Above The Ashes: Part Five
Also by imogenweasley. Art by imogenweasley.
The striped Kacheek stirred slightly as Titem entered the cramped room. Out of breath, he tried dragging a chair towards her bed as silently as he could. She smiled faintly nonetheless.
“Did you run here?” Alandra asked, rubbing her eyes slowly with bandaged paws.
“Er... yes,” he said quietly. “How are you?”
“Where did you run from?” she asked, brushing off his question. “Or were you running from something?”
“Alandra,” Titem began. “I came here to—”
“—to finally work up the guts to come visit me?” she said, her smile creeping ever wider.
He frowned. “That’s not funny, Aly. I was... busy.”
“Right: busy avoiding me. I get it.”
“I’m not kidding, Aly—”
“But I am. So what’s new?” Annoyed, Titem did not answer. “Oh, come on, Titem,” Alandra said. “Lighten up.”
The Kougra winced. “Nice choice of words,” he retorted.
She giggled, smiling fondly upon her older brother. “I guess it was!”
“Look, Aly, I really want to know—are you feeling better?”
“I think my current mood shows it, don’t you think?” she replied. “Now, really, why the sudden change of heart? I was beginning to think you had forgotten about me after all those hours of staring at the wall in the bank.”
He clenched his teeth. “Don’t, Aly. I told you what I’ve been trying to do.”
“I assume you’ve made some progress; otherwise you wouldn’t be here. Well, out with it.”
“I’m leaving,” Titem blurted, unable to contain his irritation at his sister’s jibes. For once, Alandra’s face held a look of surprise. “Where?”
“To Faerieland. I finally have a lead on the attacker.”
“From whom?” she asked, now worried.
“A trio of women. I don’t know much about them, actually. Just that they’re interested in this Pteri as much as I am.”
“Titem, this doesn’t sound safe.”
“Nonsense,” he replied dismissively. “And even if they weren’t good people—which they are—they’re the only people who have paid any attention to the scorch marks in the bank. I have to go with them. It might be my only chance.”
“Titem, you don’t know anything about them. They could be working with this Pteri for all you know. This is dangerous.”
Titem stood, stone-faced. “This is for you, Alandra. I have no choice.”
“Titem! You do have a choice! I told you, I’m already feeling better. I don’t need you to avenge me!”
“Yes, I do, Aly. If not for your peace of mind, then for mine.”
“You could get killed! You saw what he did to me, and I wasn’t even his target! Titem, I’m serious, this is insane,” she urged him frantically. “Lurking the bank all day, that’s one thing. But actually going after this madman? I can’t let you do this.”
“It’s not up to you. Goodbye, Alandra. With any luck, I’ll be home soon.”
“Titem, wait! Titem!”
But the Kougra was already at the door, and with a swish of his tail he was gone.
“What’s taking him so long?” Kyruggi muttered, pacing impatiently just outside the hospital.
“Don’t be so inconsiderate,” Elisse sniffed. “Leaving a loved one can be tough.”
“I bet you wish your loved one had said goodbye to you,” the Kyrii retorted with a leer. The fire faerie was nearly at Kyruggi’s throat when the trio was interrupted by an approaching group of Neopets.
“Grand Elder Kyruggi,” the head of the group, a Lupe, said with relief. “Thank goodness we’ve found you.”
“What do you want, Sabre?” she replied, pushing Elisse away. “I’m in the middle of something.”
The Lupe looked at her companions with confusion. “Grand Elder, we are expected in Tyrannia. We waited for you at the pier, but when you did not arrive, the ship left without us. We’ll have to take the next one.”
“Go ahead, Sabre. Something came up; I’ll be returning later than planned,” she said, gesturing towards Lula and Elisse.
Sabre frowned. “Grand Elder, Tyrannia needs us. We have responsibilities. You cannot just leave them at the drop of a hat.”
Kyruggi scoffed. “My priority is the Scorchio right now. The rest of you can manage without me for a few days.”
“This is unacceptable, Kyruggi,” a shaggy Mynci said. “What leader deserts their people?”
“This leader, apparently!” she replied, temper flaring. “I do not need to be lectured by my subordinates about responsibilities, especially when one of them manages the omelette.”
Sabre-X growled. “If you do not return to Tyrannia, you know there will be consequences.”
“So be it,” she retorted simply.
The Lupe’s anger intensified, clearly stung by the failure of his threat. The argument had reached a standstill when Titem suddenly emerged from the hospital, hastily wiping tears from his eyes. The Tyrannians looked at him curiously.
“Who is this?”
“The fourth member of our group,” Kyruggi replied.
“You are traveling with a child?” Sabre-X asked incredulously. “These are the people you’re searching for our monster with? Grand Elder... you have gone mad.”
Titem glowered at the Lupe, but said nothing. “These three are each connected to similar cases as ours, and are therefore useful in our search,” Kyruggi said. “Now then: Titem, if you’re finished, we’d best get going. I shall see you in Tyrannia when we are through, Sabre. Goodbye.”
With that the Kyrii turned, her three allies hurrying close behind. When they were a sufficient distance away, Titem glanced back to see no one but a Ruki in the distance. They had disappeared.
“What was that all about?” he asked.
“Those fools thought returning to Tyrannia would be more prudent than searching for the Pteri ourselves,” Kyruggi replied. “I politely told them to stuff it. Now can we please get going? I’m not sure they’re going to give up that easily, and I don’t want to stick around to find out.”
“You think they’ll come after us?” Titem asked with a hint of trepidation.
The Kyrii shrugged. “I wouldn’t be surprised. Sabre was pretty irritated.”
Titem glanced back once more. “Then, yes, let’s get out of here. Those tusks looked pretty sharp.”
An anxious feeling developed in the pit of Elisse’s stomach as they approached the secluded home on the outskirts of the city. She had been here countless times over the recent weeks, and every time the same feeling appeared. She could not bear to think of what Avere was up to, or why she had deserted her friend. Silently she led the way up the porch, stopping at the front door.
“When I first came here, the doorknob was scorching hot. It burned me the first time I tried to turn it,” she said quietly.
“Maybe it was the Pteri,” Titem said. “Something like what he did in the bank?”
Startled, Elisse replied, “Maybe. I hadn’t thought of that.”
“That would certainly connect this to the other events more obviously,” Kyruggi remarked. “Let’s go in.”
Elisse stepped over the threshold and glanced around impulsively, as she did every time now, hoping that Avere would simply be hiding behind the corner. The house, cylindrical like most buildings in Faerieland, was deathly silent. As the group congregated in the modest foyer, each one understood the severity of the situation. Without a word they spread out, beginning the search. Elisse hesitated, overcome with emotion, and then followed suit.
It felt like hours had passed when the silence was broken by Kyruggi calling for Elisse to join her in the dining room. Elisse found the Kyrii staring closely at the circlet Avere had placed precisely at the head of the table.
“Don’t touch it,” Elisse said warningly. “Avere put it there for a reason; I don’t want to move it.”
“But why?” Kyruggi said, perplexed. “Why’d she leave it here?”
Elisse shrugged. “Seems to me...” Kyruggi began. “What if it’s a message?”
“What message could a circlet hold?” Elisse replied dubiously. “What’s it saying, ‘I had a bad hair day?’”
“I don’t know. You’re the Faerie.”
Elisse bit her tongue, instead crossing her arms. “Look, it’s silly to think that the circlet is a coded message.”
“Don’t you find it odd that she left this here, perfectly positioned in a place where you’d notice it?”
“Well, yes,” Elisse conceded. “But—”
“So why can’t you search it for enchantments or something? It won’t hurt it, right? It could be a clue.”
Elisse had no choice but to concede, albeit begrudgingly. She hated being mistaken, especially when it was the Kyrii proving her wrong.
“Fine,” she snapped, snatching the circlet. Holding it carefully in her right hand, she closed her eyes and brought up the necessary incantation.
Immediately, the circlet glowed a vibrant red. Kyruggi shouted in triumph. With a yelp, Elisse dropped the circlet onto the table, for it had also grown excruciatingly hot. She stared at it in amazement, for something seemed to be emanating from the gemstone in the very center.
Suddenly an explosion rocked the house. Immediately alert, Kyruggi called for the other two, who rushed into the room to find a fire faerie, hair inky black, clothing choices eclectic, burst forth from the circlet. Elisse gasped in astonishment. Before her stood her very best friend, returned at last.
“Avere!” Elisse said, barely able to breathe. “You’re here!”
“What’s going on?” Titem asked, fear creeping in. “Is he here?”
“I don’t know,” Kyruggi said, mystified by the sudden chain of events.
But Elisse did not hear the others. She had eyes for only her friend. Slowly Elisse realized that her friend was tense, nervous, and completely oblivious to the group of Neopets surrounding her.
“Avere?” she asked uncertainly.
A sound came from the foyer. Avere rushed past the group towards the noise, and the four followed suit. There, to Titem’s horror, was a Faerie Pteri, swathed in a green cloak. The front door lay in smithereens across the floor, evidently blown apart by the new arrival. Kyruggi, suddenly furious, growled and leapt at him only to pass right through, crashing to the floor on the other side.
Suddenly it all made sense. “It’s an image!” Lula said in understanding. “Avere must have—”
“Hello,” the Pteri said, dusting off his cloak calmly. Lula fell silent as they watched the scene unfold in front of them.
“Who are you?” Avere asked tensely. “What are you doing here?”
“My name is Luminaris. I’d like you to come with me,” the Pteri said with a hint of a smile.
“And what makes you think I’d do that, considering what you did to my front door?” she retorted.
“Because I can do a lot worse than that,” he replied simply. “And I would not hesitate to.”
“Why do you want me?” she asked curiously.
“All will be explained in good time. Suffice it to say that it is a matter of life and death that I need your help with. But I must urge you to come with me immediately.”
Avere regarded him quietly for a moment. “I don’t suppose I have any other options.”
He smiled pleasantly. “No, I would say you don’t. I assure you, however, that no harm will come to you if you cooperate with my wishes. Does that sound acceptable?”
Avere was silent for a moment, then asked, “A matter of life and death, you say?”
“Indeed. And I believe you can be of assistance.”
She hesitated. “This seems wrong. Why couldn’t you just have knocked?”
“We have little time. I promise you, I’ll explain everything.”
She frowned. “V-very well,” she said with little conviction. “But only because I assume someone’s in danger?”
He nodded gravely. “Not just one person, but everyone. And I believe you’re exactly what I need to stop it. Now then,” he clapped, suddenly changing his tone, “is there anything you need to gather before we depart?”
Avere immediately reached for her circlet, still perched on her head, and removed it. “I’ll just leave this; I don’t want it to get damaged in whatever you need me to do.”
He nodded. “Very well. I’ll wait outside, my dear. Oh, and as you leave, would you mind patching up this door? Wouldn’t want anyone to think something bad has happened here!”
With that, the Pteri stepped past the silent foursome and over the threshold, at which he vanished. Avere hurried past shortly afterwards, vanishing just as quickly.
The group was silent. “Well,” Kyruggi said after a moment. “That certainly was unexpected.”
Elisse was bewildered. She was both saddened that her friend had only appeared in illusion and not reality, and relieved to find that she was relatively safe and not, as she had originally believed, kidnapped.
“So... your friend went with the Pteri quietly,” Titem said. The Kougra did not say it, but he secretly felt as if she could not be trusted. If she followed him willingly...
“I... I guess so,” Elisse replied. “I’m as surprised as you are.”
“But she obviously had some doubts about it,” Lula mentioned. “Deliberately leaving the circlet so you’d see that.”
Kyruggi nodded. “What interests me is the Pteri... he must be the same one from the bank, right?” she asked with a glance at Titem, who nodded vigorously.
“I’m certain it was him. There’s no chance for coincidence here.”
“But what could he want with Avere?” Elisse asked with a frown. “It doesn’t make sense.”
“Maybe whatever magic he wanted with Avere, she didn’t have. And so he came after my Scorchio next,” Kyruggi suggested. “The monster would certainly have more firepower than a faerie.”
The group fell silent as they pondered this new turn of events.
“What was his name again?” Lula asked.
“Luminaris,” Elisse replied. “It’s very similar to my grandmother’s name.”
“It’s a very archaic name,” the Lenny mused. “Quite old-fashioned.”
“So?” Titem asked. “It doesn’t really get us any closer to finding him.”
“Watch the attitude,” Kyruggi growled.
“Just saying. A name doesn’t much help us.”
“Sure it could,” Elisse said. “The library in the palace is one of the most comprehensive on the planet... if we look up his name we might find something. Perhaps what this ‘matter of life and death’ is.”
Kyruggi nodded. “That sounds like an excellent idea. We might make a lead of this yet.”
Titem sighed but relented. Kyruggi, energized by the turn of events, led the group out of the house, with Elisse bringing up the rear. Quietly, still lonely but far more relieved, she shut the door on the modest house. She was on her way to finding Avere.
“I don’t believe it,” Elisse grumbled as they left the library hours later. The sun had sunk beneath the clouds of Faerieland, creating the strange effect of glowing from below that was common in the city at dusk. “I thought this library was comprehensive, but absolutely nothing on ‘Luminaris!’
“Well, that’s not true,” Lula pointed out. “What about when Titem—”
“Look, we all know one measly sentence about a Luminaris from two hundred years ago can’t be the same person who took Avere,” Elisse snapped. “As nice as it sounds, no one’s immortal.”
Kyruggi frowned. “I have to agree with her, actually. I don’t see how they could be connected.”
Elisse nodded towards the Kyrii gratefully. “See? Even she agrees with me. We’re as lost as when we started.”
“Now, that’s not true—” Lula began again, only to be interrupted, this time by Titem.
“Hey, that robot!” he said suddenly, pointing across the plaza towards an emerald green mechanical Ruki perched beside a statue of Fyora. It seemed to be staring at the foursome intently. Even after Titem pointed it out, its focus remained squarely on the group.
“What about him?” Elisse asked impatiently. “Robots aren’t that uncommon in Faerieland.”
“No, but that one... I’ve seen him before. At the bank,” Kyruggi said slowly, trying to place him. “Oh, he was with the other guards!”
Titem nodded slowly. “And not only that, but I saw a Ruki as we fled from the Tyrannians this morning,” he added. “Obviously I didn’t think much of it then, but seeing him here reminded me of it.”
“So, what are you saying? The Ruki’s following us?” Elisse asked.
“It certainly looks that way,” Kyruggi said with a frown. “And I don’t like it.”
The Kyrii set off across the plaza. The other three glanced at each other nervously and followed suit. The robot never once changed focus, obviously uninterested in remaining discreet.
“Why are you following us?” Kyruggi asked loudly as she approached the Ruki.
It whirred for a moment, and then responded equally as noisily. “That is classified.”
Kyruggi’s eyes widened. “Oh, no you don’t. I know your kind; you hide behind your ‘directive.’ I’ll have none of that. Tell me why you’re following us or I’ll shove you off the cloud right now.”
Its red eyes gleamed as it responded, “I do not believe you.”
Without a word, Kyruggi shrieked and lunged forward. The Ruki, caught unawares, beeped loudly as it struggled with her, its eyes flashing alternatively green and red. Slowly Kyruggi pushed the Ruki towards the edge of the cloud, surprising even herself at her sudden surge of strength. The others, shocked at the turn of events, hurried forward to separate the two, but before they could, the Ruki vanished, pulling Kyruggi with him towards the watery depths below.
To be continued...