Sakhmet Stories - The Witch And The Thief: Part One
No one knows where she came from, or who she is. To the children who lay in bed listening to their nighttime stories, Nephthysma the desert witch exists as a way of scaring young Neopians to sleep. Parents would often tell their young ones that if she caught them opening their eyes past the stroke of midnight, they would be swiped from the warmth of their beds and be lost forever. On many occasions, gathering women would gather by the well to trade gossip about Nephthysma, each speculation more ridiculous than the last.
"I heard that she was a Strale, and that she was turned into an Usul because she ate a magical berry", said a Draik.
"That's not as bad as what I heard. From what I have been told, if you look at her, you will get a horribly rare illness, and only she has the antidote. You'll have to be her servant for the rest of your life if you want to live!", whispered a Kacheek.
The true story starts on a starless night in Sakhmet. The eastern winds began picking up the sands of the desert, rustling through the cloth tents that populated the marketplace. As licking zephyr began to dissipate into the cool of the night, a Horus descended from the skies, gracefully steadying itself as it fluttered down into the desert city. As it was about to land on the ground, something utterly and unexplainably magical happened. Its powerful wings began to turn into a pair of hands, and the tail grew bushier until it became the fully-grown tail of an Usul. What were once feathers were now taken over by flowing purple robes, and a shining gold necklace hung from the Usul's neck. In her left hand, she carried a staff that emanated incense smoke from the incense pot on its tip, and she kept her face shrouded in the shadow of her black hood.
The citizens of Sakhmet did not take kindly to Nephthysma's magical entrance, and several Sakhmetians who were awake bolted their doors and dimmed their candles after witnessing the bewitching spectacle that happened in the dead of the night.
Though quiet, such a landing certainly attracted its share of curiosity and attention. People rose from their suppers and hid behind the drapes of their windows, peering out in caution. Sensing that she wasn't entirely welcomed, the Usul thought it would be best to find herself a small room that she could practice her crafts without disturbing or being disturbed by the inhabitants of her newly-minted hometown.
She quickly picked up her little cloth bag and shuffled furtively through the winding alleyways of the bazaar, as her eyes darted from building to building. Finally, she found a small patch of sand in the corner of the great bazaars and decided that this was where she would make herself comfortable. Opening her little bag of tricks, she fished out a small flask of green liquid, uncorked it and poured the contents of the flask onto the sand, while muttering inaudibly under her breath.
As she muttered away, the sand began to swirl; the mud moved slowly at first, but soon, it began making shapes. A chair, a door, a room...with every second, it grew bigger and bigger until it was finally a house made of sturdy clay.
Nephthysma wasn't like any desert witch. Quite contrarily, she believed in keeping to herself, and never allowing someone past her doors. Having lived for many years without aging a single minute, she's watched the events of the Neopian world unfold; at times, even having the power to predict these happenings before they took place. She knew that if she were to meddle in the stream of time, not only would she be altering the course of history, but also she risked disrupting the forces of good and evil that held the lands together. She's turned down every request from the royalties of Neopia to read their fortunes, opting instead to use her powers to secretly help the inhabitants of Sakhmet. And even though they gossiped behind her back and shunned her when she left the comfort of her abode, she never took it to mind or held a grudge against her neighbors.
Little did she foresee that something was about to happen, which would alter the comforts she has spent so long meticulously shaping.-----
As usual, the sun was beating down mercilessly one afternoon, and the citizens of Sakhmet were going about their days as they normally would. Nephthysma was in her kitchen, cooking up a concoction that could help Neopians heal from Sneezles with a drop of the potion. All of a sudden, a huge gust of wind blew through the alleyways, sweeping up the trash, the loose leaves and the Scarabugs that scrambled into hiding.
As the people began to dust themselves off, they started to cough. What began as a collectively mild throat irritation, soon escalated into something that had everyone hacking and gasping for air in a mere matter of seconds. Everyone started losing his or her colors, turning into a pale shade of grey. Children stopped playing and sat under the shade of the palm trees, softly sighing at the mundane feeling that washed over them.
Having had her house charmed protect its dwellers from any spell or curse, Nephthysma was unaffected by the cursed winds, but her left ear began to twitch. Instinctively, she knew something had gone very wrong, so she grabbed her staff and hood, and cautiously peered out her window. Everyone on the streets had turned grey!
"Hey Seb!” she called out to a Skeith slumped over his pots, "what in Osiris' name has happened here and what happened to your blue skin?"
"Oh...” he replies slowly, as if suspended in time, "I don't know...Nephthysma...I feel...tired...and sad."
And it wasn't just Seb who's lost his color. Glancing around the marketplace, she noticed that everyone else wasn't quite the same. Pekhi the Mynci sat with his head resting on his cart of plums, while Nailah the Cybunny's fine coat of fur had become a dull shade of grey to match her frown.
Nephthysma knew she had to investigate this strange occurrence. Sakhmetians were used to the nature of supernatural things, but that was only because it wasn't applied onto them with grievous results. When the whole town turns grey, either something awful has already happened, or is about to.
As she began searching for clues, something - or someone - caught her attention. Darting behind a tent was an electric Techo. Even though he was covered in sand-colored rags, his bright blue tail gave him away.
Stealthily, she followed this mysterious Techo, keeping a safe distance away from him. She understood the questionable situation that her newfound stranger and her were in - they were the only two Neopians who managed to keep their colors exactly the way they were. Despite living a hermit life, choosing to find friendship within the walls of her small shack, she was well acquainted with the people who inhibited Sakhmet. She knew that a Neopian with electric blue skin would raise more than a few eyebrows. Therefore, she deduced, this Techo - who at this point, was slinking behind walls and wheelbarrows - was as foreign to Sakhmet as a snowflake in April.
Following him was easy - with the whole town in a slump, there wasn't anyone who would recognize the witch, because everyone was caught up in feeling down. After trailing the out-of-towner for a while, she watched him slip into the empty room that sat above Nebetu the Peophin's chomato shop. She crept up the wooden stairs, slowly but confidently, her curiosity growing with every step she took until she found herself outside his door.
Lightly prodding at the rickety wooden door, it swung open to reveal a sparsely furnished room. And sitting on the bed in the corner of the room was the Techo. He was so engrossed in examining something in his hands that he didn't hear Nephthysma walk in.
"What's that you've got there?" Nephthysma asked, trying to keep her voice as composed as she possibly could, despite the burgeoning curiosity clouding up her head.
The Techo spun around, eyes glaring at the sudden disturbance that shattered his moment of admiration. He was clutching onto something small in his right fist, and he quickly tucked it away into his pocket.
"Wh-wh-who are you? What business do you have here?" he spat at Nephthysma, tripping over his words in a nervous fit of anger.
"Never mind who am I. You have something in your pocket, and I want to know what it is," said Nephthysma, standing firmly at the doorway. "And the question is, who are you?"
"What are you talking about? I have nothing!" the Techo declared, standing up from his spot in the corner of the room.
"Hah! Don't lie to a witch, Techo. Haven't you heard of what we do to liars? We turn them into Snorkles and harvest their snouts!" Nephthysma's threat seemed to have scared the Techo enough.
Moving quickly across the room, he hushed her into the room, gingerly peering to see no one else was about to pop into his room before closing and bolting the door in one swift motion. He turns around, and surveys Nephthysma, suspicious of her identity.
Nephthysma seemed to sense his wary behavior. She saw his hand slip onto the hilt of his dagger that dangled on his belt.
"I'm Nephthysma," she said, hoping that it would break the ice.
"I am Sethos," he replied steely. Nephthysma barely heard his name through his gritted teeth.
"Sethos, what do you have in your pocket?" Nephthysma asked, her eyes leering at his right pocket. No answer.
"Alright...where are you from?" she asks again, lowering her hood. No answer.
"And you won't tell me if you had anything to do with what's happened in the town, am I right?" she asks again, cajoling him to react.
"I didn't intend on doing that! I had no idea what would happen!" Sethos replied, his answer taking on an indignant tone.
"Well, whether you mean it or not, the whole town's turned grey and if I know one thing, it's that the only two Neopians in color is standing in this room. My reason is a simple one. I've charmed my house to protect anyone in it from spells or hexes. What's your excuse Sethos?" At this point, Nephthysma was inching forward at the Techo, with her eyes transfixed on him. She got a chance to have a good look at him. He had heavy eyelids that made him look more worried than he might've been. His arms had warrior markings, which led to the probable reason that he probably knew how to get into a tussle, and his lips quivered slightly as he talked. While he stood still, his tail swayed rhythmically behind him, pausing only when he seemed to be in thought.
"I'll tell you, but you promise you won't turn me into a Snorkle or give me a case of the Doldrums?" Sethos said, fidgeting with the hem of his tunic.
"If it's a valid story and we can help turn everyone back, then I promise. Otherwise, we'll see how to deal with you." Nephthysma answered him firmly.
Without much choice left, he jerks his head in the direction of the dining table, and they both move across the small room to sit across each other.
Taking a deep sigh, Sethos began to explain.
"I'm from a small tribe outside Sakhmet, and I've lived there all my life with my aging mother and our flock of Anubis. We sell them to passing travelers as pets, you see. Our life is a simple one, and we don't have or ask for much. One day, my mother was out feeding the Anubis pups in the yard, when she felt faint. Within days, she began to develop painful scars all over her body. The doctor said she had a rare affliction, and that treatment would cost the family a fortune. We sold off all the stock, and paid for the first round of medicines, but she just wasn't getting better."
Nephthysma noticed that his eyes started to well up, but refrained from interrupting him.
"Legend has it that deep inside one of the great Gebmids, lies an enchanted gemstone shaped like a bug," Sethos said, as he slowly produced the gemstone from his pocket. "Whoever had this gemstone had the power of life in his hands."
The gemstone was peculiar. It was barely the size of a penny, and it was shaped like a Scarabug. It had the most brilliant red color, but as Sethos began inspecting it in the sunlight, Nephthysma noticed that the ruby color began to transform into a deep blue color, and then graduated into an eerie shade of green. Its faceted cut threw light reflections across the dull clay walls of the room, and the stone was so clear you could see right through it. Even Nephthysma couldn't deny the appeal of the gemstone.
"I need this to save my mother," Sethos whispered, his eyes trained on the gemstone that he was turning slowly in the light. It was almost as if Sethos was in a trance.
"But at the cost of the people of Sakhmet? Is that worth it Sethos?" Nephthysma reasoned.
"For a thousand cities, it would be worth it." He declared defiantly. Sethos eyed Nephthysma surreptitiously, and quickly slipped the gemstone back into his pocket.
"I'm sorry Nephthysma, I can't help you or your friends." He said, avoiding eye contact with her.
"I assure you, Sethos, I don't have friends. I don't know what this gemstone can do - it's the first time I've heard of such power in such a brilliant stone - but I know that stealing this at the peril of thousands of others is never going to end well." Nephthysma paused, surveying Sethos for any reaction. There was none.
"Can you live in peace, knowing that you've robbed the colors from a thousand mothers and their children? Daughters will no longer paint, sons will no longer play. Fathers can't work, mothers can't cook. Friends don't laugh, even the birds have stop singing. Everyone just dawdles around, staring into thin air, with their new grey colors only surpassed in dread by the downward frowns on their faces."
As Nephthysma began to reason with the Techo, Sethos started pacing across the room. He was quiet the entire time she talked, and even after she had given up pleading with him, he didn't say anything. His paces were slow, calculating and quiet, and the gentle rustling of the palm trees under the window only disturbed the silence of the room.
Finally, he heaved a heavy sigh of exasperation. His shoulders dropped, and he rubbed the back of his neck, pondering.
"Okay, look Sethos. I don't do this often, but I am willing to make a bargain," Nephthysma said reluctantly.
"I'm listening..." he replied, spinning around with raised eyebrows.
"Return the gemstone, and return the people of Sakhmet their colors. Do that, and I'll try to help your mother," she said.
"Try? Try? What if it doesn't work?" He asked, taking a hurried tone.
"There's no guarantee, but what other options do you have? If you take the gemstone, I will use my powers to stop you and return the gemstone. If that happens, your mother will remain ill. But if you return it, you have my word Sethos, I will do everything within my knowledge and power to help. And I am powerful." By the end of her impassioned promise, Nephthysma was already on her feet, clutching her staff in one hand.
He was thinking.
"Trust me, Sethos. Help me by trusting me, and I will help you too," she said.
Another sigh, and Sethos picked up his head. He looked at the Usul in her eyes, and saw her earnest plea. Ever so slightly, he nodded, then he fished the stone out of his pocket and handed it over to Nephthysma. She kept the stone in her little cloth bag.
"I trust you. I'll come with you to return the stone," he said.
And so began the journey of two unlikely individuals.
To be continued…