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A Hero's Ballad: The Knightmare


by parody_ham

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Chapter 6 – Lacrimoso

     ~X~

     Upon entering into the dark hole in the sky, Jeran was instantly hit with the overwhelming, echoing cries of a child. The wails bounced off black walls in a large, spacious room. In the distance, a bright, shimmering light hit a single spot, illuminating it. From beyond the spotlight, there was a wooded platform. Dim light spilt upon a pully system that might lift or lower a heavy black curtain.

     Jeran tilted his head in confusion. A stage? Why would Rohane be dreaming about a stage?

     It was known that the knight had a strong aversion to any sort of performing arts. When asked to sing carols in the streets, he tensed up.

     “Not a chance,” Jeran recalled him saying. When asked why, he would shrug. “Not my thing.”

     He would avoid the topic beyond to say that his former travelling companion, Velm, was an excellent bard and had a talent for the lute. At least then he would have a sad, almost nostalgic smile on his face while he’d recount their journey together. Apparently, the charismatic Techo had spent many nights entertaining them in the Haunted Woods and Faerieland, and was well-known throughout those realms as a world-class entertainer. There were even life-sized statues built in his honour across Faerieland after Terask had been defeated. “The Master Bard,” they called him, and the name adorned golden placards in highly visible places. One particularly enthusiastic innkeeper apparently insisted on framing the Techo’s signature and hanging it over the inn door for good luck. Stating this never failed to bring the Blumaroo a fading smile.

      “I miss that dork,” Rohane would say, suddenly sullen over his plate of dining hall meatloaf. He would poke the chunk of meat with a fork for the fifth time without taking a bite. “I miss all three of them like family.”

     Once, Jeran recalled, Rohane duelled him for a most peculiar prize. If he won, he would not be forced to sing a festival’s ceremonial song. None of the knights could wrap their heads around Rohane’s request. Danner suggested it was Rohane’s sensitive ears—the Blumaroo could hear a Buzzer two fields away with ease, or so the rumours. Even the highest mosquito buzz he picked up in an instant. But when asked, Rohane merely said, “no particular reason. Just don’t want to.”

     Needless to say, the festival sing-along… didn’t sound great. No one in the Order was a musician. A few of the nobles were forced to learn an instrument growing up as part of their “higher standard,” but most of the crew could barely carry a tune. It was just one of those things they were expected to do to show “community spirit.” That and it was a good excuse for King Skarl to throw a large, lavish banquet. And the King loved any opportunity to host a large meal.

     Rohane won the duel. It had been a close match, but Jeran had been caught off-guard by the Blumaroo’s sterling resolve. Jeran still hated how soundly the Blumaroo had disarmed him—in front of a crowd, no less. And all over something as tame as music. As the Blumaroo walked away, he looked relieved. Not smug or arrogant, but relieved as if a weight had been lifted off of his chest. Jeran could never quite understand it.

     Covering one hand over his ears—as the crying was starting to give him a splitting headache—he crept forward with caution. His hand rest on the sword’s hilt, ready to draw. After what happened with Scuzzy, he was not about to take any chances.

     Dim light began to illuminate the room’s features, and the distant shapes of the audience took form.

     They were all monsters.

     None of them moved from their seats. Their glassy-eyed stares looked into the distance, focusing on nothing and no one. A chill rose from Jeran’s spine. If he had to fight even a fraction of these creatures solo, it would be overwhelming. There were hundreds of them. All the more reason to not draw attention to himself.

     Then again, there was a child sobbing, and none of these creatures seemed to have noticed.

     Backstage seemed to drag on for miles. Fragments of different worlds, like a piece of Meridellian farmstead or a chunk of desert, peppered the otherwise dark wall. Upon approaching the spotlight, Jeran noticed a shaking, huddling form. They had ceased their squalling, perhaps from wearing themselves to the point of exhaustion. As bad as it made him feel to think it, he was thankful for the moment of quiet.

     He studied the creature with caution. A blanket wrapped around their body like a tunic; even then, they still quaked like a leaf in the wind. Perhaps they were cold? But no, that wasn’t it. The room felt pleasant, almost comfortable, compared to the frigid conditions in Terror Mountain. The fact that Jeran could not see their eyes made him uneasy. Who knew what or who from their childhood could be beneath the shadows? Jeran turned his head this way and that to get a better look, but they held their head between their knees. Long ears came up in stalks from the figure and flopped down towards the middle. And from behind their blanket tunic, there was a long, thick tail that lay flat across the ground.

     A Blumaroo. They were a Blumaroo.

     But there was no way that could be Rohane. Sure, the muscular, stockily built Blumaroo wasn’t very tall, in fact he barely came up to Jeran’s chin, but this was someone far smaller—far younger than Rohane could be in his early 30’s. Well, that and the fact that their wails sounded high and juvenile, not at all like Rohane’s mid-Baritone.

     Before Jeran could say anything, the Blumaroo’s ears shot up like exclamation points. They whipped their tear-stained face towards Jeran and froze in fear.

     “Hello,” Jeran said uncertainly, holding his weaponless hands in front of his body. “Don’t be afraid. I’m a friend.”

     At first, they slid back, easily gliding on the smooth, wooden floor, but then they stopped when Jeran said something. They turned their head quizzically as if trying to place his features.

     Seeing that the child had paused, Jeran continued. “Who are you? Why are you here?”

     They turned their mouth into a deep-seated frown. No longer were they moving, but studying him as if Jeran’s very presence was somehow out of place. Something unnatural in this inexplicable world of nightmares.

     “Can you…” the Lupe hesitated, “understand me?”

     The Blumaroo pondered these words before finally responding in a high, boyish voice. “Jer… an?” The Lupe’s name was said so slowly that it sounded like someone sounding out a foreign word, but then he said it a second time, more confidently. “Jeran?” he hesitated, “is that you?”

     The Lupe gasped at the sound of his name coming from the child’s lips. “Yes,” he placed a hand on his heart, “my name is Jeran. Do you know who I am? Where Rohane is?”

     “Jeran… I know you.” He paused again, letting the question soak in. He had since unwrapped his arms from his legs, showing his short-white fur and pink-padded feet. He was wearing a simple green tunic and a wooden short sword was laying across his lap. “You’re my father’s squire. Do you know where he is?” He began to sniffle again. “I really, really miss him and… and I don’t know why. It’s making me really sad.”

     Jeran’s mouth flung open as his eyes widened to this size of saucers. Sir Reynold, the knight he had squired for, had two sons, the first of whom he already met in dream Trestin. The second of whom was…

     “Rohane.” The Blumaroo child said it quietly, tears lining their exhausted eyes. “That’s my name.”

     ~X~

     For a moment, nobody moved. Everyone stood as if frozen in place.

     It was Danner who acted first while Kayla remained slack-jawed in shocked silence. His eyes scanned the Darigan Eyrie for any obvious injuries. When nothing seemed serious, he bent down and lightly shook him.

     “Hey. Hey, you okay?” When the Eyrie didn’t respond, he placed his ear to his chest and felt the air slowly rise and fall from his lungs. “Out cold. But otherwise, he’s alright. Breathing, at least.”

     Kayla’s fingers grew weak as the handle slipped from her grasp, spilling ingredients to the floor. Luckily, none of them splattered from the force of the fall, but a few were bruised and one glass vial cracked. The sound of clattering goodies shocked Kayla back into reality.

     “Oh no, oh no,” she whispered, before corralling the various fruits, spices, and flasks of liquids back in the basket. She dared not look at Lisha, who had yet to make another sound since they opened the door. Her long ear stalks nearly touched the ground as she held her head low.

     “Help me prop him up, Kayla,” started Danner, who eyed Lisha wearily while they pushed him into a sitting position. “We’ll have to lift him up later; he’s surprisingly heavy. I guess they make them muscular in the Citadel.” He let out a chuckled wheeze as he pushed him forward. With Kayla grabbing his ruff, they pulled him against a shelving unit. The Darigan stirred slightly, grunting as he was tugged back, but visibly relaxed against the wall. Kayla grabbed a few pillows from the couch where Rohane slept and placed them all around the passed-out Darigan.

     In the background, they heard a low yell. It was coming from Jeran.

     Lisha’s ear stalks shot up as her lower ears twitched. Wordlessly, she spun around and crawled alongside her brother. She squeezed his hand as he drew his breath quickly, clearly panicked. His entire body strained as is pushing against some incredible weight before melting back into the seats. From where the Aisha knelt, she could see tears lining his eyes. Before the others could see, she gently brushed his face and eyes with a quaking hand. Preoccupied in her fretting, she hardly noticed a burly shadow looming above her.

     Danner threw another blanket atop the shaking Lupe. It drifted gently along his body, adding yet another layer to his pile. “Hope this helps. I wasn’t sure what else I could do,” said the Wocky, clearly frustrated. “Lisha, we need to talk. Kayla told me everything.”

     Lisha scrunched up the fabric of her knee-length skirt. Despite everything, the spell had not broken. Weakened, flickered, but not broken. A light green glow still emanated from her face and eyes, making Lisha appear almost ethereal. But between the gauntness of her frame and the ashen hue of her complexion, the Aisha looked sickly and frail. Still, she held on.

     “Okay,” she intoned in a voice both tired and sad.

     The Wocky offered a hand, which she quietly declined.

     “What happened?” he asked carefully. With a gentle hand, he moved the assortment pillows to better support Jeran’s arms and legs. “This will help with some of his stiffness at least…” he said airily before he returned to Kayla’s side and guided her to a chair. She sat shakily, the basket quaking in her grasp.

     “I… I thought I could do everything. And when Serian thought I had gone too far…” immediately upon saying this, Donner’s face darkened. His hand slid towards his sword. “He tried to get help. To warn Kayla.” The vice-captain cast a glance at the Eyrie and made a bright-sounding “huh,” as if pleasantly surprised.

     “It’s my fault.” Kayla bit at her finger while Danner grimaced awkwardly. “I should never have given you such a strong hpo—”

     “No, Kayla. It’s mine.”

     “You were just—”

     “Trying to pull a heroic stunt… and turning it into a very not heroic stunt.” She laid her head against the couch and felt the rising of Jeran’s chest. He had since calmed down, but his features still appeared distressed. “I really messed up.”

     Kayla let out a low whine. “Don’t say that, Lisha. I shouldn’t have placed all this burden on you. I made a dangerous potion… and you paid the price.”

     “No.” She shook her head. “No, that’s not it at all. Kayla, it was the best option we had. I let it control me, let it cloud my judgement.” Lisha turned to meet Kayla’s sorrowful gaze with tears in her eyes. “Serian was right, power really is dangerous.” Her voice grew soft. “I’m so sorry, bro. Some little sister I am.” She kneaded the couch’s fabric in her hand before gripping it tightly. “What can I do to make up for this?”

     “And how can I help?” interrupted Danner, who had begun pacing the room. “Because all this standing around is making me anxious.”

      “We’re going to brew an energy share potion…” Kayla dug her hands into the basket and began stacking ingredients by type. “Serian had the right idea. We’ll burden this spell… together.”

     ~X~

     Even in the low light, Jeran couldn’t help but notice the chilling resemblance to the under-foot child who would beg for sword lessons the times when Jeran would come by to visit Sir Reynold’s family. A thousand questions swam through Jeran’s head, like if he was just another manifestation of the Blumaroo’s nightmares, or how he was in this state, or why he was crying, or how he knew who he was if he was or…

     “You’re Rohane!?” As soon as he said it, he dragged his hand across his face. Real smooth, Jeran, he berated himself. He’s going to think you’re crazy.

     A few moments passed where the child stared at him like he had two heads.

     “Yes?” Rohane replied with a tilt of his head, before stumbling up to his feet. He busied his thumbs as he approached the Lupe who stood almost twice his height. Rather than look Jeran in the eyes, Rohane chose to stare at the Lupe’s fluffy tail. Jeran took a step back instinctively, causing the child to pout.

     It was difficult to take, seeing what could very well be his comrade-in-arms as a child of perhaps 8, standing a few feet away. When Rohane reached his arm out to tug Jeran’s tunic, Jeran was left speechless. Rohane would do this all the time when they were children, to the point where it got annoying.

      Perhaps this really was him—the mannerisms were all the same. But no, no, how could this even happen? It was a dream and all, but then wouldn’t he be more—

     “Hey, Jeran?” asked Rohane, only now giving the Lupe eye contact. “Can I ask you something?”

     ‘Can I ask you something?’ was often the way they’d start their conversations as youth, when Rohane was a painfully shy, introverted child, but would open up with a question. Or an offer to spar, as the child often daydreamed of being a knight just like his father.

     “Y-yeah?”

     It was still weird. He said it just then, like a trip down his ingrained memories.

     “Are you…” Rohane kicked at the ground beneath his feet, causing the polished wood to squeak. “Are you afraid of anything?”

     The Lupe glowered at the question; his suspicions immediately arose. What if this was part of a ruse? Part of something the dream would use to further torture him? He hardened his voice and crossed his arms.

     “No,” he answered it simply. “Nothing scares me.”

     “Nothing? Wow. You really are strong like father. Nothing scares him, either.”

     Rohane looked up at him in awe, sparkles in his eyes. Jeran couldn’t help but feel very uncomfortable at this development. It wasn’t like stoic Blumaroo to idolize him for anything. Rather, the two of them would often butt heads over who was making the right judgement call. Given that Rohane was the captain of his merry band of adventurers, he wasn’t used to taking anyone else’s orders. Even when Rohane had good feedback, it still grated on Jeran’s nerves. He found himself purposely disagreeing for the sake of being petty, much to Danner’s and Rohane’s displeasure.

     Jeran opened his mouth to disagree with the Blumaroo’s statement, but thought better of it. As hard as it would be to explain to a child, Sir Reynold was not always fearless. He was a Neopian with all of the emotions, doubts, and insecurities that came with being alive. Part of the burden of being a knight’s squire was to listen when they were down. To provide counsel and guidance when they asked. To hear about their life’s ups and downs. Their victories, their regrets… and their fears. One of Sir Reynold’s biggest fears was that he wasn’t a good father. He would say that to Jeran when they would spend weeks at a time in Meridell. How guilty he felt for not visiting more, for not doing more for them. How terrible he felt the day he was unable to visit for his eldest son’s 13th birthday or his wedding anniversary. All of these came up in frequent conversation and it weighed heavily on Jeran’s heart.

     When Sir Reynold would treat Jeran to a meal after a long day’s work, he would often find his liege looking forlorn and distant. If Jeran brought it up, he’d give Jeran a playful clap on the back, cover his sadness with the mask of a broad grin and say, “don’t worry about it, kiddo. I’m doing just fine.” Meanwhile, his dinner plate would be left half-touched and four large tankards of soda would be stacked precariously at the edge of the table as he called for another.

      Sometimes Sir Reynold would give spirited performances at the local taverns. The second they’d walk through the door, three cheers of “huzzah” would ring out throughout the room. The middle-aged knight was well known throughout the realm for his battle prowess, but also for his smooth baritone voice. The soldiers spoke fondly of his talents during the early days of the Meridell Wars. They said his voice could teleport them from their tightly packed, poorly resourced and war-wary camps to someplace merry and peaceful. And Jeran knew all too well how important those little pieces of home could be when you were huddling in close quarters hours before sunrise, too anxious to sleep.

     It always seemed a shame that neither of his sons had an interest or gift for music, that’s what his tavern friends had often said. Rohane still received a barrage of requests when he’d be recognized as Sir Reynold’s son—especially at local eateries—but much to their disappointment, he wouldn’t sing a note.

     “You don’t want to hear me sing,” he’d say with a nervous chuckle, before ordering a plate of fried marrow strips and stuffing his face.

     He really enjoys those things, Jeran thought with a chuckle, it’s practically all he orders, before recalling that the hazy specter from the smoke-filled Haunted Woods tent echoed the same. The image of them made a chill rise through his spine. Had they been a manifestation of Rohane’s darker thoughts? He had never figured it out while they were coloured the exact opposite of the white-furred Blumaroo.

     Jeran sighed lightly. But this may or may not be Rohane. This was, after all, a dream, and they had a fair share of overlapping childhood memories. But chances were this crying child could help him find a way out of this room, and that was priority.

      “How am I not afraid? I’m just brave, is all.” Jeran said it with a non-committal shrug. “How about you, Ro…” Jeran paused as their eyes locked. The child listened with rapt attention, bending closer to latch on to every word. “…hane.” His throat felt dry after saying his colleague’s name. “Are you afraid of anything?”

     Rohane’s face fell as his long, springy ears lowered. “Yeah…” tears lined his eyes as he said it. “I’m afraid of singing.” As soon as he said it, he started to cry. “It’s dumb, I don’t know why I get so scared. My big brother said I sound like a wet Meowclops, maybe he’s right. Maybe dad was wrong when he said I was good. Maybe I… maybe I…”

     Jeran’s blood went cold. It was just like the nightmare versions of his companions said, when they pointed at a pillory of the stoic Blumaroo in vicious mockery. But could someone as strong as Rohane really be terrified of singing? It just didn’t make sense.

     “Like a wet Meowclops?”

     “Yes.”

     The child began to bawl and buried his face into Jeran’s bushy tail, hugging it like an oversized stuffed toy. Snot ran from his nose and covered Jeran’s fur as he burrowed in, causing him to involuntarily gag. When he tried to pull his tail away, the child only held it tighter, and tugged it so hard the knight nearly toppled. Jeran grunted in pain from the vice grip.

     “For what it’s worth,” Jeran muttered under his breath, “I’m really starting to hope you aren’t him. Because I swear to Skarl, if you are… if you are…” he let out an exasperated sigh as he tried once more to free himself, “I doubt either of us will be able to live this down.”

     “I’m sorry I’m so scared…” whimpered the child as he began to shake. “I’m sorry… I’m really sorry…”

     It would’ve been easy enough just to comfort him, to use placating niceties in the hopes of quelling him, but instead he chose to drop to one knee. Now on eye level with one another, Rohane grew increasingly shy and looked everywhere but Jeran’s face.

     “Can I tell you something, Rohane?” he started, “after you let go of my tail?” Rohane did as such, and found a seat on Jeran’s raised knee. Instead of chiding him, Jeran lowered his shoulders in resignment and continued. “When I told you that I wasn’t scared of anything… that was a lie.”

     A gasp arose from a foot from Jeran ears as he let off a huff, then jumped off the Lupe’s knee. “You lied?” a look of hurt flashed across Rohane’s face. “Squires shouldn’t lie.”

     Jeran took a long look at the child before his voice softened. “You’re right. I’m sorry about that.” He lowered himself to a seated position and tapped the ground to invite Rohane over. It was hard to ignore the twinge in his stiff legs as they popped angrily in protest. Even in a dream, there was no way to avoid the aftermath of the Second War.

     The child turned away; a mischievous grin was written on his face. “I dunno. Do I want to sit next to a liar squire?” His childish voice jumped an octave on the last two words.

     “Really, Rohane?” Jeran rolled his eyes. “Liar squire? Is that the best you got?”

     “Uh huh. That’s what you are… liar squire.” He tried not to laugh, but strained giggles escaped from his mouth through cupped hands. “Jeran the liar squire.”

     “Oh yeah? Then you…” Jeran rested his hand on his fist and smirked, “are a meathead.”

     Again, there was something oddly empowering about using the term towards someone other than himself—even if a few Neopians had the gall to call the two of them the “Meatheads of Meridell.”

     “Nuh-uh.” Jumping back, Rohane landed on his springy tail and jumped 10 feet into the air; Jeran whistled in genuine amazement as he continued a jumping volley for well over a minute. “Could a… meathead… do… this?” He did a flip. “Or this?” He spun in a circle mid-air.

     Chuckling under his breath, Jeran responded with a polite clap. The child wiggled with excitement, eager to impress.

      “No. No, a meathead could not.” He stood up and gave a wave towards the stage. He was wasting enough time as it was. “Now, come on, kiddo—”

     Jeran bit back the word as soon as he said it. Sir Reynold spoke the very same way to him when he was young—heck, even after he was knighted, Sir Reynold referred to him more so as “kiddo” than his actual name, despite being 18 years old. The thought made him feel sad, reminiscent of the days that they spent training together before he was… before he had…

     “Are you crying… liar squire?” Rohane said it with concern as he slowed his bouncing to a little hop. He came within mere inches of Jeran’s face with a few of his hops.

     “A little,” Jeran admitted while bending away from this breach of his personal bubble, “but I’m… I’m okay. They’re happy tears.” He rubbed his eyes tiredly, feeling the weight of the bags under them. Before Rohane could question him, he pushed the point. “But here: let me tell you what I’m afraid of.”

     Rohane immediately slid to the ground and settled in right next to him, babbling excitedly. “Is it Spyders? I bet it’s Spyders—Reuben hates those. Raining Mortogs? Flying Snorkle? Evil tomatoes? How about—”

     “It’s failing the knights who depend on me.”

     “Oh.” Rohane quieted down and stared at his feet, which had since crisscrossed over one another like a pretzel. “The knights who depend on you, huh?”

     “Yeah,” he said it airily. “When you’re a leader, you have the weight of every Neopian in your charge on your shoulders. Their dreams, their hopes…” as he spoke, his snot-covered tail wrapped under his legs, “their very lives.” He paused when he realized the child’s action had left a trail of goo along the floor. He frowned deeply, increasingly annoyed at how realistically disgusting this all was. “So, when you make a mistake, when your actions cause someone else to get hurt, it’s hard—really hard—to feel like you can lead again. There are…” his heart sank lower as he said it, “a few Neopians who are no longer around because of the decisions I made.” His voice shuddered. “And I live with that reality every day.”

     “I’m sorry,” Rohane replied before shimmying over a few feet and resting his head against the knight’s waist. The Blumaroo closed his eyes. He took a deep breath. “It’s not easy to lose a friend.”

     Jeran tensed up immediately, his heart fluttering with panic. They were comrades-in-arms, after all, with Jeran being his superior officer. To have him in this close felt wrong, especially with how private of a Neopian Rohane usually was. They were colleagues, not brothers, not travelling companions like with Velm, Mipsy, and Talinia. It was almost striking how much more open Rohane seemed this young—well, if a dream could be a barometer for his actual personality. Had his father’s early death been the catalyst to shut off his emotions so completely? His friends had admitted that he was often calm to the point of being icy and distant—that is, unless it was just them together—and even then, he didn’t really thaw until they had known each other well.

     “I-it’s alright.” The Lupe scooched back and rose to his feet in a rush, causing the Blumaroo’s head to dip before he let out a little ‘awwww.’ “It’s all how we move on from it that matters. We live, we learn, we do better.” He took a long look at Reynold’s sword as his heart sank. “That’s just life.”

     “Well…” the Blumaroo peddled his feet, his voice quiet and thoughtful. “I think you’re learning. You’re doing a good job.”

     “Thanks, ki—Rohane,” he corrected himself, clicking his tongue between the words, “I just want to live up to the example I was taught, is all.”

     “I understand.” Springing to his feet, Rohane opened his mouth to speak. A flash of realization passed over his face. “It’s just like what my dad when he heard me sing… I was scared that he was wrong when he said he liked it my voice. Maybe you’re scared because you want to make my dad proud… just like me.”

     Jeran winced at the thought. “You’re probably right.” Before Rohane could see, he brushed a paw over his eyes. I wonder what he’d think seeing them together like this. The thought crossed Jeran’s mind. Not in the dream world, but as Captain of the Order and “Hero of Five Lands.” It was a rare day when either of them could go anywhere without being recognized for their acts of bravery and heroism. Surely, his mentor would have been happy to see them both succeeding and living honest lives. After imagining Sir Reynold’s stern but approving face, he smiled sadly. There was nothing he wanted more than for the ageing yellow Blumaroo to tussle his fur and say, ‘you did good, kiddo.’ “I’m sure he’d be proud of us both, Ro—”

     Before the Lupe could stop him, Rohane threw both arms around Jeran’s torso and hugged him tightly. Jeran let out a wheezed gasp. For someone so small, Rohane had quite the vice grip. “I’m so glad. I’m so glad I’m not alone.”

     A crimson blush covered Jeran’s face and rose to the tips of his ears. So lost was he for words that he stammered an assortment of sounds, none of which made for a compelling sentence. He attempted to lay a hand around the child’s shoulder to give a supportive pat, like his mentor might’ve, but was stopped by a wall of magic.

     A swirl of golden light surrounded Rohane, blinding the Lupe momentarily. Between the glistening specks, the first thing he could make out were two long ears standing straight up in front of his face like exclamation points. And far larger arms wrapped around his waist. Within a few seconds, the Blumaroo’s ears were bright red. Before Jeran could react, a forceful shove knocked him over while Rohane was flung in the opposite direction. Both Neopians exclaimed a garbled cacophony of sounds as they skid along the ground. Jeran especially felt a loud pop from his left shoulder as it hit the hard floor. He bit through the pain as he squeaked to a rough stop.

     Rohane, now his normal, adult size, covered a hand across his face and squeezed his eyes shut. He looked as if ready to bounce away into the darkened abyss. The embarrassment was so palpable that it felt like an aura, radiating in every direction.

     Neither Neopian looked at each other, but instead at the floor, the wall, the dark, star-covered ceiling, and the distant, foreboding spotlight on the stage. Rohane took a long gaze at the spotlight before returning to his pit of self-wallowing.

     In a voice uncharacteristically emotional for the normally stoic Blumaroo, he said, between burrowing his face in his hands and curling into a ball, “I can’t believe that just happened. I’m mortified—mortified. I’ve never been more embarrassed in my life. Reuben would never let me live this down.” He then flopped on the ground like a fish at the market. “This is the end. I have ceased to be.”

     Jeran raised a hand to say something, but no words came. Only a prolonged low grumble and a face so crimson that it would give a tomato a run for their money.

     Rohane, who was dressed in simple green tunic and brown trousers, sighed dejectedly from his flattened state. “Any chance you're just another one of the specters from this never-ending nightmare?”

     A few seconds of silence passed, and with two words, Rohane’s flicker of hope extinguished. “Afraid not.” Before Rohane could ask, he added, “Lisha found a spell to send me into your dream, so like or it not, it’s the real me.”

     Rohane face planted, squishing his nose against the wooden floor. “Fantastic,” he said in a nasal voice. “Just leave me here to expire, then.”

     “No can do,” said Jeran, who had thoughts of dragging his subordinate by the arms or legs, if need be. He briefly pondered all the ways that he could force him to join but quickly thought better of it. He needed Rohane’s willing participation if escape was going to be possible. “We’re leaving together.”

     “Oh yeah?” Rohane rested his chin on the ground, his long snout laying out in front. “And how do propose we do that?” there was a bite of sarcasm in his voice as he waved his arms up and down in mockery, “fly out?”

     “No idea—probably not flying, though.” His eyes narrowed as he bit back his anger. “I really thought you’d know something—this is your nightmare, after all.”

     “I don’t.”

     Jeran crossed his arms. “Great lot of help you are.”

     “I mean,” Rohane’s voice was even, “having my adult memories locked away in the dark recesses of my mind while I sobbed for my dead father probably didn’t help.”

     Jeran sucked in his breath, then immediately berated himself for losing his temper. “Right. I… I’m sorry, Rohane. This hasn’t been a fun ordeal for you, has it?”

     “You try playing your worst fears, weaknesses, and shortcomings on loop and see what it does to your mental state.” Using his fist, he forced himself to his knees. “It’s exhausting.”

     “Believe me,” Jeran tried to chuckle, but it came out forced and unnatural, “I understand.” He grunted loudly as he knelt on one knee. A loud pop sprung from the muscles, causing him to wince. Evidently, the dream stage wasn’t a soft landing.

     Rohane echoed the Lupe’s actions, closing one eye as he saw his companion struggle. “You’re hurt,” he said as he rose shakily to his feet, “let me help you up.” A wash of dizziness fell over him as he stumbled forward—dehydration, he realized glumly. After steadying his steps, he held out both arms and waited until the world stopped spinning.

     With finesse, Jeran dug into the pack on his back, one that had somehow managed freezing cold, blasting sand, and magical energy. A swift swipe of his hand and he uncorked an aquamarine potion and chugged the contents whole. After a contented burp, he replied, “I’m just peachy. And yourself?”

     “I’m fi—”

     “No, you’re not. Take the potion, Rohane.” Jeran tossed a vial underhand in what would normally be an easy catch. The Blumaroo blinked at the object as it hurtled towards his face and caught it awkwardly, hand-over-hand, centimetres from his snout. In the process of catching the potion, it had nearly bounced out of his hand and onto the floor.

     “Could have warned me,” growled Rohane, tightening his grip on the flask. When the Lupe merely shrugged, Rohane uncorked the bottle and took careful gulps of the potion, rolling his eyes as he did. “And you’re still favouring your left leg.”

     “Less worrying about me, more figuring out how to get out of here.” After wiping the potion juice from his moustache, the Lupe gave a dismissive wave, but retracted it when his knee throbbed again. He reached down towards the knee and massaged it, hoping that might calm down the spasms. He forced a smile through an otherwise scrunched face, making him look like he had walked into the castle sewers and smelled a dung monster.

     “You’re not okay.”

     “Yes, I am.”

     The Blumaroo gave an annoyed huff. “Fine.” Meathead, he added mentally. “But isn’t this my dream? What kind of nightmares would you have here: being called a meathead? Losing handily in a duel against yours truly?” He bounced his brows once as he said it the last line. “Because that sounds like a pretty great dream to me.”

     Jeran scoffed. “You’re the meathead. And that win was a fluke.”

     “No, I’m not.” His short fur bristled. “And I remember it differently.”

     “You would.” Jeran’s sword hand twitched. “We’ll have to settle this when we’re both out of here.”

     “Fine by me. I don’t mind winning again.”

     “In your dreams.” Jeran’s overconfident demeanour melted when took a deep breath and massaged his head; deep creases formed across his forehead. “But no. It wasn’t that, Rohane. It was something far, far worse.”

     Noticing the change in his demeanour, the Blumaroo took a step forward, concern written on his face. “Was it my fa—”

     “It was Lord Kass.”

     “Oh.” Rohane stopped in his tracks. His ears drooped as he scratched awkwardly at his chin. “I heard about him from the others; he seemed like a…” he swallowed hard and took a sharp breath, “like a Terask-level threat, to be sure.”

     “At least—probably more.”

     “Probably more?” Rohane shook his head tiredly. “There’s not much worse than him, Jeran.”

      Terask, also known as the Tyrant King, had dethroned Queen Fyora and trapped her in stasis. Meanwhile, he unleashed all manner of chaos upon Faerieland with corrupted faeries, android Cybunnies, and a legion of other nasties. The Draik’s malice and near-takeover of the Faerie kingdom landed him on the world’s most wanted criminals list. Rohane and his crew managed to neutralize him, but not without suffering some serious, near-death injuries on their end—the swordsman worst of all. Being a melee hitter put him in striking range for most of the battle when he wasn’t finding cover or being healed by Velm. That, at least, was what Jeran was able to glean from the bard’s concerned musings.

     “But there are some wounds even magic can’t heal,” the ornately robed Techo said pensively as he set his helmet aside atop the mess hall table. He then reached for the lute that he always travelled with, as if on a reflex. Giving it a good strum, he continued, his eyes fixed on the intricate network of strings on the instrument’s body. ‘Some wounds go far deeper than anything I can mend.”

     Since then, Talinia travelled back to Terror Mountain and Velm and Mipsy to Mystery Island; none of them had yet to return. Perhaps for the best; all three heroes would have absolutely lost their gourds over the situation at hand.

     But at least, despite everything, Rohane was safe. All they had to do now was escape.

     ~X~

     It was a warm spring morning filled with the soothing sounds of birdsong. Both of the knights were readying their practice swords for a sparring match. Just after Rohane was knighted, their matches would draw large crowds eager for free, high-quality entertainment. One particularly brazen shopkeeper sold snacks in the stands, earning him the nickname “Spar Man.” His boisterous voice resonated in the courtyard like a gong. “Get your peanuts here, hot and fresh!” “Marrow strips for sale! Endorsed by the Chet Flash!” “Fried potatoes! Delicious, Brightvalian-style fried potatoes for sale!”

     But once it became obvious that the so-called “Meatheads of Meridell” would be making this a near-daily ritual, the demand fell to only the most die-hard fans and bored members of the court. Even the food vendor stopped his raucous clamouring.

     That day, thankfully, nary a soul gathered to watch their blades dance. Perhaps it was for the best. Rohane looked awful with deep bags under his eggs, a half-shaven face, and a stumble in his step.

     “I’m fine,” he asserted, but it was plain to see: he was not fine. Despite that, Jeran knew better than to talk the Blumaroo out of sparring. Once his mind was set on something, Rohane mulishly insisted on following through, even to the point of personal detriment.

     At first, Jeran blocked and parried all of the Blumaroo’s strikes with ease, barely breaking a sweat. This caused the Blumaroo much frustration. He responded with wide arcs, swinging with enough power that the Lupe slid back with each successful block.

     “You’re… taking it… easy… on me.” Panting, Rohane took a few uneven steps forward. His speech slurred from exhaustion as he fought to keep his head from sagging. “Hit me… hit me with all you got. I can… I can take it.”

     “Are you sure?” The Lupe hesitated, and briefly debated if it would be better to call in a doctor. The way he was fighting, it seemed as if he was sick with the neoflu. “Because I really don’t want to hurt—”

     “Positive.” He nearly fell over and used the practice sword to catch his balance. “Very positive. Unless you think you can’t win.”

     Any thoughts of clemency dried up as Jeran spun the sword in his hand. “Fine, but don’t say I didn’t try.”

     Jeran came in strong with a volley of swings. Narrowly avoiding each, Rohane made progressively sloppier ripostes. Once, the wooden blade missed Rohane’s face by millimetres; he had barely bent away in time. Compared to his usual reflexes, it was like night and day. In an average sparring match, the two would spend minutes on end blocking and responding, with neither giving the other an inch. This time… something was wrong.

     When Jeran went for an overhead swing, the Blumaroo froze. Before Jeran could pull away, the wooden sword made a clean hit on the Blumaroo’s head; today, he had stubbornly insisted against wearing any sort of helmet. Instantly, he crumbled to the ground. Instead of retaliating or thinking on his feet as he was oft to do, he held his hands defensively in front of his body as if bracing for a magical blast.

     Jeran tossed his practice blade into the grass.

     “Skarl’s shorts—you okay!?”

     When Rohane didn’t reply, Jeran knelt beside the Blumaroo. A large welt rose from the knight’s head as he winced in throbbing pain.

     When they did open, Rohane’s eyes stared beyond Jeran, wide with fear. His hands shook.

     “Rohane…” Jeran’s voice dropped to a concerned whisper as he reached down to tap the Blumaroo’s shoulder, “what’s—”

     “Gah!” Rohane pushed forward, square in Jeran’s chest, before scrambling back.

     Jeran coughed loudly from the impact. He caught himself with his left fist, teetering on his knelt leg.

     “I’m… I’m sorry,” Rohane finally said, slapping his cheek a few times before continuing. His heart was pounding so loudly that it thrummed in his ears like a bass drum. “I’m sorry you had to see that.”

     Jeran glanced back at his practice sword, then back at his subordinate in bafflement. “What in Skarl’s name was that?” Jeran managed, a clear mixture of annoyance and worry in his voice. “And why did you push me?”

     “Sorry about that.” The Blumaroo’s head hung. “I saw Terask and I… I panicked.”

     A stiff breeze blew past, blowing with it a tornado of cherry blossom petals. For a few moments, neither knight spoke.

     “Rohane.” Jeran hesitated, focusing on his colleague’s shaking frame. “Terask… is gone. He’s been gone for a few years now.”

     “I know.” The Blumaroo lowered his hands from his face and hardened his features. “Tell that to my nightmares.” He picked up his sword and placed it in the nearby storage rack roughly. “I think that’s enough training for now.”

     What Jeran regretted most was letting his comrade walk away without telling him that he also had nightmares, had spectres of the past that refused to let him move past the Second Meridell War.

     ~x~

     None of his flashbacks had been as severe at the day they spared, but they certainly reared their ugly head in other ways. The mere mention of Terask’s name seemed to spark bad memories from the Blumaroo; he tensed up as if his entire body went into fight-or-flight.

     “You saw Lord Kass?” Rohane rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “That’s odd. I’ve never seen him. We were lucky in Trestin—none of his goons ever saw the need to bother us out in the middle of nowhere. Too far removed from Meridell, I guess.” Shrugging, he attempted to throw in some levity. “You sure you weren’t thinking about that duel?”

     The fur on the back of Jeran’s neck stood on end. “Positive. It’s probably just something in the dream air, then, Rohane,” the knightly captain said, his patience thinning. “Which, speaking of… what changed? Why are you, well—you—again?”

     “No idea.” Rohane turned his sword hand in front of his eyes as if to confirm that he was, in fact, himself. “Happy for it, though.”

     “Was it something I said?”

      “I think so.” He hummed to himself; Jeran was surprised by how melodious it was. Noticing the stare, Rohane tried to pass it off as a fluke. “It’s the first thing I remember fully from the last… however long I was in that state. Before then, I was waking up in a patchwork dream ‘Trestin,’ fighting a slew of monsters from the Haunted Woods—including a few whose heads were made of meat.”

     Jeran guffawed. “You fought meatheads?”

     “Surrealist dream humour, perhaps. Who knows?” He shrugged broadly. “After that, I relived some of my near-death fights and… and then…” his eyes grew distant, “it was this constant barrage of bad emotions and darkness until I recognized you. I don’t know what happened to me other than letting the feeling of being small and scared overwhelm me…” he sighed deeply, a crease sitting heavily on his brow. “That stuff you said about being a leader, that’s probably what helped me snap back into reality.”

     Jeran’s chest felt tight. “Dream Trestin. Then you also saw…”

     “Yes,” his voice strained, “I saw my father. But he—”

     “Was missing his face?”

     “Yes. And only spoke a few words on repeat. Somehow…” as he said this, he continued to stare at his sword hand as if afraid he might turn into a child once more, “somehow, that was far worse than if he had just stayed silent… I felt things that I had thought were long buried back when we buried him.”

     Jeran’s hand shifted to the pommel of his rusty old sword, the one that had faithfully protected him through this whole ordeal. “You ever feel like you have the weight of the world on your shoulders?”

     Rohane’s shoulders slumped. “Always. The weight of keeping everyone safe can be crushing.”

     “It really can be,” sighed Jeran.

     “You’d know that well given all of your responsibilities.”

     “And so would you—better than anyone else in the Order. No one else has seen first-hand how hard it is to lead your troops through life-or-death struggles.”

     Rohane pondered this for a moment and gave a thoughtful nod. “When you have others in your charge, you’ll do anything to save them—even at the cost of your own well-being and safety.”

     “And solve things with over-the-top heroics?”

     “Of course.”

     The Lupe quirked a brow. “Something tells me Velm has lectured you about this before.”

     “Oh, constantly,” said Rohane dismissively, a twinge of guilt on his face, “but that doesn’t change who I am. … Or who you are. You risked your life and endured my nightmares to help me.” He dusted himself off, then extended his hand forward with a genuine smile. “Thank you, Jeran. For saving me from myself.”

     The two gave each other a hearty handshake.

     “Wow—a smile. That’s a rarity.”

     Rohane’s mouth twitched. “I’m trying to be sincere here.”

     “I know. You’re just easy to tease.” Jeran made a toothy grin, before straightening his posture and becoming serious once more. “But you’re welcome, Rohane. I’m happy you’re okay.”

     “Thanks.” There was a few second pauses as Rohane shifted in place. “But I swear to Skarl—”

     “Nobody can know.” They said it in unison, suddenly beet red again.

     “You think I want to tell the Order that you hugged me with your snot face?”

     “Argh!” The Blumaroo pulled his ears down in anguish. “That was—I wasn’t thinking straight! For the of love of Trestin, don’t tell a soul about this—and especially about that!”

     “Oh, believe me, I won’t breathe a word. Because if someone like Kayla got wind of it—”

     Rohane visibly shuddered. “We’d be ruined. I don’t think either of us could show our faces in court again. You know how some of those nobles are, like Jetsams to raw meat.” He took a step closer, his eyes growing wild. “Promise me you won’t tell any—”

     “I won’t!” Jeran threw his hands into the air and let out a frustrated shout. “For Skarl’s sake, trust me, Rohane. The court would have a field day, and neither of us need that.”

     “Not when half the gossip already revolves around us anyway,” Rohane quipped bitterly. “There’s something about ‘peasant knights’ that make us prime targets.”

     “They’re just jealous.” Jeran rolled his eyes. “They wish they were as strong or decorated as we were. But speaking of the court dunces, I think I’d prefer their gossip to this”—Jeran swept his hand around the abounding darkness—“place. Whatever it is.”

     “Same. Definitely same. So,” the Blumaroo took a loud, deep sigh as if it would prepare him for what he needed to say next, “I gave it some thought, and I think I know how we’re going to escape this room… but you’re going to have to keep this a secret, too.” Under his breath, he muttered, “because I swear, this keeps happening. The world is conspiring against me.”

     The Lupe paused to consider what Rohane said before gasping lightly. “What, that you’re a singer? I won’t tell a soul.”

     Rohane spun around and took hold of Jeran’s shoulder. He squeezed it tightly. “How did you know? Who told you? Did one of my fri—”

     “You did, you meathead, or did you forget? Your teammates didn’t say a word—your real teammates, anyway.”

     “Meathead?” His brows knit in annoyance as he fixated on the word, “I’m not a—”

     “You said that Sir Reynold liked your singing voice as a kid…” The knight captain took hold of Rohane’s arm and gently laid it back down. “But before then, I had a hunch after everything I’ve seen. Your nightmares aren’t exactly… subtle. It was a common thread.” When he saw the panic rising on Rohane’s face, he swiftly followed up with, “does anyone else from Meridell know?”

     “Not a chance—or at least, I didn’t say anything. Just my old teammates, a few inn’s worth of Neopians in the Haunted Woods and Faerieland, and some ghosts.”

     Jeran rose a brow. “Some… ghosts?”

     “Yeah. Happened when we were telling ‘spooky stories’”—he added air quotes for emphasis—"in the Haunted Woods. It was some lunatic named Zeams with a thing for theatrics; he goaded me into singing a lullaby. Said he and some other ghosts were circulating rumours about my voice.”

     “I… wow. Only you would have a story that weird…” The Lupe shook his head in amazement, and added a low, off-key whistle for good measure. The flatness of his note made Rohane involuntarily jump. “That bad, huh?”

     The Blumaroo grimaced before pointing to his ears. “They’re sensitive.”

     “Fine, I can take a hint,” he crossed his arms and huffed. “But It’s a wonder half of Neopia doesn’t know by now. You’re world-famous—you’d think something like this would be common knowledge.”

     The corner of Rohane’s mouth twitched. “Maybe I’m just lucky.”

     “Or something.” Jeran pointed at the stage up ahead. “So, should I cover my ears and turn around, then?”

     “No,” the Blumaroo steeled himself as his heart begin to race. “Listen if you want. It’s not like my voice is a secret anymore—not for you, anyway.” He started to walk towards the stage. As he approached the spotlight, his clothes changed from a common brown tunic to pure gold, resplendent armour. A bejewelled sword appeared at his waist, one Jeran vaguely recognized as “The Sword of the Apocalypse,” a gift he had received during his final adventures in Faerieland. “It’s time I face my fear and…” he swallowed hard; his throat was dry as dust, “make my dad proud.”

     As the Blumaroo stepped into the spotlight, Jeran leaned against a wall with a proud smile on his face. “Oh, Rohane, he already is… and so am I.”

     Compared to the coolness of backstage, the spotlight felt like a blazing sun. Hundreds of eyes stared back at Rohane with a soulless gaze, not taking a second to blink. Sweat pooled down his back and neck as his heart fluttered like a dancing butterfly. Not a second of respite, not even a second to process this nightmare. Everything seemed to beckon him to the beacon of the stage; every thought, every fibre of his being screamed in defiance. He wanted to run, to find that safe corner of his mind and cling to it rather than to face the darkness alone.

     Well, perhaps not alone. Not anymore.

     Now he had Jeran.

     The Blumaroo took a long look back at the darkness where Jeran leant against a wall; he was giving a thumbs-up. It was much like what Velm did each time Rohane would sing; a nod, a wink, a thumbs-up, a smile, it was all there. Or in the actions of Mipsy who clapped off-beat while her foot tapped to her own rhythm. Or the hug Talinia gave him after he had sung a song in memory of his father at the “Plated Guardian,” a Faerieland inn run by one of his late father’s dear friends.

     Perhaps… perhaps he could sing after all.

     To be continued…

 
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