Duplicity: Part Three
It was quiet. Leaves crackled and quivered in the breeze. The roses that wrapped around the balcony’s railings exuded a faint perfume. Lisha and Jeran stared out into the empty night sky, ignoring the city below.
“That whole ordeal at the ball was quite . . . exciting, wasn’t it?” said Jeran. “Certainly wasn’t boring.”
“’Exciting’ isn’t quite the word I’d use,” replied Lisha. “Maybe substitute ‘horrifying’ in there, and you’ve got yourself a more accurate statement. I know you don’t think of it in the same way, but I—I was afraid I lost you.”
“You were afraid you lost me, I understand that,” Jeran was now picking at a rose, ripping the petals apart as he grated them between his fingers. His voice, to an outside observer, would have been flat and unaffected, but Lisha noticed the slight change upward in his pitch: “I was afraid you’d would have been gone.”
Jeran didn’t put too much value on his own life. Years of warfare and dangerous quests necessitated that he put himself aside. “Me, I’m living on borrowed time. I was supposed to be gone five years ago, when Kass bested me and threw me off the citadel. I’m happy I’m even alive.”
That didn’t make Lisha feel better. If anything, it made the stinging of tears in her eyes worse. “You don’t get it, do you? I had to repel the attackers off you, I had to watch the blade almost certainly kill you. If it weren’t for that Brightvalian sorceress with Gvoran who stopped time”—Lisha would only remember that her name was “Lissandre” later—“the assassination would have succeeded.”
Her voice grew louder, “And now you’re going to give me your spiel about how you don’t matter? How you’re worthless?”
Jeran fell silent for a whole two minutes as Lisha let a few sobs loose in the sleeves of her dress. He understood enough about magic to know that very few had the ability. It might have not been as unlikely as Psellia rescuing him, but the probability of his survival was still very low.
“Lisha, that wasn’t the point I was trying to get across,” he said. “No one can control what happens to me, or you, for that matter. Life is full of danger, full of risks you have to take. I know that doesn’t necessarily make you feel better, not now. But you should know that no matter what, no matter where I am, or even where I’m not, I’ll always be your big brother, and I’ll always love you.”
Through her sniffles, Lisha smiled slightly. Jeran knelt down and wrapped an arm around her. “You’re a wonderful person in your own right, Lisha, and that’ll never change, you know that, right? I’m proud of you. You’ve changed so much since you were a little, adorable little Aisha.”
“I’m not adorable anymore?” squeaked Lisha.
“No, now you’re old and ugly.”
Lisha elbowed Jeran lightly, though she couldn’t help but crack a grin. His dumb humor always managed it against all odds. “Way to ruin everything!”
Jeran smiled back. “Well, you do feel better, don’t you?”
“I guess,” said Lisha. “I still take offense to being called old and ugly, though.”
“It’s all relative. Compared to me, you’re young, but your looks are, well, while they’re above average, certainly can’t compare to mine.” At this point, Lisha rolled her eyes. “Compared to how you were fifteen years ago, well, “old” certainly applies.”
A faint memory of Lisha playing tag with her brother played itself out, back when her days consisted of only laughter and play, and the entire world was just a huge front for discovery. She wondered whether she was too young for nostalgia.
“I have but one question for you, Lisha,” said Jeran. “Why did you try to lie to me about what happened in the courtyard?”
“I didn’t want to worry you, put more stress on you than was necessary. It wasn’t worth it.”
“Not worth it? That’s nonsense. Of course you are.” A little worry on his part, in the grand scheme of things, didn’t mean nearly as much to Jeran as Lisha did. He smiled at himself a little once he realized that was Lisha’s same train of thought, the same thing she got upset over when Jeran implied he wasn’t “worth it.”
But that was different. Jeran was the Older Brother. He felt responsible for Lisha in a way she shouldn’t have been for him. It was his job to take care of her, to make sure she was safe. Lately, though, it certainly didn’t seem that way.
If he had an older sibling, he wasn’t sure they’d be proud of him. He wasn’t sure if Lisha was proud of him. Sure, he was a hero, the champion of Meridell who had saved the kingdom many times over. Right now, however, he wasn’t exactly doing a stellar job of his duties, and that was almost certainly the cause of the assassination attempt. He’d indirectly put Lisha in danger.
The kingdom itself was doing well enough, but Jeran wasn’t really proactive in it, just doing things the way Skarl had done them, because he didn’t want to think of Skarl’s illness, or the possibility he would die. Perhaps it was time to take a page out of his own book, follow his own advice and tolerate the uncertainty of King Skarl’s current situation.
“You just look kind of miserable, not going to lie,” Lisha jolted Jeran out of his thinking. ¬“I just didn’t want to put more pressure on you, I guess.”
“Don’t be silly,” replied Jeran. “I’m perfectly fine, and you can always talk to me and trust in me. You know that, right?”
“Yeah, I know.”***
Jeran ran in total blackness, waist-deep in chilling fog. In the distance was Meridell castle, its walls cracking as though they were made of porcelain. Fire flashed through the cracks.
The castle never seemed to get any closer, nor any farther. In this dream, Jeran had no sense of perspective, nothing to tell him where anything was. He had to get to it nonetheless, to save Meridell, to save Lisha, to save himself.
How reaching the castle would accomplish any of these objectives didn’t quite matter. The exact reasoning was fuzzy, clouded. If Jeran had stopped to consider his current situation, he would realize none of it made sense.
He kept running, never questioning for a moment how he got to this place, why he never fatigued even as he ran for what seemed like hours. Wails howled all around him, almost propelling him forward when he wanted to stop.
Everything important to him was in danger, everything would collapse with that castle, would burn down with it. He wasn’t decisive enough before, he knew it. He’d neglected to make some important decisions. What those decisions were, the details were fuzzy. But he did know that he had failed.
The wails turned into screams. One in particular rent the fog around him, a piercing, high voice he immediately recognized as belonging to Lisha. She was crying.
“Help me, brother,” her voice drifted off into a whimper. “I’m burning. It hurts—it hurts a lot, but I know . . . but I know you’ll be here, you’ve always been here, always so good at following up on your duties. Help us.”
“Don’t worry,” Jeran said, picking up his pace, pushing against the ground with greater vigor than he had before. “Don’t worry. Don’t worry. I’ll be there. I will be there. You’re not wrong.”
She wouldn’t be wrong. She wouldn’t regret trusting him. The castle finally inched closer to him, and the moment he reached the gates, the moment they started to rumble as they opened, one final crack ripped through the castle and tore it asunder.
The individual building blocks of the castle shattered as they hit the ground, revealing an empty husk of fire underneath. Within the flame came a blurred cacophony of whispers.
“It’s okay, you tried your best,” one of them said, unquestionably Lisha. “It’s okay. Don’t be sad. You could only do your best.”
Jeran reached inside the flame, chasing a faint impression of Lisha within it. She couldn’t be gone—no, not yet. Little sisters shouldn’t die before their older brothers did.
His best wasn’t good enough, and it wasn’t his best, either. It was well within his power to stop all this from happening. So why didn’t he?
A Skeith’s skeleton donning King Skarl’s regalia staggered nearby, leaning on a walking stick. He turned to Jeran and growled.
“What have you done?” he screeched. “Ruined this place—ruined us all! I trusted you to watch over Meridell. I treated you as my son—have I made a mistake?”
“I—I didn’t mean to,” stuttered Jeran. “Please, I—”
“You did nothing, watched us die. Refused to take what would save us!”
He extended his hand and walked toward Jeran. Bit by bit, his bones decayed into dust, scattering to the wind, leaving nothing but limp clothes on the ground.
“Sorry, sorry.” Jeran watched the wind sweep the clothes away as well. Skarl was truly gone, and Meridell with him.
No, Meridell didn’t die because Skarl left. It died because of his own incompetence. Jeran had always known it—he was sub-par, always was. All his successes were because of luck, nothing more. He was never worthy of even knighthood, and this—everything around him—stood as proof.
He’d always failed when it mattered. Even what he was most celebrated for, valiantly standing up against Kass during the war, that was a failure. In the end, his efforts didn’t truly matter. He fell. It was Darigan who prevented Meridell from absolute destruction.
The landscape immediately changed. He now noticed the decaying fields around him, the storm above, and the dark silhouettes encroaching on the land. A Darigan Eyrie led them, the charm around his neck casting a sickly green on his elaborate armor.
Jeran pulled out his sword from its sheath. Memories from long ago flooded him, the day of the surprise attack he had planned at the citadel, while Kass was alone, believing all Meridellians to be mired in the war on the ground. He remembered trading blows with Kass, trying to gain any advantage he could.
Then two of Lisha’s friends, Boris and Morris, arrived at the scene. They jumped on Kass, trying to inconvenience him any way they could. It didn’t work, and instead, they landed themselves in danger. Jeran remembered pushing them out of harm’s way. He remembered Kass smiling as he took advantage of this opening. He remembered how he slid and grasped the edge of the floating citadel.
For those few seconds, Jeran realized he’d failed, that it was all done. He’d failed Meridell, Lisha, everybody. He found himself caring little as Kass kicked him off the citadel. Air rushed around him as he fell, alarming at first, but soon settling into a soothing, constant whistle, lulling him into unconsciousness.
The air rushed by him just as it had during the fall. Jeran’s heart pounded against his chest as he saw the all-too-familiar Eyrie draw closer to him.
“Well, look here, the little Lupe survives,” he said. “How surprising.”
“Yes, I did,” spat Jeran. “I assume you’re here to fix that mistake?”
Kass merely smirked and started attacking. Jeran sprung to action. He blocked Kass’s blows, muscles buckling and shaking with each hit he took. His opponent didn’t seem to have any similar difficulty, shrugging off any strike with ease.
“How ineffectual,” commented Kass. “I expected the former champion to be more of a challenge.”
Distraction—Kass wouldn’t be any more distracted than when he was in the middle of an attack, unable to modify his moves in time. Gritting his teeth, Jeran put all his power into his next swing, as Kass sword came down on him. His strike connected between Kass’s armor plates. Kass immediately collapsed on the ground, rolling over his stomach with a pained expression affixed to his face.
“Yes, the former champion proves very ineffectual indeed.” Jeran smiled and kicked Kass down. He raised his sword over his fallen foe with every intention of finishing him off. He would pay. He would pay for everything. For this attack, for the war . . .
. . . For the war that happened five years ago. For the war that ended in his death. Kass was already dead, Jeran realized. This is all a dream. He lowered his sword.
“What are you waiting for? Why are you hesitating?” asked Kass. “Do it!”
“This is a dream. You’re not real,” affirmed Jeran, mostly to reassure himself. “None of it is.”
The nightmare vanished. Sunlight shined through the clouds, revealing a prosperous, green Meridell. The dark silhouettes screamed as they faded away. The dream-Kass showed more resilience. His wound was healed now, and he stood up normally.
“You don’t know how wrong you are,” he said. ”This dream may not be factually correct, but it is true, in some respects. You must realize, Jeran, that this is no normal dream.”
Cracks spindled through the ground below Jeran as Kass disappeared, replaced by the ghostly specter of a cloaked Gelert leaning on his sword as though it were a walking stick. The earth rumbled as it broke, sending Jeran tumbling below.
He landed in another void. Smoke danced below his feet. A high, sonorous voice echoed in the emptiness.
“True, indeed,” it said, “as this is the consequence of inaction, of failing to act on your will.”
A pair of freezing hands planted themselves on his shoulders. The ground reflected the image of a hooded faerie with a burning heart visible through her skin. She sighed softly and flew in front of him, a graceful, fluid move.
This faerie seemed unreal. Ghostly, even.
“Your will,” she continued, “is the most important thing, Jeran. The world is a constant, competing clash of different wills desiring different goals, and this is what keeps it moving. Do you agree with me?”
Jeran considered her words. Many problems and solutions stemmed from different ideas, from Neopians’ competing agendas. He supposed she was right.
“I do agree,” he replied. It was very easy to agree with her. The very sound of her voice soothed Jeran’s agitated nerves, easing him into compliance.
“Wonderful. You and I will get along quite well.” The faerie’s lips curved into a smile. “I think that success depends on making sure your own will is the one that is acted upon, remembered, even if others don’t exactly agree with you.”
It did in sometimes, especially when you were talking about the realm of politics. He tried to respond, but tiredness swept over him, so he just nodded.
The faerie’s eyes started to glow. If Jeran had been paying attention, he would have noticed a faint, gray aura enveloping him. But he couldn’t pay attention. He was tired of traversing realm of dreams, and it was time for him to wake up.
“The ultimate goal in life is to shape the world as you want it to be,” said the faerie. “To not only be ambitious, but to serve yourself, and, by extension, to serve the world.”
The ghostly Gelert and a Skeith whose bones glowed through his layers of fat appeared beside her. Their image persisted even has Jeran gained awareness of the world outside, even as he opened his eyes and felt the sun’s heat on his face.
He shook his head as he sat up, trying to banish them from his sight. It was just a meaningless dream, right? Just another nightmare, one of many, he was sure. And the best solution to small scares like that was some good old-fashioned exercise, in the freshness of the training grounds.
Yes, that was just he needed, a small throwback to the time where he was the Champion of Meridell, a time where he did not resign himself to nightly torments whenever he shut his eyes to go to sleep. Besides, it all served a therapeutic purpose. Nothing worked quite as well as pretending a training dummy was someone you feared or hated and smacking it around for a few hours.
Jeran reached for his armor. Yes, that was all he needed . . .
To be continued…