Ballad of the Faerie's Champion: Lessons - Part Two
They found Illusen waiting in the main audience chamber; a wide, high ceilinged grey stone room lined on all side with wooden benches fixed to the wall. Metal hooks jutted out close to the ceiling, indicating places where tapestries might have once hung, but they were long gone. The acoustics of the room made the rain that was now drumming on the roof sound like a thousand Unis in a stampede.
There was no sign of the stewardess of the holding, Lady Ayame, but that wasn't entirely unexpected. Presumably she had other things to attend to this time of day, and she was good enough friends with Illusen not to fear the faerie would take offense to being left alone.
When Illusen noticed Valrigard and Gary, she rose to her feet and smiled.
"Your grace," she said, nodding respectfully to Valrigard. He returned the gesture, his squire only a beat behind. When last Gary had seen Illusen, he'd come to the rather disconcerting discovery that he was actually taller than the faerie. In the past two years his height had shot upwards so he towered over almost everyone- even his master, Valrigard. But a legendary personage like Illusen... it felt almost blasphemous to have her looking up at him.
"Lady Illusen," the Draik replied. "You do us an honor, taking time out of your busy schedule to attend to this matter."
The faerie arched a delicate eyebrow, her expression reflecting a wry sort of amusement. "Well, I do have a certain obligation to uphold, seeing as this is almost entirely my fault."
Gary coughed. "I'm not sore at you, m'lady. You saved my life, and I can't ever repay that. I just don't know what to do with this... this magic. I've been training all my life to fight with real, earthy weapons. It's... it's strange."
"As fighting with physical weapons would be strange to us faeries," she replied sympathetically. "Why do you think the Battle Faerie is so renowned? Most of us wouldn't know what to do with corporeal weapons. I understand exactly where you're coming from, young one."
The faerie gestured for him to sit in one of the chairs along the wall, which he obediently did. Then she kneeled in front of him.
"Put your hands palm up on your knees," she instructed. He did so, and she gently put her hands on top of his. "Now don't try to do anything. You might notice an odd sensation, but just try to relax and ignore it. I'm only gauging the strength of the magic flowing from you."
Gary nodded reluctantly, his mouth set on a grim line. In spite of Illusen's reassurances, he still felt extremely nervous. Illusen's deep, forest green eyes met his brown ones, and to the Bori's surprise he found that he could not look away. Something in her gaze seemed to be pulling at him, and he could feel that cloak of energy around his body stirring in response to it. His breathing slowed, and his ears deafened so that he could hear nothing but his own heartbeat...
And then he was everywhere. Gary's consciousness seemed to have fanned out for miles in every direction, leaving his physical body far behind. He felt as if he was being soaked up into the ground with the rain, into the roots that broke up the ground, and up through those roots into every tree, bush, and blade of grass in Abyssal Acres. He was alive with the emerald green energy of the plant life, and strong as the stone far beneath.
Illusen blinked, and all at once it was over. Gary's mind slammed back into his body with such force that he jerked sharply, smacking his head into the wall behind him.
"Ah... ow," he said, rubbing his skull where it had impacted the bricks. Valrigard put a taloned hand on his squire's shoulder, his expression full of concern.
"What happened?" he demanded. "You completely stopped breathing for a minute there, I was about to call for help."
Illusen slowly rose to her feet, shaking her head as if she too were disoriented. "It's alright, Duke Valrigard. What just happened was normal for that particular working- though I admit, not entirely what I was expecting. Under most circumstances a neopet with earth magic would only become attuned to the plants and stones within ten or so feet of his body. Garrett... Garrett reached out almost past the borders of the fief." She looked down at Gary thoughtfully. "It seems that you were right. Somehow, when I used my earth magic to call your fleeing soul back to its body, you developed an ability to produce use that same earth magic. And if that test was anything to go by, it's almost as powerful as a low-class faerie's magic would be."
Gary's ears flattened, and he squinted up at Illusen through watering eyes. "So now what?"
"Now I think we discuss a schedule for lessons," she said briskly, folding her arms. "You can't just let that much magic run amok, it if got away from you it could do a lot of damage. Fortunately my Glade is well shielded from outside magical interference, and has safe areas set up specifically for conducting magic lessons-"
"Hold on a tic," Gary said suddenly, his fur bristling. "I can't go to the Glade for teaching. We aren't supposed to leave Abyssal Acres."
"He has a point," Valrigard said, sitting down next to his squire. "We aren't the king's favorite people. When his majesty ordered us to come here after Gary defied him, it was with the understanding that we were not to leave unless given explicit permission to do so. We're more or less in exile. Somehow I don't think his majesty will grant permission for something like this."
"Teaching an exiled squire how to use an extremely powerful gift for magic... no, I don't see him permitting that," Illusen agreed. "But one of my jobs as a faerie is to protect the balance of Neopia. That much power accumulating uncontrolled around Squire Garrett is an accident waiting to happen. And it's my fault he has this power to begin with."
Gary squirmed uncomfortably. They were both talking about the magic as if it were a chronic illness, something to be dealt with and compensated for. He'd always associated magic with being a powerful weapon or tool, not a force with a life and a will of it's own that needed to be "controlled."
But in that brief moment where he'd touched the earth magic that flowed through the planet, he had definitely felt a breathe of life in it all. There was not sentience as he knew it, but that meant little.
"Couldn't you come here?" he asked, tilting his head. Illusen sighed.
"I suppose I must," she replied. "But it won't be easy, and I can't come very often. I have other duties to attend to in the Glade. If I could instruct you there I could easily keep an eye on you and work on my other projects at the same time, but..." She shook her head and turned to Valrigard. "Nothing for it. I guess we'll have to discuss our mutual schedules, and try to find a time between my duties and his instruction as a knight."
The Draik shrugged helplessly. "We aren't trying to be difficult, Lady Illusen."
And that seemed to be all that could be said.
* * * * *
"You seem awfully put out," Ohu remarked when Gary visited him in the large, open room that served as a quarters for the Unis in the castle the next day. "I'd have thought you would be happy to have something that is above-average for once. You're always saying that you're mediocre at everything related to being a knight. Except chivalry, you're too chivalrous for your own good most of the time."
Gary shook his head, ignoring the jab. "It's not that. I just... I don't know what to think about how suddenly everything's changed. A month ago I was nobody. Now I'm a notorious exile and Illusen the earth faerie is putting herself out to help me."
"Leading an interesting life is both a blessing and a curse," the Uni replied in an oddly sympathetic voice, swishing his tail. "I suspect, if our current situation is any indication, there will be a lot more interesting times ahead of us. But at least being able to do magic will give you an edge, neh?"
"If I can ever learn it right," the Bori replied, looking away. "Illusen probably won't be able to come by more than once a month. I just hope that I can progress fast enough to make it worth her while."
"Bah," Ohu snorted, shaking his head so that his bristly mane quivered. "You're just feeling sorry for yourself now. Begone, I've better things to do then listen to you moan."
That remark actually startled a quiet chuckle out of the squire. Ohu was right- he usually was, loath though Gary was to admit it. Fretting over the matter wasn't going to fix it. Gary would just have to do what he always did; keep trying doggedly until he got it right. That was his approach to everything else, and it had served him well so far. Even his mounted combat was improving, if glacially.
"I think I'll go for a walk," he said, glancing out the window. "It's not raining just now, and hopefully if it starts to drizzle I can find somewhere under cover as long as I stay in the city."
The Uni flicked his ears in acknowledgement. "Don't be gone too long. I'm pretty sure you have lessons again in an hour."
"Aye, I know," Gary replied, flapping a hand. He then left, emerging into the wide cobbled street.
The town around the castle wasn't much to look at. Short stone and wood structures on either side of the street, usually with some sort of sign hanging over the door to advertise their trade of choice. With the break in the rain, a few children had come outside to play in the puddles, with their parents sitting indulgently on stoops to watch. Even without his chain mail uniform, with only a small badge bearing Valrigard's house shield to identify him as a squire, the Bori turned quite a few heads. It wasn't every day one saw a faerie pet walking down the road in Brightvale's poorest fief, much less one with a scar on his face and a sword buckled to his belt.
For even out of uniform, Gary never went anywhere without a weapon. He'd learned that lesson the hard way, in the same fight where his cheek had gotten slashed in the first place. All of his training was pointless if he had no means to implement it.
He might have felt self-conscious about the stares, if it wasn't for the fact that he was also getting smiles and polite nods as well. Most of the people here in the castle town knew who he was, and had heard at least some vague version of the story of his fight with the Werelupes. Although he'd discovered to his chagrin that in the retelling it had been quite a bit exaggerated. He wondered how many of these people knew that he'd essentially thrown himself into what he knew going in would be a battle of attrition, and nearly paid for it with his life.
Gary's thoughts eventually drifted, and he stopped noticing the people staring. Ever since Illusen had done whatever she'd done to him yesterday, he'd begun to notice that the cloak of energy around him seemed to be constantly reaching out to the plants around him, and the dirt below his feet. He couldn't help remembering a comment that someone had made once, that he had so much magic around him that it was a wonder he didn't sprout flowers wherever he walked. Now he was beginning to understand why they'd said that.
Did the same thing happen to other sorcerers? He couldn't remember Lady Ayame, a dark magic user, mentioning any such thing, but then again he'd never asked her about it either. It was amusing to imagine that if a water mage sat in a river, their power would be washed away by a swift current.
Regardless, Gary wasn't terribly enthusiastic about this. When he'd managed to disarm Valrigard the day before, he'd felt a thrill of pride in the accomplishment. Even if it took him a long time to master the skills, even if he didn't care for the king, he knew that fighting in the defense of the realm was what he was meant to do. But the exercise Illusen had conducted with him the previous day just left him feeling... unsettled.
"Well, well, well. Lookie what we have here." A deep, rumbling voice purred. Gary looked up, startled, to see something huge and brown emerging from the... trees? Why were there trees? How had he gotten that far out of town? Had he really been that distracted?
Another rustling of tree branches, this time from the other side of the road; Werelupes, two of them. The Bori's ears flattened with horror, and he turned to bolt, only to find that a third had cut him off from behind.
"Now, now, don't run away," the one behind him growled. "We haven't seen you in ages, bratling. There's so much catching up for us to do."
"Yes," the first speaker, a female, said. "We heard you survived that nasty business before, and you're a faerie hero now. We wanted to congratulate you."
"You... A-are you the Werelupes from Shadowglen?" Gary asked, hand instinctively going to the hilt of his sword.
"What, you don't recognize us?" the third one, another male, asked. "I'm hurt. After I did such a glorious job chewing you up too."
The Bori was shaking now. He didn't remember, not consciously. He'd been badly hurt, and from what the healers had explained, his mind had instinctively blunted the memories to protect him from any trauma. But the Bori who had stood defiant in the face of his king, who had faced these same Werelupes down before with complete stoicism, was now shaking and sweating like an untrained peasant would. Clearly some part of him did remember them, and that part was making him sick with nerves.
"A sad shame," the female growled. "We remember you. You held us off so your friends could go fetch Illusen to save that flyspeck of a town. We were kicked outta the pack for letting the others escape. Offing you was the only satisfaction we could take out of the whole mess."
"And then we finds out you actually lived," the male who was standing behind him said. "All that we went through, and you had the bad manners to go and survive."
Gary clenched his teeth, drawing his sword. He didn't have a shield with him, and he wasn't wearing armor either. He knew that if he couldn't find some way to escape, he was done for. Even a fully trained knight struggled against a Werelupe- he was a squire, and he already knew from past experience he couldn't beat these three. He felt an odd fluttering at his back, and after a second he realized his wings had instinctively fanned out, and were beating as if to carry him away.
The Werelupe female noticed too, and cursed under her breath. "Tibbit, Orin, before he flies away!"
Both of the males charged towards Gary, and he instinctively dodged to the side, giving a half-hop and fanning his wings desperately. He slashed at the Werelupe who had claimed to be his originally attacker, making it howl with rage as his sword bit into one of it's arms. Gary followed up on his advantage, kicking the creature in it's wounded arm and stumbling backwards as it howled in fury. Then he lashed out at the second male, missing as it jerked backwards away from him. Then it swatted at the weapon, sending it flying out of the Bori's grasp.
Gary felt his heart leap into his throat as his sword jerked from his fingers. He grasped after it instinctively, but to no avail. The Werelupe lunged for him again, and in desperation he punched it in the nose with his bare hands. It recoiled for a split second, which was just enough time for Gary to take several hop-skips backwards, his wings fluttering madly as he did so.
"Don't let him get away!" the female roared, running into the fray.
Gary had never actually tried to fly before- he wasn't sure he could. But right now he had no other options. All three of the Werelupes were charging him. He turned away, desperately jumping into the air. He flapped his wings as hard and as fast as he could, trying to get airborne. He succeeded in hovering a few inches, and dared to hope he might actually do it.
Then the weak, untested wing-muscles in his back gave out, and Gary crashed into a thorn bush. He cried out in pain as a thousand tiny spikes in the plant scraped his skin and tore his clothes.
"Oh-ho!" the female Werelupe crowed. "So the bratling doesn't actually know how to fly. How awful for it!"
Gary tried to push himself up, but his long silky faerie-fur was tangled in the briars. A huge paw settled on his back and crushed him down further into the thorn bush.
"Such unwieldy things, these wings," she remarked, the males sniggering behind her. "You know, you'd probably have an easier time without them."
Gary felt a pinch as she grasped one of his thin gossamer wings between her fingers. A cold sweat broke on on his forehead. She wouldn't...
The sharp yank a second later confirmed that she most certainly would. He cried out in pain as the delicate membrane strained, the nerves in both his wing and his back screaming along with his voice.
"Queela, he'll draw a crowd with that racket," one of the males said.
"Nah, this little bug? No one will hear," she purred, letting up on his wing only to give it another yank. In that moment, he felt like he'd never known anything that felt worse. All he wanted was to get away, and his mind groped desperately for a means of escape, any means of escape.
He dimly realized that as his mind was reaching out, so was his magic. The emerald fire that lived in his skin was seeping into the bush that he was entangled in, calling to the bush's own inherent magic. Maybe he could...
Another pull on his wing drove the last speck of coherent thought from his mind. He desperately grabbed at the power with psychic fingers, and shoved it into the thornbush. The reaction was instantaneous- but entirely unexpected.
The bush came alive under him, its branches whipping and writhing like a thousand snakes covered in razor barbs. The Werelupe that was tugging on his wing immediately let go, jumping backwards with a shrill yelp of pain. There were further yelps, and Gary realized dimly that they must have been trying to fight through the bush to get to him, and failing.
But he didn't have much attention for the Werelupes anymore, because the bush did not readily differentiate between friend and foe. Tangled as he was in the middle of it, he was getting far more scratches than his tormentors, and the more the bush writhed the more entangled he became in it. He tried to stop it, to pull back on the energy that was flowing from him into the plant, but to his horror he found that he wasn't certain how. Every attempt he made to stem the flow only shoved more magic into the frenzied bush. His vision had become entirely consumed by emerald light, and he could only dimly hear the yelps of the Werelupes as they struggled against the vines ensnaring them.
Worse still, he realized that as magic drained out of him, a profound dizziness was coming over his mind. The few times he'd access his magic before he'd become disoriented afterwards, but it hadn't been nearly this bad. He couldn't tell up from down, he couldn't see, and between the roaring of his own heartbeat in his ears and a hundred thousand tiny thorns lancing his hide, he could barely think.
Gary could feel blackness welling up, trying to carry him away. But deep inside, a spark of stubbornness kindled. He hadn't let years of harsh training as a page and squire beat him. He hadn't let the wrath of his king beat him. He would not let his own magic beat him.
Where he pulled the energy from, he could not say. But Gary forced back the dizziness and exhaustion, and reached again for the wild tangles of the raging thornbush. It wriggled in his mental grasp like a live thing, trying to break free just as the Werelupes were trying to free themselves from it. But he clamped down, his entire being focused on a single word.
Slowly, gradually, the bush obeyed. The green light of magic pulsing through it ebbed, and its writhing branches became still. The Werelupes were still caught fast, and Gary was still buried deep in the heart of it's tangled branches, but at least it had finally stopped pulling power from the Bori to feed itself.
Relieved, Gary let go his hold on the plant, and fainted instantly.
* * * * *
"...Finally coming too. Come on, Squire, wake up! I didn't follow you into exile for you to clock out in the first month of your training. Wake up."
Gary knew that voice. It was Master Valrigard. He had to obey; he'd get in trouble if he didn't.
Forcing his eyes open, Gary found that he was lying on the side of the road, having somehow been extricated from the thorn bush- though he could feel the pinpricks of at least a hundred barbs still caught in his skin. Valrigard was kneeling beside him, running his talons through Gary's fur- feeling for the thorns, the squire realized. How long had he been doing that for? How long had it taken him to saw Gary out of the bush in the first place?
"You seem to be quite the magnet for trouble," Valrigard remarked dryly. "So, care to explain just what happened here?"
Gary moaned, putting a hand to his forehead. His skull was throbbing, and his entire body felt like it was made of lead. More than anything he wanted to pass back into oblivion.
"That wasn't an answer, squire," the knight said briskly, continuing to search Gary's fur for briars. "I expect a formal report, as you were trained to give when you were a page."
"Yessir," Gary replied automatically. "The Werelupes from before, the ones I fought a month ago, they took exception to my surviving the fight. Apparently they tracked me down for revenge. I couldn't beat them and I couldn't get away, so I got desperate and tried to do magic. It worked better than I expected."
"That's an understatement," Valrigard said dryly. "We had woodman hacking at the thorn branches for two hours trying to get through to you. It took another hour to saw through all the branches tangled around your arms and legs without cutting you in the process. At least it ensured that by the time we extricated the Werelupes, they weren't interested in anything except running away."
The Bori flicked his ears. "Master... I think Illusen was right. I gotta get this in hand, and quick. If I hadn't gotten the bush back under control it might've tried to grab you when you came to help."
The Draik sighed. "I suppose what the king doesn't know won't hurt him. And as long as you are in the field and under threat, having rogue powers you can barely contain will hurt us." He chuckled suddenly. "You are rather the troublesome student, aren't you?"
"I don't mean to be, sir."
"Of course not. But you are, all the same." Valrigard yanked a particularly stubborn thorn out, making Gary hiss in pain. "Still, if we can both somehow manage to survive your squiredom, I imagine you'll make quite a fine knight. Assuming the king forgives you long enough to grant the promotion."
Gary wasn't sure how to reply to this, so he opted to remain silent. Valrigard, used to his squire's reticence by now, kept searching for thorns in the Bori's fur without further comment. Finally, Gary coughed. "Sir?"
"D'you... d'you think you could teach me to fly?"