, to create her mind trap. When it felt you leaving, the mind trap demanded its token -- and the three nearest souls were your friends, and of its own accord, it pulled them back inside."
Cherry was beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel. She was quite certain that she knew what Leigh had been leading up to. "You want me to push her in, don't you? Rhina? Because if she's trapped inside..."
"She may be able to control everything, but she cannot escape. That is correct."
"So I need to get Karik, Adriana, and Dash out. And have it pull Rhina in. But... but how in the world am I going to do that?" Her mind was spinning, juggling all of this information as she struggled to make sense of it. "Wouldn't she have to be in the white room at the same time that I use the magic to pull us out?"
"I can lock her in. She will not try so very hard to escape as she will to eliminate the four of you, inside the mind trap."
"In a fashion," the Aisha said, matter-of-factly. "Once she realizes what you are up to, and it won't take her long to do it, she'll use her powers to try and keep you from using the magic."
"She'll use the magic herself. She'll try to keep you busy. She can do both things at once. If she's using the magic, she can use it to create a landslide to keep you from concentrating. Things like that. But you must get you and your friends to safety. I will not be able to keep Rhina locked in there for very long."
"So, what I have to do is go back in there while you lock us all in the white room. All of us, including Rhina. I have to use the magic to bring my friends back to the real world while Rhina's trying to unleash horrible disasters on us. And there's a time limit, yes?"
"That sounds like an accurate summary to me."
Cherry was panicked. She couldn't do this. She didn't know what she was doing -- she'd be fumbling around in the dark! And not just metaphorically.
"Leigh, you said that we were only in the trap in -- in our minds. So where will our bodies go?"
"They will remain in the white room."
"She will care not for what sort of condition your bodies are in. She will be concentrating most on your minds. The mind is a powerful thing."
"Where... where were they? My -- my friends." She had never quite thought of them as her friends, but after all that had happened, the word did not seem foreign on her tongue. "I mean, when I woke up in the white room, they should've been there, right? They should have been pulled back into the mind trap, but their bodies should have still been there."
"Yes, but Rhina was keeping them from you. She made them invisible by magical means."
"Why would she do that?"
"She knew that if you knew that these three pets with whom you'd created a bond with were still in peril, that you'd try to save them. And she didn't want to risk that. You are too powerful, Cherry."
The Xweetok now eyed her closet companion with interest, a sudden curiosity stealing over her. "Why are you helping me, Leigh? Why are you telling me all of this?"
The Aisha flashed a small smile. "Because it's time to right what I've done wrong. I helped her to create this mind trap. I possess no magic of my own, and I haven't the willpower that you have." She tapped her head again. "But like I said, the mind is a powerful thing, and so is knowledge."
Cherry nodded as though she understood.
Leigh leaned forward and gripped Cherry's wrist with her paws, her eyes dancing in the firelight. "Are you ready, Cherry?"
Cherry hesitated, then let out a breath. "I think so."
She was to set out to defeat a faerie who possessed power and cleverness. Cherry had sheer might. She knew who she was, what she wanted, what she'd choose.
But there was an obstacle -- the thought had been floating about the back of her mind... the nagging sadness that was a cold, hard fact, no matter how hard she tried to pretend it wasn't so: her owner had left her. Had given her up for a handful of coins.
Not only was Cherry going to rescue three pets that she had only ever met in the inner portions of her mind, with the clock running... but, then and there, she swore revenge on the people who had given her up, her and her friends, and she knew this with all her heart: she would not waver, like the magic.
She knew what she wanted. She knew who she'd choose.
"I'm ready," she said fiercely.
Leigh smiled. "Good."
The candle flickered and died.
To be continued...