Euan felt dizzy when he closed his beak.
Swaying, the spotted Pteri fidgeted as the king cocked his head in thought. He'd seen Hagan muse over other Neopets' words in much the same way but the familiarity of the movement didn't set him any more at ease than he had been and his vision swam.
It took Euan a second to notice the light dim in the green Skeith's eyes and two more to realise what it meant. Icy disappointment seized him, freezing him in place, when the Brightvalian monarch pursed his lips and shook his head. Euan had become more or less familiar with what that meant, while standing in line, and it wasn't great.
"Well, it could have been worse," King Hagan said by way of consolation. He massaged his forehead, leaning back in his throne, before he sighed. Oh, no. The sound sliced into Euan's hearing, as sharp as his dismay, and the Pteri registered little of the king's subsequent dismissal.
He'd failed. He'd spent countless hours working towards this moment and he'd failed. How could this have happened? It had been Euan's ambition to impress the king with his knowledge – with his wisdom – since he'd enrolled in the university that King Hagan had founded.
It took Euan an eternity to bow and turn away from the dais so that the next Neopet in line could take his place in front of the king's throne. He trained his glance to the plush emerald carpeting as he pushed his way through the crowd. There were courtiers as well as students congregated in the chamber and the rustle of the ladies' silk dresses, combined with the general chatter, made his head spin all the more.
"Euan!" a female voice called, disrupting his thoughts. "Hey, Euan!" Someone placed a paw on Euan's shoulder and he blinked, lifting his eyes with some effort, to see a furry face whirl into focus.
"Alivia. You... saw?" His tone sounded bitter even to his own hearing and his friend's pretty features softened. It wasn't uncommon for the students at Brightvale University, located in the nearby Brightvale Town, to spend their free time in Hagan's castle and the two had agreed to meet up in the course of the morning.
"Yeah." The white Cybunny gave him a sympathetic look while they walked. "It's too bad, Euan. But there's always next time," she offered with an encouraging wink.
"Mmhmm." Euan's answer was short, even snappish, though he forced himself to nod. "That's true... I guess." Some Neopians, Euan knew, came to visit Hagan on a daily basis and left the castle in disappointment time after time. His failure today had nothing on their track records.
He couldn't quite bring himself to shove his frustration aside, however, and changed the topic to something safer as they entered the castle's foyer. "So... do you want to head to the library?" Alivia majored in history at BVU, like Euan, and they often worked on their class papers together.
The Cybunny gave a silvery tinkle of a laugh and shrugged.
They stepped outside, following the lane that led into town, and Euan found himself staring into the distance. Their university was a series of tall sandstone structures set in a hilltop position. It was visible over the branches of the great oaks that dotted the castle gardens and, just as a strong breeze whipped into him, Euan felt a wave of fresh anxiety wash over him at the sight.
"We've got so much work to do," the Pteri complained, groaning. He'd spent most of his free time in recent weeks studying for his audience with Hagan and he scowled as he shifted his focus to his other concerns. There was the paper that he needed to write for his 'Studies of Ancient Altador' course and the Qasalan history project that he was to work on with Alivia.
"Tell me about it," his friend remarked. Neither spoke for a few beats and they passed through BVU's wrought-iron gates.
Euan's mood soured further as they wove their way through the university courtyard with its crowds of milling students. His body felt heavier and heavier with each step he took towards the library's oak-panelled entrance.
Sighing, he followed Alivia down a corridor and scanned the brass plaques on the shelves before they stopped at a section marked 'Modern History: Lost Desert'. On the top shelf rested a stack of books written on Qasala. Euan pulled out a great, leather-bound tome and flipped through its contents.
It was a decent secondary source but he made a face as he read. He just knew that it was going to take an age to compile the notes he – and Alivia – needed for their essays. Great. Fantastic, actually.
Alivia hummed as she pulled out a second book and Euan frowned as he assessed her. The white Neopet was one of the breeziest, most light-hearted Neopians that Euan knew but, even so, he couldn't keep himself from voicing the question that formed at his beak.
"How is it that you never seem pressured by anything?" he asked, exasperated. He'd never understood how his friend managed to maintain such a positive outlook on their studies and it bothered him now. "If there's a trick to it, let me know."
Alivia grinned at him. Rifling through her bag, she lifted out an empty drink container. "Coffee," she told Euan. "Enthusiasm in a cup."
She was joking, of course, but Euan could only manage a weak chuckle in response. He muttered an excuse to Alivia, telling her to find some free work space, and went to take a moment to be alone. He'd look for more reference material in the meantime.
Euan didn't know why the morning had unnerved him as much as it had. What Euan did know, however, was that he wanted to know more than he did. About everything. Maybe, then, he'd be able to awe Hagan, the most illustrious of the many scholars in Brightvale, with his wisdom.
The Pteri blinked when he found himself standing in front of an unfamiliar doorway. Its rectangular frame was guarded on either side by stone Noils, which appeared to glare at him from their perches, and was situated beneath an ornately carved wall candelabra.
Had he taken a wrong turn along the way? That was odd. Euan had been wrapped up in his own thoughts, that was undeniably true, but he'd thought that he knew the library well enough to be able to navigate it blindfolded. Surely he'd spent enough time here.
He glanced behind him, uncertain, before he peered into the hallway beyond. It was dimly lit but he could just make out the outline of a bookcase. Some strange compulsion drove Euan's feet to carry him into the unknown space.
Soon, Euan was perusing the material arranged on the bookcase's smooth rosewood shelves. Most of the shelving in the library housed a collection of both books and scrolls but this bookcase, he noted with interest, was devoted solely to the latter.
His searching gaze came to a rest on a scroll that lay on the bottom ledge. It had been browned by age, it seemed, and was slightly coarse to the touch although it felt as right in Euan's grasp as it might've if it were something that belonged to him. Huh.
Inhaling deeply, Euan undid the parchment's golden clasp. The cursive that scrolled across the page made his heart skip a beat and he scanned and re-scanned the elegant, almost calligraphic script with growing if dumbfounded excitement.
When you read these words aloud, Euan read, you will gain all the knowledge of the universe for a brief time. It was outrageous. And yet in Brightvale, if nowhere else, it was more than possible that this scroll could be exactly what it promised. Many a brilliant magician lived in Hagan's kingdom. Dared he try it?
It was more than possible, in fact, that he'd been drawn to this scroll, somehow, and Euan willed himself not to hesitate as he began to recite the words in a half-whisper. The notion was an incredible if scary thought and one that was made all the more incredible by the memory of how right the scroll had felt in his hold.
One expectant heartbeat pounded by. Two. Three.
He'd started to feel the sharp pangs of disappointment when his breath ripped from his lungs in a gasp. Euan had heard of epiphanies before and recalled that they were, by definition, sudden, shocking senses of insight. That was a fair enough description of the sensation that he experienced although it was more than that.
The clarity that Euan now possessed was nothing short of stunning.
A low growl made him start and look around, conscious that this area might prove to be off-limits to the general student population. It had that kind of feel but there was no one else in sight. He must've imagined it as the only other figures in the vicinity were the twin Noil statues.
Certainly, Euan felt giddy. The dizziness that he felt, though, was due less to anxiety than it was to excitement and he smiled as he moved to slip the scroll into his pocket. He paused, however, in the act and eyed the statues with abrupt suspicion.
If the scrolls here were magic... it could be that the Noils had been enchanted. Even as he thought this, a series of facts presented itself in Euan's mind and he mused it over with interest.
Many statues in Neopia, he realised, had been charmed at some stage and this was especially true of those placed in institutions of learning. A great number of these were imbued with an animation spell that ensured that any unwanted guests were kept from entering restricted areas. In the same breath, Euan became conscious that the spell cast on these particular statues had been sourced from the writings contained within the Advanced Magic spellbooks sold in the Magical Bookshop.
Similar spells were often placed on other objects and furnishings. He took a step to his left and examined a large, gilt-framed portrait of the king that hung on the walls as a dry, inner voice informed him that the canvas, too, had been charmed.
Grunting, Euan forcibly pulled his thoughts away from the portrait before he found himself becoming acquainted with the specifics of its enchantment. The stone Petpets nearby hadn't approached him, even if they had alerted him to their presence, but it was time to leave.
He found Alivia settled in a quiet nook by a series of tall, arched windows. The light that streamed into the library through the stained glass lit Alivia's fur to soft jade, pastel rose and lilac hues and Euan formed the impression that the Cybunny looked... peaceful.
Too peaceful. He noted her closed eyes and realised that Alivia had fallen asleep in the fifteen minutes that he'd been gone.
The spotted Neopet couldn't explain it but he experienced a sudden bolt of irritation at how carefree Alivia appeared to be. It wasn't quite fair, Euan thought, that she was able to be so unconcerned about their academic life when he'd always felt as though he had so much crammed onto his plate that he didn't have any option other than to stress.
An idea budded at the back of his head as his attention shifted to the books scattered around Alivia's armchair. "What a mountain," Euan mumbled. The reading of any one of these books would take a good hour at the very least and it would stress him to no end if he needed to sift through them.
He didn't. He already knew everything contained within their pages and everything he had to know about the events of Year 7, the historical period that he was to discuss in his essay for Qasala 101. Euan hadn't read the scroll with this intention but the irritation he felt overrode any doubt or guilt he might've had and he pushed the books away before he pulled an Electric Notepad from his bag. He'd always slaved at his work and deserved a chance to take it easy for once.
Why couldn't Euan use his knowledge to ace his papers? Smiling, he put pen to paper and began to write. Year 7 was a significant year in modern Qasalan history because...
Morning had transitioned into afternoon by the time Alivia awoke and the light that slanted through the windows had brightened. The Cybunny moaned as she blinked the sleep from her eyes and focused on Euan, lifting a paw to shield her face from the multi-coloured glare.
"What is that?" Alivia's voice was tired but her grey-blue gaze was no longer dull with fatigue. Lifting an eyebrow, she nodded her head at the stack of freshly filled-out sheets piled between them and Euan came clean.
"Wha... WHAT?!?" His friend's shriek was piercingly loud and several students close by gave them startled glances. "You did what?" Alivia's tone was quieter than it had been with her previous words but the look in her features was no less intense.
"Um." Euan hadn't expected Alivia's reaction and expected even less the faint twinge of guilt that brought a heat to his cheeks. "I... I... just skipped a bit of reading, is all. There isn't any harm in that," he told her with some defensiveness.
"What?" Alivia repeated with the same deadly calm. All traces of the smile that usually wreathed her face were gone and Euan bristled, his feathers ruffled.
"Oh, come on! It's not fair how much reading we need to do when we've ... we've only got a short amount of time to write this paper! I don't understand why you seem so opposed to it," the Pteri exploded, chest heaving. It was as though months, even years of pent-up frustration had been released all in one breath.
"Not fair?" Alivia echoed. "No, Euan, what's not fair is what you've done! You can't just decide to take an easy way out of things, you know, when this is what we signed up for when we entered uni. It gives you an unfair advantage over everyone."
"That's rich," he muttered.
Alivia frowned. "What do you mean?" she demanded, arms crossed.
Euan hesitated for only a fraction of a second before he delivered a hot retort. "You're always able to take everything so easy. When I look at you, Alivia, you're always smiling or laughing – nothing bothers you at all," he accused. That was far more unfair, the Pteri rather thought.
Alivia's lips pressed into a tight line and she stared him down with an agate-hard glint in her eyes. "Maybe you should take a closer look," Alivia suggested.
"I don't understand." Euan blinked. The spotted Neopet knew everything there was to know in the Neopian universe but he didn't understand what Alivia was saying to him. Why? And what was she trying to tell him, exactly?
"Well, think about it," Alivia seethed, standing. She grabbed her things and stalked off with long, determined strides.
Euan watched his friend leave with a sick feeling in his stomach and he stared at the library exit for a full five minutes before gathering his own stuff. All he could concentrate on was the memory of her furious expression and this image dominated his thoughts as Euan made his way back to where he'd found the scroll.
He didn't regret anything – he didn't! Nevertheless, he couldn't shake off the nausea he felt and Euan's heartbeat hammered in his ears as loudly as his angry steps thudded against the mahogany floors.
Alivia had told him to look at her and Euan had, finding her to be the same as always. She was petite, of average height and had a pale, lovely face but nothing that stood out to him and countered what he'd told her. There was nothing different about her.
The floors he glared at connected to an unbroken stretch of wall. Halting, he scanned the empty space where he'd been sure that the hallway had been. Euan frowned, peering behind him just as he had when he'd first wandered into this corner of the library.
Before, there had been no one else there. No one, that was, save for the Noil statues that had guarded the entrance to the corridor. A chill raced through Euan as he looked up, this time, to see the plump if regal form of King Hagan himself standing before Euan.
The Brightvalian monarch stroked his chin as he regarded Euan and the Pteri gaped and took a step back. Euan might've seen the king just this morning but that was entirely different from seeing him here and now, outside the palace.
"Your... your Majesty!" Euan stammered. He knew everything there was to know, fact-wise, in Neopia but he was once again stunned with shock. As with Alivia, Euan realised that his mind was spinning. What was the king doing here? Was he aware of what Euan had done? Did he care? Why?
"Hello, young one." The Skeith's greeting was conversational in tone and all the more disorienting for it.
Hagan gestured at the empty space between them and the Pteri's thoughts flew. He became conscious that the portrait he'd seen earlier – the painting of Hagan – had been infused with magic that alerted the king when a scroll was removed from the case in the ever-mysterious hallway.
Euan knew about the spell but didn't understand why it had been put in place. "Why?" he asked. He couldn't organise his thoughts well enough to form a more focused question.
The king, however, seemed to comprehend what Euan was asking and gave an astute nod. "I had thought that you might ask that," he told him. There was a shrewd, contemplative light in Hagan's eyes that Euan wasn't entirely comfortable with.
"The scrolls in that bookcase are part of my personal collection. Some years ago, I was a student here at Brightvale University and I left them in the library for aspiring scholars to consult," Hagan explained and Euan became aware that the words were truth.
Even so, Euan blinked. "You? A student?"
"I've always taken an interest in those rare few who accessed the scrolls," the king went on without paying Euan's question heed. "Most here cannot."
Euan processed Hagan's first words, momentarily overcome by the notion that he had been a student, before the Neopet concentrated on the rest of what the monarch had told Euan. King Hagan was telling him that the hallway that Euan had visited could not be found by most students at the university and this knowledge confirmed his belief that he had been drawn to the bookcase.
A moment later, Euan realised that there had been magic put in place to prevent all but a select few from entering – indeed, finding – the corridor. Only those who were in genuine need of the scrolls there, the dry voice in his head informed him, were allowed admission.
He was still fixated, nonetheless, on what Hagan had informed him earlier. "You said, Your Majesty, that you were a student here?" Euan couldn't quite wrap his head around the concept or why the famous scholar was here to see him now. "At the university that you yourself founded?"
Hagan smiled and gave a hearty guffaw. "Yes. Young Pteri, I consider myself a lifelong learner. It's my belief that there's always something else that can be learned. One does not stop learning at any set point in their lives."
"...Oh." That was a point that Euan had never before considered.
"In answer to your unvoiced question," Hagan continued, "I have come because I am interested in learning what you have learned from your experience today. Was it what you expected?"
"Huh?" was Euan's instinctive response.
The king raised a bushy eyebrow at the scroll in Euan's clutch. "The knowledge given you by the Scroll of Knowledge. Was it all that you expected?"
"Well...," Euan faltered, somewhat taken aback, and he thought of Alivia with some uncertainty. "No, to be honest. I... well, I expected that it would be... more... somehow." He'd believed that the scroll would deliver him the wisdom he'd sought and yet he'd found that there was much that he still had difficulty processing.
"Go on." King Hagan's green eyes pierced Euan and the Pteri shivered. It was like the king understood what Euan was thinking. That was precisely what Euan had wanted with Alivia.
"I'd expected," he confessed, "that it would help me understand – to know – more than I did." The words hung there for an age before King Hagan nodded.
"But knowledge is different from understanding," the king said.
"What?" Euan's mind whirled and he took a sudden step back. That was another point that Euan had never thought of before and he needed time to muse it over. It flew in the face of everything that Euan had believed that morning.
A smile played along Hagan's mouth and the Skeith turned to leave. "Think about it," he advised, "and come to see me again in the castle tomorrow. If you want to be wise, try to look beyond the facts."
However, Euan wasn't able to make any more sense of the king's words than he had initially. What was the difference? Euan had always equated the two with each other and assumed that understanding was the same thing as knowledge.
He remained in place well after the king's large form had disappeared from sight and it was only the sound of approaching footsteps that jerked him from his reverie.
"Euan?" a voice called, hauntingly low and sweet. The Neopet recognised it as Alivia's a heartbeat before she appeared around a corner. Alivia's eyes lit and she raced toward him.
"Alivia," he said in shock.
"I've been looking for you everywhere!" Euan's friend told him, tugging at a strand of her long hair. "I'm sorry that we argued before."
"So am I," Euan admitted. He looked into Alivia's face, meaning to say more, but the words died on his tongue as he registered just how bright her gaze was.
Silently, he assessed his friend's features and realised that it wasn't just her eyes that were now drawing his attention. Alivia had always been pale, he'd known, but what he hadn't appreciated was just how pale she was even for a white Neopet. He noticed for the first time that Alivia was... tired. Stressed.
In the same moment, Euan understood what King Hagan had meant when he'd told Euan to look beyond the facts if Euan wanted to be wise. Euan needed to register their meaning and comprehend their implications.
"I really am sorry," he apologised to Alivia. "I... hadn't understood, until now, that you don't have it easy either." She felt every bit as strained about their academic workload as Euan did himself and he recognised that now. She was pressured but, unlike Euan, she'd always done her best not to let stress preoccupy or affect her and that was something he found himself respecting. Something he could learn from her.
Alivia smiled and Euan led her back to their study nook. He tossed his notebook in the trash and gave his friend a smile of his own.
Euan could feel the effects of the Scroll of Knowledge wearing off and that was exactly how he wanted things. "I'm going to start over. Let's do our essays together," he decided and Alivia's smile widened in approval.
"Sounds like a plan."
The next day, Euan stood before Hagan with the confidence that he was wiser than he had been the previous day. He closed his beak to see a grin like Alivia's stretched across Hagan's features and he handed the king the Scroll of Knowledge with a bow.
"I don't need this anymore."