The Sisters of Pillar Grove:Part Twelve
Flicker briefly awoke to a dark environment. He closed his eyes, and some time passed before he opened them again. For all he knew, that time might have been a minute, five minutes, or an hour. Every sense was clouded by a thick haze. His sight was a blur. Only a few muffled sounds could manage to penetrate the blockage in his ear holes. And all he could feel was a dull, throbbing pain from the impact.
Impact... Impact from what? Where was he? How did he get there?
He felt something pushing at his shoulder.
The pain in his body sharpened, and suddenly the world came back into focus. With a quick intake of breath, Flicker forced himself to sit up. He saw Wingen standing next to him. The Wocky gave a slower breath full of relief. He looked shaken, but otherwise unharmed.
“Big Brother... Are you...” Flicker began, but cut himself off as he flinched from another burst of pain. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah... How about you?” Wingen replied uneasily.
“I'm alright,” Flicker grunted as he gradually stood up. Wingen's ears were still as flat as could be, however. Flicker should have known it wouldn't have been that easy to reassure him.
His memories of Lumberjack's fall flooded back to him. He had no idea how long he had been unconscious, but however much time had passed, enough of it had been wasted. “Where's Jacenty?”
“In the control room. He's unconscious. I checked earlier,” Wingen answered.
Flicker looked to the back of the engine room. The air faerie watched the whole scene with her hands pressed against the glass. Like Wingen, she was wide-eyed and a bit frightened, but unscathed.
Flicker tightly blinked and shook his head to dispel the last of the cloudiness in his mind as he approached the capsule. He exhaled a few puffs of air and gripped his hammer. The air faerie, sensing what Flicker was about to do, backed away from the glass. He took a large step forward and readied his swing.
Lumberjack's lights suddenly flipped back on. The hum of the machinery returned and the air faerie shouted as the capsule began to sap her magic again. Flicker whipped his head to see that Jacenty had woken up and pulled himself to the controls. He tried to rush towards him, but was brought back to the ground by his injuries.
Wingen was frozen in place. But Flicker was certain that he didn't take as much damage. Why wasn't he moving?
Flicker followed Wingen's line-of-sight towards the windows and looked beyond them. Barely illuminated by the glowing red rings surrounding the tree's inner chamber was the form of the earth faerie. She stood within a tangle of the same woody vines that burst out the tree earlier. The earth faerie was covered in leaves from her ankles all the way to her neck and her head was covered in what looked less like hair and more like grass. In any other lighting, she would match Flicker in hues of green. But the darkness of the room with only the soft red glow to bring her into sight gave her an eerie appearance. From their distance and with minimal light, Flicker could just barely make out the form of a scowl etched onto her face.
Flicker now understood Wingen's lack of action; he too became just as petrified.
Jacenty, however, managed to muster up whatever courage he had. He forced Lumberjack to rear its head up and prepare its weapons. Likewise, the tendrils surrounding the earth faerie began to fan out.
Flicker heard Lumberjack screech as it readied an amber blast.
Then, the lights went out again.
Once more, everything became still within Lumberjack. Its inner workings silenced, allowing the air faerie another moment of reprieve. The only noise within the robot came from Jacenty, who desperately slammed his hands against the controls. “Move, you miserable piece of junk!”
Jacenty's shouts jarred both Flicker and Wingen out of their daze. Wingen exclaimed, “The air faerie!”
He didn't need to say anymore. Flicker ran back to the capsule and smashed his hammer against the glass as quickly as he could. The glass cracked, but didn't shatter. But one more good hit, and the air faerie would be free.
Lumberjack moved again, but not of its own volition.
Flicker could feel Lumberjack start to rise in the air. He looked towards the control room and saw tendrils wrapping themselves around Lumberjack's head. The ceiling of the control room groaned and creaked as the vines squeezed it. Turning his attention towards the tail of the robot, he could hear the same sounds coming from there as well.
The noise stopped. The vines stopped as well.
Then, in one, swift motion, the tendrils yanked back and snapped Lumberjack in two.
Flicker and Wingen immediately fell to the floor. The vines held Lumberjack's halves, but Flicker could feel that they were beginning to tilt downwards. Wingen noticed it just in time to grab a hold of an inoperable amber container. But Flicker was too late and slipped out of Lumberjack.
Flicker quickly flapped his wings, but his effort only served to slightly soften his landing. Though he was able to stand, his legs continued to wobble. He knew what it was like to be at the brink of total exhaustion. He remembered using every drop of his energy to defeat Granite. But even he was beginning to wonder just how close he was to his limit and how much longer he could continue to push it.
Flicker heard a thud next to him. Jacenty took a much harder landing onto his back. He groaned in pain as he rolled onto his stomach and tried to lift himself up. But only his arms had the strength to pick up his upper body, while his legs lacked the energy to get onto his feet.
Jacenty's head rose, only to lock every muscle into place once he laid eyes on the earth faerie, who was just feet away from himself and Flicker. Even Flicker had to lift his head to meet her eyes. Though she possessed a hard scowl and a gaze so sharp that Flicker could almost feel it slice against his exoskeleton, they were accompanied by an odd calmness. She didn't clench her teeth. Nor did she shout and scream. Her hands hung down her sides without being tightened into fists. It was the first time Flicker had ever seen someone so angry that the air felt hot in their presence, while still capable of causing chills to course through his body.
Flicker heard a sound coming from Lumberjack. He glimpsed at it to see the vines move their position so that Lumberjack's two halves were level again. It hit him at that moment: Wingen was still in there, and so was the air faerie. If Wingen could finish the job and set the air faerie free, then...
Jacenty shouted. Flicker only looked away for a brief moment. But in that short amount of time, a layer of bark encased itself around Jacenty's hands. He forced himself to his feet as much as he could and frantically began to pull. When he didn't budge, he pulled again. But his hands were pinned to the floor.
The bark then closed around his feet. It traveled up his legs and his arms. Before long, his body and tail were enveloped. The bark soon reached his neck, at which point Jacenty had ceased struggling and instead watched in abject horror. When it began to close around his jaw, Jacenty could only whimper, “No... Please... Have mercy...”
No more than a few seconds later, a wooden figure of a Zafara was left in Jacenty's place. There was no expression carved into the face, yet there was still a sense of terror that permeated through the bark.
Flicker could only watch silently. He didn't know what to think, nor did he know what to do. Then, he felt something wrapping around his feet. He looked down to find the bark already at his ankles. As his heart pounded, he quickly turned his head back to the earth faerie and shouted, “I'm not your enemy!”
The earth faerie said nothing.
“I was trying to stop Jacenty!”
The bark passed his knees. The earth faerie was still silent.
“I was trying to help you!”
“You and your sister!”
“She's still trapped! If... If... I could just...”
If he could just fly up the capsule and break the glass, then everything would be solved. But how could he when he couldn't move his wings or arms?
“I didn't... I'm not...”
The conversation he had with Zircon about the earth faerie's fury suddenly returned to Flicker's mind. There truly was absolutely nothing in her world at that moment aside from rage. It didn't matter that he was an ally. It didn't matter what he had to say. All his efforts to reach her were futile.
The instant Flicker felt the bark reach his face, an instinct deep within him erupted. He tried to struggle. But in spite of his strength and feverish attempts to break himself free, it was a wasted effort. There was nothing more he could do.
It was all over.
He wasn't ready.
He'd never be ready.
“STOP! I DON'T WANT TO DIE!”
Flicker saw a blue hand gently touch the earth faerie's shoulder. Then it seemed like time itself paused.
The bark ceased its advance. By then, only Flicker's right eye was left exposed. Through it, he saw the air faerie standing next to her sister, as she wore the most soothing of smiles. Upon realizing she was there, the earth faerie's face immediately softened – though her eyes widened in surprise, as if being startled awake.
Flicker saw the air faerie's mouth move, though -with his earholes covered- he couldn't hear what she was saying. The earth faerie looked at Flicker. Her harsh scowl was gone and was replaced with an ashamed frown. Her wings, once rigid and tense, relaxed as they folded against her back. She sighed and hung her head.
The bark receded and Flicker was free within a few seconds. But without the bark forcing him upright, he lost the will to stand and stumbled to the ground. He sat in place and took heavy breaths as his entire body shook. His mind swam in disarray as he tried to process everything that just happened. Instead, all he could do was stare blankly in the faeries' direction.
Wingen ran directly in Flicker's line-of-sight, causing some semblance of clarity to return to him. “Hey... You're okay, Flicker. Everything's alright. You're gonna be just fine.”
Flicker could only respond with a single, hard blink. His eyelashes felt heavy and wet when he opened his eyes. It only took him until that very moment to realize that his entire face beneath his eyes was soaked.
Wingen moved to Flicker's side when the air faerie began to approach. But it only took until she was right in front of him for his mind to register her presence. She bent down, looked Flicker in the eyes, and smiled. “Thank you.”
All that left Flicker's mouth was the latest in a series of shuddering breaths. His throat felt so raw and strangled from screaming that he couldn't even manage a simple, “You're welcome.” Instead, he hoped that a couple nods would suffice.
Though the air faerie seemed to accept Flicker's response, her brows knit together slightly and her smile weakened a bit. She said softly, “We're sorry for what you went through...”
Flicker nodded again. His sight drifted a bit towards to the earth faerie. Her arms hugged her torso and her face was so full of regret that she couldn't bear to look at Flicker.
“I promise we can make it up to you...” the air faerie continued. She paused as she glanced at Wingen and fixed her gaze on his left arm where his sleeve was torn off. “...if you don't mind being patient.”
“We don't mind,” Wingen quietly responded.
The air faerie stepped back and lifted her hands to chest-level. But Flicker's attention was taken off of her when he felt Wingen's paw on his arm. Flicker moved his head just enough to see his brother looking up at him with an expression that did its best to appear reassuring while still drowning in worry.
But before Flicker could figure out how to respond, he felt the air underneath him move. Wingen gave a short shout once he realized that the two of them were levitating.
The air faerie threw her hands upward and sent Flicker and Wingen flying through the hole in the ceiling.
Through the upward blast of wind Flicker and Wingen held onto each other as tightly as they could. They both clamped their eyes shut as they braced for whatever would come next.
Eventually, Flicker felt himself and Wingen stop ascending and instead began to float in one spot. The stream of air weakened gradually at first. But suddenly, it stopped entirely. Flicker and Wingen fell a short distance and grunted as soon as they hit a solid surface.
After a brief moment to recover from the impact, Flicker slightly loosened his grip on Wingen and cracked his eyes open. Below him was a mass of vines covering the hole that Lumberjack had crawled through. As soon as he lifted his head and saw Zircon laying on the ground, sitting up as much as he could while he looked back at him with a startled face, Flicker realized that he was back in the throne room.
Out of his peripheral vision, Flicker caught two figures running to him. Lampyri stopped after a certain point to allow Lumin the space to check up on his son. “Flicker! Are you al-”
Flicker grabbed a hold of Lumin and pulled him in for an embrace.
Though Flicker didn't hold onto Wingen as strongly once they were no longer airborne, he was only mobile enough to stand up. Likewise, Lumin could only return Flicker's gesture without another word or question.
Flicker closed his eyes again. He listened. To his surprise, he found that not even hugging the two most important people in his life could pacify his loud heartbeat.
* * *
It had been a day since the Lumberjack incident. The citizens of Pillar Grove were eager to speak with the heroes that stopped it, but most of them were content to rest in their hotel suite for the time being.
The inhabitants of the suite heard a couple of quick knocks that barely allowed them any time to respond before the door opened. As Dimitri let himself in, he said, “Look who I found.”
Wingen turned around on the couch and saw Frazer hobble in on crutches. “Professor!”
Wingen moved aside to allow Frazer room to sit down as Dimitri helped him. As soon as he was comfortable, Frazer began to explain, “As luck would have it, the earth faerie began producing amber again just as Dimitri came to the hospital to see me. I've been cleared to leave for several hours, but I couldn't go very far without working elevators. Now that they're in operation again, I can relax a for little bit before we leave for Central Cavern.”
“Most of the city's still pitch-dark, though,” Dimitri added. “I asked around, and they're only using the new amber for their highest priorities. So until production gets back to normal, Pillar Grove's gonna have to make do with ordinary lights.”
“It's only been twenty-four hours. I'm surprised the earth faerie's returned to making amber so quickly,” Lampyri commented.
“Yeah... But from what I've heard around, the canopy's still a mess. The air faerie went through a lot more than her sister, so the city's expecting to go without her leaves for a lot longer,” Dimitri replied as he ran his hand through his red hair in dismay.
Changing the subject, Lumin asked, “How's Zircon doing?”
Frazer answered, “From what I hear he's awake and recovering well. Apparently, your first-aid did him a lot of good.”
Lumin paid no heed to the compliment and instead stated, “In that case, I'll have to see about visiting him a little later. There are some things I would like to talk to him about.”
As curious as Wingen was, Lumin was silent about what was said between him and Zircon before and after Jacenty breached the throne room. In spite of that, Lumin's face carried the weight of whatever was discussed; Wingen first noticed it in the throne room and it hadn't disappeared in the slightest since.
Knowing that pressing about it wouldn't do any good, his attention drifted to the cast on Frazer's leg. Frazer noticed Wingen staring at it and assured him, “I'm not going to lie and say this isn't going to be an inconvenience, but I've lived through much more severe injuries. There's no need to worry about me. If anything, I've been much more worried about you. You have no idea how relieved I was to hear that you and Flicker made it out of the chamber safely.”
“You two ought to hear what the rest of the city is saying about you. They're celebrating you guys as heroes for saving the faeries,” Dimitri mentioned.
Flattering as the idea of being regarded in such a light as it was, Wingen just shook his head. “Flicker did most of the work getting the air faerie free. I just hit my shield on the glass a few times after he fell out of Lumberjack. Besides, the earth faerie ended up being the one to...” He sank in his seat. “...you know.”
Though he didn't say his name, Jacenty's shadow loomed over Wingen's statement. Even though he met his demise and the threat he posed was gone, the wounds from his betrayal still stung. Wingen knew that they were going to have to talk about the matter eventually, but for that moment, merely alluding to him was still too painful. Frazer and Dimitri looked just as forlorn about the subject as Wingen. Neither of them seemed eager to continue the subject.
Suddenly, Frazer became distracted from the matter of Jacenty as he came to a realization. “Now that I think of it...” He gave a glance to each person in the room. “Where is Flicker?”
There was a tense silence that only broke when Lumin made an uneasy intake of breath. “Flicker wasn't terribly injured, especially when compared to the damage he took when he fought Granite. So physically-speaking, he's doing fine, but...”
When Lumin couldn't finish the sentence, Wingen stepped in. “He hasn't left his room since we got back.”
Frazer soon adopted the discomfort that spread throughout the room. He said nothing in response, and instead let Wingen continue, “Me and Mr. Lumin have talked to him and tried to get him to come out, but he doesn't want to. All he wants to do is sleep. He says he's just tired, but... I dunno...”
Wingen pulled his legs up to his chest. “He's been saying weird things lately. And back in the earth faerie's chamber... I've never seen him cry like that. Not even when he first started working for Granite. And I've never seen him so scared.” He tightened his arms around his legs and fought to keep his voice from breaking up. “Something's wrong. I can just tell. But he never wants to talk about it. I... I just don't what to do...”
It seemed everyone else was at a loss as well. But although Dimitri and Frazer shared the same concern as the others, Wingen noticed something strange in the demeanor of Lumin and Lampyri. They both kept their heads down and avoided eye contact. Neither of them said anything, but something in their expressions went far beyond a simple understanding of his worries.
Did they know something that he didn't?
But before the suspicion in Wingen could build up any more, he saw that Lumin's face fell after his eyesight drifted. The others followed Lumin's line-of-sight towards Flicker's room. The door was still closed, but all of them noticed a green light coming from the gap beneath it.
The silence went from heavy to crushing. They all looked at one another in uncertainty. Nobody knew what to do, nor did they know what to say.
Lumin looked away from the door. and heaved a sigh. “Well... now that Frazer can move about, we'll have to start getting ready to return home. By then, I imagine things will have settled down and we can take it from there.” His relaxed tone betrayed the pained look on his face.
The green light vanished. There was little in the way of words for a while after that.
* * *
Flicker spent most of his time after he left the palace sleeping. But for the past few hours, he had been wide awake, staring at the ceiling and stewing in his thoughts.
Even he didn't know what the breaking point was in his musing to cause him to take a breath and stand up. He returned to the door and – once again – stopped with his hand hovering over the doorknob. Although he preferred spontaneity and the heat of the moment, Flicker decided to plan out a course of action. Once he did, he steeled himself and forced the door open.
The instant the door showed any movement at all, every pair of eyes was set on Flicker as he took the first step out. Dimitri and Frazer turned their heads, Wingen practically climbed up the back of the couch to see Flicker, and Lampyri stopped dead in her tracks as she was about to leave the suite. As for Lumin, he rose to his feet and briskly walked to Flicker. “How do you feel?”
Flicker reviewed the script he wrote out in his mind. “Good.”
Lumin nodded weakly. He too delayed his response as he searched for the right thing to say. “Are you well-rested?”
Flicker nodded back.
“That's good... You must be hungry though. Would you like for someone to get you something to eat?”
“No thanks.” Flicker shook his head as his feet began to point to the door. “I'm gonna take a walk outside.”
Flicker hadn't taken a fraction of a step before he heard a sharp breath from Lumin. “Flicker...” he said in a tone that was still soft, but also possessed a bit more firmness than before. “Why don't you sit down and talk with us for a little bit?”
“Uh...” Flicker muttered as his eyes drifted towards a spot in the suite where he wouldn't meet anyone's glance. “No thanks. I'm okay.”
Though Lumin didn't verbally insist on his offer, Flicker could feel the pleading look he gave him. When he lifted his head to find that the same expression was held by everyone else, he began wilt under their stares. Nonetheless, he reminded himself what to do in this exact situation and regained his composure.
“Guys... I'm fine! Really!” Flicker laughed, doing his best to mask any semblance of doubt or nervousness. He gave the brightest smile that he could. “See? Everything's okay!”
In what seemed to be slow motion, Flicker witnessed the warm, reassuring look on Lumin's face sink in a frown laden with dread. None of the others were convinced either.
Flicker's smile vanished and he silently turned to the door. But Lampyri was still there behind him. He was unable to avoid taking a long, hard look at her face. There was a sorrowful sort of empathy in her eyes.
He said nothing and she said nothing. Flicker walked past her and out of the suite. As soon as he closed the door, he stood outside and stared at the carpet while lost in thought. Before he finally made good on his decision to take a walk around the city, he entertained the idea of going back and talking with his friends and family after all.
The only problem was that he had no idea how to tell them that all he could think about since he encountered the earth faerie was that his already-shortened life almost came to an even more premature end.