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The River that Flows Eternal


by movie138music

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PART 5: TIME AND TIDES

     “Tylix! Ty-li-x! Wake up!”

     The young Kacheek sat up with a start. Margoreth had whacked him upside the head with her spoon, to the giggles of the other apprentices. “Pay attention!” she said. “It’s your turn now. C’mon, tell us what you’ve been up to. You may be new here, but we still want to know what Master Denethrir’s got you doing!”

     It was some long-ago spring in Sunnytown, and the apprentices’ lodge at the Guild of Scholars was abuzz with activity. A fresh batch of students had just arrived two weeks ago. Supper was quickly becoming a rowdy affair.

     “Um, not much so far,” Tylix answered meekly, rubbing his temple. “You know… just copying scrolls and that sort of thing. I’m sure he gives you more interesting tasks, Margoreth.”

     “Define ‘interesting,’” she sighed. “Sure we travel a lot, but it’s always just gathering herbs. I wish we could do some real digging.”

     “At least you get to travel!” said another apprentice. Kuent was his name, or Kuint, or something. Tylix didn’t much care for any of his colleagues. “My master just spends all day holed up in the archives.”

     “So he’s the perfect fit for you!” Margoreth retorted, to general laughter. She was awkward in public, but among her fellow scholars it was easy to see why she was Sunnytown’s best-liked apprentice. Tylix wished he could be like her, or at least put up a convincing act.

     A loud-mouthed Acara spoke up—was it Ros? No, Rys. “On the topic of shut-ins: Tylix, you’ve got to get some fresh air. You’ve barely gone outside since you got here, and I can see you haven’t been sleeping.”

     “Oh, I don’t sleep much,” said Tylix with a blush. “Um. Too busy studying.” It was a thin excuse, but, considering his new profession, a believable one.

     “Suit yourself.” Rys gave him a surprisingly kind look. “You’re from Littlecliff, right? The fishing village down south? I don’t blame you for feeling out of sorts.”

     “He’ll be fine once he settles in,” Margoreth assured her. “I can already tell he’s sharper than all of us here.”

      A chorus of “Hey! Speak for yourself!” and “That’s a low bar.” followed. Margoreth waved off the voices. “Say, Tylix, what kind of things do you want to study? I’m guessing it’s not herbs.”

     “Me?” The apprentices’ eyes were fixed on him, warm and attentive. There was something unnerving about seeing those faces from his dreams, the faces he’d seen over and over for years, turned towards him in the flesh. He didn’t know how to speak to them.

     I want to look into the past. I want to know what was, because I already know what will be. I want… to see everything there is to see. It was what he had told himself when he’d been accepted into the Guild. This night was just another step on that long journey. He felt small, terribly small, and tired. “I—I’m not sure. Anyway, I’m done eating. Good night.”

     “Did we say something wrong?” he could hear the others whispering as he ascended the stairs. “Poor kid, he’s stressed after all…”

     He pushed open the door to his little room. It was dark and quiet, with only a dim ray of moonlight coming through the dirty window. His scroll of dream records lay unrolled on the desk. A few days ago he’d dreamed of the Institute, that famed ruin of the north. Would he ever get a chance to go there? It would be a year at least before Denethrir let him travel. He wondered if Neopia even had that long.

     For a moment he imagined himself downstairs, enjoying a peaceful evening with the other apprentices. But he knew the destiny of an ordinary Neopian, chatting by the fireside or fishing away on the shores of the sea, had never been his lot. Putting away the scroll, he lay down in bed and shut his eyes. Another day gone.

     ———

     Tower Gaia’s corridors were darkening with the onset of evening. The arching stonework that had seemed so elegant by daylight now hung overhead like a leering shadow—the shadow of Tylix’s prophesied doom.

     “Destroyed? Neopia is going to be destroyed?” Rikti repeated incredulously. “You’re kidding, right? It’s just your dreams and stuff, it’s not like it’s actually going to happen!”

     “I told you, these aren’t normal dreams,” said Tylix in a low voice, shoving his hands into his pockets and walking forward. Rikti and Evett had no choice but to follow. “I’ve seen it every night. Every night, for as long as I can remember. Whether it’s Jahbal behind it or someone else, I know it’s coming.”

     “Don’t be ridiculous,” Rikti scoffed. “You’re a scholar, aren’t you? You ought to know I’ll need more evidence than that.”

     “Do you want evidence?” said Tylix. Without turning around, he reached into his bag and tossed a weatherworn roll of cheap parchment in Rikti’s direction. “Go to last spring. Shouldn’t be hard to find.”

     Grumbling, Rikti examined the fine, cramped script. “Okay, let’s see… ahem. Month of Hunting. Same dream ever since the new moon. I’m in an ivy-covered atrium… likely Gaia. It’s on fire. Large battle with pygmy warriors. A big Lupe and a little Korbat are there with me. Darkness. I’m at a mountain, maybe a few months later. They’re lying on the ground. The mountain is frozen. The world is frozen. I wake up and feel cold.”

     Silence. A dull sense of horror sank slowly into Evett’s bones.

     “There you have it,” said Tylix at last, retrieving the parchment. “I… I don’t mind you knowing, as long as you keep it secret. It concerns you, after all.”

     “It sure does!” Rikti exploded. “Putting aside all this mumbo-jumbo about the end of the world, why didn’t you let us know what was going to happen in this tower? Since you clearly had it all mapped out in advance.”

     “I didn’t know much. It was a glimpse, not a diary. And there were several possibilities. Like forks in a road, you know? The closer I get to an event, the more the path narrows.” Tylix’s mouth tightened. “You understand, don’t you? The road can fork however it pleases, but every track leads to destruction in the end. That’s the fate chosen for us. It’s not mumbo-jumbo, Rikti—I see it every night.”

     Rikti looked away, chewing his lip. His cheeks were flushed with anger, and perhaps a bit of uncertainty.

     “What about me?” Evett said in a small voice. “I’m from the future. It’s safe there. Isn’t it?”

     “Most likely. But that’s a time so distant we can’t even count the years. A civilization built on the ashes of ours. However nice it is there, it’s small comfort.”

     Evett said nothing. The hallway echoed hollowly with the sound of their footsteps, as if the tower itself mourned its impending collapse. Evett looked back briefly and saw the burnt-out shell of the old courtyard one last time. He felt sick. Hearing Tylix’s wistful voice, his own time sounded farther away than ever. He had to defeat the evil of this land to return there, but it sounded impossible. He was trapped. Trapped in this wasteland until the day it tumbled down for good—

     “I’m not turning back,” said Rikti defiantly. “Your magic dreams don’t change a thing. How many times do I have to say it? I’m going to save the world. It’s worth saving. Whether you like it or not!”

     Tylix shrugged, resigned. “I won’t stop you. I can’t stop anything, you know.”

     Rikti shot him a glance, but before he could say anything more, the group turned a corner and found themselves back at the front door. Tylix pushed it open. The wide clearing stood before them, green and inviting. A cool breeze rushed into the tower, startling all three of them. There was something soothingly ordinary about it.

     Tylix turned around with an innocent look—as if nothing, much less an omen of the apocalypse, had ever happened. “Okay, here we are. Master Denethrir’s tent should still be by the western outbuilding,” he said. “Don’t tell him or Margoreth about any of this. I don’t want to worry them.”

     “What? You’re worrying us plenty,” said Rikti.

     “You’re out to be heroes, aren’t you?” Tylix answered, matter-of-fact. “You can handle it. Come on, let’s go.”

     They stepped out into the meadow. The sun was about to set, giving the ruins of the Institute a haunting glow. Tylix went off in the direction of the outbuildings without looking back. Evett and Rikti went a bit more slowly. The thought of destruction and salvation—of the great task Korabric had laid upon them, which now seemed utterly unreachable—hung over their heads. Only two days had passed since Evett had stood here last, but it felt more like a century.

     Rikti took a deep, shaky breath. Now that Tylix had gone, all the passion and certainty seemed to leave him at once. He stumbled on his bad leg and reached for Evett’s arm to steady for him, with a child’s instinctive grasp. At the last second he pulled back with an embarrassed look. Evett lent him his arm anyway.

     “What do you think?” asked Rikti quietly. “Of Tylix?”

     Evett couldn’t shake the memory of the Kacheek’s lonely, haunted expression under the light of the atrium. “I think he’s telling the truth. Or his truth, anyway.”

     “Figures. I really am in over my head, aren’t I? I don’t have a clue.” Rikti shoved his hands in his pockets as they trudged on through the grass. “I thought—I thought this was the right thing to do. Beat up the monsters, get fame and glory. Turns out the monsters aren’t even monsters.”

     Evett had no answer to that. He feared the monsters more than anything else. When he looked at them, he couldn’t help but see himself. It felt as if the world was a barbed cage closing in around him.

     Finally Rikti went on. “It doesn’t change anything. I’m still going to fight. I just want to do it better.” Looking even more embarrassed now, he stared at his feet and mumbled, “Thanks for helping me today. I was reckless—well, I’ll always be reckless, but… I promise I won’t put you in danger like that again. We’re in this together.”

     It was practically an apology. Seeing his face, full of boyish shame and determination, Evett felt a twinge of pity. “Don’t worry about me,” he said with a cough. “You know I’m just using you to get home, right? I’m not your friend or anything.”

     Rikti tilted his head. “Sure, but it’s still my job to look after you while you’re here. Plus, I like you. And there’s nothing you can do about that.” He reached up on his tiptoes to squeeze Evett’s shoulder. “It’s just like you said, back in the garden. I’m not alone in this fight. None of us are alone, whatever Tylix thinks—the world’s got our back.”

     Light shone over the grass. The sky gleamed orange and violet. Another day was coming to end, here in this peaceful oasis of the land called Neopia. Evett wanted to hate it. He had hated it only minutes ago, and many a time before that. And yet, looking at this scene—one of so many precious moments he had seen on his travels—he had to admit that Korabric’s last words hadn’t been so far off the mark. This world was alive even in the midst of darkness, even as it hurtled towards the precipice of doom. It was alive, and profoundly beautiful.

     If the door back to his own time were to open in front of him right this second, he wasn’t sure he would step through it. And that was the most painful realization of all.

     “Evett? Hello?” said Rikti.

     Evett glanced down at him. Guilt and longing rose and fell in his heart. “Yeah, whatever you say.”

     Rikti beamed at him. They walked on down through the meadow to the waiting outbuildings. Tylix was waiting for them, sitting at a roaring campfire with his fellow scholars. They were already talking excitedly and trading notes.

     “Well, well, well!” boomed Denethrir as they approached. “If it isn’t our conquering warriors!” He jumped up and shook their hands fervently. “My word! To think you really managed to defeat the pygmies and make it to Tower Gaia’s library!”

     “I had my doubts, but you’ve blown them clean away,” said Margoreth, whistling. “Say, how was Tylix? I’d ask him myself, but you know how he is. You spent two days with the little monster, after all.” She winked broadly.

     “Uh—he was helpful?” said Rikti, clearly unsure how much he could say. “He’s certainly, um, intelligent.”

     “That’s our boy!” said Denethrir, giving Tylix a hearty clap on the back. “I knew your Kayannin script practice would come in handy! With this under your belt, you’ve certainly got a bright future ahead of you!”

     Tylix’s smile faltered for a second, but only for a second. “Thank you, sir. Um, I can give my report now if you want—“

     “Why, certainly! It’ll make for pleasant dinner conversation! Oh, and you fighters over there, help yourselves to an extra serving of soup! It’ll do no good if our courageous friends have to leave the field on a stretcher! Settle in, everyone, settle in!”

     With that, dinner was a go. Tylix launched into a exhaustive description of all the material he had perused in the library. Denethrir and Margoreth were all ears, of course. Rikti and Evett, for their part, could only gape at the Kacheek’s enthusiasm.

     “…found a mint copy of Anselt’s compendium. With this, proving the D conjecture ought to be easy. It’s a huge breakthrough!”

     “No kidding,” Margoreth gasped. “Now that’s a find! Did he mention the rest of the Twelve, by chance? It’s so hard finding reliable quotes these days.”

     “There was a chapter about Haletha and Berynn, but it needs corroboration. The good news is there’s plenty to look at! I can’t wait to see it.” Tylix’s eyes were shining. He had seemed eager before, but now that he was among his own kind, the long anecdotes and swooping hand gestures seemed to triple in size. Evett couldn’t help but feel moved by his sheer energy. It was as if the ruined Institute had revived, if only for a moment, by the side of this little campfire. The knowledge of a forgotten time lived on.

     “Wow,” said Rikti under his breath. “I didn’t realize he cared this much.”

     “Everyone needs something,” Evett replied, staring into the depths of the fire. To that Rikti had no reply.

     The evening wore on, until it was moonlight and not firelight that illuminated the scholars’ discussion. Finally, having delivered his report and conferred with his fellows at length, Tylix decided to conclude the talks. The night air was fine and cool, so the group slept under the stars.

     They had decided on keeping watch, though the risk of attack was practically nil. Evett was woken sometime past midnight by Margoreth for his shift, which was entirely uneventful. For the first hour he amused himself by tracing the constellations above him with his paw. He’d seen them countless times before, if only at a careless glance; but under these unfamiliar skies with no lamplight to comfort him, they were somehow imposing.

     “Keeping yourself busy?” came a voice from behind.

     Evett turned sheepishly as Tylix sat down next to him. He felt a little awkward carrying on a real conversation after all that had happened. What could he say?

     “What’re you up for?” said Evett finally. “There’s still a while before your watch, I think.”

     “I don’t sleep much.” Tylix’s mouth twitched into a rueful smile. “You can probably guess why, now.”

     “…Oh.” Evett remembered the terrible vision of a frozen world that Tylix had written down a year ago. A distant mountain overlooking a world covered in snow and ice. Could that be Jahbal’s fortress? A shiver ran down Evett’s spine. He pictured himself and Rikti lying in the snow, alone and cold.

     Tylix looked at him for a long moment. “Don’t worry,” he said. “You’ve got a strong heart. I’m sure you’ll get home safe.”

     Evett shrugged, a little embarrassed. “I’m just as strong as anybody else. And what’s with the encouraging words, anyway? I didn’t think you had an optimistic bone in your body.”

     “It’s not encouragement.” Tylix stared out over the moonlit grass at nothing in particular. “I think you can do it. You aren’t bound to this place, the way we are. You can live the way you choose.”

     If only you knew. “Can’t you?” said Evett. “You didn’t choose to have those dreams. You’re not on a quest like Rikti is. There’s nothing stopping you from living an ordinary life.” The little apartment with its white walls and piles of clothes flashed painfully before his eyes.

     A tantalizing pause. Then: “Evett. I can’t do that. There’s nothing ordinary about me.”

     Tylix’s voice was sad, laboring under an unspeakable burden. Evett understood him now, at least a little. The happy-go-lucky apprentice, the hopeless cynic, the lonely scholar, the adventuring mage—all of them were Tylix, the true Tylix, traveling Neopia to try and preserve a forgotten past. Trying to save the world the only way he knew how.

     Evett snorted suddenly. “You are a good kid, you know that?”

     “What?” Tylix turned to him in surprise.

     “Oh, nothing,” said Evett. He lifted his head back up to the stars. Up to that unfamiliar, spectacular sky. There was something warm in his heart that defied all reason. He almost loathed the feeling.

     So this is it, he thought. We’ve all found a way to care about this dumb, beautiful world. What a stupid bunch we are.

     ———

     The next morning dawned bright and warm. Rikti awoke sluggishly. His leg was feeling better, though not as much as he’d hoped. Stiff as a log and wrapped in bandages, it made for a pathetic sight. He gave it a rueful tap.

     The events of the previous day, all the insane fighting and yelling, almost felt like a dream. He’d pushed himself harder than he’d thought possible, and then he’d paid the price. Hadn’t Mokti always chided him for this kind of thing? The memory, one of many, came easily to Rikti’s mind. Sitting on some street corner, bandaged and pouting, as that stern voice echoed from above: “You think you’re invincible, don’t you? You don’t remember a thing about what happened to our home—of course you don’t. Fighters and explorers, they’re all the same. Not a care in the world besides their absurd glory!”

     It’s not about glory now. It’s… Rikti didn’t know what it was anymore. The only thing that scared him more than going on was going back. Mokti, Tylix, even Evett—they’d never understand. No matter how lost he was, no matter how many mistakes he made, he had chosen this road. He couldn’t go back.

     Enough pondering. He sat up with a frown, roused by the smell of food. Margoreth was making breakfast by the campfire. “Morning,” she called out cheerfully as Rikti dragged himself closer. Still not entirely in good spirits, Rikti merely grunted in response.

     “Got some news for you,” Margoreth went on. She angled her beak at Denethrir and Tylix, who were having a lively discussion several yards away. “It looks like Tylix wants to ditch Master Denethrir for you and Evett.”

     “What?” said Rikti, his eyes snapping open fully. “What about Tower Gaia? I thought he wanted to go back in.”

     “So did I,” said Margoreth with a chuckle. “But it sounds like he’s interested in whatever you two have planned next. The Wide Plains, was it? He wouldn’t shut up about it all morning. He acts sensible, you know, but when he sees opportunities he jumps at them.”

     “Makes sense,” said Rikti, remembering all the talk yesterday about Tylix’s journey. Seeing everything there is to see, huh... “But I’m more surprised he wants to stay with us. I was positive he couldn’t stand the sight of our faces.” Why else would he tell them about his awful dreams? Why else would he lay that burden on them?

     “You’re kidding, right?” said Margoreth. “You two are the best thing that’s ever happened to him. Usually he’s horribly quiet when he’s not talking about his favorite lore. This is just a guess, but I think you really get him somehow.”

     Get him? Get a secretive prophecy-spouting mage who couldn’t even decide how cynical he felt like being at any given moment? “I don’t know if I want to,” said Rikti with a sigh.

     Just then Denethrir jogged back to the campsite. “And it’s settled!” the Bruce declared. “Tylix will transfer his apprenticeship to the care of these lovely fighters for the duration of three months! On the condition that he reports all his archaeological findings to me upon his return, naturally! I find this quite agreeable!”

     With a flourish he handed Rikti a long sheaf of parchment. Rikti squinted at the words with difficulty. “Hold on, apprenticeship? Am I taking apprentices now?” he sputtered.

     “It’s just paperwork,” whispered Margoreth. “Master Denethrir loves this kind of stuff.” She cleared her throat and spoke up. “Sir, as for the matter of our botanic research?”

     “Excellent question!” said Denethrir. “I’ve been ruminating on the matter, and I’d like to postpone our return to Neopia City! We’ll sail to Swampedge City and follow up on some of our results with the plants there! Afterwards, time permitting, we shall return here and explore Tower Gaia which these fine folk here have so graciously opened up to us. In any case, let’s gather our belongings, everyone! Long journeys ahead of all of us!”

     “Swampedge City, huh,” Rikti muttered grouchily. It was a good thing he didn’t have to go back himself—that portal thing to the plains was a convenient way to skip past his nasty little hometown. Mokti was probably heading there now; Rikti knew his brother’s itinerary like the back of his hand. The mere thought of him was an annoyance.

     Or so he thought, but when all the packing was done and the groups were ready to go their separate ways, Rikti found himself reluctantly tapping Margoreth’s shoulder.

     “Hey, when you get on the ship to Swampedge City, can you pass on a message?” he mumbled.

     “Hmm. To who?”

     “My big brother, a merchant. He looks just me, so you can’t miss him. Now that winter’s coming, he’ll be on that boat. Just tell him—” Rikti stopped, letting the words catch in his throat. He’d gotten this far. Why was it so blasted hard now?

     “Tell him what?” prompted Margoreth.

     The thoughts circled in Rikti’s mind endlessly. Tell him I’m sorry. I’m sorry I ran off without saying anything. And I talked about our parents, and insulted you, and… I’m sorry. I don’t actually hate you, I swear. It’s just the way you talk sometimes that sets me off. His eyes stung suddenly. He could practically see Mokti’s face, that eternally fussy and overprotective face, hovering in the air before him. I can tell you don’t approve of me. But now I know I have to do this. It’s something bigger than my stupid quest. Even if you don’t agree, I wish you could just try to understand...

     Rikti blew out the breath he’d been holding. His chest ached. Margoreth was still standing in front of him, waiting for an answer.

     “Tell him I‘m doing what I set out to do. He’ll figure out the rest.”

     Margoreth and Denethrir took their leave soon afterward, waving goodbye as they set off on the long road back through the jungle to the port southwest of Neopia City. Tylix gave them a long look as they departed, as if trying to engrave them in his memory.

     Rikti, meanwhile, thought of the monsters lurking in the jungle. He wasn’t worried for the scholars; they looked handy enough with their daggers. No, it was a sudden pang of sympathy for the monsters themselves. They were just victims of fate. He’d have been one himself, if not for a stroke of luck. It wasn’t fair. Who decided the winners and the losers? Who had the right?

     He didn’t have the answers. It didn’t matter anyway—the monsters were enemies, whatever their pasts might have been. Nothing would end until he put it to an end. Trying to convince himself of that, he turned his back firmly on the jungle.

     The conversation turned to their next destination: the Wide Plains that Korabric had spoken of in his last speech. Evett rubbed his chin. “So what’s this place like? I guess it’s pastures or something?”

     “No way,” said Rikti, speaking from experience. Swampedge City lay near the northernmost stretches of the plains, and he’d spent many an idle day looking out over the blank grass. “It’s an empty, dried-out wasteland for miles and miles. No one’s farmed there for centuries, and no one goes through it either—not even the monsters.”

     “I wonder who Aelon is,” said Tylix. “I’ve never heard of him in my studies.”

     “Shouldn’t be too hard to find out,” Rikti objected. “Y’know, with your crazy prophecies and whatever.”

     Tylix grimaced. “Like I said, they’re glimpses. They usually don’t make much sense until they happen, anyway. There’s no point discussing them.” Grumbling, he pulled the map of the tower from his pocket. “Enough about that. Let’s find the portal Korabric mentioned. According to this, it ought to be underground. A pretty common place for hidden rooms in these archaic constructions, I’ve found…” His mood seemed to lift the more he talked. Rikti rolled his eyes. What a fellow.

     As it turned out, the entrance was on the back side of the tower, though the door and stonework had all faded with time into a crumbling hole in the wall. Behind it, a cracked and moss-carpeted stone staircase led down into impenetrable darkness. No one and nothing, it seemed, had disturbed this place since the Old Times.

     “Here we go again,” Rikti muttered as he stepped over the threshold. The trio descended into the pit, shining their lanterns ahead of them. With all the loose and shattered stones, the going was slow. Rikti dreaded the thought of another treacherous maze of corridors awaiting him after this ordeal was over. What was it with ancient builders and pointless complexity?

     But to his surprise, the only thing at the floor of the basement was a single, tiny room. The walls were bare stone and the air sat heavily. On the floor, carved in smooth deep lines, was an intricate circular pattern. It did look rather like the circles Rikti had seen in Xantan’s lair and the garden of Tower Gaia. So this was another one of those Old-Timey devices.

     Evett held his lantern above it suspiciously, as if expecting Jahbal himself to pop out. Nothing happened, but the design became somewhat clearer. Rikti noticed strange lines of text curving around it. “Um… so does this actually work?”

     Tylix walked around it, looking positively thrilled. “It really is intact! This is fantastic,” he said. “They’re impossible to find these days. Even in the Old Times, the use of these circles was a closely guarded secret—any strong mage who knew the design could replicate them, you see. Most were portals, but it’s said Jahbal appropriated many of them to spy on his allies and even manipulate energy from afar… though I suppose you’d know more about that than me,” he added with a meaningful look. “The writing on the outside is an incantation in Kayannin script, by the way. How it works is—”

     Rikti cleared his throat loudly.

     “…Sorry. Basically, you just use magic to activate the spell while standing in the circle. With Evett’s ridiculous output, we should have enough. Rikti, you can’t do magic, so you’ll have to hold on to one of us.”

     “Uh, okay,” said Rikti, grabbing the back of Evett’s tunic. The Lupe gulped visibly and placed his paw on the rim of the circle.

     “You seem awfully confident about all this,” he said.

     Tylix shrugged. “If I can’t take a few risks every now and again, who can?”

     Rikti scowled but said nothing. Tylix and Evett nodded at each other. On the count of three, twin bolts of fire and ice shot out from the mages’ palms. The circle lit up, giving the room a ghastly glow. A low hum filled the air as energy spilled through it. Rikti’s hair stood on end.

     “Okay, here it comes!” Tylix shouted.

     The trio hurtled into the floor. Down, down into the black pit, through a rushing tunnel of wind—

     —and face-first into a tuft of grass. Rikti spat out a mouthful of dirt, his head spinning inexplicably. He’d known the movement would be instant, but somehow it had still been faster than he’d expected.

     He looked around, trying to get his bearings. It had been a while since he’d last seen the Wide Plains, even from a distance, but of course nothing about it had changed. The air was dry. The land was perfectly flat. Dust and dirt blew on the breeze. And from here to the horizon in every direction lay a hundred billion blades of dull yellow grass. They rose and fell in unison with the breeze, like the tide lapping at some distant shore.

     Tylix and Evett’s voices shook him out of his daydream. “This place looks… friendly,” Evett said lamely. “How far did we travel?”

     “Pretty far,” Rikti said. “All the way across the Summer Sea. Neopia City and the jungle are to the northeast, if that helps.” Seeing Evett’s perplexed face, he went on. “Umm… think of the country like a crescent moon. Neopia City is on the top of the crescent, and the peninsula where the Institute is makes up the pointy tip. The Two Rings and a bunch of other cities are at the bottom of the crescent. We’re kind of in the middle part right now. The big, ugly middle.”

     Tylix nodded solemnly. “Yes. This place used to be the breadbasket of Neopia, but after the Old Times it declined to what you see now. What an unfortunate sight.”

     Scattered around were worn blocks of stone, the remnants of an ancient structure. The stone slab behind him, bearing an exact replica of the magic circle that had transported him here, had evidently once been well-adorned. Now its smooth surface, still shiny and polished by some otherworldly means after all these centuries, looked out of place in the untrimmed wilderness.

     “Nobody around, it looks like,” said Evett. “Should we go back? We might be able to catch up with Denethrir—”

     “Let’s at least explore a little,” Rikti suggested. “Korabric wouldn’t have told us about Aelon for no reason. There’s got to be something worth finding here.”

     He looked around. The grass beneath him, and all around the magic circle for about fifty feet, was perfectly flattened. Funny—he didn’t think Tylix and Evett had put out that much magic. But it wasn’t like anyone else could have come through here. He put the matter out of his mind. Farther off in the distance, there were more stones that seemed to form a ragged line of sorts. They were widely spaced and small enough that it was difficult to spot them unless one was looking carefully; upon closer inspection, however, their shape and composition clearly followed a pattern. “These were laid down deliberately ages ago, I think,” said Tylix with a note of eagerness. “They probably used to mark the sides of a road. Let’s see where it leads.”

     The trio slowly made their way westward through the spotless waves of grass, struggling at times to spot their next guidepost. The landscape around them was as unchanging as the stone vistas Rikti had seen in Tower Gaia. Save a few gnarled trees, there was no sign of life. Only by looking behind them at the winding line of stones could they mark their progress.

     It was cold, and a grim light was in the air. Rikti found himself wondering what this place had been in better days. Had there been farms here, big golden fields heavy with wheat? Towns and villages teeming with life? Tall towers full of strange magic like the circle that had brought them here? Rikti couldn’t guess. Xantan’s old cave and the Institute were one thing, but here the wind and grass had stripped even memory from the earth. He shivered.

     The next day was much the same, as the stones meandered mournfully to the west and south. Every now and again Rikti saw ominous shadows circling in the air above the thin ring of clouds. They were certainly monsters, but they never attacked. He could only guess why.

     As night fell, they huddled over a small fire and ate some of Evett’s omelettes. Tylix had grown rather fond of them, and detailed at length their resemblance to some foreign dish he’d had once down south. Rikti listened with some interest (northern cuisine tasted… bleak, to say the least, though he’d never admit that in mixed company), but Evett had a brooding expression on his face. Rikti was drawn once again to his eyes, just as he had been that day in Neopia City. They looked like shallow pools. The firelight mirrored in those dark pupils hid whatever lay beneath—if there was anything beneath them at all.

     I don’t know him, Rikti thought. It was true, what Evett had said. They weren’t friends. Rikti was the type to speak his mind around anyone, but Evett kept his heart to himself. Only at times like these, when he seemed absorbed by some inner darkness, did it bubble to the surface. Even Tylix seemed candid by comparison, and who knew what other awful secrets he hid behind that sunny look of his? Rikti didn’t know. He didn’t know a single one of these Neopets he shared the fire with, not even—these days—himself.

     Absentmindedly he started to hum. Tylix, wrapping up his treatise on Shenkuunese eggs, turned to him in surprise. It was an old, rollicking song. Slowly the words came back to Rikti’s mind, carrying the simple melody into the wind.

     The days and nights pass by like rain,

     The endless river flows.

     Who now recalls those golden years?

     Let him sing who knows!

     Jahbal was strong, a fearless king,

     His eye was keen and bold.

     And with him stood the mighty Twelve,

     Beloved lords of old.

     Haletha’s bow and Rosval’s shield,

     Pryennet’s silver blade,

     Faleinn the wise, Mirnar the fierce,

     And Xantan, he who strayed.

     The days and nights pass by like rain,

     The river meets the shore.

     Now turn them back to springs and mist,

     To waters known no more…

     Rikti trailed off, belatedly aware that Evett and Tylix were staring at him openmouthed. “Don’t stop there!” said Evett.

     “I wish I could keep going, but I don’t remember the rest,” said Rikti ruefully. “It’s really something. Full of the Twelve’s great deeds and wars, all the way from their very first battle to the… the Ghost City. Anyway, it’s a nice song. I like that kind of stuff.” He’d never cared much for lore, but who could hate the songs? They were full of valor and daring. Darkness never won, and if it did, Rikti didn’t bother learning those verses. It was a history he could make his own.

     “I haven’t heard that tune in years. It’s uplifting, but there are sad notes to it.” Tylix swallowed the last of his omelette thoughtfully. “You’re a good storyteller.”

     “Really?” Rikti flushed, certain there was an insult buried in there somewhere. The Kacheek’s face was as cryptically carefree as always. “Well, you’re not wrong. I’ve got the voice for it. Right, Evett? It was a cold night when the armies of the Twelve advanced on Xantan’s laaair…”

     “One more word and you’ll be tomorrow’s kindling,” said Evett loudly.

     The fire was down to embers as they got ready for bed. Rikti lay on the grass, hearing the buoyant music replay in his head, but this time he felt little solace. He’d always wanted to live out those great legends, the way the heroes of old had. Lately he’d even entertained the thought of doing it with others by his side. It was a wonderful, foolish dream. But as he looked left and right at his companions, he couldn’t help but think that there were as many dreams in the world as stars in this twinkling sky.

     ———

     The third day was much like the previous two. Watching the shadows passing overhead, Rikti began to feel that even an attack would be a welcome change of pace. Then, as another evening rolled around, he saw a silhouette on the horizon. A tumbled-down collection of stones, black against the hazy sunset. Abruptly, even as he watched, it blinked out of existence.

     “What the—did you guys see that?” he asked the others.

     Tylix squinted. “Yes, it’s… fading in and out, or something. Look, it’s back.”

     They hastened their pace. It took half an hour for them to reach the strange sight. In that hour it appeared and disappeared half a dozen times, as if cloaked by an unseen fog. Though Rikti had never heard of magic that could make things vanish into thin air, he knew something bizarre was happening here. And that probably meant the Old Times were related.

     The trio came to their destination just as the sun fell below the grass. Evett held his lantern up to the nearest stone. It was thirty feet tall, much larger than it had looked from a distance. Maybe it had been a pillar once, but now its pockmarked grey surface looked no different from any other rock. There were dozens of them scattered around, some upright, some fallen. They formed a kind of ragged square, fifty or so feet long each way.

     Just then the ruin faded out of existence again. Rikti cautiously reached out into the empty air and felt the unmistakable touch of cold stone. “So it just looks like it’s not there,” he said. “I don’t get it. Who’d do this?”

     “Aelon, probably,” said Tylix. “Illusions like these are powerful magic. And I’m sure it’s no coincidence that the trail we followed led us here.” Without even a pause he stepped between the stones and into the square.

     “Hey!” Evett hissed, but Tylix beckoned them inward. Reluctantly they followed. Nothing happened. The air here was heavy with magic, so much so that Rikti felt like he was wading rather than walking. The buzz of energy on his skin made him lightheaded.

     Within the square, crisscrossed by the stones’ long shadows, there was something else. It was an indistinct blur that did not flicker; even with Evett’s lantern right up against it, Rikti could only just make out a faint dark outline about twice his height. It felt like stone when he touched it, but its shape was irregular. If it too was hidden by a spell, the spell was much more potent. Rikti couldn’t guess what it was supposed to be.

     “Amazing. I wonder how long this place has gone unnoticed.” Tylix began to feel around the object, fascinated. “I’m positive this is where Korabric wanted us to go.”

     Rikti thought he felt a slight rumble beneath his feet. But he soon forgot it. From above came the sound of flapping wings, and the screeching of a dozen voices. The monsters had arrived. As the trio looked up in shock, their claws were already scraping the tallest of the stones.

     Suddenly the weight of the air doubled. Rikti staggered where he stood. The whole earth seemed to list like a sinking ship. He couldn’t tell if it was really happening, or if it was just another illusion; it certainly felt real enough to his disoriented mind. Fumbling blindly, he managed to unsheathe his sword and take up something resembling a stance. But these enormous monsters—ghouls, they looked like—could not be fought. Not at night in these conditions. Every movement of theirs roused a thick cloud of dust and grass, even their swishing tails. The spikes running down their spines were encrusted with moss and mud. Certainly they couldn’t be native to the Plains, Rikti thought. But then, where had they come from, and why were they here?

     The trio scattered, trying to avoid the monsters’ wayward blows, but the ghouls took no interest in them. Snarling and tossing their scaly blue heads, they began to beat the standing stones. Once the stones flickered away as they usually did, the enraged monsters began to pace madly about the square. Rikti could hardly see them; Evett had dropped his lantern some time ago in the chaos, leaving only rampaging shadows at every turn. There was nowhere to hide. Rikti, doing his best to dodge the stampede, managed to crawl behind a fallen stone just as it reappeared. The sound of pounding hoofbeats made his head spin. He forced himself to focus on looking for the others. Dimly he spotted Evett on the opposite side of the square, slumped against another of the great pillars. He didn’t look hurt, but his breath was heaving. Tylix, meanwhile, was struggling back to the object in the center. It looked far too exposed for Rikti’s liking, but Tylix gestured to him with urgency. What crazy scheme was that scholar up to now?

     Just then, he saw a ghoul pass overhead. It was running across the square, intent on a newly materialized stone. Its path was leading it straight to Tylix’s unprotected back.

     “Hey! Watch out!” Rikti scrambled to his feet, fighting the leaden air, and swung his sword at the monster’s retreating ankles. The monster grunted in pain and stopped short for a moment. Rikti seized the opportunity to run around and get in front of it—just barely enough distance to push Tylix and himself out of the way.

     Or so he’d thought, but then his bad leg gave in. He stumbled, buffeted by the pulsing waves of energy. The monster growled. With a sweeping motion, it kicked Rikti and Tylix out of its way. All the breath was driven out of Rikti’s lungs in an instant. He and Tylix tumbled backward, skidding over the grass and into—darkness? Confusion overcame terror. There was no ground beneath them. They were falling down a pit.

     Wind rushed past Rikti’s ears. He had less than a second. There was no time to consider where he was, or what had become of Evett, or why any of this was happening. His last thought was to unfurl his wings. Not that Korbat wings were worth much in a fall, but—he held his breath and grabbed Tylix with all the strength he could muster.

     They hit the floor. Before Rikti lost consciousness, he heard a voice speak from the leaden clouds of magic: ”What does Lord Korabric want? What are the Twelve asking for now? I waited so long... so long...”

     And around him, the clouds took form.

     

To be continued…

 
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by dewdropzz



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