Travels of a Would-Be Knight: Eddetha the Immortal - Part Six
"We're lost," declared Madge after the group had circled back to the same oasis for the third time.
"We should not be lost! I am the king of this region!" retorted Razulon.
"That doesn't automatically enable you to know every single twist and turn here, especially since you apparently haven't gone this way much. Sir."
The king's eyes flashed. "Don't talk down to me, woman!"
"I'm not talking down, I'm just citing the facts! And if you call me 'woman' ONE more time, 'Your Highness'--"
"We don't have time for this," interrupted Doug. "The sun's almost set. With all due respect, Your Majesty, perhaps we should cast a locating spell so we can find our way home quicker."
Razulon scowled, but nodded in consent.
"Of COURSE he listens to the man," muttered Madge to Hansuke. "But me? Oh, no, all I'm good for is sowing clothes and making sandwiches!"
"Maybe it would help if you less disrespectful," suggested Hansuke.
"Disrespectful?! How am I being disrespectful?!"
"Well..." began Hansuke awkwardly.
"GET DOWN!" Jethro screamed suddenly, tackling him off the Uni a split second before a blast of Dark magic sailed through the air and hit the unfortunate neopet, turning him into an Anubis.
The next thing Hansuke knew, the entire group was on their feet and in fighting stances, facing a familiar blue Chia as he stood there grinning wickedly.
"What--?" muttered Razulon, bewildered.
"Nox?" asked Doug in disbelief.
"Nox!" growled Madge, pulling out what appeared to be a fan.
The warlock threw his head back and laughed; Hansuke couldn't help but note that if this was any other Chia, everyone would think that he looked ridiculous with his cape and slicked-back hair. But even the Lost Desert citizens, who had only heard vague reports of Nox from Fyora, could sense a menacing aura about the Chia. "Ah, Fyora's little minions. So nice to see you again. And King Razulon. We've never met. How do you do?"
"Don't play games with me, warlock! State your purpose!" growled the Kyrii, hands glowing with magic.
"Fine, be that way." The Chia shrugged. "A little bird told me that you've found something that will help Fyora stop the Veli. I'd prefer that not happen. I've allied myself with several, you see."
"That's just too bad, then, isn't it?" spat Madge, now holding a sword. Hansuke blinked. Where had the fan gone?
Nox shook his head, chuckling. "A sword won't do much against me, you know."
"No, but it'll sure do a lot against your minions!" retorted Madge as Veli appeared.
"You take left, I take right?" suggested Hansuke to Jethro, who had gone rather pale.
Nox surveyed the group, now pressed in on all sides by Veli, and smirked. "Let the games begin."
With that, the Veli attacked.
"Seriously?!" cried Madge as she swiped at the Veli with a sword in one hand and a shield in another (where had the shield come from?! Had she had these things in the fight before?!). "We don't just have to fight to GET the mirror, we also have to fight to KEEP it from the hands of a mad sorcerer?!"
"Welcome to Dark Ages!" Hansuke hollered back.
Razulon managed to break free from the fight, and attacked Nox. The others caught snatches of the two sorcerers battling; Razulon was a great mage, even Madge had to admit that. But Nox was better. Just as the last of the Veli disappeared, a blast of magic sent Razulon flying. Jethro managed to catch the king just before he hit the ground, but he was totally limp and unmoving.
"You're gonna pay for that, Nox--" began Madge, lunging towards the Chia, only for Doug to hold her back. "No! If Razulon couldn't stop him, you don't stand a chance!"
"Thanks for the vote of confidence, dear!" snarled Madge.
Nox gave a scornful laugh and, just before Jethro and Bashir could blast him with magic, turned the king's top two mages into turtmids. Madge, Doug, and Hansuke could only watch in dismay.
"...I foresee doom," commented Hansuke, shaking his head.
Nox started for the Mirror, which had laid forgotten in the sand during the fight, then suddenly seemed to remember the three survivors and whirled around to face them, chanting an incantation. Before Doug and Madge could form a counterspell Dark magic was divebombing them. The last thing they heard before descending into oblivion was Hubrid's maniacal laughter.
"Darn it, Danger Magnet! What did you do, magically teleport?" grumbled Scout, kicking a tree in frustration. She'd managed to trace Roxias from Gorunda's to a cave hosting a vampire family, back to Gorunda's, then to Hubrid Nox's mansion, a glade, a graveyard with two creepy yellow Wocky twins who seemed to have a thing for zombies and each other's sentences, and just now, to the outside of a gypsy camp, where his trail had abruptly stopped. Yet Scout didn't see him anywhere in the camp.
Well, it looked like it was time to do something she hated with a passion: socialize. Roxias SO owed her!
"Hello, people of the nomadic sort! A fine evening we're having, no?" asked Scout, plastering on a fake smile as she stepped into the camp.
The gypsies looked at her as though she were insane.
"And who are you?" asked one, a brown Aisha, with a scowl.
"My name is Lila Capernaum, but most people call me Scout! And how are you on this lovely..."
MAN, I sound like an idiot! Scout thought with a sigh. "Look, I'll just cut to the chase. I'm looking for a blue Lupe. Tall, athletic, eighteen years old, goes by the name of Roxias Elbuort."
"And why should we tell you anything?" asked an Acara, crossing her arms and scowling.
"Angel!" scolded a brown Lupe before turning to Scout. "Yeah, he passed this way not five minutes ago."
"Did he say where he was going?" asked Scout eagerly.
"My memory's a little foggy."
"You said he passed by not five minutes ago!"
"Yes, but I have a horrible memory. Maybe if I had a little... incentive to remember."
"I don't have any neopoints on me," said Scout, scowling.
"Then why should I tell you anything?"
"Because I'll break your arm if you don't?"
"You're outnumbered twenty to one. And all of us know how to fight."
Scout growled. "I've faced bigger odds before. Now, tell me where he went, before I lost my temper!"
*Five minutes later*
"SERIOUSLY?!" Scout roared at the gypsies, struggling wildly against the ropes binding her to a tree.
"You don't threaten us and get away with it!" retorted the brown Lupe, now sporting a black eye, which Scout had managed to give him before they took her down. "We'll let you go in the morning, if you're still there, that is! Vampires and Werelupes are known to come through here."
"If you don't release me in ten seconds--" began Scout.
"Scout! There you are!"
Everyone stared at Spring in astonishment as she ran up and hugged Scout, exclaiming in relief, "I thought I'd lost you!"
"Who's this?" demanded the Lupe, eyes narrowing.
'A nuisance I can't seem to get rid of!' Scout was about to say, but Spring beat her to talking. "I'm Scout's friend! We were here with another friend of ours, Roxias, but then we got separated! Why'd you tie Scout up? Did she do something bad? If she did, I'm sorry. She gets mad real easy, and right now we're awful worried for poor Roxias. "
Spring was the picture of innocence as she said all this. Thanks to her tiny stature she looked around six or seven, especially with her hair back in pigtails, which she'd apparently redone to look a tad askew and thus make herself appear young and inexperienced. All it took was the right poise, voice, and facial expressions, and she was the cutest little human Scout had ever seen.
Apparently the gypsies thought so, too. Spring spoke with them just a little more, and they'd untied Scout and informed them that Roxias had headed off north, riding an enormous spardel the gypsies kept as a pet. Scout found the spardel tracks, and resumed following the trail, Spring going with her.
"No wonder you're such a spoiled brat!" exclaimed Scout, looking at the human and shaking her head in disbelief. "With that kind of charm, how could your mom resist giving you anything you wanted?"
"Oh, she could. She said as my mom, she had to be immune to my adorableness's effects. And I'm not a spoiled brat, I'm a rebellious pre-teen who's great at finding loopholes. Aren't you going to yell at me for following you again?" added Spring, tilting her head curiously.
"No. That'd just be a colossal waste of energy, energy we'll need to save Roxias."
"Are you sure he needs saving? From what the gypsies said, he's doing fine."
"He's running around in the Haunted Woods doing errands for a crazy old guy, probably to save Grandpa Hansuke, and he won't let us catch up with him. Either he needs saving now, or he will when I get a hold of him. Just promise me one thing."
"NEVER turn evil. I fear what would happen were you to use your powers of loophole-finding and cuteness for sinister purposes."
Roxias had all but finished with his second task. He only needed one more plant: a branch from a filbert, which apparently only grew in a place known as 'The Labyrinth of Eres', according to Gorunda's list.
The 'labyrinth' turned out to be a hedge maze, which looked like it had been abandoned and left to grow wild for the past few years. Most of the bushes were almost dead, and the only sound to be heard as Roxias stood at the entrance of the maze was the leaves rustling despite the fact that there was no wind. It was a dismal, freaky place that made Roxias' fur stand up. He was tempted to run for a moment, but forced himself to calm down and, thinking of Grandpa Hansuke, marched forward into the maze, telling the gypsies' spardel to stay outside.
He wasn't five feet in when a hedge suddenly grew up in the entryway, blocking any chance he had of backing off. Roxias looked at the new hedge and groaned. So this place was enchanted, and he'd likely have to solve the maze to get out of here. Great.
As he turned away from the blocked entryway, he once again considered why he was going through all this. An elderly Techo, quite likely out of his mind, had sent him to an equally questionable Nimmo who had then ordered him to retrieve various items from dangerous places. His motivation for doing this was to save Grandpa Hansuke, whom they seemed to have sent back to the most dangerous time in Neopian history, all to put him through some "test" for reasons they had yet to explain.
"And people say Meridellians make no sense," muttered Roxias, then headed deeper into the maze, braced for whatever Eres had to throw at him.
"Hansuke! Wake up!"
"Five more minutes, Evans. Go 'way," murmured Hansuke, putting his hands over his ears and nuzzling his face against... the grass?
Hansuke was on his feet within seconds, looking around wildly. He was in some sort of creepy maze of hedges that looked half-dead. The sky above was enveloped in dark clouds, only a small fragment of the sun's light escaping to prevent the earth below from being shrouded in total darkness. "Where are we?"
"It would appear to be some sort of maze," commented King Razulon from where he stood a few feet away.
"Thank you, Captain Obvious," groused Madge under her breath.
"You're welcome, Lieutenant Sarcasm."
Madge and Hansuke both stared down at Jethro, who had spoken those words quietly, yet clearly enough for the two to understand him plainly. The Kacheek gave them a mysterious smile, then went to tend to the still-unconscious Bashir.
"Is it just be, or does Jethro get weirder by minute?" wondered Hansuke, shaking his head.
"Given that he's not what you think he is, that doesn't surprise me," Madge muttered.
"Oh, nothing! You okay, Doug?" Madge questioned as the other time-traveller walked over to them.'
"I'll be a lot better when we're out of this labyrinth," replied Doug, rubbing his head and glancing around.
"Labyrinth, he calls it. Very good," purred a voice next to Hansuke's ear. He jumped, and looked around wildly, "What was that?"
"What was what?" asked Madge and Doug. Suddenly Madge started and aimed a kick behind her, barely missing Bashir, "Show yourself, you creep!"
"What are you--who ARE you?!" demanded Doug, glancing around. Bashir and Jethro soon reacted similarly to something only the two of them could hear.
"It looks like it'll be up to me to lead a group of mad people through unknown danger. Again," observed King Razulon with a sigh.
"Insanity is just a matter of opinion, Razulon. I thought that you would be intelligent enough to know that," came the voice Hansuke had heard before, this time echoing all around the group.
"Who are you?! Show yourself!" growled the Kyrii, reaching for his sword.
"Please, there's no need for that," smirked a faerie, suddenly materializing a few feet away from the group. She looked... strange. She had the golden eyes and hair of a Light faerie, but both were dull and listless. She wore a long black gown, bracelets and a necklace that had once been golden but were now tarnished and slightly rusted, and her slightly tattered wings emitted a purple light rather than a golden light.
"Who ARE you?" repeated Razulon, scowling.
"I am Eres, keeper of this Labyrinth, thanks to my former Light sisters."
"A Light faerie turned evil?" breathed Madge, eyes wide.
"If what I do is evil, then evil is a lot more fun, Machiko Tanaka Bryant," said Eres, smirking.
"And what do you do, exactly?" piped up Hansuke.
"Create chaos. Chaos and discord. Or I would, if those Light faeries hadn't trapped me in this maze. But at least I still get to have fun with those who wander into my labyrinth--or are dumped here, like you six. I can never thank Hubrid Nox enough for that."
"Where did Nox go?" Razulon demanded, once again reaching for his sword.
"Threatening people doesn't solve everything, you know," Madge remarked.
"Nox went back to his castle after he gave you six over to me. He was lugging this big mirror with him. Said something about using it in a spell to fully control all dark creatures." Eres grinned at the looks of horror on the neopets' faces. "Don't worry, there's still plenty of time for you lot to stop him. Well, assuming you survive my Labyrinth."
"What must we do?" asked Jethro.
"Walk through the Labyrinth. Solve the riddles that come your way, defeat any monsters. Should you fail any task or be captured, you'd be forced to stay here forever. I'd quite like that," mused Eres, smiling. "You might want to get going. You only have a little while before Nox begins his latest scheme."
On that cheerful note, she vanished.
The Labyrinth was rather difficult to navigate even before they ran into any monsters or riddles. At first they thought that choosing the spookier part of the maze was the right way to go, but soon found that this wasn't the case. It was Hansuke who eventually figured the pattern out: first spooky, then normal, then two spooky parts, then three normal parts, then two spooky parts, then one normal part, and then the pattern repeated itself.
Hansuke's theory turned out to be right, because they had just started the pattern anew when they ran into their first riddle.
"You've gotta be kidding me!" cried Madge, staring at the riddle and shaking her head. "The answer's so obvious to anyone who knows anything about these Woods!"
"How are you doing this?"
"Doing what?" questioned Scout, giving Spring an odd look. They'd found the Labyrinth--and the frantic spardel outside--and, after telling the spardel to go home, they'd headed inside.
"Tracking Roxias? I can't see any signs of him being here, and you've been teaching me how to track things for a while now."
Scout frowned. Truth be told, she couldn't see anything either, save slightly glowing patches that she sensed came from Roxias stepping on that spot. She'd often experienced this sort of thing when tracking a quarry; her grandfather had advised her to keep it a secret when she'd told him about it as a scared six-year-old, and she'd heeded that advice ever since.
"Well, you're still an amateur, whereas I've known how to do this since I could walk. The signs are there, if you're an expert like me." Or a freak,Scout added mentally.
Finally they found Roxias, who was staring at something in obvious befuddlement.
"Roxias!" shrieked Spring, tackle-hugging the blue Lupe.
"Spring?! Scout?! What are you--" Roxias' nose wrinkled, and he looked at Scout questioningly, "Why is Spring wet and smells disgusting?"
"I don't wanna talk about it."
"And you're wet too--"
"I SAID, I don't wanna talk about it!" said Scout firmly. "Now, what were you looking at?"
"A riddle. I have the filbert leaves, but I don't think I'll be able to get out of the Labyrinth without solving it first."
Scout and Spring huddled close to Roxias to get a look at the riddle, which had been carved into the hedge. Roxias read out loud,
"Ever a grumpy glutton am I,
Yet quite full on knowledge's sweet pie.
I seem a brainless blob of hunger,
But know information about which the Brain Tree wonders.
I'll gobble you up if you get too close,
Unless you've food;
Give it to me, in exchange for knowledge you desire so.
Ponder this question carefully, my friend,
For fail to answer once, and your journey ends:
Who am I?"
"Well, for one thing, you're terrible at rhyming," muttered Scout, then she and the others began seriously considering the riddle.
To be continued...