Infinity: Part Six
Infrared turned around and put himself between the rebels and Lumin. They were still out of striking range for Infrared, but he held his arms out and clenched his fists and teeth, silently threatening those that dared to come further.
But before the rebels could even get close to Infrared and Lumin, they suddenly found themselves wrapped in chains. One by one they were lifted up into the air and thrown against the wall like a flail. It happened so quickly that even if they realized what was going on, they still had no time to strike back. They each fell to the ground, lying on the floor at Lampyri's feet. She pulled her chains back and poised herself to attack again, watching for those that still had the strength to fight.
A few managed to stand back up. But just as soon as they got back on their feet they were once again immobilized. This time, some of the rebels managed to evade the chains flying at them. They held out the weapons that they raided from the military's armory and rushed at Lampyri.
Glowstick wasn't about to give them the opportunity to attack, however. Not far behind Lampyri, he leapt straight into the action. As Lampyri dealt with the ones that her chains held, he went after those that were still free. He took his spear to them, knocking aside their weapons and jabbing at the ones that still tried to fight him. He did so with such speed that Lumin's eyes could hardly keep up with the movements.
Keeping track of Neon's movements was just plain impossible, however. All Lumin could make out was a green blur zigzagging through the crowd before grinding to a halt, the claws on his feet digging into the floor. Lumin looked into Neon's face, which was completely composed and calm. Both of his hands were tightly wrapped around the hilt of his long-sword as he turned himself around to face the rebels who each had deep gashes in their armor.
Lampyri and Glowstick quickly joined Neon. The three Royal Guards stood steadfast in front of Lumin and Infrared. To the minute amount of rebels that had any energy left after the three-pronged assault, the Royal Guards were an iron wall.
They had their backs facing Lumin and Infrared. But even though they didn't dare take their eyes off of the rebels, they still had words to say to their King. Glowstick was the first to speak up, "I've always held a great deal of respect towards you, sire. I won't allow anyone to spit on your name!"
"All of us know that you're innocent. You've never given me a reason to doubt you!" Neon said without the slightest trace of hesitation or anxiety.
"Everything will be fine. Things are never as hopeless as they look!" Lampyri promised Lumin. Even though he couldn't see her face, Lumin easily imagined the reassuring smile she was likely wearing. "Don't worry about us. Please take care of yourself. And please return once things are sorted out!"
Lumin was in the middle of a city-wide rebellion. So many Fireflies fought against him now. But as he listened to what the Royal Guards had to say, he realized that even then he still had allies. For that, he felt truly lucky. "I will. Thank you... All of you."
As the three Royal Guards stood in the way of the rebellion, Infrared and Lumin took their chance and continued down the path. Even though the both of them were confident in the other Royal Guard's abilities, Infrared urged Lumin to pick up the pace. Lumin saw Infrared –who had not let his guard down a bit- constantly looking over his shoulder as he ran.
Eventually they stopped at one of the closed-up windows, which Infrared began to unlock. "There are many rebels waiting outside. Once we leave the palace, we will be spotted. I won't allow any of them to touch you or Flicker, but nonetheless stay close to me and fly as fast as you can." Infrared instructed him and he opened up the shutters and stood on the window sill.
As soon as Lumin stepped on the sill, he was met with the roars of the rebels and the clashing sound of their weapons. He looked down and saw the mob below pushing through the soldiers and pouring into the palace. Even as strong as Glowstick, Lampyri, and Neon were, he knew that they couldn't hold off the rebels forever. Taking a deep breath and tightening his hold on Flicker, he threw away the remainder of his reservations about leaving. Once he had, he followed Infrared and took flight.
Like Infrared said, it didn't take long for the rebellion to notice them. Even though they stayed as close to the cave walls as possible and avoided flying over the middle of the city, Lumin saw a group of rebels much bigger than the one he met in the palace chasing after him.
But no sooner had the rebels gotten off the ground were they pinned down on the cave floor. This time, it wasn't the other Royal Guards or soldiers coming to his aid. Rather, they were ordinary citizens. The Fireflies that still trusted their King tackled the rebels in mid-air and did all they could to keep them away from Lumin and Flicker. The cave became filled with the droning sound of their wings beating as the Fireflies broke into an aerial battle. Lumin became disheartened watching innocent Fireflies involve themselves in such chaos and begged them to stop. But his pleas were met with the ones of his supporters, each of them trying to convince Lumin to keep moving.
In the midst of the swarm of Fireflies that soon enveloped the airspace above the city, it became harder for Lumin to keep up with Infrared. The wild movements all around Lumin confused and disoriented him. Even though Infrared did his best to keep him close by, the Fireflies constantly diving and swooping towards them eventually caused Lumin to lose sight of him.
Lumin swiveled his head and shouted Infrared's name. His eyes darted around as he hovered in the air, desperately trying to find Infrared in the mass of Fireflies before him. But instead of Infrared, his eyes met those of a rebel's. The Speckled Buzz's eyes were flaring with contempt as he approached Lumin with such speed that he hardly had any chance to escape. Before he knew it, Lumin was staring at a large iron club aimed directly at his chest. Directly at Flicker, as well.
The instant he realized that Flicker was right in the club's path, all notions of self-preservation that Lumin had was destroyed. He shut his eyes and turned his back on the club, hoping that it would be enough to shield Flicker.
A few seconds passed, but nothing happened. Lumin cracked his eyelids open and turned his head around. He saw Infrared swiftly throw his fist at the Speckled Buzz, sending him spiraling towards the ground. Infrared flew closer to Lumin, raising his voice to be heard over the shouts of the Fireflies and the vibrations of their wings, "Hurry! This way!"
Infrared led the still-shaken Lumin through the crowd. They eventually escaped the swarm and arrived at the city's exit. The rebels were still mostly preoccupied with the citizens that were trying to hold them back, allowing Lumin and Infrared a head-start as they landed and began to run down the tunnel.
Lumin struggled to keep up with Infrared as his stamina was wearing thin. But his pace was also slowed down by the images that plagued his mind. He honestly thought that his life was going to end back there. He began to think of what would have happened had Infrared not saved him in time.
But most of all, he thought about what would've happened to Flicker. Lumin broke out into a cold sweat when he realized that Flicker could have been severely injured just a few minutes ago. Flicker wasn't even the main target that the rebel was aiming for. His innocent son could have been collateral damage in that attempt to dispose of the one holding him. The more he thought about it, the more disturbed Lumin became.
The tunnel to the City of Lights was a straight path for quite some distance. But it did eventually branch off, and Infrared and Lumin soon came to the split in the road. Both paths led to other cities and took about the same time to get to them. Infrared decided to continue on the main road, but Lumin stopped in his tracks. "Infrared, wait."
Infrared turned around, but was still eager to keep moving. "We can't rest yet, sire. We still need to put more distance between us and them."
Lumin shook his head as he held it low. "Infrared... enough. Just... stop. This isn't worth it," Lumin sighed as he walked to Infrared. "Listen. I want you to take Flicker and focus your efforts on protecting him. I can't subject him to this, he didn't do anything wrong. Right now... he'd be better off if he's not associated with me."
Infrared's eyes widened at the orders he just received. "And what about you, sire? You'll have no way to protect yourself if they catch up to you!"
"Don't worry about me. Take Flicker to Central Cavern. He should be safe there," Lumin told Infrared. Central Cavern was by far the largest cave in all of Moltara. Many different groups of Neopets lived there, but most recently the surface-dwellers have taken up residence in Central Cavern as well. With such a variety of Neopets living there, finding even a Glowing Buzz wouldn't be easy. Both paths in front of them eventually led there, but the main path they had been taking was the quicker route.
"No! Sire, I won't do that!" Infrared insisted. "I refuse to turn my back and let them kill you!"
Lumin looked behind him nervously. He knew that every second he spend trying to argue with Infrared would just bring the rebels closer to him. "Infrared, please! I know you're just trying to do your job, but-"
"I'm not saying this as a Royal Guard! I'm saying this as your friend!" Infrared shouted. His words boomed in the hollow tunnel. Infrared no longer held the serious and professional demeanor that Lumin had grown used to. The way Infrared looked at Lumin was much more personal. His pleading expression carried the weight of more than two decades of friendship. "I can't just abandon you! Don't sacrifice yourself like this, Lumin!"
Lumin was left at a loss of words for a moment. Infrared struck a chord in him, causing the decision Lumin made earlier even harder to actually carry out. Even if he felt that it was the best thing to do, doing so just became much more painful. "You've done so much for me all these years. I couldn't ask for a better friend and ally. And I'm very grateful for that. But..." Lumin paused to take a deep breath. "Right now, I want Flicker's safety to come before my own. I'll be fine. Just please use all your strength to make sure Flicker isn't harmed!"
Infrared grit his teeth. He didn't say anything. Lumin knew that Infrared was having serious reservations, but he didn't voice them. Instead he shut his eyes tightly and nodded.
Knowing that he had Infrared's cooperation -albeit with reluctance- Lumin held Flicker up to face him. "Flicker, open your eyes," Flicker did so, and Lumin saw that his eyes were just as filled with fear as they were before he told him to shut them. The reluctance that Infrared possessed began to transfer to Lumin. "Flicker, I want you to go with Infrared for a while."
Flicker shook his head and sniffed, "No! I wanna go with you!"
"I know you do. But right now you need to go with Infrared," Lumin said to Flicker. The longer he looked into Flicker's terrified face, the more Lumin began to choke on his words, "He's going to take you to a place called Central Cavern. I'll meet you there. I promise."
Flicker just held on tighter to Lumin, continuing to shake his head in defiance. At that point, Lumin couldn't hold it back any longer. He took Flicker and hugged him, the tears flowing freely out of his eyes. The tears became much faster as Lumin remembered how The Engineer had cursed Flicker, all because he was foolish enough to trust her. "I'm sorry for everything, Flicker! Please... Please forgive me!"
Lumin had to find within himself to do so, but he broke his embrace with Flicker. He brought the child to Infrared, who was also trying to do his best to dispel any second thoughts. "Don't let this be the last time I ever see you," The Royal Guard quietly asked of Lumin.
"It won't," Lumin promised as he held Flicker out to Infrared.
Flicker fought Infrared, trying to kick him away as he held onto Lumin's arms. With a heavy heart, Lumin pried Flicker's claws off of him, loosening his grip enough for Infrared to take him. He yelled and swiped his claws at Infrared all in a futile attempt to break out of his hold and go back to Lumin.
Lumin barely heard it over Flicker's shouts, but he turned around once he did. He could see Fireflies coming up behind them and heard their roars as they went on the offensive. Without another word to each other, Lumin and Infrared split up. Infrared continued down the main road while Lumin dashed down the side path, hoping that the rebels would all chase after him. For a long time, Lumin could still hear Flicker screaming, "PAPA! PAPA!"
The farther Lumin ran, the less he could hear Flicker and the more he could hear the group of rebels. The tunnel was too narrow and small to fly, so he had to force his already tired legs to keep moving. Lumin took every twist and turn the path offered him in an attempt to throw the rebels off.
Throughout most of the chase, he didn't dare to look over his shoulder. But when he did, he found the space behind him vacant. He stopped for a moment. He knew that he didn't have much energy left to run anyways and hoped that he had managed to lose the rebels. When more time passed and Lumin was still alone, he began to believe that he did.
Then all of a sudden, Lumin heard something down the tunnel. It was very faint, but very distinct. Screaming. But it wasn't like the shouts full of fervor that the rebels made earlier. This one was painful. It started with just one, but soon a cacophony of agonizing shrieks began to echo in the tunnel. Every instinct in Lumin was telling him to run. But the sounds he heard froze him in place. Combined with the dim lights hanging overhead that barely provided enough light to see –even in addition to Lumin's glow- the atmosphere quickly caused Lumin to feel chilled.
The tunnel became quiet once more. Lumin managed to move his legs again, even if it was just small steps at first. He started to turn around to run again. But once he faced the road ahead of him, he once again became petrified.
There she was. Sitting on a rock, ever so casually. She looked exactly like she did the last time Lumin saw her close to year ago. She had the same clothes, same hairstyle, and that same smile. Lumin scowled and bared his teeth, but that just amused The Engineer rather than threaten her.
She tilted her head slightly and let out a small chuckle, "This is the second time that I've helped you. And yet you're still ungrateful."
The Engineer suggesting that she "helped" him... Lumin wasn't going to hear any of it. He was done hearing such ridiculous things from her a long time ago. "What did you do to my kingdom?! What did you do to my son?!"
She was still for a few seconds, but her smile widened as she decided to stand up. "You asked me why I'm called 'The Engineer'." She came closer to Lumin and held her left palm outward. That's when Lumin saw it: The same mark that was on Flicker's back and on every Firefly who had their color changed. A lemniscate. The infinity symbol. "Simply put, I am an engineer of the body. I have the ability to alter the physical composition of any living thing."
The Engineer withdrew her palm and began to pace around as she explained, "I can change something so minute as the color of your eyes or the length of your hair. Or..." The Engineer faced Lumin and grinned at him. Lumin's eyes widened as she continued, "...I can change your species, color, gender, age... I am able to turn someone into a completely different person. But for you..."
The Engineer's eyes shone with wickedness as she stared at Lumin. As The Engineer stepped closer to him, Lumin began to back away from her. Before Lumin had the chance to run, The Engineer disappeared then reappeared in front of him, closing the distance between the two in milliseconds. Lumin didn't have any time to react before The Engineer took her left paw and briefly placed it on the side of his neck. After that one tap, she stood back and distanced herself again.
At first, nothing happened. But then Lumin suddenly felt a wave of pain wash over him. He screamed out, falling to his knees. The pain wasn't concentrated in any one area, but rather all through his body. His eyes closed instinctively, but when he forced them open to see what was happening to him, his jaw dropped.
That area of the tunnel gradually became even dimmer. Lumin watched as the glow from his body slowly faded away, like a light burning out. Within seconds, he stopped glowing completely. But it wasn't done there. The bright green skin that came along with the glow started to change as well. The color began to turn paler until it was white like marble. The area from underneath his tail that stretched past his stomach and all the up to his lower jaw changed from a bluish-white to a golden yellow. As a permanent reminder of the change, The Engineer's symbol appeared on Lumin's neck.
The pain went away after that. Lumin was able stand on his knees and look himself over. He shivered as he failed to find any light on his body. Lumin was left speechless in shock as he just witnessed generations worth of ancestral pride disappear in seconds.
The Engineer was less than sympathetic towards Lumin. She still wore that grin while she watched Lumin experience both the physical and emotional pain of losing his glow. "I saw how much you insects valued your color. And taking it away was all it took to completely destroy your spirits." She shook her head gave a short laugh. "Neopets lose their sense of identity so easily."
Lumin remained on his knees, staring at the ground. Even as The Engineer walked towards him again, he stayed put. If he had any iota of hope left in him after the rebellion first flared up, it had just been drained out of him.
"As for your son, all I did was speed up his growth rate so that he ages four times faster than normal," The Engineer resumed talking, as if she felt that she didn't do enough to Lumin. She didn't place her paw on him again, instead settling for mocking him verbally, "You refused to allow me to take a quarter of your kingdom. So in that case, I'll just take it all."
She disappeared. The Engineer left Lumin completely alone in an unfamiliar location and with an unfamiliar color. The dim lamps provided little comfort in the tunnel governed more by darkness than light. And in that dark environment, Lumin couldn't do anything but dwell on the hollow feeling he felt within him. That hollow feeling came with the realization that he had just lost everything.
* * *
Infrared shook his head as he ran. For the first time, he was beginning to think that he should not have heeded Lumin's orders. But as much as he wanted to turn around and continue to escort Lumin to safety, he knew that it was far too late to do that.
Especially considering that one of the rebels was right behind him.
Infrared thought that he would be able to lose the Silver Buzz. But he was still doggedly pursing him and quickly wearing on Infrared's patience. Eventually, Infrared stopped. Holding Flicker in his arms meant that he couldn't use his fists like he was used to. That wasn't a problem, however. He still had two other limbs that were free to use.
Infrared jumped and hovered in the air, allowing the rebel to run slightly past him. By the time the rebel realized that Infrared wasn't in front of him anymore, he was too late to guard himself against the kick the Royal Guard used to send him flying into the wall. The rebel slid to the floor, still conscious but too weakened to move.
Flicker still hadn't stopped crying, and watching Infrared kick a Firefly out of the way didn't help the matter at all. As Infrared lowered to the ground, he tried to comfort Flicker and get him to be quiet. He didn't blame him for crying, but the more he did so the more Infrared became concerned that it would alert other rebels to their location. After a few failed attempts, Infrared decided to just move faster. If any more rebels tried to harm Flicker, he'd do the same thing to them as he did to the one lying on the ground.
Infrared moved a few yards away from the rebel before something caught his eye. A drop of liquid fell down in front of him. His eyes lifted up to find the source, his face filling with dread at what he saw.
Right over his head were rows of boulders packed against the ceiling with a net. The net was made of rope that was saturated with oil. Infrared didn't notice it before, but there was another soaked rope that was connected to the net and stretched down to the floor. Infrared swiftly looked back at the rebel, who was glaring at him as he held a lit match in his hand.
Not wasting another second, Infrared rushed down the tunnel. The fire spread along the ropes, causing a cascade of rocks to form behind Infrared as the net broke. Infrared pushed himself to outrun the burning net that was rapidly gaining on him. There was a steep drop in the path ahead. If he could make it past that point without being crushed, then he and Flicker would be safe.
Infrared lifted himself into the air as he approached the cliff. But just as he flew over the drop, a large rock fell towards him. It grazed him, but it was enough to throw his balance off. Infrared plummeted out of the air, struggling to keep a tight hold on Flicker as the child screamed in terror. He slammed to the ground on side and Flicker flew out of his arms upon impact.
Flicker tumbled across the floor and away from Infrared. Infrared saw Flicker laying on the ground, sobbing. He tried to get on his feet to help his nephew, but he couldn't find the strength to do so. Soon, his vision became disoriented before blacking out altogether as he faded out of consciousness.
* * *
When Infrared came to, he had to spend a few seconds trying to remember where he was and how he got there. There was a rebellion and he went to escort Lumin and Flicker out of the city. Lumin split up, leaving Infrared with Flicker. Then he remembered a rebel springing a trap on him. And now he was laying on the rocky ground, unsure of how much time had passed since his last memory.
Infrared tried to stand up, but his first attempt only send him back to the floor. He was breathing heavily as every movement resulted in pain. But nonetheless, he fought his injuries just enough to get on his feet. It took several tries and more time, but eventually he was able to stand.
He took a look at his surroundings. Behind him was the cliff he fell from. In front of Infrared was the road, continuing to the next city.
But what made Infrared start breathing even heavier was the fact that the path before him was vacant. "Flicker?"
Infrared searched the area again. Nothing. There was nobody there but himself. "Flicker!"
It hurt to move, but Infrared didn't care anymore. He began to go as fast as his injured body would allow him and headed down the road. All the while, his face was showing his increasing desperation as he searched the path with no avail. "FLICKER!"
Infrared spend the next few hours staggering along the road. No matter how hard he looked nor how much he screamed Flicker's name, he couldn't find the boy anywhere. Infrared stopped. With each passing minute that went by without any sign of Flicker, the frustration in Infrared built up. Eventually, he couldn't hold that frustration in any longer and sent a single, furious punch at the wall next to him.
The punch caused the wall to crack and crumble around the point of impact, but it did nothing to help the situation. On the contrary, it just made Infrared's physical state worse, as the force of his strike sent him back on his knees. But even if he wasn't injured, Infrared still would not have had any will to stand at that point.
Infrared held his head in his hands. He lost Flicker. He promised Lumin that he'd protect Flicker. And he lost him. The Moltaran tunnels held all sorts of dangers in store for the unwary. The more time a defenseless child spent in such a place all alone, the less chance they had of surviving. With as much time Infrared spent unconscious, he had no way of knowing where Flicker was or if he was even still alive.
But Infrared did know one thing. He knew that he'd never be able to look Lumin in the eyes ever again.
To be continued...