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||You are on Week 523
Every week we will be starting a new Story Telling competition - with great prizes! The current prize is 2000 NP, plus a rare item!!! This is how it works...
We start a story and you have to write the next few paragraphs. We will select the best submissions every day and put it on the site, and then you have to write the next one, all the way until the story finishes. Got it? Well, submit your paragraphs below!
Story Five Hundred Twenty Three Ends Friday, September 9
|That day didn’t seem like it would be anything special or out of the ordinary at first. It was a grey, colourless morning, and I was sitting in my office as usual. To be honest, I was more than a little bored, just sitting there watching as dust settled about the room. I had read all of my books and had lately fallen into playing Roodoku to pass the time, but now even the puzzles seemed tiring. Standing, I stretched and my eyes fell upon a dusty, cracked mirror on the wall. The old Draik looking back at me appeared out of place and tired. "Maybe I should give up this detective racket," I said aloud, and my reflection seemed to nod in agreement. It was all I really knew, but I seriously had been considering hanging up my hat and moving on with my life.
Just then, a knock sounded upon my heavy, wooden door and echoed about the room. I jumped a bit at the noise and turned to look at the door in disbelief. It had been so long since anyone had knocked that a part of me had trouble believing it was real. I was almost about to convince myself that it had all been my imagination when the knock sounded again, this time followed by a plaintive voice. "Mr. Thomas?"
I maneuvered myself back to my desk so I could lean upon its surface - every inch of me the hard as nails detective that had once been my fame. "Come in," I said calmly.
The door swung open, allowing the dull sunlight to filter inside weakly, and I saw a young Xweetok standing in the frame. She was a small child, but her dress made it obvious that her family was wealthy, and she stood with a pride that rivaled her years. "Mr. Thomas," she announced, "I need your help."
Little did I know that this was the beginning of the events that would change my life forever...
Date: Sep 6th
"Of course, please come in and have a seat," I insisted while motioning to a chair across my desk before having a seat in my own.
"I would rather not sit, Mr. Thomas," the young Xweetok said with a faint quiver in her voice. "There is no time for sitting."
"Oh?" I asked, standing up with a sense of urgency and slight embarrassment. "What is it?"
"Please, Mr. Thomas. I'll ask the questions," the young Xweetok said with a maturity that was surprising to see from someone her age. She shuffled through her velvet handbag for a moment, then pulled out a photo and laid it face down on the desk.
I grabbed the photograph and examined it. Shock bled the red from my face. It was what I had always feared, but never expected. "How can this be? Where did you get this photo?" There was a brief moment of silence that filled the room with questions that couldn't be answered. "What did you say your name was?"
"I didn't... and please, Mr. Thomas, I'll ask the questions." She walked over to the door to make sure it was locked, and then checked to make sure all of the windows were covered. "Do you know the figure in this picture?"
"Yes, of course I do. It's the Shado--"
"Mr. Thomas! Do not speak its name!" She looked around in paranoia, then spoke again. "You've dealt with it before, haven't you?"
"Yes... yes I did. Years ago I caught it, and it's been locked away ever since... but this picture, are you sure it's real?"
"I know, I know. You'll ask the questions."
"This picture is very much real, and the problem I am facing is very, very real. That thing took my parents, Mr. Thomas. I don't know why, and I don't know where, but you've caught it before! You can do it again, can't you? Can you help me?" Her lip began to tremble and her eyes became glossy, but her fist remained clenched and her posture never faltered.
"I did, but... but that was years ago. I don't know if--"
"Don't waste my time, Mr. Thomas! If it's money you want,” she reached into her handbag again and pulled out a giant sparkling diamond, "then I'm more than prepared to compensate you for your troubles."
I stared at the diamond for a minute. With it, I could finally retire comfortably. I stood up and looked into the mirror. Is it worth it? I thought to myself.
"Mr. Thomas, you're my last hope..."
Date: Sep 6th
A myriad of thoughts and questions swirled through my head, but I voiced none of them. The young Xweetok was clearly frightened beyond reason, and I feared that pressing for details would only increase her anxiety and unnecessarily put her ill at ease. The last thing I wanted was for her to bolt out my office door, never to be heard from again.
My gaze flicked toward the glittering stone, its facets painting rainbow bands of color across the polished surface of my wooden desk. I had always been renowned by my sleuthing contemporaries for the cold, calculating way I was able to handle a job, as well as my ability to get paid amply for my services. However, taking in the contents of the photo clutched in my hand, the face of the distraught Xweetok, and the nagging feeling that I was somehow responsible for her suffering made me come to the uncomfortable realization that I must be getting soft in my dotage. I almost couldn't help myself as I responded gruffly, "I'll come to a reasonable settlement with your parents as soon as I find them, so put that garish thing away."
The Xweetok gently tucked the diamond back into her velvet purse. "Thank you so much, Mr. Thomas," she said with the beginnings of tears shimmering on her lashes. "Please don’t try to contact me, it's too dangerous," she said in a frantic whisper, looking back to see my tightly locked up office behind her. "I'll get in touch with you when the time is right." She rose from her chair and exited the room as quickly as she'd come, shutting the door behind her with a soft click.
I bent over my desk, hands spread flat out on the smooth wood. Shuffling through my thoughts one by one, I asked myself: Who was that mysterious little Xweetok and who are her parents? Why did it take them? How did the creature escape? How long has it been out? Why did my wards fail? and perhaps most importantly: Where do I start looking for it?
It was time for me to begin brainstorming for potential leads. I'd taken this thing down before, and I could do it again. I pulled out my notepad. It was plain white and embossed with my business logo and S.N.I.P.E.S, the name of my company, which stood for Surveillance Network for Investigations, Phylactology, and Espionage Services. I sat there, doodling for a couple of minutes, completely lacking inspiration. Then, a sudden thought smacked me harder than a Skeith whose lollipop I'd stolen.
I rushed up out of my chair and over to my antique bookcase. The worn leather covers were dusty and cracked from disuse. Scanning the titles, I plucked out a manuscript called Base Beasts of the Haunted Woods and opened it to a torn page that I had been closely acquainted with once upon a time.
"The dastardly Shadow Zafara of the Haunted Woods is a creature shrouded in mystery and myth..." the passage began. I snapped the book closed. I knew the passage by heart already. It had been burned into my soul years ago by countless hours spent pouring over the words, trying to glean any sort of hidden meaning that I could from the text. I ran my hand over the flowing script of the author's name, Aetrius Avescus, a Pteri hermit that lived at the edge of the Haunted Woods.
Ahh, my old friend Aetrius. I fear you won't be happy to see me when I show up at the stoop of your hidey hole, I thought to myself. I walked over to the splintered wooden coat hanger, grabbed my faded fedora, and arranged it on my head. Taking one last look at the aged Draik that was reflected in the cracked mirror, I walked out of the room and into the crisp night, intent on saving the mysterious Xweetok's parents and defeating the Shadow Zafara of the Haunted Woods once and for all...
Date: Sep 7th
An eerie, but typical, fog lingered over the rocky landscape of the Haunted Woods. As I stumbled along, I debated how to approach my old friend (whom I hadn't spoken to for longer than that Xweetok had been alive) and wondered how I was ever going to convince him to help me... again. My mind continued to wander; memories of our experiences together came flooding back. I recalled our hours of charting and plotting, as well as the strenuous nights of searching for an ambiguous hope of finding a mythical character that so many denied even existed. Then, that fatefully tragic night... I stopped there, not allowing my thoughts to go on. It was just as well, as I had almost arrived at my comrade’s humble abode by that point anyhow.
I knocked on the small front door and waited for what felt like hours, at long last hearing a faint rustling within the house. I listened attentively, unable to make out much until the door abruptly opened ever so slightly – just enough for me to make out a faded Pteri beak.
A raspy voice murmured, "So? Who's there?"
"An old friend." I replied.
The door crept open just enough for him to crane his head out of it. He looked at me as if I were Dr. Sloth himself.
"I don't believe it. Montgomery Thomas himself, after all these years..."
He gazed at me in a sort of stupor until he hastily ushered me inside and onto a couch. He hobbled drastically on his right side, with the help of his cane. His small home was littered with towers of novels, articles, and papers. Awards were strewn across desks and tables, alongside memorabilia from ages ago. The couch I was sitting on was torn and faded; the desks cracked and wobbly. The house was generally a mess. It may have very well gone without being cleaned since the days when this was practically my own home, considering the hours that I spent here. I sat patiently as our minds both seemed to wander through the recollection of old times.
"Well, what could it be this time?" Aetrius asked. "Catching the Darkest Faerie, perhaps?"
I chuckled. "No, good sir, but not far from it. I came this evening because of a disaster that, despite involving an old acquaintance of ours, remains shrouded in mystery nonetheless."
After a minute of contemplating the horrid implication of what I had just said, he stammered, "You can't be serious... again? But, wh-why?!? We don’t have the resources, the strength, or even the–-"
"A young Xweetok approached me, claiming that the Shadow Zafara had captured her parents. I know nothing more of the incident, the girl... anything. You know as well as I do, however, that we are uniquely qualified to help her," I countered.
After a moment of silence I added softly, "We're pretty much the only chance she has..."
Date: Sep 7th
As I waited for some sort of response from Aetrius, perhaps a suggestion or, with a bit of luck, an answer to an unasked question, I was overcome by a sudden chill. It wasn't a particularly warm night out there in the woods, but Aetrius's abode, although ramshackle, had been comfortably toasty... until now. Now the air was so ice cold that I could see my breath turn to steam in front of me.
"What's going on?" I asked Aetrius. "Does this normally happen?"
The Pteri merely shook his head. My heart dropped into the pit of my stomach and my mouth suddenly went very dry. Being a detective, I was quite hardened. I often laughed in the face of danger. But this might have been the Shadow Zafara's doing. In fact, I had no doubt about it. It was close by. I gulped, but it required considerable effort. My throat was still bone dry.
My gaze was drawn to the light fixture on the ceiling. It was flickering madly and making a loud, buzzing noise as it began to fail.
It's getting closer, I thought.
The light finally gave way, plunging the house into an impenetrable darkness. Clumsily I felt the air, looking for something, anything, to grab on to and use as a weapon. Instead, all I got was a clump of feathers as I tugged on to Aetrius's wing.
"No! Back, back!" Aetrius cried hysterically. "Back, fiend! Don't let me use it!"
"Hey, it's me!" I called out desperately. "And... use what?"
Aetrius breathed a small sigh of relief and then said in a stern voice, "Trust me, you don't want to know. It works great on monsters but... well... it comes at a price."
"And what price is that?" I asked.
"Listen, you don't want to know. Just hope that I never have to use it in front of you."
I was suddenly very intrigued and wanted to probe further. As a detective, it had been drilled into me. I needed answers to a lot of things. I had no chance to ask any of the questions I wanted to ask, however, because a pair of luminous purple eyes now shone at me through the darkness. They seared my vision as I stared into them, but I couldn't look away. I felt as though the beast were hypnotising me.
"No!" cried Aetrius. "Get out of my house! Get out! Get out! Don't make me use it on you!"
The Pteri's cry pulled my vision away from its eyes. I could still see their imprint; despite blinking hard, I could not shake the image away.
As I retreated slowly toward the back door, hoping that I was actually heading in the right direction, the creature suddenly hissed. The sound was comparable to that of a thousand Cobralls. It was a sound that penetrated deep into my veins, seemingly turning my blood cold. It hissed again, fiercer this time, and then the eyes disappeared.
I felt an arctic gust of wind whip icy tendrils across my face and a deafening wood-splintering thud as something big and heavy landed in front of me. Two large purple eyes leered at me from not even an inch away, and this time the strength in those eyes burned my retinas. The Shadow Zafara was right there, its face in front of mine. Its airways rattled and its breath smelled of rotting plantation.
"Get down!" came the shrill cry of Aetrius. "Get down, I'm going to use it!"
I ducked low to the ground and curled myself into a protective ball as I waited for what was to happen next...
Date: Sep 8th
...I heard the protesting creak of rusty hinges as the lid of a box was opened. A strong, steady hum echoed through the room, the intensity of the sound increasing by the millisecond. I watched in awe as hundreds of small, luminescent spheres zoomed out of the box and began to weave themselves together to form one smooth, massive orb of light. When the last sphere had clicked into place seamlessly, the entire orb stuttered a few times and then burst into a number of beams so bright that they illuminated the entirety of Aetrius' cottage. My vision was ablaze and I could see nothing but the burning white that bathed the room.
The Shadow Zafara let out an ear-piercing scream of agony, causing my flesh to prickle and chills to race down my spine. The Zafara was a beast of darkness, and it could not abide the intensity and brilliance of the pure light. I could hear it as it thrashed about, knocking over the stacks of books and assorted knick-knacks that cluttered Aetrius' small home. A strong gust of chill wind stole the breath out of my lungs, and I could hear the sounds of papers rustling and glass figurines shattering all around me. Then, the gut-wrenching screeches stopped as abruptly as they began. The Shadow Zafara had escaped.
The orb flickered once more, and then fragmented into hundreds of individual spheres again. They darted in concert toward the box that Aetrius held tightly in his grasp. We were both still for a few minutes, too shell-shocked for refined movement or cognition to be possible. I recovered before Aetrius, pushing myself up off the wreckage-covered floor.
I picked my way through the debris over to Aetrius and took a look at the box. It was heavy and finely crafted, metallic golden swirls dancing over the smooth, lacquered surface. The inside glowed and the tiny orbs cast a soft glow on Aetrius' ashen blue face. I put my hand on the lid and shut it with a sharp snap, which brought Aetrius out of his daze. We were plunged into semi-darkness once more.
"What in the name of Fyora's burrito addiction was that thing?!" I asked him frantically.
"Are you daft, Montgomery? It was the Shadow Zafara, obviously," Aetrius said, cocking one eye up at me.
"No, not that thing! The other thing!" I said snappishly. "'It comes with a price,' he says. Understatement of the century, Aetrius... I was nearly blinded!" I squeaked, still shaken.
"Oh, that thing. Well, as hard as it may be to believe, once upon a time I was a young, spry explorer that got into his own adventures!" he said, voice raised a little defensively. "I got this box of Light Motes from a light faerie named Lumen back when I was going through my whole 'vanquishing-evil-and-saving-all-of-Neopia' phase,'" he explained to me. "I don’t have time to regale you with my exploits now, but rest assured that I was ridiculously awesome. We have more pressing concerns right now, though, don't you think?"
"Without question. How did it find me? It definitely knew I was here," I said into the darkness.
The lights sputtered back on and flooded the room with light. Everything was a chaotic mess. There were shards of broken glass littering the floor, books strewn about from corner to corner, and pieces of furniture upended all across the living area. I watched Aetrius take it all in, eyes going steely as he looked at a lifetime of memories that had been destroyed in an instant.
"Good question, but I really don't know. I have a feeling it won't be long before it finds us again, though, so we need to get moving," Aetrius said. He gave me a hard look. "You know where we need to go. We need to lead it to the same place we thought we did away with it for good before, the cairn stone circle at the center of the Haunted Woods. We'll have to trap it in there again, and then use these motes to reinforce the wards. Only we won't fail this time," he swore as he patted the ornate box of light motes...
Date: Sep 8th
Though my gruff exterior never faltered, internally I wrestled with myself as my revulsion pitted itself against my determination to see this through.
In the end, my determination won, but it was a close call. The fortunate thing about internal battles is that the world need never know just how close those inner demons had come to winning, which I decided was all for the best.
"At least we don't need to do much leading... it's following me," I grumped, hiding behind my surly façade. Had Aetrius ever wrestled between desire and the need to do the right thing, or would he think less of me for my split-second hesitation in the face of danger? I couldn't ask.
He nodded, and I knew my inner turmoil was well hidden, having escaped his notice entirely. "But will it follow us... there? Considering the last time?" he asked, a slight frown marring his features.
I shrugged. "It followed me here, didn't it?"
Rubbing a wing over his face, he paused to consider my words. "I guess it did. Can't hurt to try, at least."
It seemed as if no time had passed before we were dangerously ensconced in a tiny forgotten grotto deep in the Haunted Woods. It was a place no one talked about, a place most people never knew about... even the ghosts that unhappily traipsed through the rest of the woods seemed to avoid the place. Mostly unremarkable, its only defining feature – other than the absence of local fauna – was how densely the foliage around it had overgrown, so that the only way in or out was a tiny entrance.
The last time we were here, we'd cast a net meant to ensnare the fiendish Zafara, who'd often seemed more ethereal than flesh. As magical as it had been practical, it – and the wards placed on it that had taken weeks of frantic study to assure ourselves would hold – had been meant to be the prison of a lifetime. And it was a very simple one. It merely totally, undeniably, and irrevocably sealed an entrance against anyone but the makers. In a grotto with only a single entrance, the power and simplicity of the spell had been perfect.
But the unchanged grotto challenged the trap that we had deemed perfect – its dense walls of plantlife displayed no violence, no damage that the Zafara could have escaped through. In fact, it was all but unchanged since our last visit. Which meant that the wards had simply...
"The wards failed," Aetrius breathed, shock colouring his tone, "I had thought we’d find the place torn apart, unsuitable for a second confrontation... but it's like... like..."
"...like we were never here at all," I finished grimly.
"We need a more permanent solution," he responded, equally grim.
"And you shall have it," came a girlish voice from behind us, sending shivers down our spines.
Behind me, I was surprised, and not surprised, to see the young Xweetok who had first alerted me to the escape of the Shadow Zafara...
Date: Sep 9th
In her hand, she held a form of lantern - plated on the outside as to hide the light shining within. It was a shrewd move; neither of us had been alerted by a flickering along the path behind us.
"What are you doing here?" I questioned.
"I'll ask the questions, Mr. Thomas," she said with the same confidence that opposed her appearance. "Please move into the centre of the circle."
At first I didn't move, but the intensity of her glare... somehow I felt guilty at the thought of not obeying, as if I owed her something. I moved backward.
"Aetrius," the little Xweetok commanded. "Please stand back, this will be over shortly."
"Just what is going on here?" Aetrius demanded.
"I ask the questions," the Xweetok repeated.
"Not when I'm around!" Aetrius declared, standing his ground. "Now you explain to me who you are and what you are doing here! There are monsters out tonight, missy!"
"Yes," the Xweetok replied, her eyes fixed on me. "There are."
"She's the girl who hired me," I said, answering Aetrius's question. "The Shadow Zafara took her parents."
"Not entirely true," the Xweetok corrected him. "That was a lie on my part; my parents are fine, Mr. Thomas. I needed a way to get you back here, you see? An orphan is a bait I imagined you would take."
"But why?" I asked.
"Because my parents may not have met the Shadow Zafara, but I have," the Xweetok answered. "It left its mark on me, in more than one way."
She rolled up her sleeve, revealing a deep scar.
"I came here, a few months ago," she added. "Happened upon this place while exploring. I freed it by accident, of course... thankfully it fled before it could finish its job. I believe it's been looking for you, Mr. Thomas. I managed to find you first, thankfully."
"But why me?" I asked. "What does it want with me? Revenge?"
"That's certainly what I want, yes," the Xweetok admitted. "But, as for the creature... well, isn't it obvious, Mr. Thomas? What is a shadow without the object that cast it?"
"What are you talking about, girl?" Aetrius barked.
"A shadow is not a thing in itself," the Xweetok added. "It took me a lot of thinking before I discovered the truth. It is merely a distortion. Mr. Thomas, did you not wonder why it can find you?"
"What is this nonsense?!?" Aetrius shouted.
"Aetrius!" the girl shouted back. "Look! Look at his shadow! Just look!"
Aetrius turned, as if the girl was being silly, but his eyes soon turned wide with horror.
"How could I have never noticed?" he gasped.
"What?" I asked, looking down at my own shadow. "What is it?"
But there was no shadow to be found. I darted around in a circle, but there was nothing. Somehow, I did not possess one.
Only then, I knew. I did.
I felt the cool chill return as the growl came from behind me. I turned to see the Shadow Zafara, a smudge of darkness with those deep, familiar, purple eyes.
"In all your work as a detective," the Xweetok explained. "You come across a lot of darkness, a lot of evil. Such work... all that evil and darkness needs to go somewhere. So you bottled it all up, burying it deep inside until one day... one day that darkness began to move by itself, Mr. Thomas. Then, one day, the darkness escaped."
She need not have said it. I knew it was true. I was the Shadow Zafara, some dark part of me brought to life by magic.
Aetrius now stood aside, letting the Xweetok into the clearing.
"Time to end this," she announced, ripping the cover from her lantern.
It was similar to the light mote Aetrius had unleashed, only far brighter. Pure white light filled the clearing, but unlike before, the Shadow Zafara could not flee. It screamed in front of me - but as it did so I realised it was me that was screaming, not the beast.
I fell to the floor as the lingering darkness was burnt out in front of me. The lantern's light died abruptly as the Xweetok placed the cover back on her lantern.
It took a few moments to adjust back to the darkness, but when I did, I noticed a new shadow now attached to my feet - the Shadow Zafara was gone.
"It's over?" Aetrius asked.
The Xweetok nodded.
"I can remember," I whispered. "Everything I did as the monster... I can remember it all."
"Don't run away from it," the Xweetok instructed. "That's how it was born in the first place."
I felt the reassuring hand of Aetrius on my shoulder.
"We'll find a way to work through it, together, old friend," he told me.
Helping me to my feet, together we stumbled back out of the clearing toward his home. The Xweetok lingered for a moment before also disappearing into the night.
The shadows watched them go, not a one of them moving.
Date: Sep 9th
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