An Illusion Spun: Part Six
Cherry crept along the stone passageway, illuminated by the flickering candlelight in Leigh's paw as she directed Cherry back to the white room. It seemed like the worst sort of madness -- after having barely escaped this powerful magic, she was retreating to it.
For Karik, Adriana, and Dash.
The slight doorway beckoned wickedly ahead of them. Cherry whispered to her Aisha companion, "How do you get back into the -- the mind trap?"
"Once you're in there, the magic may bend to you, but only slightly. You need to think of the place you left behind. The island. Think of it. Remember it. Feel it."
The Xweetok nodded, feeling nothing but her stomach churn with queasiness at the moment.
She darted through the opening, tensed, her paws in front of her, ready for action. But Rhina, the malicious faerie bent on world domination, was nowhere to be found.
She blinked in the sudden, blindingly bright light that was like an explosion of white after the dim darkness enlightened only by a tiny flare. Her eyes widened in shock and disbelief; there were four small, rectangular beds, three of which were occupied by the unconscious forms of her friends. Friends. They're your friends, Cherry. Quit being so nervous; you've got no other choice! You have to save them... have to save the world. It was so strange, so unreal, to see the three of them situated there. From the moment she'd awoken, up until this point, they had been the three pets she'd only ever met in her mind. To see them, alive, unconscious, but there, was bizarre beyond imagining. Cherry turned to face Leigh, who remained in the doorway, blowing softly on the candle, extinguishing it.
"Rhina will have sensed your presence by now, Cherry," the Aisha said softly. "She'll be coming for you. I'll remain in the shadows 'til she's inside. You need to be in the mind trap by then, or she'll stop you. Keep you from it. Do you understand?"
The Xweetok understood only too well. But this added another element to put the freedom of her friends in jeopardy; a ticking clock. How was she supposed to concentrate when a vicious Dark Faerie could burst in on her at any time?
Numbly, though, Cherry nodded, knowing that seconds were dwindling away as she debated it inwardly.
"Okay." The Aisha hesitated. "Good luck, Cherry." And with that, the Aisha vanished.
Cherry took a deep breath, struggling for calm.
Calm? Impossible. No way. Can't do it. Can't think...
She could hear distant footfalls and her heart skipped a beat.
You don't have time to get a little nervous! This is no time to cave under pressure!
She closed her eyes and hoisted herself onto the final empty bed, thinking only of the island. She imagined the eternal blue sky, the vast, endless sea, the...
The footsteps were louder, quicker. Someone was running.
Cherry imagined the swaying, towering trees. The boulder. The sandy beach. Her friends. Friends...
Her last image was of a Dark Faerie entering the white room, eyes alive with cold fury, malice etched into every line of her face, distorted with hatred, but then Cherry was pulled smoothly under and her head hit the bed before the faerie's screams of rage could process in Cherry's mind.
She was falling fast, trying to catch a hold, get a grip on something, anything, but it was useless. Images flashed by before she could register them. Colors were spinning around her with dizzying speed. Grass swayed and clouds flew by absurdly fast.
And then everything went black.
"Wh-what was that?"
"Cherry? Is that Cherry?"
"It is! It's her!"
"She just... appeared!"
"Cherry! Cherry -- wake up!"
Someone shook her shoulder. But Cherry's head was filled with a delicious emptiness that felt so good after the dizzying discomfort... she just wanted to lie in this warm sand forever.
"Cherry, it's Dash," came a squeak of a voice.
"And... Karik." There was a pause. "Cherry, do you plan to lie around all day or what?"
She wasn't sure if it was the familiar voices or the sharp jibe from Karik that roused her. She just knew that her eyes opened slowly and she set up even slower, trying to take it all in. Three concerned faces bobbed into view.
"Cherry!" shrieked a Faerie Wocky, throwing her arms around her.
Dash could contain himself no longer. The Cloud Mynci burst into a cry of delight. "We thought we'd never see you again!"
Karik. She looked in his direction, and the Pirate Kacheek looked uncomfortable. He and Cherry locked eyes. She knew the reason for his discomfort. She'd accused him of selling them all out, of being a traitor, before he, too, had been taken. But she knew the truth now.
"I'm sorry, Karik," she said apologetically, plainly, openly, waiting for the accusations and dirty glares that she was sure were to come. After all, she hadn't trusted him and had tackled him as well. How could he forgive her?
But he tossed her a sheepish grin and said, "It's about time someone knocked some sense into you."
She was so relieved, so happy, that tears welled in her eyes. But she wiped them away. "There's work to be done," she explained urgently. "We've got to get out of here. Fast."
"What do you mean?" Dash asked, quizzically.
Cherry launched into the story of the magic, of the binding, of the mind trap they were in, but she kept an eye out for anything out of the ordinary. After all, Leigh had said that Rhina would use the magic to stop her, to keep her from her task. But nothing looked amiss.
As Cherry's retelling wound down, Adriana looked wide-eyed. "So you can control the magic? You can get us out of here?"
"I guess so," Cherry said, worriedly. "I've never actually tried."
Karik looked triumphant. "I told you it was all a dream."
Adriana scoffed. "Yeah, but it's not exactly a dream, is it? It's a mind trap. It's magic. An illusion."
"I was close enough."
"You were not."
"No fighting," Cherry instructed. "Not now. I need to concentrate. Here." She held her hand out for Dash to take, and he did so. She took Adriana's in her other hand, and Adriana clasped Karik's. Cherry closed her eyes and breathed, deeply and evenly. How was this supposed to work? Leigh had said that the magic could sometimes waver, could be controlled by Cherry. But how was she supposed to know when that was? Should she concentrate on the place she'd left behind, like she had done to get here?
"You can't do it, can you?" Karik's voice was taunting, but Cherry sensed the fear that his mockery painted over.
"Shush!" urged Adriana. "Let her concentrate!"
She focused her thoughts on the white room. The blinding white light, the circular walls, the four beds... white, blinding, light, circular... blinding... circular... the thoughts swirled in her mind but something had broken.
I can't do it.
But she didn't dare say it aloud, lest she invoke fear in her friends.
"Do you hear something?" It was Dash now, sounding fearful.
Cherry opened her eyes. The quartet of Neopets broke apart, gazing into the depths of the jungle. There was a distinct roar that could only be made by a fearsome creature -- a vicious beast.
"Oh, Fyora," whispered Adriana, clinging to Cherry's arm.
"It's Rhina," the Xweetok said, terrified. "She's trying to keep us from the magic."
"Then what are we waiting for?" Karik grasped Cherry's paw and brought them all together again. "Bring us back!"
But the roar sounded again, much louder -- much closer. Cherry could feel the fear swell within her.
"I can't do it! I can't!"
"Cherry!" shrieked Adriana.
The trees broke apart, parting to allow the monster through -- it was a pink Kadoatie, but it was unlike any Kadoatie Cherry had ever seen in her life. It was at least fifteen times its normal size as it bared its sharp, pointed fangs, its eyes a furious red. Its claws glinted in the sunlight, digging into the sand as it slowly made its way toward the terrified foursome.
"Run!" screamed Cherry.
They scattered. Cherry and Dash sprinted one way; Adriana and Karik went flying the other. The Kadoatie paused, its mind working furiously; which way should it go?
It turned slightly, aiming for Cherry and Dash as they fled for their lives, but at that exact moment, Adriana tripped and was sent sprawling headlong into the ground in a spray of sand and pebbles. Karik, driven by momentum, lurched to a stop ten feet away and spun around in horror as the Kadoatie charged forward.
Cherry approached the Kadoatie hastily, grabbing a fistful of sand and chucking it. "Over here!" she bellowed. "Come and get me!"
The sand had absolutely no effect. The Kadoatie slowed, advancing on poor Adriana as the Wocky could only gaze up at the bared fangs, dripping with saliva.
Cherry this time unearthed a rather large stone and it hit the Kadoatie's leg. Irritated, the large Petpet turned its gaze upon Cherry, smacking its lips. Adriana scrambled to her feet and backed away to join Karik, clinging to him as Cherry began to retreat, slowly, her eyes wide with terror.
"Cherry!" She glanced over her shoulder to see that Dash was beckoning to her from within the shallows of the water. His lips were blue, his face white, but he motioned for her to join him. "It's a Kadoatie! It's afraid of water, isn't it?"
The Xweetok hesitated, long enough for it to swipe at her with enormous claws. She was sent into the sand. Wiping pebbles and grains of sand out of her eyes, Cherry jumped to her feet and dashed for the safety of the sea. The Kadoatie yowled in outrage and began to give chase; she could hear its pounding footsteps, like mini earthquakes.
She charged into the water until she was in up to her waist just as Karik and Adriana splashed in at her heels. Adriana gasped as the coldness gripped her, but Dash had been right; the Kadoatie could only hiss and spit, prowling, pacing the shores.
"D-D-Dash!" she gasped from the cold. "Y-y-you are my hero!"
Dash flashed the tiniest of grins.
Karik nudged Cherry. "G-g-get us out of here!"
The four clasped hands; Cherry had Adriana's paws and Dash's, and Karik held tight to Dash. She concentrated the whole of her being upon returning to the physical world, the world to which she belonged.
But then her thoughts shifted to her owner... to Laura, to Arak, the people she'd trusted more than anyone else in the world.
The people who'd given her up.
No! Don't think about that!
Why was this thought suddenly occurring to her now? Why did her mind choose the worst possible moments to relive these dreadful memories?
Nothing's more important right now than getting us back.
Of that, she was certain. Her grip on Dash and Adriana's paws tightened.
Her eyes popped open again, feeling almost hysterical with panic; she fully expected to see the Kadoatie advancing upon them, its fear of the water overcome by its desire to eat. But Dash and Adriana were gazing over their shoulders; Karik had broken away and was staring, wild-eyed, and something behind them, in the depths of the water.
Cherry spun around. No more than twenty feet away, a something dark was beginning to shape. Feet, legs, a waist and a torso sprouted, adorned in a flowing purple dress with black streaks and two powerful black wings that fluttered almost effortlessly. A head came next, her long, dark hair grazing the water as the Dark Faerie materialized before them, hovering in the air, cross-legged.
"Rhina!" gasped Cherry.
"You've caused me enough problems, young one," the faerie snarled, not looking quite as calm and mocking as she had when Cherry had first encountered her. "Face my wrath!"
And behind the faerie, something was fighting to take shape in the water. It began to churn in the distance, until something bubbled up, and before they knew it, a monstrous tidal wave was towering over them, blocking out of the sun, threatening to unleash a rush of fury upon them as it came closer.
"Cherry!" Adriana clung to the Xweetok's paw, shrieking. "Get us back! Get us back!"
Karik had flung himself upon Dash, gripping his paw tight, and Cherry closed her eyes. A split second passed. Every fiber of Cherry's body was focused solely upon the white room, and then the realization hit her.
I have to know what I want. And what I want most, right now, is to bring us all to safety.
The thought coursed through her and she could feel the magic bending to her will, as darkness crept around them and Rhina's furious shrieks were nothing but fading echoes.
But something was wrong.
Rhina had lunged forward and snatched Karik's hand in hers, connecting her to the foursome, and Cherry knew that she was inadvertently bringing the Dark Faerie along, back to safety.
But that can't happen! The magic won't allow it!
This was true. The magic demanded payment. One of them had to stay. Everything went white, and she could not see or hear anything, but she could feel; she could feel her friends' hearts beating in rhythm with hers. She could feel the magic pulsing in Rhina -- but in her as well.
And suddenly, a figure materialized before her.
It was Karik. But he was not the Karik she remembered him to be. His outline was faded, his character's color fading to grayscale. His face was distorted with pain, but when their eyes locked, his expression softened.
"Cherry," he said, his voice echoing, bouncing back and forth: Cherry. Cherry. Cherry.
"She's got me," he whispered, in a voice that frightened Cherry more than anything ever had before; it was fear, and she'd never heard Karik terrified like this. "She's got me and won't let go. She wants to win, Cherry."
"But I want to win too."
A faraway look seized him. "The magic is powerful. She's a powerful faerie. She can do what she likes in this world. It's her world. There are some things we just can't have, Cherry."
She did not know when Karik had morphed into something so profound, but suddenly realization washed over her, at what he was implying. Tears sprang to her eyes and she bit her lip. Karik suddenly looked as if he were fighting off a great pain, and it frightened Cherry to see him like this.
"She's spun this illusion," Karik whispered. "This world. But she controls it, too."
"Karik, please. I -- I don't want you to go."
"But I won't be trapped here. My whole life has been 'should have, would have, could have, have to.' There's been no 'want to'." He smiled at her, a watery smile that she knew concealed tears. "Freedom. That's another illusion spun. I'll be free, Cherry. Set me free."
"But I -- "
"You have to know what you want, remember?" The white backdrop began to fade to gray, everything growing dark, and the image of Karik before her was growing fuzzy. "She's coming for me, Cherry. She wants to win."
"But -- "
"What do you want, Cherry? Do you want me to be trapped here forever? If I'm here with her, Rhina can get out! I'll be the payment the magic wants! And I can't come with you, either. I can't come with you." His expression was suddenly sad. "The magic is too powerful. Rhina's too powerful. I can't come, and I can't stay. We may not be able to win against her, but that doesn't mean we have to lose."
Cherry blinked back her tears. "Karik -- I don't -- I -- I don't want you to go. Please, Karik."
The smile was back. The image was fading. "Set me free."
She closed her eyes. She knew what she wanted now. She wanted Karik to be free. Not trapped, a token, a figure of payment. She wanted what was best for him.
I'd choose this.
There was a blast of color that she could see even behind her eyelids, and suddenly, everything was spinning; the effect made her dizzy, and she squeezed her eyes shut, the scream that tore from her throat lost amid sounds she could not decipher, like shrieks of pain and cries of joy all intertwined to one.
And then everything stopped.
The white room came slowly into focus, but everything was pulsing before her. An Aisha appeared, looking relieved, alarmed, and afraid all mixed into one. She beckoned to them. "Hurry! You must get out of there!"
Cherry scrambled to her feet alongside a dazed Adriana and a puzzled Dash. "We've got to go!"
The three tumbled out into the stone corridor, collapsing in a heap next to Leigh as the Aisha pulled the slight door closed. There was the snap of a lock.
Adriana did a quick three-sixty. "Where's Karik?"
Cherry wiped haphazardly at her cheeks, surprised to find that her eyes were quite dry. "He's free."
Leigh guided the three young Neopets out of the Dark Faerie's lair, out into the world in the woods. Cherry stooped low and traced her paw through the dirt. Real dirt.
"Thank you, young heroes," Leigh said quietly. "I have much work to do now. You cannot imagine the relief you've brought upon me -- upon us all. You're in Neopia Central. Follow the path and it will take you to the Marketplace. Farewell, for now."
And then the Faerie Aisha was gone.
The Xweetok, the Wocky, and the Mynci stumbled through the forest along a narrow path, dodging trees and leaping over stoops. They came to the edge of the forest, to a cliff overlooking the water and a brilliant sunset. In the distance, they could see the Money Tree poking through the assortment of buildings with golden square lights.
"You left him." Adriana's voice was not accusing, merely curious, somewhat surprised -- a bit of both.
"He asked to be left."
"We didn't get to say good-bye," muttered Dash.
The three of them were silent for a minute as they took in the scenery. The real trees, the real water -- Cherry half-expected to see churning waters evolve into a roaring tidal wave, but it was glassy and smooth.
"What do we do now?" Dash said dully. "It isn't as if we have owners to go home to. Not now."
Cherry and Adriana were silent for a moment, but then Adriana broke into a grin and said simply, as if it were the obvious choice, "Whatever we do, we'll do it together. After all, we're stuck together now."
Cherry was startled, and then she allowed herself a small smile.
She knew what she wanted -- and she had it.
A true family.