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A Hero's Ballad: The Knightmare


by parody_ham

--------

Chapter 4 – Marcato

     ~X~

     After an hour in front of the fireplace, Jeran felt normal again. The blaze warmed him from head to toe and he eagerly took the time to decompress. A few Neopians stopped to say hello, but did little more than recite a script before turning back to their designated spots at the inn. At least one of the Neopians had seen Niatta, or was it Niacha? Nigoya? Jeran sighed. His memory for new names was known to be terrible. Despite that, he hoped that a seven-year-old blue Korbat in a heavy red sweater and snow pants would be easy enough to spot.

     He approached a blue Kyrii sporting a brown jacket with white fur trim and tan trousers. “Do you have any idea of where”—Jeran hesitated—“the missing child is?”

     The Kyrii nodded. "Well, kids like playing hide-and-seek, so he could really be anywhere... I know he likes hiding in the trees sometimes, but there are so many other places he could be as well. He could have gone to the forests, he could be hiding in someone's house, or the pyramid on the edge of town... I just don't know. But you can’t miss the eyes at the top of the pyramid. Large, round eyes."

     Jeran’s eyebrow quirked at the odd description. “Uhh, thank you for your help.” He cleared his throat. “But since I’m here, can you tell me more about that pyramid?”

     “P-pyramid? There is no pyramid in Terror Mo—” The Kyrii’s features bulged in abject horror. Eyes opened wide, he began to glitch as if caught in a simulation. His neck jerked this way in that as he spoke. “Well—well—well,” they began before a pillar of white light burst from the Kyrii’s spot. Jeran shielded his eyes to no avail. They watered for over a minute as he struggled to see through the dotted haze. He felt around for a chair and leaned against it.

     Just then, another Neopian spoke, one he had never heard before. They orated with an accent much like the cleric of Rohane’s team, Velm.

     “You may have heard from Weehteb already, as I shared my discovery with him and the Princess when I made it... but the Altar of Destiny, upon which the completed Medallion must be placed, is inside..." He shuddered, then looked around, and said in a hushed whisper, "Zakharukh's Pyramid! In the upper reaches of the pyramid, where the ancient pharaoh Anubits was buried, lies the Altar of Destiny. I haven't figured out why they would put it there, in a tome, but I suppose they wanted to be unlikely that anyone would use it."

     “Whuh?” Jeran could make out the form of an elderly green Korbat wearing a golden headdress and decorative golden bangles, an odd sight for the mercilessly cold Terror Mountain. “Princess? Medallion? None of what you said just made sense.”

     “How odd,” he replied with surprising clarity. “I, Phebiya, may be nearly blind, but even I can tell I’m not where I was. You are not the adventurers with whom I spoke before.”

     Jeran mulled over the idea before vocalizing it. “Do you mean Rohane and his friends?”

     The elderly Korbat tapped a finger to his head. “Ah yes, that’s the one. Nice fellow. Very curious crew.”

     Jeran kept his expectations low, but his heart hoped for a miracle. “Do you… know where he is?”

     “Can’t say I do,” and as he shook his head, Jeran felt a wash of disappointment, “but I can see he has a knack for trouble. Something tells me you are here to rescue him.”

     “I am,” Jeran admitted.

     “Then if I am here and should not be, then perhaps the answer you seek lies in what is but should not exist.”

     Jeran paused to think about Phebiya’s words. “You mean the pyramid?”

     The cleric made a knowing smile before vanishing into the aether. In his place, there was a yodelling Mortog in lederhosen playing the accordion. None of the Neopians in the room batted an eye at it.

     Jeran’s mouth hung open. “What on Neopia…?”

     “Fresh frozen fish for sale!” It echoed. “Fresh, frozen fish.”

     “You’d think I’d be more used to this by now…” grumbled Jeran, as he slung the small pack with potions along his back and turned away. Thanks to the dream’s generosity—if you’d call it that—he had gold in his pockets, of which he had since traded for nicer armour, as well as damage, healing, haste, and slowing potions. The old rusty sword he kept equipped at his waist, loaned jacket hung over his armour, and fur-lined boots warmed his toes.

     “Time to head out,” he said to himself as he crossed the room and headed into the bitter cold.

     The difference in temperatures was stark. It was as if someone dropped him from a warm tropical island into a bucket of ice. He instinctively shivered. With better gear, at least, the cold hardly penetrated his fur. Still, it took all of his energy to force himself through the snow. The pyramid was his final goal, but he scoured the forests nearby for the missing child. Along his way, he called out the name of the blue Korbat to no avail. Howling wind swallowed up his words almost instantly.

     “If he’s in another Neopian’s house, this issue should solve itself. But if they’re somehow stranded out in the snow… they would need help.” He pulled in layers tighter to shield against the blustering wind. “I made a promise, after all. That innkeeper saved my life.”

     When his efforts bore no fruit in any of the expected places, so he turned his sights to the pyramid. The journey there took far longer than Jeran anticipated; no matter how far he walked, the pyramid always loomed in the distance. Every time it seemed to grow closer, he would sigh in realization: it was at least a few miles further, perhaps more.

     Upon arrival, he marvelled at the giant structure. It was, no doubt, a monument to a noteworthy Neopian. Stacked sandstone blocks stood over half of Jeran’s height with detailed pictographs of petpets, Neopians, rivers and traded goods. They wrapped around the entirety of the side and acted as a convenient point of reference while Jeran battled the whipping sands that belted his face. When he approached the entrance, he squinted. A dark blob stood motionless in the midst of the raging sand-snow. They were small and winged, and a flash of red sat in the middle of their body.

     “Niacha?” he called.

     “I’m Niacha!” the child said cheerfully, “betcha can’t catch me!” before running inside the pyramid’s entrance with giggling laughter. As they ventured further inside, their giggles echoed, making them sound off in all directions.

     Jeran sprinted through the snow, teeth gritted, to close the distance between him and the child. As he rounded the bend, two large, foreboding Horus statues greeted him. The aquiline petpet dove at its target with fierce eyes pointed downwards; their talons each wrapped around a glowing orb. A deeply carved message lined the top of the entrance, an apparent warning to all who might enter.

     Heart fluttering, he entered the cavernous pyramid. The second he made his way inside, a large stone wall slammed down behind him, the force of which sandblasted the Lupe’s body. He slid back about a foot before opening his eyes to adjust to the near darkness.

     “The usual life-or-death stakes,” he said aloud, shaking his head in frustration. He then spit sand from his mouth. ‘Protagonist syndrome,’ his sister called it, as danger seemed to follow him—Sir Rohane as well, for that matter. “I need a vacation.”

     A clicking sound fired from the wall. Jeran braced for another trap, but was pleasantly surprised to see a wall torch alight. After the first glowed an eerie yellow, a line of other torches followed suit, quickly illuminating the entire cavernous pyramid. Again, the stone was covered in carefully carved ancient messages, all except for a curious one that read “Chet Flash wuz here.” Jeran scoffed at the modern script as he continued forward. With the structure shut off from the blizzard and torches along the walls, the temperature quickly rose to a pleasant lukewarm, prompting Jeran to tie the fur-lined jacket around his waist.

     Giggling echoed throughout the twisting, turning halls of the pyramid. Jeran attempted to follow the sound as monsters appeared, these far less disturbing than the Haunted Woods amalgamation. Ghoulish Scorchios with swords and shields, ghostly Eyrie warrioresses with swords, and lumbering brown, Grundo-faced, fanged monsters all fell at the hands of Jeran’s mysteriously glowing sword. They hissed and gurgled at him angrily, cornering him each time he faced another dead end. Which was often. The entire bottom floor of the pyramid was a cleverly devised maze made to trap and wear down those foolish enough to navigate its corridors. Jeran found himself wishing that he knew ancient runes, if only to have a better idea of what the correct path would be. What he wouldn’t give to have Lisha’s knowledge right now—given her keen interest in ancient languages, she’d undoubtedly be able to translate at least some of the runes.

     Jeran scarcely had time to breathe between fighting off monstrous hordes and scouring the pyramid for a staircase. A few times, he swigged a haste or healing potion to maintain his stamina, but imagined a situation where those reserves would deplete. And soon. Perhaps Velm was right, doing this journey alone was foolish. No wonder Rohane had a team for these challenges. Or that he thought of them like a second family. Without the Heroic Three, there was no way he could’ve accomplished half of what he did and still make it out alive.

     The knight froze as he hit yet another dead end.

     Or was it the same dead end? Had he been here already? That set of canopic jars looked rather familiar… He cursed under his breath as he felt himself growing weary.

     Meanwhile, the child’s laughter continued to haunt the pyramid’s winding halls. “You can’t catch me, na-na-na-na-naaaa-na,” he taunted, and all at once, the voice seemed to project everywhere. It was as if 30 NIachas sang their vocal taunts from all around.

     “Stop this!” he shouted, before snapping a hand to his mouth. When it grew deathly quiet, he whispered, “that was dumb, Jeran,” and lightly tapped his forehead. “But maybe… maybe nothing with happen.” There was a moment of silence before a low growl permeated the room.

     “Skarl’s shorts…” he muttered, as four brown beasts turned the corner, their eyes filled with hatred.

     ~X~

      “It could be dangerous. You sure you wanna go through with this?”

     “I am.”

     “Really, really sure?”

     “I am.”

     “Are you 150%—”

     “Kayla. I think Lisha knows what the risks are.”

     “I know, Serian, but… what if I hurt someone again? I don’t think I could live with myse—”

     “Then you’ll just have to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

     “Y-yeah…”

     The Eyrie had been reading through part of Kayla’s advanced potion brewing collection while Lisha quietly focused on the spell. After skimming about an advanced beautification potion with a high mortality risk, he closed the tome roughly with a frustrated grunt.

     Evidently, there were all kinds of potions known to Neopian-kind, many of which had been either lost to the ages or deemed unviable for the mass market because of their hazards. One in particular, which Kayla vehemently refused to try, ran the chance of irreversibly turning the recipient into a Mortog.

     “And as funny as it would be to have a Mortog in lederhosen playing the accordion—what? You guys are giving me a weird look. It’s the first thing that came to my mind.” She flipped to another page in the book. “Anyway, I really, really don’t want to hurt anyone on account of my work. I’m a potionsmaster to help Neopians, not make their lives worse.”

     “I know, Kayla, which is why I’m trusting you.” Lisha said it through a yawn. “You’re my best friend—I know you only mean well.”

     “Thank you.” The star-clad Zafara hugged a flask tightly. “I won’t betray your trust.” She clenched her fists and took a deep breath. “Okay, Kayla. You can do this. You won’t mess this up.” Pausing she added, as if a mantra, “I won’t mess this up.”

      A small leather-bound tome lay on her desk with a bookmark placed squarely above the potion recipe. Overzealous Energy Elixir, it read. With a flick of her wrist, she systemically opened up three different drawers and picked up a brightly-coloured ingredient from each of them. “Serian, can you grab me a pestle? I’m going to grind this white squid root into a powder.”

     “Got it.”

     “And can you remove the mega power Plusshroom from the glass case?”

     Lisha’s ears perked up. “Isn’t that used in your most expensive potions, Kayla?”

     “Yup. Now grab two of those Serian. We’ll be adding them whole.” The Eyrie gave a thumbs up.

     “Kayla, I can’t possibly ask you to—”

     “Our friends’ lives are worth more to me than any ingredient.” She said it with conviction. “We’re getting them back home and I’m going to help you do it.”

     The Aisha let her wand arm relax. “Okay, Kayla. If you’re sure.”

     “1000%, bestie.” Fiddling in one of the drawers, she removed an old skeleton key. She spun around and unlocked a closet door where she displayed rare and difficult to obtain potionry ingredients in protected cases and containers. She reached onto the second shelf and removed a blue and red negg with a lightning bolt across the front. An odd greenish glow wrapped around the negg like a blanket. “Perfect,” she said, before smashing the negg against her desk; lime green yolk poured out into the flask. It, mixed with the other ingredients and a few powdered secret ingredients, made for a bright, glowing concoction. She gave it a swirl. “This is what is called an ‘overzealous energy elixir.”

     “Oh?” Lisha seemed transfixed by the light green glow. “Sounds promising.”

     Serian leaned on the desk. “It sounds like Kayla on a normal day.”

     “I’ll take it as a compliment.” Kayla gave a toothy grin and winked.

     “Never said there was,” replied Serian playfully, “wouldn’t have you any other way.”

     Kayla corked the bottle, agitated it lightly, and held it out towards Lisha who accepted it in her free hand.

     “Now before you try the potion, Lisha, I must warn you: there’s a reason I don’t sell this one. Well, a few reasons, actually.” Lisha gazed at the bubbling elixir as little sparks jumped from its bubbly surface. “Reason one: it can make recipients rash and overconfident. Like, it can totally alter your worldview.”

     “Like the meatheads of Meridell?” Lisha tried to say it lightheartedly, but there was an underlying wariness in her voice, “because a meathead mage doesn’t sound like a good idea…”

     “You’re not wrong, but…” her voice trailed off.

     “It’s our only option or you would’ve suggested something else, right?”

     “Yeah.” And as she said this, she did another scan of her stock, of the books in front of her, and ingredients in her possession. She then shook her head sadly. “It’s this or my regular strength potions. Risky ones like this, well… they don’t get made that much. Or written about, for that matter.”

     “Because they’re dangerous.”

     “They can be, yes, if used improperly.” She grabbed the book and held it in front of Lisha. Meanwhile, Serian squinted from afar to make out the text. “Which brings me to reason number two. This potion massively amplifies your magical abilities. You’ll feel a rush of energy unlike anything you’ve ever felt before, one that’ll feel like it’ll never disappear…”

     “I feel like there’s a ‘but’ coming…”

     “But,” she smirked from Lisha’s comment, “use too much and you’ll face an energetic crash of the same magnitude.”

     Lisha considered this for a moment. “I could render myself unconscious, then.”

     “Yep. And if you push yourself too hard…” the potion maker removed her hat and held it to her chest. Her voice grew quiet. “You might not wake up. So please, please be careful not to overdo it, even if you feel like you’re unstoppable.”

     A chill rose up the Aisha’s spine. “So, the usual life-or-death stakes then, huh?”

     Serian grimaced before shaking his head slowly. “This feels like déjà vu. Isn’t that exactly what Jeran said?”

     “Yeah,” Lisha laughed, but not in the funny sort of way. “I think it’s our ‘protagonist syndrome.’ Trouble seems to follow us everywhere.”

     “You all really need to stop making a habit of this…” the Eyrie sighed before placing his hand on Lisha’s shoulder. “We’ll be here for you. You’re not alone in this.”

     “I know.” She placed her paw on top of his and smiled. “Thanks, bro. You’re the best.”

     The Eyrie smiled at her comment, but it disappeared as he spoke. “Is there any other option, Kayla? Because watching Lisha put her life on the line makes me feel so helpless.” His voice hardened. “And I hate feeling helpless.” He scrunched his hand, eliciting an ‘ow’ from the Aisha below. “Sorry about the talons, Lisha.”

     “It’s okay.” She ducked down but her shirt pulled up as a few threads snagged. ”Loosen your grip, please.”

     He did as such while a blush rose to his cheeks.

     Kayla paced in front of the desk. “Believe me, I want to look for as many options as possible…” she tapped her chin while humming to herself, “but give me some time; I can think of something better.”

     Serian picked up a book on the desk and opened a random page. “Until we can think of something better.”

     “Until we can think of something better,” Kayla repeated with a grin, clapping mid-way through. “Lisha, don’t worry. We’re going to keep finding solutions. Until then, hold on.”

     “I will.” Lisha took a whiff of the elixir. It had a rich, earthy scent owing to the plusshrooms and power negg. “Well, bottom’s up,” she sang, as she chugged the potion whole.

     ~X~

     Four large, hairy beasts with fiery tails crowded into the narrow hallway as Jeran backed himself towards the wall. Taking four of them at once would be too much of a risk, but trying to evade all four of them seemed even less feasible. The second he left a blind spot open they would exploit it. And four pairs of petpet-sized fists could deal a critical blow, even to a knight as experienced as he. Jeran eyed the canopic jars—perhaps they could work as makeshift projectiles. Or even the damage potions in his pack, but even those would only go so far against four hulking beasts…

     I can’t die here, he found himself thinking. There has to be some way out of this mess.

     The Lupe bit his lip. Maybe he could escape with a distraction.

      Reaching into his pack, he removed two glass flasks with intricate snowflake designs on their labels followed by the words: Chill Potion. What he wouldn’t give for Mipsy’s “Obliterate” or Talinia’s perfect aim right now…

     Just as he lobbed the potions towards the leading beast, he sprinted forward and slid into a dive. The potions exploded on impact, causing the beast to roar and flail its fists wildly. Chunks of the narrow ceiling narrowly missed Jeran’s head while he dodged a charging kick from another rampaging monster. He winched as the rough ground skinned his knees, but quickly sprung himself up. By this point, the group of four monsters had turned around while Jeran had scarcely cleared them; both of his legs were visibly red from the manoeuvre.

     Gritting his teeth, he stumbled forward and broke into a run.

     Just there, he heard the voice of a young woman. “Follow me if you want to live!” Jeran rubbed his ears, convinced that he had imagined it. “I can help you, please come this way!”

     Jeran’s eyes widened. “Where are you?”

     “This way! At the base of the stairs.”

     Without a second thought, he charged towards the voice, hoping that somehow, someway this would be a lucky break—a safe haven from an otherwise hopeless affair. Meanwhile, the giggles of the child echoed in his mind from all parts of the temple.

     He reached a fork in the paths and did a double-take. Both paths looked nearly identical.

     “Right! Go right!”

     In the second he took to debate this a fist came flying from his left. Despite his attempt to dodge, the blow landed square in his jaw, sending him flying ten feet into the air. He landed on his back with a crunching thud. A piercing pain shot up his chest as he wheezed.

     “Rrgh,” he grunted as he forced himself up; tears lined his eyes. He had been in enough battles to know that lying prone would make him an even easier target. Drawing his blade, he waited for the nearby creature to attack. Before its blow could land, Jeran swept his blade forward, cutting into the monster’s thick hide. A bright flash erupted from the blade, causing the creature to explode into a ball of light and disappear. This was enough to stun the other three, at least long enough for Jeran to hobble towards another hall.

     “Head right,” the voice resonated around the hallways, “then travel to the hall’s end; I’ll be by the stairs.”

     He did as the voice said. Lo and behold, a staircase existed at the far end of a wide burial chamber. And standing near the base of the stairs was a red Uni with golden trousers, a striped tank top, and green shawl. She seemed remarkably calm at Jeran’s approach.

     “Hello Jeran.” Before he could question her, she shushed him with her hoof. “I’m Lifira, a magical conjuration of this dream world.”

     Jeran maintained calm despite a twinge of annoyance. “Dream world? Then you—”

     “Yes. I know why you’re here and what you’re after, but there’s another challenge ahead before you face Rohane.”

     “Face him?” Jeran’s face twisted in confusion. “Like fight him? Because—”

     “No, no. You’ll see in time.” The Uni scanned up and down his body and frowned. “But first, let me heal you.” She placed a hoof on his forehead before he could bend away. “Renew.”

     Within moments, Jeran’s bruised rib popped back into place, causing him to shudder. Pounding pain circulated through his chest while the strained muscles knit together. As soon as the spell wore off, he felt fine.

     “Amazing…” he mused as he rubbed his jaw and side. All of the soreness had vanished.

     “I am,” the Uni said with a confident grin. When a ghastly Scorchio approached, she fired a beam of magic and sent the spectre flying. “Now, let’s go.”

     Jeran whistled with admiration before motioning his hands forward. “Lead the way.”

      To be continued…

 
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