The Power of Twelve
The sun was just beginning to set on the horizon, dipping low over the ocean and casting a golden sheen over the city of Altador. The blue Grarrl paced atop the city’s outer walls, walking alongside the aqueducts they had built into them. Torakor liked to walk the walls sometimes, he often considered that a good General was nothing if he didn’t sometimes do the grunt work. He’d seen many lifted up to command only to become out of touch, and ruin often followed.
Ahead of him, the sentry at the Dicing Tower stood suddenly upright when he noticed who was approaching. He’d probably been having a quick nap, thinking he could get away with it due to his pick of guard duty. The Dicing Tower was one of those off-the-books gambling taverns that Torakor allowed to operate within the Altadorian Army. The troops often had better morale when they thought they were getting one over on their commanding officers, and everyone needed an outlet sometimes.
Torakor gave the sentry a brisk nod, and gazed out again over the fields of Altador. The wheat was nearing harvest time, and the sunset was causing the farmlands to shimmer in the breeze with all the lustre of the gold Neopoints in Gordos’s treasury. It was a beautiful sight, and Torakor often found himself sighing in awe at it. Their creation was truly something to behold.
His gaze drifted to the well-trodden path through the farms that led towards Altador’s main gates. Even as the night began to draw in, there was still a steady stream of travellers converging from all over Neopia. Torakor watched them for a few minutes until his attention was drawn towards a single figure walking towards the city.
She was wrapped in a dark cloak, with a hood up over her head to hide her features. This time of year, it certainly wasn’t to protect her from the cold, and that marked her as someone who wanted to hide her identity. That sort of thing wasn’t unusual, even in Altador. Kelland the Thief was one of the city’s founders, after all. But still, those charged with keeping the city’s peace always paid such characters more mind.
Despite her efforts to hide her identity, the figure’s size marked her unmistakably as a Faerie, standing taller than most of the other travellers on the path. Her wings, too, seemed to be hidden under the robe, folded close to her body.
As Torakor watched her, imagining all of the myriad reasons that could draw a lone Faerie to the haven of Altador, a gust of wind carried through the wheat fields caught the figure’s robe. The breeze forced her hood back before she could hold it, revealing her face to the world. She was a Dark Faerie, the distinctive lavender hue of her skin plain even in the setting sun. Her hair was black, but marked with a streak of the same purple. It was a face that Torakor knew. He knew it very well indeed.
The Darkest Faerie.
His heart leapt into his mouth, but his body was moving on instinct, climbing up onto the ramparts. His mouth freed itself from the shock, allowing him a deep below to the sentry at the Dicing Tower.
“Sleeper Alert!” he roared. “Summon the Council!”
With that, he threw himself from the city walls, trusting that Jerdana’s enchantments to his armour would be enough to cushion his fall.
He impacted on the ground like a falling star, his knee guard taking the force and reflecting it back outward. He stood and drew his sword in one fluid movement.
“Betrayer!” he roared. “You are not welcome here!”
Behind him, he could hear the advance guard from the gates coming to him. He knew they were just to delay her — for years the council had wargamed countless scenarios for the Darkest Faerie’s return. In all of them, Torakor and the Altadorian Army were to slow her advance towards the city as best they could. It would have been hubris to assume they could have bested her in direct combat. Even the weakest Faeries would give a normal Neopet a run for their money, and the Darkest Faerie was anything but weak. The plan was always to buy time until Jerdana, Siyana, and Psellia could mobilise. Ultimately, they too were hoping to keep the Darkest Faerie occupied until word could be sent to Faerieland and Queen Fyora herself. Such was the threat of their former friend.
Torakor readied himself for the Darkest Faerie’s first salvo. Be it magic fire, or her personal favourite of manipulating her victim’s very nightmares into life.
But nothing came. As more soldiers arrived behind him, the Darkest Faerie threw her hands up in surrender.
“I surrender!” she shouted. “I prostrate myself on your mercy! I humbly request an audience with the Council!”
The soldiers behind Torakor hesitated. They had not trained for this eventuality. The idea that the Darkest Faerie might just show up and surrender hadn’t even crossed their minds.
“What trick is this!?” the Grarrl demanded.
“No trick!” she replied.
A sheen of magical energy flew up in front of the General as his backup arrived, Siyana casting a magical shield to protect them against whatever her Faerie sister was planning. The Light Faerie touched down gently next to Torakor, shining like a beacon in the dying light. Psellia followed, the Air Faerie landing on the Grarrl’s opposite side.
“What’s going on?” Psellia asked.
“She’s… Surrendered,” Torakor said.
Psellia and Siyana exchanged a look as a commotion spread through the soldiers behind them. Jerdana was striding through their ranks, her multicoloured skirts billowing in the evening breeze. She stopped next to Siyana, the four council members stood like a second wall against whatever storm may come.
“I request an audience!” the Darkest Faerie repeated.
She fell to her knees, begging.
Jerdana gave a sad nod of understanding.
“Granted,” she said. “Guards. Bring her.”
The moon was full and bright, and shone through the columns of the Hall of Heroes by the time all of the council had been assembled. Within the Council Chambers, enchanted torches burned, flickering shadows across the faces of the eleven rulers of Altador. Each was seated on a simple wooden chair, arranged in a semi-circle that faced their once-friend.
The Darkest Faerie had been chained. Special iron manacles designed to sap a Faerie of power, not that such a thing was truly needed for her any longer. Behind her, two burly Skeith guards pointed their spears at her back.
“This should be a closed session,” Jerdana said as they took their seats. “Council only.”
Torakor stifled in protest, but Jerdana held up a hand.
“I know,” she added. “But if the eleven of us fail to hold her back, an extra two spears are unlikely to make any difference. Besides, I do not believe she is a threat to us currently. Leave us.”
The guards stood to attention and marched out, firmly closing the Council Chamber’s doors behind them.
“Why does this need to be a closed session?” Marak asked, the Peophin bristling uncomfortably at having to sit in a chair.
“Some things should stay between friends,” Jerdana said, her eyes not leaving the Darkest Faerie. “We started this journey together, the twelve of us. Only right it should be us again at the end.”
“The end?” Siyana asked.
“I am dying,” the Darkest Faerie said.
“Another trick of yours?” Gordos asked.
“No trick,” Jerdana confirmed. “She is dying. I had hoped that the scattered reports we received from Faerieland were incorrect. That you hadn’t used the Orb.”
“What are you talking about?” Siyana asked.
“The reason she is dying,” Jerdana said. “It is my fault. There is a magic, steadily draining her life force. A curse that I cast.”
There was silence in the council chamber for a few moments. It was Kelland who broke it, staring at King Altador.
“You knew?” he asked.
The Lupe nodded, sadly.
“I instructed Jerdana not to tell the rest of you,” he said. “It seemed… Easier that way. The burden of what we were doing was too great. You need not have suffered the same guilt the two of us have.”
“There’s no guilt,” Jerdana cut across him. “I don’t regret it.”
Siyana let out a little gasp.
“This is not our way!” she said.
“I never intended for it to be used,” Jerdana said. “But we swore an oath, the twelve of us. An oath to protect this city. A thousand years ago, when she betrayed us, I constructed my Orb to petrify her. To contain her, with the hope that Fyora’s power would be enough to wield it and seal her away. But it is my duty, our duty, to protect this city. And, more than that even, protect Neopia itself from her evil. If Fyora had failed, I knew the Betrayer would have claimed my Orb to use its power herself. And then, then she would have been unstoppable. No power on Neopia would have been able to challenge her. Altador would have been lost. Our people, the people we swore to protect, would have been enslaved. I couldn’t allow that to happen. So I cast an additional curse on the Orb. If she was ever to claim it, ever to use the power within, it would latch itself to her, fusing itself so completely to her that it could never be removed. And slowly, gradually, it would leech the life from her. Ensuring that, even if she bested Fyora. Even if all eleven of us fell in battle against her, she would fail. Altador would survive her, no matter what.”
“You all saw the reports from Queen Fyora,” King Altador added. “Both times she has been released from her prison, her first acts have been to try and destroy Fyora and Faerieland. The first time, she almost destroyed the Meridell peninsula along with it. And the second? She intended to release a cloud of poisonous gas over most of the Haunted Woods. She is too dangerous to be left unconfined. We all agreed to that when Jerdana constructed her Orb. And where the Orb fails, more extreme measures must be called for.”
“Not without discussion,” Siyana said flatly. “The point of this council was that we are all equals. Secrets and lies are her methods, not ours.”
“Why have you come back here?” Psellia asked the Darkest Faerie.
“I am dying, and I once called you friends,” she replied.
This time both Torakor and Jerdana laughed.
“You hope for pity?” Jerdana asked. “A thousand years later and you still think we are playthings to be manipulated.”
“What do you mean?” Psellia asked.
“The curse I cast on the Orb, the one that is killing her, is immune to all counter-curses,” Jerdana said. “It cannot be dispelled. She has certainly tried, otherwise she would have turned up months ago when she first realised what was happening. No, she comes here now and only now because her options have been reduced to exactly one. She knows that there is only one way to remove the curse. For the one who cast it to dispel it. Me. She has come here because she wants me to save her. She hopes that we will show pity. The thing she has always viewed as a weakness. Then, when I have removed the curse, she will turn on us again. As she does. As she always does. And this time we will be unable to stop her. Charity here will be our undoing.”
“No!” the Darkest Faerie protested. “That’s not true! I understand now, I really do! What I did, the things I did to you all. My betrayal has broken the bonds between us, and I know that can never heal. But we were friends once, the twelve of us. Family, almost. I can’t remember another time when I’ve felt so connected to others. I miss it. And if I am to die, then so be it. But all I ask is that I can be around those… that I love.”
Torakor gave another sharp laugh at that.
“I didn’t know you were capable of such a feeling,” he said.
“I would be inclined to believe you,” King Altador added. “Had we not suffered the last thousand years for the last time we believed your lies. Some bridges, once burned, cannot be rebuilt.”
“Yet if there is a chance, we must explore it,” Siyana said. “Any death is deplorable, but the death of a Faerie, let me tell you, is a terrible thing. If she really is contrite, we owe it to her to save her.”
“Owe her!?” King Altador said.
“We took an oath to protect this city, yes,” Siyana added. “But also to uphold its values. Values like truth, honesty, kindness.”
“Due process,” Sasha agreed. “If you are asking us to let her die, we must be sure of her motives, yes?”
“And how would we do that?” King Altador asked.
“You said she has come here as a final option, yes?” Kelland asked Jerdana. “That means she must have tried other avenues. She will have left evidence of this. And I’m sure, if she is contrite in what she says, she will cooperate fully in helping us track her movements. I am more than willing to take on such a task. I was the one who recommended her to this council in the first place. All of this is, in a way, my fault. Fitting penance, I suppose.”
“A fine idea,” Sasha said.
“Very well,” she said. “Kelland will be our hand in this. We have faith you will root out the truth of this matter. On you, all our fates depend, old friend.”
King Altador looked unconvinced, but around the semicircle, all the other council members sounded their agreement. As King, he could overrule them, but in a thousand years he had never once done so. They were a family, as the Darkest Faerie had correctly said. And families stuck together, no matter what.
He agreed, despite a feeling deep down in the pit of his stomach that the Darkest Faerie had not changed at all.
To be continued…