The Sisters of Pillar Grove:Part Eight
Jacenty turned in the direction of the noise behind him, made by two robotic feet pounding against the metal coating on one of the pillars. He saw Halloy furiously flapping his wings and trying to push his clay body off of the tree’s trunk, but he wasn’t making much progress.
Rolling his eyes, Jacenty approached Halloy, grabbed the base of his artificial wings, and yanked him free. Halloy released a gasp once he sensed that he was unstuck, but didn't give any words of gratitude. Jacenty held him to his eye level and turned him around. Despite all the training he undertook to remain stoic during missions, even he struggled to stifle back a burst of laughter at the sight of Halloy’s flattened face. Once Halloy popped back to his proper shape, Jacenty opened his hand and let him drop to the floor.
“By the way, so much for taking care of them, I see,” Jacenty growled at Halloy as he recoiled from the fall. “Why are those Buzzes still alive?!”
“That’s a very good question! But surely you would have an answer for it, seeing as how you’re the one that they followed to my lab in the first place!” Halloy stomped the ground. “How would I know?! You think I want those pests getting in my way?!”
“You’re certainly not trying hard enough to keep that from happening! Because of you, Flicker and Wingen are inside the robot, and we don’t have time to fish them out!” Jacenty snapped, pointing his key to where Lumberjack used to be.
“I’ll keep that in mind next time my lab has intruders. Oh wait, I can’t, because it’s flooded!” Halloy shouted back. “And settle down. Everything in Lumberjack is secured; they can’t do a thing to it.”
“The air faerie?”
“Fully protected.” Halloy stood on one foot and stretched the other one to Jacenty. “Hurry up, hurry up! We had a deal! Give me that key!”
Though Jacenty was tempted to reconsider their agreement, he had no choice but to adhere to it. Jacenty tossed his golden key to Halloy. Upon catching it, a small portion of the coating on the bottom of Halloy's robotic foot opened up, revealing the bare clay inside. Jacenty looked carefully; the key to Lumberjack sat in a depression in Halloy's foot, perfectly molded as to not cause him discomfort as he walked.
Halloy pulled out his key and gave it to Jacenty. He handled it with the very tips of his fingers, making as little contact as possible as he put it in his pockets, all while resisting the urge to squirm and scrunch up his face in disgust.
When Jacenty looked back at Halloy, he found him mulling over the size of the Inventory key. It was too big to put into his pockets, and Halloy himself was too small to simply store it inside his jacket as Jacenty did. It took some careful maneuvering and stretches that would have been impossible if not for his clay body, but Halloy ended up sticking the key in the gap between each of his wings, held in place by his belt.
Halloy flapped in the air a bit awkwardly with an extra object against his back, but ignored it and said nonchalantly, “Well? Hop to it! Go finish the second part of our bargain!”
Jacenty took a few steps backward in preparation to get moving, but it was the sight of Lampyri heading his way that caused him to break out into a run. Part of his job was knowing when to avoid unnecessary conflict. And there was nothing more pointless than trying to fight with someone he was hopelessly outmatched with when someone else could battle for him.
* * *
It was the second time in Lampyri's life that she dreaded to face Lumin to explain what happened to Flicker.
She told herself that he was probably fine this time around. Probably. Five years ago, it was when he was cursed by The Engineer despite Lampyri’s efforts to protect him. Now, he was just locked into a pocket dimension with his adopted brother and a giant robot, the entrance to which disappeared into thin air.
Nothing that can’t be fixed, Lampyri thought as she set Jacenty and Halloy in her sights. She cleared her mind. It wouldn’t do Flicker and Wingen any good if she panicked. She needed to remain calm and collected. Yet, that little part of her mental voice that served to provide thoughts contrary to what the rest of her felt managed to get in one last peep before silencing itself completely, I hope…
Lampyri was in striking range of Jacenty and Halloy. Both hands gripping chain ropes, she whipped them furiously at her two enemies. All Halloy could do was shield himself from the onslaught, while Jacenty put all his energy into slipping away. Jacenty would escape and be out of Lampyri’s reach if she allowed him to get away much farther.
She could catch up to him easily. But she saw the Inventory key change hands. Lampyri knew that only the key's owner could activate an Inventory, but the tales of how petty Halloy was were well-known in the days of the war. It would be just like him to destroy it if he didn't get his way.
But there was no telling what Jacenty would do if left to his own devices. And now he and Halloy were splitting up. Lampyri grimaced as she looked between the two. It was one or the other.
Suddenly, something made a hard landing behind Lampyri. She spun around to find Zircon, who had made a slight flinch upon touching the walkway.
“Your king strikes me as the type to worry easily. I can't imagine that this situation will make him very happy,” he stated with a hint of a gasp in his voice. He unsheathed his sword, banished the pain from his face, and said, “I’ll go after Jacenty. You take care of Halloy and get those youngsters out of there!”
Zircon spread his wings and took off again. He did not pay much heed to his old adversary, a fact that Halloy seemed affronted by. His feet morphed into the shape of a cannon and took aim at the king.
Lampyri rushed at Halloy and kicked his foot aside to throw off his aim. The amber-powered blast put a small dent in a distant pillar, allowing his target to fly out of range.
Halloy ground his teeth at the sight of Zircon getting away. The cannon briefly reverted to its original shape before the toes sharpened into terrible claws. With a growl of frustration, he took a swipe at Lampyri.
She stepped out of the way. Lampyri countered by wrapping her chains around Halloy’s foot and knocked him off balance. Even if she couldn’t keep a hold of him for any length of time, she could still disorient him.
Once Halloy got on his feet again, he took a few steps back. He studied Lampyri for a moment and then tilted his head – and whole body – as he chuckled, “Are you a Royal Guard? I’ve seen them fight before, and you remind me of them. But since when does a Royal Guard have any interest in protecting the king of Pillar Grove? Shouldn’t you be on my side?”
“Times have changed,” Lampyri replied shortly.
Halloy responded with a louder laugh, “Obviously! How sad. Peace doesn’t make for good business, you know?”
Lampyri whipped her chains again, but Halloy was quick to react. He jumped into the air before the links could bind his feet like before. Brandishing his razor-sharp claws like a pair of talons, he swooped down at the blue Buzz. Lampyri stepped aside to dodge him, but was not swift enough to prevent a small slice across her cheek. She cringed at the sharpness, but the thought of her objective dulled the pain before she could pay it much attention.
She spun around in Halloy's direction. Halloy did likewise, and the two were stared down one other yet again. “Give me the key,” Lampyri demanded with a growl, readying her chains in anticipation of his likely response.
Halloy’s claws drummed against the walkway in a wave-like motion. He grinned in a taunting manner and challenged Lampyri to make her next move. “Come and get it. There’s no need to rush. I’ve got time to spare.”
* * *
Flicker tried to give off the impression that he feared nothing. Technically, it was true. He feared the concept of “nothing” very, very much.
And that was what he laid his eyes upon. The interior of the Inventory could be defined more by what wasn’t there rather than what was. In a sea of nothing, Flicker, Wingen, and Lumberjack stood as a tiny island. They were surrounded by a white expanse that did not contain so much as a horizon, let alone distinguishable features of any kind. The dimension was perfectly lit, yet there was neither a light source nor shadows anywhere to be seen. As vast as the void was, Flicker yelling out Jacenty’s name in anger, demanding that he open the door and release them, did not produce even the tiniest of echoes.
Flicker stepped back into Lumberjack and took a breath. He slowly exhaled in hopes that it would calm the unsettled feeling that the atmosphere had on him. But what worked far better was when he moved deeper into the robot so that he could no longer see the void. He mentally repeated the mantras that he overheard Lampyri recite on occasion and told himself that everything would be fine.
But Wingen, being opposite to Flicker in nearly every way, was not the sort to reassure himself in such situations. He said nothing, but Flicker noticed his flattened ears and the way his tail was curved downwards in a way that the tip brushed against his toes.
Flicker happened to glance further down Lumberjack and his posture perked up once he caught the sight of a faint light-blue glow. Remembering the reason they were there in the first place, he said to Wingen in an uplifting tone, “Hey, they haven't won yet!”
Flicker gripped the handle of his hammer and ran into the engine room. His run slowed down to a walk as he approached the glass capsule at the end. Eventually, he came to a stop. He deliberately made sure not to move a muscle. It was only mere hours ago that Flicker was unaware of the existence of faeries. Now, one was just a few feet away, with nothing more than glass separating the two.
The air faerie was sitting down, her head resting on her knees that were pulled up to her chest. Flicker’s first thought was that she looked far stranger than any Neopet. She had no fur or scales, and no exoskeleton. There were no claws or fangs to speak of either. Her fingers were thin and long, and her toes were tiny in proportion to her feet. The air faerie’s wings were positioned on her back similar to a Buzz, but they were much wider and opted for elegant designs and vibrant shades rather than simplicity. Neither her small nose nor her pointed ears seemed suited to allow for heightened senses. Her eyes were closed, so Flicker couldn’t get a good read on how good her sight might have been.
But once she sensed Flicker’s presence, she immediately lifted her head and snapped her eyes open. The air faerie’s eyes narrowed at Flicker. He found himself paralyzed by the suddenness and intensity of the glare. In her eyes, there was anger and distrust. But there was also fear and confusion.
Those two emotions shook Flicker out of his temporary daze. He inhaled a large breath, and shouted loud enough for the air faerie to hear behind the glass, “Stand back! I’m gonna get you out of there!”
The air faerie seemed surprised and even a little incredulous. But after a moment of hesitation, she pushed herself back as far as she could go.
Flicker briefly spun his hammer before he tightened his grip. He planted his feet firmly on the ground and brought his arm back. With as much strength as he could muster, he swung the hammer at the glass.
There was a strange, repelling sort of feeling in the brief moment that the hammer and the glass were mere millimeters apart. Then, suddenly, Flicker felt the force that he put into his swing reflected back at him. The hammer flew out of his hand and slammed into the wall, whereas Flicker was knocked off his feet and sent to the other side of the room.
“Flicker!” Wingen yelled. Flicker heard the his rapid footsteps rushing towards him. He could make out no more than a blurry outline of his brother’s face as he asked, “Are you okay?!”
“Yeah…” Flicker grunted. After Wingen helped him into a sitting position, he stretched the fingers of the hand his hammer was torn from. A few tight blinks later, his vision began to focus, and eventually he could see that the glass on the capsule was still intact and unscathed. Inside, the air faerie was still sitting at the back, staring at Flicker with startled eyes.
Once he was sure that Flicker would be alright, Wingen approached the capsule. Carefully and slowly, he extended his hand towards the glass. Before he could touch it, he said to Flicker, “It feels like something’s pushing my hand back.”
By that time, Flicker was on his feet again. He walked up to Wingen and observed what he described. Taking a moment to listen, he could hear a faint hum emanate from the glass.
“I thought Halloy was supposed to be a scientist? This looks more like magic,” Flicker pointed out.
Wingen sighed. He didn’t appear to have an explanation for the phenomenon, but he did comment, “Sometimes, it can be hard to tell the difference.”
Flicker turned his attention to the walls at his sides. He noticed several locked containers of the same green amber that Jacenty forced him to steal. But even after finding out what Jacenty did to him, Flicker didn't know up until that point where the amber went or what it was going to be used for. Curious, he tried to touch the jars, only for his hand to be repelled in the same manner as the larger capsule.
When Flicker looked back at the air faerie, she had dropped her head onto her knees once more. Even without a view of her face, he could sense the resignation and hopelessness coming from her.
“There’s gotta be something we can do…” Flicker muttered to himself. He stepped closer to the glass and addressed the air faerie, “Hey, do you have any ideas?”
The air faerie was silent. Flicker was certain that the volume of his voice was loud enough for her to hear it, yet she didn’t react or respond to his question in the slightest.
Flicker lowered his head to Wingen’s ears. “Can faeries talk?” he asked as quietly as he could manage.
“Of course they can. She just doesn’t want to,” Wingen replied. His posture slouched and his ears slanted even lower than they already were as he took another look at the air faerie. “Can you blame her?”
When Flicker gazed at the faerie’s posture and noted her refusal to look at the two Neopets, he recognized the same desire that he saw in his brother every now and then. Sometimes, when Wingen was in a bad mood, all he wanted was to be left alone. Thus, Flicker stepped away from the capsule and saw himself out of the room.
When he and Wingen returned to the control room, Flicker once again got a glimpse of the void outside. He did his best to divert his eyes from it and instead choose to focus on Wingen’s evaluation of the room.
But his examination was painfully short, as the fire Wocky could do no more than point out the thick sheet of metal that covered the control panel – littered with the crumbled remains of the earth faerie's vines – and state the obvious, “We can’t even mess with the controls. Halloy prepared for everything. There’s nothing we can do here…”
Flicker wasn’t going to accept that. He turned back to the void and swallowed his apprehension. Taking a sharp breath, he ran to the window and quickly said, “I’m gonna go find an exit! There’s gotta be one around here somewhere!”
“Flicker! Wait!” Wingen shouted. But by that time, it was too late. Flicker already leapt into the air and took off.
Flicker had not left Lumberjack for more than half a minute before the emptiness of the dimension began to take hold. There was nothing to see in the Inventory. Nothing to help discern his location, nothing that resembled an exit, and most of all, nothing to take his thoughts off the fear that ate away at his state of mind. Without thinking about it, he dropped in altitude and his legs shifted downwards in anticipation of landing. He was inches away from stumbling to the ground; his will to fly any further became just as non-existent as his surroundings.
This was a bad idea... I can't stand this... I don't know where I am... I don't know what to do...
But before his toes could feel solid ground, Flicker took in a gasp and forced his wings to beat as fast as they could, causing him to rapidly rise in the air. He mentally shouted at his scrambled thoughts. For the moment, he was clear of mind once more. But he underestimated the effect such an environment would have on him. How was he to prevent such an episode from repeating itself?
Flicker listened to his wing-beats as he continued onwards. It was a simplistic thing to focus on, but it was something. “Just keep going. No matter what,” he said out loud, giving his best effort at not allowing wayward thoughts to take control again.
Not long afterwards, Flicker caught the sight of something up ahead. He released a relieved breath from his widening smile. He didn’t know what it was, but he didn’t care. Even if temporary, it was a goal he could push himself towards and keep himself sane while doing so.
But as he approached it, his elation vanished. Eventually, he was met with the all-too-familiar sight of Lumberjack. He lowered himself to the ground despite his earlier determination to stay in the air. He instinctively spun around and looked back in the direction he came from. Though he didn’t expect to actually see anything, of course, he was so certain that he flew in a straight line the entire time.
After examining the outside of the robot and finding that it was exactly as he remembered it, Flicker lifted himself to the broken windows on the head. He stepped into the control room to see Wingen patiently sitting in one of the chairs. While Flicker was still frazzled by what he experienced, Wingen wasn’t at all surprised to see him return so quickly.
“Time and space doesn’t work the same way here as it does in the real world. If you try to go looking for an exit, you’re just gonna loop around right back to where you started,” Wingen sighed.
Flicker approached the other chair. He needed to sit down to process all that happened in that short amount of time. It took a few minutes, but he returned to the level of calmness he was at before his attempt at scouting – that was to say, merely apprehensive instead of terrified.
“So there’s no way out?” Flicker asked, the volume of his voice low.
“Not unless Jacenty opens the door again from outside,” Wingen answered. He took one look at the gloom beginning to fill Flicker’s face before he quickly added, “But he and Halloy have to come back for the robot. So we can still get out of here!”
That was true. But even so, just the thought of being trapped in such an alien place kept Flicker from instantly cheering up. He tried to at least give off the impression that Wingen’s words helped him; if his mood dampened too much, then Wingen was sure to follow.
The two of them were quiet. Yet again, the soundlessness of the Inventory almost immediately began to affect Flicker’s composure. He noticed that it had an effect on Wingen as well, as he tapped his shoes in a discordant rhythm – he was not imitating a particular piece of music, but just trying to create noise. All the while, he stared at a wall and rubbed his hands against his upper arms.
“Um…” Flicker muttered suddenly. Initially, the purpose of his brief utterance was the same as the tapping of Wingen’s feet: to break up the unbearable silence. But Flicker soon realized that he couldn’t stop there. He needed to keep a conversation going, to keep both of their minds active while they waited. He came up with a topic, and threw it out without much of a thought. “So… How does time work here?”
Wingen was caught off guard and jolted out of his own contemplation.. “Oh! Uh, well… I guess you could say that time just kind of stops in the Inventory. I mean, it feels like time is passing, but…”
Wingen groaned. His explanation was falling flat, so he took a moment to gather his thoughts. Once he figured something out, he continued, “Okay, think of it like this: Say you put some food in the Inventory. No matter how much time passes in the outside world, that food will never rot as long as it stays in here. It’ll stay exactly the same as it was when you put it in.”
A thought came over Flicker. “So, it doesn’t age?”
“Right! That’s basically it.”
Flicker’s heart began to pound. After a moment, he asked with a slight quiver in his voice, “If we never left, would that mean we'd never get old?”
Wingen was silent for a second as he looked at Flicker curiously, surprised that sort of question would leave his mouth. “I... guess. But really, an eternity in here? That's not much of a life...”
Flicker turned his head and fidgeted in his seat. He felt a tooth jab into his lip as he glanced at the void – an eternity of nothing. Wingen was right; that didn't sound like a life worth living.
The prospect of immortality was enough to spur reflection in anyone. In Flicker’s case, it brought up the idea of its exact opposite. But after some contemplation, Flicker was at a loss. No matter how much he weighed the concepts of mortality and immortality against each other, he couldn’t figure out which was worse.
“Flicker?” Wingen asked quietly. Just as Flicker did to him before, Wingen shocked Flicker out of his musing. “What’s wrong?”
It wasn’t: “Is there something wrong?” It was: “What’s wrong?” Flicker heaved a sigh. Even if he buried his worries deep enough to hide them from everyone else, it was only a matter of time before Wingen dug them up.
But in spite of that, Flicker blurted out a predetermined response, “Nothing.”
“There is too!” Wingen moaned. Whether it was Flicker’s inability to keep his wings still or any other cues he was unaware of, there was no hiding things from his brother. “C’mon, what’s the matter?”
Flicker wanted to answer him. Deep down, he knew that it was the right thing to do. Wingen deserved to know about the end result of Flicker’s rapid aging. Yet, he couldn’t find it within himself to open his mouth. In the battle between the building shame over keeping it a secret and the thought of how Wingen would react to the revelation, the latter won out and sealed his lips shut.
Flicker turned his head away even more to avoid Wingen's gaze. To his surprise, Wingen didn’t press him any further. Thus, the two brothers sat inside Lumberjack without another word, left with nothing to do but wait.
To be continued…