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A Hero's Ballad: The Knightmare


by parody_ham

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Chapter 5 - Rapido

     ~X~

     With Lifira’s guiding hoof, the journey became much easier. It was as if a map of the layout had been downloaded into her brain—not once did she stray from the correct path. And when monsters approached, she would cast a cloaking spell until they shambled away.

     “Incredible…”

     “Indeed I am.” She bent her head around the corner of a wall. “All clear. Let’s continue forward.”

     Something stuck from the Uni’s message before, something that sat odd in Jeran’s mind. “You knew this is a dream—how is that?”

     “How?” She yanked Jeran back before he stepped on a trap tile. “I was repurposed from Rohane’s memories as a guide. Your sister created this programming.”

     The Lupe’s eyes widened. “Lisha did this?”

     She shrugged. “Perhaps not consciously, but her will brought me here. Her spell and the actions done to your body are all affecting this world.”

     But instead of praising her, Jeran felt a sense of dread. “I told her not to pull any heroic stunts… this much magic can’t be good for—”

     The Uni tugged his sleeve impatiently. “Come along now. This way, almost there.”

     Jeran bit back his annoyance at the nervous cleric. “Lisha…” he shook his head as he quickened the pace, “please be okay.”

     ~X~

     A lime green glow wrapped around Lisha and pulsed in tandem around the thrumming wand. A wave of energy swelled from inside the Aisha, causing her to shudder. The magic felt warm and welcoming, almost like a cup of tea on a cold day. It felt… good. She embraced the feeling as energy welled up from inside of her core. It seemed limitless—a never ending supply of magic from which to borrow. It manifested as little beads on her fingers, which she rolled about in awe.

     “They’re beautiful,” she sighed, as her face lit up in an eerie shade of green. “You weren’t kidding, Kayla. I feel great. Haven’t felt this alive in months.”

     “Glad to hear.” The potionmaster chuckled nervously as she brought her eyes up from a page about energy potions. “It really packs a punch, this one. Just, you know, pace yourself, okay? Because—”

     “It’s okay,” reassured the Aisha, as a green light reflected off her glasses, hiding her eyes. “I got this. Now I finally have the strength to do something. I can help Jeran even more now.”

     Serian shot a worried glance over to Kayla, one that she reciprocated.

     “Found anything yet?” asked Kayla.

     “Maybe.” Serian spun a golden tome around and pointed to a section marked ‘energy share potion.’ There was a paragraph written about it in red ink, one with a large exclamation point hovering over it. “But like many of these accursed potions, it’s going to be risky…”

     Kayla scanned the text. “Yeah.” She read it over again slowly, humming to herself. “Okay, yeah. This could help, but I don’t have half of what this potion needs.” Before Serian could say anything, as he quickly flicked his ears back, she added, “but don’t worry, I’ll be fast in the market. Can you watch over your little sis and bro?”

     “I can.” He said it quietly, deep in thought, while chewing a talon with his sharp bill. After enough pressure, the tip cracked. “Oh, for the love of—”

     Suddenly, Jeran made a pained grunt and Rohane had curled into a ball with his hands wrapped around his knees. Flashes of concern arose from the trio.

     Lisha balled her hand into a fist as a wave of energy pulsed from her wand. As soon as it was released, she visibly shuddered.

     Kayla gasped. “You okay, Lisha?”

     “I’m fine, Kayla,” said the Aisha, as annoyance crept into her voice. “I haven’t experienced this kind of power before, but I can handle it. Like Jeran said,” she puffed out her chest to make herself look tougher and imitated her brother’s voice, “I’m ‘one of the strongest Neopians he knows.’ And now I can prove it.”

     Kayla opened her mouth to say something, but bit back the words. She nervously rubbed her fingers against the basket handle.

     The fur on the Eyrie’s ruff stood on end. Power. The word made his blood run cold. As a former Kass General who had committed heinous acts under the euphoric rush of authority, he knew all too well how quickly it could corrupt someone.

     “I’m going to head out, Serian—back in a jiffy.”

     “Be quick about it, Kayla,” he said it emphatically, as his Noil-like tail flicked this way and that. “Please.”

     The Zafara gulped. “Will do.”

     ~X~

     “The summit is just up this way.”

     And indeed, it was. But unlike the pyramid he saw on the ground—one with a sharply pointed pinnacle—the stairwell led to an open-air arena. Before they reached the top, the Uni ducked down. Jeran hid with her, as they monitored the area beyond for traps or enemies. In the snow-covered center stood a ten-foot tall golden Blumaroo with glowing red eyes, a black hood with pointed ears, loincloth, and ornately decorated, hooked staff. As of now, the guardian had yet to lay his eyes upon them. An altar sat behind the Blumaroo, and above it… Jeran squinted at the sight. It almost looked like a spiralling tower. The stairs climbed further into the air until they were too small to make out.

     “Sky stairs stand above the alter,” whispered Lifira as she waved her hoof at chest height. “This is the path from which you must ascend To Faerieland.”

      “Those see-through blocks in the sky are my only way up?” The Lupe’s face had a flash of panic as his tail bristled. “You’re kidding, right?”

     “Not at all.”

      “How about I take the Guardian. You can scale the stairs.” Despite his best efforts to sound calm, there was a twinge of fear in Jeran’s voice. His hands felt clammy and a cold sweat cooled his neck. Before he could quell it, an image of Lord Kass bombarded his mind. One with menace in his eyes and a wicked smile that plagued his nightmares, that reminded him all too well of the second Great War years after it had ended. He slapped his face in an effort to chase the memories away, eliciting a head tilt from the Uni mage.

     “Everything okay?”

     “Yes,” he lied. The word rolled off of his dry tongue.

     She shrugged. “My magic will keep the Guardian at bay while you—”

     “I win, I win!” came a voice from below, commanding both of their attentions. Shortly after, a Korbat zipped by them and spun into the open air. Sand bounced off his wings like rubber. “You lost the game,” he pointed at them in teasing mockery, “you guys lost!”

     The two older Neopians looked on in horror as the child’s declaration caught the wrathful gaze of Blumaroo.

     “Niacha!” Jeran practically screamed it; his throat felt scratchy from the strain. “What on Neopia are you doing?! Get over here!”

     Anubits grinned evilly at the child as both Lifira and Jeran exposed themselves and readied their weapons. “You think to reach the Altar of Destiny? You will have to get past me first!" he shouted.

     “And me!” snarled the child as a swirl of snow twirled around him. He continued to laugh as his features twisted from a young Korbat to that of a giant, white, furry beast with fanged teeth and fists the size of Jeran’s head. Roaring, he declared in a booming bass, “Me Scuzzy. You no be going anywhere! Me be crushing you first!”

     “Dung.” Jeran stamped the ground. “Dung! Can’t ever be easy, can it?”

     “The dream must be fighting back,” said Lifira as she bit her lip. “Escape to Faerieland or you’ll be trapped here. I’ll take Anubits; Scuzzy is all yours. But remember, your goal is escape, not winning.”

     Jeran couldn’t help but stare at the ascending staircase, one that rose quickly into the empyrean.

     “Ready?” she said, before muttering a few words. Her hoofs and eyes turned a vibrant shade of green.

     He gripped the worn sword bearing Sir Reynold’s name. “Ready.”

     ~X~

     Serian paced the room while Lisha continued her spell, nervously picking at his purple arm feathers until a couple of them fluttered to the floor.

     A magical aura radiated from Lisha, making the entire room feel significantly warmer. The same aura hung around the sleeping knights. Crackles and pops radiated from the warm glow, a product of Lisha’s latent magical energy combined with the potion’s effects. The longer she focused on the spell, the brighter the aura glowed; she was using more and more of the potion’s power while her body looked increasingly drained.

     It scared him.

      More than once, the Eyrie thought to freely speak his mind, but bit his tongue before saying anything rash. It had been a hard habit to break—not saying the first thing that came to mind—but the temptation remained. Especially when he grew impatient or frustrated. Both of these, he loathed to admit, were still weak points.

     Serian knew that now would be a poor time to bring up how power corrupts—how it might harm her like it did him—but the thought nagged at him like a leech sucking on his arm. Decisions from those in power started both wars. A thirst for power nearly destroyed him as it did Kass. If it wasn’t for his Meridell friends and family… he’d have surely met his end during the second war. And sometimes, he thought glumly, he wasn’t sure why he was given the chance to make amends when so many others had not. It wasn’t a chance he deserved, he told himself. And even now… he shook his head to remove those bothersome thoughts from his mind. At least he was making an effort to be better.

      Before he was cursed, he took great pleasure in ordering his troops to burn fields, to destroy homes and leave many Meridellians with nothing. At the time, it seemed almost euphoric—how happy his Lord would be once he heard how well his campaigns had gone. The thought left a sour taste in his mouth as he fought gagging.

      But maybe—just maybe—he convinced himself, he could come from a place of concern. If he told her that she needed help, that they could find another way to solve this together, she would understand. She could use less energy—drain herself less for the sake of the spell. Because if this potion could make her feel invincible—could make her overburden herself to the point where it hurt her… he didn’t want to imagine the results. Seeing her risk herself when all he could do was watch was agony.

     After rehearsing the script in his mind enough times, he finally spoke up.

     “Hey, Lisha.” He said it softly.

     It took her a few seconds to break away from the spell. “Yeah?” She sounded almost distant, entranced.

     “Are you… feeling well?”

     “Never better.” But as she said this, her arms were quaking; she looked as if she was about to collapse. Deep bags lined her eyes.

     His eyes flashed a bright teal; Lisha had previously insisted in her “mood eye chart” that this was fear; the Eyrie gruffly denied this observation. “You don’t look ‘never better.’ Maybe you should slow do—”

     “I’m fine. Don’t worry about me.”

     The Darigan was taken aback by her bluntness, but he tried, again, to speak calmly to her. “But I do worry… sister.” Despite all of these years, he still often struggled to call her anything besides her name. “I’m starting to wonder if this is too much for you alone.” He rested his talons on the table and leaned towards her. “We should have looked for another option first before hoisting this on you—it wasn’t fair. Kayla will be back soon; then we can both help you.” Because she could respond, he continued, “maybe…” as he played with the words knowing full well that the intricacies of magic eluded him, “you should try using less magic? You know, to be less stressful… until we can help.”

     The fur on her neck bristled as she turned his way, her magically lit green eyes glared with anger, taking the Eyrie by surprise. The aura around her pulsed and flared, spitting out in random directions. Serian jumped back and eyed the pulses of magical energy wearily.

     “I can handle this, bro,” she said, her voice dangerous, “alone. I finally have the power to do something helpful. You’re talking about things you don’t understand.”

     “Not to say that you can’t handle this, but…” he chose his next words carefully, “this much power is a dangerous thing—I would know. I say this out of concern, and you know I’m not usually the—”

     “There’s no need for concern,” she said curtly, cutting him off. “And just because you got corrupted by power doesn’t mean that I will.”

     The Eyrie winced as if struck. “Okay, ouch.” His mood ring eyes shimmered an icy blue. “Lisha, this isn’t you. I know this is the potion talking.” He took a deep breath. “Take it from an Eyrie who regrets the mistakes of his youth, I—”

     “You just wanted to be the hero.”

      “No.” He shifted uncomfortably, crossing one hand over the other, and scowled. “No, I didn’t.”

     “Yes, you did. You’re tired of being in Jeran’s shadow—you wanted to be the one who saved Rohane—the one who gets the praise.”

     “Because Rohane’s my friend!” The Eyrie threw his arms into the air. “There, I said it. Happy now?” He took a deep breath and held it for a second before gruffly releasing the air. He then made a cutting motion with his hands. “But I’ll let it slide. I know it’s the magic talking, not you.” He attempted to smile, albeit a forced one. “I forgive you.”

     The Aisha crossed her arms and huffed. “There’s nothing to forgive. This isn’t the magic talking, Setarian. This is how I actually feel.”

     She knew how much he hated the sound of his old name, the name he wore when he was a Kass soldier.

     A few tense seconds passed as the Eyrie balled both fists and let out a shout.

     “Enough!” He exclaimed in furious fervour, nostrils flaring; the edges of his eyes were wet. “Using my Darigani name now, are you, knowing how much it hurts me!?” He stamped his boot as he spread out his large, imposing purple wings.

     Her face was a line, unreadable in silent reply.

      “I don’t pretend to understand magic enough to know what’s happening, but I know Kayla does. We’re going to rein you in before you harm someone—including yourself.”

     Her eyes widened. A flare of magic jumped from her wand and hit a nearby table, causing it to smoulder. “You… you wouldn’t,” she said, voice wavering. “I… I have things under control alone.”

     “No, you don’t, not if the smoking furniture and your shaking frame have anything to say about it.” The Eyrie stormed forward. “This is what’s best for you.”

     “How do you know what’s best for me, bro?” Her eyes narrowed. “You aren’t me.”

     “Because I’ve lived through more—seen more. And I know this won’t end well.”

     “You don’t know that,” she spat. And when he looked to be backing up towards the door, she added, “wait—don’t. I’ll…” she played with the words before continuing twice as strong, “I’ll stop you.” Her eyes narrowed. “I’ll mesmerize you.”

     The spell would be nothing dangerous, Lisha told herself, just something to keep him from scaring Kayla unnecessarily. To keep things from escalating further when there was nothing wrong. Perhaps when he had some time to cool off, he’d see her point of view, he’d—

     “Just try to catch me, Mageling.” Serian flipped his shoulder-length purple hair with his right paw and smirked confidently. Despite knowing better, the temptation to taunt her was too great. She did, after all, start it first by using his old name. Of course, right after saying this, he bit his tongue, realizing what he had done. “That was dumb, Serian,” he scolded himself before smacking his forehead. “Why did you upset the meathead mage, Serian?”

     She was too stunned to speak.

     The Darigan Eyrie cursed under his breath before making a break for the potion shop door. Meanwhile, the Aisha pointed her wand in his direction.

     “Please don’t!” she practically begged. “I just want to help!”

     “This isn’t the way, Lisha!” Turning back towards her, there was fear in his voice. “You’re out of control; I’m not going to stand by and watch you hurt yourself!”

     She muttered a few words under her breath, causing the leather tome beside her to shudder. A whooshing sound arose as two flashing, magical arrows raced towards the dashing Eyrie. He deftly dodged them by flapping his wings and rising into the air.

     The arrows curled back before honing in on him once again, this time twice as fast; Lisha moved her hands to control them. Right before Serian opened the door, they pierced his back, causing him to skid along the ground and bang his head against the wall. Potions along the shelves teetered from the collision and fell to the ground with a clatter. One of them narrowly missed the Eyrie’s wing while another glanced his head. He groaned before he laid on the floor, motionless.

     Seconds later, the door swung open and with it came Kayla holding a basket of haphazardly thrown together ingredients. Sir Danner, Jeran’s righthand blue Wocky stood by her side. They both looked on in abject horror.

     But it was Lisha who first spoke, her hand covering her mouth.

     “Oh my gosh…” her knees buckled as she dropped to the floor. “What have I done?”

     ~X~

     The world seemed to flicker as the sky itself shifted through a multitude of different colours. First blue, then purple and yellow, then a flash of crimson and green. As green covered the sky, Lifira faded in and out of reality, her body a flicker of translucent data. Jeran called out to her in alarm. She responded with an unconcerned wave before firing a large beam of energy at the masked Blumaroo, causing him to stumble back and lean against an intricate altar.

     Scuzzy took no time clearing the ground between himself and Jeran. He came with fists swinging wildly, flinging himself around with reckless abandon. His fur stood on end and looked untamed and unkempt. A putrid odour rose from the beast’s fur and assaulted the Lupe’s sensitive nose. He plugged it in disgust.

     Jeran deftly avoided one blow after the other while searching for an exposed spot to strike. The beast left few openings as his pointed teeth and rock-solid head acted as weapons on their own. When he bent down to gnash Jeran’s tail, he deftly dodged and slashed Scuzzy’s exposed neck. This time, the sword glowed only slightly, but as it met its target, he could feel a sort of oily grime coat his hands; the sensation nearly made him gag. Thick fur acted as a cushion, but the beast still screamed in fury. Jeran jumped away just as Scuzzy reared up on his hind legs and beat both fists against his chest, roaring with a sound that echoed loudly into the distance. Jeran covered his ears, wincing at the sheer volume. Ringing sounds pierced through his head, making the ground feel unsteady as he stumbled a few steps back. He spun the sword in his right hand and gripped it so tightly that his palm ached, before using it to catch his balance.

     Using his fists, the beast propelled himself into the sky. Jeran narrowly rolled from the crater that was left in the attack’s wake. Chunks of the pyramid scattered from the blow. A shard of brick glanced Jeran’s face, just below his eye. He winced and fought the urge to grab his face. Scuzzy hardly left a moment of reprise as he swung his right fist at Jeran. Mere moments after the Lupe rolled away, Scuzzy’s fist smashed the ground, leaving another crater.

     Jeran circled to the beast’s side and leapt forward. He grabbed Scuzzy’s furry back and scrunched his hands into his unwashed fur. He bucked like a wild petpet as he shook Jeran left and right. Jeran clung on, burrowing his head down to keep from being thrown around like a ragdoll.

     “You’re trying to escape!” she repeated, “not defeat it!”

     “Not. Helping!” He bit down on the fur to keep from sliding off. The taste nearly lost him his lunch.

     Meanwhile, Lifira took turns trading magical blows with the Blumaroo. He laughed maniacally as she artfully dodged each blast.

     “Nope!” she sang while doing a loop-da-loop mid-air. “Not gonna happen.”

     Noticing that Jeran was busy, Anubits turned his sights to the knight and fired a mesmerizing blast that shimmered against the flickering snow. Lifira moved to counter, but it was too late. The blast zoomed forward at breakneck speeds. At the last second, Jeran yanked Scuzzy’s head up, causing the blast to hit the beast head-on. He stumbled before falling backwards, pinning Jeran beneath his massive bulk.

     “Argh!” he yelled, while trying to yank his leg from under the lumbering beast. His leg burned as if stung by 100 Buzzers.

     After firing a blast towards Anubits, Lifira dove towards Jeran. With a running kick, she rolled Scuzzy over. Jeran pulled himself free, winching as he held his knee in tightly. She took a quick look, clicked her tongue, and placed a hoof on his throbbing leg.

     “Renew.”

     As before, the injury healed almost instantly. When the pain was no longer overwhelming, he turned to her and nodded in thanks.

     “Thank me when you’re safe,” she grunted, as Anubits swung his staff at the two of them. Jeran parried the blow with his sword while Lifira fired an Obliterate spell.

     The blast exploded on contact, causing the both of them to shield their eyes from the blinding light.

      “Go, Jeran!” she barked, as they reeled back from the damage.

     Jeran blinked a few times before sprinting towards the altar. “Working on it!”

     When Anubits raised his arms to retaliate, Lifira drew his attention back with a barrage of spells. Scuzzy stirred, stumbling about as the spell wore off. Before she could react, the fuzzy beast smashed his fist forward, hitting her square in the back. A sickening crack echoed over the battlefield as Lifira let out a pained shout and skid across the ground. Both of the monsters turned their attention to the Uni as she hobbled to stand, then backed further and further away, hoof cradling her injured wing.

     That is, until she reached the pyramid’s edge.

     Below it was a dizzying height, perhaps a half-mile down. Rubble tumbled down off the ledge and bounced into oblivion. She gulped. Perhaps this was as far as she was going to make it.

     The knight had skidded to a halt and charged back with a battle cry. “Hey, meatheads!” Jeran shouted, and immediately thought to himself how fun it was to use the insult against someone other than himself. “The opponent you’re looking for is me!”

     “You fool!” she said through gritted teeth, although she couldn’t hide her wry grin. The monsters tore their gaze from her, hatred shining in their eyes. “Oh no you don’t, beasties! Look my way or face obliterate!” A beam of magic ploughed into Scuzzy’s back, causing him to faceplant upon the ground.

     Jeran then finished the deal with a vertical thrust of his sword. With a final grunt, Scuzzy sprawled upon the ground, defeated. Anubits on the other hand, continued his barrage.

     “I couldn’t leave you,” he said, as the two of them stood back-to-back against the ethereal desert creature, “especially not when you’re risking your life for me.” Jeran swatted back one of Anubit’s thrusts, redirecting it from his companion.

     She was panting heavily and speaking through gritted teeth. “Just had to have over-the-top heroics, huh?” Her hoof, now shaking, pressed lightly to her scratched up torso. “Renew.” Even with magical energy flowing into her wounds, she still looked winded.

     “It wouldn’t be me without them.” The Lupe laughed lightly, although he couldn’t help but stare at her wounds. Even after being healed, parts of her wings still drooped awkwardly. “Let’s take care of this… together.”

     “Let’s.”

     Anubits growled angrily, taking a long, furious look at his demised companion before raising his staff to the sky. “Protection of Infinity,” he bellowed, as a blanket of magical armour surrounded every corner of his body. He swung his staff forward and pointed it straight at Jeran’s heart. “You can’t defeat a deity, puny ones.”

     “Watch us,” said Jeran, eyes narrowing.

     “And learn how wrong you are,” added Lifira.

     The battle raged on for what seemed like hours. Anubits healed periodically as Jeran’s blade slashed the gigantic Blumaroo-like beast. The two took turns attacking, maintaining a flank whenever they could. With the barrier in place, their attacks were partially repelled, but they continued the front before he could recover once again. At one point, the monster swung its tail at Jeran in the hopes of tripping him, only to have the knight grab ahold and land a solid swing on his back with his free hand. When Anubits turned around to smash him back, Lifira was ready with a well-placed spell.

      Fabric from the Blumaroo’s face had worn away from the quick succession of attacks, leaving behind a skeletal face, gaunt and deprived of sunlight. His eyes shown like amber orbs as his rage grew. Each swing grew wilder, desperate and predictable, as Jeran avoided them all. Lifira, growing steadily wearier, held a withering stance.

     “Stand back!” called Jeran, sparing her a glance. “I got this.”

     “No, you—on your right!”

     Pulling himself away at the last second, a pocket of air blasted his face from just beyond the striking range of the weapon.

     “You need me,” she finished.

     Jeran flattened down his fur, which stood on end. “Then let’s end this quick, for both of our sakes.”

     A few more blasts and strikes later, the Blumaroo dropped to one knee, hatred pouring from his very being like an aura. His staff clattered to the ground with a metallic ring as the hook snapped in two.

     “You shall never… never leave this place…” he pointed a shaking finger at Jeran. “You will live out your days in this nightmare… good-bye, Jeran…” Their voice cracked as they fell to the ground, a lifeless husk of a once powerful spirit.

     With both beasts defeated, Jeran sheathed his sword, then slid his hands down his legs and let his head hang. Sweat poured over his face and brows as he caught his breath. Lifira promptly sat herself on the ground and worked to heal her damaged wing, wincing upon the slightest touch.

     “I appreciate the assist…” she said it as her hoofs glowed with healing energy, “but I cannot follow you. You must go on alone.” She sucked in her breath as the muscles mended themselves before their eyes. After the mage had finished her spells, her face looked worn and tired.

     The Lupe picked his face up half-way, although his ears still sagged down. “What?” he shook his head, as if to dismiss the very thought. “No, you’re coming with me.”

     “I cannot. I am a manifestation of this world, of this Terror Desert. And…” she motioned over to a heap of dirty fur known as Scuzzy. Behind it, there was a small blue Korbat with a red jacket. They peeked from around the mound looking shy and scared, with their wings tucked firmly around their arms like a blanket.

     Jeran grabbed the hilt of his sword and bared his teeth. “You again?”

     “No, wait—"

     When Niacha saw the sword, he began to cry. “I want my mommy,” the child said it in a mousey voice that was nearly eaten by the mountain’s winds, sniffling all the while. “Where’s my mommy?”

     Jeran gave Lifira a “I can’t believe this” look as he threw his hands into the air, before apologizing from afar.

     The Uni sighed softly. “Yes, dear one. I know where your mother is. Let’s get you home.”

     When the Korbat reached for her hoof, Jeran tensed up, but relaxed when he saw that nothing came to pass.

     “Please, stay safe,” said Lifira softly. “And no meathead heroics from now on, okay?”

     He rolled his eyes. “No promises.”

     “I know.” Under her breath, she chanted foreign words in a magical language before both she and the Korbat were brightly enshrined in light. “This is so long, Jeran. And good luck.”

     “Good—”

     A flash of light shot into the sky as Lifira and the child vanished into thin air. Jeran took a long look at the now empty pyramid top—the remains of Anubits now gone. Just the dust blowing ever swiftly at his feet as a light flurry coated his hair and fur. He sighed before turning his gaze to the sky stairs. When the echoing sounds of Kass’ laughter rang in his ear, he shook them back. It was only then that he realized his tail had curled beneath his legs.

     “It’s just stairs. It’s for Rohane’s sake,” he said to himself as he dug his nails further and further into his palms. Before continuing on, he did a quick glance over his shoulder to make sure no one else was there. “Kass has been gone for years. He’s not alive; he can’t hurt me or my family again.” And for the love of Meridell, he hoped that was true.

     No one had ever found Kass’ body after he had disappeared. Galgorrath, Lord Darigan’s advisor, had been more than willing to cooperate with post-war rebuilding efforts between the nations. In his lengthy reports, he had little evidence that the tyrant had survived. His armour had been found in a secret room beneath the citadel singed and haphazardly strewn about as if burst apart by some earth-shattering spell. But no one who stepped forward actually saw what happened.

     To Jeran’s disappointment, their best theory revolved around tales of a sinister threesome, a group of powerful spectres who granted their wielder’s wildest wishes… at a terrible cost. What that cost was, no one knew for sure, but they were convinced it ended poorly for Kass. Lord Darigan assured the Meridellians that he had a search team investigating into the affair and would stop any such uprising by the tyrant’s sympathizers. And to his credit, he had squashed out a great number of hide-outs and underground organizations bent on returning the Citadel to how it was under Kass.

     Still, the thought often consumed Jeran’s silent moments when he could be found staring out an open window and gazing at the bustling city below. When members of the Order would find him, they would ask if he was okay, to which he would always reply, “yeah. Just thinking.” After a while, they knew not to ask him what he thinking about—he would not say.

     The only one who had managed to gain a rise out of him was the Darigan Eyrie who Lisha had adopted as a sibling. At the time, neither of them knew better. As far as they were concerned, the Eyrie child was a war orphan with a surprisingly large lexicon and Lisha, with her heart of gold, wanted to help him. Had Jeran known he was a cursed Kass General, an agent of the enemy, he would never have allowed him sanctuary in the castle. The only place for someone like him would have been the darkest pits of the Meridell dungeons.

      So, when he came up to him in his restored Darigan body after the war with a look of guilt and self-loathing and asked if he was well, Jeran refused to answer. He did not owe him anything. Despite his public displays of forgiveness, Jeran still hated Setarian. He had spent days recovering in an infirmary bed around knights who had been hurt far worse. A few of his comrades never made it out of the room alive. And even after recovering, he had to slowly undue the physical damage from the fall. His legs spasmed when he sat still too long. The scars on his hands from Kass’ talons never completely healed, either. Both injuries were a frequent reminder of how close he had been to the end. How lucky he was when so many others were not.

     Even so, Setarian had the audacity to ask if he was well. He already knew the answer.

     “Jeran, please. Lo—” Serian cursed under his breath. “Sorry. Kass is gone. Lord Darigan made sure of that. You can’t stew on it any longer or it’ll consume you.”

     That was too far. Too raw. He just had to mention his old master as if it could be said in casual conversation. And to have the nerve to tell him how to feel about it? Jeran’s blood boiled. He spun around, teeth baring and nostrils flared, shouting loudly enough that plenty could hear, “no thanks to you, Kass General Setarian! You shouldn’t even be here!”

     Instead of retaliating, the Eyrie merely confirmed what he had said. “You’re right. I don’t deserve to be here; heck, I don’t deserve to be alive.” He looked the knight dead in his eyes. “But the fact that I am is reason enough for me to make up for my mistakes. And I’m telling you that—”

     Jeran hit his fist against a wall. “Leave my sight or I’ll make you.”

     “But I—"

     Having heard all of this go down, a few of the knights, including Sir Danner, rushed over.

     “Is he causing you a problem, Sir?” asked one, coming dangerously close to drawing his blade.

     The Eyrie scoffed. “Hardly. I—”

     Sir Danner stood between them with his arms stretched across. “Alright. Let’s end this now before we cause another war. Setarian, with me.”

     “It’s Serian now,” the Eyrie muttered, his eyes glowing sadly. “I don’t want to be Setarian any longer. That name has caused nothing but trouble for everyone involved.”

     “Then Serian,” he tugged the Eyrie’s armoure armor, “we need to leave.” Lowering his voice to a harsh whisper, he added, “you should know: none of us mention that Lord’s name anymore.” he paused, as if pondering the words himself. “It’s all in the past now.” He said all this as he escorted Serian away amidst the stares of the others around, probably assuming that Jeran could not hear them.

     Serian looked at him incredulously. “For you all, maybe. But the aftermath of these years will affect the Citadel for generations to come.”

     The last thing Jeran heard Danner say before gaggles of knights bombarded him with questions was, “then we’ll just have to make a better future, then.”

     Danner seemed remarkably quick to forgive the Eyrie for his past, at least in the public eye. When the two were alone in the courtyard memorial garden, neither able to sleep, he admitted to Jeran how hard it was to look at the Darigan’s face without feeling rage. How a wrenching tightness formed in his gut whenever he passed by, a temptation to shout something far worse than Jeran ever said.

     Sprawling along the circular cement ledge surrounding an ornate fountain, the blue Wocky crossed his legs and lay upon his hands. Above him, a meshwork of stars twinkled in the sky as a shooting star arced over “The Hunter” constellation.

     “For the good of the next generation,” he said wistfully to the cosmic scene above, “I’ll stuff down my feelings.” He pushed his head into his hands and hummed out loud, no doubt thinking of the friends they had lost during the war. “No matter how justified they are, I’ll stuff them down so that we can move forward—move on.”

     Others felt the same, Jeran knew it all too well, and dared not to say it. All in the name of a peace they knew would take decades to come.

     Jeran tapped the first step heartily with one foot before standing atop it. Despite being partially see-through, the stairs were surprisingly solid. Each one stood a half-meter apart, forcing him to split his stride as he walked higher and higher into the air. He tried to keep his gaze skyward, to keep his mind focused, but the thoughts of him kept creeping in.

     “Good-bye, Jeran.”

     Those were the last two words he thought he’d even hear. Accompanied by the sounds of Kass’ maniacal laughter and the panicked shouts of a handful of Neopians, including Lisha’s friend, Morris… and Setarian. Well, Serian now. But after the Eyrie had leaked their sneak attack plan, nearly costing him and his crew their lives, it was difficult not to call him a traitor. Because he was despite his good attempts to reform, his kindness to their sister, his wiliness to make amends. But that didn’t change the fact that—

     “Ah!”

     So wrapped up in his own thoughts, Jeran hardly noticed the larger gap between the highest four stairs. His heart sank as he clawed the edge of the stair in front of him while his feet dug into the stair behind him. He lay sprawled out over the two stairs fighting hard not to let go, straining to pull himself up. His arms and legs burned. Each heartbeat grew faster, harder. Meanwhile, he promised himself he wouldn’t look down, wouldn’t look down, wouldn’t look—

     Down.

     And what a down it was. Miles. Down. Just like the Citadel.

      Just like that plummeting feeling he was sure would be his last. Or those moments spent apologizing to Lisha that he wouldn’t be home ever again.

     If not for the kind faerie who saved his life, it would have surely been the end. He had passed out from the sheer velocity of the fall, but in his last few seconds of consciousness, he remembered a golden blur in the corner of his eye. Darkness. Then the blinding light of the castle medical ward and Lisha’s crying face burrowed into his stomach—which hurt, but he was happy to see her nonetheless.

     He fought every urge to pass out as he pulled himself up, shouting out in defiance of the pain, of the reminders of darker days and of wars that were long past.

     With his body fully on the stair, he bent back his head against the solid surface and closed his eyes.

     His heart pounded like timpani into his chest as he let out years of pent-up emotion and anger. And he wept.

     Kass is gone. He had to remind himself of this when the usurper tyrant’s face would plague his nightmares. For a while, it was almost daily. These days, he had managed to sleep soundly most of the time, but then the Darigan Lord would never truly leave. Not really. The thought kept his mind from racing even more. He isn’t coming back. He’s gone now. He can never come back…

     “What kind of nightmare is this,” Jeran said it softly, wiping away his tears as his breathing calmed from quick and panicked to tired and slow. “This was tailored to my worst fear…” as he said this, he was hit with a realization, “and Rohane’s been trapped here even longer than I have.” He balled both hands into a fist and pounded them against the ground. There were only a few steps left until he reached the hole in the sky. A sinisterly dark, formless world lay beyond the brightly coloured sky around him, and in this distance, he swore he heard someone wailing. The noise sounded forlorn and terrified, and it made his blood run cold.

     Jeran slowly came up to kneel, his legs wobbling like jelly. After a few deep breaths, he steeled himself and turned his gaze anywhere but down.

     “I’m coming for you, Rohane.”

     To be continued…

 
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