Of Potions and Paintbrushes: Part Three
Also by antiaircraft
Frostgleam the Aisha shivered against the cold, pulling her simple brown cloak tightly around her as she walked down the dark path ahead of her brother, Sun. It was hard for Frostgleam to see her way, but she didn’t want to light a lantern until she was closer to her destination. The last thing she wanted was to attract the attention of nosy Neovian townsfolk as she went about searching for the ingredients she needed to make a potion that might turn her back into a ghost.
After what felt like ages, but was probably only a few minutes, the trail through the woods opened up into a clearing. Fog hung in the air. Now was the time to light the lantern she had Sun carry. The Werelupe held the lantern aloft, bathing the immediate area in a soft glow. The light did little to cut through the fog. Frostgleam could hear twigs snap somewhere in the woods behind her. She let out a small cry.
“Just petpets,” Sun reassured her.
“I know,” Frostgleam said, trying to sound brave. For a brief moment, Frostgleam was happy that Sun couldn’t see her shaking. If he could hear her knees knocking, at least he was kind enough to not say anything.
Sun began walking forward across the clearing. Frostgleam followed close behind. After a few more steps, she could see an iron gate, with the sign ‘Meepit Oaks Sanitorium for the Psychologically Fragile’ on a plaque on the wall beside it. The rusty, old gate emitted a low groan as its hinges reluctantly consented to their passage. The noise made her feel like there was lead in her stomach.
Once inside the gate, Frostgleam and Sun headed for the boarded-up front door of the asylum. Sun was strong enough to easily prise one of the boards free with his bare paws. When the door creaked open, Frostgleam jumped. She quickly regained her composure and followed her brother into the abandoned building.
Luckily, the room that housed patient records was easy to find. Frostgleam and Sun each took a stack of files and sat down at the desk. Many of the files were ruined by age and unreadable, but there were some that were still intact.
It didn’t take Frostgleam long to find what she was looking for. “Ah-ha!” she exclaimed, prompting a worried glance around the room from her brother. “Phelben Portlund. A Blue Kyrii. His file states that his madness was caused by an event that was too frightening to recount here. It only mentions something about the Deserted Fairground. I wonder what happened...” She trailed off. “Anyway, it also says that he died some time ago and was buried in the sanitorium's cemetery. It shouldn’t take too long to find his grave, right?” Frostgleam swallowed hard.
As the front door of the asylum slammed shut, Frostgleam didn’t even turn around. She waited impatiently tapping her foot, as Sun nailed the boards back in place with some tools he had found stashed in one of the asylum’s storerooms. Then, they made their way around the walled yard to the area where patients that had passed on were buried. All Frostgleam could think about was how much she wished they were finished here. She kept her fingers crossed that Phelben Portlund’s grave would be the first one they found.
Frostgleam and Sun walked up and down the rows of gravestones, looking for Phelben Portlund. Some of the stones were in really poor condition, and Frostgleam had to kneel down to read them. She found herself wondering about the poor souls who spent their last days at Meepit Oaks, and spent longer and longer examining each marker, taking mental note of names and dates.
A howl in the forest nearby caught Frostgleam off-guard. She screamed, stumbling backward over one of the stones, landing on the ground with a thud. She momentarily forgot about the name on the gravestone she had been looking at, and was scrambling to stand up.
Sun spun around, laughing a little. “It’s just a werhond, like Max.” Sun was referring to his own pet werhond. The laughing stopped. “Are you okay, sister?” He sounded a bit worried.
Frostgleam rubbed her bruised ankle. “I think so,” she answered, looking up from where she was crouched. She gasped. “Sun!” she yelled out a little louder than she intended. “I found him!” The gravestone she tripped over was that of Phelben Portlund.
Kneeling down, Frostgleam placed several pinches of dirt from the grave in a glass vial. “That ought to do it.” She stood up. It hurt a little to walk, at first, but Frostgleam didn’t care. “Come on, Sun. Let’s get out of here.” She turned from the grave, muttering a quick ‘thank you’ for the dirt, then walked quickly back toward the forest trail.
Faded curtains fluttered as a cool breeze came in through the open window. Sitting atop a dusty old occasional table, a candle flickered, causing shadows to dance to a silent, eerie tune across the walls and ceiling of the attic. The walls and floors creaked and groaned against the wind. For a brief moment , the light of the moon peeked out from the clouds, but was just as quickly swallowed up by the darkness as the clouds came back in.
The Ghost Aisha seemed oblivious to the room around her as she sat in an overstuffed chair, reading one of the old books scattered here and there about the attic. She had read it before, but it was one of her favourites, so she couldn’t resist paging through it again. With a storm likely blowing in, there were few visitors tonight, and she was enjoying the quiet.
Her concentration was broken by a knock at the door. Putting her book down on the footstool beside her, she descended the rickety wooden staircase. Most of her visitors, nowadays, didn’t usually bother knocking; they would just walk in, eager to see what wares she had available for purchase. Occasionally, a new customer would knock, hesitant to barge into her home, but for the most part, only the polite and formal residents of Neovia would knock at the door.
Unlatching the door, she swung it open to see who had come calling. She was momentarily surprised to see a Werelupe standing in the doorway before her, the faint glow of a gas light reflecting in his eyes. It took a moment for her to recognise the Lupe before her. “Sun!” she greeted, enthusiastically. “What brings you here? If you’re looking for Frostgleam, I’m afraid she left here hours ago.”
Frostgleam’s voice came out of the darkness. “I’m here.”
The Ghost Aisha laughed. “Where are you hiding? I can’t see you.”
“Frostgleam has been cursed with invisibility,” Sun stated grimly.
Her smile faded away and was replaced by a look of sympathy and shock. “You’re invisible? How awful for you!” After pausing for a moment, she remembered her manners. “Please do come in. There’s no sense in having you standing out in the street.”
Frostgleam and Sun stepped into the dimly-lit foyer, and the Ghost Aisha pushed the door shut behind her guests, sliding the bolt in place as well. Any late-night customers that come calling will have to wait, she thought to herself. Turning to her guests, she offered, “Would you like some tea?”
“Please,” Frostgleam accepted. “Though we haven’t much time to visit. I’m working on a potion to change me back into a ghost, and I have a deadline to meet.”
“Well, if there is anything I can do to help, I’d be delighted,” the Ghost Aisha stated, her smile returning. She turned and walked toward the kitchen, bidding her visitors to follow.
The three sat on wooden chairs around a small table in the kitchen. The Ghost Aisha poured tea from a teapot with a red floral pattern into cups for her friends, then for herself. She listened as Frostgleam glossed over her research and recounted her tale of her trip to Meepit Oaks.
“So,” Frostgleam said, “one of the last ingredients I need is the tears of a Ghost Aisha. I was hoping you could help me with that, since I don’t know any other Ghost Aishas.” Frostgleam fidgeted with her cup nervously.
“Hmm.” The other Aisha looked pensive. “I don’t mind giving you my tears. The problem is, I don’t feel like crying right now.”
The room fell silent for a moment before Frostgleam spoke. “Well, I wouldn’t want you to be sad. That wouldn’t be much fun.”
“What if you were to cut up an onion?” Sun interjected with his suggestion.
“An onion! That's a brilliant idea!” both Aishas squealed in unison. The Ghost Aisha dug an onion out of the pantry and began dicing it on a wooden cutting board. She kept cutting and cutting until the acidic juices made her eyes water. “It worked!” she exclaimed, turning to face her friend.
Frostgleam collected some of the Ghost Aisha’s tears in another small glass vial. She handed her friend a handkerchief, then gave her a hug, thanking her profusely for her help. Then she heard the clock strike eleven.
“We have to hurry, Sun,” Frostgleam stated seriously. Then she turned to her friend, “I really must go now. Thank you again for your help.” With her brother in tow, Frostgleam hurried out the door.
“You’re welcome!” the Ghost Aisha called after them. “Do stop by if you have the time! I’ll have some onion soup on the boil in case you’re hungry!”
Frostgleam was very happy that she had taken the time to prepare some maps. The network of forest trails that criss-crossed through the Haunted Woods was a challenge to navigate for even the most experienced woodsmen and trackers, under the best conditions. But, in the dark, Frostgleam and Sun had to stop often to get their bearings, marking the trail as they went along, so that they could find their way back out when they were finished their mission.
“We need to take the trail to the right,” Frostgleam told Sun, as they stopped once more to check the map. “It shouldn’t be much farther now. When we get to the next crossroads, we need to go left, then the cave will be at the end of the trail.”
“I hope your map is right,” Sun stated nervously. “We’re almost out of time.” He then began bounding down the path, ahead of Frostgleam. The Aisha had to hurry to keep up, but as quickly as he had started, Sun suddenly stopped in his tracks, and she was barely able to avoid running into him.
“What’s the matter?” Frostgleam inquired, her voice instinctively dropping to a whisper. Something clearly had her brother worried. He was tense, sniffing the air cautiously as the hackles on his neck began to rise. He also had one hand in the bag in which Frostgleam had spotted him stashing a sword as they were leaving the house. Now that was really worrying.
“I don’t know what,” Sun growled tersely, “but there’s been something following us for a while now, and I can’t smell it any more.”
“Doesn’t that mean it’s left?” Frostgleam suggested nervously, peering intently at the woods around them. All of a sudden the shrubbery seemed to have taken on a sinister air, as if it was just waiting for an unwary traveller to get too close...
Sun didn’t answer. Years of experience serving in the murky world of Meridell’s mysterious shadow knighthoods (years that he had yet to relate to anyone, even his siblings) had taught him many things. Among them: there is one thing that stalkers always do before they strike. They vanish.
The Werelupe closed his eyes - there were some enemies that even his acute night vision would be of little use against. The same enemies that could conceal themselves from his sense of smell without warning. Turning slowly, he probed the forest around him, searching for the slightest hint of the unseen hunter. In most forests, there would have been a host of small critters that would have fallen silent at the signs of approaching danger, marking its presence like a beacon. That trick didn’t work in the Haunted Woods. Here, everything was dangerous.
Something suddenly tugged at Sun’s shoulder, and he abruptly realised that his sister was trying to pull him along. “Come on, Sun,” Frostgleam was saying as she took several more steps down the trail, “let’s go. If it’s following us, then we’d best make sure it has a hard time keeping up.”
“Shh... I need to listen,” Sun answered quickly. He could swear he had caught something just a moment ago... The Werelupe’s ears rapidly attuned themselves to the sounds of the woods once again, but there was nothing out of the ordinary to reach them. Except...
There was a hiss. A quiet, scratchy, unimposing noise, like the sound of wool against paper, almost impossible to make out as it rasped its way through the trees. A chill ran down Sun’s spine and charged straight on into his limbs. He knew that hiss.
They go for the weaker ones first.
Sun surged forward, and in an instant he was on top of Frostgleam, sending the Aisha crashing into the ground. In another instant, something huge, swift, and silent slammed into Sun, sending the eighty pound Werelupe flying like a rag doll. Sun crashed painfully into the ground several metres away. Too far away for Frostgleam to realise what was happening.
“What was that for?!” the Aisha cried, picking herself up out of the dirt. “Now I’ve gone and lost our maps!”
She turned around angrily, scanning the bushes for any sign of the precious sheets of paper. When her eyes landed on the ghastly shape looming over her, she let out a scream and fell back to the ground, scrambling to get away. Whatever her assailant was, it seemed to have no trouble keeping up, gliding smoothly along as it drew closer and closer. Frostgleam could feel the chill radiating off its ghostly form, a chill so cold it felt like it could almost burn. Her fingers closed around something solid, and she clutched it tightly in the vain hope that if the creature got close enough, she might be able to club it with a rock.
“Get back!” The shout came from the trees behind the creature, and sure enough Sun came bursting onto the trail moments later. The Werelupe landed on all fours, crouched low and ready to pounce. Before him, hovering hungrily over his sister, was a shapeless dark mass, barely distinguishable from the shadows around them. Yet somehow, as pitch-black as it was, it still managed to peer maliciously at Frostgleam with eyes that were yet darker, two lifeless pits of oblivion that bespoke an insatiable, eternal, devouring desire for the souls of the living.
Sun had fought creatures like this once before. During the war against Meridell, Lord Kass had ordered his sorcerers to conjure up Abyssal Spectres, depraved, soulless beings from before the dawn of Neopia, so they could be fielded as unstoppable warriors in Darigan Citadel’s army. So vicious were the spectres that Kass himself decided they were too dangerous to even hope to control. Instead, he had his sorcerers send them through portals into the catacombs beneath Meridell Castle, knowing that the spectres would spread and wreak havoc on the kingdom. It had taken the shadow knighthoods months to drive the spectres out of the catacombs. Very few of the knights sent down had made it back alive. Afterwards, the surviving spectres had travelled southwest to inhabit the Haunted Woods. Here, they were right at home.
Sun gritted his teeth. He’d somehow managed to lose his sword in the mad scramble to get Frostgleam out of the path of the spectre’s first attack. Now there was only one way to get the monstrosity away from his sister. The Werelupe bunched his legs tightly and leapt forward, plunging straight into where the creature’s heart would have been, if it had possessed one. The moment his skin made contact with the spectre’s form, it erupted with a frigid, burning pain that seemed to pierce right to his core. Through the pain, he felt some kind of viscous substance dragging through his fur, silky and smooth yet reluctant to yield its grasp of each hair. It gave way nevertheless, and a moment later he was through, paws skidding across the ground as he came to a halt and whirled to face the creature once more.
Having been pulled away from its first intended victim, the spectre slowly turned to settle its languid gaze on Sun. Even if it had a mind to think with, the creature wouldn’t really have cared which pet it sucked dry first. Its only driving force was hunger, and now that it had left its mark on the Werelupe, there was no escaping its ravenous appetite. It would track down its prey, travelling for weeks if necessary, striking again and again as it gradually drained the life from its victim, leaving him weaker and weaker, until there was finally nothing left.
Holding his ground bravely, Sun crouched once again, ready to strike if the spectre showed the slightest intention of turning back towards his sister. There was no way he could defeat this creature without a proper weapon, and certainly not on his own. His only intention was to keep the spectre focused on him long enough for Frostgleam to escape. With a little luck, she would be able to follow the marked trail back home before the spectre decided to go after her as well. That was, of course, assuming she got the hint and ran for her life instead of standing frozen on the spot like she was doing now.
The Werelupe opened his mouth to yell at her to run, but something he saw made him change his mind before the words made it out of his throat. “Frostgleam! Quick! Through the centre!” Sun shouted, feinting a strike that prompted the spectre to drift mindlessly to the left, positioning itself perfectly for an attack from behind.
“What?!” Frostgleam yelled back, completely missing her cue.
“USE THE SWORD!” Sun roared back, ducking and rolling out of the way just in time to avoid one of the spectre’s lightning fast tendrils.
“I don’t ha-” Frostgleam began, just as she realised what she was holding. Clutched tightly in her hand was what she had thought to be a rock, but was actually the hilt of Sun’s Sword of Skardsen. She must have somehow run across it in all her frantic flailing on the ground. In a panic, the Aisha struggled to raise the unwieldy blade to shoulder level, both hands fumbling to get around the sword’s stubby grip. Then her training finally kicked in, and suddenly every movement was flowing naturally, from her toes to the tips of her invisible ears. Fingers locked tightly around the hilt, she stepped nimbly up to the spectre, resting her weight on her back leg and holding the sword perfectly level with the ground, ready to drive it forward with all the force she could muster.
En garde, she thought calmly, and skewered the spectre right through its metaphorical heart.
The two pets’ ears were immediately assaulted with an overwhelming shriek of limitless agony, almost silent yet somehow as violent as a thunderclap. The spectre flinched immediately away from the blade which had pierced it, writhing in a futile attempt to pull itself away from the torturous bite of enchanted steel. Slowly the creature’s dying screech began to fade, and as it did the spectre seemed to fold in on itself, blackness upon blackness, withering away with each passing second. Finally, with a bitter, forlorn wail, the spectre fell silent, the last of its shapeless appendages coalescing into a solid, impossibly black stone that had formed around the centre of the blade.
Wordlessly, Sun took the sword from his sister and smashed the stone against the nearest tree he could find, sending the shards spinning away into the darkness. Dream of death, and never awake, he thought grimly as he inspected the blade. Confident that there wasn’t a single trace of the spectre left, he slipped it back into his bag.
“Are you okay?” Frostgleam asked quietly. From her tone and where she was standing, Sun guessed that she was staring at the large black scars their attacker had left all along his hide.
“Spectre burns,” the Werelupe replied gruffly, “nothing to worry about. I only touched it for a few seconds, so I’ll be just fine.”
“I’m sorry, Sun,” Frostgleam moaned apologetically, “you know I’m no good outside the Battledome.”
A wry smile spread across Sun’s face as the adrenaline started to wear off. “Says the Aisha who just slew one of the most dangerous creatures ever to be seen in Neopia,” he shot back, reaching out to give his sister a proud pat on the shoulder. He missed, of course, but he didn’t have a chance to try again, as all of a sudden Frostgleam was bubbling with excitement.
“Look! That’s it! That’s the cave!” the Aisha exclaimed, gesturing enthusiastically towards a rather unimpressive hollow visible just over Sun’s shoulder.
“I can’t see where you’re pointing,” Sun sighed, “and I have no idea what these mushrooms are meant to smell like, so if you’d kindly lead the way maybe we can grab them and get out of here.”
The two pets entered the pitch-black cave with considerably more trepidation than before. Sun kept his sword drawn this time. The cave was much more cramped than they had expected, and the occasional scuttle of a nocturnal petpet made Frostgleam jump in surprise, but apart from a few bumps and stumbles (one of which almost ended in Sun accidentally impaling Frostgleam’s cloak) the mushroom collecting went without incident. With the glowing mushrooms wrapped carefully in Sun’s sling bag, the pets made their way back to the cave’s entrance. Sun clambered cautiously back out into the open air, alert for any signs of danger as he helped Frostgleam up after him. Soon they were back on the trail and headed for home, ingredients safely in hand.
“It’s a good thing we marked the trail; otherwise we’d be in serious trouble,” Frostgleam remarked as they plodded along, but Sun was too preoccupied with watching their surroundings to think of a reply.
“Yes, it is,” the Werelupe finally answered after a long pause. “The sooner we get back home, the better.”
To be continued...