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Week 368
You are on Week 369
Week 370

Every week we will be starting a new Story Telling competition - with great prizes! The current prize is 2000 NP, plus a rare item!!! This is how it works...

We start a story and you have to write the next few paragraphs. We will select the best submissions every day and put it on the site, and then you have to write the next one, all the way until the story finishes. Got it? Well, submit your paragraphs below!

Story Three Hundred Sixty Nine Ends Friday, May 16

Enec gazed down at the rolling green fields below him, starred here and there with spring flowers. From that height, he could see the rippling movement the wind made in the grass, making the countryside look like the back of a giant green Snowbunny being stroked by an invisible hand. Meridell. The kingdom that had stolen his land's birthright and left them floating high above the countryside, forever in darkness.

That anger had mostly turned to sadness, Enec realised as he turned away from the edge of the Darigan Citadel. Though his homeland was suspended in the sky, closer to Neopia's sun, it was always dark, dingy. Its citizens too had been transformed into twisted, dark creatures after Meridell had stolen the orb. While the Yurble knew that surface appearances didn't necessarily mean anything, and that those from the Darigan Citadel could be as good and upstanding as any other Neopian, he couldn't help feeling out of place and stared at when he visited other Neopian lands.

If only there were another orb somewhere, he thought. Yes, it had led to war and heartache before, but that was because of greed. It didn't have to be that way.

Could the first orb be put back together? Enec wondered. And where are the halves of it? If they could be located, surely it would take magic to reunite the two pieces.

It's hopeless, he told himself, trudging back toward the Citadel's dungeon, where he served as a guard. Nothing will ever change here. The sun will never shine, flowers will never grow, and Master Vex will never stop forcing the prisoners to play Cellblock.

"It's not as hopeless as you think," hissed a voice from overhead. Enec, far below, didn't hear it and kept plodding along the grey road toward the Citadel proper. "Not hopeless at all..."

Author: Darigan Renaissance
Date: May 12th
"Do you think he'll find it?" whispered another voice.

"He has to," said a third. "It's our only hope..."

* * * * *

The dungeon was cold, filled with shadows. It was always like that, and yet Enec couldn't help but shiver as he walked down the spiral stone steps. Flickering torchlight was the only thing that illuminated his narrow path. Enec was just beginning to feel more claustrophobic than usual and he felt a small wave of relief when he finally reached the door...

...only to feel it vanish as he saw what lay before him, waiting in the dungeon.

It was completely empty.

Enec stood there, blinking stupidly for several seconds. The door closed sharply on his foot, yet he took no notice.

How could this be?

True, dungeons were definitely not the most popular places in the world, but there was usually always something down here. No guards, no prisoners, no random Cellblock players. Even Master Vex -- the Mynci who practically lived down here -- was nowhere to be found.

Enec took a cautious step forward. The door slammed behind him, echoing like a shot in the silent room. He looked around, hoping to catch a glimpse of an arm or a limb or any signal that he wasn't the only one down there. But he saw nothing.

The Yurble frowned. Uneasiness crept down his spine. What had happened here? Why was it empty? Panic finally caught up with him and his heart started to beat. Maybe it was an attack, some sort of assault. Whatever the case, he had to tell the rest of the Citadel. He had to warn them.

Enec dashed toward the door but then stopped. His eyes caught something that he hadn't quite seen before.

Lying on the table usually used for Cellblock was a sack. Burlap, it was dark and dirty and almost invisible among the dungeon's dusky light. And yet something seemed to draw his eyes straight to it, as if they were being pulled by an unseen magnet...

Enec narrowed his eyes and was just about to think he had imagined everything when he saw it again.

A shimmer, a flash, a sparkle of gold. There was something in the bag, and that something was shining...

Author: reveirie
Date: May 12th
...and although it was impossible, so astoundingly impossible, Enec knew what it was.

He was a guard. Just an ordinary guard, somebody to provide Master Vex with some entertainment, and to make sure Number Five didn't chew through the bars or annoy Garlgarrath to death with his ramblings about Jelly World. Everyone knew Jelly World didn't exist.

His lifestyle had been a mixture of monotony and feeble wishes of times never to return. He'd have never thought that the answer to those wishes would ever rest within his sightline.

Calm down, he ordered himself, without much success. It could just be a piece of gold stationery, or some Neopoints, or some jewellery...

His heart thumped at an uneven rate as he approached the table.

Catiously, the Yurble upended the sack, his crimson eyes widening to the the size of the sphere that rolled into his paws.

The Orb.

There was no mistaking it. The precious artefact twinkled gently at him, a sparkly mist seeming to roil in its golden depths, depths that stretched on forever. It vibrated in his paws, humming, the air buzzing with its aura of power. Time itself stood still for a handful of moments.

So precious, indeed, but so deadly. The same thing whose loss had twisted the appearance of the citizens of Darigan Citadel for eternity, the thing that had plunged two peaceful kingdoms into a war and corrupted a noble leader into a blazing demon.

It was so wonderful, and yet so terrifying, to hold it (if he could really accept the fact that he was awake), a mixture of feelings that left him breathless and quite lightheaded.

If it was a dream, by Fyora's sceptre, it was the most realistic one he'd ever had.

His breath was jumpy now, like a runner's. He gazed with complete wonder at the artefact, the artefact that could -- no, it would restore his home.

But how would he use it?

As he stared beyond its golden surface, questions began to form in his mind. How was this possible? How was the Orb's existence even possible? It had been destroyed, its magic lost forever.

And then it all crashed down on him, with such force that a cry of anguish escaped his throat. It couldn't exist. This was an impossibility, and be it a delusion, hallucination, or dream, it was not real.

And then the voices came.

He didn't flinch as he heard them. He'd felt an unearthly presence from the second he entered the dungeon; he'd assumed it was the Orb's magic. And he was already beyond amazement. The disappearance of a dungeon, its prisoners, and then a destroyed artefact appearing in a dirty sack? Hearing voices seemed like an ordinary, everyday ordeal now.

"No," murmured the first speaker from minutes earlier, the silky tone much different from the whispering hiss she'd employed before. "It's not real... not yet..."

The second voice to speak was coarser, harsher, and certainly male. "But it will be, soon enough."

"Yes, it will," chuckled the third. "If you would listen to our proposal..."

Author: dianacat777
Date: May 13th
The Three.

Enec knew this had to be coming. Who else, after all? Who else knew everyone's hopes and fears, their desires and hatred? Who else would show a tantalising dream, making it seem as reality, before snatching it away again? Who else?

He'd been brought up to fear the Three. They were the reason for Darigan Citadel's fall. And now...

The Yurble shook his head. Had it been anything -- anything else -- they would have offered him, he would have said no. But they'd hit upon the one thing he wanted most. The one thing he just couldn't, wouldn't ever say no to. Even though he knew there was some dark and sinister ulterior motive of theirs, refusal was just too hard.

"I'll -- I'll listen," Enec choked out, half fearful he was about to mess everything up, half joyous and giddy with glee.

"Good Yurble," the first voice crooned. "We knew you'd agree."

"Uh, yeah. You probably did."

The third voice laughed. "We did. But enough idle chatter -- here is our proposal."

Enec gulped. Yay?

"We give you the Orb," the second voice said. "You take it, and with it restore the Darigan Citadel to its former glory."

Things weren't sounding so bad. Yet.

"But before you restore your city," the first voice added, "you have to allow us into your head first. Not just our whispers, but all of us, our whole being."

Uh-oh. Enec frowned, not liking the sound of this. "Why?"

"From there, we can spring into reality -- no more half-there shadows, floating ghosts. We can become real, solid creatures." The Yurble imagined the third voice smiling happily.

"And why would you want to be real?"

Stubborn silence. Enec scowled. So this was one of those take-it-or-leave-it offers, where he wasn't going to get any information until it was too late.

And despite the risk... "I'll take it?"

"Wonderful..."

Author: mithril_mithrandir
Date: May 13th
There wasn't much time to think, really. Deep down the Yurble knew he could have easily refused their proposal; one simple shake of the head, and he suspected the entire situation would have shimmered back into the darkness from where it came. The orb would be gone, the sinister voices that taunted him would evaporate and he could go back to being a simple cog in the machine that was Darigan's dungeon.

So why say yes?

It was two things. The most obvious was the wish for redemption and recognition. The Citadel had once been a fine place, nay, an amazing place. A utopian realm that rivalled the prosperity and merit of Neopia's finest kingdoms. All that fortune had been snatched away by vile hands, willing to doom an entire land for a brief chance to indulge the twin evils of power and greed. To redeem the Citadel would result in Enec becoming a figure of legend... and his fellow citizens would be free to dwell in the happiness they had once enjoyed.

But the second reason was closer to his heart, perhaps even a little selfish. Enec longed for something different. Endless were the days he trudged through the dank streets, counted the steps to the dungeon, and nodded dumbly at Number Five's inane cackling about a non-existent giant jelly that thousands could feast from. Utterly insane rubbish, of course. Each day that rolled by it grew a littler harder to bear. Each day he felt any streak of individual thought and hope being drained from him, drop by drop.

Enec feared it wasn't only the Citadel that needed saving. It was him, too.

This reflection was brief in the Yurble's mind. Precious little time remained in which to reflect at all; the Three now had the right to enter his thoughts at any moment and no doubt not one of them would be waiting for a formal invitation and red carpet.

Would he lose the ability to think at all? Had they meant they would act through him, some strange form of possession? Had the implication been that by entering his thoughts, the trio would somehow be able to project themselves as real images, or to form separate entities?

There wasn't time to ask. With a shocked, breathless gasp the Yurble fell to his knees. The walls of the cold dungeon seemed to swell and sink around him, beating in and out like the rhythmic thump of his own heart. Screams echoed within Enec's brain, causing him to grip his head between his paws and cry out, pleading for relief, for a break from the sudden barrage of sound and sights assaulting his mind. Countless visions twirled before him, images he knew to be a dark and dangerous history, one linked to the Citadel he called home. Heroes fought and fell; dark, sinister creatures cackled and hid in the shadows, emerging only to claim what they had once let slip away.

He thought the whispers must have been heard in Meridell, even as far away as Brightvale. A feminine voice tainted with maniacal glee cried in delight, laughing about revenge; masculine voices chimed in. One was a mere hiss, cackling and offering countless treasures, promising the world in return for simple favours that seemed innocent. The third was deeper, a malicious cackle that promised power, power beyond the simple Yurble's wildest dreams. The trio chimed into a sinister harmony of wicked intentions, an echoing chant of ominous words that grew, building to a pitch so frenzied that Enec feared his very mind would explode, or his sanity would shatter. It grew louder and louder, shaking the very walls of the cursed cell...

...and then everything went black, and silence crashed around the Yurble. The dungeon was still empty and dark.

But he wasn't alone. A slow smirk creased across Enec's expression and the Yurble began to laugh...

Author: anjie
Date: May 14th
...first a snicker, then a snort, then a full-fledged howl of dark and glorious triumphant hilarity. He threw his head back, bared his teeth, and his belly shook and rattled with it.

The tremors grew more violent, gaining a deep rumble of their own. The roar of laughter battered the walls as the harmony of whispers had moments before, until the stones vibrated and the bars thrummed.

His belly jerked upward. His body jerked, too; his knees buckled as if struck from behind and hit the floor with a crack. Still laughing, still clutching the brilliant Orb to his heart, Enec arched backward from his knees. Pressure was building in his stomach and chest; a low gurgle churned in his abdomen as his muscles spasmed with laughter. Fear gripped him, but the laughter held him harder.

The laughter erupted. Smoke belched and shadows spewed from his mouth, spinning upward. Enec saw the walls and ceiling reel around him as he choked on the mixture of laughter and smoke. Something lashed the inside of his throat, and he gagged on what felt like a scrap of fabric before it was whipped free. Something was pulling upward on the centre of his spine and pushing his head back, forcing him to remain slanted and arched in this strange position as darkness burst out of him.

Through stinging eyes and streaming tears, he saw the smoke coalesce into three forms.

A faerie, dark and lovely with starshine wings.

A Gelert, hooded; the smoke streamed down to form a sword edged as sharp as a noonday shadow.

A Skeith, his bones showing through translucent fat. He belched.

Enec thought that Greed looked very much like King Skarl, and then he belched too. A last tag of fumes shot out of his mouth, leaving clear air behind, and the forces holding him released.

Feeling strangely hollow and empty, more than ever he had from hunger, the Yurble crashed backward to the floor.

*****

The Faerie raised her hands, admiring her long moon-pale fingers and the sharp nails. She tapped them against the wall. They clicked. She drew them down the rough stone, and one of her elegantly shaped fingernails snapped and broke off. She drew back her hand with a cry, wrapping the other around it and staring at the ragged edge in disbelieving awe. She touched it, gingerly, with the pad of another fingertip.

Then she turned to her companions with a brilliant smile. "Lord Darigan cannot wish us away this time. Let us take what he owes us."

They stalked out into the Citadel.

*****

Master Vex had been playing Cellblock against the Yellow Knight for some time now -- not that the Knight had been a prisoner since the end of the war, of course, but after Kass's antics he'd been assigned as some sort of ambassador. Nobody on the Citadel really wanted to admit that they didn't know what to do with him, so he kept winding up with Vex. At least he never complained about the food.

Vex's head jerked up from the game as the door to the dungeon guards' lounge opened. He opened his mouth to scold Enec for taking so long in there, not to mention making such a racket, but the words died in his throat as three forms, all too familiar though he had never laid eyes on them before, walked out the door instead. Walked. Out the door. And handled it, closing it behind the last one.

They were solid.

Unbridled desire and shadow made flesh.

The Yellow Knight opened his mouth; without closing his own, Vex reached over and clamped his hand neatly over the Chia's face to keep him silent.

The Three turned in the opposite direction, apparently oblivious, and mounted the winding staircase.

Vex waited until they were gone and then rushed into the lounge.

Enec lay on the floor, his knees bent awkwardly beneath him, a bag beside him and a glowing Rock Petpet inexplicably clutched to his chest.

He was breathing shallowly, and he looked as if he'd been starving for months.

His eyes opened and followed motion, but his mind seemed to be elsewhere.

Above them, the Citadel shuddered...

Author: schefflera
Date: May 14th
***

Lord Darigan sighed, drumming his fingers in a terse staccato rhythm against the windowsill.

His yellow eyes swept the green plains beneath his floating realm, farmhouses dotting the emerald sea of grass like stars swimming in the night sky. To the far south, a grand castle flew its scarlet and navy banners. So simple, and yet so beautiful. Something his own world could never have again.

He imagined he could see Sally, the little Usul, down there, perhaps frolicking with a handful of the Petpets she loved, or resting in the shadows of one of the few trees that broke the otherwise flat landscape.

His mind wandered past Sally, to the times before her, when he'd fallen to demonic whispers and allowed himself to become his subjects' own greatest threat. He could vaguely remember the blazing hatred, and the fear, and knowing his most trusted advisers had turned against him, unable to realise it was very much the other way around...

It was enough to send a shiver through his spine.

Never again, he reassured himself, tearing his gaze from the windswept plains beneath. We are at peace. And I will never fall to the Three again.

"Oh, you won't, won't you?" laughed a cold, silvery voice from behind him.

Lord Darigan whirled around, his black robes trailing in the air behind him. He hadn't heard the Three's voices for a long time, that was true. But he was still sensitive to them; he doubted he'd ever truly be free from them.

But now... it sounded so close, so real...

His heart sputtered to a halt.

A faerie stood in the doorway to his private chambers, a venomous smirk stretching from one ear to another. Her black-ribbed wings flanked her sides, not quite veiling the two figures that stood beside her. One was a rugged Gelert, a sharp blade held poised, his face largely masked by an eerie hood. The other was a Skeith, rotund, sharp teeth revealed in a wide grin.

Ambition. Revenge. Greed.

Darigan reeled. How were they here? The Three may have held plenty of influence over even the strongest-minded Neopets, but they were merely shadows, without a true form. They could not use their magic unless through another body.

And then his eyes narrowed as he realised. "This is just another dream, is it not? You cannot fool me."

Ambition stepped forward, reaching out with sharp nails to stroke Darigan's cheek. The Korbat shuddered convulsively at the frigid contact. "Does that feel like a dream? No. We are now just as real as you now."

"How?" was all Lord Darigan managed to rasp.

Ambition let out a cold, humourless laugh. "How are we real? By similar cunning that you yourself fell to, fool. Apparently, your citizens are not content with what the Citadel has to offer. And they're quite stupid."

Darigan winced. That stung. He knew, deep in his heart, that it was partially his fault that his subjects had been cursed. Oh yes, Meridell was mostly to blame, but he'd always bear a part of that burden...

"Very well, then," he retorted, bluffing slightly. "So you're real. All the easier for me to vanquish you."

Revenge took over, his eyes glinting from beneath his hood. "I really don't think so."

Darigan opened his mouth to reply, but he was thrust to the ground as the Citadel gave a violent heave, throwing him to the floor in an unceremonious heap.

Ambition cackled again. "Well, well. It would appear as though the sky is falling."

The Darigan Citadel shivered again, harder this time, and the Korbat realised with a pang of dread what was going on.

The Citadel was about to fall from the air...

Author: dianacat777
Date: May 15th
*****

CRASH.

King Skarl looked up from his sumptuous meal at the iron-clad figure that ran clanking along the red carpet toward him.

"You again?" He frowned at the Yellow Knight. "Didn't you come a long time ago, before the days of Lord Kass, to tell me about how Lord Darigan fell to the Three? What is it this time?"

"The Three are back," cried the Yellow Knight. "I saw them -- they were unmistakable. The faerie, the hooded Gelert, and the Skeith: Ambition, Revenge and Greed. They are real -- they have physical forms!"

King Skarl leaned forward. "But how can that be?"

"They made use of a Citadel guard, Enec," said the Yellow Knight grimly. "Master Vex and I found him lying on the floor of the guards' lounge, barely conscious. And the Three walked right past, up the staircase..."

"...to Lord Darigan's tower," Skarl finished. The stone-cold realisation set in, and he felt his massive appetite ebb away. No. Darigan wouldn't fall to the Three again, would he? Not after all the struggles that had finally led to peace...

"It's already happening," said the Yellow Knight darkly. "Look out the window."

The haunted black shape of Darigan Citadel was rocking in the sky, its turrets and windows jangling horribly as they prepared for the fatal plummet...

...and directly below were King Skarl's beloved Meridellian fields, rows upon rows of little houses and little lives.

***

Deep in the quaking dungeons of the cursed Citadel, Master Vex trickled warm porridge into Enec's slack mouth. He had no idea why he was trying to save this foolish young guard's life, when the whole population of the Citadel was in danger. Too many years of watching over his prisoners, he supposed. His mind had stopped working properly long ago.

"Enec?" Master Vex rubbed the guard's face gently. "Do you feel better now? Can you hear me, you foolish Yurble? Enec! Wake up and tell me what happened!"

Enec groaned, his eyes lolling past Vex's face, then back, settling on an unfocused stare. "The Orb," he murmured feverishly. "Get the Orb..."

Master Vex felt like slapping him. "There is no Orb, Enec! You were tricked! All the Three gave you was this Petpet!"

Enec did not seem to understand this. His eyes glazed over again, and then, with a sudden shudder, he came briefly to his senses, whimpering in pain. "Oh no," he whispered, his eyes shining wildly. "You must help him. Lord Darigan. He's in trouble, I can feel it..."

"Enec?" cried Master Vex, alarmed by the crazed writhing movement of the Yurble.

"Get the Orb..." was all that Enec managed to say, before passing out...

Author: yoyote
Date: May 15th
Vex stared at the motionless form of the Yurble for several seconds, half-expecting him to jump up suddenly and shout more crazy explanations.

Tch. The fool... still raving about the Orb, as if it still existed... Didn't he realise it was gone? It would never return. Vex had seen the pieces vanish himself, twin segments sparkling like sunlight before disappearing completely. The Orb was as good as destroyed. It would never come back. It couldn't.

Vex stood up sharply. There was nothing he could do to help Enec now, the Yurble barely had enough energy left to keep breathing. All he could do was sleep now, trapped in his endless nightmares. There were much more important things at stake.

Darigan, for one. There was no telling what the Three would do to him in their new forms. And what was the other one again? Oh, yes. The fact that the Citadel was shaking constantly, as if caught in a violent earthquake, a sign that warned it could tumble from the sky at any second.

Vex broke into a jog, heading toward the staircase. He was like someone standing on the edge of a crumbling chasm, destined to fall unless he grabbed that one shining moment of opportunity and saved himself. Vex had every intention of finding that crucial moment of chance.

If only he knew what it was.

The Citadel shook again, this time with such tremendous force it sent Vex spiralling to the ground. Muttering curses under his breath, he glanced up just in time to see a weapon rack piled with silver lances lean toward him. Vex leapt out of the way, narrowly missing the heavy trestle. It fell against the wall with an earsplitting shatter as pieces of debris crumbled away, forming a small window that looked out to the darkening sky.

Vex stared, transfixed for a moment. That could've been me. The Citadel shuddered and he was snapped back to reality. Growling, he lifted himself off the ground. His arms pinwheeled around him for a few seconds as he tried to regain his balance. Darigan Citadel was being held at an angle, it was much harder to stand. Vex scowled. Of course, just what he needed to make his already difficult journey impossible. He started to run when his foot struck something, making him stumble.

Vex glanced back, exasperated. Was everything trying to prevent him from reaching Darigan?

What he saw made him even more annoyed.

There, lying in the middle of the room, looking about as innocent as an inanimate object could, was the Rock. Its faint green glow dyed the floor a slightly eerie colour. So simple, so plain... and yet it was the thing that had started all of this.

Not really knowing what he was doing, Vex bent over and picked it up. The Rock felt strangely warm in his hands. Who knew? It might come in handy -- maybe he could use it to hit somebody. He, however, felt more like chucking it out the window.

Vex observed it. There was nothing really special about it. It was just a Rock. Glowing, but a Rock nonetheless. He shook his head. How could Enec have possibly mistaken this for the Orb? They looked nothing like each other. Sure, he doubted Enec had ever seen what the real Orb looked like, but--

Vex's eyes widened. His breath stopped. What was that? What just happened?

The Rock pulsed gold.

His fingers curled around the stone Petpet almost protectively. How was that possible? How could it be? Did it mean that--

The Citadel shook once more and nearly knocked Vex off his feet. The Mynci stumbled forward, trying to regain his balance. He managed to stay upright, but unfortunately, he had lost something. Something very important...

With a startled cry, Vex watched as the Rock flew through the air, as if pulled by an invisible string. Its passage was ironically headed straight in the direction of the opening the weapon rack had created only minutes earlier.

Vex gazed hopelessly as the rock fell through the window. It caught the light and shone for a moment, before vanishing into a storm-covered sky.

* * * * *

The citizens of Meridell looked up fearfully as a foreboding shadow eclipsed the city. The Citadel was closer and lower than it had ever been before. And it was shaking, shuddering...

They couldn't run. They couldn't escape. There was nowhere to go. There was no way they'd be able to avoid it.

The Citadel would fall to the ground like a meteorite and crash into their town. And there was nothing they could do about it.

* * * * *

"Do you think there might be a way to stop it?"

Kayla bit her lip thoughtfully as Skarl questioned her. Her eyes were dark, reflecting the floating city. "I don't know. If there is a way to prevent it from falling, I doubt I'd be able to find it in time."

The words sunk in like poison. Even Meridell's heroes, gathered all together in the castle, both cities' last hope, couldn't do anything about it.

"There's one thing I do know," Kayla added after a while. "There's a strange power emanating from it. A dark power. Evil..." She shivered.

"Is there anything we can do about it?" Lisha asked in a quiet voice.

"No."

"What do we do then?" Jeran's voice was tinged with annoyance at his inability to help anyone. His title of hero was nothing now.

"We wait," whispered Kayla. The Zafara stared up at the sky. Storm clouds gathered, making the heavens even more dark, even more misgiving.

"We wait."

* * * * *

The Citadel was in chaos. Screams and shouts joined together to create an unearthly song of terror. The streets were streaked with red and violet figures as they ran. They didn't know where they could run to, they just wanted to get away. Those with wings jumped into the air and tried to fly to freedom, but they came crashing down onto the cobblestone streets. Something was preventing them from flying, something was preventing them from getting away...

Small groups -- families, friends -- huddled in small circles, as if surrounding a campfire. But the atmosphere was far from being that of a merry summer night. Panic and fear tainted the air. High above, lightning forked across the sky. An ominous warning of what was to come. They prayed for Fyora's help. They wept. Tried to hold on to their last diminishing feelings of hope.

It was all they could do now.

* * * * *

Panic was everywhere, and yet Darigan's chamber was ghostly quiet.

It was far from being a comforting silence, though. It was like the hush before the storm, the tranquillity as the hunter prepares to pounce on his prey.

It was silence, but it was screaming Danger! Danger!

"How does it feel," Ambition was saying, "to know that you have lost?" The faerie's fingertips brushed against a windowpane as she looked outside. The window seemed to fog up with ice.

"How does it feel," Revenge hissed from his side, "to know that your precious city will fall, and everyone along with it?" His eyes were deep scarlet, the colour of blood.

"How does it feel," Greed whispered from behind him, "to know that not only your city is doomed, but another as well?"

Darigan said nothing, stood still. His face was an emotionless mask.

Don't listen to them, that's the trick. Ignore their words. They're lies. They're tainted.

"How does it feel to know we've come back?"

"How does it feel to know there's no escape?"

"How does it feel to know..."

"How does it feel..."

The words mixed together. He couldn't tell who said which anymore. It was like a twister of darkness, swirling toward them. He couldn't be swept away. Not again. He promised to never fall to them again. Obliviousness, that was his shield. Whether it was sincere or not, it was all he had to defend himself.

"...your city will never prosper again..."

"...you are forever cursed..."

"...that it's all your fault?"

Darigan twitched.

No, he told himself sternly. Ignore them. Don't listen. What they say isn't true... it's not true... it's not...

"Yes, Darigan," a voice whispered in his ear.

"You're the reason they fell in the first place," moaned another voice.

"You're the reason they'll fall again."

"No!" Darigan shouted. His eyes flared up with anger. "You're wrong!" He did his best to protect them. All this time. There was always a chance, always hope. He would never let them fall again. He would not. He could not.

Greed smiled coldly. "That's where you're wrong..."

Ambition smirked. "You can never become the perfect leader."

He was the warrior who had cast away his shield and was fighting the beast with nothing but a knife. But he didn't care.

"I will never let my citizens down."

Revenge's sword gleamed darkly. "You just did."

Darigan closed his eyes as he felt a cold rush take over him. He had promised to never come here again, never let them imprison him in their world of shadows. Never, never, never...

And yet he had to. He had to save them. Even if it was just to buy them a bit more time, he had to protect them.

"We were thinking about killing you off first," the voices were saying, "but we'd rather let you watch the destruction of the Citadel, knowing you could do nothing to save your subjects."

Outside, thunder rumbled.

Please. Somebody. Somebody please help them. Anybody. Please...

* * * * *

The Usul stared up at the sky, her eyes glazed. A floating city, the Citadel, covered Meridell with an immense shadow. The sky was dark, covered with black clouds. Crimson lightning danced and thunder cracked. The sky looked as if it were at war...

The climax of the potential destruction was too far away to be any real threat to her, but her little farmhouse was still in danger. Tears streamed down her cheeks, she shivered.

Why? Why was this happening? Why?

Something caught her eye. Something was falling... falling. It looked like a shooting star, a spark of golden light tumbling from the stormy abyss. She saw it land, right in front of her house.

She didn't know what she was doing, she didn't need to. Without a second thought, she rushed away from the window, hastily plunging her feet into her boots. She heard her mother cry behind her, "Sally! Where are you going? Come back inside!" But the door had already slammed behind her.

Rain began to fall. Hard, icy droplets. She was soaked in seconds, her visions blurred by a veil of water. She still managed to find it in mere seconds. It was hard not to, it was glowing.

Sally approached it cautiously. It looked like it was some kind of rock. She bent down and picked it up. A Petpet, that's what it was. A glowing Rock Petpet. What was it doing here? It couldn't have fallen from the sky, this looked nothing like what she had seen. If only it were something useful, something special, then maybe...

She paused. Was that just her imagination? Or was...

Yes, it was. The Rock was glowing. But it was not the sickening radioactive shade of green, but a different colour, a much more beautiful colour. It was like sunshine, like the centres of daisies. A yellow colour -- no, something more regal than that. Gold...

A word came to her mind. She had no idea how, it just came.

Perhaps she had read it off the Rock, which was now gleaming in her palm like a miniature sun. Maybe it had just come to her, as most thoughts do. Or she could've heard it, like a voice, a whisper on the wind...

Nevertheless, she smiled. Despite the fear and chaos and hopelessness, she smiled.

She smiled and whispered the word to herself.

The air filled with a golden light...

Author: reveirie
Date: May 16th
...and the brilliance shot down Sally's arms and into her heart, lighting her up, glowing out through her skin and gilding every strand of fur.

Power surged up inside her, wholly unfamiliar and yet warmly friendly.

Sally no longer felt the pelting raindrops. Her feet left the ground.

She did not know this, but the Golden Orb was a malleable thing, really, and yet its inner nature was in another sense uncompromising. It was simple: what its bearer desired, that it would do.

When it had been kept, by Darigan and then by Meridell, for its benefits to agriculture and health, it had spread them generously, without caring who held it.

When it had been held by Lord Darigan again, his love for his homeland and his longing for healing had been tainted by the hate and the vengefulness and the dark magics he had turned to in the long search. It had not offered healing then. But when he had used it as a weapon, when he had held it while yearning for pain and destruction and retribution, it had given those too -- and it had wreaked that vengeance on him as much as on his targets.

And the Three. Well. The Three were desire. It was only that they lacked a physical form and must work through a living victim.

Or rather, they had lacked. They didn't realise what they had given up when they walked away from Enec without taking the "Petpet" he held at the time.

Sally, farmgirl that she was and uneducated in this type of magic, was unaware of all this. But she did know that what she wanted was to help.

A spear of golden light flashed out, reaching to the base of the Citadel. Bathing it.

Holding it.

Holding it up.

Sally smiled and rose further into the air.

*****

Deep in the dungeons, Enec awoke not long after Vex's departure. He coughed and wondered for a moment why his mouth tasted like porridge and yet he still felt ravenous, but then he remembered.

He'd been fooled.

The Three had spoken to him. He had seen the Orb... or thought he had... in the dungeon guards' lounge, on the table for playing Cellblock when off-duty. He'd listened to the terrifying magical shadows, and he'd let them into his heart and mind... and body...

...and they had torn away and gone out into the Citadel and left him with nothing. He felt empty, starved, and hollow in his mind too; all his desires and feelings seemed to have flown away with them. He didn't feel as if he were himself anymore.

He couldn't see the Orb anywhere, and his stomach felt odd, as if it were trying to float upward. It felt like the Citadel was losing altitude, but it wasn't as if they were likely to land, was it?

Something bright and golden-green caught his eye as it rolled halfway over down the slanting floor.

Like a bolt of lightning, memory and knowledge hit him.

All the Three gave you was this Petpet!

They had tricked him. They had used him. They had made him see the Orb when all he was really looking at was a brightly glowing Rock.

Their promises were all lies.

But what he had given them was real. Was reality.

What had he done?

The horror and guilt still seemed to be at a remove, as if they were only on a shell of his heart.

Enec pulled himself up on the wall, staggering and swaying, and went back up the stairs.

It was a hard climb. Some of the stairs were almost leading downward because of the tilt, but others were almost too steep to use. And, too, Enec was exhausted. And hungry. And rather dizzy, which was never a good thing on a steep spiral staircase even when it was properly upright.

He climbed all the same.

*****

Swamped in cold shadows, Darigan was staring out the window, gripping its sill in despair, when hope struck out.

He didn't know where the sunlight had come from -- it seemed to be coming from entirely the wrong direction, actually, upward instead of down from the sky -- but the Citadel steadied a little, and Darigan felt... buoyed, all at once.

The clinging cold shadows were torn aside as a ray stabbed inward, and he turned around, shadows sliding off his arms and shoulders to puddle sadly on the floor.

"You know," he said, "it's true that I cannot become the perfect leader." A slow smile. "But I don't have to."

The Three were wincing in the sudden light, used to their shadows. Darigan advanced on them, and if they forgot that their forms no longer depended on his lack of confidence, what of it? "One failure need not always beget another. Even many failures can be redeemed."

Another step forward. "It is never too late to turn around. Falls," Darigan said, "can be stopped."

And the sun came in the window. Sally, her fur blazing gold under copper-bright hair, soared in with the Orb restored in her hand.

At the same time, the door opened, and a gaunt Yurble tottered in. Enec's eyes fell on the Orb. "That's mine!" he said, his voice cracking. "That's what -- that's what they promised me."

Darigan froze in horror.

The Three stood up and smiled.

A trap.

"We gave it to him," Ambition said, mouth curving. "In exchange for this. He has paid."

"You cannot keep it," Greed said almost kindly, "not without paying in turn."

"Either way," Revenge added, "you give us more power over you."

Darigan closed his eyes. If the Three had given Enec the Orb in exchange for... whatever it was he'd given them, solidity apparently, then neither he nor Sally could keep it safely. It had to go back to Enec. "Give it to him, Sally," he said hoarsely to Sally. "To the guard, there. Go on."

Sally looked up at him uncertainly, but walked over to Enec and put the Orb into his hands.

Darigan swallowed. "Guard Enec." He hoped he had the name right. The Yurble's eyes swivelled toward him, anyway. "You must give up the Orb, if you wish your soul to be your own. I fell to these Three once myself. If you keep the Orb, if you accept what they offer, then you will remain in their power."

"If I give it up," Enec said, swaying and looking at the Three with dread, "will what I already gave them come back to me? Will they go away?"

Darigan hesitated. "Probably not."

"Hey," Sally said abruptly, "how did they get it?"

The other five in the room all turned to look at her. The faerie hissed, her fingers twitching; the Gelert growled; the Skeith grinned his menace.

"We claimed it from him as payment," Ambition cried, pointing to Darigan.

"You did not," Darigan retorted. "I can feel your lies. I never promised you that."

"You promised to use it for our benefit," Greed pointed out sulkily.

"Yes," Darigan snapped, "and to my shame, to the best of my ability, I did. That you stole me away in the process hardly voids that, or makes you its rightful owners! Besides, you didn't even take it at the same time -- I heard the tale of how it rolled away and broke."

"So," Sally said quickly, "they just picked it up after somebody else lost it, didn't they? That's what I did, too! They haven't got any better claim on it than I do."

"You gave it to Enec," Revenge said warningly.

Sally, though she was shaking with fear, smiled sweetly at him from her still gilded-bright fur. "Oh! That means you admit it was as much mine to give as yours before, and so he doesn't have it from you anymore, so keeping it doesn't give you any more power over him!"

"It wasn't yours, you brat!" Ambition snapped.

"Then it wasn't yours either!" Sally scolded back at her.

Enec stared at the glowing ball of power in his hands. This was what he had wanted. This was what he had asked for. This was the thing he had sold himself for, to heal the Citadel.

It only now occurred to him, emptied and exhausted as he was, that he didn't even know how to use it.

"Well," he croaked, "if it was Sally's, I guess it's mine now, but I don't really know what to do with it."

"I can teach you," Ambition said quickly.

"You want to keep it, don't you?" Greed added.

"Destroy your enemies," said Revenge.

"Take glory for yourself when you solve all your homeland's problems," Ambition concluded.

Enec stared at them with empty eyes. "If it wasn't Sally's," he said, "then it wasn't yours either. And if it wasn't yours, then it's still his." He turned his eyes toward Lord Darigan, standing tall and straight and still. "Figure a sorcerer knows what to do with it better'n me." He staggered over toward his prince and dropped to his knees with a thud. "I'm sorry, Your Highness. Please... take it back."

Darigan stooped over him, not quite believing, not quite certain.

Enec held up the Orb. His hands jerked back once: he'd wanted it so much. He'd wanted to fix things.

But he'd only made them worse, hadn't he?

Lord Darigan hadn't moved to take it, not when Enec took it back. Now the Yurble raised it again, pushing it at the Korbat a little, and this time Lord Darigan's long fingers closed around it.

He raised it high again and looked at the Three.

"You are banished," he said.

There was light.

*****

The physical forms of the Three had been gone when the light faded, destroyed as surely as light washes away a shadow. Their whispers still lurked in the breezes of the Citadel, but they were quieter.

Sally was sent home after a very, very hard hug, although she insisted on coming back with a large basket of potatoes, many of which were used to bring Enec back from the brink of starvation.

The Orb sat in a place of honour and was not touched, but the atmosphere around it seemed brighter than before.

Light freely given.

Over time, the shadows around the Citadel began to draw back.

The End

Author: schefflera
Date: May 16th



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