Edges of Things
Things are different when it’s midnight. The world is on the edge of true night and the birth of morning. The rain is harsher, and the stars are brighter, and the shadows seem alive. They dance a wild, twisting dance, and perform strange contortions that would seem impossible in sunlight but fit with the strange moonlit world.
It was all extremely poetic, but Phizith was mostly concerned with one shadow in particular, a horned, winged shape silhouetted against the bright moon. This shape’s shadow merged with that of another winged shape, briefly, as the two shapes hovered half a metre apart for a moment or three. There was something strange and surreal about it, just the two of them, alone in the night and the stars and the rain. Then the horned shape peeled away, and so did the other, leaving the moon fresh and bright and perfect, shining silver, untouched by shadows.
The elegant shape flitted towards the open window. Phizith’s eyes widened, and he jerked to the side so that the wall concealed him. Standing blatantly in the open doorway probably hadn’t been the stealthiest of ideas.
But then, Phizith wasn’t the stealthiest of people. It was hard to be sneaky when your very feathers glowed if you weren’t careful, and you had a habit of setting fire to buildings when you lost your temper.
Well. That had only happened once. Or twice. Or, yes, four times, but the fourth didn’t count, the building had provoked him.
The shape lighted down with an elegant flare of wings, cutting off the moonlight. The darkened room was now utterly dark, save for the shape’s eyes, which glowed an eerie golden, bright and baleful as lamps. Not that Phizith had ever thought of lamps as particularly menacing. But if these eyes were lamps, then they’d be the kind of lamps that wore black capes with red lining and said ‘muahaha’ a lot.
Phizith stepped forward so that he was abundantly obvious, lit up his feathers to make it even more abundant, and cleared his throat just to drive the point home.
The golden eyes widened, and the shape made a startled sound and tumbled from the window. On this side of the window, unfortunately. It would have been much funnier if he’d fallen out, seeing this was the fifth floor and all.
The shape jumped hastily to his feet. There was a click, and a light turned on, revealing the horned, winged shape to be ...
Well, a horned Darigan Korbat, his golden eyes slightly anxious behind semi-circular glasses, trying very hard to pretend that he was calm and wryly amused and not surprised at all. Phizith wasn’t fooled.
“Hello,” said Phizith cheerfully. He gave a little wave.
“Phizith,” said the Korbat, sounding distinctly unenthusiastic. “Um.” He stroked his beard. The Korbat would be handsome if he wasn’t so gaunt, and his beard would be a lot more dashing if it was longer. As it was, the neatly clipped thing merely made it look as though his chin had fallen afoul of some kind of peculiarly pedantic shrub. “Nice weather,” the Korbat ventured, after some thought. “Isn’t it.”
Phizith looked outside. The wind had picked up, and was now struggling gamely to tear the already drenched curtains away. The rain beat a steady tattoo against the roof.
“Uh,” said Phizith, not quite sure how to respond to that.
Phizith could always tell when Zeekaye wasn’t quite sure what to say, because he inevitably started prattling about the weather. Soon he’d start talking about politics or the current state of the Neopian economy or something horrendous like that.
To forestall this, Phizith said, “What were you doing?”
Zeekaye frowned at the ceiling. He was utterly drenched, his wings all soggy and bedraggled. “Would you believe that I was enjoying a midnight flight?”
Phizith glanced outside again. The storm raged. “Not likely.”
“Ah. Perhaps I desired some fresh air.”
Phizith gave him a sharp, challenging stare. Zeekaye’s eyes may have been creepily bright, but Phizith’s were just as bright, a vivid, lively green, far too vivid a green for the Darigan Citadel, where the only plant life was of the kind that could be described as ‘shriveled’, ‘limp’ or, if you were feeling blunt, ‘dead’.
Zeekaye sighed. “Could we leave it at the fact that I had business of my own to conduct?”
Phizith raised his eyebrows. “At midnight. During a storm. Wow. I would admire your job dedication if I knew what your job is.”
“I rather like storms,” said Zeekaye, giving a slight smile as he dripped damply onto the carpet. “They appeal to my dwindling but notable dramatic side.”
“Uh-huh,” grunted Phizith. It was a thoroughly unconvinced grunt.
“How about you go back to bed,” suggested Zeekaye, “and we continue this discussion in the morning, when you’re less monosyllabic?”
“So you can try and convince me it was some kind of dream brought on by that dodgy omelette at dinner? Not going to happen.”
Zeekaye had black hair that probably would have behaved perfectly reasonably if he didn’t always run his hand through it an in effort to get it to behave. He ran his hand through it now, and twitched his tall, elegant ears in agitation.
Phizith pulled his feathery hand out of the pocket of his jacket and looked at his wrist, very pointedly. He wasn’t wearing a watch, but he felt that he got the point across all the same.
“All right,” said Zeekaye eventually. “I’ll tell you once I’ve had time to think about how to phrase it. I promise. All right?”
Phizith grunted. Zeekaye always kept his word, but he always kept to the letter of it. ‘Once I’ve had time to think about it’ could conceivably be stretched out indefinitely.
“Now can you leave me alone so I can finally close my window?” said Zeekaye, wryly, and Phizith barked out a laugh and left.
Alright, it was kind of like giving in, but it was midnight. He’d stayed up all night last night playing all the music he owned very loudly to annoy his owner. He was tired.
By the next morning the storm had blown itself out and hesitant sunlight was doing its best to make itself known. On this front it failed rather spectacularly. ‘Darigan Citadel’ and ‘sunny’ were not words that fitted together in any sentence except one that was about how they didn’t fit together. The sky was cold and blue, washed clean of its usual stormy grey. In Meridell below, children would just now be stirring, in eager anticipation of the day ahead: a day spent feasting with family, gathered around the evergreen trees festooned in glowing candles as timid snow drifted down.
Up here, things were altogether more sombre. Snow was rare, but sleet was not uncommon. Twisted wreaths of thorny wood hung on most doors, and the smell of fruits stewing for the traditional bittersweet pies made the air heavy with cinnamon. Darigan Citadel may have been less blatantly cheerful, but things were cheerful nonetheless, and the early morning air buzzed with barely contained excitement.
Because, of course, today was Christmas. Whether on the Citadel or down below or in distant Neopia Central, nothing could change that. How it was celebrated differed according to location, but the centre of it remained unchanged. It was only at the edges where things were different. Its heart was the same all over Neopia. It was like snow: a soft perfection that made the most everyday of things look beautiful.
And, like snow, the Christmas excitement would melt away by tomorrow, leaving everything muddied and damp. But for now, it was something to be enjoyed.
The family congregated downstairs around the large wooden dinner table, marred by scorches here and there due to some accidents of Phizith’s and various culinary mishaps. Breakfast was unadventurous – the inevitable stewed fruit, rich with spices, served with clotted cream. Phizith dug in.
Zeekaye, he was pleased to note, was not quite his usual eloquent self. Most of his words were punctuated with sneezes. He must have caught a cold. Phizith tried not to feel a thrill of malicious glee at that, but he didn’t try particularly hard. It was Zeekaye’s own fault for flapping around in storms and not answering questions and being all stubborn and aristocratic.
He almost forgot his curiousity and annoyance in the day that followed, because it was, as usual, chaotic. That small, surly white gallion had come to visit his brother Tap’s gallion again, and the two argued in the usual incomprehensible gallion way before the surly one flew off again, huffily. Phizith, bored, had not-so-accidentally set fire to the wreath, and it had taken the combined efforts of all of them to extinguish it again.
It was Christmas, and that was good. But something about it felt hollow, somehow. Phizith was used to arguing with his big brother. It was a part of life, and anyway he rather enjoyed it. But today ...
Even after Zeekaye had gotten over his brief cold, he barely spoke a word. He was all quiet and contemplative and thoughtful, and wore a frown instead of his usual vague smile. Absent was the usual banter and slightly sarcastic remarks. It just wasn’t the same, somehow.
And he didn’t get Phizith anything.
It was evening, and Phizith was standing moodily near the edge of the Citadel. Not the edge edge, of course – just the edges of where the edge edged on the edges of the edge. It gave him a headache, but it was stark, and no one else was there, which was enough.
His jacket was faded and green, made of battered canvas with a liberal amount of rips and tears. He called it his favourite old jacket, but really it was just about the only jacket he could find which didn’t burst into flame after a minute or two being worn by a Fire Pteri. It did have one thing in its favour, though, which was that its roomy pockets were ideal for when he wanted to stick his hands in his pockets and sulk. This is what he proceeded to do, until Zeekaye walked up beside him.
Phizith stood in disagreeable silence, scuffing at the ground with his talons, glaring out into the sky. He just knew that Zeekaye was going to pacify him somehow, say something witty and sheepish and eloquent that made everything go back to normal, and he didn’t want that. He wanted the truth.
“You go away a lot,” said Phizith eventually. “And you come back broken and bleeding. And you wear secretive smiles, and you meet strange people, and you act like you’re better than everyone else.”
Zeekaye dipped one of his ears thoughtfully. “I suspect that last one is more of an ingrained personality flaw,” he said.
Phizith caught himself before he grinned at that. See, here he was starting with the pacifying witty sheepishness, already. Phizith wasn’t about to forgive him in a hurry, but it would be so easy just to give up on this grudge and let things go back to normal. Of course, it would be just as easy to push Zeekaye off the edge or something, and he wasn’t about to do that.
Well. Not yet.
Zeekaye was quiet for a few moments, staring out at the sky with him in pensive silence. Phizith didn’t bother to look at his face, but just from the shape of the silence, he could guess that it was wearing a slight frown. Not an annoyed frown, just the kind of frown that meant he was thinking.
Zeekaye started to talk, and Phizith braced himself for the inevitable, the soothing witty eloquence that would give the Pteri the severe impulse to punch his brother on the nose.
To his surprise, as Zeekaye talked, that impulse winked out completely. Because Zeekaye wasn’t being irritating and sheepish and contrite and articulate. He was being matter-of-fact, and he was telling the truth, and he was telling everything.
Phizith’s mouth dropped open as his brother talked. He slowly turned to face him, trying to read his face. Phizith wasn’t the best at faces, but yes, as far as he could tell, this was the truth. It wasn’t the kind of truth you could brag about, but it was the kind of secret you could feel proud of, vaguely. His brother, the crime fighter, defender of justice, all the things like that. Living on the edges. Or that was the gist of it, anyway, so far as Phizith could tell – he was too busy gaping to really catch all the details. It was strange, but it made a kind of sense.
Zeekaye stopped talking and watched him apprehensively.
“I always thought so,” said Phizith, with supreme confidence.
Zeekaye gave a soft snort of amusement. “You did not.”
“Oh, the signs were there the whole time,” said Phizith, waving his hands airily. “I’d be a fool not to see it.”
Zeekaye’s mouth curved up at the corners. “Well, to be fair, you’re a fool anyway,” he said, without any particular malice.
In response Phizith stuck a pleasant smile on his beak and heated up his feathers. Zeekaye gave a pained wince and tried to scuttle surreptitiously to the side a bit. Phizith gave a triumphant smirk and let his feathers cool back down. This was much more how things usually were.
Zeekaye seemed to think so, too, because he turned to walk back to the house. Before he did, though, he paused, and glanced at Phizith.
“One more thing,” he said. “Are you aware of what it is that keeps the Citadel floating?”
“Please don’t say something nauseating like ‘love and kindness’.”
Zeekaye quirked an eyebrow and shook his head. “It’s encased in a net of gravity spells. The system works remarkably well for the most part, but, here and there, the gravity spells are fraying. Strange things happen on the edges of things.”
He told Phizith where to go, and then turned, and went back to the house, a tall, elegant, lanky figure, with his hands in his pockets and his ears perked in perpetual curiousity.
Phizith stared out into the evening light, and, slowly, he started to grin.
It had taken him an hour or two to find the right place, and now all was dark. Full night had drawn its shadowy cloak over the Citadel.
Phizith let his feathers cool down, until there was no light but the frosty stars and the wavering candlelight in a few of the windows back near the centre.
It was windy here, so close to open sky.
Phizith took a step forward. Now he stood on the edge of the world.
He stepped over and –
Swung, the gravity spells catching him, doing strange things to him, making his stomach feel hollow, scrambling his thoughts, making his head spin in dizziness. But they caught him all the same, and, without hesitating, he put his foot forward again, and took another step, and then another.
He had stepped over the edge of the world, and now he stood beneath it. Strange things happened to the gravity spells on the edge of the Darigan Citadel, and it was dangerous to try and take advantage of that. But his brother knew what kind of person he was, and that this was the best gift he could ever be given.
Phizith took another step forward. He planted his feet far apart, and looked down at the ground beneath them, the underside of the Citadel. It was rocky, rough. Jagged spikes soared up all around him, the reminders of when the Citadel had been ripped so cruelly from the earth.
Phizith looked up.
Far, far above, he could see the lights of Meridell. They were celebrating Christmas, just as the Darigani were, just as everyone was. As he watched, the fireworks started. Rumour had it that mages from as far as Brightvale had gathered at the Castle to set off this display, but you didn’t need to know what complicated magics were involved in making fireworks to know that they were beautiful.
The distant crack of them reached his ears, and the smell of burning made him draw breath, his eyes suddenly impossibly bright.
The fireworks started to come closer, until they were all around him, showers of sparks brushing against him and scorching him with light, blinding him with heat, and in the midst of the colours and madness Phizith flung back his head and laughed, loud enough to be heard above the shrill cackle of fire, loud enough maybe to be heard way down below.
Christmas made the most everyday of things look beautiful. And this was as far from the everyday as it was possible to get.
Here on the edges of things.