Whispers: Part Four
Tehalah muttered something in a language Aidne couldn’t understand.
“Khaj,” Aidne whispered in the fire Zafara’s ear, “what did she just say?”
He bit his lip. “That was an ancient Lost Desert dialect no one speaks anymore.”
“No one... but you?” she asked hopefully.
Despite the intensity of the situation, Khaj managed a tight smile. “No one but me.” He paused. “She said, ‘We have failed. The Soul Eater is free’. I won’t tell you the last bit because it’s not the kind of thing you say in polite company, much less repeat.”
Aidne nodded. “Ah, gotcha.”
Trick shuddered next to Aidne, conjuring up a small ball of flames to comfort himself. “It does feel like something’s happened, doesn’t it? Something bad.”
Lani shook her head at her younger cousin. “It’s just apprehension. It doesn’t necessarily mean that an evil ghost has just re-entered the living world...” She trailed off.
Aidne straightened. She had hoped she wouldn’t have to do this. She cleared her throat of a few stray particles of sand. “All right then, here’s what we’ll do. Khaj, you and Lani-”
She broke off as an ominous rumble shook the land for about fifty yards in any given direction. Like watery paint, crimson colours rolled across the sky, completely obscuring any summer blue; any light shining through took on red tones so the land looked like it was awash in blood. The shaking increased, and Aidne was thrown to her knees. The focal point of all these happenings appeared to be no further than a few meters in front of them.
A minute later, the very tip of the Temple of Countless Souls poked through the years of sand. It rose achingly slowly, various nicks and openings in its surface leaking sand, as if it was a monstrous ocean creature shedding water off its oiled skin. Years of weather had not affected it as it waited beneath the sand, and it had managed to retain a good deal of its original magnificence. Finally, it stopped rising and an iron door swung open, looking for all the world like a leering mouth, just daring the pets to enter it.
“On the creepiness scale of one to ten, I think this would rate an eleven,” Trick announced, breaking the silence.
Though Trick’s comment was rather useless, it did serve the purpose of snapping Aidne out of her shock. There was work to be done.
“Okay, here’s a modified plan. Lani and Trick, stay here and keep watch. If we don’t come back in two hours, go to Sakhmet and tell everyone to evacuate. I doubt anyone will listen to you, but you gotta try. A few might believe you. Khaj, you come with me.” Aidne paused before turning to the Sand Mages. “You two, do whatever, okay?”
Taahn blocked Aidne’s way. “Just what do you think you’re doing?” he snarled.
“I’m going to find Aurora.”
“You don’t even have the faintest idea what you’re up against, foreigner. Your friend set the Soul Eater out. She’s already dead.”
“Can you sense that for certain?” Aidne demanded. “Well, can you?”
“I cannot tell anything for sure,” Taahn mumbled. “Not since he was set free.”
Aidne sighed. “Exactly. You know what, you are two of the most pessimistic pets I have ever met in my entire life, and that includes the robotic hotel manager.”
“Aidne, I’ve got a problem with this,” Trick said angrily. “A big problem.”
The Zafara was getting frustrated with all the interruptions. Aurora could be dying at that very moment!
“Look, Trick, if you’re going to shout at me for telling you to stay here, save your breath. This was supposed to be a little research mission, nothing more. When the life-draining ghosts come into the picture, you stay out. Got it?”
“You need someone to watch your back!” Trick exclaimed, standing on his toes to lessen their height difference. “You may need me and Lani!”
“You are watching our backs. Stay here,” Aidne demanded. Where had she seen that stubbornness before? It struck her suddenly. Her old mechanic pal Jeri was best friends with another Shoyru named Kiyoshi Paco, who happened to be Trick’s half-brother! She’d met Kiyoshi once before, and the determination she’d seen in those blue eyes she would never forget.
Yippee for me, Aidne thought sarcastically, the entire family must be obsessive.
Aidne raced off into the tomb before anyone else could hold her up, followed closely by Khaj and the two Sand Mages.
Once inside, Aidne pulled an old torch from a rusty bracket on the wall and lit it with a match from her pocket. The dancing flames illuminated only a few steps ahead, so the Zafara pulled a stout walking stick from a loop on her backpack, intending to use it to detect dead ends.
The companions journeyed in silence, not daring to speak for fear of alerting the Soul Eater to their presence. Even so, their footsteps echoed loudly through the corridor.
“I wonder what these markings on the wall say,” Khaj muttered. “I can’t make heads or tails of them.”
Aidne nodded. Never in all her years of traveling had she seen anything like them. They looked more like stylized murals than writing.
Soon, the pets came to an open doorway that led into blackness. Aidne felt the fur on the back of her neck prickle, and even the two mages seemed to stiffen slightly. Whatever was beyond that door was bad news.
And whatever was beyond that door was free to leave at any time.
Khaj swallowed audibly and gave Aidne a weak grin. “How about the magic-ish people go first?”
Aidne smiled grimly at her friend’s small joke. “Maybe. I’m beginning to wonder if it was a good idea to argue so much with Trick. I wouldn’t mind having him and Lani with us right now.”
Khaj shook his head. “Nah. Better to have someone live to tell the tale.”
“You think we’re going to die?” Aidne asked in shocked disbelief.
The fire Zafara shrugged, looking uncomfortable.
“Look, no one is going to die, I promise,” Aidne said a bit too forcefully. “We’ll save everybody, even Aurora. Got that?”
Khaj shrugged. “Don’t get your hopes up. We have no idea what we’ll find in there.”
“Quiet,” Tehalah hissed through clenched teeth.
A small ball of light appeared in her hand and she slipped off into the darkness, followed by Taahn.
Aidne squeezed Khaj’s shoulder before they both followed the mages into the room that seemed to radiate evil, with only the light of a torch and the glow of a ball of magic to guide them.
Back on the surface, Trick was getting restless. He paced back and forth on the dunes of sand, muttering to himself to the point that Lani had to tell him to be quiet.
The Ixi herself sat on a lump of sandstone, scribbling away with surprising calmness. Every so often she would flip through a few pages and scratch out a word here or there, the image of productivity.
“I’m bored,” Trick complained, flopping down onto the ground, lying with his back in the sand. “I hate sitting around doing nothing.”
“Well then, now that you’ve finished occupying yourself with scaring away every small animal around here with your sulking, you can help me with the next entry in my log book,” Lani said.
“Oh, the thrills!” the Shoyru exclaimed with mock enthusiasm. “And I do not sulk,” he put in, looking peeved.
Lani sighed. “Whatever. Hey, I’ve been thinking of writing down the story about the origin of the Soul Eater, you know, as a reference. Should I call it ‘Prophecy of the Apocalypse’, or ‘Lost in the Sands’?”
Trick snorted, then gave a small grin. “Doesn’t matter, as long as the story ends with ‘happily ever after’.”
“Some of the best stories have sad endings, you know.”
“Not this one,” Trick replied. “I hate sad endings. Aidne and Aurora and Khaj dying would count as a sad ending.”
“Maybe you’re right,” Lani said. “Don’t feel too down. I don’t think anyone’s died yet, not even Aurora.”
“That’s what’s weird, don’t you think?” the green Shoyru asked, rolling onto his stomach. “If you were a soul-eating ghost, and hadn’t eaten in several hundred years, and a living pet came right up to you, what would you do?”
“Eat the pet’s soul, or whatever it is,” Lani replied.
Trick nodded, raising himself into a cross-legged position. “So why is it still possible that Aurora’s alive?”
“What’s with all the deep thinking here?” the Ixi asked. “That’s my job.”
“I’m not stupid, you know. I just don’t usually hinder myself with etiquette.”
His cousin took a deep breath. “I never said you were stupid.”
“But you thought it,” he persisted.
“Maybe sometimes, when you were showing absolutely no sense at all. The thing is, though, you can be smart, but you choose not to. That’s stupid.”
Trick sprung up suddenly. “That’s it, Lani!”
Lani was taken aback. “This is the first time one of my lectures has really resonated with you, right-”
Trick shook his head. “No... I mean, yes... no, actually. Just what you said about someone who was pretending to be stupid, or careless, or something like that, when they’re really actually smart. What if that’s what the Soul Eater’s doing?”
“Wait. You know we’ve been wondering what in Neopia he’s thinking, keeping Aurora alive for so long? Well, he knows that if she’s alive and down there, Aidne’s bound to follow, and maybe even others. He’s too weak to leave; he’s been starved for so long. He knows that one won’t be enough, but what about five? He wants us to think he’s being careless so we’ll play his game.”
“And so that would make Aurora... bait?”
“Checkmate,” Trick said, then stood up and ran headlong into the tomb, shedding grains of sand as he went.
Within the dark room, Aidne could just barely see Aurora’s prone figure leaned against the far wall, bathed as she was in the glow of fire and magic. Racing forward, Aidne knelt at her friend’s side and placed a two fingered paw on the Kacheek’s neck. She could have shouted with relief when she felt a steady pulse beneath her fingertips. Taking off the jacket she had worn over her tank top, she silently thanked Aurora for telling her to bring it as she laid the piece of clothing gently over her unconscious form.
“She’s okay. Khaj, help me get her out of here. Taahn, Tehalah-”
Aidne never finished her sentence. As she spoke, a huge rumble filled the chamber, and within seconds the room was full of a cold blue light.
“The exit!” Khaj cried.
Aidne spun around. The rumble had been a load of heavy rocks, some bigger than Aidne herself, falling from the ceiling to completely block the door they had just come through not long before.
“Someone was ready for us,” Aidne observed, trying to quell the fear that she felt rising inside of her.
“It’s the Soul Eater!” Taahn shouted, drawing a large, sickle-shaped sword.
Interesting observation, a chilling, disembodied voice stated in calm tones. How strange. I thought everyone had forgotten the time when I ruled the world above.
Speechless, the companions could only watch in horror as a dark shape took form in the middle of the room.
If Aidne had to give the Soul Eater a species, she would probably call him a Lupe, but he was at least twice the size of any normal lupe she’d ever seen, and his fur was ink black. His eyes were the only part of his face visible above the nose, and only then through the narrow slits in his jackal mask. They were as red as the sky that loomed over the Lost Desert that day.
The Soul Eater smiled icily, surveying the two Zafaras and the mages. So this is what remains of the proud resistance against me from so long ago. A brother and sister who can raise a bit of a whirlwind and two teenaged zafaras. Neither of which has any magic. To speak of. A pity; magic-users were always the most filling.
Tehalah smiled back, just as coldly as the Lupe himself had done. “You’re ancient history, Soul Eater. Despite all the trouble you brought into Neopia, you have been forgotten.”
I will make them remember! he snarled as he lunged at them.
Without knowing exactly what she was doing, Aidne leapt in front of the others and swung her walking stick in an arc, bringing it down on the Soul Eater’s head with every ounce of force she could muster. The Lupe didn’t even flinch, and the stick bounced harmlessly off his head.
“Hagan’s beard,” Aidne exclaimed breathlessly. “That’s one durable ghost.”
What did you say?
“Umm, nothing,” Aidne replied with as much confidence as she could, given the situation. Trying to hit him was quite possibly the stupidest thing she had ever done, but at least he had stopped charging.
You are Aidne Lilith, are you not?
He knew it already, so there was no real point in lying. “Yes.”
The Soul Eater laughed. A very amusing display. Not many would have the courage to try something like that. I’ll kill you first.
“Actually, you won’t,” Taahn put in, gripping the hilt of his sword.
The spirit smiled. And you think you will stop me? I don’t think so.
A mist of purple and black magic gathered like a dense fog around his massive paws, and with what Aidne could only assume was a word of power, it flew at the two mages and engulfed them. When the cloud cleared, both Taahn and Tehalah appeared to be unconscious. Aidne hoped, anyways. If the Soul Eater didn’t make good on his promise to kill Aidne herself first, then they were most likely already dead.
Taking advantage of the distraction, Aidne and Khaj simultaneously took the opportunity to leap at the Soul Eater, Aidne with her walking stick, Khaj with just teeth and claws. With one spin, the Lupe spirit evaded the fire Zafara’s attack and, in the same motion, delivered a blow that sent him flying. He hit the wall and was covered by rubble knocked free from the roof.
Aidne hung back slightly, knowing now that she would meet the same fate if she was not careful. It was just her now. Allowing instinct to take over, she ducked a massive paw as it swung at her, then dropped to the ground and rolled safely to the side. She stood up across the floor from her opponent and warily faced him, sizing him up. If he was as strong as she was beginning to suspect, this battle would be over before it started.
So you want to do this the old fashioned way, do you? Another cloud of magic gathered, and formed itself into a massive broadsword.
“Ugh, Aidne!” came a voice from behind the rubble. “What’s going on in there? There’s all this stuff blocking the way.”
The voice sounded like Lani. “What are you doing here? I told you to stay on the surface!” Aidne shouted. How just like her friend to not listen.
“I would still be there, but I’m looking for Trick. He ran off to try and tell you something, and I still haven’t found him. You haven’t seen him around, have you?”
The red Zafara winced, glancing over to make sure the Soul Eater hadn’t moved. Strangely, he had not moved, and seemed to find her conversation interesting.
Of course he doesn’t have to use this time to gain the upper hand, Aidne thought. He already has it. This is just entertainment to him.
“No, I haven’t seen Trick. What did he want to tell me?” The Zafara was simply stalling for time now.
“He wanted to tell you that this was all a trap, and that if you come down here you will quite possibly die.” Lani’s voice sounded annoyed.
“Ah, great,” Aidne groaned. “It’s a bit late, but thank your cousin for me when you see him.”
“I’ll try to dig out the entrance. You stay alive until then, okay?”
Aidne thanked Fyora that Lani was so quick on the uptake. It meant that Lani had just guessed what was going on without someone having to spell it out for her.
With a massive sigh, Aidne turned back to the Soul Eater and gripped her staff tightly. A thought struck her out of the blue, something she needed to know. She wouldn’t have even considered the possibility if not for all the odd dreams she had had since getting Aurora’s letter, and the suspicions she had harboured that they had been a message from someone... or something.
“Hey, Soul Eater, I have a bit of a question for you,” Aidne said, surprising herself with how calm her voice sounded. “Tehalah told me a story about the stuff you did all those years ago. You know, setting yourself up as a god in all those places and sapping the strength out of your followers?”
The Lupe actually looked a bit interested. So you have heard the story. Ask your question.
Aidne swallowed. This question could get her into a lot of trouble. “Why did you destroy Geraptiku?”
“That’s my question.” She swallowed. “Out of all the important places you could’ve chosen, why did you travel so far from the desert to destroy a tiny little village that hardly anyone knows about?”
The Soul Eater actually seemed impressed. You figured that out on your own?
With the help of some dreams, Aidne thought, but said aloud, “Yes.”
The Soul Eater looked thoughtful. I had my reasons. First of all, as you said, it was small and out of the way, so nobody would really miss it. Villages are my specialty. The main reason, however, is that the population of Geraptiku had by far the most concentrated form of magic I had ever seen. As I said earlier, magic users are more filling, so it was natural to go there.
Aidne gripped her staff in numb paws. From what she had seen of his fighting style, Aidne knew that he had very little real fighting experience, and won by strength and speed alone. This didn’t comfort her in the slightest, as he had still had hundreds of years to practice, and the Zafara had never really been one for battling.
The Soul Eater seemed bored of all the delays, and Aidne could see his razor-sharp claws tighten on his broadsword’s hilt.
Fyora help me, Aidne thought, preparing herself for a spring. Keep all of my friends safe. Aidne thought about what else she could say. Please don’t let him be as tough as he looks, she begged.
Since she’d never actually fought a pet in a duel outside the Battledome, the Zafara was completely unprepared when he suddenly lunged at her, his spectral blade effortlessly cutting through the stale air.
To be continued...