Full Moon: Part One
"Hurry!" Res the blue Draik whispered frantically.
A motley assortment of edible-coloured 'pets stumbled over the threshold, jostling as they made their way into the narrow stone corridor. Soft murmurs filled the air, buzzing with uncertainty, and accompanied by occasional hisses of pain as they tripped over each other's feet. If the need for haste had not been so pressing, Res would have berated them for their lack of vigilance.
"Keep going straight ahead," he ordered, careful to keep his voice down.
All knowledge of the winding passage, which snaked through the foundations of Meridell Castle, had been lost to the ravages of time before Res had rediscovered it. Even so, he did not want to take any chances; he knew that there was nearly always a sentry unwittingly posted nearby. The last thing he needed was to be caught smuggling 'pets out of the castle against King Skarl's express wishes. A tinge of guilt touched his heart before he shook it off. Now was not the time to get sentimental.
Upon reaching the end of the tunnel, Res shouldered his way through the tightly-packed crowd and signalled that they should stay where they were. The wordless terror was evident in their eyes, and he had to force himself to focus.
This is it, Res thought grimly. Now or never.
Sucking in a deep breath, he crept through the exit. Almost at once, the cold night air hit him and he had to stifle a shiver. He could see the faint outline of an Eyrie - Pin, he guessed - who appeared to have fallen asleep on duty. Res motioned for the fugitives to join him.
"Head for the forest," Res instructed, his voice barely audible as the wind picked up, "and don't stop running until you're out of Meridell. Skarl's hunger knows no bounds."
They obeyed without complaint, and the horde of biscuit Lupes even went so far as to carry the smaller fruit and vegetable Chias on their backs. Res fervently hoped that their alliance would last beyond the reaches of their king's insatiable appetite.
Be safe, little ones, he thought wistfully, as he watched them disappear into the dense foliage.
The sound of scraping steel jolted Res out of his reverie. He whirled around, only to come face-to-face with Pin, who was very much awake.
"Oh, it's only you," the silver Eyrie squinted, wrinkling the feathers around his beak. He sheathed his sword with a look akin to disappointment on his face. "I was hoping for some excitement."
The guard looked so dejected that Res felt compelled to lighten the mood.
"Why don't you go up and enjoy the feast?" he suggested, relieved that he hadn't been caught. "I'll stay here and guard the perimeter in your stead."
Pin peered closely at Res. "You're one of the new knights-in-training, aren't you?"
The Eyrie looked thoughtful. "You have a good heart," he noted approvingly, "and I appreciate the offer, but my place is here."
Res nodded, having known that the Eyrie would refuse. "Being a guard is such a lonely job."
"It certainly is," Pin exhaled heavily. "Nothing ever happens here. Not that I'm complaining, mind you. But the other guards... well, they get complacent. There's nothing like some real combat to keep you on your toes."
He shook his head, emitting a short bark of laughter. "The lot of us will grow fat and lazy before the year's end, mark my w-"
Res instinctively threw himself onto the ground, eyes darting around to uncover the source of the sudden noise.
"Knights assemble!" Pin screamed, sprinting towards the barracks where an orderly line was already forming.
Res felt an odd sense of detachment as he watched them. The better-prepared knights were already sprinting into the forest, weapons at the ready. The stragglers were not far behind them.
Acrid smoke clawed its way through the trees, accompanied by a brief flash of green that seemed to light up every inch of the forest for miles around. His eyes watered and he staggered backwards, struggling for air against the burning sensation in his lungs.
"You're going the wrong way!" he croaked in the direction that the knights had charged, but it was too late. He was alone in the clearing.
Furrowing his brow, Res desperately considered his options. If there was anything he had learned during his brief stint as a guard, it was that green flashes of light and copious amounts of smoke were never a good sign. King Skarl may be grumpy and care more for lavish banquets than the welfare of his lesser subjects, but he was still a good monarch. Res could never allow him to come to harm, much less the innocent castle dwellers who would be caught in the middle. It was in this knowledge that he was able to come to a decision.
Res surged forward into the forest, branches whipping at his limbs as he tore through the underbrush. Part of him knew that it was foolish not to warn the castle's inhabitants first; foolish to plunge into a headlong sprint towards an unknown danger. On the other hand, it was clear that every second he wasted made it less likely that he would find the problem and more likely that someone would get hurt. He kept running.
Every step was a test of endurance. His muscles burned with effort, lungs straining against the harsh smoke. Whatever the thick vapour was, it was not natural.
Where have I seen this before? Res pondered, a sense of unease rippling through him.
A sudden shout interrupted his musing and he raced blindly towards it. Res reached the source in mere minutes and was alarmed to see that the otherworldly smoke seemed to originate from Illusen's hut. He knocked frantically on the door until the earth faerie opened it. She looked tired, but otherwise unharmed.
"How can I help you this evening?" she asked pleasantly, then held up a hand. "Wait! Don't tell me! Are you here to replace my errand-runner?"
"No...?" Res stood awkwardly on the threshold. "What's going on here? I heard shouting and there's smoke everywhere."
"A grave business indeed," she sighed. "Come in and see for yourself."
Res warily followed her inside. The interior of the hut was comfortable, and he was sure that he would have felt right at home if it weren't for the extenuating circumstances of his visit. The centrepiece, a crackling fireplace, was surrounded by soft furnishings and multiple oaken shelves. He wondered what they were for, before realising that each one was adorned with a number of small trinkets. None of them looked particularly valuable to his untrained eye, but he could tell that she treasured them nonetheless.
"I caught this one sneaking around," Illusen nodded towards one corner. "No doubt causing trouble."
Res moved closer to get a better look, then gasped when he saw a wraith Kougra lounging there. Purple tendrils of smoke curled around its oversized paws. The Kougra snorted with apparent amusement when it saw him.
"Hello there, good fellow. My name is Seisan, how do you do?"
The politeness of the greeting threw Res off-guard.
"Uhhh, I'm fine, thanks," he replied sheepishly.
"Don't encourage him," Illusen warned before continuing. "He'll be sent to the Defenders Headquarters first thing in the morning. I don't like to wake Judge Hog at this hour, especially when I'm perfectly capable of handling him myself."
Seisan rolled his eyes and attempted a winning smile. It had quite the opposite effect on Res, who shrank back, eager to get as far away from the wraith as possible.
"Where did the smoke come from?" Res asked, confused. "And the weird light?"
"It sometimes happens in the presence of dark magic, usually when teleporting over large distances," Illusen explained. "But I've never seen a Neopet who could do it before. He would have to be incredibly strong to avoid being consumed by the raw power of such a spell."
A deep, grating laugh reverberated through the room. "Oh please," Seisan chortled, clearly amused by Illusen's statement. "Let's not make wild assumptions here."
"Silence!" Illusen glared at him.
The wraith smirked in response.
"You seem to have him under control," Res acknowledged, keeping one eye on the resting Kougra.
"Of course," Illusen's features softened as she turned to face him. "Faerie magic excels at containing evil forces."
"That's good to know," Res remarked. "Anyway, I should head back to the castle now. The other guards are probably still running around and wondering where I am."
"Very well," Illusen inclined her head. "Oh, and if you see Niernen, would you please send her to me? I have a few errands for her."
"I'll do that," Res promised, bidding her farewell.
Leaving the small dwelling, Res inhaled deeply to savour the crisp forest air. The lingering remains of smoke hung like limp threads in the treetops, barely noticeable to all but the most astute watchman. He set off down the meandering path at a brisk pace, lit as it was by silver stars that winked through the canopy. The crescent moon smiled at him, and he found himself admiring its humble glow.
Res was less than half a mile from the castle when another shout tore through the night. A flicker of indecision coursed through him and he spun around, squinting through the half-light for any sign of danger.
It was probably just Illusen again, Res thought, although the idea did not comfort him.
A branch snapped nearby, causing him to jump. An instant later, a second burst of green light exploded into existence, rendering the surrounding trees garish and pale as if it were illuminating the very bones of the forest. As the powerful glare faded, a shadowy figure approached from the side.
"He's escaped!" Illusen's voice floated urgently towards him. "The wraith has esc-"
Before he could react, Res was knocked roughly to the ground.
This isn't good, he thought, as his mind swam into the depths of unconsciousness.
To be continued...