Aria of the Aeons: Part Ten
Arc II: Space and Spirits
Part XIX: Reverie
Sayang charged them. Keben shook his head. He hadn’t even landed yet, and Sayang had already started running. Hadn’t the entire idea of him going along been to get Sayang to be somewhere other than the front lines? Cole touched down and began running, and Keben laughed, unsheathing his blade. It hummed quietly as he moved it through the air, and Keben leaned over Cole’s neck, careful to avoid hitting anyone with his sword – really an electrically charged piece of sharp sword-shaped metal, the sort of thing only the rich or favored had access to, aside from the security force, because of how effective they were against robots.
Cole ran through the lines without any trouble, somehow managing to dodge between the members of the army. Keben had no idea how he managed that, and barely cared. His blade pulsed in his hand, trace amounts of electricity finding their way through his glove. His whole arm tingled, and Keben’s smile broadened. He liked that feeling. It wasn’t one he’d been able to have often once he’d become Proteus’s assistant, but it seemed right to fight this final battle with a blade Sloth’s own officers had trained him to use.
They were almost at the front lines. Keben tensed, getting a better grip on Cole. The Uni leapt. Sayang called the army to a charge. Cole landed in the middle of it, head bowed and facing straight at a giant Grarrl-shaped robot. Keben winced slightly, rising in the saddle. The timing had to be perfect. A laser blast hit their target, and its head reared. Keben tightened his hand, reaching out to hit the exposed wiring as Cole ran past. Some of the wires broke. More of them got scrambled.
The robot went wild, and Keben heard the effects. He ignored them. A few cheers rose out of the chaos, and Keben smiled slightly. So they finally realized why he had come with them, then. Cole’s choice of their next target brought his attention back to the battle. A war tank. Keben cursed and tried not to let fear give him anything but an adrenaline rush.
Cole leapt over a rocket it fired, and Keben ducked another blast as Cole danced through the myriad lasers and rockets aimed at them. He kept his grip on both saddle and sword, watching the tank. More blasts, this time from their friends, passed them. As the lasers and rockets hit the tank, Cole brought Keben alongside it. He stabbed the tank, cutting as deeply into one of the holes created as he could. As Cole kept going, Keben almost fell off, almost lost his sword, but somehow managed to keep his seat and sword, though his arm felt like it was now bruised all over the bones.
Their next target was a cluster of Bori-shaped robots. Keben smiled slightly as they bore down on them. They were relatively simple to destroy, at least. His blade was sharp and strong enough to cut through the weakest points of their armor, which was remarkable all on its own. Keben slashed through two of them, and Cole trampled at least as many before reversing course to kill the rest of them. Keben glanced around, looking for a flash of red and brown within the battle.
Cole seemed to sense what he was looking for, and the Uni charged through the robots without any real target. Keben hit any that he could, doing his best to scramble or destroy them. Cole kept running, ramming into a vaguely Ruki-shaped robot horn-first. Keben cursed, trying to keep his grip as Cole went nearly straight through the robot. A piece of it hit Keben’s shoulder. The next piece hit his stomach, knocking the air out of him. Cole swerved around a robot, and Keben, still trying to get his breath back, slipped off the Uni’s back.
He rolled on the ground, somehow managing to keep a grip on his electro-blade. He came up stabbing, hitting a Grarrl-form robot in the back of the neck. It twitched once, and then fell over. Keben was already moving on, heading towards Cole. The Uni was cornered between a war tank and a squad of Yurble-forms. Keben cursed, dodging another laser blast and stabbing another robot. He wasn’t discriminating between their shapes; anything made of metal and wiring that stood between him and his friend was a target.
Keben ignored any threats to his own life, instinctively dodging. He was good at that. He’d always been praised for his speed and agility, though rarely for the actual sword-work, but his determination made up for that. He slashed through another two robots. He’d been top of his class, and it had made his parents proud, but he hadn’t seen why that was such a big deal. Now, he saw the use in those skills, hard-earned and so much a part of him that he didn’t even know half of what he was doing as he made his way towards Cole.
The Uni wasn’t doing as well, he knew. In the brief glances Keben was able to catch of his friend, Cole had tried to fly out of trouble, but gotten a broken wing for his trouble. Now he was simply trying to dodge all their attacks. Keben growled, bulling his way past more Bori-forms. He caught them in a back-hand swing, scrambling their inputs more than actually destroying them. The flurry of blasts aimed not at him proved that, thankfully, his blow had worked.
He was almost to Cole. Cutting down another Grarrl, Keben ran towards the Uni. At the same moment as he got an unobstructed view, the war tank sent two rockets at his friend. Keben screamed. He didn’t know what he screamed, only that his throat was raw and that tears were running down his face as he destroyed the tank. He didn’t know how he did that, either. The Yurble-bots were easy. Surrounded by new-made scrap metal, ignoring the rest of the battle raging around him, he knelt next to Cole.
The Uni’s fur was more red than brown, now. Keben did his best to ignore that. He just looked at Cole’s face. The Uni didn’t seem to be in pain. Shock. That was the only emotion Keben registered. In either of them. “Kill them,” Cole whispered, voice wet and strained. “Blast them to— to—” his voice faded, and he coughed, and his eyes tightened in pain.
Keben nodded, eyes clear behind his tears, and stroked the Uni’s face. Cole’s eyes drifted closed, and Keben choked on his words, though he tried not to show it. “Try to stay awake. I want to hear your blasted jokes again.”
A croaking laugh emerged from Cole’s throat.
Keben closed his eyes for a second, letting fury take precedence over the want to cry. Then he rose, and turned, and launched himself at the nearest robot. And the next. And the next. He kept going, not caring what he attacked or where he was. All that mattered was destroying the robots that had taken so many of his friends. All that mattered was making sure that nobody else lost their friends, that no families were forced once more to weep for the members of the Republic. There were tears in his eyes, hot and deadly. He didn’t let them rise. He couldn’t. To cry was to die, in this place.
Only when all he could see were robot scraps did he let himself cry, silent tears running down his face as he stood in the middle of devastation. His body hurt. His fur was covered with laser burns, and he even had a few holes in him, bleeding out into his white fur. He didn’t care. He couldn’t care. Everything was numb. Slowly, Keben sheathed his sword and turned it off. The buzz left his ears, and in the sudden silence, all he could hear was the wind, and footsteps, and broken tears.
Numb, he pulled off his gloves, sticking them in his belt as he turned back to where Cole had lain. The tears didn’t stop as he got closer. He hadn’t expected them to.
Then he reached Cole.
The Uni’s dark eyes were closed. His horn, a tan color that had always reminded Keben of wood, was stuck through the body of a robot. Keben smiled at that, almost laughing as he wept. Even like this, Cole managed to fight and win. Keben knelt next to Cole, running a hand through his mane. If he only looked there, it was almost like Cole was just asleep. A hand rested on Keben’s shoulder. He looked up, meeting Sayang’s eyes. The Kyrii’s coat was even more ragged than usual, and the goggles on her forehead were cracked.
“What did you do, the first time—?” Keben asked, his voice cracked, choked.
Sayang knelt, and hugged her knees. “I was useless for the rest of the battle,” she admitted. “You fought like the wind.”
Keben laughed, hoarse and broken. “I don’t remember that.”
“You don’t need to.” Sayang sighed, and scooted right up against his side. “You’ll dream about this for years, though.”
Keben nodded, closing his eyes and leaning against Sayang. They stayed that way, supporting each other, as the sun passed overhead and other members of the Republic searched for all their fallen friends.
Arc II: Space and Spirits
Part XX: Requiem
They had won.
Sayang looked up at the sky, and sighed. They had won, but at what cost? Beside her, Keben was silent. He had barely spoken since the end of the battle. Two days had passed since then, and only now had everyone been gathered for elegy. One of the massive squares Sloth had used for executions had been cleared and prepared for a bonfire.
The Kyrii could see the surviving members of the Republic gathering around the square, most of them on rooftops or watching out windows, though some were in nearby streets. There was still an hour until Proteus arrived, and the gathering had begun at dawn. Sayang had been here since sunset, unable to sleep, working off her debt to the fallen by helping prepare. Keben had joined her at dawn, looking like he’d either spent the night in nightmares or too afraid of nightmares to sleep.
Neither of them had spoken then or since. They each acknowledged the other’s presence, true, and the rest of the Republic did the same by keeping their distance, but they couldn’t find words to say or the courage to speak them. Sayang wasn’t sure what the greatest factor was in their refusal to talk to each other. She pulled her coat closer around her body, more comforted by the familiar pressure than anything else. Cool air seeped through holes and shredded edges, but she refused to have it patched until after the requiem was done.
Sidereus had come to talk to Keben the evening after the battle. Sayang had seen him briefly, but his blank stare had caused her to let him pass without asking any questions. She supposed it was nice of Sidereus to even let her see him, since he could’ve just teleported into Keben’s room. She didn’t know what the guardian had said to Keben, but when he had left, he’d spoken to her briefly.
“He will heal,” he’d said. “But he needs time. Let him be with Connor and his family. They can help him more than you.”
Sayang hadn’t replied, but he’d smiled and disappeared once more into silver light. Sayang shook her head, returning her gaze to the clouds drifting overhead. She hadn’t cried after the battle. She couldn’t let herself. If she started crying for one thing, it’d lead to another, and another, until she’d need to mourn everyone they’d ever lost.
And she couldn’t do that. She couldn’t mourn them anymore. Couldn’t mourn her friends, couldn’t mourn those she’d cut down to beat Sloth, couldn’t mourn those she’d been unable to save. The clouds drifted by, peaceful and white, so unlike the emotions that centered in the square. Couldn’t mourn the fact that Az and Invi were gone and there was nothing they’d be able to do about it. And nobody knew where they were anymore. Sayang had simply said that she didn’t know, last time she’d been asked. That had stopped the questions. And nobody dared ask Keben about Invi.
In the clouds above, Sayang saw silver light. She frowned, focusing on it. A black shape appeared in the midst of the silver. “Sidereus?” she whispered, looking at it. Beside her, she felt Keben shift. His hand gripped her shoulder, and she looked at him. There was fear on his face, though she couldn’t think of any reason for it to be there.
“Don’t talk about him,” Keben whispered. “Please.”
Sayang nodded, and placed her hand on top of his. “You haven’t been yourself.”
“What’s normal anymore?” He sighed. “You haven’t been yourself either.”
Sayang looked back at the plaza. “I knew them better than you, Keb. I trained them, or they trained me. It didn’t really matter. We always had a good time, teasing each other for mistakes, poking fun at weaknesses, but always there to give a helping hand. And now they’re gone. I can name at least five people down there who were useless when it came to weapons-work, but never gave up, just because they wanted to be able to protect their friends.”
“Was it always like this, when you took back the provinces?”
Sayang closed her eyes, leaning against Keben. He was solid and warm against her, and she tried to block out sorrow with his presence. “Taking Faerieland... well, you were there for that one. We mourned, but there was so much more to be thankful for that we could forget, sometimes, how much we had lost. As we freed the provinces, it was always hard at first, but as the citizens realized that they didn’t need to follow Sloth’s laws anymore, they thanked us. They made us heroes. It got better. Why is this time different? I don’t know. Maybe it’s because this is the end. Now we need to recreate a government. Maybe it’s just because we’re tired and don’t know what to do. I really don’t know.”
Keben wrapped his arms around her, and they sat in silence, waiting the hour away. Sayang dozed, catching up on sleep lost in the chaos of the last few days. But when Proteus arrived, the relative silence was enough to wake her. She opened her eyes, looking down at his platform. The mutant Scorchio seemed to have caught the general melancholy, for his steps were heavier than they normally were. She watched as he stepped up to the microphone, hands resting on its podium.
“You all know what we’ve gone through,” Proteus said, his deep voice amplified throughout the plaza. “You all know that, by standing here in force without worry, we have accomplished the goal that the Traitor Republic was created for. One hundred years ago, Sloth took over Neopia. One hundred years ago, Sloth destroyed Shenkuu City, reducing it to rubble from which a sole survivor emerged. One hundred years ago, that survivor, Vesperius Dajian-Amoure, created us out of the shattered remnants of the Shenkuuri who had served as Shenkuu’s elite force.
“The Shenkuuri were our role-models in those early days. Honor. Strength. Speed. Endurance. The last attribute became the one they revered the most. Endurance of Sloth’s reign. Endurance of hardship. Endurance of pain. Endurance of the time it would take to accomplish their goal.” Proteus sighed. “That endurance, that patience, brought us to where we are now. The Traitor Republic was named by Sloth himself when he acknowledged our presence. His honor allowed us to become what we are now, for if Sloth had wished, he could have destroyed us in the first days of our existence. But he let us survive.
“He let us survive. He let us grow stronger. He let us become his opponent, the only one he truly had. He lived a hundred years on his own. We survived a hundred years, though not on our own, changing leaders as the old ones wished to pass their duties on. I am Vesperius’s heir, his great-great-grandson of the spirit. All that I do, all that Nebrious has done, all that Arilla has done, all that Caprice has done, all that you and your own ancestors of the spirit have done – it is all because, one hundred years ago, Vesperius forged the Traitor Republic.
“I do not need to list the trials we have overcome, the challenges we endured, the strife we have created and avoided. I do not need to list the reasons why each of you are here.” He smiled, looking around the silent crowd. “I do not need to remind you of what we have done, but for all those who will hear my words in the years to come, all those who will remember what we have done this day, I will speak the words aloud. We came for honor. We came for freedom. We came for acceptance. We came for justice. And, most of all, we came for love. We came to reclaim the world and place it within our loving hands, not the hands of those who would tear down trees, reduce mountains to rubble, and stain the oceans black.
“We fought honorably and justly for freedom and acceptance with endurance and love. These are values that we were charged with in our creation, the values of our Shenkuuri ancestors of the spirit, and we strove to be worthy of them. I, at least, think we have succeeded.”
He paused for a moment, and the entire plaza was silent for it. “Azimuth and Invidere, who came from a different time, allowed us to capture Faerieland and take the first step on this final journey to our original goal. They became heroes in our eyes. But – and I ask you, all of you, to remember this – what is a hero?” Proteus raised his eyes and voice all at once, looking around the plaza. “A hero does not need to be a legend. A hero does not need to be glorified. A hero does not need to be born high, nor does he need to be born low.
“A hero does not need to be anything other than a common person who, when presented with injustice, does his best to right it.” Proteus’s voice quieted, and Sayang could see everyone instinctively lean closer. “A hero does not need to be anything more than a brave soul in the right place at the right time. A hero does not become worthy of his title simply by being given it. No, a hero becomes worthy of his title when he sacrifices himself to save the lives of others. A hero becomes worthy of his title when he defends those who cannot defend themselves. A hero becomes worthy of his title when he does the impossible.
“You, the common people of the Traitor Republic, the common people of Neopia, common people who were simply shown a cause and given a chance to fight, did something two days ago makes each and every one of you worthy of being called a hero: you fought for freedom. Your own, that of your friends and family, of this city. Even, perhaps especially, the freedom of our shared world. You knew that you might not survive, that the risk was great. You came despite the risks, and you fought.
“Some of you died in this battle. Those who died did so to protect their friends and our shared dream of freedom. Those who died did so because they knew that they had to destroy another robot, make sure that it couldn’t cause any more harm. Those who died are heroes now, whether or not they were before.” Proteus closed his eyes. “And we all grieve for them.”
His voice sounded choked as he continued. “We cannot change the past to bring back our friends, so we must look to the future that they helped us create. This future is a future filled with freedom. A future where we will do our best to create a world where nobody cares who you are, so long as you are your truest self. A future that will keep the world strong in peace, and love, and joy. That, my friends, is what we strove for, and what we now have the chance to create. Grieve for our fallen friends, but never forget all those who will be born into a world of love because of them.” Elegantly, gracefully, the mutant Scorchio bowed and left the podium.
Sayang closed her eyes, ignoring the applause that echoed through the plaza. Tears were leaking out of her eyes. She felt Keben wipe them away, and smiled at him, eyes open again. A burst of fire erupted from the plaza, and Sayang looked to the sky. Sidereus was up there, silver hair blown back by winds that she couldn’t feel. He waved a hand, and more fire, gold tinged with white, rose from the plaza. Sayang smiled, watching the black Kougra disappear in a burst of silver flame.
With friends like these, it was hard to imagine the future being anything but bright. Sayang hugged Keben, smiling through her tears. It was time to rebuild a shattered world.