Mind and Matter
Jhudora grumbled to herself as she trudged through the thick underbrush of the forest surrounding Glory Hollow.
Normally, she would be sending out some Neopet with too much time on his hands to gather her potion ingredients for her. All it required in exchange was a cheap magical trinket that she could proceed to convince him was an "artefact of ultimate power" or some other such nonsense. It was easier that way, and kept the other faeries off her back about "giving back to the community" or whatever.
Jhudora rolled her eyes, stopping to disentangle a few thorny branches from her skirt. It was those very same faeries – or rather, she supposed, the Faerieland guard – that had sent her out to do this herself. The dark faerie had gotten in some trouble for her quest-giving methods before, it was true. But up until recently, the law had never been able to pin anything substantial on her – in no small part because about half of the pets who went to complain about her abuses toward failures were spouting off obvious fantasies based on her reputation alone.
A week or two ago, though, the guard had gotten wind of her new experiments with some of the more unusual Haunted Woods flora. After all the nasty bites her questers suffered from animated snapdraiks, Aethia had personally insisted that she gather her more dangerous ingredients on her own.
Jhudora paused for a moment to look back the way she'd come. The deep pinks and purples of the Faerieland buildings nestled in the clearing of Glory Hollow had disappeared from view, and she took that to be a good sign. She was probably the only member of the kingdom who wished it had crashed a little closer to the heart of the Haunted Woods. Oh, sure, maybe the more dangerous (though rather more exciting) of their neighbours mostly lived further out west, but so did all the interesting new plants she'd found.
The dark faerie groaned as that last thought went through her head. Fantastic, now I'm fussing over some stupid plants. I'm going to start sounding like an earth faerie before long.
As she returned her gaze ahead, one of the low-hanging tree branches caught her attention. Shoving her way through the underbrush, she grabbed the branch and pulled it closer for inspection.
It was fractured near the base to the point of splintering half-off, and as she lifted it from where it limply hung she could make out a short series of sharp depressions around the middle. It seemed the wood had been gripped by strong claws and forcefully thrust to the side.
Jhudora smirked to herself. At least I'm not the only one having trouble getting through these blasted woods, she thought.
A low growl shook her out of her observations, and she turned to see a hulking Lupe with an oversized net in one hand and a slightly crazed glint in his eyes. He did not appear happy to see her.
Jhudora gave his thick claws a glance, and then lifted up the cracked branch behind her. "I'm guessing this is yours?"
Balthazar snorted in frustration. "I have no use for you, major faerie," he snarled. (Seriously, he actually snarled the words. Sweet Fyora this guy is trying too hard.) "Why don't you run on home while I track down your little sisters? I'd hate to cause an... accident because I was distracted."
Jhudora rolled her eyes. "Oh please, don't give me any of that 'faerie sisters' garbage. It's enough of a pain having to deal with my actual sister without thinking about everyone else as family too."
Balthazar raised a curious eyebrow as he scrutinized the dark faerie. She could almost hear the gears creaking to life in his head, as sorely underused as she imagined they must be.
"You seem to have little worry for your own safety, or that of your brethren," the Lupe said. "Do you even know who I am?"
"How could I not, Balthy? And it really isn't that hard not to worry. I'm too big for your bottles, and you..." she smirked. "Well, you're just stupid."
Balthazar's fur bristled at the insult, but he made no move just yet. After another moment's consideration, he stood up a little straighter and took a step forward.
"Come to think of it, I know of you too, faerie. You have little love for any of your kind, correct?" His thick lips twisted into a smile. "Let's say you and me make a deal. There's a certain barrier that is keeping me away from the biggest gathering of minor faeries this side of the Woods. Let me through, and I'll give you all of the payment from my first haul. Your little sisters fetch a pretty 'point, I can assure you."
Jhudora suppressed the urge to snort at the proposition. She knew exactly what Balthazar was talking about – there was a magical barrier a little beyond the outskirts of Faerieland, just strong enough to keep a few select individuals from entering the kingdom. It didn't take brains like hers to figure out that the faerie hunter was bound to be on that list.
And the sorry mutt thinks I'm just going to let him waltz into my home for a little cash? Please Balthy, give a girl some credit. Still, it might not hurt to humour him for just a little bit.
"All right, I'll bite," she said, feigning curiosity. "Though I should hope you've got a better setup than that. You got a camp somewhere with extra supplies? Maybe a few wares that I can check over?"
At that, the smile on Balthazar's face fell back into a snarl. "I'm not foolish enough to be outright trusting you, faerie," he warned. "No payment until you show me you can actually break the barrier."
Too bad for him, she'd caught the brief glimpse he'd thrown in the direction that must have led to his camp. Even so, Jhudora shook her head. "Well, that's a shame. Our little meeting here is wasting the time I should be using to collect ingredients, and I'd hoped to have it done with as quickly and easily as possible."
With that, she thrust a blast of magic at the Lupe. He barely reacted in time, turning away and curling into a ball. The spell hit the back of his jacket and sputtered out with little resistance – clearly, the net and bottles weren't his only possessions enchanted to resist magic.
Balthazar was growling again. "You think that just because I only catch the little ones means I don't know how to deal with faeries like you?" He whipped back around and brandished the net like a staff, keeping the woven end close to his body.
Jhudora had already moved away, forcing the hunter to trudge through underbrush if he wanted to take a swing at her. Not that she could move any faster – or take to the air through the dense foliage, for that matter – but she had a distinct advantage now with her ranged attacks.
The faerie grit her teeth as she aimed a second blast at his head, only for him to bat it away with the net. Another bounced harmlessly off his shirtsleeve. At least, I would have the advantage if I could just get an opening.
Balthazar lunged through the bushes, forcing Jhudora back a step to avoid a swing from his net handle. She pelted him with a flurry of small bolts, but could only hit protective cloth and the mesh he'd now brought up to shield his face.
But Jhudora wasn't done yet. While the Lupe was distracted with defending himself, she aimed a somewhat different burst of magic into the ground. Balthazar surged forward again, nearly catching her in the shoulder with his next swing, but he failed to notice the shadow creeping across the forest floor. Under the dark faerie's silent direction, the shadow swung around behind him, raised a wispy tendril to take hold of his tail, and yanked hard.
Balthazar let out a loud yelp, arching back and letting his net drop to the side. All it took was one well-timed spell and Jhudora had a strong telekinetic grip on his muzzle, which she proceeded to throw down onto the forest floor. The rest of the Lupe, of course, went down with it.
Balthazar attempted to threaten her through the bonds around his mouth, but Jhudora merely stood over him and smirked. "Faeries like me, did you say?" she asked. "Well, I suppose you might hold your own against an ordinary major faerie, but I'd like to see you try and last much longer than that against one like me."
Now all that was left was to dispose of the pest. The Lupe growled and struggled against her grip, but with his head forced against the ground he couldn't get in a good position to pull away. Jhudora grabbed that annoying oversized net and tossed it to the side. Might as well keep him from going straight back to business once they were done here, after all. With a snap of the dark faerie's fingers, the congealed shadow at his tail turned smoky and sickly green and billowed out around him. More tendrils reached out, wrapping around bare legs and arms and head until they'd covered enough of the Lupe to bypass his protective clothing. Another snap and the shadows pulled him downward and vanished, preparing to spit him out... eh, somewhere deeper in the Haunted Woods, probably. It was a shame she couldn't direct exactly where that spell would take its charges, or she'd have started using it long ago as a quick and dirty way to get from one place to another.
Jhudora chuckled to herself. "Let's see Aethia pull that off," she said to no one in particular.
* * * * *
It didn't take long to find Balthazar's camp. She already knew which direction to go from his earlier unintended hint, and it wasn't very far from where they'd run into each other. It was a sorry thing – a tiny fire pit, a canteen of water, a bag with extra nets and dried provisions. Next to that was a stash of bottles, all in those silly element-based designs he'd taken a recent liking to.
It was those bottles she was looking for. Jhudora bent over the collection, checking every one for the faint glow that signalled an occupant within.
There were a little over a half dozen captive faeries in all; considering the stark number of empty containers surrounding them, Balthazar must have just recently started his latest round of hunting. That or he'd actually been expecting some sucker to just let him into Faerieland.
Jhudora grabbed the first of the glowing bottles, this one decorated with a stylized sun. It opened with a satisfying pop, and a light faerie darted out.
Jhudora wasted no time with pleasantries before snatching the next bottle in the pile. As she took hold of its leaf-patterned stopper, though, a tiny voice interrupted her thoughts.
"I don't get you."
The dark faerie paused and turned, quirking an eyebrow at the light faerie who still hovered beside her. She recognized this one, now that she got a good look – old what's-her-face lived not far from her bluff.
"Your intense gratitude is overwhelming," Jhudora deadpanned.
The smaller faerie shook her head. "I'm serious," she went on. "You spend all your time alone in your fortress, terrifying the pets you enlist for help, giving all kinds of grief to your fellow Faerielanders, and plotting away at some... some awful scheme!"
Pop. "Is that so?"
"Well... I... You must be up to something! You have to be. You're in the Gallery of Evil, for crying out loud!"
Jhudora smirked. "Yes I am."
The light faerie shook her head. "So why are you going out of your way to rescue us? It's not like you can get a blessing out of it the way Neopets can."
Jhudora reached out and grabbed another bottle, this one decorated in that mystery rainbow pattern. Surprises were always fun.
"It's simple," she replied. "I'm a dark faerie, and a darn strong one at that. I've got a reputation to uphold." Pop. Ooh, a fire faerie. They always brought life to the party. "Part of that means inducing fear and suspicion in the others – keeping them on their toes, you know? And part of it means doing what I can to keep my... 'little sisters' from tarnishing our race's name by getting themselves caught by some weirdo and turned into a commodity." She shot her accuser a pointed look at that, but the light faerie was apparently on too much of a roll to stop and be embarrassed.
The little faerie groaned and rolled her eyes as she said, "You do know there are important good dark faeries too, right? Heck, one of them would have been co-ruling Altador if she hadn't changed her mind and –"
"Boring!" Jhudora cried. She took another bottle from the pile. "Look, it's not like I secretly want to have friends and for everyone to love me or any of that junk. My way is more fun. And speaking of which –" Pop. That one was another dark faerie. The little beauty squeezed through the opening and disappeared without so much as acknowledging her rescuer, and Jhudora pointed the now-empty container at the annoyingly present light faerie. "– If you let word get out that my 'evil schemes' may or may not be mostly for show, I will track you down and put you right back in your bottle. It took me a lot of work to get that page in the Gallery of Evil, you know."
The smaller faerie groaned again and threw her hands in the air, giving up. She vanished in a flash of light (of course), finally leaving Jhudora to work in peace. The dark faerie looked up at the dimming sky, then back down at Balthazar's wares. It wouldn't take her long to uncork the remaining bottles, especially with the distraction gone, but she would probably want to smash the empty ones afterward to keep anyone who came across the campsite from trying to fill them. Or perhaps she could take the lot of them home and use them for potionry. She cackled at the thought of some innocent pet coming in for a quest and finding a shelf full of what appeared to be bottled faeries.
Still, putting them all in her bag would leave no room for the herbs she'd set out to collect in the first place, and taking the time to destroy all of the sturdy, magic-resistant things would use up the rest of her evening. Jhudora pondered over this for a moment, then shrugged and grabbed another occupied bottle.
She could go out and get the stupid plants tomorrow. There were faeries to be saved, or something like that, and she'd found in the course of her career that it was much more satisfying to see her work through to the end.