A Hero's Ballad: The Knightmare
Chapter 2 - Duramente
The plains of Meridell quickly morphed into vine-covered ground as the trees surrounding him grew deformed and menacing. Their branches reached towards him as if sentient, alive. He drew the old, rusty sword that swung along his waist. It was in great need of repair, but at least it would get the job done, assuming it didn’t break from a well-placed swing. He examined the worn pommel: Reynold, it said in cursive writing.
“Then this belonged to—” he strengthened his grip as he continued to look around for danger, pushing away any thoughts of guilt from his mind.
His valiant focus brought upon the old blade was cut short by a sudden, terrified scream, a familiar one.
“Rohane?!” jolted Jeran.
The Lupe dashed forward, cutting through a series of tents emerging from a balmy fog. The setting resembled a fusion of the Meridell markets and the rundown carnival of the Haunted Woods. As Jeran entered the grounds, the voice began to regress, aging backwards to that of a youth. The sound itself came from within a violet-coloured tent. As he approached and entered, the voice once again changed; to that of a small, crying child. It made Jeran’s skin crawl from beneath his fur. The entryway ahead was dimly lit, more befitting the art gallery of a castle than a humble tent. Long reddish-purple curtains draped the walls, barely hovering off the floor. The floor was composed of zigzag tiles that seemed to stretch and beckon him forward.
After walking for what seemed like minutes, the sobbing screams of a small child began to muffle, as flickering candlelight seeped through a curtain doorway. Jeran lifted a flap with a paw, revealing a gallery carrying on the motifs of the hall. Inside were several eroded and ruined statues, one of which resembling a Blumaroo—or the bottom half that was left of it. The brazier lamps brought little bits of life to the otherwise still room, save for a single seat occupied by a shadow Blumaroo in rusted and dull armour. Both the statue and armoured Blumaroo looked familiar, like long-lost allies. Try as he could, some force blocked him from connecting it all. As Jeran locked his eyes with the slouched figure, the faded crying stopped.
“What is this?” Jeran asked the tent dweller, feeling an icy chill down his spine, “who are you?”
The phantom-like dream being lifted up, moving in a jagged way befitting a walk put backwards. “He is a failure, Jeran, leave him be,” bellowed a reversed and echoing voice. “But on the bright side, those Marrow strips you like are coming back in style.” Distorted cackles rang throughout, as if the tent itself was laughing.
Jeran, taken back by this, readied for his blade. “Enough of this, phantom. Where am I and where is Rohane?”
“I told you, he’s a failure,” the stranger rambled in his ethereal tone, somewhat washed out by the evil chorus around him, “afraid of his own voice. Why would he be here?”
Not a second later, a white Blumaroo tail and pair of bare feet peaked through the draperies.
Jeran took a hesitant step forward. “Rohane?” But when he approached, the shape he thought was Rohane became nothing more than a hazy cloud of smoke that filled the tent like a screen.
Jeran’s neck jerked in the direction of the fading shapes, coughing as he did. Without so much as a ‘good bye’, Jeran took off through the dangling cloths, leaving the ghastly resident behind. After several halls of zigzag black and white floors, all gave way to a black void. Through the darkness, Jeran found himself at the entryway once more, back where he started. The faint aroma of marrow strips wafted in the air, just past these grounds and into a separate camp.
In the distance, a small campfire burned, spilling light into the otherwise dim woods. The light and smoke ahead looked far more inviting than the haunted bazaar around him. Jeran took careful steps, creeping behind trees and staying off the path.
A voice rang out from within the campsite, a low bass. It projected with a volume one might hear in the first row of a concert hall, certainly not at the distance from where he hid. Squinting, he made out the shape of a wildly gesticulating robed red Techo with an instrument in-hand.
Jeran knew the flamboyant cleric from the brief interactions that he had with him in Meridell. Rohane off-handedly mentioned that Velm would sing for their inn fare, and that he was one of the most compassionate Neopians that he had ever met. Apparently, that made the two butt heads from time to time when Rohane deemed someone unworthy of said compassion, like thieves, but generally they got along very well.
When Rohane’s friends would occasionally visit the castle, they were more or less Jeran’s acquaintances, at best. They might offer an amiable word of greeting, but rarely sat down to have a long conversation. Talinia especially. She was a very attentive listener, a keen observer, and one of the best archers in all the land—if not the world—but not one to initiate a lengthy conversation with a stranger. Of the three, Mipsy was a bit more social and friendly, and perhaps more of a friend. Being a Meridell native and Rohane’s travelling companion when they vanquished Ramtor, she would at least recognize him. Jeran presented them both with an award for their shared bravery and dined with the duo afterwards. It had been hard to keep a neutral face during the award ceremony. He had often wondered if Rohane picked up on his iciness at the time—behaviour he had come to regret. Mipsy seemed to miss it entirely—either that or she was a particularly skilled actress.
Having been a middle-class daughter of a merchant and a locally famous adventurer (or so he recalled from their small talk), Mipsy was blown away by the delectable delicacies that King Skarl spoiled them with. To say the King treated his honoured guests well would be an understatement. Half of his royal visitors weren’t even fed this well.
Unlike his companion who seemed to enjoyed the limelight, Rohane was overtly uncomfortable with the attention. Beyond basic pleasantries, he spent most of his time conversing with Mipsy and occasionally Jeran. There was something odd in how Rohane carried himself that night. He seemed sullen for someone who had vanquished his father’s destroyer. Whenever the topic was brought up, he looked askance and skirted the topic. Even Mipsy seemed a bit nervous. To this day, Jeran had few details on just how Ramtor was defeated. Rohane admitted that the blade used to seal the deal was the one his father used the day he had perished—but little more than that.
Neither knight felt the relief they had hoped for with Ramtor gone. It hadn’t filled the void of a missing mentor.
Or a missing father.
“Your father would be so proud, Rohane,” exclaimed King Skarl as he patted the Blumaroo on his back. For a fraction of a second, there was so much pain in Rohane’s eyes, but he hid it as quickly as he could behind a pleasant smile and a handshake.
“Thank you, King Skarl,” he replied, with the grace of a practised performer, “it’s my honour.”
“Of course, hero!” He bent in close towards Rohane with a jovial, toothy grin, something that made the Blumaroo visibly uncomfortable. “When you complete your journey, come back to the Castle. You’d make a fine kingsguard! And who knows, maybe one day you’d even cut it as a knight!”
“I…” the thought caught in his throat as he struggled for words, “I’d be honoured, Your Highness.”
Seeing this play out, Jeran exclaimed a warm hello to his King. Rohane gave him a grateful nod as Jeran drew any amount of attention away from his exhausted self.
“How nice that Sir Reynold’s son and former squire could dine together.” The King pushed the seats together. “You two would make quite the team.”
The two of them, now inches apart, bent away from one another as far as they physically could. Rohane then stuffed a large chunk of meat into his mouth.
The King thought this to be humorous. “No need to be shy, you two. Why, with both of you at the helm, none of Meridell’s enemies would dare oppose us.”
Knowing that they had eyes on them, Jeran heartily agreed. Rohane politely nodded while shoving a large baked potato into his mouth.
Afterwards, Jeran spoke amicably while Rohane strained to maintain a civil, but quiet, demeanour. Mipsy had only heard of Sir Reynold in passing and jumped into the conversation when it was brought up.
“Mom told me about Sir Reynold all the time—he was really famous!” Her ears were flapping with excitement. “Maybe you guys could you tell me more about him?”
Was. Was famous. That was the only word that mattered to Rohane. He abruptly pushed back his chair and stood up from the table. Mipsy whimpered, unsure of what to say.
“Sincerest apologies, your Highness. I’m feeling tired and would like to retire for the night.” Realizing that might have come across too strongly, he added, “thanks for your gracious invitation today. It’s an honour.”
The King flashed a brief look of disappointment behind a warm demeanour and smile. “Request granted, hero. Thank you for your service to Meridell.”
“It’s my honour,” he said again. He paused briefly, as if wondering if he had said the word “honour” too many times. Given the way Jeran rolled his eyes, he assumed that to be a yes.
Rohane bowed as he walked away. Mipsy cut a nervous glance, seemingly unsure if she should follow or not. Before he could make it far, legions of curious nobles hounded him with pointed questions. Jeran felt sorry for the Blumaroo, who despite his outward vigour, made plainer and more overt attempts to excuse himself from the whispers of the court gossip.
“Rohane...” Mipsy deflated at the table. “Maybe… maybe I should follow him.”
“But why leave now?” asked the King before waving a few servers over to their tables. “Don’t you want to hear more about Sir Reynold? You were asking.”
“I mean…” as she said this, mounds of food were piled in front of her on silver plates. Delicious meats and fruits and jellies. Her eyes grew to the size of saucers at the display.
King Skarl motioned towards the now empty seat. Realizing his intent to sit there, Mipsy’s face lit up like a firework display. “I’m sure my Champion and I could tell you more?” he said nonchalantly.
“I would be really honoured, Your Highness,” she squeaked, barely containing her joy.
But it wasn’t her fault, he told himself. She was caught in the moment. Nervous and excited, thrown into the public eye as a hero. Treated to a lavish meal and speaking casually with Dukes, Duchesses, and the King himself. Anyone in that situation would be excited.
“She didn’t know how sad he was. How sad we were.”
So caught up was Jeran with the memory that he barely noticed them laughing about something. Wait. Laughing at someone. But it did not sound friendly or warm, or in any way like the crew Rohane so fondly spoke of.
At this point, Jeran was in close proximity. Without a doubt, they were what was now known as the “Heroic Four,” excluding Rohane. Talinia, the green Eyrie archer, Mipsy the blue Acara mage, and Velm, the red Techo cleric. They were pointing at a log and laughing at it in vicious mockery.
Jeran scoffed before announcing himself.
“Hello, everyone,” he said, hoping they might provide a clue about Rohane’s whereabouts. The three cut off their cacophony instantly and turned their heads in unison. But not in the normal way one might turn, but like a mechanical doll, jerky and forced. Jeran took a step back instinctively. “Have any of you seen Rohane?” It took every effort not to slip the ‘Sir’ title into his name out of habit. If these phantoms were at all tied to a certain time or event, they might not understand.
Both Velm and Talinia continued to stare at him. Not in confusion or in recognition, but stare at him without any sort of expression. Only Mipsy tilted her head in curiosity before hopping off of her seat.
“Jeran?” she asked, her brows knit together. “Why are you here?”
He guessed that the dream was set during Rohane’s travels, well before he had met the archer and healer. Why else would the two of them act so oblivious and cold?
“Have you seen Rohane?” he asked again. With how robotic these conversations had been before, he hardly wanted to deviate from a script.
The blue Acara seemed baffled by this question as she pointed her wand at the empty seat. “He’s here. We were laughing at him.”
The log morphed itself into a wooden puppet with a striking resemblance to the missing Blumaroo. With one arm extended, it opened its wooden mouth up and down, creating clacking sounds but no music did it make.
“What?” Jeran managed, his voice soft with shock. Even though these phantoms weren’t real, he could feel anger welling from within himself. Despite that, he remained outwardly calm. Being in frequent contact with grating nobles, he had years of experience in that department. “Why would you be laughing at him?”
“Because he can’t sing.”
Jeran flinched away. Velm had appeared within inches of him, an uncomfortable distance from his face. A lute was strapped about the Techo’s back and he strummed it once. It sounded off in an off-key chord, causing Jeran to wince. Meanwhile, the puppet danced as if being pulled like a marionette.
“Singing again?” Jeran sighed, wondering why on Neopia such a trivial thing would reappear in his dreams.
“He sounds like a wet Meowclops,” came Reuben’s voice, which had appeared upon the lute’s soundhole.
“A wet Meowclops,” echoed the three heroes in unison. As they spoke, they moved closer.
Backing up from the crew, Jeran set his sights on the path ahead, on the desert that seemingly abutted the foreboding wood ahead. Maybe someone else—anyone else—could help him find Rohane faster.
“Everyone, I think we have a problem.”
It was Talinia. Upon her declaration, dozens of glowing eyes shined from within the woods, reflected by the light of the nearby fire. A low growl permeated the air, making Jeran’s fur stand on end.
Meanwhile, back in Meridell, Lisha was sitting on a chair in Kayla’s study and firmly grasping her Wand of Supernova. Purple light pulsed from the wand in a steady beat as she took calm breaths in and exhaled slowly.
Rohane had since quieted down, but his arms twitched frequently as if blocking something or fighting something off. On the other hand, Jeran was outwardly expressive. For such a stoic Lupe, he was like an open book while enchanted. His fear and confusion were more than evident as he navigated the dark recesses of Rohane’s nightmare. From time to time, he would utter something, mostly minor things like ‘hello’ and ‘what?’ But the look on his face when he said “Reynold” had her immediately concerned. Lisha had arrived to the past after the Blumaroo had perished, but the effects of his loss were more than apparent for her brother. Whenever he was mentioned, Jeran would find himself suddenly sullen and withdrawn. And of course, she dared not mention Sir Reynold to Rohane.
“I hope this wasn’t a mistake,” she whispered to herself. Despite Jeran being asleep, she hopped to his side and placed her hand on his shoulder. “I don’t know if you can hear me, but I’m here. I’m here for you.” The Lupe seemed to relax, eliciting a soft sigh from the Aisha.
Time passed in relative quiet as Lisha continued to focus on the spell, barring the occasional grunt or whine from Rohane. A Jeran-sized Weewoo clock ticked on in the corner of the room, marking the passage of time. It had been well over an hour already—the mechanical petpet had alerted her with its haunting “weewoooo” at 12 o’-clock. She popped open one of Kayla’s famous pick-me-up potions and took a sip. Instantly, she could feel her stamina increase. After a few gulps, she felt reenergized.
Suddenly, with all the grace of a giant Turtum, Kayla barged into the shop, shouting that she had found a “bunch of great books” in the palace library. Following over a minute behind and massaging his sore and achy wings, was Serian. As soon as he made it inside, he went down to one knee and took long, gasping breaths. Neopians who were passing by on the streets stopped and stared with interest. Annoyed, he flipped the glitter-covered sign on the door from “open-come on in!” to “sorry, we’re closed (Chet Flash Wuz Here)!” and slammed the door. A Neopian or two shouted with concern as he facepalmed loudly.
“You guys need to work on your stealth,” sighed Lisha as she smoothed down her elbow-length periwinkle blouse. “You really, really do.”
“Are you kidding?” said Kayla as she excitedly cracked the first book open. “We are so stealthy. We’re like, the stealth buddies.”
“You are not… calling us that,” managed Serian, as he brushed himself off. “It’s not like… I fly much… anymore. Least of all… with someone in my grasp.”
“It was really funny, actually,” said Kayla, “there were Neopians who thought he was like, kidnapping me or whatever, so I told them, ‘we’re friends! It’s okay!’ And that got them to quiet down. Kinda.”
The Darigan Eyrie crossed his arms, making his ornate robes crease. His long tail swished from side to side. “I didn’t find it all that funny.”
While holding the thrumming wand in her hands, Lisha buried her face into her arms. “At this rate, the whole city is going to find out about this…”
“Nah… don’t be a worrywart.” Kayla flipped to a page about soothing topicals and magical relaxants. “This should reduce the dream’s mental strain. Hopefully it’ll make things easier on the both of them.”
“That sounds promising.” Lisha nodded in approval. “Thanks for that, Kayla.”
“Don’t thank me—Serian found it. He said his library skills are from your teachings, and that you inspire him, and—”
A reddish blush crept up his cheeks as he covered his taloned paw over her mouth. “That’s quite enough, Kayla.” He coughed awkwardly, trying to draw attention away from his “mood ring eyes,” which had now changed to a deep blue. Lisha had made something of a chart over the years, and knew it to mean that he was embarrassed. “I don’t really understand magic, but I can help you find ingredients. Give me the order and I’ll see it through.”
“So formal.” Kayla rolled her eyes. “You’re not in the military anymore, man.”
“I mean, I was in Kass’ army for most of my youth and teenage years—a General part of that time—so it’s a hard habit to break.” A wide frown spread across his bill. He rubbed the back of his neck as his eyes turned sky blue; Lisha had deduced that to be shame. “Not like I’m proud of any of that now…”
“Sorry to bring up bad memories, Serian.” She offered him a hug, which he begrudgingly accepted. “I’m just messing with ya, you know that.”
The Eyrie and Lisha shared a tired look.
“Glad to see you’re back to your usual Kayla spirits,” Lisha finally said, a crease forming on her forehead as she attempted to focus on the spell.
Meanwhile, Kayla spread out a book over the table and circled a paragraph with her finger. “Alright, Serian, here’s the plan. We need everything listed in blue here: aloe pulp, crushed gamaberry juice, two dried benyeroberries, chamomile leaves, and 30oz of spring water. I’ll look for the aloe. Can you find the berries? They should be up in my fruit drawer.”
The Eyrie nodded. “Got it.”
The two of them set to busily searching for ingredients. Within minutes, a neat pile had formed of potion components. With a deft hand, Kayla mixed everything into a broth. Next, she removed some bandages from her drawers and dipped them into the mix. A slimy green goop covered both, which dripped heartily to the ground. Some landed on Serian’s boots – the rest made a sticky mat on the floor. He grunted at the sight, but seemed relieved that none of it had landed on his ornate, Darigani clothes.
“So, this gunk will help them feel better? It smells… floral.” He took a whiff of his hands and coughed. “I’m going to need three showers to rid myself of the stench.”
“Stench?” she gave the concoction a sniff and rose her head with delight. “Mmm, it’s not a stench, Serian. The nice smell helps with the aromatherapy. If it works, it’ll be worth it.” She scanned the book again as she took hold of her wrap.
“If?” Lisha rose a brow.
“When. I meant to say, ‘when.’”
Lisha took a long look at her friend. “Kayla. Will this help them?”
“Yes.” She said it confidently as her voice softened. “I got this; I promise.” Kayla took a deep breath before she waved her hand forward above the snoozing knights. “We’ll place it on top of their heads. Take your pick of whom—”
The towering Eyrie scoffed at the question. “My eternal rival, of course.”
Kayla stifled a chuckle. “Of course, silly me. I’ll help Jeran, then.”
The both of them sauntered over to the sleeping knights and carefully laid the wraps upon their foreheads. As the goop pooled around their heads, they visibly relaxed. A pool dripped onto the flow, prompting Kayla to put a small pan there.
“You think it’ll change anything in the dream world?” asked Lisha.
“I sure hope so,” replied Kayla. “It makes me really sad to see them like this.”
“Believe me,” Lisha’s voice lowered as she sounded suddenly tired, “same here.”
Back in the Woods, a large, grotesque beast had emerged from the trees. It had the face of a Kau covered in dripping sludge, the body of a mass of green goo, and wings made of… Jeran squinted at the swarming blob. Sentient fleas? It let out a roar, sending mucus spraying out from its nose.
“Oh joy,” Jeran gagged as he readied his blade. The creature smelled strongly of fetid swamp water, and its reek wafted across the field.
“Jeran? Are you here to help?” It was Mipsy again. She seemed more alert and so did her teammates, who regarded him with confusion rather than a blank stare.
Unsure of how to respond, he simply nodded. That seemed like a universal message to a simple-minded memory.
“Do you know him?” asked Velm, pointing towards him with his staff.
“Yeah. He’s a knight from Meridell. Rohane and I met him after beating Ramtor.”
This caught the knight off-guard. While before they were mere conjurations, they seemed life-like all of a sudden. Even their appearances seemed more solid, more grounded in reality. Well, dream reality, anyway.
“Speaking of Rohane, where is he?” asked Talinia as she turned to Jeran. “Do you know?”
This is a dream, he stopped to remind himself. And when he felt the need to reply, he hesitated. They aren’t really here. None of this is real.
He sighed as he looked up towards the sky and wondered what on Neopia could have caused this change. Was it something Kayla or Lisha did? And if so, how long would it last before everything was chaos once again? Maybe it was just a temporary fix or…
Talinia furrowed her brow when he failed to reply. “Something wrong?” she asked.
It took a second for him to realize that she was looking straight at him, fully invested in his response.
“He’s… missing,” Jeran said carefully, careful not to let his gaze give him away. “I’m trying to find him but I’m not sure where to look.”
“Missing?” The Eyrie gave a suspicious glare as she prepped her bow. “Is there something you know that we don’t?”
Rohane had always said Talinia was the most perceptive in their crew—he wasn’t kidding. Before he could open his mouth, the mage jumped in front of them.
“Less talk, more action,” interjected Mipsy, who then fired a red beam from her wand. “Eradicate!”
The beam hit the creature head-on, causing it to scream. It then dropped to all fours and charged towards the mage, firing goop from its back like cannonballs. Before it could connect, Mipsy blinked away and reappeared twenty feet to the right while Talinia fired four arrows in its direction. The arrows jumped forward in broken arcs, stopping and starting in a mid-air before finally cutting into the beast’s side. Velm had summoned a large, opaque hammer that glimmered in the dim sky, and swung it heartily. It grew to ten times its normal size, a comically large conjuration.
“It’s always hammer time!” he shouted with a wink, while narrowly avoiding the flea-covered wings. The insect swarm sprung forward in a coordinated dance, trying and failing to take a chunk out of the cleric.
By this point, Jeran had come close enough to strike, and swung his blade at the now reeling creature.
The sword lit up like a lightning bolt as a blue glow wrapped around his hilt. So surprised was Jeran that he nearly dropped it on instinct, but managed to hold it firmly. As soon as it made contact, the creature howled in agony and took a stumbling step backwards. Within moments, the monster’s sludgy face melted away to reveal a gritty skeleton.
“You’re next… Good-bye, Jeran…” it hissed, sending a shiver down the knight’s spine. Those were the words that—but no. That wouldn’t make any sense. This was Rohane’s dream.
Gloops of sludge, slime, and mucus pooled beneath it as it collapsed to its elbows and toppled to the ground. Within moments, the woods grew deathly quiet save for the wandering eyes of creatures from within the shadows.
“Was that magic?”
Mipsy had appeared within inches of Jeran’s face, eliciting a startled gasp from the knight. After catching his breath and making sure no one was around, Jeran swung the sword forward a few times again. This time, it did not glow.
“No idea,” he replied, as his anger flared, “but you all really need to stop appearing next to me without warning, especially around a live blade.”
“Jeez, sorry about that,” Mipsy said, grimacing. “But speaking of, I wonder…” she bent over to touch the blade before Jeran could react and reeled back. “Ow!”
“You okay?” asked Velm, before immediately placing his hand on her back to heal her.
“Yeah…” she whined as she sucked on her sore finger.
“Watch out,” barked Jeran while sheathing the weapon. “It’s rusty, but the blade is still very sharp.” He loudly exhaled. “I thought Rohane’s travelling companions would be more careful than this…”
The mage creased her forehead and gave an offended huff. “It wasn’t the blade that hurt me. There was a spark that jumped from it, like a little bolt of lightning.”
“A spark?” A realization hit Jeran. “Maybe it only hurts dre—”
“Hurts what?” asked Velm, tilting his head like a confused Puppyblew.
Dreams, he mentally finished. Probably best to not tell these three that they weren’t actually real. Who knows what that would do to the world around him?
“Nothing. It’s nothing.”
“Speaking of nothing…” Talinia barged in. She had been searching to no avail while they spoke. “I’ve seen no sign of Rohane anywhere. I get the feeling you’ve got a better idea of where he is.”
Jeran debated lying, then quickly thought better of it. He didn’t want to end up on the business end of the Eyrie’s bow.
“His brother, Reuben, says he went to Faerieland. That’s where I’m headed right now.”
“Faerieland?” Talinia looked concerned. “How would he have gotten there?”
“I’m not sure, but that’s where Tera—that’s from where Reuben received a letter.” He bit his tongue, hoping that his near slip-up of Terask, the tyrant king’s name, wasn’t picked up by the trio. The forty-foot, four-armed Draik had been their final opponent before Rohane and his crew returned to Meridell as international heroes. After a two-week stint in a Faerieland infirmary, that is. The heroes had been in bad shape after the fight, Rohane in particular was covered in serious cuts and burns. Shortly after arriving to Meridell’s capital and recovering from his injuries, Rohane was knighted.
“But Faerieland?” Velm scoffed before shaking his head, “that wouldn’t make sense. Wasn’t he here before? I recall sharing Lucy with him and then… and then…” he clicked his tongue, ‘I don’t remember. It’s all blank.”
The knight squinted. “Lucy? Who’s that?”
Rohane has mentioned something about a lute in the past. He hesitated for a second. “I didn’t hear a lute, but I did hear you all laughing at someone.”
“Laughing? At who?”
Jeran was perplexed. They didn’t remember what happened before?
“Not sure,” he lied, and immediately hoped that the archer wouldn’t call him out, “but you”—he pointed at Mipsy—“said they sounded like a wet Meowclops.”
The mage’s lip quivered. She looked and sounded like she was about to cry. “Why would I say something so horrible?”
“And why would I laugh at them?” Velm sounded genuinely hurt. “I’m a performer. I know how difficult it is to make yourself vulnerable like that.”
Talinia’s voice softened as she brought the bow to her side. “Maybe you misheard, Jeran. None of us would ever treat Rohane like that.”
The Lupe lowered his ears. “Maybe. Maybe you’re right.” The thought crossed his mind that he had imagined it, but did he? No, no. He definitely heard them before. It wasn’t all in his head. “Anyway, I’m going to venture forth. Maybe we’ll cross paths again.” Before I start to question my sanity even further, he mentally added.
“You’re travelling alone?” Talinia rose a brow. “Isn’t that dangerous?”
“Yes. And no, I’ve got it covered.”
“Why not travel with us?” pushed Velm, and when Jeran didn’t seem to reply, he pointed to his staff. “It’s a good idea to be near a healer, especially around here.”
“I’m sure we’ll meet again,” the knight repeated, knowing full well that the crew had travelled all over Neopia with Rohane. Surely their adventures would be well intertwined within the Blumaroo’s memories.
“Be careful out there…” Velm resigned, but added a little smirk at the end, “you meathead.”
“Meathead?” Jeran spun around and grumbled it under his breath. He had every temptation to bop the healer on his head for saying it so flippantly.
“Don’t ask me why,” said Velm with a shrug, “but the word just came to me, as if in a dream.”
Over the years, Rohane’s friends, Rohane’s brother, and heck, even Lisha and her friends, had gotten into the habit of calling Jeran and Rohane “meatheads.” They did it jokingly—most of the time—but it still grated on his nerves.
The Lupe rolled his eyes. “Don’t be going meta on me now.”
With a wave, he turned his back on the trio and continued walking towards the distant mountains.
Like the flick of a switch, the ground snapped from being dark, loamy soil to snow. The further he walked, the deeper it became. At first, only a light breeze tickled his face, but before long, whipping winds bombarded him, grabbing at him with surprising force. His hands soon went numb from the cold. He rubbed his palms together uselessly, trying to gather as much heat as he could. Little icicles began to hang from the edges of his fur and eyelashes, a product of his exhaled breath. The more he trudged, the more he realized that the recent snowflakes felt coarse and hard, like little grains of… sand.
Jeran paused to look up in the sky and regretted it immediately. Instead of fluff white snow, little grains of quartz and sand pelted his face. He spit them out of his mouth and tried fruitlessly to remove the salty taste from his tongue.
Lisha wasn’t kidding about how real this feels… He tried not to gag as he brushed the sand from his face. I’ve never even been to the Lost Desert, but I imagine it’d be just like this.
There was a sandstorm blowing atop a snow-laden ground. He would laugh at the absurdity of it all if he hadn’t been facing two environmental hazards at once.
A gust of wind pushed a handful of sand into his snout. He sneezed loudly before shielding his tear-filled eyes from the harsh winds. The snow proved waist deep and required every bit of his energy to trudge through. Upon seeing the storm die down for a moment, he took a long, deep breath. If not for the hazy shape appearing in the snow, he might have attempted to set up a make-shift camp.
Jeran dropped his arms to his side as his ears fell back. “You have got to be kidding me.”
But it was no joke.
Directly in front of him was a sleepy mountain town. Behind it, a pyramid stood in the middle of Terror Mountain, its apex rising above the tallest mountain peaks.
To be continued…