The Book of the Twelve:Part Two
II-I. Jahbal the Just
Jahbal was a long term friend of Xantan before the formation of the Great Empire. Though he was a skilled wizard, he was known more for his innate sense of justice. In the void of power left by the Kayannin disappearance, the law of the land often tended to be the whim of the Neopet with the most power. Jahbal used his powers to fight for what was right, priding himself in his sense of fairness and objectivity.
When Xantan founded the Empire, he invited Jahbal to the Circle to serve as his second, forming and enforcing a set of laws that were fair to all citizens, from the most powerful wizards down to the poorest farmer.
Dozens of hamlets were scattered across the face of mainland Neopia back in the days that followed the disappearance of the Kayannin. In time, most of them would either grow to the size of the fledgling cities like Kal Panning or Sunny City, or disappear completely as the inhabitants abandoned them for the call of those bigger cities. Only a few would survive as homesteads or quirky settlements that persisted more out of stubbornness than anything else, but for those short years Neopians were spread thin and wide across the continent.
That one in particular didn’t have a name yet. A collection of maybe five houses surrounding a farm, with a tavern. The tavern, at least, had a name — The Gallion Head. The person who did the sign wasn’t an artist by any measure, but the drinks were cheap and the fire warm.
The Eyrie sat in the corner, nursing his drink and reading a battered old book he’d taken from his travelling bag. The atmosphere in the tavern was good, conversation was flowing among the other travellers. This small hamlet was on the road between Kal Panning and the clan gathering grounds on the Chia Spur, so it saw a lot of footfall. A travelling bard had set up with some sort of lute in the corner for the night as well.
It was one of the most pleasant evenings that Jahbal had experienced since leaving Kal Panning.
Until it wasn’t.
The door to the tavern was forced open roughly, letting the cold and the wind seep into the room from outside. The noise of the door slamming against the wall caused the bard to stop his music mid tune. All eyes turned to the doorway as the visitor strode through. Heavy boots, impacting hard against the wooden floorboards.
The Scorchio didn’t bother to close the door behind him. Someone else shuffled into his wake and did it for him. There was silence, but for the newcomer’s footfalls, slow and rhythmic as he approached the bar. Everyone was watching him. Jahbal noticed with interest some of the locals shuffling slightly. Getting themselves in sight of the door. Ready to run if they needed.
Jahbal knew which way this was going. He had heard stories about such people before he left Kal Panning. He put his book down and reached for the thin staff he had propped up against his seat.
The Scorchio reached the bar.
“A drink,” he demanded in a deep voice.
The proprietor, an Aisha, bobbed his head nervously and poured a drink of something green for the man. There wasn’t the question of payment.
The Scorchio turned to lean against the bar with his drink. He casually, and entirely purposely, let his cloak fall back to reveal a wooden wand tied to his belt. The mark of a wizard — this one had a small jewel of what looked like a ruby at the end. A focusing gem that marked its owner as a specialist in fire magic. Destructive. Dangerous.
The Scorchio casually took in the room like a Noil watching prey. There was still silence.
“Tomorrow, I’ll be raising taxes by a hundred Neopoints per person,” he announces. “Including any travellers.”
He took a deep glug of his drink.
The room remained silent.
“I said any objections!?” he repeated, stronger this time.
He let his free hand rest by the wand, for effect.
A chorus of murmured agreement came back at him from the locals. The looks on their faces suggested this was a regular event. Several of the travellers were already packing up. Better to brave a night in the wilds than stay here.
“I have an objection,” Jahbal said from the corner.
Everyone turned to see him. There were a couple of gasps. The barkeep ducked under the bar, and one of the locals darted for the door.
“No!” the Scorchio shouted before the Cybunny could get it open. “You stay. You all stay. You need to see how this goes. What happens to those who defy me. You, friend, you’re new here. Don’t know the rules. My name’s Dresden. I run the show around here. You step back into line and we’ll say no more about it.”
“I’m afraid I can’t do that,” Jahbal replied. “You’re mistreating these people, fiend. I would offer you the chance to walk away from this, but as you say, the people need to understand how this goes. That people like you cannot just walk over people like you. There are laws.”
“Not round here,” Dresden replied. “We only have one. And it is hanging on my belt.”
Jahbal gave a grim smile.
“Then I, too, have a law,” he said, taking the staff with a green emerald wedged into the head. “Shall we see who is the more just?”
Dresden moved first, flicking the wand off his belt into his casting hand and summoning a fireball that he launched towards Jahbal. The Eyrie stood fast, a dim glow from his own staff’s crystal enough to snuff out the fireball into nothing more than soot when it reached him.
That took Dresden by surprise, while Jahbal pressed his advantage. He stalked forward, unleashing his magic, that lifted Dresden clean off his feet with unseen force. He helplessly watched on as his wand was snatched from his hands by the same force and effortlessly snapped in two.
Jahbal forced Dresden over to the door, which opened by the same magic, and threw the Scorchio out. Dresden hit the mud outside and skidded.
“There is a new law here,” Jahbal announced to him. “You would do well to leave, and never return. If I ever see you again, I shall not be as lenient.”
With that, he turned and closed the door behind him. Returned to his book in the corner. Around him, the buzz of conversation started at twice the volume it was previously. The bard started playing the lute again. The Aisha barkeep brought over a drink, on the house.
This was the first night like this. It would not be the last. Not by a long shot.
Jahbal roared in frustration and slammed the butt of his staff down on the broken ground, discharging a powerful blast of magic. The rain was forced upwards, giving him a brief respite from the downpour.
Beside him, his travelling companion raised an eyebrow.
“That feels like a waste of energy,” the Blumaroo said dryly.
Sure enough, the rain returned in short order, pelting them again.
“It has been three days, Mastermind,” Jahbal said. “Three days of solid rain since we left Meadow Vale. It’s just… frustration, that’s all. We’re soaked.”
Behind them, the long trail of followers, maybe thirty or forty, struggled against the elements. Waifs and strays that Jahbal had picked up in his travels. With each time he dispensed justice, some local would cling onto their group, hoping to follow them to a brighter future. It started with Mastermind, and only grew from there.
Foolishly, Jahbal had bought into the dream as well. They were all searching for a brighter future. Somewhere to set down roots and give rise to the society they all wished to see. The tribes of Meadow Vale had told them there was nothing but ruins out this way. It seemed like a perfect idea. It was only later they came across a hermit who had told them of the storm that had raged for decades.
In the distance, amid the flashes of coloured lightning from the Faeries battling in the clouds above, Jahbal could just make out the vortex. The core of the eternal tempest.
“There are mountains,” Mastermind said. “Chances are there may be a cave we can take shelter in for the night. We’ll be able to make better plans in the morning.”
“Plans like heading back to Meadow Vale?” Jahbal asked.
“I can think of worse places,” Mastermind said. “Ideally, of course, I’d prefer to be further from the Desert of Roo, but we can’t have everything in life, you know?”
“I still don’t understand your dislike for the priests,” Jahbal said, grudgingly turning towards the dark mountains.
“A man must have his secrets,” Mastermind replied.
The same excuse he always gave. Jahbal still knew so little about the Blumaroo, but Mastermind must have learnt everything about Jahbal by now.
Sure enough, as they drew closer to the mountains they could make out a cave mouth in the darkness. Those of the travelling group that knew enough magic lit flames to light their path, and they made their way inside.
The relief from the storm was sweet ambrosia to Jahbal. He shook out his feathers as the other travellers began to wring out their clothes.
“This looks to go deep,” Mastermind said, shining the light further into the darkness of the cave. “A tunnel network, perhaps? Certainly enough space for us to rest for the night.”
“We should explore further,” Jahbal added. “Anything could be waiting deeper inside. Better to know for sure than set up camp here and let our guard down.”
The pair led the group deeper into the cave system, passing a small underground river — a source of fresh water that would serve them well, until they came to a crumbling brick wall.
“A structure?” Jahbal questioned.
Mastermind passed his torch over the brickwork. It reflected back with a strange, metallic sheen.
“Kayannin,” Mastermind said. “I’ve seen ruins like these before. It must have been a Kayannin village, back in the old world.”
Jahbal continued inside. Much of whatever building this was seemed to be largely intact. There was even some furniture.
“We’ll explore,” Jahbal said. “Who knows what treasures are hidden here?”
The travellers split up, pairing off to explore every nook and cranny of the place. The structure appeared to be at least four stories, heading deep down into the earth. It was several hours later when one of them came running up to Jahbal and Mastermind.
“Jahbal!” the Kyrii shouted. “Jahbal! You have to see this!”
Oberon. A skilled wizard they had picked up in Meadow Vale. He was excitedly waving a bound leather book.
“It’s a diary,” Oberon said.
“Kayannin?” Mastermind gasped. “That would be a treasure indeed.”
“No,” Oberon said with a shake of the head. “This has been written recently. We’ve been down on the bottom floor of this place. There’s a chamber down there, and a camp. Someone has been living here, studying the ruins. Some of the magic described in this book, it is truly advanced. Whoever this is, they believe the storm is the result of the Kayannin collapse. That this place is the forward outpost of their capital city. They are planning on performing some magic to dispel the storm. And build a new city on the ruins of the old.”
Jahbal and Mastermind exchanged a look. Whoever could do that would be a strong wizard indeed.
“They aren’t down there?” Jahbal asked.
“No, the last entry is them setting out,” Oberon said. “They are out there now, trying to do whatever it is they are doing.”
Mastermind gave Jahbal a silent nod of agreement. They had both been thinking the same thing.
“Have everyone bed down for the night,” Jahbal instructed. “Myself and Mastermind will head out there and make contact with this wizard. If he is half as skilled as you claim, and his cause is noble… We may have reached our destination. A new beginning for all of us.”
II-II. Jahbal the Wicked
Such was the hated name of the Circle. After Xantan’s exile, Jabhal assumed command of the Great Empire. In another time, he might have been successful in holding the Empire together, but Xantan’s corruption set in hard and deep. Jahbal began to enforce the laws of the Empire more harshly, handing out punishments far in excess of crimes, while turning a blind eye to the growing evils committed by his fellow Circle members. When at last the elements of the Empire began to rebel, it was Jahbal who led the siege on Kal Panning and sealed the city’s dreadful fate.
In the aftermath, the rest of the Circle turned on Jahbal as they had Xantan. They bound him to his fortress of Two Rings. But the Wicked one was far from done. From his prison, he continued to curse the world long after the rest of the Circle was gone, until at last King Altador destroyed him and set Neopia free.
Jahbal stormed through the crystal corridors of Neopia City’s palace. The blind fury in his face was barely disguised. He slammed open the doors to the council chambers so hard that the echoes could be heard all over the building. The remaining ten members of the Circle will already there, sitting in their chairs, arranged in a semi circle. Two remained empty. One for Jahbal, the leader of their council. The other remained vacant, forever a reminder of Xantan’s betrayal. Both as a warning of what could happen if any of them tried to grab too much power over the others, and as a promise of what would happen to them when the others found out.
“You have all heard the news?” Jahbal fumed as he sat down.
The others all nodded in agreement. All looked as furious as Jahbal.
“Something must be done!” Polmith roared from his seat. It had to be reinforced just to support the gigantic Skeith, who was three times the size of the other Neopets. “In my homeland, this would be an act of treason!”
“It ain’t so different here,” Tradym agreed. “Kal Panning agreed to join the Empire. They must abide our rules, or face the consequences.”
“Expelling an ambassador from the city seems like a rash move for Faleinn to make,” Gyn-Marg said. “Did she give any pretext for her actions?”
“She wishes for war!” Polmith shouted. “Kal Panning has always been against the idea of the Empire, even before Xantan’s fall.”
“Her message claimed the Kal Panning council was acting in response to our Circle’s recent actions,” Oberon said, more calmly than the others. “That our new laws are too harsh, and enforced even more harshly.”
“There is no harshness in justice,” Jahbal said sharply, in a tone that made it clear it was not up for debate. “It is swift and it is final.”
Under Jahbal’s rule, it certainly was final. People in Neopia City were scared of leaving their homes in case they fell foul of one of the Circle’s new laws. It was being replicated across the Empire, and those with power were going mad with it even on a local level. Kal Panning had reached breaking point. According to Faleinn, their only option had been to secede from the Empire.
“Then retribution, too, should be swift and final,” Zhadoom said. “There must be consequences for leaving the Empire.”
“Indeed,” Jahbal agreed. “We will cut off their access to Empire funds, magic, and technology immediately. Kal Panning will be isolated. I know what Xantan said when this Circle was formed, that the glory of the Empire would be for all Neopia, but Kal Panning’s actions are now hostile. We cannot arm our enemies.”
“Enemies,” Mastermind agreed in a murmur that seemed to echo around the room and linger on their thoughts.
“They are our enemies,” Bamon-Sal agreed. The Chia had become emaciated recently, a husk of his former self. “And will only continue to grow more hostile when we cut off their aide. The tribes on the Chia Spur will be the first to face their ire. And, no doubt, Sunny City.”
“I agree,” Ifuli Jomm said. The Pteri’s radiant feathers bristled. “It is easy to sit here in the safety of Neopia City, but if more permanent action is not taken, it will be my kin that suffer, not yours.”
“More permanent?” Mastermind asked, the ghost of a smile on his face.
“It is no secret that Kal Panning has a sizable defence force,” Zhadoom said. “Perhaps the only one in Neopia that can rival our own. It would not take considerable effort for them to turn it into an army for conquest.”
“Then action must be taken,” Jahbal agreed. “Kal Panning must fall. And stand as an example of what happens when people defy our laws. We are agreed?”
The other ten nod.
“Gyn-Marg,” Jahbal added. “You will prepare our forces to march. Tradym, have the armada ready. The Empire will march to war.”
“If I may?” Mastermind said. “As Zhadoom rightly says, the Kal Panning army is formidable. If they were to receive reinforcements, our forces may be routed.”
“Who from?” Oberon asked. “We have leaders from across the continent here. Who else would stand against us?”
“There is one area we do not control,” Mastermind said. “The Desert of Roo, and the priests at the temple.”
“They are skilled in the use of magic,” Jahbal agreed. “If we were to get caught on two fronts between them and Kal Panning… You are right, Mastermind. The Temple of Roo must also be dealt with. Half of us will go to Kal Panning, the other half will take the Temple of Roo and prevent any reinforcements. Together, we shall secure an eternal peace for our Empire.”
Jahbal walked through the ruins of the once grand city of Kal Panning. His birthplace. His home. The buildings still smoldered where they had crumbled under the magical assault. The air hung with an acrid smoke, and in the gardens the plants had wilted and died. The fountains, fed by the lake that surrounded the city on three sides, now lay stagnant. Poisoned by Haestil’s magic.
Movement to his side alerted him to one of the surviving citizens. The Moehog looked to be one of the city’s farmers, having fled within the city walls when the fighting started. A foolish choice, he should have run for the hills. Bamon-Sal’s magic had cursed the city after the fighting stopped. Those that remained standing were now altered, made into undead. Liches now roaming the city and the surrounding plains aimlessly. Jahbal effortlessly batted this one aside, and he fell back to the floor, groaning.
Gradually, the Eyrie made his way to the council chambers, where the leaders of Kal Panning had gathered for their final stand. They, too, had received the same treatment. They shambled about the place no different from the other survivors. Jahbal noted Faleinn’s diminished form among them with some relish.
He turned to see his co-conspirators. Those who had come to Kal Panning to raise the city. Haestil, the Hissi who corrupted the land. Bamon-Sal, the Chia who had cursed the people. Gyn-Marg, the Techo general who had led their forward assault. Polmith, the giant Skeith who had breached Kal Panning’s rear guard. And Tradym, the Cybunny admiral who had led the cannon bombardment. Together, the six of them had achieved victory.
He did not like the look in their eyes.
“What is this?” he demanded.
“No one would dare challenge the Circle again,” Tradym said. “Our power is cemented. But in reality, that means your power is cemented.”
“You lead the council, you lead the Empire,” Bamon-Sal agreed. “It is your laws we have enforced here today, Jahbal. Not ours.”
“This was your choice!” Jahbal shouted. “You were the ones who pressed me to do this!”
“No one is saying this wasn’t necessary,” Tradym said. “Kal Panning had to be taught a lesson. But there’s no escaping that the Circle has become secondary to your will.”
“You have become like Xantan,” Gyn-Marg agreed. “You are using the Empire as your own personal playground. It was founded for all, not just us. It is time you make way for someone else to steward this Empire into a new age.”
Jahbal clenched his fists at his sides.
“This is treason,” he said. “You are betraying the very Empire you swore to protect!”
Mastermind, Jahbal realised. This was because of Mastermind. He’d long dismissed Xantan’s curse as a fanciful notion, given that the others had fallen in line. But perhaps Mastermind had been using his magic to keep them all on side in Neopia City. Now, without his influence, they were turning against Jahbal.
“We are protecting the Empire,” Gyn-Marg said.
“I am the Empire!” Jahbal screamed.
The others exchanged a meaningful look. Jahbal’s reaction had validated their fears.
“If you have become as Xantan was,” Haestil said. “You must be dealt with, the same.”
“There is a valley, between here and the Techo Caves,” Bamon-Sal suggested. “Surrounded by tall mountains on all sides.”
“Two Rings,” Gyn-Marg agreed. “Yes, I know it. It will make a fine prison.”
“No!” Jahbal shouted, slamming down his staff in a blast of green magic.
But it was too late. The other five wizards had begun to work their own spells, and Jahbal was outnumbered. He was sure he might have been able to take each of them in a fair fight, but against all of them at once? He flailed around, wild magic lashing out and demolishing what little was left of Kal Panning.
Too little, too late. Jahbal could feel his power waning. The five wizards would bind him and lock him away in his own prison, just as they had done to Xantan before him.
As he blacked out, he vowed. Somehow, he would find a way out of this. Somehow, he would have vengeance on them all, and this sorry world that spurned his guidance.
Somehow, he would dispense justice.
To be continued…