The lone and level dust stretched away from Xandra as she lay her head on the desk. She imagined it, in her tired brain, as a desert. A vast desert with towering book cliffs, quill and inkstand palm trees, spiraling sandstorm eddies that whirled and faded with her rhythmic breathing. Somewhere, in that untouched dust, somewhere a pilgrim wandered in search of Coltzan’s Shrine or Qasala’s lost riches, or…something. Some treasure. Some beautiful treasure hidden in Neopia.
Her eyes glazed over and the desert became foggy. She was so tired.
“Xandra!” The beckoning came shrilly from the other room. “Xandra, are you there?” It wasn’t so much a question as a command to appear. Xandra sighed and lifted her head up from her aeolian reveries. When she had first learned that she’d be coming to Faerieland to study, she’d been absolutely overjoyed at the opportunity to learn from the faeries, those infallible beings of magic and goodness. When she heard that she’d be working under Fyora herself, Xandra had been almost inconsolable in her giddiness. Fyora! Queen of the faeries, queen of Faerieland itself…queen of Neopia even! To learn under such a ruler as that was beyond her wildest dreams.
But now, her wildest dreams only took place in those spare moments when she wasn’t busy scribbling down errands, cleaning chambers, or memorizing spells and potions by rote. Fyora kept her busy, but not in the way to which she thought she’d be accustomed. Back in Brightvale, she’d been tapped for entry into the Seekers, those mad mechanical geniuses who studied absolutely everything there was to study under the sun. The very Seekers who were said to be on the brink of discovering some hidden secret buried in Tyrannia. The same who were close to perfecting air travel by means other than hot air. Real mechanical wings…to fly with.
But she had said no. She had rejected the invitation and sought counsel instead with the faeries. She’d rejected science for magic and, though nervous at the time of the decision, hadn’t looked back. But now, deep in the dust of Fyora’s desk, she stole a quick glance over her shoulder every now and then. The magic was still mind-boggling, and being in Fyora’s presence was still overwhelming, but still…she thought there would be more majesty in the work.
“Xandra! Your presence is required!”
The commanding voice again drilled itself into Xandra’s brain. She sighed once more and, with a final shove, pushed herself away from the desk and into a stiff standing position. “Coming, Fyora!”
Fyora was standing on the balcony of her bedroom, staring out over the pink clouds that made up Faerieland. Xandra tentatively stepped behind her mistress and, when it became clear that no more words were forthcoming, slowly joined her against the banister. Fyora was a good three feet taller than her and held herself with the queenly dignity she put forth in every public appearance. The differences between public and private Fyora were few.
“Fyora…what is it you wanted?” Xandra had taken to leaving out Fyora’s titles a few weeks ago. She had been reluctant to do so at first, but she figured that after a year of study and semi-familiarity, it might not be so bad to get on first name terms with the ruler of Faerieland.
Fyora didn’t reply immediately. Instead, she gripped her scepter slightly tighter and pursed her lips just as tightly. Her gaze never left the horizon. “Look, Xandra. Look and tell me what you see.”
Xandra did as she was commanded and looked.
There was Faerieland. There were the pink and purple parapets, soaring above the purple-tinted clouds. They rose without blemish, pure edifices of unbroken stone rising in triumph above an ethereal ground. Innumerable Earth and Air faeries had come together to create these masterpieces of architecture. That they managed to exist without sinking through the clouds even an inch was a miracle that could only be ascribed to Fyora’s magic. That too had created the clouds extending past the city, the clouds filled with rainbow puddles, healing magic, races, games, treasures of all sorts for the pets of Neopia to come and enjoy. She saw them all twinkling from the height that was Fyora’s tower. All the treasures of the world stretched before her. All of Fyora’s treasures, at least, for surely they were hers. Surely everything in this vast pink cloud belonged to her.
“I see Faerieland.”
Fyora let a brief sniff of air escape from her perfectly chiseled nose. “So you do. But that is what there is. Tell me what you see.”
Xandra shut her eyes tight and did her best to avoid rubbing her temples. Fyora often got into this philosophical mood and wouldn’t rest until Xandra had played foil to her whims. More often than not, Xandra’s role was nothing but to answer “what” to various questions that Fyora would rhetorically ask. At these times, Xandra would notice that Fyora wasn’t her characteristic self but something else entirely. She would forgo the kindness and sympathy of her public image and become cold, detached, even cruel in her questions. She would ask about the nature of suffering, the ultimate fate of life, even such things as whether or not neopoints ought to exist at all. Each of these bizarre tangents from magic seemingly sprang from nowhere, and it was up to Xandra to listen and respond lest Fyora spend days in a strange, startling mood.
But as soon as the questions were answered, or at least seemed to be, Fyora would return to her old self and resume teaching, commanding, and sympathizing as though the questions had never been asked. Now, however, was a time for questions.
“What I see?” Xandra repeated. “How is that different from-” The question died on her lips as she looked up at Fyora and saw her mouth set hard. It was best not to ask clarifying questions. “What I see…”
Past the parapets, past the pets, past every faerie and shop and cloud, what was there? What was behind or beneath or beyond all that physically met Xandra’s eyes?
“I see…you. I see you, Fyora.”
Fyora’s lips broke and curled in a slight smile. “So you do. So you do.” She was silent for some minutes after that, her eyes never wavering from the horizon and her lips never faltering from the slight smile that had crept there after Xandra’s answer. Xandra knew better than to interrupt Fyora during a moment such as this, so she stood there at the banister, leaning out over the clouds and silently watching the sun sink lower and lower. Finally, Fyora took her one free hand from the banister and held it limply at her side.
“Xandra…do you know what Neopia is?” The question was asked calmly, as many of Fyora’s questions had been asked before, but there was something new about this one. Something small and squirmy and strange had wriggled its way into these short words. Xandra couldn’t put her finger on it, whether it was some subtle change of tone or a split-second of slowness between two words that shouldn’t have been there, but this question above all others seemed off. Fyora seemed to want this question to be heard more than all the rest. Like the others, it didn’t ask an answer, but it wanted to be heard moreso than anything else Fyora had ever asked before. Xandra was afraid.
“It’s a planet,” she stated, opting for the matter-of-fact answer. “It’s home to a number of species of pets, several types of faeries, innumerable petpets and petpetpets, and likely also home to beings we don’t yet know about or understand. It consists of continents, islands, and other landmasses and is able to provide enough raw materials for most to live in relative comfort.”
“That’s a textbook definition of Neopia. Give me something more…real.”
Xandra’s pulsed quickened as her fears were confirmed. This wasn’t just more memorization. “It’s us. We all live together on this planet and Neopia is all we have. We have to work together to live on it and draw from it and give back to it. We have to-”
“Spoken like a true veteran of Philosophy 101. I know that you can memorize books and I know that you can pretend to be a philosopher to your friends back on the ground. Now tell me what Neopia is.”
Xandra’s palms had gotten sweaty on the banister at this point, partially due to the unrelenting rays of the setting sun and partially due to Fyora’s unanswerable questions. Xandra had feared a mood like this coming on for several days now. This fear was responsible for her frequent retreats to the study, where she buried herself in the dusty books and the dusty table as an excuse to not have to be around Fyora. She had hoped that, maybe this time, she’d be spared the questions. But it was not to be, and her composed face belied her nervous nature and sweaty palms. What was Fyora getting at?
“It’s a vessel, hurtling through space. A ship carrying hundreds of thousands of unwilling, unknowing travelers. A ship with no beginning, no end, no destination. It just…is.” This was one of Xandra’s most esoteric thoughts, and she hoped it would satisfy Fyora’s whim. In the past, answers as vague and pseudo-intellectual as this had been enough.
Fyora’s gentle smile opened further, and her perfect teeth gleamed in the light of the low sun. “Neopia just is. I appreciate the attempt, Xandra.” She turned and looked at Xandra with a loving look in her eyes. They flashed purple. “Come, let’s go inside and out of this bright light.” She turned and offered her free hand to Xandra. Slowly, Xandra let go of the banister, wiped her paws on her dress, and grabbed Fyora’s proffered hand. She hoped that Fyora wouldn’t be able to feel the clammy sweat still present. She hoped that she wouldn’t be able to sense her fear.
“In here,” Fyora said, pulling Xandra back inside and into the study where she had initially come from. Without warning, Fyora pulled her hand from Xandra’s grip and wandered over to one of the numerous dusty shelves. Xandra watched her fumbling along the many books and scrolls before turning her attention back to the dusty desk where she had been resting not ten minute previously. She could still see the slight impression of her glasses in the dust, where they had pushed up little circular ridges. She could still see the palm trees rising up…still see the treasure buried somewhere in the Lost Desert. So many treasures and wonders in that dust…
“Here we go!” Fyora called out in triumph, pulling a heavy scroll from one of the shelves and placing it firmly on the table. With one hand, she swept the books and quills off the table. With the other, she rolled the map out and completely covered over the old dust on the desk. Xandra’s heart skipped a beat as her dusty wonderland was covered over; she had not been paying attention, and it was as if her world had just been overlain by some strange, white canvas. The scroll was unrolled, and Xandra saw that it was an old map of Neopia with some sort of writing covering the entire thing. It was in a language that she had never seen before, and for the first time in months, her curiosity was piqued.
“My word…” she whispered. “What is it, Fyora?”
“As I’m sure you’ve noticed, it’s an ancient map of Neopia, from one of the first explorers to circumnavigate the globe. But that’s not the important part. What’s interesting is the inscription. No doubt you’ve tried to read it already, bright young thing that you are, but you cannot. It’s written in a language that none alive can read anymore…None but me.” Fyora paused for effect. “It speaks of another world. One parallel to ours and yet also occupying the same space. A world of evil beings known only as wraiths, who would give anything to destroy Neopia. This world is so, so close to ours that the two nearly touch but for a slight slip of the space-time continuum.”
Xandra’s head spun as she took all this in. Another world? Time-space continuum? She’d been educated in the basics of the universe and the potential of alternate ones, but to hear that it was actually true and had been discovered ages ago was beyond her imagining! “Another world? But…why don’t we know about it? If these wraiths are so dangerous, why hasn’t anyone said anything? The Defenders? You?”
Something hardened in Fyora’s posture then, like a switch was flipped and suddenly she found herself stiffened with thousands of volts of electricity coursing through her body. She was hard and energized and something that wasn’t normally present in this demure ruler of Faerieland, this proprietor of something as silly and extravagant as the Hidden Tower. “We’ve known. And by that, I mean that I’ve known about it. There is a portal to this world, a way through which the wraiths can infiltrate. I could close it, you know. I could close it in a blink of an eye, Xandra, and Neopia would be safe from the largest menace it’s ever seen. Larger than the pirates on Krawk Island. Larger than disease. Larger than hunger. Although…although I could close those too.”
Xandra’s stomach dropped. What was she hearing? “Fyora…what are you saying?”
Fyora seemed not to hear her pupil now, her eyes fixed on the illegible text on the map. “What is hunger, Xandra? What is violence and illness and strife? They are things to be avoided, of course. But more than that, they are things to be commanded. They are things to be questioned, puzzled about, and ultimately ruled over. You can bend hunger to your will, you know…”
“By… by eating?” Xandra hoped this would lighten the mood.
“Ha!” The bark was more Lupe than faerie, and Xandra shuddered to hear it. “Eating staves off hunger, this is true, and my dear sister, the Soup Faerie, she continues in her efforts to feed every last pet. And yet…isn’t it better to keep hunger on a leash? Rather than confine it to the pound, why not let hunger out for spells? Why not let it exist as…as knowledge that it itself exists? For without the knowledge of hunger…why fear it? And without the fear of hunger…why require saving from it?”
“Saving from hunger? What do you mean…Lady Fyora?”
“I mean us, dear girl!” Fyora’s eyes flashed, even though the sun was long gone on the balcony. “I mean me. What is the job of a faerie? To aid, to protect, to save. We increase the health of pets, the strength, the defense. We reduce hunger, we provide neopoints and jobs. We step in to save the lives of those below us. We protect above all else. And without a danger…what is there to protect from?”
Xandra’s palms became sweaty again, and no amount of wiping them on the dress seemed to stem the flood of water now emerging from between her fingers. This was far beyond anything she had ever heard come from the fair ruler’s mouth. “You…you want danger, Lady Fyora? What about the Darkest Faerie? You banished her, didn’t you? You don’t want that kind of evil in the world!”
“The Darkest Faerie wanted nothing but darkness. Is that a world any of us desire? Of course not, Xandra. Evil without goodness to counteract it is as meaningless and dreary as goodness without evil. You cannot scare pets unless they have some idea of hope and happiness. Much as you cannot save them without some idea of despair and sorrow. And that is the point. That is the idea. That is Neopia.”
Xandra’s heart chilled as she took in these last words. “Neopia…is the idea of despair and sorrow?”
Fyora finally turned her gaze from the parchment to look directly into Xandra’s eyes. “Exactly. Without that lingering fear of not being strong enough, why should pets accept our blessings? Without that fear of starving, why should they come to us for sustenance? Without that fear of being ruled over by some tyrant or pirate or, forbid, Dr. Sloth, why should they look to us for rescue? We become obsolete if there is nothing for us to protect against. And so it is that there must be some balance. There must be hunger, there must be strife, and there must be this wraith portal. There must be this looming fear that only we…that only I can protect against.”
Xandra could only stare. Here before her stood Fyora, queen of Faerieland. A figure who, up until a few minutes ago, had stood as a paragon of all Xandra held to be good in this world. But now her faith was shaken. No…perhaps shaken was too mild. Her faith was obliterated, absolutely shattered at its core. To let innocent Neopians suffer as part of some mind-boggling ideal of protection was too much for her to take. The Seekers had been idealistic in their own way, but this…this was something new. Something scary. Something….something evil.
Xandra struggled to say anything to her teacher after this last bit of monologue but found her mouth wanting. Finally, her mind a blank, she tried desperately to defuse the conversation by bringing it full circle. “What do you see…Lady Fyora? What do you see when you look over that banister?”
Fyora cast a half-closed eye over her pupil before looking over to the room from which they had come so briefly before. For a moment, she hesitated before smiling larger than she had all day. “Why, I see the same thing as you, dear Xandra. I see myself.” Her eyes fell again on the map of Neopia lying in the dust between the two of them. “…I see myself.”