The Heart of Meridell
All that was around him from the musty night air to the aroma of the surrounding fields was lost in the thoughts that swam through his mind. In the morning, he knew there would be a startled cry from his mother as she read the note he had left upon his bed. The note simply said that he had left, but was not returning until he had found and rescued his brother Luke who had been turned into a minion of Darigan.
Luke had been recruited by the young King Skarl to defend Meridell from its invaders. Sebastian had wanted to go with his brother and defend his home. However, he was too young and small to join the army.
Sebastian's size had always thwarted his attempts fit in with his older brother and his friends. Luke and his friends would play Meriball in the fields, but Sebastian was always too small to join in the game.
Just as the first ray of sunshine slipped above the horizon behind him, his thoughts remained fixated on his home and his brother. Even though the sun was at his back he saw a glint of it in his eye from a bush just ahead of him. He looked down into the bush and saw that a green amulet hung upon its branch.
Battles of the past had seen many lost weapons and not all had been recovered. It was said that Meridell often would reveal these powerful weapons in time of need to those who meant to defend it. This land often found ways to help the courageous few who stood against the innumerable foes that would try and conquer it, determined to bend its people to their will.
Sebastian bent and slid the amulet over his neck. The power of the amulet coursed through him making his skin crawl as it toughened and his mind became sharper and clear. What fortune that he should find such a trinket? He didn't know, but Meridell must have seen worth in his venture. And with new hopes he trudged on through the misty morning.
But then as he looked into the sky as he neared Castle Meridell, his hopes sank once more. The ever looming Darigan Citadel floated miles above, sending its desolate shadow over all of Meridell like a great coming evil in the morning's rising sun. The power of the amulet surged upon his chest as if giving him reassurance that darkness was only the absence of light and that true power came from within.
He walked among the morning merchants carrying their goods to their stalls inside the castle walls. Soldiers stood guard over the gates, making sure no Darigans were given admittance inside the walls. Scorchio archers stood looking out from high above the ramparts, their bows slung over their shoulders, ready in a moment's notice to send arrow after arrow into ascending attackers.
The outer courtyard was so crowded there was little room to do more than walk among its streets. The villagers that came here lingered long behind its safe walls, for the threat of the Darigan invasion had seen the destruction of many of their homes and farms. Meridell's soldiers were fighting valiantly to defend its people and their homes, but to little avail.
Sebastian searched around the walls for something that could help him get into the Darigan Citadel. But how would he ever get up there? He had no wings and nothing that did have them would ever be crazy enough to go near the citadel.
The amulet felt warm and drowned out the loud noises in the streets until a single lowly merchant could be heard above the morning crowd. A very large Skeith sitting at a small table in the corner with a large stack of coins piled to his right, and a single coin between his fingers, skillfully flipped and tossed through the air as he looked around bellowing, "Anyone care for a gamble? Play for only ten coins; you might even double your money!"
Sebastian went over to the table. The Skeith looked as though he had not seen a bath for weeks on end and seemed to be as thick minded as your common rock, but his eyes showed differently. More keen were they than any he had seen before, piercing and searching. They seemed to look directly into your mind.
The coin in his hand flipped through the air and the amulet gave Sebastian a start, more of realization than one of pain. The coin the Skeith was flipping through the air had the face of King Skarl on both sides.
"How about you, son, got ten coins to turn into twenty?" said the rough Skeith.
"No, sorry, I don't--" said Sebastian.
"Well, that amulet will do just fine then, son," he interrupted. "Looks to be worth ten if I round the price up a bit." The Skeith grinned broadly.
"Okay," said Sebastian. "But if I win you have to take me to Darigan Citadel, deal?"
The Skeith contemplated the bargain. He knew the amulet was worth more than ten coins, and that his coin was two sided, but it seemed the thought of the trip had thrown off his confidence somewhat. He regained his composure almost at once and grinned with a bold and witty smile.
"Okay kid, you've got a deal." And he began to toss the coin into the air.
"Wait, use one of those coins over there from that stack," said Sebastian. "It just seems to make me feel lucky somehow.”
"There is nothing wrong with this one, kid."
"Well, if there is nothing wrong with that one, then why not choose one from over there? Skeiths are not prone to go back on their deals, now are they?"
The Skeith looked now more frightened; he had already struck his deal with the small Moehog and by nature could not go back on it. Cheat though he was, he could not resist the calling of such a gamble; the trinket alone would open him his own shop and secure treasury.
The Skeith pulled a coin from across the table and put it into his hand, and said, "Heads then."
The coin flipped through the air as if in slow motion, then turned and descended back toward the table. The amulet gave a jolt and the coin landed crest up upon the table. The Skeith slammed his hand down upon the floor at the fury of his loss.
He then recomposed himself, but with an air of sadness. "With every gamble there must be a loser, so that there can be a winner. Too long have I been a winner and a cheat. You are a very smart boy with a very strange and wondrous locket.” He winked as though he knew more than he let on. “To Darigan Citadel it is then; hop on, boy, and let's get this over with.”
Into the clouds they soared, together high above Meridell and all of its people, the Darigan Citadel drawing ever closer, all thought of the safe castle behind. Its walls were dark and ominous. Its towers were tall and stuck out against the sky like horns of some great black beast ever foreboding the coming of visitors.
Together they flew stealthily amongst the dark towers, blending with shadows to conceal their presence from the guards below. The Skeith skidded to a stop on top of one of the vacant towers.
"I'll just drop you off here, shall I?" said the Skeith.
"Yes, here will be fine, thank you," said Sebastian.
"I like you, kid. Hate to see you up in this place. Why not come back with me to Meridell before it's too late and they turn you?"
"I swore I would come and save my brother, and that's what I'm going to do."
"Then all the luck to you, kid," said the Skeith, "And, kid--"
"Try to make it back alive, alright? There are not many people that can outsmart me, you know, and well, I guess you've kind of grown on me."
Then, with a rush of wind from his wings, the Skeith was off and flew into the distance.
Sebastian walked down the steps with caution, taking every corner as though an army of Darigan were around it. Everything was so quiet that even the smallest hoof step was that of which was equal to a thousand drumbeats. A chorus of echoes rang through the corridors with every movement.
On he went through the seemingly endless labyrinth of roughly carved halls of stone. Where he was, or going, or how he was going to find his brother Sebastian, he could not even begin to wonder. But on he went guided mysteriously by the amulet that hung low around his small neck, thudding gently against his chest as he walked on, scared and alone in the evil place. But the amulet seemed to give him company; a throbbing warmth in the damp cold all around him, a shining beacon of slim hope in his darkest thoughts, a friend in a place where he was all alone.
"We're to report to General Kass immediately for guard assignments, and don't let the newcomer get lost. We need all the recruits we can get if we're going to conquer this pathetic land," growled a Darigan Scorchio from outside a door where Sebastian now stood.
"Runt Moehogs, don't see why we even bother turning them. Useless in battle, those are. Knights, ha! Yeah that's right, you're a regular waste of space, aren't you," said the Scorchio cruelly.
"I'll show you waste of space, you overgrown lizard with wings," growled a familiar voice.
"Watch who you're speaking to like that, worm. I'm your superior and you will treat me with respect. Or I'll see to it you don't make it far here," threatened an angry Scorchio, drawing nearer to the door.
Sebastian stepped beside the open door under a shadow cast by a pillar illuminated in the torch light, and looked out over the dark courtyard where the Scorchio and the Moehog were walking toward him. The Scorchio was large and dwarfed the Moehog, though even the Moehog was still considerably taller than Sebastian. Sebastian was sure that the Moehog was his brother Luke. He was just as tall and the right age and Scorchio talked as though he had just been turned seeing as he was new here. Though he now seemed more evil looking, spiky dark blue hair and rough scaly wings on his back.
With a cry of determination Sebastian charged his Darigan brother, his head lowered and tusks barred for impact, for his brother could only be turned to normal after he was beaten. The Scorchio and his brother could only stare in wonder and surprise at the incoming attack. The impact was so intense it threw Luke backward into a nearby wall, and he fell to the ground. The Scorchio roared with rage and hatred as he charged, barely missing Sebastian.
Luke struggled to get to his feet and Sebastian charged him again before he had the chance to recover. He had to change his brother, that was what mattered, all that mattered. He had sworn to save him at all costs. There was a rush of fang and claw as the wicked Scorchio charged again, this time landing a blow upon the small Moehog, tearing him from his hooves and sending him fifty feet into the air.
He closed his eyes, the air rushing around him ready to hit the ground but it never came, yet the air continued rushing around him. He peered out from behind his closed eyelids to see that he was soaring through the air with a great pair of dirty green arms wrapped around his middle.
"I told you I liked you, kid," said the giant Skeith with a broad grin. "I wasn't about to leave you here to become one of them. You're smart and the last thing we'll ever need is a smart Darigan. Let's go get your brother back."
He soared through the air, the wind in his mane, held aloft in the arms of his giant friend.
Sebastian nodded his head and the Skeith released him from his great muscled arms at so great a speed that the world seemed to pass by like a blur. He lowered his head as he shot towards his brother and hit him so hard that they both rolled all the way across the courtyard with the intensity of the impact.
The Scorchio spread his enormous wings and shot into the air towards the Skeith, its great razor claws ready to strike him down. The claws missed and the Skeith grabbed his arm after he had passed, and swung him around over his head straight back towards the ground with a tremor that seemed it would have shaken the entire floating island. The Scorchio landed, making a great cracked crater beneath him. The Skeith roared with laughter.
The Scorchio bounded back up from the ground with a roar that would be heard throughout all of Meridell. With all the power he could muster from his rage, he leapt back into the air with claws and teeth of fury and battled the Skeith, huge titans of Neopia raining a sound of thunder upon the land below.
Sebastian leapt up from the ground ready for another charge, and ran at his brother, but his brother had gotten to his feet as well. Ready for the charge, he lowered his head as well charging with fury of his own. The brothers collided and were thrown apart once more by the blow. A Moehog's skull was that of steel compared to those of other Neopians, and steel though they were, both were made dizzy and pained by the charge.
Luke lay there upon the ground, his dark features beginning to soften and his scaly black wings withering into nothingness, his hard dark skin softening once more to lush blue fur. His dark mane softening into the light orange it once had been. His eyes opened slowly and looked around him, drowsy as though he had woken from a dream. Just in front of him lay his little brother for some reason upon the dark and unusual ground.
He got up walked forward towards the silent and unmoving figure of his brother. Sebastian lay upon his side, his eyes closed, before Luke’s hooves. Luke bent down and nudged him with his nose, trying to rouse him as though he were asleep, and something began to happen. Not a stirring as he would have hoped, but he was beginning to change. Becoming more scaly as the stubs of wings began to grow from out of his back.
There was a roar from above as a Scorchio dived out of the clouds above toward where Sebastian now lay.
"Out of the way. I'll finish him myself, you runt!"
Claws raised, ready to strike the Scorchio, charged Sebastian who was fighting the change. He was almost upon him when a green figure dived with exhilarating speed between them and took the Scorchio's razor claws right into his own back, and was flung sideways onto the dark ground. The Scorchio turned once more to the Skeith kneeling with his hands outstretched upon the ground before him, agony in his face and sweat pouring from his brow.
"You, oaf, have stood in my way for the last time," said the Scorchio as he approached the Skeith.
Sebastian stirred, his mind losing all thought, slowly drifting into unconsciousness as he looked around him. His brother stood before him confused, tears swelling in his eyes as he looked down upon Sebastian. His Skeith friend who had come to his rescue lay kneeling upon the ground as the giant Darigan Scorchio walked toward him, eyes blazing with inner fire and hatred. His own skin was changing into what his brother's had once been, what he had been fighting against all this time, what he had come here to free his brother of-- Darigan.
"Don't go over, little brother. I wasn't strong enough to resist the change. You've always been stronger than me; I might not have ever admitted it and I was even jealous of it. No matter how much more muscle or height you get, you'll always be stronger than anyone I've ever known. You've got a bigger heart, brother, and I know you can beat it. Fight it, little bro...."
Everything went dark, as dark and dreary as the deepest night. Then, with an explosion of blinding light, the world came to life around him. A surge burst through him and he was once again standing. His body surging with energy and resolve that never before had he known was in him, and the tall menacing Scorchio was standing over his friend ready to strike his last blow. There was a rush of wind and power as the world about him seemed to pass him by, and with the impact of a thousand charging Moehogs, he clashed with the giant Scorchio. The power of the charge was so powerful that it drove the Scorchio into the rock wall at his back, blasting shards of rock through the other side and sending what was above crashing down on top of him.
"Always knew you had it in you, kid," said the Skeith with all the smile he could muster. "We had better get out of here before you have to do that to all the rest of the Darigan garrison."
Luke and Sebastian climbed on top of the Skeith's back and soared out into the open air once more. The sun upon their faces and fresh air again in their lungs, they felt revitalized.
"Well, kid, it's been a day to remember for sure, best of luck to ya'. And if you ever decide you want to lose some money, come see me, and we'll work something out," said the giant Skeith with a cunning wink.
A throbbing above his chest drew Sebastian's attention to the locket still around his neck. It seemed a warm suggesting pulse was nudging him to do what he had already decided to do.
"Here," said Sebastian, tossing the amulet in the air and into the huge dirty green hand of the Skeith. "I got what I wanted from this adventure. I figured you would have more use for this than I would. I don’t think I really need it anymore."
And as Sebastian turned to his brother and began to walk away, a grisly voice called out from behind, “The name's Snargan, kid. And you're right there. What would someone as strong as you need an amulet with this much power for?"