Island's Own: Part Seven
Geraptiku was creepy. There was no other way to describe it. The place had clearly been abandoned for as long as anyone could remember, and the houses, once solidly built, were slowly rotting away. Actually, the degree to which the houses hadn’t rotted away disturbed me more than how much they had. If this place had been a ruin since Flame’s time, the village had to be at least two centuries old, and by all rights, the straw huts should have rotted away by now. Instead, they sat moldering in the gloom, baleful entities in and of themselves, staring out through sagging windows at passersby, which at the moment, was only me.
The heavy overcast didn’t help either, especially because it was clearly unnatural. When we had emerged from the torch-lit tunnels of the volcano, it had been almost high noon and as cheerfully sunny as ever. Here, the sun was cloaked by a dark layer of clouds that seemed almost exclusively to this area, giving it a sense of eternal dusk, and perhaps contributing to the sense of rot that pervaded the city. Random skulls dotted the landscape, some scattered on the ground, others set on poles. Once, I could have sworn one turned to follow my movements, but when I looked back, it was still.
Like I said. Creepy.
The Kougra chieftain from before had told me to go to the temple, but where precisely that was I wasn’t sure. There was a large tomblike pyramid in middle of the city, but that seemed like a rather depressing place to have a temple. However, lacking alternatives, I slowly trudged towards it.
I had heard stories about Geraptiku as well, and I was scared I’d have to go inside the tomb and brave the traps, but fortunately, I noticed a small set of stairs on one of the sides, leading its way to the top. Hesitantly, I padded my way up. The pyramid was flattened on the top, with a small area about the size of a living room. A plinth made of strange stone sat near the end, waiting invitingly. If there was anywhere to summon spirits, that would be it.
I approached warily, wishing rather belatedly that I’d asked for more specific directions on how to ask the spirits for help. I supposed the first logical thing to do would be just to ask, since the chieftain would have mentioned a complicated ritual. Hopefully there would be no codestones involved this time, as I hadn’t thought to bring any.
“Any spirits feel like helping me out?” I asked at the plinth, feeling absurd. There was no response, of course. I probably had to be in contact with it at least. Tentatively, I touched it with my paw.
“Um, anyone feel like helping defend Mystery Island?” I asked into the air. Still no response.
You’re not taking this seriously, some part of me said. They won’t listen to you unless you’re asking them honestly.
I sighed. That did make sense. Putting aside how ridiculous I felt, I steeled myself to try again.
There was no warning, no click of gravel or whisper of cloth, no paranoid palmplat to chirp its alarm. Suddenly, I felt the touch of cold steel against the back of my throat and I went very still.
“Hello,” said a voice from behind me. “What have we here?”
I did a very odd thing then. Most of my mind screamed with panic, but a small part of me went very calm and cold. Slowly, I turned my head. The sword-wielding Lupe from yesterday stood behind me wearing his nasty grin, weapon against my throat. Seeing my surprise, his grin widened.
“I followed you out when you left the volcano. Should have checked behind you as you were running oh so anxiously to this place. Tell me, what’s so interesting about some old ruins that would bring you out here while the island is under attack?”
I didn’t reply, but just stared at him for a full second. I wasn’t much of a fighter. I probably would never be, not if the Techo Master had a thousand years to teach me. My strength was in understanding others, what made them work, why they did the things they did. And if there was one thing I’d learned at this school, it was that you had to play your strengths to win.
The Lupe was clearly at least reasonably competent, if he was sent to do something as important as guard the broken spell rather than normal grunt work. The fact that he’d bothered following out here me told me that he was ambitious. His smile said he was arrogant, his smugness at my surprise suggested he liked winning a little too much. He probably thought I was a coward for running away last time, an idealist for bothering to do anything at all. He was the type who got his way through force and intimidation, and was good enough at it that he usually got what he wanted.
That made the part I should play fairly obvious.
I felt the sword blade press a fraction harder into my throat.
“Please don’t hurt me,” I whimpered, fairly convincingly.
“Tell me what you’re doing here,” the Lupe repeated.
I decided not to lie – yet. It was possible Lucan could know about this place as well, and there was no point in ruining my credibility right off the bat.
“I was trying to get the power to defeat you,” I said, trying to sound defiant yet cowed.
The Lupe looked genuinely surprised. Clearly he had not been told about Geraptiku. Suddenly, I felt more secure.
“What power?” the Lupe demanded, eyeing me somewhat suspiciously.
I was silent.
He prodded me again. “Don’t make me ask you twice,” he warned.
“The power of ancient warriors,” I said reluctantly. “They infuse you with their strength and skill, make you a better fighter.”
The Lupe raised an eyebrow. “And you thought you could defeat all of us, just with that?”
“We had to try,” I whispered. “What you did was wrong.”
He laughed. “Word of advice to help you live past childhood. Don’t pick fights you can’t win.” He glanced at the statue again, greed evident in his eyes. “Move back from the plinth,” he said. “Slowly.”
I obeyed. When he was satisfied I was standing far enough back, he lowered his sword and gave me a stern look.
“Don’t think of running off,” he informed me, patting the bow slung on his shoulder. “I brought this to deal with your Draik friend but I can use it on you too. I’m good. You won’t get far.” Without waiting for an answer, he turned back to study the obelisk.
“So what’s the catch?” he asked. “This kind of thing doesn’t come for free.”
I thought quickly. “It only works once a century. And when you die, you have to join them.” I paused for effect. “You also have to be worthy.”
Greed and caution warred in his eyes. “Seems like a small price to pay.”
“You think you’re worthy?” I asked scornfully. “Lucan’s stooge?”
“Keep a civil tongue before I decide you don’t need it,” he said calmly. “With this I could be Lucan’s greatest lieutenant, second only to him.”
“His lieutenant?” I asked, genuinely surprised. “You wouldn’t want to be the leader?”
He gave me a scornful look. “This isn’t one of your novels, where everyone’s falling over themselves to betray each other. Lucan’s been a good commander for us. I’m happy to follow his lead. Doesn’t mean I don’t want to rise through the ranks, though.” He glanced at the obelisk again. “Can’t hurt to try.”
“You don’t know that,” I said quickly.
He laughed. “Oh please, little boy. I watched you poking at the thing for five minutes. If it could fry the unworthy, you’d be toastier than yesterday’s breakfast.”
With that, he stepped forward and placed his paws on the stone. “Spirits, give me your power,” he howled, throwing back his head.
For a moment, nothing happened. Then the Lupe’s eyes snapped open, and he gave another howl, an empty, horrified sound. Shadows swirled around him, engulfing him in a vortex of darkness, as the shrieking of the wind reaching a ferocious crescendo. And then he was gone, as suddenly as a burst bubble.
I fell back on my haunches, my legs suddenly unable to support my weight. The shrine was looking innocuous again, as if it hadn’t just swallowed up a whole entire neopet. Being warned something like this could happen was one thing; seeing it was another. The real distinct possibility of actually dying over this suddenly became painfully apparent, and I generally made it a point not to get killed over long shots.
Why was I even doing this? Protecting Mystery Island was neither my job nor my duty. No one had ever asked it of me except for Nella, and she had done it out of boredom, not benevolence. No one would blame me for sitting out. In fact, it was the sensible thing to do.
I had half turned to go when I stopped. Maybe trying to stop Lucan wasn’t the sensible thing, but it was the right one. I had the chance to do something good. What kind of pet was I if I let it pass me by?
“Stupid conscience,” I muttered, turning back to the plinth. It still sat innocuously enough at the edge of the pyramid, though I thought I felt more of a force from it this time, perhaps just because I had seen it in action.
I touched it gingerly again, somewhat relieved when I wasn’t vaporized on the spot. At least I had no trouble taking this seriously now.
I took a breath. “Spirits,” I called. “I Benden, by our bond of blood, call upon your aid to defend this island.”
There. Not terribly elegant, but it got the point of across. Hopefully.
For a moment, nothing happened, and I stood with bated breath. Then the strangest prickling sensation trickled up my front paws. I tried to jerk them away, only to find I couldn’t. The feeling spread throughout my body, and I sensed an odd presence scrutinizing me, more curious than malevolent. The prickling feeling swelled almost unbearably, and I closed my eyes and braced myself, waiting for the shadows to come.
Then just as suddenly, it was over. I had enough time to stumble back from the plinth and wonder if that was some sort of cosmic version of a polite “no,” before the earth began to shake. Violently. The stones of the tomb grated alarmingly beneath my feet as I tried not to bounce right off the edge. The world was a blur of chaos and motion, and I felt rather than saw the ground in front of the tomb tear open, leaving a gaping crack. Slowly, majestically, the fabled warriors of the past rose up from the earth.
What precisely they were, I wasn’t quite sure. Their eyes were too blank for proper spirits, their forms too well-made for constructs. Whatever they were, they rose from the ground in lines of ten, and stepped forward with military precision to stand before the tomb.
Finally, the crack snapped shut. All in all, about five hundred warriors stood before me, more than Lucan had brought with him initially, far less than he had now.
It would have to do.
I descended from the tomb in several quick leaps, landing lightly on the ground. The warriors showed no reaction. I looked at them.
“Uh, do you know what you’re supposed to be doing?”
No response. I sighed.
“Soldiers!” I snapped. “I call upon you to defend this island.”
That got their attention. As one, they lifted their weapons and hit them once upon the ground, giving an ethereal roar that echoed through the empty buildings. One of them stepped forward, a fierce looking Shoyru.
“Lead,” he intoned.
I nodded, then began heading south, hearing the tramps of their footsteps behind me. I couldn’t help but feel a thrill, running through the ruins with a small army at my back. There’s no feeling quite like throwing yourself into danger, completely beyond anyone’s help but your own. Adrenaline sang through my veins, and for a crazy moment, I felt ready to take on Lucan’s horde, badly outnumbered or no.
I met Nella on the outskirts of Geraptiku, followed by a reluctant looking Flame. She eyed the troops critically.
“That’s not nearly enough to fight Lucan,” she informed me. “Assuming they are any good.”
“Enough or not, it’s what we have,” I said, still filled with a heady optimism. “We don’t have to beat him, just get him out of the way long enough to get in and fix the diagram.” I paused. “What are you doing here anyway? Weren’t we going to meet closer to the school?”
“You’ve been here forever. We wanted to see what the holdup was.”
“She threatened to pull my tail off if I didn’t come too,” Flame added morosely.
That burst my little bubble of optimism. “What time is it?” I asked anxiously.
Nella shrugged. “Mid-afternoon, maybe? Why, did something happen?”
“You could say that,” I muttered.
Nella gave me an oddly keen look. “Anything to do with that Lupe from yesterday? He wasn’t there when we went to the shrine.”
“I’ll tell you later,” I said flatly. “Any trouble on your end?”
“Nope,” she said cheerfully. “Didn’t even have to fight anyone. Flame set the place on fire and the Krawk scampered just like that.”
“You what?” I asked incredulously. I could see that from Nella, but I would hope Flame would have had more sense.
“It wasn’t real fire,” Flame explained. “It’s like the kind on my fur – magic, I guess. It’s kind of warm, but it doesn’t really burn anything and I can make it go out when I want to.”
I whistled. “Impressive. You’re pretty useful when you put your mind to it.”
He looked confused. “Uh, thank you?”
I glanced at the eerily silent warriors behind me, then back at my friends. “Last chance to turn back,” I said seriously. “No one will blame us if we do.”
Nella looked offended. “This was my idea. I’m not going anywhere.”
Flame shrugged, though he didn’t look enthusiastic. “This is my home. I guess I should try to help out.”
I took a breath. “I guess that’s it then.” I turned to the warriors. “March,” I said, trying to keep my voice neutral. They surged forward, their footsteps like drumbeats in the jungle.
We were on our way.
To be continued...