Elyse's relief was immediate.
The burn in the Xweetok's muscles eased as she lowered herself into the Healing Springs. Already, with each chill current, she could feel the sharp pins and needles of pain in her body washing away to a dull ache. She could see the same sense of reprieve in each face her glance skimmed over. The crystalline waters were full with countless Neopets come straight from battle – much like the faerie pet herself. Elyse couldn't say that she felt any degree of shock at their pick of destination.
The same couldn't be said for what happened next. A wave of water crashed from nowhere to hit Elyse full in the face. Where had that come from? She blinked droplets from her vision to see two figures bent over in laughter so profound that they were actually shaking. Irritation soured her throat. These Xweetoks weren't just any Neopets. "Kai! Damien! How dare you?!" she seethed.
Her eldest brother dodged her return spray with a deftness Elyse envied. Wiping a tear from his eye, Damien sent her an impish grin. It was Kai who replied. "Lighten up, El. We're just having some fun."
"Well, go have fun somewhere else!" Elyse snapped. She'd been here first.
There was an amused glint in her brothers' eyes. "Oh, we plan to," Damien told her, climbing from the pool, as Kai snickered.
The sentence filled Elyse with suspicion. "What are you up to now? Another fight?" That couldn't be possible. "Didn't you both have fights this morning? How are you able to recover so fast?" Inwardly, she added: why are you able to recover faster than me?
Her brothers exchanged a knowing glance. "Endurance," Kai said. The white Neopet wagged a claw at Elyse, to her consternation. "That's why the Battledome is no place for a girl, little sister."
Kai's parting words burned hotter than Elyse's earlier fatigue. Scanning the crowd, she could see Neopets who'd arrived after her leaving the springs as her brothers had done. Elyse leaned her head back into the water, staring up at the sky to avoid the sight. It seemed that, no matter how hard she trained, there were always Neopets who were stronger than her. Who were better at defence than her. Who were a higher level than her. Worst of all, there were always Neopets who had more endurance than her. Elyse cringed. She'd never won a fight against either of her brothers. She'd never so much as gotten in a lasting blow.
Elyse could handle the bruises from training. What made her squirm was the fact that nothing she did ever seemed to narrow the gap between her brothers and herself. "If only," Elyse murmured. "If only there were some way that I could improve in the Battledome quickly." Her head banged into something and a shocked gasp hissed from her lips. She'd floated into someone. "I'm so sorry," she apologised, standing.
The pale blue gaze that met Elyse was sympathetic. It belonged to the water faerie in charge of the springs. "Why don't you pay a visit to the Faerie City?" Marina asked, her tone softly melodic. She'd overheard.
"The Faerie City?" Elyse repeated. The music in the faerie's voice had a soothing ring to it and, just as her soreness had subsided, her frustration began to ebb.
"Haven't you heard?" A gentleness lit Marina's face as she slicked back her wet hair. "For a time, the faeries there are offering daily quests to those who visit."
The faerie's words broke Elyse's daze and her heart leapt. "Really?" The question ripped from her lips. She remembered having heard of these quests in previous years from Damien. Then, their mother had told her that she was too young to participate. But this year was different. She was older – and she was ready. Oh boy, was she ready. With faerie quests came faerie blessings. Air faeries increased your movement speed. Fire faeries improved your strength and water faeries, such as Marina, your defence. Light faeries raised your level. Elyse's reflex was to hope for a dark faerie quest. Earth faeries, well, blessed you randomly and while she had a shot at enhanced endurance her chances were higher serving a dark faerie, who could be expected to deal solely in hit points. She'd be happy with any quest, though. Anything to make her a better fighter. Anything to stop her brothers from picking on her.
Elyse tossed her thanks to Marina over her shoulder, having already emerged from the pool. Fiddling impatiently with her hair, she curled a long silver strand round a claw as she found the path to the Faerie City. Elyse had just about reached the bridge at its entrance when she saw two familiar shapes, reflected in the mirror-like surface of the lake beneath. Without knowing why, Elyse stepped back and behind a large apple tree. Strolling across the bridge from the city were Damien and Kai. Elyse didn't have to be a genius to realise that they'd dropped by for a quest. Without letting her know.
"Do you think that Elyse will be mad?" Damien was wondering, an uncertain note in his voice. "That we didn't tell her about the quests?" The brown Xweetok paused. "She's been wanting to go for ages." It was true. She had been.
Kai lifted a white shoulder in a nonchalant half-shrug. "Who cares? She'll get over it. We don't have to tell her, anyway." He began to whistle as they walked.
The sour taste returned to Elyse's mouth. "That's right," she agreed stormily, stalking out from her tree. "But only because I already know." She brushed past them, each footfall a stomp. At the forefront of her mind was the glance her brothers had shared at the Healing Springs. They'd planned on coming here and deliberately kept it from her.
Kai jumped back as she spoke, his eyes wide. "Aww, El!" He reached out a paw but she inched out of reach. He could take a hint.
Elyse had walked some distance further when she began to slow. Her fur stood on end; she had the intuition that she wasn't alone. She couldn't put a paw on it but her surroundings were... too quiet. The lake was eerily still and neither bough nor leaf on the trees ahead stirred. Half-expecting to see her brothers, the Xweetok spun but there was nothing to behold. The bridge behind her was empty though, farther away, the path she'd travelled milled with questers-to-be. Elyse took a deep breath, steeling herself as she faced forward once more. She'd been rattled by her brothers, that much was clear.
It was then that Elyse saw her. Vivid magenta eyes held hers and locked her in place. The dark faerie's features crinkled and her length of violet hair shook as she chuckled. "I heard your conversation with your brothers," she announced abruptly. Her voice was as cadenced as Marina's. "Aren't they mean to you?"
Elyse wasn't sure where this was going. Swallowing, she mustered her courage. "Who are you? What do you want?" Though it was faeries she sought, instinct insisted that she be wary.
The heart-shaped face lit with appreciation. "Brave, I see," she crooned. "Or idiotically stupid. My name is Belladonna and I am here to offer you a quest."
Elyse's breath whooshed from her. "A quest?" Had she been so lucky as to attract one on her own? A dark faerie quest, no less! Fearsome as dark faeries were, the gifts they gave were great. "Can you boost my endurance?" she demanded, all caution forgotten. Please, please, please let it be so!
Belladonna's purple lips hooked at one corner. "If you don't ask questions, little girl, maybe, just maybe, I'll consider," she paused, "rewarding you with more than just a couple hit points." For all the syrup in her tone, subtle barbs sharpened her words.
Elyse stilled. "What do you mean?" She'd never heard of such a thing.
The faerie shook her head. "Tut, tut. That's not how this will work, girl."
Elyse's thoughts whirled and tangled. On one paw, this was exactly what she wanted. On the other paw, she had misgivings about why the faerie mightn't want her to ask questions. What had she to hide? Finding her voice, Elyse spoke. "What am I to find?"
Belladonna's grin was every bit as toxic as the poisonous plant that shared her name. "I want you to bring me the items found by other questers."
The answer was as shocking as she'd expected. "To steal them, you mean?" Elyse bit out, gnawing her lip. "But, then, what of the other faeries? Don't they need those items?" Indecision tore at her chest. Just what was this faerie asking her to do? Did Elyse want stats enough to help her?
"A prank," the faerie said, dismissively. Her eyes narrowed at Elyse's expression. "You want to get even with your brothers, don't you." The lack of inflection in her voice made her last sentence a statement, not a question.
She'd hit a nerve. Elyse's uncertainty gave way to anger and then to resolution. "Yeah, I do." What was the worst that would happen if she helped? So a faerie or two mightn't get an item, big deal. It wasn't as though they weren't going have other questers lining up to do their bidding. This was what she wanted. Her brothers would see what she could be capable of. They'd treat her with respect.
"Well, off you go then." Belladonna gave her a sharp prod. "I expect to see you shortly, girl." She smiled, flashing teeth as she pointed behind them. "They went that way, as you'll recall."
Elyse blinked. "Huh?"
The dark faerie raised a purple eyebrow. "Who better?" She was referring to Kai and Damien. Elyse's brothers.
It was true enough. Who better? Who better than they? The question reverberated in Elyse's thoughts as she strode back across the bridge, nestling itself into Elyse's brain. Yes, she wasn't doing anything wrong. They had been wrong to leave her out and pick on her as they did. Surely.
Elyse spotted her brothers from afar, atop a grassy knoll. At a guess, they seemed to be leaving the Healing Springs – again – or thereabouts. From their trajectory, Elyse could tell that they were headed towards the Faerie City. That meant that they were headed towards her. It would take some minutes, though, before their paths crossed. Barely a moment had passed since she'd had this thought before Elyse's wings lifted her. She'd recovered enough from her morning fight to fly – and she'd be faster by air.
Faerieland was reduced to a blur of bright colour far beneath. The Xweetok stretched her paws out in front, angling herself for optimum streamlining. She descended sharply when she saw below the tiny spots of white and brown that were her brothers. Strange to think how eager she was to see them compared to how eager she'd been to get away a half-hour before.
Her brothers clearly had the same notion. Landing, she surprised Kai into jolting back and Damien into stiffening. "Hello!" she said cheerfully. She winced in the same instant. Her tone had been far too buoyant.
Damien's forehead wrinkled as he studied her. "Elyse. Hello?"
Kai sounded just as guarded. "What's up, El?"
She decided to run with it. "Oh, nothing much," she started, working to make her pitch breezy. "Just thought I'd see what you were up to." With luck they wouldn't detect the false note her too-critical ears had seized on.
Her second brother's expression was first to iron out. "Well," Kai exhaled, grinning, "we've just been back to the Healing Springs."
Elyse had surmised as much but held her tongue. She nodded, silently inviting him to go on. She needed them to tell her about their quest finds. Better yet, she needed them to show her.
Kai proffered a glass flagon for her inspection. Inside swilled a pale orange liquid that flashed in the afternoon sun. A healing potion, Elyse thought. "It's a Healing Potion I," Kai boasted, verifying her hunch. He puffed out his chest in an attempt to seem impressive.
Their elder brother relaxed at their exchange, all the more noticeable after his initial stiffness. "I've got a Healing Potion II," Damien told Elyse. Much to her disappointment, though, he made no move to take it out.
"So," Elyse went on, "what kind of faerie are you guys helping?" Panic scissored through her as she realised that she didn't have a plan. She'd come straight here without so much as a single strategic thought.
"Earth," Kai answered, oblivious. "The same one, actually." His smile stretched wider. "We're on our way back now," he added, as if Elyse couldn't tell.
Eek. "I'll come with you!" she blurted. "If that's alright."
Damien eyed her, thoughtful. "Okay...?" He looked as if he might say more but didn't. Elyse breathed easy. Damien was definitely the more intuitive of her brothers; if one was to see through her ploy, it would be him.
They set off and Kai slung a paw around her shoulders. "Good to have you here, sis." His usual teasing was missing and sincerity shone through in its absence. "Sorry about before."
"Yeah, that's right," Damien added, nodding slightly. "We should've told you about the quests." He scratched his head. "And," he admitted, "we shouldn't have splashed you like that earlier." Elyse could scarcely believe what she'd heard. Her brothers, apologising?
"I wouldn't go that far," Kai piped up. "That expression you made in the springs was priceless." He chortled and Damien kicked him. "Well, it's true." Damien stomped on the white Xweetok's foot.
A smile tugged at Elyse's mouth, surprising even herself – especially herself. Despite her best efforts, her former indecision grew stronger with each companionable moment that passed. Was she really going to steal those potions? She pinched herself. No. She couldn't change her mind like this. Not with what was at stake. Kai and Damien might be nice now but they wouldn't always be. She knew better than to think they didn't enjoy teasing her. Elyse had enough of being made fun of. She wanted to be their equal.
It was now or never. Stubbornness drove her to slow and position herself behind Kai. She'd seen her brother stash the Healing Potion I in his back pocket. Elyse had to nick it carefully. It wouldn't do for either brother to notice what she was doing. All the same, she closed her eyes as her paw closed around the glass rim. She stowed it immediately in her handbag. One down, one to go.
"Oi!" Kai yelled.
Elyse flushed with guilt, but he wasn't talking to her. He shoved Damien lightly, lifting a paw to shade his eyes as he squinted into the sunlight. "It looks," Kai said, "like Lilly's coming."
Dread surfaced in the pit of Elyse's stomach. "Lilly?" She'd never heard of the faerie but had an idea of who she might be. Elyse crossed her claws. She hadn't wanted to be there when her brothers were to hand over their quest items.
Damien winked at her. "She's the faerie we're helping." Of course she was. No doubt she'd want the potions now too.
High in the sky above was a violently emerald blur. The faerie shot to the ground much quicker than Elyse had done. The Xweetok had the thought that she seemed to be in quite a rush. Up close, Elyse could see that the faerie was pale-skinned but, unusually for an earth faerie, was without any freckles. "Hello, boys!" Lilly called. Her green eyes shifted appraisingly to Elyse. "And girl, it would seem. Have you found what I need?"
Kai beamed. "Sure have." He reached to his pocket as Damien extended his Healing Potion II. The easy light in Kai's features shifted to horror as, Elyse imagined, his claws closed on empty air. "I can't find it!" He whirled and scanned the ground. "Where is it? Where did it go?"
Elyse didn't feel the pleasure she'd thought she would as she watched her brother. Flinching away, her eyes focused instead on Lilly's face. This sight was no prettier. The already fair features had blanched chalk-white. "You can't find it?" Lilly echoed. Her wings beat, sweeping her some metres off the grass, as she joined Kai's search. "No. No, no," she cried, her hands wrapping in her hair. It appeared as though she might tug several strands out.
"Um," Elyse spoke up slowly. "Can't you get another healing potion? From the Healing Springs?" They hadn't come that far. "It'll be a short trip." Just as Belladonna's words had gripped her, Lilly's colour – or lack thereof – was something her mind couldn't shake. Elyse hadn't really thought about the faerie who would miss out on the items she was to take. "Do you truly need it?"
"I do!" Lilly burst out. "There's a Neopet who's very sick in the Faerie City, too sick to be moved." She fluttered higher. "I'll go to the Healing Springs direct."
Elyse stared after the earth faerie for one stunned second. She didn't stop to think before her wings thrummed to life. A glance informed her that her brothers followed also, albeit on foot. Lilly was being consoled by Marina when she arrived. Elyse hesitated to land, assessing the scene. The earth faerie had half-collapsed onto the other faerie's shoulder and Marina, looking at Elyse over Lilly's head, shrugged helplessly. It was only when she looked past the two faeries that Elyse understood. Not one Neopet bathed in the springs. This was all the more apparent when Elyse recalled the morning's crowds.
Kai and Damien appeared, puffing. Marina smiled at them sadly. "Too many Neopets have visited the springs' healing waters," the faerie mused. "You'll have to return later, I'm afraid." Marina patted Lilly on the back. "There's nothing I can do."
Everything Elyse had been discomfited by about her quest floated through her mind. She could no longer avoid her conscience. Stealing had been... selfish. In the prospect of her own advancement she had neglected to think seriously about how her actions might affect others. The truth, the undeniable truth, was that it was wrong. Obstinate as she knew she was, that she was prepared to admit. Clearing her throat loudly, she held out the missing potion. "I took it. I'm sorry."
Every set of eyes rounded. "What?!" Kai yelped, as Lilly spun. Disbelief mingled with betrayal in his expression.
"I got this quest," Elyse burst out, "where, instead of having to find an item, I had to steal other questers' items." It was a mouthful but speaking hurriedly was the only way she felt she could get the words out.
Marina moved forward, free of Lilly. "Which faerie was this?" she inquired, intent. "Which faerie gave you this quest?" The authority in her tone was palpable.
Elyse kept her eyes trained to Marina's blue gaze so she wouldn't have to meet her brothers'. "A dark faerie named Belladonna."
The water faerie didn't so much as blink. She leaned past Elyse to regard something behind Elyse. The dark faerie had snuck up on the Xweetok again. Belladonna's magenta eyes were as cold and hard as jewels.
The purple-haired faerie ignored Marina. Her laser-like attention was reserved for Elyse. "Needless to say, the task was supposed to be kept secret. You've failed me."
"I don't care." Elyse meant it. She took a few steps toward Belladonna. "I don't care. What you wanted me to do was horrid."
"You accepted my quest." Belladonna's posture was predatory.
"I did." Elyse gulped, her glance roving to her brothers. "I was horrid. Selfish. And I'm rejecting the quest now." The satisfaction that filled the Xweetok then was greater than the satisfaction she'd hoped to feel when she'd gotten the task. It was the satisfaction of doing the right thing. Sure, she still wanted to become a better fighter. She still wanted her brothers to stop picking on her, to stop looking down on her. But that didn't mean that she was really, truly okay with stealing – or hurting others.
Belladonna stalked off without further comment.
After her brothers had waved Lilly farewell, they faced her with something like awe. "Wow, El," Kai quipped. "You sure showed her. Didn't know you had it in you." It did indeed seem like Kai regarded her in a new, positive light.
Elyse looked from Kai to Damien. "You're not angry?"
Damien pulled her in for a hug. "I don't think I can be. That speech was amazing. You rocked it, Elyse." He ruffled her hair. "Way. To. Go."
"It's too bad, though," Elyse whispered into Damien's coat, "that I didn't get a quest that I could actually do today." She'd fallen further behind her brothers, who had both received stat boosts.
"Yeah, that is too bad." Kai gave her his trademark grin. "Guess you'll be coming with us to the quests office tomorrow."
Elyse gasped. "Really?"