The Warden's Tale: Part One
“Darzul? Is something bothering you? This is the third time in a row that you have lost to me today,” General Galgarrath said gruffly. Darzul Vex, better known as Master Vex, jerked out of his thoughts and into the present. He did not look very pleased.
“Oh, it is nothing of consequence,” Master Vex said wearily. “I’m just... tired, that’s all.”
Galgarrath leaned back and crossed his arms. He did not seem very convinced. “I know you better than to believe that, Vex. Something is on your mind. What is it?”
Vex sighed heavily and absentmindedly set up a new game of Cellblock. His thoughts and words were elsewhere. “I have been contemplating the past. Time has changed us all so very much, yet it is never as evident in others as it is with our people. I have spent so much time down here, in the dungeons, where time moves slowly. I feel isolated, and very, very old,” Vex said flatly. In a display of frustration that surprised Galgarrath, he slammed his fist onto the table, sending the carefully arranged game pieces all over the dungeon floor.
“By the Founders, Vex! If I didn’t know better, I would say that you were falling into a certain trap!” the Grarrl grunted, scratching a small “3” on the table. He looked inquisitively at his friend, and was not surprised to see him nod in confirmation. Galgarrath felt a deep growl rise in his throat. “Master Darzul Vex, you are not known to succumb to their traps. What is it that worries you so?”
“They are trying, my friend, and they are trying hard. Illusions of grandeur and false promises of good things are of no use against me. However, they have been tiring me out. They keep bringing back unwanted memories. I am losing sleep over it, Galgarrath, and I don’t know how much longer I can take this before going insane. I already spend all my time surrounded by traitors, mentally unstable prisoners, and irritating human players. Most of all, I feel alone,” Vex replied evenly.
Galgarrath frowned. “You are not alone. You have fallen into that trap, and it is a very hard one to be pulled out of. The tales of the good times are known to all of Neopia, so it must have to do with the coming of darkness. You must tell me what is worrying you. You are not alone,” he repeated sternly.
Vex gave a shaky laugh. “You know, you are right. They have trapped me with the existing isolation I have been in. Very well, I will tell you what they trouble me with, but it is not a pretty story. No, not indeed,” he said sadly. Then, in his characteristic gesture, Master Darzul Vex touched his fingertips together and leaned over as he began to recount his tales that had been haunting him....
Darzul Vex awoke to the smell of smoldering houses. His left eye was white hot with pain, and his throat felt like a desert. His memory was still hazy, and he could not remember much of what had happened. He was with Draconis and Galgarrath in the courtyard, near the orb, and then... Vex shook his head, and then cried out in pain and immediately regretted his choice to move his head in such a way. Slowly, he opened his right eye, brushing away the hardened mud and dry brown streaks that tasted like iron in order to take in his surroundings. He was in some sort of half-burned building. Dozens of other Citadel citizens lay around him, all wounded and some with severed cuts and burns. Master Vex understood that there must have been a fire... But what kind of fire would cause this extensive of damage? Why were the wounded in a building other than the one that had been burned? Why was he hurt, when he had been in the grassy courtyard the last time he could remember anything? Even in his confused state, Darzul Vex was still able to analyze his situation. He needed to be able to see where he exactly was, and he needed to find Draconis... The thought filled him with a sudden unexplainable terror. He tried to sit up, and was rewarded with a jolt of pain in his chest. His movements, however, brought the attention of one of the walking figures. It rushed over to him, and cried out in delight. “Oh, fetch the Morguss, Kaltara! Tell her that Darzul Vex is alive!” the figure cried out in a sort of jubilant relief. Before Master Vex could attempt to ask what was going on, he felt a wave of dizziness overtake him, and he was in darkness once more...
“There now, that should allow him to see again,” a familiar voice said softly. Vex opened his eyes, both of them. There was no pain now, but he still felt like he had been on the receiving end of a fire faerie’s temper tantrum. “Don’t move, Vex. It was touch and go for several days. I thought you wouldn’t survive it. Few in the courtyard did,” Morguss said sadly.
Vex blinked. “What happened? The fire must have been terrible. What started it, and why are we here instead of in a building that wasn’t burned?” he rasped.
Morguss’ face twisted in pain. “All the wooden buildings burned to some extent. The stone structures now hold those in conditions such as your state of health, as well as those who... didn’t survive,” she said weakly. It was quite clear that her once cheerful temperament was completely destroyed. “You... you really don’t remember what happened, do you?” she managed to say at last.
“Morguss, I am surprised I still remember my own name. I don’t even know where I am now... Where is Draconis? There was something... something important, something dangerous, that I had to tell him... That is all I remember from before the fire... Is he alright?”
Morguss sighed. “He is alive, if that is what you mean,” she said flatly. “I don’t know if he is conscious or not. Something seems to be trying to drive him crazy. I can’t understand it.”
“What of Kass and Galgarrath?” Vex coughed. “They were there too, in the courtyard.”
“They are in far better condition than most of us. Now that you are with the waking world, I’m going to have you moved to another area so you can recover. It may take several weeks before you will be able to walk again,” Morguss said coldly, shutting away her emotions. Vex only sighed and tried to remember more about what happened.
The next day, Darzul Vex was moved to one of the stone buildings, and he spent the next few weeks in bed. Finally, a month later, he was released from the attention of the residing medical personnel. The first thing he did was make his way to the Darigan Chambers. The sight that greeted him within was an extreme shock. In the place of his comrades, the ones he had grown up with, there sat gaunt figures haunted by pain and loss of life. The worst of all was Lord Draconis Darigan. His once white figure adorned in marvelous white robes had turned skeletal and grey, and his robes were spotted with dried brown stains. Vex openly gasped at the sight of the ghost before him.
Darigan sighed with pain. “You don’t look too spry yourself, Darzul. By the Founders, you must have aged several decades within the past month. I had hoped that you would be spared the effect, but an invasion does this, so it would seem,” he said in a haggard voice.
Vex’s jaw dropped. “Invaded? What are you talking about?!” he said in disbelief.
Galgarrath raised an eyebrow. “You don’t remember?” he said with disbelief. It was evident that there was something ironic in the fact.
Draconis Darigan glared sharply. “Silence, General,” he said stiffly. “It is not your place to make such a comment.”
Vex became immediately suspicious. Draconis had NEVER talked to Galgarrath like that before. He had never talked like that before, period. And there was something about the shadows of the room that seemed... wrong. He abruptly realized that they were both staring at him, so he said the first thing that came to his mind. “General? Since when did we use outdated means of addressing one another, Draconis? And General of what? And would someone PLEASE tell me what happened?!”
Lord Draconis Darigan frowned deeply. “We were attacked, Darzul, while relaxing in the courtyard and preparing for the celebration of the Founding.” He looked over at Galgarrath.
The Grarrl sighed deeply. “There was no warning until it was too late. You leapt up and began guiding others to safety in the tunnels when they started to burn the wooden structures. You barely made it out of the library alive when you entered the courtyard again. You were seized at once, but managed to escape from your bonds. You were trying to aid the rest of the Council; we were struggling in hand to hand combat, trying to keep a crazed Lupe from slaying Draconis. You were halted again, this time by a Kougra carrying a sword. You grabbed a nearby shield just in time to prevent the entire left side of your face from being cut off, but the blow was forceful and gave you that magnificent scar of yours. You roared in pain and stopped moving. I don’t remember any more, because I was knocked aside and then I, too, went unconscious.”
Darzul Vex just stared. Lord Darigan continued the narrative. “It is obvious that we have been violated in a most serious way. We must find out who did this.”
Darzul Vex suddenly narrowed his eyes. The shadows behind Draconis were becoming more distinct... There appeared to be three figures... He shook his head, and they were gone. Somehow, he knew they were no illusion. “I disagree. We must first tend to our people and rebuild. If we intend to seek the aggressors, let it be when we are not half dead.”
“You would rather wait until we were completely dead?!” the Korbat fumed. Luckily, Galgarrath intervened.
“He has a point, my Lord. Whatever the status is, we must seek our defense first before we go tramping along the Neopian countryside...”
Several months later, the Council met again to discuss an even grimmer situation. Everyone looked to Morguss, who shook her disfigured face hopelessly. “The illness takes many, and I can’t find a cure. It even kills the crops. All vegetation is dying in an ever-increasing radius. If it continues at this rate, it will engulf all of Neopia. We have tried everything, every known form of magic and work of labor, but nothing stops the illness in the plants.” She looked expectantly to the head of the table.
A skeleton with tattered wings stood up and looked to an enormous red-eyed avian carnivore. “General Kass, what is the status of the armories?” it said with a grated voice. The torn robes it wore were entirely black, and no trace of the once healthy Korbat was present in the sunken face.
“They have armor, yes, but few weapons. We couldn’t arm more than one sector for battle, Lord Darigan.”
Darigan closed his eyes. After a few moments, he opened them and said simply, “Start the engines, General. See to it that everyone is in the defined perimeters. As much as it pains me to have to cause the Citadel separation from the land, we must not allow this disease to spread. There is no other way to contain the illness, for burning, uprooting, magical barriers, and protective spells have all failed, up to and including some of the most powerful spells left from the Founding.” He stood up slowly. “The Council is dismissed. Darzul Vex, I want to speak to you in private.”
Everyone except Vex quickly left the Chambers to carry on the monumental effort of starting the Citadel engines. It wasn’t long before Darzul Vex faced Lord Draconis Darigan alone... or almost alone. He could distinctly see the three figures behind Draconis. His thoughts were interrupted by a question. Vex blinked. “Would you please repeat that?” he mumbled apologetically.
“I said, ‘Why haven’t you accepted a position yet?’ and I expect an answer. Someone with your intellect would be an excellent commanding officer. The Citadel needs you.”
Vex shook his head. “I will not fight. We must try to find a way to talk with these people peacefully. I refuse to accept a military title,” he said flatly.
Lord Darigan looked furious, and the three figures became more solid... and suddenly, they vanished altogether. Vex blinked, and was astonished and pleased to see that his friend had momentarily regained his senses. “Vex, please, I don’t know how much longer I can take this. I need your help and your support. You must do something!” he pleaded.
Vex gave him a hard and long look, and finally said, “I will not meet the enemy in battle, but even prisoners are dangerous. I will agree to becoming the prison warden of the new dungeons you have ordered built, Draconis, but,” he said, emphasizing the informal name, “I will NOT do anything further.” His voice was cold. Lord Darigan nodded, and the cold flame came back to his eyes as the three figures reappeared.
Several months later, a struggling yellow Chia was hauled into a cell and thrown against the wall. The guard slammed the door, bolted it, and locked it. Master Vex sighed. “You may leave now, Haksol,” he said wearily. The slobbering Skeith nodded and wandered off. Master Vex was very swiftly forced to watch the new prisoner. “Are you alright?” he said gruffly.
The knight barked in laughter. “What does it matter to you, you wretched creature of darkness?!” he spat.
Master Vex raised a scarred eyebrow. “I have been called many things before in my lifetime, sir, and that is a new one to me. What are you talking about?”
“Don’t pretend you don’t know,” snorted the knight, testing the chains. “You invaded Meridell several weeks ago and tried to take our Orb.”
“WHAT IN THE NAME OF THE FOUNDERS?!” Master Vex roared. “YOUR Orb?! An invasion?! By the faeries, you better explain this right now!” he thundered.
The yellow knight just laughed in his face. “Or what? You’ll slay me where I stand, defenseless, like the beasts you are, probably.”
Master Vex sat stunned and looked into the face of his captive. “You honestly believe I would do that, even if I had the strength?” he said hoarsely.
The yellow knight seemed surprised. “What do you mean? You are all warriors, aren’t you?”
Master Vex shook his head. “I personally refused to become a General for several reasons. The first was that I was not fit for duty. The second was that I did not desire it. The last was because if I had met even you in battle, you would have finished the job you started and I would be dead. And may I remind you, you managed to get yourself captured by a Citadel Patrol.”
“I don’t understand. What do you mean about a job?” the yellow knight said frankly. Master Vex stepped closer and the moonlight shone on his face. The yellow knight gasped. “Where did you get that? Very few swords leave a scar of that kind!”
“Very few indeed. I have since learned that the magic required to make such a wound is only performed upon weapons by earth faeries. And there is only one earth faerie in the region powerful enough to create a permanent spell,” Master Vex said dryly.
“But... that’s impossible... That scar must be over five years old, and you only invaded a few months ago...” the yellow knight said slowly.
“You don’t remember the raid, then?” Master Vex said coldly. He was very worried with what he was hearing.
“What raid are you talking about?” the knight said sharply. “Meridell raids nothing. Not like you vermin.”
“Five or so years ago, a band of Meridell knights came into the Citadel. They attacked defenseless civilians, burned houses, and nearly killed the entire ruling Council. The Orb of Darigan was stolen, and a severe illness overtook both our people and our land. It became so terrible that we were forced to engage the Citadel engines and disconnect from the ground for the first time in our history. We sent out scouting parties to find the location of the Orb, and the last group’s survivors came back with tales of your people treating them like wild animals,” Master Vex said quietly.
The Yellow Knight shook his head slowly. “By the faeries, is that what they told you?” he said in a voice dripping with pity. “Meridell suffered a similar illness seven years ago, and His Majesty King Skarl I sent out knights to find a cure. After months of exploration, the group came upon a mystic that told them the location of the Orb. The knights returned with it, and Meridell was cured.” He sighed sadly. “You could have asked us for help, you know.”
“And who told you that fabrication?” Master Vex said icily. “I myself was there when the raid occurred, but you obviously were not!”
“The king himself told us about the success of our knights. Surely you don’t honestly believe I would take the word of my prison warden over that of my king,” the knight said evenly.
Master Vex shook his head. “No, but I hope that you do not expect me to take the word of an oath-bound member of the nation that razed my land when I myself nearly died at the hands of your fellow officers,” he replied in turn.
The Yellow Knight sighed. “It appears we are at an impasse. You believe your version of the story, and I believe my version of the story. You are the prison warden, but your dungeons are old and when I escape, and not if, but when, you are the first person I will remember. I don’t suppose you would understand the horrors that your ruler has inflicted upon Meridell if I told you?” the knight said with a note of finality.
Master Vex shook his head sadly. “I might, actually. He is not who he once was...”
A mere fortnight later, the Yellow Knight had fulfilled his promise, and was breaking free from the chains that bound him. Master Vex was sound asleep. Grinning, the Yellow Knight slipped out the door and made his way through the winding dungeons up to freedom. He was passing before an open room when he was grabbed by someone that had a grip of iron and found himself face to face with Master Vex. Master Vex was not armed, but he was desperately motioning for the Yellow Knight to keep silent. The Yellow Knight had no idea what his captor had in mind, but he certainly didn’t want to alert the entire fortress of his escape.
In a few seconds, it became evident why the warden had pulled him back and silenced him. Lord Draconis Darigan had become a creature of shadow and flame.
Vex, still gripping his prisoner, ran to a nearby room and silently shut the door. “What in the blazes were you thinking?! You could have gotten us both killed!” hissed the Mynci.
The Yellow Knight raised an eyebrow. “What in the name of Illusen did I just see, Warden?”
“You just saw what I feared would happen if Draconis were left too long in the clutches of the evils that were brought to the Citadel... Three figures have ensnared his mind, and he long ago lost control over his actions. He is but a mere puppet to these beings of destruction. I understand now... The illness, the war; it is all an attempt to bring about chaos,” Vex said hollowly. He looked at his prisoner. “You now have the upper hand. I am unarmed, but you are a warrior and do not need your sword to knock me senseless. There is only one way to get off of the Citadel, and that is to fall. I would be able to provide you with a way to get down there without you dying, but I can’t leave myself. I must send a message to General Galgarrath. If Meridell and the Citadel ground forces unite, we will probably be able to stop Draconis before he destroys Meridell and the Citadel completely. You are all I have, and I suspect you will find Galgarrath anyway. If you do, the only way he would spare your life is if you pass on my message. Will you aid me?”
The Yellow Knight stared, and then slowly nodded. “I thought I would never say this, but I will aid you. That... thing... must be stopped.”
“Go on,” General Galgarrath said quietly. “You have not finished by a long shot, I can tell."
Master Vex laughed harshly. “No, I am just closing the first half of my history of treason, Galgarrath,” he said bitterly. “We all know what happened next. I persuaded the rest of the Council to rally against my old friend, and we joined sides with Meridell to bring down our leader.” He looked slowly up at Galgarrath. “After Draconis fell, my second stage as a traitor to my duty as a Council member began as Kass ascended into power...”
To be continued...