The Royal Axis: Pushing Back The Dark
Ash. The air smelled of ash everywhere. The smog is so thick, it practically blocked out the glow of the moon.
Set amidst the rolling grey clouds, a castle pierced through the fog and stood defiantly against the dark night sky, emitting an aura of menace and otherworldly power. The grey stone bricks were covered in creeping vines, like millions of spindly, twisted fingers reaching across the slate façade, consuming every surface with its dark green leaves. Turrets jutted out from every wall, each one perforated with round windows that are framed by a row of sharpened spikes.
From the forest of dead trees that lace around the castle, a broad figure emerged. Cloaked in a worn hooded robe, the figure glided furtively through the fog, his purple wings dragging in the dirt behind him. His red eyes peered out from underneath the hood, careful to ensure that no one was following him.
He arrived at the castle gates. They were tall, welded from the hardest metal known to Neopia. Even in the haze, they seemed to glow an eerie blue light that is both a marker of the castle’s location and a warning against trespassers at once. On each side, a stone gargoyle statue stood guard against approaching visitors, their faces sculpted with tortured, freakish expressions for eternity. As the hooded figure inched closer towards the gate, the gargoyles sprung to life. They spun their iron staffs and pointed each sharpened tip at his throat.
“Who dares to approach?” they bellowed, the emeralds in their eyes glowering bright green. The hooded figure remained quiet, unfazed by the commands of the stone statues. Again, they repeated their question. “Who dares to approach the castle?”
The figure pulled back his hood, revealing his face. His features seemed to sag beneath his purple feathers, and despite looking worse for the wear, a discernible fire and strength remained in his glare. He unknotted his collar, revealing a battered armour set with its scars of battles past still gleaming against the light of the gargoyles’ green eyes. He finally replied.
“Tell this mistress that Lord Kass is here for her.”
The castle yawned open in reception of the haggard Eyrie lord, as if warning him of the evil that rested within its chilly, damp hallways. Each drip of water echoed loudly through the air, a seemingly unending wave of reverberations that begged for castle visitors to make haste and leave. A cold wind followed behind his dragging wings, pushing his tired body further into the belly of the dimly-lit castle.
Since his horrid fate at the hands of The Three and his subsequent revival by his mistress, Lord Kass had been a shell of his former self. His strength waned and ebbed like the wind, passing between frailty and bursts of super Neopian strength. Yet despite his haggard appearance, one need only look into his cold dark eyes to see the same ambitious resolve and cruelty that he once possessed during the Battle for Meridell.
Confidently, he marched forward, winding through the confusing maze of hallways without pause. He’d been here a thousand times, and he knew exactly where to find his mistress. After all, when she brought him back into existence – one atom and molecule at a time – she indelibly forged an invisible tether with Lord Kass as well. Just as well, she thought to herself, given Lord Kass’ predisposition for rising up against those who commanded him.
As for the Darigan lord, he could always sense his mistress’ presence, and it served as a natural compass that brought him right to the heavy steel doors that stood guard between his mistress’ lair and the exterior corridors.
The monumental doors were covered in ornate and refined etchings of Cobralls snaking around a barren tree. As Lord Kass stood in the centre of the doorway, a lone Cobrall slithered down from the top of the tree and lifted itself off the surface of the cold metal door. Its eyes emitted an eerie red glow, and its menacing surveyance only matched by Lord Kass fearlessly staring back into the Cobrall’s eyes. Three long, tense seconds seemed to stretch into eternity, before the Cobrall retreated back to its position, once again becoming nothing more than a bevelled sculpture on the door.
The double doors cranked open loudly, filling the whole castle with a great, grotesque groan. A plush navy-blue velvet carpet stretched across the length of the room, leading to a raised platform with three gleaming thrones. On each throne, plush black velvet cushions sat covered in dust. On the far western wall of the cavernous hall, a fireplace held a small crackling fire that did little else other than cast flickering shadows across the room.
“Your Grace, your humble servant has returned,” Lord Kass said with a steady voice as he lowered on one knee and into a respectful bow.
A shadowy figure stood behind the centre throne, her nails clicking together as she peered out the dusty stained-glass windows. “What news do you bring me, Kass?” she purred in a strangely soft tone that only seemed to bolster her sinister demeanour.
“To the north, Lady Frostbite has pledged to your campaign. She is joined by Eyes of Dark,” Lord Kass revealed as he rose his feet. “Parlax believes he will have an answer from the doctor by the close of the week, and The Drenched have also sought an audience with you.”
“The Drenched? Ha! What can they offer me? Flap their fishy little tails at my enemies?” the shadowy mistress retorted in between fits of screeching laughter. Lord Kass remained unfazed.
“Apparently, they have an army at their disposal,” Kass says, careful to place emphasis when mentioning the army. “A rather sizeable army of sailors who are bewitched and trapped by them, ready to act on their behalf.”
A thick silence once again flooded the room. Neither Lord Kass nor his mistress spoke for a while, until finally, the shadowy silhouette broke the deafening stillness.
“Very well,” she replied, her low voice flecked with a tone of contentment. She sauntered forward, placing her hand on the throne. A large ruby ring flashed against the fireplace’s dancing lights, and she lowered herself into the cold, silver seat of the throne. Running her bony fingers over her deep blue dress in the process, her wings of purple and red skin fell on each side of the throne’s back. Finally, she looked up. The Darkest Faerie fixed her cold, corrupt stare on Kass, who met his mistress’ eyes with an equally unflinching leer. She issued her order for Lord Kass.
“Go forth and meet with them, and return with their loyalty to me.”
The sun shone down upon Altador, but the hour was far from serene for two Altadorians.
Within the confines of the majestic Colosseum, two Alabriss-drawn chariots narrowly missed crashing into each other.
“Hah, nearly got you there Flint,” King Altador taunted, slapping the top of his gleaming gold chariot. Behind him, a black chariot struggled momentarily to regain its bearings, before the Alabriss continued to charge ahead on the infinity loop-shaped track. “Is this what you’re teaching your squad?” In the stands, two Brute members try to hide their sniggering.
The hulking Skeith refused to let this falter him in trying to win the race. Commander Flint knew his way around a chariot well, and he wasn’t about to let his former monarch humiliate him in front of his men. “Sire, you’re leading because I’m letting you,” the commander yelled out, a sprinkling of defiance evident in his voice.
After a few rounds around the track, the dust finally began to settle, with King Altador having finished a few seconds ahead of Commander Flint. The two racers dismounted their chariots, as Altadorian attendants rushed forward to lead the Alabriss back to their stables.
“Good one Flint,” King Altador says, shaking the hand of his former general. “Looks like you haven’t lost your touch despite spending all that time away from us.” The two racers made their way back to the canopy, where the irresistible temptation of cool shade and sweet Altadorian tipple sat waiting to refresh them from the sweltering heat. As King Altador and Commander Flint approached, the silhouette of a Lenny and a Faerie appeared.
“Your Highness, and Commander,” Finneus the sagely Lenny greeted, bowing in respect to each of them. The Light Faerie bowed in tandem with Finneus.
“Ah Flint, you know Finneus and Siyana, don’t you?” King Altador said, wiping the sweat off his brow with a plush towel woven from white and gold threads. The king was too distracted trying to pour himself a goblet of drink to notice the look of dread worn on Finneus’ face.
“Yes sire, I do. How are both of you?” Flint replied, dusting the sand off his knuckles and helping himself to a small helping of Altadorian fruit. Neither Finneus nor Siyana responded. Instead, they exchanged nervous glances at each other, and clearing his throat once more, Finneus began to address King Altador.
“Your Highness, there is a matter of…importance…that Siyana and I need to speak with you of,” Finneus said, stuttering from the mounting nervousness building in his gut. The king turned and noticed Finneus’ furrowed brow. The oft-calm Lenny showed a brief flash of anxiety, and King Altador could sense that something grave would have had to happen to cause Finneus this measure of distress. King Altador turned back to Commander Flint, who immediately picked up on the hint.
“Sire, allow me to take my departure now,” Flint said backing away, fig juice still dripping from his chin. The Skeith bowed to the king and turned to leave. King Altador turned back to the Faerie and Finneus.
“Now,” King Altador said assertively. “What’s the matter?”
Finneus fidgeted in his place, trying to find the right words. Sensing his unease, Siyana placed her hand on his shoulder, and spoke up.
“King Altador, our intelligence reports have come back with some grave news. There’s been a stirring in the forests outside the Haunted Woods, and multiple sources have all independently confirmed that Lord Kass has returned.” Siyana stopped to survey King Altador’s expression, but the king wore his usual stoic expression. Sensing that he needed more information, she continued.
“One of our men have reported that he was brought back using dark energy…” her voice trailed off. The next bit of news would surely alarm anyone, even the calm and collected King Altador.
“Siyana, I trust that you would be honest with me,” King Altador said, pouring another goblet of drink. “Is that all you have to say? Is Lord Kass’ return the only issue at hand?”
“Sire, the problem isn’t that Lord Kass is back,” Finneus chimed in, finally finding his voice again. “It’s who brought him back.”
The king remained unfazed. “Oh?” He replied, in a semi-mocking manner. After all, Lord Kass had little to do with King Altador or the gleaming districts within Altador. The king did not feel any threat from the return of the Darigan Eyrie lord.
“Yes, my king,” Siyana replied, her voice growing darker with every word. “Lord Kass was brought back by the traitor, the Darkest Faerie.”
To be continued…