Sanity is forbidden Circulation: 196,153,638 Issue: 896 | 27th day of Running, Y22
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The River that Flows Eternal


by movie138music

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PART 6: THE CONTEST OF MAGES

     Evett’s breath came in gasps. He was lying on the grass somewhere outside the ruins. How he had gotten there he couldn’t recall; as soon as those huge winged monsters had come, he’d crawled blindly as far away as he could get. He’d never felt like this before. He knew the illusions weren’t real, that the earth wasn’t really swinging like a pendulum, but it was like the magic had sunk inside him somehow—his head was pounding, and a nausea he couldn’t describe was working its way into his belly. Even now, several feet away, the sick feeling clung to him.

     Boom. One of the great stones toppled to the earth. The ground shook with the impact. Evett could do nothing but curl up as wind and dirt rushed over him. Finally he lifted his head weakly. The moon was coming out from behind a cloud, revealing the silhouettes of the monsters. They were pacing around the stones, pummeling them with one strike after another. Every now and then the ruins would fade away, only to reappear sluggishly as if dragged out from behind their cloak. Not even the spells protecting them from sight could save them now.

     Tylix and Rikti were nowhere to be seen. Evett looked around anxiously. He could only hope they were hiding somewhere. If the monsters had hurt them, he’d—he’d... he didn’t know what he would do. Run away? Fight? Avenge them? That didn’t sound like him. He wasn’t thinking straight now. Too much pain. Sensations that didn’t belong. It was something about this place, about the magic coating the air. Nothing was natural about it.

     The illusions were giving way, bit by bit; he could feel it in the atmosphere. Evett supposed this one-sided battle would soon be over, for better or worse. But then without warning there came a new rush of energy. The stones, and indeed the whole image of the ruins, began to ripple like a trembling pool. The monsters cried out and tossed their heads. Evett collapsed again, unable to withstand the waves of magic. It was all he could do to keep his eyes fixed on the scene.

     The ripples settled. Evett blinked in shock. The stones had vanished completely. What stood in their place now were rectangular columns, smooth and upright, forming an open square plaza. Amid them were twelve sculpted figures that stared outward like sentinels. The grass was transformed into a wide, sturdy floor inlaid with colorful mosaic tiles. A bell tower stood at the center, rising to a graceful height over the plains. It was a humble thing, far from what the Institute and the inner ring of Neopia City had been, but there was a serene antiquity to it. This too was a picture, no matter how faint, of the long-gone past.

     Standing atop the newly-formed floor was a mighty crowd—well, only a hundred or so Neopets, but that many appearing out of thin air was enough to make Evett gape. They were a motley bunch, dressed in grimy robes and wearing uneasy expressions, but each gripped makeshift weapons: bows, spears, axes. One stood only yards away from where Evett lay. Though Evett knew they were just illusions, he could not shake the feeling of recognition. He could see the strength in their faces and the way they stood. It reminded him of something he had seen once, long ago.

     At their head was a tall blue Blumaroo wrapped in a starry blue cloak. He alone seemed more real than the rest, and his eyes as he faced the horde of monsters were alive with red light. As he raised his arms, the illusions around him took solid form. Evett winced. The magic was biting into him more than ever.

     “Welcome,” said the Blumaroo. His gravelly voice seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere. “I am Aelon. You know me well. Have you made yourselves at home here, vile ghouls?”

     Evett gaped. So this was Korabric’s old friend? He hadn’t expected someone quite so terrifying.

     “My duty has not changed,” Aelon continued. “I am charged with the defense of this land. Turn back, or face me.”

     As one, the monsters let out a new shriek that chilled Evett to the bone. They were far from the haggard Meepits and cave Lupes of the world, trapped in Rollay’s prison of plain hunger and instinct. These creatures had been degraded by an even greater curse. Just as Korabric had warned, it was another will that commanded them to move in unison. And now they did, rearing up on their hind legs to swallow up their enemy—

     Aelon brought down his arms. Behind him, the illusionary soldiers loosed their bows. Arrows shot into the air, transforming as they flew into their true forms: bolts of pure ice energy that made resplendent white arcs in the black sky. Evett watched, entranced. The monsters raged as the magic struck their hides. The flashing light was like a firework, showing for a brief moment their horrible faces and twisting forms. Then they rushed forward. The soldiers advanced silently to meet them. And Aelon, surging above the fray with some enchanted spell, pulled a black staff from his cloak. A gleaming blue jewel the size of Evett’s paw sat on its tip. With a roar, he launched blast after blast into the battle. The earth quivered under each one.

     Though the ruined stones were no longer visible, they were not truly gone. One of them near Evett fell, toppled by a stray blast. The energy pushed Evett even farther into the darkness. He stayed there, shivering. Somehow he had to get up and fight. Or at the very least, he had to get closer. This was his chance to go back to his own time. If Jahbal had brought him here, and if that same Jahbal really was controlling these monsters, then it was a simple choice.

     Bracing himself, he began to crawl forward. Every inch brought with it paralyzing nausea. The world seemed to have stopped spinning, perhaps because Aelon had put away his old illusion, but it brought Evett no comfort. What was he thinking, going near this crazy battle? Only a week or two ago he’d been ready to run away from a Bearog in the Hills of Jub. On his own, without Rikti and Tylix to banter with, he was more than useless. Anyone could see he wasn’t cut out for this.

     Finally, after what seemed like hours, he reached the very edge of the square. His fevered thoughts ran away from him. Unable to stand, unable to flee, he lay and watched the ferocious clash. It had gone on unabated all this time, obscured every now and then by dust clouds rising out of the parched grass. Many of the ghouls had already fallen under Aelon’s tireless attack. But now a fresh horde was coming out of the east. Their landing stirred a gust of wind that flattened the grass. Aelon fixed them with an impassive glare.

     “So you are resolved to destroy me, then,” he said. The crowd of soldiers hefted their weapons. “Very well. Though I am the last, my vow to the Archmagus is the same. Shall we begin?”

     He leveled his staff at the monsters. Energy pelted the earth with dizzying speed. Evett gagged. It was all he could do to stay conscious. For a while, trying to take his mind off the pain, he stared at the illusions above his head. He was lying at the feet of one of the twelve statues: a Gelert with a stern gaze, his bulky arms crossed in silent reproach. A longsword was strapped to his back, and resting at his feet was a sturdy round shield. Rosval the Righteous, member of the Circle of Twelve—Evett could guess that much from hearing Rikti’s ramblings. Imaginary though it was, the statue was so bold and sturdy that Evett would have hardly blinked if Rosval himself had come to life and shooed him away.

     In the distance he could see the other sculptures; a tall Aisha, a stout Skeith, an Eyrie with wings unfurled. There was a silent majesty to them. They were untouched by the battle, of course, and their perfection was one that no weathered relic could match. Evett looked up at the bell tower with its sharp ledges and soaring roof. So this was what the Old Times had been like. He began to see why Tylix loved history, why Rikti repeated those stories of his so breathlessly. Even a millennium later, the golden age of Neopia cast a long shadow.

     The battle was reaching a frenzied pitch. Another bout of pain wracked Evett, and he squeezed his eyes shut to blot it out. He was hearing things now. Voices, faces, old reminiscences that fell away. Hey, mister… you ever been to Neopia Central? The words were like a maddening song. He tried to shut them out, think of the good times he’d had, but the memories didn’t come. Why was he forgetting? Maybe everyone here was chasing after the past and all its beautiful sights, but Evett only cared for what he could see. The ordinary world, its ordinary pleasures. A mirror could only reflect, after all; it could never look into itself.

     ———

     A flaming town on the coast. A mountain brought to its knees. An earthquake breaking the continent in two. Again, again, again. It was the same dream as the one from eight nights ago. Nothing new. He couldn’t allow himself to flinch from it. It was his duty to observe everything he could. And so the fires raged on, the ground swelled and broke, and somewhere in the middle of it all a trio of Neopets on the Wide Plains shouted a plea to the sky. The usual. It wasn’t so painful, really.

     But it is painful. It hurts. My eyes hurt—my head hurts—why does it—? The sights before him began to shift. The colors grew searingly bright. There was a flash of gold light, brilliant like a second sun. Before he could even gasp, it was gone. Then the vision went black.

     “Ugh…” Tylix woke, feeling sick. It wasn't usual that his dreams ended so suddenly. His head pounded in his skull. His back was flat against a cold stone floor, and it ached so badly that he dared not move. He felt a dozen bruises blooming all over his body. For a while he lay there with his eyes shut, trying to collect his disordered thoughts amid the pain. At length he remembered what had happened. He and the others had come across a strange ruin on the plains, only for it to be attacked by ghouls. Then he'd realized that the cloaked object in the middle of the ruin was a doorway concealing a hidden cavity. He'd rushed toward it, hoping for safety, but then a ghoul had come behind him and—oh. He had fallen in. He was underground now. Distantly he could hear the sounds of rocks crunching. It seemed the battle, if it could be called that, was still going on.

     Tylix opened his eyes. After the crushing headache subsided, he gasped. He was in the air. Flying. Clouds floated by him; a luminescent full moon hung overhead, bigger than Tylix had ever seen it. The ground was a hazy shape two hundred feet below that glimmered faintly with the light of tiny farmhouses. Nothing but air and the mists of night separated it from him. Tylix sat up and stared for a moment, frozen in amazement and horror.

     Then he realized that he wasn't flying after all. He could still feel stone underneath him. It was invisible behind this grand view, certainly, but it was there. And, stretching his arms out on either side, Tylix felt a wall as well. Everything else—the moon, the clouds, the faraway earth—was just another illusion. He breathed again.

     Leaning against the wall, he tried to look away from the disorienting sight of the ground gliding away beneath him. It was a highly convincing scene, better than anything a mage from the Guild of Scholars could come up with nowadays. Someone—Aelon, most likely—had gone to a great deal of trouble to create all these illusions. What was so precious about this place? Why was it buried under so many layers of magic? The one up above that kept the ruins hidden made some sense, even if Tylix couldn't see a cogent motive for it; but what about this? Why would Aelon need a make-believe flying scene in this underground tunnel? Surely it wouldn't stymie any real invader for long. There were too many questions, and Aelon himself was nowhere to be seen.

     Tylix recalled after a while that he hadn't come here alone. Rikti had shielded him, or done his best to, and then they'd both tumbled through the hole. There he was now, lying in a heap some distance away. His sword lay discarded by his side. "Rikti?" Tylix whispered. The words seemed to fall dead in the magic-heavy air. Rikti made no response, but he shifted slightly. Good, not too badly hurt. Not that Tylix particularly cared, but the alternative would be rather inconvenient at this stage. He stood on wobbly feet, made his way over to Rikti, and shook him gently. "Are you awake?"

     “Leave me alone, Mokti,” Rikti mumbled. “’S not even morning yet, you big bully.”

     “Who's this Mokti? Wake up already!”

     Rikti's eyes popped open. "Huh? Tylix? Oww... my head hurts." He sat up, massaging his neck, and then abruptly caught sight of the sky all around him. Tylix managed to cover his mouth before he started to scream.

     "It's just an illusion!" Tylix hissed. "Quiet, or else the monsters might hear us."

     "Illusion?" Rikti hurriedly patted the wall for support. "Illusion, huh... man, it sure looks real."

     For a minute they sat and watched the clouds rush past. Tylix could see the lush fields and twinkling lights of the land on the ground, all rendered in loving detail. And up above, the stars and moon shone more brightly than the real ones ever had. "It's kind of nice, actually," Rikti commented. "Once you get used to it. I still feel sick, though."

     "Probably from all the magic," said Tylix. "It's natural to get a bit of nausea when there's so much foreign energy in the air. Especially since we're inside a spell as huge as this one." Really, it was a fantastic feat. If not for their present circumstances, he could have studied it for days.

     "Old Times stuff again. What a surprise." Rikti sighed and stood up with a grimace, sheathing his sword. "Great, I'm bruised all over too. Tried to break our fall, but clearly that didn't do much good. At least we're safe down here."

     He paused and looked nervously upwards. Though the illusion blocked any sight of the ground, they could both hear shouts and echoes of destruction. "I hope Evett's okay. He looked awful, last I saw. Something’s not right with him.”

     "He's more powerful than both of us put together," Tylix said matter-of-factly. "I wouldn't worry."

     "Of course you wouldn't," Rikti muttered.

     They began to look for an exit. Tylix suggested Rikti try flying up and finding the hole from which they'd entered; Rikti pointed out (rather testily) that Korbat wings weren't built for vertical distance, much less with an extra Neopet in tow. They didn’t know how high up the exit was, in any case—judging from their bruises, it was quite far indeed. Instead they decided to walk around and check the walls for another exit. The room seemed to be cavernously large and circular, neatly laid out without any apparent furniture or ornamentation. Tylix could not hear or feel the slightest breeze, even as the illusionary flight continued unabated around him. It was still rather difficult to look at directly.

     At last he walked up to the moon. It hung low in the sky, so large and elaborate that Tylix could pick out the spots and craters on its white surface. He reached out and touched it. There was something metal there. He felt a rusty hinge, a series of decorative grooves, and at last—a handle.

     "There's a door here," he said. "Behind the moon."

     Rikti felt around it. "Whoa, it's ancient." He pushed. With an agonizing creak, the door gave way and they passed through. Moonlight washed over them, and then the night sky was gone. Suddenly it was morning. They were standing in a meadow dotted with bright flowers and cottages. The land was flat, covered in green grass and barley that swayed in the breeze. A herd of Babaa ambled past. It was the Wide Plains of another era.

     Tylix shivered. No matter how warm the sun looked, no matter how calm and prosperous this land had once been, he and Rikti were still standing in a lightless stone cell. The sounds of tumult could still be heard overhead. "We should keep going."

     But Rikti paused. "Hey, you see that over there? Looks like Swampedge City. I guess this illusion scene is a ways north of where we are now." He pointed to the horizon. The plains gave way to wetland there, and a dark cluster of shrubbery and rooftops could faintly be seen. "I was born there, you know. Ugly as ever, huh?"

     "Ah..." Tylix stared at the distant town nestled in the fens. Without thinking, he spoke. "I've seen it before."

     "Really? You've been there? It's a lot bigger nowadays, I'll say that much—“

     "I saw it in my dreams." He couldn't tear his eyes from it. The curve of the coastline, the murky water, the humming of the Zytches in the reeds: he had seen them too many times to count. "It was on fire."

     "Fire?" Rikti paled and went silent for a moment. He was angry, Tylix thought with a twinge of guilt. Or was he afraid? Then he turned on his heel with a glare. “Listen, there's already been a fire there. The city made it out. I made it out. So I don't wanna hear another word of your doom-and-gloom nonsense."

     "'Doom and gloom'?" Tylix repeated, indignant despite himself. Clearly all his explanations from before had sailed clean over Rikti's head. "Never mind. I shouldn’t bring it up anymore. I didn't come here to shout over you."

     "Then why did you come?" asked Rikti. "Why'd you tell us about those stupid dreams in the first place? I know it wasn't out of friendship. Were you just trying to make things harder for us?“

     Tylix looked down. “I—I don't know. It just happened, I suppose." That was the truth. He'd known nothing good would come of it. But that day in the tower he had wanted nothing more than to share his burden with them. Perhaps it really had been some malicious desire to ruin them, or perhaps he'd only been tired of keeping secrets. He couldn't explain it. And now—now he couldn't leave these two alone.

     He couldn't tell Rikti any of that, of course. He never knew how to say the right things. Rikti watched him for a moment before turning away with a grunt. "Suit yourself," he said. "Let's check for another door."

     They began to circle the room, wading through the illusionary grass. It was about the same size as the previous one, but had a low ceiling and rectangular walls. Tylix's mind wandered as he walked. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Rikti frowning to himself. With his wild red hair and battered clothes, he really did look like a hero of old. It was hard not to admire him a little. Snatches of melody came unbidden to Tylix's thoughts. The days and nights pass by like rain... How many days and nights had it been since all those beautiful stories had met their end? How many since this mediocre age had begun?

     Rikti cleared his throat. "Found it." He was a few yards away, resting his hand on the invisible wall. Tylix walked up to him awkwardly. Neither of them looked at each other.

     Tylix shuffled a bit. "I didn't say this earlier, but thank you for rescuing me. I'd have been trampled by the ghouls up there otherwise."

     "Oh. Yeah, no worries." Rikti's eyes slid off to the side. "I still owe you one, so..."

     Tylix blushed, recalling his escapades in the Institute. Why were Evett and Rikti always bringing them up? They had all been calculated plans—strategies aimed at survival. Nothing that could be called heroic. "Well, let's get going," he said at last.

     Rikti kicked the door open and strode through. Tylix followed him. The sun, like the moon before it, passed away behind them. They were standing on a sheer white cliff at dusk, staring westward into a dazzling twilight sky. Everything, from the pebbles under Tylix's feet to the ocean rippling out before him, was shaded with hues of calm violet. Turning back, Tylix saw the plains once more. There was no breeze to disturb the thin blades of grass now; they stood upright, basking in dusk's repose. If not for the magic-induced nausea creeping into Tylix's bones, he might have found the scene peaceful.

     There was a silhouette on the beach at the foot of the cliff. Tylix bent down and squinted at it, but even with his face an inch away from where it stood, it was too indistinct to make out. That was a strange oversight from the meticulous mage who had created all these illusions. "What do you think that is?" he asked Rikti.

     "Beats me," Rikti replied. "How many more of these rooms are there? I need some fresh air."

     Resigned, they started to look around again. But then, unexpectedly, the silhouette moved. It was two figures: one tall, one short. They stood together and observed the waves. Then, jumping into the water, they began to play and splash about. The tide twinkled dazzlingly around them, orange and purple. It was something Tylix recognized from his days in Littlecliff, though he had never bothered to join in.

     "I wish they could have seen it,“ said a voice out of the blue. Tylix and Rikti jumped and looked around, but they could see nothing out of place. It was as if the voice was woven into the illusion itself. ”Things might have changed if they had. If the Twelve had only remembered the names of Aelon and Erick—“

     "I heard that voice," said Rikti suddenly. "When we fell down here."

     "What?" Tylix didn't remember anything of the sort. He must have been passed out by that point.

     "I can't remember what it said... ugh, enough of this. Hey!" Rikti raised his voice. "Aelon or whoever you are, come on out! We know you're around here somewhere!"

     There was no reply. The figures on the beach went on playing. Over and over they repeated their motions, lost in an endless game.

     ———

     How long had the battle raged? Evett had lost track of time amid his scattered thoughts. He still could not make himself stand and run, either toward or away, but at the very least he was inching closer. He was lying on the outskirts of the square near one of the twelve sculptures, which though illusionary served well enough as camouflage. From here he could see the fight more clearly. It was utter chaos. Half the ghouls had fled, but always there were more coming, filling the square with their savage cries. Some were on the floor slashing at the soldiers or the invisible stones; the rest were in the air, locked in a clash with Aelon.

     Aelon’s presence alone was imposing. His cloak flapped behind him as he floated, dodging the monsters’ blows with elegance that even Rikti at his best could never have matched. With a flick of his wrist, fierce waves of ice bloomed from the great orb on his staff and sent his opponents crashing to the ground. He never spoke.

     The illusionary soldiers were his limbs, in a sense: where he could not reach, he sent them with a mere glance and a twitch of his finger. And there they rushed forward, turning into energy and back again as they set upon the ghouls with their spears. Tough as those creatures’ hides were, even they could not take punishment from this strange intangible force. Back they ran, to be replaced by new and stronger monsters. And so the battle continued without end under the watchful eye of the bell tower, under the moon that shone steadily on.

     After a long while the seemingly endless horde began to dwindle. The few that could keep up with Aelon were beaten into submission; the weaker among them fled. Aelon floated above his company and directed the onslaught with flawless composure. Not even a hair on his head seemed out of place. Evett could only wonder what an amazing mage like this was doing out in a desolate plain. Had he been trapped like Xantan? Lost like Korabric? Ancient sorcerers were everywhere, it seemed.

     At last only one monster remained, crouching and shivering. Silently Aelon strode forth to meet it. Evett held his breath, unsure whether to feel disappointed or relieved. The outcome seemed all but inevitable.

     Until, with a sudden gust of wind, the ghoul raised itself to its full height. A spectral talent rose from it: purple against Aelon’s white, like seeping poison in the snow. The ghoul’s eyes shone with a blazing green light. Some new power was imbued in it now. No, not a new power—the same power that had ruled these monsters all along. The ghoul opened its mouth, and a foreign voice spoke from it.

     “Well. That was entertaining, but I think I’ll take over now.”

     Through some magic of projection, Jahbal himself had come. The ghoul raised its hoof and stamped the ground. Magic radiated from it in a pulsing wave.

     Aelon took a step back. “So it’s you after all,” he said in a low voice. “Though I did not know you had the gift of astral projection.”

     Jahbal laughed. “Well. Live and learn, as they say. You’ve lived more than long enough—did you really reach immortality? It doesn’t suit you.”

     As strong as Aelon had been, this was something entirely different. It ate away at the earth and even at the very mind. The soil groaned under it; the grass trembled in place. Jahbal’s oppressive might was striking them to the very core. Even Evett, who had never grown up on the fearsome stories that Tylix and Rikti knew, felt a primal fear seize him. It was a sort of awe—a paralyzing dread of Jahbal himself. This was the evil Neopia feared: the darkness that had buried Xantan, outlasted the Twelve, engulfed an age, and lived.

     In an instant the tide of battle reversed. Jahbal’s ability to manipulate energy, the one Eleus Batrin had spoken of all those days ago, could not be matched. Aelon was quickly driven back to a corner. He strained against the current, but Evett could see it was costing him. His eyes bulged with hate and agony. Behind him, the crowd wavered. The bell tower flickered. The stone columns and the immovable sculptures spasmed on the verge of nonexistence. It was not the slow fading in and out that Evett had seen before; the whole square was quavering like a puddle in a gale. It flickered madly. The buzz of disrupted energy in the air was an insistent whine in Evett’s ears, rising slowly to a scream.

     “Enough of the parlor tricks!” hissed Jahbal. The ghoul slashed the air with its hooves. It moved with calculated poise now, an eternity removed from the plain savagery of mere moments before. Aelon crumpled under the gusts of poisonous wind it kicked up. Again and again he withstood the blows from afar. But at last he could take them no longer. He sighed. The buzz was silenced, and Evett flinched as a blinding flash struck his eyes. When he opened them again, his nausea and the heavy atmosphere had dissipated. The beautiful square and the crowd of defenders were gone. The bell tower melted away into a tumbled-down stump with a gaping hole in the center. Only it and the old stones were left to adorn the grass. Rosval’s statue dissipated into one of them, cracked and slumping on the ground.

     Evett quickly ducked to stay hidden. He could move now. He should move. But even with the sickness lifting, his limbs shook even as he tried to stand.

     Jahbal laughed. The sound was a low cackle that filled the air more than Aelon’s magic ever had. “Now, on to the main event. I have you cornered now. Tell me your scheme.” The ghoul stalked forward. It moved slowly, but with every powerful step the stones shook on their places. Evett could see in the trembling of the monster’s limbs that its master was angry, despite the velvet tones of his voice. Aelon had pushed him farther than he had liked. A storm was coming.

     Aelon faced him headlong, grimacing but unbowed. It was a long while before he spoke. “You’re joking, right?” he said finally. “Didn’t I say it’s my job to protect this place from intruders? I haven’t seen the waking world in four hundred years, and it would’ve been longer if the cloaking spell hadn’t worn off! No thanks to you.” Through Evett’s rising panic he thought he heard a different tone in Aelon’s voice. It was passionate all of a sudden, and more than a little undignified. But against Jahbal’s might it was worth little.

     “Your lies are as fruitless as your rebellion, Aelon,” sneered Jahbal. “I felt the energy on the plains. I know your mind. Now will you speak, or shall I make you?”

     From the ghoul’s hooves came a fountain of darkness. The purple aura of his Talent raced over the ground, an endless wave of poison. Aelon retreated until his back was up against the stone that Evett was crouching behind. There was nothing more he could do, not against this.

     “I’ll say this much,” he said in a low voice. He was only inches from Evett now. Evett looked up at him wonderingly. Something really was different. “I’ve made no rebellion. But I wish I had. It would’ve been nice to brag to him about.”

     He was out of time. Spectral magic swept ruthlessly over the grass. “None can prevent my return,” spat Jahbal. “Not even you, o wise Archmagus. Speak!” The ghoul opened its mouth and fired a beam of roiling energy. No doubt it was tempered just enough to leave its victim alive. Evett shut his eyes, unable to move, loathing his own powerlessness, as it struck—

     But the blast passed right through the Blumaroo’s hunched form. It pierced the great stone behind him and split it open like an egg. Evett, numb with shock, managed to hit the ground just as the shards of rock sailed over his head. The sound was deafening.

     Aelon had vanished. From the air came a whisper of a chuckle. The ghoul raised its head and let out a raw howl. Jahbal’s wrath was overflowing. “Aelon!” he cried through his hissing breath. “No… not Aelon… he was never so skilled with those illusion games. I’ve been had by a common, pathetic fool—“

     The words dissolved into another horrible shriek. The power radiating from the ghoul grew to new heights. It was like a shock that diverted the natural current of all the things of the earth. One stone after another disintegrated into rubble before Evett’s own eyes. Echoing like thunder, they burned up the plain into nothing. The avalanche in Xantan’s cave was a trifle compared to this. And yet, even as the devastation wore on, Aelon did not appear.

     Evett sat trembling beneath the heap of rock left by the first stone for a long while, too stunned even to breathe. But then he heard a crunching footstep behind him. With a single blow, his shelter was blown away.

     A shadow blotted out the moon. “What have we here?” said a cold voice.

     ———

     The twilight sky was disappearing. Everything began to flicker. Tylix gritted his teeth as a fresh headache swept over him. Rikti stifled a moan. "What—what's going on?"

     Both he and Rikti sank to the ground, wincing. At the same time, they felt an electric shock pass through the room. Tylix, opening one eye a crack, caught a final glimpse of the silhouettes on the shore. Turning to look behind, he saw the tranquil plains covered in smoke. Cracks shot through the blighted earth, dislodging clouds of dust that scattered in a sudden gale. The grass bowed to them, turning dry and yellow in an instant. Then, in a flash that seared his eyes and mind, the illusion was gone.

     Tylix and Rikti sat dazedly in the corner. They were facing a dark, dingy stone chamber. It was utterly ordinary, if a bit foul-smelling. Nothing moved. Above them the sounds of some great clash were still faintly audible.

     “Feel like I’m gonna puke.” Rikti stood unsteadily, grabbing the wall for support. “So that’s it? The illusions are just gone?”

     “Erick,” Tylix mumbled. “Aelon and Erick… that sounds familiar.”

     “You know something?”

     “I’m not sure. My head hurts too much.” Tylix massaged his temples and looked around. To his dismay, half a dozen doors looked back. They were all perfectly identical: tall and narrow, made of rusted iron with decorative angular grooves that somewhat resembled jagged spikes. The one Tylix and Rikti had come through stood slightly ajar. Rikti went up to it and stuck his head through the doorway.

     “Yep, it’s another normal room,” he reported. “I guess Aelon really is done messing with us… or he’s occupied with the ghouls upstairs.”

     It was not a pleasant thought. The stifling atmosphere had lifted, however, and they soon recovered from their bout of sickness. They began to walk through the other rooms. Though their work was going much quicker now, Tylix had to admit he rather preferred the illusions to the empty rooms he saw now. It had been fascinating to see the Old Times preserved in all their glory: they were visions of the past, just as his dreams were visions of the future.

     The rooms multiplied endlessly. Every now and then he felt a faint trace of magic, and even caught a flickering glimpse of an illusion—a field here, a sky there—but there was little else to see. He could hardly keep track of where they had been, and with only a few stray moonbeams from high above filtering into the cavern, there was little light to help him. Finally he made a few glowing ice crystals so he and Rikti could at least see where they were going.

     “This place is a maze!” complained Rikti. “Who would build something like this? It’s too fancy for a fort and too plain for a castle. Typical Old Times mumbo-jumbo, just the way you like it.”

     Tylix ignored the slight, standing on his tiptoes to examine a row of stone blocks on the wall. They stuck out a bit from the rest, like a rudimentary mantelpiece. A few pottery shards lay beneath. Maybe this had been some kind of display area. Tylix brushed the stones lightly and made a face as dust rained from them.

     “Whoa,” said Rikti. “It’s that Canyon script again.”

     “Kayannin,” Tylix corrected him tiredly. He didn’t have the energy for his usual history lecture. Holding a palmful of crystals up, he strained to read the thin etchings. Only a few were still discernible. “It says, er… ‘oblations and wishes.’ The rest has all faded away.”

     Rikti wrinkled his nose. “Ob-what now?”

     “Another word for offerings. In the early-to-mid Old Times, they were frequently seen at temples… temples…” Tylix blinked and then slapped himself on the forehead. “I get it! That’s what this is!”

     “Huh?”

     “Rikti, have you ever heard the Ballad of Erick and the Babaa Temple?” asked Tylix excitedly. “You know, the old bedtime story.”

     “Oh, that? The boring one about the Cybunny in the temple who goes around helping farmers? Yeah, a few times.“ Rikti knitted his brows. “Wait, you’re seriously saying that’s where we are? The Babaa Temple? Come on. Even the name sounds ridiculous.”

     “I won’t quibble with an expert like yourself,” said Tylix airily, “but I recall it was also called the Temple of Roo. Regardless: there’s an Erick, a temple on the plains, and a powerful mage he’s close with. A few too many similarities, don’t you think?”

     “A mage he’s close with—I guess you’re talking about the Archmagus of Roo? Yeah, I guess he showed up in the story a few times. So that’s Aelon…” Rikti rocked back on his heels, thinking. “Hold on. Don’t you remember what happened to the Archmagus in the end?”

     “As I recall, after saying goodbye to Erick, he gave up his li—“ Tylix stopped and looked up suddenly, openmouthed. He thought he knew what was happening now. A vision here, a premonition there, and the pieces all fell together.

     “Yeah.” Rikti was staring grimly back at him. “Are you sure he’s Aelon? Because if he is… either the story missed a major detail, or we’re making a huge mistake.”

     As if on cue, an enormous crash shook the foundations. Bits of dirt and rock fell from the holes in the ceiling. Rikti and Tylix ducked under a doorway for cover. “We have to get up there!” Rikti exclaimed.

     Tylix did his best to detach himself and observe. As he watched the room in its labors, a few blocks in the wall facing the makeshift mantlepiece came loose. They were the only ones to do so. The stones there were of a different shape, and not quite as firm as the rest. Once the reverberations finally ceased, he walked up to the wall and examined it.

     “It makes sense that the temple would have an entrance across from the oblation jars, I suppose,” he murmured.

     “So there’s a way out?” Rikti bounded forth eagerly and wrested a block free with some exertion. They both peered through the gap. There was a hint of moonlight behind it, no doubt, but yet more layers of rock stood in their way.

     “Whoever put this here meant business,” said Rikti. “Think you can blast us out, Tylix?”

     Tylix figured he could, although it wouldn’t be easy. Inhaling, he placed his paw on the stone and began to focus his energy. Ice sank into the cracks. With a thought he made it bloom, shooting this way and that over the length of the wall. From within he felt a shudder as the stones shifted out of place. Sweat ran down his cheek. The soreness and exhaustion in his bones were coming back to him now.

     “Are you okay?” said Rikti anxiously. What was he so worried about? Tylix gave a grunt in return. Then without warning another blast came tearing through the earth. Tylix’s knees tottered with the impact. He saw the loosened stones slide cleanly over the ice and begin to careen forward. To his sluggish mind they seemed to fall in slow motion, but—he could not move. His paws were bound to his Talent, pouring his energy into the wall, and it took a supreme effort to pull them back.

     “Tylix! Hey!” shouted Rikti.

     With a pained cry Tylix finally wrenched himself away, and the wall collapsed in a pile of rubble and glowing shards right where he had stood. The hum of magic filling the room dissipated abruptly. He let out the breath he had been holding and felt a rush of dizziness overtake him.

     Then he saw that Rikti was supporting him on one shoulder, his body tensed as if ready to leap. “You… you were going to jump in front of me again, weren’t you?” Tylix said weakly.

     “Well, yeah,” Rikti replied, as if it were obvious.

     “You shouldn’t.” Tylix sighed. He had to say it, even if he knew there was no point. “Not for me, anyway. I’m not going to repay you or anything, so you’d better save your strength for—“

     “Repay me? Are you kidding? You’re really gonna make me say it out loud, aren’t you,” said Rikti, exasperated. “Fine. I’m not actually doing this because I owe you, okay? You ought to know by now that it’s just who I am. We can’t all sit by while the world ends.”

     “I—“ Tylix felt color rise in his cheeks. He couldn’t understand it. He didn’t deserve it. He knew he was selfish. In a world full of ignorant simpletons, he was the worst of the lot. He saw his own helplessness every night; he saw them pay the price, lying on the snowy peaks of the Two Rings. Wasn’t that punishment enough?

     “If I gave up my dream, I wouldn’t be me anymore. You saw my hometown, didn’t you? It’s that simple.” Rikti made a face. “Never mind. I guess you wouldn’t get it.”

     It’s the same for me. That’s why I’m like this— But Rikti didn’t wait for an answer. With a gentleness that belied his words, he rose and helped Tylix walk toward the exit. The sounds of chaotic battle grew louder. A narrow tunnel lay behind the crumpled wall, sloping gently up to a small, half-open trapdoor. For a second Rikti hesitated, his hand hovering on the edge. Then he spoke again. “I’m going up,” he said quietly, as if steeling himself. “I won’t yell at you if you stay behind this time. Actually, you probably should. You’ll be safer here.”

     Then he glanced away, embarrassed. It was obvious to Tylix that Rikti was worried about him. The feeling wasn’t wrong. Tylix would be safer here. He had only a vague sense of what was waiting for them on the surface. The best option would be to collect his wits and chart his own course. That was how he had left Margoreth and Denethrir that day outside Tower Gaia; it was how he had rescued Evett and Rikti, when it came time to do so. He could stay here, sheltering in the comfort of the Old Times. A world where everything made sense, where the grand tragedy was already over and done.

     But something pressed him onward. He had to see the world that Rikti saw—he had to see everything there was to see, no matter how half-baked. So, reaching out, he took Rikti’s hand. The calluses shocked his scholarly sensibilities for a moment. But underneath them was the warmth of a soul just like his.

     Tylix didn’t know if he would ever understand Rikti, or find the right words to say to him. Their minds would never be the same. But this at least they could share. A little courage, a little desperation, a rush of life.

     Rikti seemed to feel it too. “You’ve got a good look in your eyes,” he said, smiling. “Let’s give it our best.”

     They climbed out of the temple, and the moonlight, the real moonlight of this prosaic time, bathed them once more.

     ———

     “What have we here?” said Jahbal. The ghoul seized Evett by the scruff of his neck and flung him into the center of the square, just past the remnants of the old bell tower. There it prodded him, checking that he was real. “Ah. One of that little band of explorers. What a nuisance.” With a furious clap of its hoof, the ghoul kicked Evett a distance away. “You were quite helpful leading my Corrupted servants to the Temple, I will admit. But now I tire of these interruptions. You are in league with that impostor, are you not?”

     Evett struggled to get to his feet, though he knew that putting on a brave face was beyond him. Didn’t Jahbal recognize him? But his reply was cut off by a familiar shout. “There you are!” cried Rikti. Evett caught sight of his two companions racing through the smoke and rubble into the square. There was Rikti, holding his sword up like a firebrand, while Tylix followed behind. Their condition was dismal, to say the least, but somehow they were here. Evett didn’t know what to say to them—how to express his relief or worry or anger. He settled for “And where’ve you been all this time?”

     “Long story!” said Rikti once he and Tylix were next to Evett. “But what’s going on here? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

     “I have,” Evett answered tightly. “His name’s Jahbal.”

     “What?” Rikti whipped around to face the ghoul.

     “So your friends have arrived. All the better.” Jahbal was seething more than ever. The unearthly green glow of his eyes darted to and fro, ever searching for Aelon’s face. “Tell me the truth. You cannot escape me, no matter how many clever tricks you have in your employ. Tell me!”

     It was rearing up again; spectral magic seeped from its mouth. Evett knew at once what was coming. Grabbing Rikti and Tylix, he pushed them all to the ground as a powerful beam passed over their heads. Even with all the speed he could muster, he could feel heat graze his ears. No doubt this was only a fraction of Jahbal’s power. His true self, the shadow puppeteering this beast from the faraway Two Rings, was even greater. And it was staring at Evett himself. Evett felt terror seize him more strongly than ever. He could barely find it in him to stand.

     But, remembering his home, he did. “Get behind me!” he yelled. Another blast was coming—or rather, another dozen of them, ready to tear this place down to its very foundations. Evett had barely enough time to pull his staff from his bag. Biting his lip, he stretched out his paws and let his magic flow into it. Though it was a bit sluggish after hours of nausea, there was plenty to spare. Fire sprouted from the gem, like an unruly flower. It caught the beam from Jahbal’s mouth head-on. Evett dug his back paws into the earth as the force shot through him.

     Behind him, Rikti was moving. Oh, not again! Evett thought. But the mad dash and shouts he’d come to expect failed to materialize. Instead Rikti slowly began to back away out of sight. Tylix was doing the same. What were they up to? Evett knew them better than to think they (well, Rikti at least) were retreating.

     He gritted his teeth and focused. Sweat clung to him. He was still holding off Jahbal for now, though barely. It was sheer inertia that kept him going—hurtling forward, falling facefirst. Then he saw Rikti and Tylix again. They had made a wide circle around Jahbal in the darkness, and now they were creeping up on him from behind. Evett could only faintly see them over the burning of his Talent, but he wondered if he could hold out long enough to give them a chance.

     Rikti slashed the ghoul’s back with its sword. Tylix pelted it with ice from his slingshot. Jahbal growled, his attention diverted. Evett gasped as the force pushing him back vanished. He shot forward. This was his chance.

     But the window was too small, and Evett too slow. His flames, suddenly deprived of an adversary, burned out of control as he raced toward Jahbal; but even as he ran, the ghoul let out a screech and swept the ground with its matted tail. Sparks flew. Both Rikti and Tylix managed to dodge the worst of it, but they were hit head-on. The sound was terrifying.

     Evett stifled a cry. The fire was burning brighter and brighter. It was too much. He couldn’t pull it back. Stop, stop, stop— His arms shook. The orb on his staff cracked once, twice. Then, as Evett held his breath, it shattered. The flames vanished into the night.

     In the silence, the ghoul grinned. “So much for that,” hissed Jahbal. “Did you really think you stood a chance? I defeated the Twelve. Xantan was nothing before me. Rosval succumbed without a whimper. The age of strength is long gone!” But he was straining to speak. Evett could see the green light wavering. “I have no time for this. Where is that false Archmagus?!”

     Behind him, Tylix was getting to his feet. He was crawling over to Rikti, covering him as best he could. Evett blinked slowly, thinking he’d gotten the positions wrong, but no—Tylix really was in front. It was a relief to see they were all right, at least. This moment had to be Evett’s alone. Turning back to Jahbal, he retrieved his staff and held it out shakily. Without the orb, it looked like a toy. He tightened his grip, trying to tamp down his fear. He had to stay calm. This was his chance. Finally, finally, he could get the answers he had been searching for. That was more important than anything else. “I don’t have anything to do with Aelon,” he said. “I only came here to look for him. For my own quest. You know why, don’t you? You know me!”

     But Jahbal only snorted and looked him over once more without recognition. “The wanderings of insignificant peasants hardly concern me. If you are so determined to oppose the true lord of Neopia, then fall.” In a flash he closed in on Evett. Energy oozed out of the air and the earth into his ghoul’s foul body. The ground itself was a poison. The grass everywhere was withering under its touch. A slew of cracks crisscrossed it, shooting towards Evett.

     Evett was frozen, rooted where he stood. Jahbal doesn’t know. He didn’t take me back in time. Then—then—who? The blow hit him square in the chest. A shudder passed over his whole frame. Then the pain hit, and his knees buckled. He hit the ground and felt its pestilence infecting him. His power was being siphoned away from him, as surely as the grass and the rocks, into the waiting arms of a sinister king.

     “So passes another worthless traitor,” laughed Jahbal. The ghoul bent over Evett, pinning him. “Do you see now how futile your efforts are? All Neopia’s energy is rightfully mine. No matter how it rebels, it always returns to its lord. And with it—with it, I shall reclaim my title.”

     Jahbal doesn’t know. The thought repeated over and over again. Evett could faintly see a thin trail of orange threads in the wind, flowing away from his heart. So that was his magic. He’d failed, hadn’t he? He would never see Neopia Central again, never look upon those city lights from the comfort of his tiny room. It had all been for nothing.

     “Not enough… not enough…” Jahbal muttered to himself. He clutched at the threads, grabbing whatever nourishment he could from them. The green light was waning. Evett clutched at that sliver of hope. Maybe he could just stall for a little while, just long enough for Jahbal’s astral projection or whatever it was to wear out—but what was the point? Why bother, here at the end?

     “Rightfully yours?” A voice spoke up. Rikti’s, probably, though Evett was finding it difficult to hear things. “What about the monster attacks? Harvesting our energy, razing our homes to the ground—keeping us down for a thousand years! Is that rightfully yours too?”

     “Of course,” Jahbal snarled. “Neopia’s very soul belongs to me. Was it not I who nurtured it to its greatest heights? I thought it would welcome this chance to regain its old glory. But it seems you all are too slow-witted to see what passes before your very eyes.”

     He raised Evett into the air with some spell of his. Evett’s head swam and his legs kicked uselessly in the dry breeze, but he could still see Rikti and Tylix below. Something in their faces shone through his hazy vision, even after a night’s worth of beatings. There was Rikti, shouting as he lay half-buried in the dirt; there was Tylix shielding him with everything he could, his eyes full of terror and unspoken hopes.

     The battle in the Institute, the conversation under the stars, the songs and stories… these two Neopets Evett had met by chance were somehow precious to him. He wanted more than anything for them, at least, to make it out alive. He wanted it so intensely, all of a sudden, that it surprised him.

     “Is something wrong?” asked Jahbal archly.

     Evett could feel a bout of nausea again out of nowhere. “Neopia isn’t yours,” he said through labored breaths. “I don’t know a lot about this place, but I know that much. It doesn’t deserve you.”

     The spell binding him tightened to a sharp point. Evett gasped for air. The ghoul was rising to meet him, flapping its wings slowly. “You low, ungrateful creature,” Jahbal said. “Even now you resist. What are you?”

     That question again. Evett didn’t have an answer anymore. He saw Rikti shake off Tylix’s grasp and run half-crazed at Jahbal. Tylix stared openmouthed, but then he too started to run. The words were so distant, but they rang out in Evett’s mind: “Don’t you dare touch him!”

     No, no, don’t come this way. Evett saw spots. All he could do was hold out as long as he could, hoping for a miracle. It wasn’t fair. They should have been safe. Why can’t Neopia ever be saved?

     Then the miracle came. An array of colorful light struck his tired eyes. The whole sky shone with them, like the flashbulbs of a thousand cameras going off. A swirling pattern moved in from every direction. The nausea Evett had felt gripped him in full force, made worse by his induced levitation. This was undoubtedly an illusion, bigger and more intolerable than ever before. But even the agony was a relief.

     “Amazing what a little rest can do,” remarked a familiar voice.

     There was no attempt at form. The illusion was simply a mass of color that bewildered the eye. Tylix and Rikti covered their faces. Even Jahbal looked ill at ease. The kaleidoscope surrounded him, spinning more and more urgently, until at last he relinquished his hold on Evett. The ghoul raised its legs clumsily to shield its eyes.

     “So this is your great scheme?” he shouted. “You mockery of a mage. This will not defeat me!”

     “Of course it won’t. But you’re running out of energy, aren’t you? You’ll have to go back soon. Isn’t it a bit embarrassing to say you used up a whole projection on a couple of commoners?” The colors rotated into new and bizarre formations. Evett clamped down on his lip to keep himself from heaving. Even lying flat on the ground, the pressure weighing down on him was like a block of lead.

     The ghoul looked around wildly. “So this is the Archmagus I fought?” Jahbal growled contemptuously. “Nothing more than stale deceptions, I see. How despicable.” He spat, and even that seemed to curse the scourged earth still further. But he stumbled even as he moved. His power was waning quickly.

     “Well, I did keep your beasts on their toes for a while.” A ghostly chuckle echoed. “But you’re right. There’s nothing special to see here. Now will you get going already?”

     The ghoul snarled and struggled to resist the overpowering magic. It made a few halfhearted swipes at the air, only to come up empty. There was no force left in its motions. “…What a waste of time,” sneered Jahbal. “A trickster and three useless vagabonds: hardly enough power to light a chandelier. Yes, I was misled. The enemy is elsewhere. One of the Twelve, surely… heh.”

     The ghoul raised itself to its full height. Against the dizzying background of colors, it was a silhouette of pure blackness. “Know this, mages,” he said in a deep voice. “The true battle is still at hand. I am preparing a great work. Once my servants have gathered this land’s energy to me, your feeble resistance will come to nothing. Then, if you truly wish to challenge me in my own body at my full strength, you know where to find me.” The ghoul’s jaws parted in a ghastly rictus of glee. “You may prove quite the fascinating diversion.”

     The green light went out. With it went the oppressive presence that had choked the life from the air. The ghoul collapsed into a shivering crouch. For a second there was a frightened silence. Then the false Aelon cleared his throat. “That’s that, I suppose,” he said flatly. The illusion disappeared.

     Evett squinted as his eyes adjusted. The moon had gone behind a cloud, and it was so dark now that he could see little more than faint shadows. Rikti swung his sword at the ghoul, and with a thin cry it took flight. The flapping wings echoed once, twice, and then faded away southward.

     How much time had passed? Surely he couldn’t have fought Jahbal for more than a few minutes. He contemplated the possibility of doing it again—no, the inevitability, if he continued on this path. It was too much to bear. He didn’t know why he had ever thought himself capable of this.

     He let out the breath he had been holding. He was terribly light-headed, and the world seemed less than solid. Someone caught him as he fell. It was Tylix.

     “Can you hear me?” Tylix asked in a soft voice, far removed from its usual coolness. “You did well. I’m impressed.”

     “Thanks,” Evett said, mumbling his words a bit. “Didn’t do much, really. I’m stuck here, you know. I’m stuck.”

     “Aren’t we all?” said Tylix.

     Evett looked up at him dimly. There he was, his brows knit as he held Evett’s head in his lap. Rikti was there too, saying something he couldn’t hear. They were both peering down at him, framed by the pure night sky overhead. The odor of acid and smoke was terrible. Again he tried to think of his home, of his own Neopia Central. Again he came up empty.

     What’s happening to me? What’s happening to Neopia? What are we even fighting for?

     “What do I do now?” Evett muttered. He couldn’t understand. But that was typical. When had he ever understood anything? He’d come from nothing, and now he was nothing again. With that gloomy reminder echoing in his thoughts, he fell asleep at last.

     ———

     Tylix rubbed his eyes. He was beginning to get used to uncomfortable awakenings. This time he was lying awkwardly on his side atop a small mound of debris. He couldn’t remember falling asleep; after the battle (if it could be called a battle) he must have drifted off from sheer exhaustion. It hadn’t done much good. There was a nasty crick in his neck, and his bruises were multiplying. At least he hadn’t had another vision.

     Sitting up blearily, he was greeted by a cloudy sky. It was an expectedly gloomy morning on the Wide Plains. The scent of spectral magic still clung to the air, and all the grass for half a mile around had been reduced to ashes. The standing stones were all toppled. Nothing was left but cracked, discolored soil. So this was what the famed Babaa Temple had become. This was the legend eaten by fate.

     Rikti lay snoring at the foot of the mound. Evett was sleeping a few feet away, propped up on a stone structure that looked something like a collapsed tower. There was a large hole on the opposite side. Ah. So that’s what Rikti and I fell through. Like everything else, it seemed dismally ordinary without the mystical shroud of night and illusions. He got up and peered into it. The bottom could not be seen.

     Then Tylix noticed someone sitting cross-legged on the outskirts of the ruins some distance away. It was a ragged-looking white Cybunny. Hunched and unmoving, he stared at the western horizon like a solemn guardian. The old stones were strewn around him. As the wind blew his purple mane about, Tylix was suddenly reminded of the third illusion he had seen. Remember the names… Aelon and Erick… There was no mistaking that small silhouette, frail though it seemed now. It was hard to believe he and the gallivanting adventurer of the old ballad were one and the same.

     As Tylix approached, Erick gave him a gruff nod. He seemed to know what Tylix was about to say. But as he turned back to the horizon, he made no attempt to say anything himself. There was an almost vacant look on his face.

     “Was it you we heard in the temple last night?” asked Tylix at last.

     The wind died down slowly, leaving a silence that seemed to expand until it filled the whole desolate scene. For a while Erick sat there and seemed to absorb it. His expression never changed.

     “What do you know about illusion magic?” he said.

     “Huh?” Tylix paused to collect himself. “Er, not much. It’s a rare art. Only scholars who specialize in it have the time to study all the materials.”

     Erick snorted. “Is that so… used to be every apprentice worth his salt picked it up in a month. But then, they did always say I had a special gift for it.” His features softened a little. “Illusions are just drops of energy given shape. But I always put my heart into them. I draw them from my soul.

     I’ve been doing this since I was young, so it comes easy to me now. No matter how big or small, my illusions are a piece of me. They harbor my desires, share my thoughts. How else could they imitate life? There’s no point to them if they don’t recall something to you—memory, imagination… even regrets. You understand, don’t you? They speak with my voice.”

     Remember the names…

     Tylix looked down. Other Neopets had always been enigmas to him. They were predictable and yet unknowable. Even his eyes piercing the veil of time could not pass that barrier. But now he had passed it. He had seen into Erick’s soul. The feeling sparked an uncharacteristic curiosity in him. “What was your regret?” said Tylix quietly.

     Again Erick said nothing. Then, flicking his finger, he conjured up an image of a slender Blumaroo with a long cloak: the other half of that pair of silhouettes.

     “Welcome to the Temple of Roo,” said illusion-Aelon in a booming voice. “I am the Archmagus. I must say, child, your unusual skill has caught my eye… pffft. Sorry. I can’t do the voice for long in private. What’s your name?”

     The illusion stopped there, frozen. Erick stared fixedly at it. “It began that way. He was the young new leader of the temple; I came there as an acolyte, and we became friends. He was always kind to me, idiot though I was. I went with him whenever he toured the countryside. The plains were fertile then, you see, and he was always traveling around helping the farmers and Babaa herders.”

     He made another gesture, and Tylix saw Aelon walking alongside another, rounder-faced Erick. They walked side by side, bending their heads together in silent laughter. Tylix could feel the energy of youth sparkling around them. Then Aelon turned and waved to another figure: a sprightly red Buzz with a short-cropped black beard. “His closest friend, though, was Lord Korabric of the Institute,” said Erick. “They were both accomplished mages with enormous egos, so of course they got along well. When the times got more dangerous, it was Korabric’s influence that kept our doors open. And so it went for many years. Then… then Jahbal made his war on the Twelve.

     “Well, what is there to say? Korabric betrayed us. The north was ravaged, and the Twelve—well, the Ten, I suppose—fell back to the plains. Our temple became their base; I kept it hidden with my power. The battles were awful. Jahbal’s magic withered the fields, poisoned the rivers. All the acolytes fled. Can you blame them? They had families and farms to tend to. They never wished for war.”

     Tylix recalled the smoke and dust that had blanketed the earth in the third illusion. He thought of Jahbal’s curse, still lingering faintly in the world even now.

     “Eventually the Twelve retreated again, this time to the Valley of Song. To Kal Panning, the capital. I’m sure you’re familiar with that place.”

     Tylix nodded slowly. He felt cold. The Ghost City… it was jarring to hear its true name spoken so casually. “They left you and Aelon here?”

     “Of course they did. They never concerned themselves with the likes of us. So Aelon and I waited here alone in the wasteland. Years went by. I was all right as long as I had him for company, but he couldn’t bear it. He missed the faces of his friends and allies. The slow drip of news devastated him… And then, finally, he left. To join the war effort, he said. But I think he wanted to see Korabric most. He hadn’t given up hope yet, the fool.”

     There was Aelon once more, standing on an illusionary shore. Time had worn down his shoulders and the dazzling twilight covered him in somber hues, but he seemed almost cheerful. It was as if a great weight had been lifted from him. “You have to stay. Go back to the temple, and protect it for me while I’m gone. Once the Twelve triumph, they’ll come looking for us. I know it.”

     Another Erick appeared next to him. He looked much the same as the real one, though a bit scruffier. He clutched at Aelon’s hand desperately. “What about supplies? We’re almost out. I’m just a normal mage, you know—I can’t make the trip south, and I certainly can’t go a month without food like you can.”

     “Don’t worry, Erick. I drew up a circle for you.” He pulled a slip of parchment from his pocket and handed it over. For a moment his voice took on its deep resonance again. “Cast this spell, and you will fall into a deep sleep. Age and its cares shall not touch you. Should a visitor set foot on the temple ground, or touch it with magic, only then will you awaken.” Bending down, he embraced Erick. “That’s how it is. So wait for me, alright? Wait for Lord Korabric and the Twelve. No matter how long it takes, we’ll be back. Jahbal won’t ever defeat us.”

     “But I—I want to be with you. You said you’d protect me!”

     Aelon shook his head, and for the first time a twinge of sadness crossed his face. “If I were a great sorcerer, I’d have the lifespan to stay here forever. But we all have to follow the paths laid out for us. That’s where the future lies.” He gently pried Erick’s hand off his. “Don’t you agree?”

     “Are you going to guilt me into this?” Illusion-Erick shoulders slumped. “Fine. I’ll watch the temple as long as you want. But let’s just… enjoy ourselves for now. Let’s play for a bit, like old times. Then I’ll let you go.”

     Aelon smiled. “A very fair trade. But take pity on my joints, will you?” He jumped up with a mock roar and tackled Erick into the water. Erick immediately splashed him in the face. They bounded about the shore, laughing and chasing each other.

     The scene froze again, capturing the duo in the middle of a wrestling bout. Drops of water hung about them in the air like jewels; the dimming sunset washed over them. “After that he sailed away, and I returned east to the temple,” said the real Erick. “I boarded it up and then put myself to sleep, just as he told me to do. And the next time I woke up, two hundred years had passed.

     “A couple of bandits had stumbled into the temple. Nothing more. I sent them off, naturally, but before that I had them tell me what had happened. The final battle at Kal Panning…” He paused. It seemed he wasn’t willing to broach the topic after all. “I went back to sleep after that. I’ve woken a few times since then. The illusions amuse me in my dreams, so I’m never bored.” His voice was hollow.

     “I suppose you didn’t want to leave,” Tylix murmured. “You preferred it here.”

     “Where would I go?” said Erick hopelessly. “What is there left for me that hasn’t burned away? I promised I’d wait for him. I’m not like you wanderers. I’ve got no path to follow, no desire to guide me. All I ever wanted was—was—“ He trailed off. All this time his gaze had been on that illusionary beach, that solitary moment of bliss. Suddenly he sniffed. There was a glimmer in his eyes. “Anyway, that’s all.”

     Tylix averted his eyes politely. After a while he spoke. “Korabric sent us here,” he said. “He did turn over a new leaf, in the end. He told us to find his old friend, someone who could help us defeat Jahbal.” Well, excepting me, he added to himself. “I thought you might like to know that.”

     “Well, I’ll be. So he remembered Aelon after all. If only he hadn’t been a thousand years late.” Erick chuckled a little to himself. They sat quietly for a moment longer. Only a few hitched sobs disturbed the sound of the breeze.

     The illusion disintegrated slowly, and finally Erick wrenched his gaze from the horizon. He turned to Tylix for the first time. Though even his physical age was well beyond Tylix’s, there was something crushingly innocent about his face. “Well? I’m crazy, aren’t I? I know. A silly promise like that…”

     If I gave up my dream, I wouldn’t be me anymore. Tylix remembered those words again. He remembered his own wavering self, poised on the border between reality and unreality. “I understand,” said Tylix. “It’s not always easy. To—to change. To put aside the memories.”

     Erick looked at him with something resembling compassion. “For you, it’s possible. You’re not stuck in your ways, like those of us from the past. We were alive once, fighting some grand war, but now we just chase our own shadows. Even Jahbal. There’s no meaning to any of it anymore.”

     So this was what it felt like to march toward the end, trapped in the shadow of a brilliant past. Tylix watched as Erick stood up and walked haltingly toward the fallen stone tower. At the last second, with his foot on the lip of the yawning hole in its side, he turned back. His eyes traveled over the ruined soil, then beyond it to the waves of grass surrounding the temple. “Last I saw it, the whole plain was still a desert. I suppose even Jahbal’s spells won’t last forever.” Erick hesitated. “I heard… I heard once that there was a song about Aelon and me. Is that true?”

     “Yes. Er, the Ballad of Erick and the Babaa Temple,” Tylix answered dutifully. His curiosity had died in him. It seemed the more he traveled, the less he knew. At this point he wanted nothing more than to be done with it all.

     “I see. Some acolyte must have started a legend about me. I can’t say I’m too pleased.” He turned away, facing the pit. “The land is healing, now that it’s forgotten the past. Let everything else forget it too. Once Jahbal and I and all these other useless ghosts vanish from the earth, once all our grudges are finally put to rest... maybe time will move in Neopia again.“

     Tylix shifted. “I wouldn’t want to forget the Old Times.”

     “They don’t deserve you. The great never deserve the small.” Erick sighed and covered his face. For a moment he stood there, regaining his composure. “I’m sorry. Don’t listen to me. I’m weak, you know. All I can do is make illusions.”

     A long pause followed, and a slow series of breaths. “That’s all,” said Erick. “You got Korabric’s blessing, it sounds like, and now you have mine. Do what you need to. Maybe when this is all over I’ll see Aelon again. One way or another.”

     He stepped over the edge and glided gracefully down. In an instant he was out of sight. Tylix came up to the hole. It was still impenetrably dark below. He still had one more question, despite himself. Do you really think you will? But he knew better than to ask it.

     A wan ray of sunlight limped over the blasted temple. The grass swayed mournfully. Tylix sat down and leaned on the tower. He felt more numb than usual. He had seen the face of destruction the night before; he had seen hope and valor. They were too much to reconcile. How did Rikti manage to care about so much all the time? How did anyone?

     He realized that Evett and Rikti were awake. For how long, he didn’t know. They were both staring at him blankly. Here they were, all three of them, trapped between painful forgetting and painful remembering. Dreams and duty… whatever paths they followed, whatever desires took them from place to place, there was nothing to guide them now.

     To be continued…

 
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