The Sisters of Pillar Grove:Party Two
At first, it was a distant sound that could do nothing but merely stir the shadow Korbat for a moment. But no sooner had he drifted back into his slumber did he realize that the noise was getting louder. Before long, not even the plushness of his Marlock's fur could lull him to sleep when the turning of wheels and the stomping of feet was no more than a few yards away.
The Korbat cracked his eyes open. All he could make was the blurry outline of another Marlock-pulled carriage stopped just a short distance away. As his eyes began to focus, the image of two Neopets climbing out of the coach became sharper.
They were saying something. To him? To each other? The Korbat wasn't sure. Within moments, his sight became faint once more as his eyelids lowered.
“Hey! Mister! Wake up!”
The Korbat snapped into alertness. His eyes widened at the voice that shouted at him from a few feet away and he jumped back in surprise at the Draik that stood just as far.
“Are you Flicker and Wingen's driver?” the Draik asked at a marginally quieter volume.
“Huh?” the Korbat muttered as he tried to fight off his grogginess. When the faces of Flicker and Wingen popped into his head, he said, “Oh! Yes! Are you friends of theirs?”
The Draik nodded hurriedly. Now that the Korbat's vision had cleared up, he was able to get a better look at him. He had a strange coloration that he had never seen in Moltara before: a yellow body with black spots. The older Neopet accompanying the Draik was even odder: A Grarrl that was mostly red, except for a green tail and several beige, tear-shaped specks. The Korbat was about to ask if they were surface-dwellers, as most Moltarans weren't so colorful. But clearly, time was of the essence.
The Korbat rubbed his eyes and continued, “They and three other people wanted a ride to Pillar Grove. We were supposed to be on our way back by now, but they're late. But Flicker and Wingen did Obsidian Quarry a lot of good, so I thought I'd give them some extra time and wait a little longer.” He yawned and gave a glance towards the path to the city. “Wonder what's going on? I hope they didn't get themselves into trouble.”
Before the Korbat could turn around, he was met with a gust of air from the Draik's beating wings. He looked up to find the Draik clearing the ledge behind him and the Grarrl running up its pathways. The two Neopets disappeared as soon as they arrived, hastily making their way to Pillar Grove as if there wasn't a second to waste.
* * *
Now that he was full-grown, there were but a scant amount Neopets that were tall enough to look Flicker straight in the eyes. Zircon was one of those few.
The imposing figure of a king didn't budge an inch as the Firefly approached him, yet Flicker found the weight of his legs increase the closer he got to the skunk Eyrie. Zircon silently and stoically stared at him; Flicker's line of sight drifted elsewhere.
But as Flicker tried to divert his attention, he caught a glimpse of white chitin next to Zircon. In an instant, a wide smile spread across his face and pushed away his trepidation. “Papa!”
Flicker took one giant step forward and lifted the white Buzz off the ground. He gave him a tight squeeze and -after a brief moment of surprise and a slightly pained grunt- Lumin gave one in return.
Even when Flicker put him down, Lumin kept a tight grip on his shoulders. Once his feet touched the floor, Lumin looked Flicker up and down, then asked, “How are you feeling?”
“Still a bit light-headed,” Flicker answered with a groan, remembering the effects of Jacenty's hypnotizing potion. “But I'm okay.”
“You're not hurt?”
Lumin breathed a sigh of relief. He hugged Flicker again. “I'm glad,” he said. There was much that Flicker wanted to say in return, but he couldn't find the words. That was alright, though. Hugs got the point across well enough on their own.
Once Lumin let go of Flicker, he faced Lampyri, who watched quietly from a few feet away. “Lampyri... Sincerely, thank you.”
Lampyri bowed her head. “Of course, sire.”
The grin on Flicker's face remained for as long as his mind swam in the joy of seeing his father again, and not from behind dungeon bars. But then he gave a glance to his left. And it was a short glance, as Flicker suddenly realized just how close he was to Zircon. His smile immediately flipped into a frown. Zircon's expression had not changed. Flicker felt cramped in his own exoskeleton, as if Zircon's gaze was enough to make him jump out of it.
Then, Zircon heaved a sigh. “First of all, I must apologize for how we treated you earlier. I now realize that you were innocent of any wrong-doing. Unfortunately, I'm not able to compensate you for your trouble at the moment, and I hope that my apology will be enough for the time being.”
From the moment Zircon opened his beak to the second he stopped talking, Flicker stood still and wide-eyed. When the meaning of his words sunk in, Flicker regained movement, but only in the form of a slight shuffle of his feet. Eventually, he managed to respond to Zircon, even if it was a quick and breathless, “It's okay.”
Zircon nodded and turned his attention to Chrome, who -Flicker noticed- suddenly looked much smaller in the wake of what he just said. Chrome began to open his mouth, but Zircon cut him off and firmly told him, “Let it go.”
Chrome did as he was ordered, but not without a sharp intake of breath paired with a grimace. To Flicker's surprise, however, he didn't shoot him a glare. On the contrary, Chrome appeared to make a concerted effort to not look at Flicker at all.
Whatever bitter feelings still present in Chrome's face sunk beneath the surface as soon as Zircon continued to speak, “You came just in time. Just a short while ago, I found a few of our guards here injured and barely conscious. Before I sent them off to be treated, one of them told me that it was Halloy that attacked him.”
“He's here...” Chrome growled as he grabbed the hilt of his sword. “Is he heading where I think he is?”
Zircon gave a grave nod. “The canopy.”
“Understood!” Chrome affirmed. He turned to the soldiers behind him, pointed to a few with his sword, and shouted, “You go and escort the mechanics to the hospital. The rest of you follow me!”
As the smaller group of soldiers split off with the mechanics, the rest of the troop roared as they lifted their weapons into the air. Their zeal was infectious and it was difficult for Flicker to not feel fired up as well as he listened to them. But he managed to put a stop to such fervor just long enough to shout over the noise, “Halloy has a giant robot!”
The shouts from the soldiers quieted. Zircon and Lumin gave curious looks at Flicker, but Chrome barely glanced in his direction. Nevertheless, Flicker continued to warn him, “I saw it, and it looks really powerful! Let me go with you!”
Chrome still remained skeptical. “If Halloy has something like that and it's working, he'd be causing chaos out in the open. That's why my troop and I will stop him in the canopy before he can get what he needs,” he answered after a bit of thought, but not without a slight hint of hauteur directed at Flicker.
The soldiers were still more than ready for battle, but now eyed the path to the canopy with more caution than eagerness. Zircon also had an uneasy look in his eyes as he quietly said to Chrome, “Nonetheless, be on your guard.”
Chrome nodded and led the troop towards the canopy, pushing past Flicker in the process. Flicker growled at him as he walked by, but ultimately choose to take Zircon's earlier order to Chrome as his own. He could go on with his life just fine without any more arguments with him.
“Evidently, there's much we need to discuss,” Zircon stated to the Fireflies after the soldiers left. “Not just from you, but there are things I'll need to explain as well. We'll head back to the palace to do so, however...” He turned around and gave a few quick looks around the city. “I do notice that your party is still missing a member.”
Flicker started to raise an eyebrow, but it barely twitched before the realization hit him hard enough to nearly knock him off his feet. How had he not noticed until then that Wingen wasn't there?
* * *
It took little time for news of Flicker’s escape from the dungeons to spread throughout Pillar Grove. For all the citizens knew, he was a dangerous criminal, so most of them made sure to lock themselves in their homes. The resulting silence and emptiness was unnerving; it felt so wrong and out-of-place in a city that was normally busy.
Unsettling as it was, the city’s vacancy did have one advantage: It made Wingen’s prospects of escape much higher.
He tore across the walkways at a speed that most Neopets were incapable of following. To the few spectators to the event, they merely saw a black blur that only stopped to make a sharp change in direction. Even then, Wingen’s pauses were brief. The magical green gem’s powers had a time limit, so he put every second that he possessed the extra speed to good use.
Wingen glanced over his shoulder. Two of Pillar Grove’s guards, a brown Scorchio and a fire Ixi, were still trailing him. With how deep in thought he allowed himself to sink, it was only a matter of time before he dropped his guard and was noticed. He thought that his green gem would allow him to throw the soldiers off, but they were far more persistent than he expected.
“Kid! Wait a second!” the Ixi called.
The Scorchio followed suit and shouted, “Stop! We just want to talk to you!”
Wingen snorted incredulously, “Yeah, sure.”
He skidded along the walkway as he tried to slow down enough to make the upcoming corner. But he wasn’t able to react to the change in direct quickly enough. He would have found himself crashing into the railing if he hadn’t held out his blue gem's shield in front of him. Instead, the transparent hexagon absorbed most of the impact, causing Wingen to merely bounce back a little.
The brief amount of time Wingen was forced to take a pause allowed him to think a bit more about the options he had left. He found that his supply of yellow gems was much lower than what he remembered, so invisibility would have to be a last-resort. The black smoke gem was looking like the more attractive course of action, so he hurriedly rummaged around in his bag for one.
But even though he only spent a few seconds standing still, it was enough time for the Scorchio to glide over and approach him. Wingen took his shield and smacked the guard in the face with it. Without thinking it over any further, Wingen used a black gem and threw a smoke ball at the stunned Scorchio, dashing away the moment it erupted.
“Hey! Big Brother!”
Wingen stumbled to a halt. He immediately caught the source of the noise, as the loud voice and glowing green light in the palace window wasn’t exactly subtle. “Flicker!” He formed a wide smile at the sight of his brother, but knew better than to relax just yet. Rolling up his sleeves, Wingen got ready to make a dash for the nearest elevator to the palace. “Hold on! I’m gonna get you out of there!”
“Nah, I’m good. We’ve got things straightened out,” Flicker replied casually as he rested both arms on the windowsill.
Wingen came to another sudden stop. “Huh?”
“Yeah, we just got done talking to Zircon about the whole thing, and I think he gets it now. He says there's something he wants to tell all of us about, though, so he said he'd send some soldiers to look for you first,” Flicker explained.
The two guards that previously chased him approached Wingen. “That’s what we were trying to tell you!” the Scorchio said as he rubbed his bruised snout.
Wingen flinched at the presence of the two guards. He felt his fur stand up as he looked at the Scorchio’s reddened nose. “I-I’m so sorry…” he mumbled meekly, lowering his head and keeping eye contact away from the both of them.
That time, Wingen didn’t resist when the guards offered to lead him to the palace. Flicker was there to meet him at the entrance. As soon as Wingen caught sight of him, he broke out into another run and leapt at Flicker.
Flicker caught Wingen in the air and pulled him in for a hug. A tight hug. In his excitement, Flicker had forgotten what Wingen tried to teach him over the years: Most Neopets are much smaller than him and their bodies don't take well to being squeezed by a three-hundred pound stack of muscles. Fortunately for Wingen's spine, Flicker had just enough restraint that he avoided hurting his brother and only left him breathless for a brief moment.
Once the air returned to his lungs, Wingen finally made the relieved breath he waited to make all day. Just a few hours ago he had convinced himself that Flicker would spend the rest of his life in a dungeon cell. Overly enthusiastic or not, he was just glad that Flicker had the freedom to hug him at all.
Flicker still wore his joyful grin after he released Wingen and set him down. But it disappeared the moment he appeared to remember something. He tapped the tips of his fingers together as he nervously muttered, “Uh... About Jacenty...”
“I know,” Wingen interrupted. He didn't intend it, but his words were quick and sharp, so much so that they made Flicker flinch in surprise. “Sorry. I... I just don't want to talk about him right now.”
Flicker didn’t attempt to push the subject, and instead led Wingen deeper into the palace. They soon arrived in the throne room, where Lumin, Lampyri, and Zircon were waiting. Now that Flicker was a free Neopet again, the other Buzzes appeared much more at ease than they were the last time Wingen saw them. But Zircon's new-found understanding of the situation hardly chipped away at the severe expression on his face. The tense atmosphere in the throne room persisted – so much so that even Flicker started to wither beneath it.
“Good. Now that you're all present...” Zircon began. There was a harshness to his tone, the edge of which was pointed at Lumin as he directed a glare towards him. “Even if Jacenty did force Flicker to act against his will and even if you didn't know of his intentions, you still brought him here. Therefore, I hope that I will have your full cooperation if you intend to right that wrong.”
“Absolutely,” Lumin replied calmly. To see Lumin remain composed while Flicker grimaced in intimidation in response to such a frightening figure was a bizarre sight for Wingen to behold.
Zircon gave a small nod. Shortly thereafter, his grave aura slowly vanished, much to the relief of everyone else – especially Flicker.
“But even if we’re aware that Halloy and Jacenty are working together, there’s not much we can do if we don’t know what they plan to achieve,” Lampyri pointed out, breaking up the remaining tension in the room.
“I know what their objective is,” Zircon responded. He stepped out into the middle of the throne room so that he could bring the entire group within his sight. “Do any of you know what faeries are?”
The three Fireflies shook their heads, but Wingen nodded.
“They're the most powerful beings in all of Neopia,” Wingen blurted out, his breath scarce. “I've never met one, but... but I've heard a lot about them. They have their own civilization on the surface and can live for thousands of years. And their magic... Even an average faerie can match the strongest Neopet magician.”
“Yes, that's correct,” said Zircon. “As I understand it, Moltara remains isolated from the rest of the world. Faeries don't typically show up here, so I'm not surprised that most other Moltarans are unaware of their existence, or only regard them as myths. However, there are two faeries that live here in Pillar Grove.”
Wingen's jaw hung open. The presence of even one faerie in Moltara would have been a shock to him. But two? How? Why? As eager as he was to ask those questions, Zircon was equally keen to provide answers before Wingen had the chance to open his mouth.
“A long time ago, Pillar Grove was no different from any other cave in Moltara. There was no tree, nothing that truly made us stand out. But one day, two faeries managed to find their way here. They were an earth faerie and an air faerie. As Wingen said, faeries can naturally live for thousands of years, but they are still mortal beings like the rest of us. And as it just so happened, the faeries came to us severely injured.
“The earth faerie was badly wounded, but the air faerie was on the brink of death. The former explained that they were caught in a storm and thrown to the island by the strong winds. The air faerie –her sister- tried to protect her throughout the ordeal and therefore accumulated most of the damage. She asked us to provide hospitality – a place for them to heal.
“Our ancestors agreed, but regretfully admitted to them that they had no idea how to treat a faerie, as nobody had ever seen one before. The earth faerie told them not to worry. The two of them would regain their energy on their own; they merely needed a place to do so in peace.
“The earth faerie planted a seed directly above Pillar Grove and cast a spell on it. In merely a week, the seed sprouted upside-down and grew to its full size. The newly-born tree encased the two faeries, where they still sleep today. They told our ancestors that in exchange for our hospitality and protection, they would use whatever magic they could spare to help the advancement of the city. The earth faerie creates the amber that gives energy to our technology, while the air faerie enchants the leaves to purify the air. They said that they would rest for five-hundred years, after which they will be at full-strength and return to their homeland.”
A deep breath came from Zircon as he lifted his head. The others followed suit, noticing the glowing green tree rings through the glass ceiling. “That was over three-hundred years ago. For all this time, they’ve kept their promise to us. And as the descendants of those that gave them a safe haven, we as a city feel that it’s our duty to keep ours. We’ve been attacked many times. Not just from the City of Lights, but from other groups and individuals that have heard rumors about the immense power tucked away in the tree. Some have come close to reaching their goal, but none have succeeded.”
When Zircon lowered his head, a troubled look appeared on his face. “But even though Halloy and Jacenty aren’t the first to target the faeries, they still worry me. With Halloy’s help, King Lumin I nearly reached his goal.” Zircon’s eyes shifted to Lumin, who was taken off-guard at the sudden mention of his father. “This is news to you, isn’t it? Your father didn’t attack this city to prove the might of the City of Lights. Whatever he told you and the other Fireflies was a lie. His real goal was to use the power of the faeries for himself.”
Somehow, Lumin didn’t appear as shocked at the news as Wingen expected him to be.
Zircon continued, “There’s not a doubt in my mind that Halloy wants to finish the job he started all those years ago. However, I’m not sure what Jacenty intends to gain from this. Perhaps any of you could fill me in?”
Wingen, the only one there who knew Jacenty –or at least thought he knew him- before he arrived at the light shop, shook his head. “I have no idea. I never knew Jacenty was capable of doing something like this at all.”
Zircon sighed, “Whatever it is, it can’t be good. When somebody desires the kind of power the faeries have, it’s almost never for benevolent purposes.”
Wingen tried to ponder to himself what Jacenty could possibly want with the faeries and how he managed to keep such aspirations hidden all this time. However, he was suddenly distracted by the sight of Lampyri still holding her head up, staring at the tree rings. While he was at a lack of ideas, the same couldn’t be said for her. Her eyes were widened and her mouth was agape in a sudden revelation. She whispered in a very faint voice, “…Is that why?”
“Why what?” Flicker inquired, confused at her trance-like state.
Lumin grew worried too. “Lampyri? Is something wrong?”
With a sharp breath, Lampyri snapped out of her haze. She lowered her head and looked at the others, but refused to let them in on her thought process. “It’s nothing. I’m fine.”
After she shook off the distant look in her eyes, Lampyri turned to Zircon and mentioned, “When Flicker and I were in Halloy’s lab, we heard them talking about the robot's construction. What is ‘aversion stone?’”
Zircon didn't seem to be familiar with the term, but –once again- Wingen was the one to speak up and elaborate, “Oh! I know! It’s this white rock that you can find just about anywhere. They call it ‘aversion stone’ because it’s very good at blocking magical energy. You can grind it down to a sand and make glass out of it. Magicians use it to make potion bottles, since magical energy would just burn and leak through normal glass.”
Zircon rubbed his beard as he listened to Wingen’s explanation. “Would this type of glass be able to contain something as powerful as a faerie?”
Wingen cringed. “I... I don't know for sure, but I have heard rumors...”
Suddenly, the ground began to shake.
The tremors threw everyone off guard, and the loud bang that followed echoed in the throne room. No one was able to pinpoint it, but Wingen could tell that it at least came somewhere from below them.
Once everyone was able to stand steady again, they asked each other what exactly it was. Zircon said nothing. Instead, he was struck with apprehension as he glanced at the ceiling once more.
The tree rings turned red.
A wave of dread came over Zircon’s face. “The earth faerie… Something’s made her angry…”
He dashed towards a window, not even bothering to beckon the others to come with him. But they followed him anyways, as he rushed to confirm his suspicions. The instant they looked outside, they all noticed a plume of smoke emerging from the tunnel leading to the canopy.
There was another tremor. That time, however, it came from the tree itself. Zircon spun around to see the color of the rings brighter than ever before, pulsating in a fiery rage.
Several shock waves erupted from the pillar holding the palace. Everyone remained standing, as there were oddly no vibrations to be felt. Instead, as the wave traveled across the cave, every piece of amber in its way shattered immediately. One by one, each and every machine and lantern powered by the green orbs were shut down and extinguished.
It only took a few seconds for the entire city of Pillar Grove to fall under a complete blackout.
Under normal circumstances, the only sounds to be heard in the canopy were the puffs of gas expelled by the volcanic vents, and the crystal-like leaves jingling around as a result. But Halloy saw to it that the occasional thud from a knocked-out guard hitting the ground joined the ambience. Not that it really made that much extra noise, as there weren’t very many guards standing in his way. The clay Jubjub had to sigh; it seemed that Jacenty decided to have a little fun as well.
He found Jacenty standing in the middle of the canopy, staring straight up at the leaves directly overhead. Once the purple Zafara took notice of Halloy, he stated, “You’re late.”
“I ran into a few obstacles along the way. How thoughtful of you to leave me some guards to play with,” Halloy replied with a laugh, the artificial feathers on his clockwork wings spreading out as he spoke.
Jacenty couldn’t see it behind the mask that Halloy wore over his mouth to block the toxic gases, but he grinned as widely as he could in anticipation. As Jacenty also wore a mask, it was difficult for Halloy to tell if he had anything similar on his face. But when he saw the eager gleam in the Zafara’s eyes, he easily imagined the subdued, but no less excited smile.
Jacenty turned his attention back to the knotted mass of branches in the canopy that was barely visible from the ground level. Reaching inside his coat, he pulled out a large, golden key. “So… Shall we begin?”
To be continued…