The Book of the Twelve
Before Meridell, before Altador. Before any and all of modern Neopia, there was the Great Empire. Ruled by twelve ancient and powerful wizards, the like of which have not been seen since, they united Ancient Neopia under a single banner and ushered in generations of peace and prosperity. Their dazzling heights were only matched by their fateful end, for the Circle of Twelve were corrupted from within, and tore apart the civilisation they had formed to protect. From the ruins of this shattered world, King Altador emerged to found his new Empire. But the legends of the Great Empire still live on today.
I. Xantan the Glorious
First among his peers, Xantan was recognised as the most powerful of the Circle of Twelve. It was he who first came to the idea of the Great Empire, first suggesting the idea to his lifelong friends, Jahbal and Mastermind. He is known as the Glorious for the pinnacle of Ancient Neopian civilisation, Neopia City. He created this paradise city, and worked tirelessly to improve the lives of its citizens.
It is impossible to understand Xantan without understanding that which he was fighting to protect. The Great Empire rose from the ashes of another. The Kayannin had been the most advanced civilisation ever seen in Neopia, but vanished overnight, taking much of their marvels with them. Xantan fought to recreate the Kayannin dream, while preventing whatever disaster it was that befell them.
The storm lashed at his cloak as he wrapped it closer around him. The wind battered him, forcing his progress to a slow march across the barren and waterlogged land. In his wake, fragments of mud were thrown up in the air, spiraling off into the infinite. Flecks of the same mud were forced from the figure’s face whenever he looked up to set his direction.
He did not care. He didn’t need those flecks. He kept the only thing he really needed hidden deep within the folds of the cloak wrapped around his frame. A wooden staff topped with a sphere of ruby.
A flash of pink lightning high in the sky above the storm spoke to the warring factions of the Faeries far above, conducting their secret war. It served to illuminate the figure for only a moment. His red cloak, inlaid with purple stars. The dark brown of his dripping, muddy skin. Those curiously brilliant white eyes.
Gone in an instant. The darkness returned and the rain set in with fresh effort. The figure was tempted to do something. The staff in his possession was more than enough to force back the elements for a time, and make his progress easy. But to waste that power now would render his entire reason for coming here.
No. There was a time for the magic. And a place. This was neither. Close, but he needs to be a little further.
Inch by inch, he clawed himself forward. Until, at last, he hit the eye of the storm. He stumbled forwards, caught off guard by the sudden calm. The staff he had been guarding clattered to the ground before he hastily reclaimed it.
The figure stood, as much as the pulsing mass of mud could stand, and took in his surroundings. The storm raged around him in all directions, ripping apart the remains of whatever decayed plant life had managed to still cling to existence this long. The figure noticed a brick poking out of the ground underneath him — a strange, metallic material. Melted on one side, as if something awful had happened to whatever building it originally belonged to.
Another flash of lightning, illuminating the figure’s smile.
He had found it. This was it.
He took the staff in hand. It was time now. Time for the magic.
He focused his magic and began to chant. The ruby atop the staff immediately took on an ethereal, pulsing glow that provided some light to the eye of the storm. The figure slowly weaved his magic into the ruby, layering it and kneading it like some master baker going about a recipe. The ruby’s glow became brighter, and arcs of red energy began to strike down the length of the staff as it struggled to contain the weight of the magic.
When he felt he had done enough, the figure raised the staff above his head, and abruptly struck it down into the ground, discharging all the built up magic into a single spell.
The shockwave could be felt for miles around, the cyclone of the storm suddenly being forced outward in all directions. In it’s place, there was perfect calm, a silence more beautiful than the first rays of the morning sun as it crested the distant mountains.
The figure smiled broadly. He had done it. Years of research, and finally he had the proof of it. He looked down to the metallic brick again. In the dim, growing twilight, he could make out others nearby. More spoils. More proof to come in the future.
He did a little dance on the spot, as best he could. The gathering light revealed him to be a writhing mass of muddy material, but for his eyes and mouth, and the star-inlaid cloak around him. A Sludgy, but grown to the same size as a Neopet.
His celebration was cut short by the noise of others approaching. An Eyrie and a Blumaroo, waving to him.
“Well met!” the Eyrie called. “We have camped in a cave system to the west, we found someone else’s provisions there already. Was that you?”
The Sludgy nodded.
“I have been studying the ruins. Kayannin. Just like these,” he answered.
“And the storm?” the Blumaroo asked. “Was this your doing? We heard tale that it has raged for centuries.”
“Since the day the Kayannin themselves disappeared,” the Sludgy agreed. “Caused by whatever calamity befell them, I would postulate. I have been a student of Kayannin magic all my life. Working out how to dispel the storm for the greater part of a decade. The ruins in the caves are what remains of an outpost. This, this I am sure, was their capital city. The crowning jewel of their civilisation. I intend to rebuild it. To recapture the glory of the lost ages. My name is Xantan. I will found a great city here, and we will work to make it a paradise for all.”
The two Neopets exchanged a look.
“A Petpet?” the Eyrie asked.
“A Sludgy now, perhaps,” Xantan said with a chuckle. “An unfortunate side effect of one of my early experiments in Kayannin magic. A curse I have been unable to lift, but it makes no difference what my form is. I remain as much a Neopet as you two. You are both wizards also?”
“Of some measure,” the Eyrie said. “Though I doubt we would have the power to do what you have done here. My name is Jahbal, and this is my travelling companion, Mastermind. We have travelled much of this world, seeing the injustices forced upon the weak. Others have come with us. A small band, but we are growing. They are waiting in the cave ruins. If you would have us, we would be honoured to join you. To work together towards this dream of yours.”
Xantan’s smile broadened even more.
“A pleasure!” he said. “Of course you are welcome! All are welcome! Together, we shall build the greatest city this world has ever seen. A city for all of Neopia. That is what we shall call it! Neopia City!”
Xantan leaned over the railing of his balcony to take in the afternoon air of Neopia City. All around him the gleaming crystal spires of the place reflected and refracted the light into breathtaking colours. Petpets flew through the air chirping their songs before sweeping down to their nests in the trees of the gardens below, full of shining water fountains where children played in the pools.
The city was gloriously alive and thriving. The old wizard casually watched the line of citizens using the teleportation crystal in the gardens. A network of them across the city allow instantaneous travel across the vast cityscape. They had achieved so much in these few short years. The city was a triumph, they had managed to virtually eliminate disease and hunger. No one went without shelter, and there was more than enough space for everyone. Paradise made real.
The Kyrii behind him cleared his throat.
“They are here, Master,” he said.
“Thank you, Oberon,” Xantan replied.
He’d long since stopped insisting Oberon call him by his name. The man was a creature of formalities, and if he was to be Xantan’s apprentice, then Xantan must be his Master. There were to be no such archaic titles in Neopia City — all Neopets were equal — but some traditions die hard.
Xantan turned from the balcony and made his way inside. There, Jahbal was waiting. He and Mastermind had been firm friends these past years, and without them Xantan was sure that Neopia City would not be nearly as wondrous.
“Where is Mastermind?” he asked.
“He said he had prior engagements,” Jahbal replied. “Sent his apologies.”
Xantan sighed. Mastermind was always so much better at dealing with people. Xantan was a wizard. A visionary, and a gifted one at that, but he was no politician. Mastermind had the gift of the silver tongue.
“Thank you for coming,” he said to his guests.
The Archmagus of Roo, leader of the priests in the Desert of Roo to the west. Faleinn, a delicate Aisha who served as the leader of the Kal Panning city council, to the southeast across the Summer Sea. Ifuli Jomm, leader of Sunny City in the southern Techo Mountains. Bamon-Sal, high priest of the Chia clan to the south. And Haestil, a slender Hissi who represented the tribes of the Meadow Vale, to the west.
Gathered together with Xantan, these few represented the leaders of the strongest nations in civilised Neopia. Those who had triumphed against the dark that followed the disappearance of the Kayannin.
“As you know, it has long been my goal to usher in an age of peace and prosperity that will equal, and perhaps even surpass, that which our ancestors enjoyed. I believe Neopia City is a shining example, but I founded this dream with the principle that if we made progress, it was to be shared. I will not be known as a ruler who hoards knowledge and magic to himself. I have called you here to say that all we have, we will willingly share with you.”
The Archmagus narrowed his eyes.
“I have heard this promise before, by others who claimed to bring their protection,” he said, leaning heavily on his staff. “It has often come with the demand for supplication.”
“I do intend to create a grand Empire, as the Kayannin did. A banner which all of Neopian kind can unite behind. But I don’t demand your servitude. Accept or reject my proposal, I will share the wealth of this new Empire with you all the same.”
“Kal Panning could never accept so much power in the hands of one man, no matter how well meaning, Xantan,” Faleinn said.
“I agree,” Xantan said with a nod. “That is my second announcement. I am relinquishing control of Neopia City and this new Empire. It will be ruled instead by a council, on which I will sit, but I hope you, too, will join us. Representatives from all across the civilised world. A Circle of Grand Wizards, as in the days of old.”
“I am glad you have thought this through,” Faleinn said. “But I must decline. I cannot abandon my work in Kal Panning to be here. I assume Jahbal will be on this council, Xantan?”
“Of course,” Xantan agreed, nodding to his Eyrie friend.
“A man who hails from Kal Panning,” Faleinn said with a nod.
“And Gyn-Marg, his second,” Xantan added. “I understand she, too, was born there. Kal Panning will be well represented.”
“Then this Circle has my blessing,” Faleinn replied with a nod.
“And mine, I will gladly serve!” Haestil said.
“As will I,” Ifuli Jomm agreed. “If I may recommend another? The wizard Zhadoom has benefited Sunny City greatly.”
“The Temple of Roo is set apart from politics,” the Archmagus said. “Our grounds are sacred and will remain so. I thank you for your offer of assistance, and we will gladly accept any you give, but no member of the priesthood can serve on your council, Xantan.”
The Blumaroo provided a curt nod and turned to leave, walking heavily on his staff.
Mastermind had expected that, when Xantan had told him the plan. Still, they had to try.
“It would give me great pleasure to join your council,” Bamon-Sal said.
“Then it is decided!” Xantan declared happily. “Oberon, my apprentice, will also join us. I may also request the sorceress known as Lamora, Ifuli? I understand she still lives in Sunny City. Our friend Mastermind, too, will serve us well. And Jahbal has suggested the famous sailor, Tradym, and her second, Polmith. Twelve of us. An auspicious number, this Circle of Twelve. Together, we will march this world forward towards glory!”
I-II. Xantan the Foul
Xantan’s fall was more complete than the others of the Circle, for he was the one who began the corruption of his friends. Obsessed with overcoming that final weakness that had plagued the Kayannin, death, Xantan turned upon his friends, using them as a means of prolonging his own existence. He corrupted their very souls, hoping they would turn on each other and destroy themselves. But in turn, the other members of the Circle cast him down and bound him.
Xantan was absent for the true fall of the Great Empire, imprisoned in his cave tomb while Kal Panning and the Temple of Roo were sacked. But have no doubt, he was the true architect of the Great Empire’s downfall.
Xantan and Oberon walked through the gardens of the council chambers. They were open to the public, but rarely used these days. They were smaller than the public ones, and by no means as impressive. Though, it was a situation Xantan was in no rush to change, as it granted the Circle a degree of privacy.
“I have been thinking, Oberon,” he said as they passed a rose bush in full bloom.
Oberon’s mind had been somewhere else, and he quickened his step to catch up with his tutor.
“Yes, Master?” he asked.
“We have solved every problem that that plagues Neopian kind,” Xantan said. “Magic has made our every thought reality. We have equaled the glory of the Kayannin. But there is one problem that still eludes us. I think, perhaps, it is the one problem that they, too, struggled with. Perhaps the one that undid them. Everything that has a beginning has an end, Oberon. All things must die. Our Great Empire, our city, our Circle, must end. I know you have been studying the same problem.”
“We have learnt how to extend life, as the Faeries do,” Oberon said. “A single Neopet might now live thousands of years without ageing, with our knowledge.”
“That only delays an end, it does not avoid it,” Xantan said. “No, the true bounty is to make oneself a master of death. And, I believe, I have come upon a solution.”
“You have?” Oberon asked.
“The problem is in the question,” Xantan replied. “It is impossible to avoid death. Everything that lives must die. The solution, therefore, is to exist beyond death. Not as a ghost or zombie, but as true existence. To sidestep death, and in doing so achieve true immortality. To take a little part of yourself, and hide it away until you die, where it might be renewed as an explosion of life. The secret, however, is to engineer the manner of the death you are sidestepping. To know the trigger of the bomb you might explode.”
“And how would you do that?” Oberon asked.
Xantan thought about this for some time before a thought struck him. It made him smile in a way Oberon had never seen before.
“Your friends, of course,” Xantan said. “What better curse can there be but to suffer at their hands?”
Jahbal blasted the doors to Xantan’s chambers open with magic from the palm of his hand. The wood broke from the hinges and splintered against the walls as the Eyrie walked through, followed by the rest of the Empire’s Circle. Eleven of them, facing the one on the far side of the room.
Xantan was hard at work at his research table. He did not turn to greet them.
“And so you come,” Xantan said in a wicked tone. “Sooner than I had thought, but no matter. My preparations are complete. My work will be finished. I shall out play death itself. And with this, my final proof of concept, I will have the means to make this Great Empire last forever. Rejoice, my friends. Your sacrifice will grant us all immortality.”
“There will be no sacrifice tonight, Xantan,” Jahbal said. “Turn, and face your judgement.”
“Judgement,” Xantan mocked him. “Very well.”
He turned, casting his magic in one movement and forcing the curse out into the world before anyone can stop him.
“Jahbal and Mastermind!” he announces. “I curse you! You shall crumble and twist from within, and for the rest of your days, you will toil against each other!”
He gave a triumphant laugh, though Jahbal and Mastermind looked no different. Xantan seemed to notice the others for the first time.
“You are all here?” he asked.
“Oberon told us your plans,” Jahbal said.
“I am sorry, Master,” Oberon said. “But this is too far. Too far.”
Xantan let out a growl.
“This was to be a matter between old friends,” he said. “Just myself, Jahbal, and Mastermind. Those who started this journey together must end it so. But if you all wish to interfere as well, so be it. I curse you all, just the same the same!”
He cast another spell, that time far larger and with a flash of purple magic. When it was done, he gave a dark cackle.
“Oberon has told us of your plan,” Jahbal repeated. “You intend to have us kill you, and then you will dance down the sword arm of your vanquisher, and there your soul will wait until we are all gone.”
“The solution to the problem, then, is to avoid the first step,” Mastermind chimed in. “If we do not strike you down, your magic cannot begin. There is another option, we could simply imprison you instead. The magic we have already cast on ourselves will keep you alive for centuries, and when you do meet your end, it will not be at the blade of another.”
“Yes,” Jahbal agreed. “A prison would be a just punishment for such a betrayal.”
“I will not be locked up in some dungeon!”
“No,” Mastermind said, with a sly smile. “We are not so hateful to one we would call a friend. There is a cave not far from the city. One where you first camped before we met you, that night when you dispelled the storm. It is a cave filled with Kayannin ruins, I recall. Your first love. I can think of no better prison for you.”
“No!” Xantan shrieked.
He began to cast his magic, but this time Jahbal was ready.
“Together!” the Eyrie called. “Together, all eleven of us! United, he cannot overpower us!”
The other members of the Circle focused their magics, lending their power to Jahbal as Xantan’s purple magic clashed with the Eyrie’s green. An almighty explosion shattered all the glass in the chamber, but the green light proved stronger, overwhelming Xantan completely.
There was a frustrated scream from Xantan as Jahbal’s magic took hold, binding his powers and whisking him away to his new home. A prison for all eternity.
The madness of Xantan was at an end.
The fall of the Great Empire had just begun.
To be continued…