The Sisters of Pillar Grove:Part Nine
Jacenty fumbled in his pockets for a piece of amber as he rushed to the nearest elevator. Upon activating it, he hurried inside. Only then was he able to take a breath and calm down.
As the elevator lifted him closer to the palace, he watched Halloy keep Lampyri busy. Everything would have been so much simpler if he only brought Flicker with him to Pillar Grove and didn't have to drag a trained warrior along. But objecting to Flicker's tag-alongs back in Central Cavern would have been too suspicious. He hoped that the others wouldn't get in the way too much, but it turned out to be for naught.
He brought his sight to the palace and used his remaining time in the elevator to plan out a course of action. His previous trips inside gave him a basic map to the throne room to work from. Now he only had to figure out how to get there without attracting attention from too many guards.
The doors opened. Jacenty was now on the correct level, but still a few pillars away from the palace. All he had to do was choose the right walkways and move as quickly as possible.
As soon as Jacenty stepped outside the elevator, a sword plunged towards him from above. Zircon had been waiting for him.
Jacenty rolled across the walkway as he dodged the sword. As soon as Jacenty got back on his feet, Zircon pulled out the sword from the floor and made another lunge at him. Jacenty swerved to his side. Zircon missed again, only managing to slice open one of Jacenty's coat pockets.
Zircon trembled and staggered after the attempt. In spite of all his attempts to will away the pain from his injury, it wasn't about to be ignored that easily. He only faltered for a few seconds, but that was plenty of a window for Jacenty to escape.
Jacenty heard something clattering on the floor. It was his ring – his only physical reminder of his allegiance. The insignia of his organization – the letter “S” inside of a triangle – shone in the dim light. It rolled around and came dangerously close to falling off the edge.
He instinctively reached to it. But then he lifted his eyes to see Zircon beginning to collect himself. His eyes darted between the ring and Zircon.
Jacenty grit his teeth and growled. It was just a ring. It didn't matter anymore. His organization didn't matter anymore. All that was important now was his own goals. Jacenty took off running and allowed his ring to fall into the depths of Pillar Grove.
As he ran and searched his surroundings, Jacenty noticed another walkway below him, running perpendicular to the one he was on. He glanced over his shoulder. Zircon began to run at him again, but at a much slower speed as he still reeled from the pain. An idea crossed Jacenty's mind, so he hoisted himself onto the railing, jumped to the walkway below, and scampered under the shadow of the top one.
He knew that Zircon saw him and that trying to hide was pointless. So after a moment of set-up, he simply stood in place and waited. Once Zircon landed on the walkway, Jacenty blew a dart into his arm.
Zircon barely winced from it. Jacenty figured that the sharp, but small twinge would be unnoticeable compared to his greater wound. Zircon only acknowledged the dart by pulling it out and tossing it over the edge. He continued to lumber towards Jacenty.
Jacenty took a few steps backwards and held out a single palm to Zircon. “Halt!”
Zircon did exactly that.
A grin came over Jacenty's face. “Now, sheathe your sword.”
Without a drop of hesitation, Zircon instantly followed Jacenty's command. But his eyes -still full of life and thought- watched in horror as his body betrayed himself. “What is this?!”
Jacenty was not about to give Zircon the luxury of an answer. So he remained silent and did not tell him that he was under the effects of the same poison he used to control Flicker. Granted, the poison had a longer and more thorough effect on the mind when ingested. But in a pinch, injecting it via darts would suffice.
Without anything more to fear from Zircon, Jacenty relaxed his posture and clasped his hands together. He still needed to make haste, but now he could do so without worrying about any of the opposition. “I'm in need of a bodyguard to the throne room. Thus, I command that you escort me there.”
* * *
Halloy casually glided through the open air of Pillar Grove. He stopped to hover in place while the barrels of his foot cannons followed his line of sight as he scanned the walkways. He released an exaggerated sigh and shouted, “I'll be honest with you; I've never been fond of hide-and-seek!”
He flew off to search another part of the city, but remained in Lampyri's sight. In spite of the efforts of the Pillar Grove army to distribute lights, most of the city was still cloaked in darkness. However, it worked in Lampyri's favor, as it made it more difficult for Halloy to notice her hiding on one of the diagonal support beams beneath a walkway.
She hadn't given up. No, if the past five years had taught her anything, it was that she was far too stubborn to concede defeat, even in the most impossible of battles. There was absolutely nothing Halloy could do that would make him a more soul-crushing opponent than The Engineer. He was, however, almost as frustrating.
Grabbing a hold of his wings worked the first few times, but he quickly caught on to that and evaded accordingly. Likewise, he anticipated Lampyri's attempts to yank the key away from him. He could easily slip out of any chains that wrapped around his body, and his arsenal of weapons that his morphing feet provided proved to be troubling. Everything about him that caused Lampyri to feel the need to take a moment to step aside and collect her thoughts could all be traced back to his clay body.
He flew by once again, but still didn't notice Lampyri. She stared at him. If only she could stop him from morphing. If only...
There was a pit in her stomach. Her heart began to pound, and her breath became shallow. Her right hand trembled as it gripped and tugged at the rim of the opposite glove.
Lampyri heard a noise from below. Snapped out of her thoughts, she whipped her head in its direction. When Halloy had flown far enough away, she quietly fluttered down to one of the buildings attached to a nearby pillar to investigate.
From her hiding place, Lampyri couldn't make out the source of the noise. But up close, she was easily able to spot the light that reflected off of Chrome's silver pelt. The Uni was slumped up against a wall, breathing heavily as his arm wrapped around his ribs.
Chrome slowly turned his head back and forth to examine the state of Pillar Grove. The darkness, the broken walkways, the mangled masses of wood coming from the tree... It was a mess, plain and simple. He mumbled weakly, “All of this... All of this could've been prevented, if I hadn't been so...”
He noticed Lampyri's presence. “I caused that Firefly kid a lot of trouble, didn't I?” he chuckled painfully. Lampyri didn't reply, but allowed him the time and silence to choose his next words. “I know I have no right to ask favors of you, but if you could tell him that I'm s-”
“I'm not going play messenger for you,” Lampyri interrupted Chrome. “If you want to apologize to Flicker, you can do it yourself, to his face. But that would require that you don't give up on yourself now.”
He was initially surprised at Lampyri's remark, but eventually laughed again – this time in a more genuine manner. As long as her words sunk in, that was all that mattered.
“I'd evacuate with everyone else, if I were you. And get that injury checked out,” Lampyri said. She began to return to her spot, but stopped when a thought crossed her mind. “But... if you want to start making amends now, you could begin by telling me one thing: How did you keep Halloy imprisoned for fifteen years?”
Chrome's eyes caught the sight of Halloy up above, enjoying the freedom to fly around. He narrowed his eyes at him, but then turned his head to Lampyri and grinned. “We built his cell next to a furnace.”
Of course! Lampyri nodded appreciatively to Chrome. “Got it.”
Lampyri took to the air, but passed the hiding spot. She knew exactly where to go, exactly what to do, and exactly who to get help from.
She honed in on her target. But the as soon as a speck of light from the lanterns revealed her presence, Halloy spotted her. “There you are!”
He shot a volley of three amber blasts. Lampyri rolled in the air to her left, then her right. The third blast skimmed past her head. For a moment, the bright, green light zipping past her eyes left her blinded.
Lampyri recovered before Halloy could get the chance to capitalize on the opportunity. She spotted a large piece of wood laying on a damaged walkway. The tendrils stopped expanding after Lumberjack disappeared into Jacenty's Inventory, meaning that the remnants were safe to touch. She quickly wrapped her chains around the piece of wood, swung it in the air, and hurled it at Halloy.
The wood broke into a cloud of splinters at the impact. Lampyri bolted away the moment it hit. She didn't expect it to do any real damage, but it would at least distract Halloy for a few moments.
Lampyri hit the walkway running. She rushed to the store that she saw Dimitri come from earlier and kicked open the door.
Both Dimitri and Frazer flinched at her sudden entrance. Dimitri started to raise his cannon while Frazer tried to launch himself upward from his sitting position – only to be sent back down as his hands gripped his leg. But when they saw that it was just Lampyri, they were put at ease.
“Lampyri? What's going o- augh!” Dimitri began, but was cut off when Lampyri rushed over, grabbed his sleeve, and dragged him to the door.
Dimitri stumbled as Lampyri pulled him along. When she released him, she didn't even allow him to regain his balance before she commanded, “I'm going to lure Halloy here. As soon as he gets close, shoot a fireball at him!”
“My fire's not all the way back yet! I don't know if-” Dimitri groaned anxiously, but then stopped himself. After some thought, he said with guarded confidence, “I'll do what I can.”
Lampyri took off. Halloy wasn't far away; he had recovered quickly and was already back in pursuit. This time, he didn't say anything when he saw her emerge from the store. Instead, he snarled and shot another barrage of amber blasts at Lampyri. Each burnt circular marks into the walkway as she danced around them.
Her legs started to feel heavy. Even she couldn't dodge forever. But she knew that Halloy's supply of amber was limited as well. All that mattered was that he ran out of amber before she ran out of stamina.
Once Halloy fired his final amber blast, he reformed his toes into claws. Sparkles of light highlighted the edges as he sharpened them against one another. He grinned with relish at the idea of shifting to close-range combat. Halloy swooped at Lampyri, his claws ready to slash and slice.
Lampyri stood her ground. A quick glance towards the store was all the signal that Dimitri needed. He took a long, raspy breath, released it into his cannon, and darted outside.
“The Draik?!” Halloy exclaimed. His grin flipped upside-down and his face filled with panic. He furiously flapped his wings to slow his dive and change direction.
But by then, it was too late. The fireball shot out of the cannon and enveloped Halloy in flames.
He immediately dropped to the walkway and rolled around in an attempt to extinguish the flames. Even through his frantic whimpering, Lampyri could hear the clay harden and crack. When the fire died out, all Halloy could do with his stiff body was hobble around awkwardly.
Lampyri didn't wait another second; she walked up to him, planted her foot on his head, and seized the key. “Give me that.”
A few seconds later, Halloy was wrapped in a ball of chains. There was no escape this time. Neither his body or feet could change shape anymore. Even his wings were rendered inoperable. All he could do was grumble irately at Lampyri.
Meanwhile, Dimitri bent down and grabbed his knees. “I can't... No more...” he huffed.
“You've done more than enough. Thank you,” Lampyri said. While she held the chain rope attached to Halloy with one hand, she examined the key in her other. “It doesn't look like your fire damaged the key, thank goodness. Do you know anything about Inventories by any chance?”
“Just the basics. Wingen's the only one I know that uses one.” Dimitri then took on a sour look and added, “Well, you know, other than Jacenty.”
She was about to sigh in frustration, but then remembered something. Though she visually noticed Frazer when she barged into the store, she was in such a hurry that his presence in Pillar Grove didn't fully hit her until now, after she calmed down. “What about Frazer?”
Dimitri stood up straight and put his hands on his hips. “He might know something. Turns out he knows a lot more about magic than I thought he did.”
* * *
“Breaking into someone else's Inventory? Goodness, that's...”
Frazer paused while his face winced from the mere question that Lampyri posed to him. Though the brief tightening of his face muscles might have been due to his leg instead. It was supported by a splint made from whatever long, sturdy materials Dimitri could find and wrapped in a random assortment of leather strips. It was better than nothing, but Dimitri's mechanical skills couldn't fully translate into emergency care.
“It's not impossible, is it?” Lampyri cut in. As eager as she was to catch up to Jacenty and give him a piece of her mind, she thought it wiser to avoid unnecessary confrontation if possible. Thus, she and Dimitri returned to the store -Halloy in tow- in hopes that there was another way to free Flicker and Wingen.
“Well... theoretically, no” Frazer answered with a bit of hesitation. “But spells that are bound to particular people aren't easily broken or circumvented. To enter another's Inventory without their direct involvement would require extremely powerful magic in the hands of an expert magician. And unfortunately, the closest place you'll find those are in Lower Moltara.”
Lampyri frowned, but tried to hang onto whatever scrap of light she could find. “Is there anything Wingen can do from the inside?”
Frazer shook his head. “I doubt it. As talented as he is, this is well beyond his abilities. Even so, I wouldn't expect Jacenty to leave any resources for Wingen to take advantage of.”
Dimitri's face lit up with an idea. “Could Wingen open up his own Inventory in there?”
The room echoed with the shocked laugh that erupted from Frazer's mouth. “Dimitri, I would very well hope he doesn't attempt something like that! Creating a dimensional paradox would be nothing short of disastrous!”
Dimitri stepped back and set his line of sight elsewhere. Embarrassed as he was over his suggestion, Lampyri could hardly blame him for putting all options on the table.
Frazer adjusted his position and gave a sigh. He scowled as he said, “Jacenty's Inventory is an older version. More recent Inventories – such as Wingen's – can be opened from the inside, to prevent this very thing from happening. The magicians offered to make Jacenty a new Inventory long ago, but he refused. He said he was satisfied with what he had.”
He bitterly growled, “Thinking about it now, knowing that Jacenty's from a society of spies and assassins, it makes sense he would want to keep something he could shove inconvenient people into, where they can't escape. Perhaps it's hindsight, but I should have been suspicious of that from the beginning.”
Lampyri hung her head and moaned to herself. Forcing Jacenty to open up his Inventory and thus relying on his cooperation was not an ideal solution. But it appeared to be the most feasible one. Though she was more than willing to go all the way to Lower Moltara if need be, she had to remain optimistic that it wouldn't come to that.
Halloy had been quiet all throughout the conversation. Instead, he simply grimaced and stewed in indignation. Lampyri suspected he was hardly in the mood to talk, but it was worth a try. “Where's Jacenty headed?”
He lifted his eyes, smugly smiled, and chortled, “Now, what on Neopia makes you think I'm going to tell you-”
Lampyri yanked the chain upwards. She spun Halloy around to stare at him directly in the eyes. She didn't need to say a word, nor make any gestures. Her threats to Halloy were communicated entirely through the glower on her face.
“The palace!” Halloy piped up. “The floor in the throne room is covering up a passageway to the earth faerie's chamber!”
A wave of apprehension gripped Lampyri. “The palace... That's where Lumin is...”
“'Lumin?!'” Halloy shouted incredulously. “Lumin's dead!”
Out of the corner of her eye, Lampyri saw Dimitri's and Frazer's faces begin to fall. But before any sort of woe could overtake them, she interrupted their thoughts and clarified, “His father.”
Though Dimitri and Frazer were relieved, Halloy only became bewildered. “What?! He had a son?! Lumin never told me about any children!” A thought seemed to pop into his head. He started to laugh and rock back-and-forth in amusement. “Ohoho! Let me guess, he didn't inherit his daddy's strength? No wonder Lumin never spoke of a son! He must have been humiliated by him!”
Lampyri shook Halloy up and down and snarled, “Shush!”
Halloy obeyed, as he became too dizzy to speak. Without his blabbering to distract her, Lampyri could think about her next step in peace. “If that's where Jacenty's going, then I'll need to go as well before anything happens to Lumin.”
She pulled Halloy up again and glared at him. “And you are going right back into your cell.”
“I'm going to stay here with the professor. My fire's not going to come back in time to help you guys anymore,” Dimitri said regretfully. His eyes grew for a moment as he seemed to recall something. “Didn't I see Zircon chasing after Jacenty, though?”
“Yes, but...” As much as she tried to live by a policy of optimism, she wasn't immune to occasional bouts of foreboding. She glanced outside at the palace and groaned uneasily, “Something tells me that he's going to be needing help.”
* * *
The only entrance to Pillar Grove's palace was located at the end of a long walkway near the top of the cave, partially covered by a curved, awning-like structure. Jacenty fully expected such a bottleneck to be heavily guarded, and he was proved correct upon his arrival.
He was greeted by a throng of soldiers lining the walkway. Jacenty imagined that at any other time, they would have leapt at him in an instant. But with Zircon at his side, they were all rendered dumbstruck.
“Your Majesty?!” several of the soldiers yelled in disbelief. They must have believed that their eyes were deceiving them at the sight of their beloved king escorting Jacenty to the most secure part of the city. When Zircon didn't say anything, they looked to one another for some sort of explanation. But their confusion persisted.
“Strike down anyone in the way,” Jacenty ordered Zircon, his voice low.
Zircon drew his sword. He quickened his step, outpacing Jacenty, and advanced on the soldiers. As his grip on the hilt tightened, so did his face. Though he could no longer control his body, his voice still belonged to him. He hastily barked to the soldiers, “All of you! Run!”
The soldiers, still stunned, didn't move. Some began to shake as Zircon walked towards them, while the ones with fortitude stood their ground with their weapons at the ready.
Zircon approached the first soldier in his way: a young, red Kyrii. The Kyrii was motionless, frozen by fear. Zircon's arm shook as he tried to resist the poison in his system. But it was fruitless. He began to lift his sword into the air.
Zircon desperately thundered, “I said RUN! That's an order!”
The soldiers were shaken from their paralysis. They heeded Zircon's order without protest, and fled into the palace. Zircon swung his sword at the Kyrii; he ducked away from the attack just in time. The Kyrii scrambled to his feet and ran further down the walkway, away from the building.
Zircon automatically turned to give chase, but Jacenty stopped him. “Don't bother pursuing those that flee. We don't have that kind of time to waste.”
Zircon's body obeyed, sharply turning back to the palace and resuming his path. But though his head pointed straight ahead, his eyes moved as much towards Jacenty as they could and looked daggers at him. He hissed, “I swear to you, when this wears off...”
“Well, I wouldn't hold your breath,” Jacenty responded, unaffected. “By the time you gain control of yourself again, I'll already have the earth faerie under my command.”
Zircon threw the palace doors open. As he and Jacenty entered, they were met with another group of soldiers. Most of them were already stationed there, but Jacenty noticed that several of those that he just saw outside were present as well. From the get-go, all of them expressed apprehension over Zircon's condition. Evidently, those that were outside were quick to warn the others of what they saw.
“Everyone, stand down,” Zircon quickly ordered.
Though there were hesitant looks and nonverbal complaints among the soldiers, they dropped their weapons. They all knew what the outcome of a direct fight with Zircon would be. Even injured and outnumbered, Zircon simply could not be matched by anyone in the building.
The soldiers stood quietly as Zircon and Jacenty walked past them. Likewise, Zircon did not say a word to Jacenty as they continued. Perhaps it finally sunk in that using what freedom he had left to disparage Jacenty was a wasted effort.
They came to another set of doors, which would lead to a hallway connected to the throne room. Zircon opened them. Before he could take another step, Jacenty told him to wait.
Jacenty couldn't help but chuckle. They effortlessly made their way past dozens of soldiers with minimal resistance. Yet the palace had one last line of defense. And what a pitiful defense it was.
Lumin stood in the way. He stared at them, unflinching and unmoving.
To be continued…