The figure did not linger in the streets of Neovia, as the thick night fog curled around her dark robe. She was bundled up tight against the night air, a hood hiding much of her face. Her movements were deliberate, but rushed. She did not wish to be caught here, of all places. Too many people. Too many chances for everything to go wrong.
She crossed the bridge and made her way up the hill to the graveyard. Away from the water, the fog began to clear slightly, and the fear of the night drew back slightly.
Not so far from here, and not so long ago, she had plotted terrible things. The touch of the headstones brought back delightful memories. But painful ones, too. That stupid plan had landed her in this situation.
In the heart of the graveyard, one crypt’s door had been left open invitingly. She knew it would lead her down to the catacombs beneath Neovia. A network of twisting and turning caverns that were almost impossible to navigate. Relics of a time when Neovia had been run by a terrible, hateful dark wizard. These days they were filled with the remains of that work. Undead creatures, powerful dark curses, and the odd foolish cult from Neovia hoping to meet in the dark.
The locals of Neovia had banned Neopets entry soon after they were opened up. Too many unfortunate souls had fallen victim to the horrors within. These days, the locals sent their Petpets in, hoping they returned with some remains of the dark wizard’s loot.
But this figure, she would not be content with the table scraps. She was here with purpose, and would not be deterred.
Once inside, she made her way down the steps and pulled back the hood on her cloak. Her long black hair tumbled out, tinged with a streak of purple. And beneath it, the face of a Faerie was revealed. The Dark kind.
Carefully, she traced her way through the network of tunnels, touching the walls and seeming to sense which way she should be going. More than once, she stopped, holding her middle as if caught by some exertion beyond her long walk. Whenever she heard a noise, she moved in the opposite direction. She was in no condition to encounter anything down there. And if she met the wrong cult, word could spread and all the risk she had gone to would be for nothing.
She spiraled down the endless levels of the catacombs, further into the dark and the cold. Even down there, the braziers were kept lit. Magical fire. Another relic of the dark wizard who constructed the place.
After around two hours, she finally came to a dead end. A smooth brick wall greeted her, no different to the dozens of others she had passed in her journey. Unremarkable. And yet, as she drew close to the masonry, she could feel it. This was the one. The one she was searching for.
She traced her fingers along the bricks in a pattern she called from her memory. With each touch, she threaded a little of her dark magic into the wall. Just enough to feel it react. It was done. She took two steps back from the wall. She looked exhausted now, the effort of her magic draining her. She glanced down at a ruby ring on her finger and spat on the floor as a curse.
But whatever it had cost her, her efforts had succeeded. The wall ahead of her began to rumble and move, sliding back and out of the way in an effort that strained mechanisms centuries old. Beyond, there was another passage, this one roughly hewn into the rock. The Faerie continued onward, taking one of the magical braziers to light her way.
The rock passage opened up into a cave. Natural, by the looks of it. Probably one of the original ones from before the wider labyrinth of the catacombs were constructed.
In the heart of the cavern, there was a chair carved in the rock. The form was unmistakable to the Faerie, it was intended to be a throne. And sat atop it, there was a skeleton. Kyrii by the looks of it. Grinning a bony smile at her from beyond the grave. Wires and cables fed out from the stone throne to vats, cylinders, and complicated looking machinery dotted around the cave. All of it was depressingly dead.
A dead thing, in the heart of a place of death.
Fitting she should find herself here.
The Faerie deflated, exhaled heavily.
It had been the last roll of the dice for her. But even this, it seemed, was lost.
As if reacting to her breath, the room began to spring to life. The machinery began to whir. Dials sprang to life. Readings oscillated. Down here, there was no electricity. These machines took their power from something deeper, and more dangerous. The vats began to bubble and boil, and down the cables a strange mix of power and magic coursed, all lines merging at the silent Kyrii skeleton.
And then, as if being projected from some distant place, the figure of a Kyrii materialised in front of the throne. It looked flesh and blood. Old, wrinkled and stooping. Dressed in ornate robes. The image was pale, a mere reflection of the creature that most certainly now resided on the throne behind it. It flicked occasionally, whatever magic powering it clunky with the centuries of slumber.
“How like you to leave a message,” the Faerie said in a tired, hateful voice. “Always had to have the last word.”
She expected this to be the Kyrii’s last will. His final words, recorded on the devices for posterity. But instead, the image of the Kyrii snarled.
“How dare you!” he shrieked. “A message? Have the centuries addled your mind so much that you cannot even recognise the real me?”
The Faerie gasped.
“Oberon?” she asked. “You are a ghost?”
The Kyrii laughed.
“A ghost?” he mocked her. “You really think I would bring myself so low? Ghosts are echoes, and all echoes must fade. No, I am Oberon the Arcanist! The last of the Circle of Twelve. Ruler of Ancient Neopia, alive and intact! Names I have not used in a great long time. The sounds bring joy to my ears. I have survived by many different names since we last met. But you know something of that, don’t you? I hear they call you the Darkest Faerie now.”
The Faerie smiled at the mention of her name.
“I didn’t think you would know what has happened in the outside world,” she said.
“I have servants,” Oberon said. “I have ways. How else do you think you would have found me if not for the trails they leave? The nature of this device means I cannot leave this chamber. But it keeps me alive long after the last of my magics keeping my body functioning failed. My final act of defiance against the fools who tried to burn my mansion down.”
Oberon had been the dark wizard who had ruled Neovia, and designed the catacombs. That much, the Darkest Faerie had discovered. The townspeople had eventually risen up against him and burned down his home. They thought him dead, the Darkest Faerie had suspected otherwise.
“You did this to yourself?” she asked.
“Of course!” Oberon said. “Don’t you see? These devices are technology and magic fused. They draw energy from the rocks around them. They will never fail, and as long as they function, I will continue to live. It is not an ideal form, but it is survival. I have done it! Achieved that which Xantan could never do! Immortality! I shall live forever, and by doing so prove myself the Master Wizard of Neopia!”
The Darkest Faerie kept her thoughts to herself. That this was no life at all. Oberon had been obsessed with the idea of eternal life since the Darkest Faerie first met him after the fall of the Great Empire. Hopelessly tainted by Xantan’s magic, he had turned against the Circle of Twelve and begun to burn Neopia in a maddened effort to prove himself greater than his former master.
The Darkest Faerie had joined him, for a time. A few centuries. They had wiped whole cities from the map of Neopia together.
Before Altador. Before Bal’Gammaron. Before everything.
“Enough about that, though,” Oberon says. “What brings you to my door, old friend? They said you were petrified by Fyora.”
The Darkest Faerie cringes a little at the word ‘friend’. She and Oberon had a dysfunctional relationship at the best of times, they had simply hated each other less than they hated everyone else.
“I was, for a thousand years,” she told him bitterly. “But I escaped. Twice. I’ve come to you because I have a magical problem. A complex one. One I have been unable to solve myself. You are, as you say, the Master Wizard of Neopia. The greatest of the Twelve. Who else would I come to?”
Oberon lapped up the praise.
“What do you need?”
The Darkest Faerie held out her hand. The ruby ring glittered in the lights of Oberon’s machines.
“Then it is true,” Oberon said like a greedy child. “My servants told me whispers of your return. That you took Jerdana’s Orb and smashed it. Used the pieces to make something new. Something bent towards your own will. It worked?”
“I made an army of their worst nightmares,” the Darkest Faerie said. “But then, I found that I could not remove the ring. I have tried, every spell I know. I tried blasting it off, it simply shrugged off the magic. Even worse, it seems to be draining my magic. Every spell I cast, I feel weaker. Like a leech on my body. The spells needed to reach you exhausted me. Before the ring, I could have performed them without thinking.”
“The Darkest Faerie, brought low,” Oberon remarked with a smirk.
“This is not a laughing matter!” she snapped. “This thing, it is feeding on my life, Oberon! It is killing me, slowly but surely. If this ring is not removed, I will die. Help me! If you ever valued a thing about me, then help me now!”
Oberon regarded her for a long moment. It was rare to see the Darkest Faerie so honest. She was, he considered, truly afraid of what that end may bring.
“Show me the ring,” he said eventually.
She moved forward. The spectral figure of Oberon inspected it, though he seemed unable to touch anything.
“This is not all of the orb’s fragments,” he said. “There are more.”
“The others I used to make a brooch,” she said. “For an expendable fool who blindly served me. He shares my fate, and is welcome to it. Spare no thought on curing him.”
Oberon nodded slowly. He drew back his hands.
“I cannot help you,” he said flatly.
The Darkest Faerie frowned at him.
“You?” she asked. “The Greatest Wizard of the ages?”
“Yes, me,” Oberon replied. “There are magics beyond my scope to break. The curse on this ring, it is very specific. Tailored, I might almost say, to you. Jerdana, I have heard she is a formidable sorceress, but this is impressive. Worthy of my own hand.”
The Darkest Faerie’s frown deepened.
“The original orb was a magical artifact with a singular purpose. It would turn a creature to stone forever so long as it remained around their neck,” Oberon added. “But she added a deeper magic. A second curse. No doubt she feared that you might triumph over Fyora and claim the orb yourself. The second curse, it is designed to activate only should you attempt to use it. A failsafe. A plan B. Resourceful, you see? It is draining your life, you are correct, and cannot be removed unless the curse itself is broken. That, I cannot do. Such things are very personal. Only one person on the face of Neopia can take this ring off your finger, my dear.”
“Who?” the Darkest Faerie demanded.
“Who else? The one who cast the spell,” Oberon said. “Jerdana. Her word and her word alone can restore all you have lost.”
The Darkest Faerie let out a deep, sarcastic laugh.
“Then I am as good as dead,” she said. “Jerdana would never do so, even under torture. I am finished.”
The word filled her with such fear and rage that she had never felt before. It was unfair, she was sure of it. If she still had enough magic in her veins, she would burn Neopia to a cinder as her final act. It would only be right, after all. It would be rude for everyone else to keep existing after she was gone. But such fantasies were lost to her, now, too.
Or maybe not. There were more ways to destroy a planet than with magic alone.
A wicked smile began to form on her face. Oberon noticed it, and knew what she was thinking. He’d be thinking the same in her situation, after all.
“There is another option,” he said.
“What?” the Darkest Faerie demanded.
“The land of Altador is said to be a haven for many of the most noble in Neopia,” Oberon said. “Sickening, really. If I were still mobile I would have flattened it. But you know what the most insidious emotion of all is? Hope. It is infectious. And very, very hard to kill. The council of Altador were your friends. And no matter what you do to them, some part of them will always hope that you can be redeemed. No matter how dark the hour, they will always be tempted to show you mercy.”
“What are you suggesting?” the Darkest Faerie asked. “That I turn up in Altador and beg forgiveness? They will see through me in an instant.”
“Not if you mean it,” Oberon said. “You called yourself their friend once, too, you know? You have a choice, old friend. Spend what little time you have left plotting pointless little acts of revenge, or seek forgiveness. And hope that doing so gives you a literal new lease of life.”
Kill everyone, or save herself.
Hardly seemed a choice at all.
She smiled the smile again.
“A pleasure to speak with you again, Oberon,” she said.
“And with you,” the Kyrii replied.
The machines began to wind up, and the wizard’s image faded from view as if it had never been there at all. The cavern fell silent, returned to the state of readiness it had occupied for centuries.
The Darkest Faerie left that place of death and decay. She had work to do, and no time at all to do it in.
She had to live.