Meridell at War: Part Four
Sally woke in the middle of the night, the sound of a scream in the distance drawing her away from her sleep. Next to her, she saw that Bert was missing.
At once she darted to her window, and her face was lit up by the scene outside. The barn was on fire, and in the distance she could see several other fires smouldering in the direction of nearby farms.
Fighting to put on her dressing gown, she rushed down the stairs and out of the kitchen door into the madness. She emerged to a scene that immediately stirred memories of her childhood.
There was the barn, the fires of war slowly consuming it.
There was Bert, lying injured on the floor near the paddock, just as her father had done.
And there, standing around Bert, were the soldiers.
“It’s happening again...” she whispered fearfully to herself, backing away toward the farmhouse. “Is this... a dream?”
The soldiers turned at the sound of her voice, and it was then that Sally realised they did not belong to the Darigan Citadel. The dark armour Sally expected to see was instead shining silver, and the red and blue emblem of Meridell burned fresh horrors onto Sally’s vision.
“You’re... Meridell Knights!” Sally gasped. “Why are you doing this!?”
“Sir Grouse has been ordered to find Lord Darigan; he thinks he might be nearby,” a Skeith at the head of the soldiers told her.
“But, we’re Meridell citizens!” Sally shouted.
“Maybe,” the Skeith sneered. “But you might be collaborating with the enemy. Sir Grouse thinks it’s better to be sure; we’ll burn the enemy out.”
“You... you can’t!” Sally screamed.
The Skeith merely advanced as the Usul fell to her knees. It was all so similar... if she closed her eyes, all she saw was the Darigan Skeith advancing on her, but now, it didn’t matter if she tried to force her eyes open to block out the memories, they were replaying in front of her.
A shadow darted from the side of the Skeith, colliding with the soldier and sending both tumbling to the ground. The figure stood up, the dancing flames and moonlight illuminating him at last.
The words escaped Sally’s mouth without her thinking them, for she had been saved just as she had been all those years ago, “Mr. Scary...?”
But she knew she was wrong. The figure stood before her was not the bat-like creature she had nursed to health as a child, her imaginary friend had not returned to her. She had only ever seen the shadow in the barn, but now she understood how wrong she was.
The purple skinned creature looked thin and weak, his purple feathers falling out in places, and only a rag as clothes. His beak was chipped, while his wings looked more like those of a Korbat than any Eyrie due to the lack of feathers. As he stared at the Meridell knights, a fire brighter than the one consuming the barn lit in his eyes. The Eyrie let out a shrill primeval cry.
“Kass!?” one of the remaining soldiers questioned, faced with the broken shell that stood, twitching, in front of him.
The name was like a trigger, and the Eyrie bounded forward, razor sharp claws at the ready. Despite his frail appearance, he proved more than a match for the soldiers. It wasn’t long before it was only him and Sally.
“Mr... Scary...” Sally whispered from her place by the farmhouse.
The Eyrie fixed her with his glare, the fire in his eyes softening momentarily.
“Sally...” came a tired and worn voice. “I have to go.”
With a single beat of his wings, the Eyrie soared up into the sky, heading southward. Sally watched the creature disappear against the moon, her world slowly unwinding itself.
She had spent so many years convincing herself that the horrible night during the war had been a dream, or a hallucination... but now... was this all a dream?
Her eyes caught the fallen figure of Bert, her husband, and she rushed forward to tend to his wounds as the flames claimed the last of the barn.
Jeran’s unit steadily pushed their way through the thick undergrowth of Lightwater Forest. If there was one thing that could be said for Illusen, it was that she was an incredibly skilled earth Faerie. Under her guidance, the forest had become so overgrown that it was difficult for most people to gain passage.
Thankfully Jeran had visited Lady Illusen more than his fair share of times, and he knew the paths that were slightly less entwined with vines. It was not long before the soldiers could see the moonlight from the glade’s clearing shining through the branches of the forest.
The soldiers emerged into the familiar clearing that formed Illusen’s Glade. Without the earth Faerie’s influence, the natural green glow that the place seemed to give off had lessened, but it was no less impressive. High in the trees above them, the soldiers saw tree houses nestled in the branches, home to Illusen and her chosen followers. A few similar huts had been constructed on the forest floor, and it was in front of one of these that a group of Neopets were deep in conversation.
They turned to see the newcomers, revealing the symbol of the Darigan Citadel upon their armour. At the centre of the group, Lord Darigan himself was deep in conversation with one of the Shoyru archers that protected Illusen’s Glade.
Jeran and his soldiers immediately reached for their weapons, but a small blue Kyrii broke free of the Darigan group and ran toward the Meridell knights. Jeran recognised him as Vadellen, one of Illusen’s most trusted assistants.
“Stop!” he shouted. “There will be no fighting in this Glade! That was Lady Illusen’s wish!”
“So it was true,” Jeran snapped. “I doubted King Skarl for no reason; Illusen was working with Darigan all along.”
“What?” Vadellen questioned, glancing back toward the Darigan soldiers. “No, it couldn’t be further from the truth, Sir Jeran!”
“Then why is the commander of the enemy forces hiding in her home?” Jeran demanded.
“Please, allow me to explain,” Lord Darigan volunteered. “I am here to put an end to this war before even more lives are lost. My intention is to reach Meridell Castle, but we were unable to teleport directly inside.”
Jeran’s hand tightened around his sword. “You intend to assassinate the King?”
Darigan raised his hands in peace. “I wish King Skarl no harm, Jeran. You have to believe me.”
“Then what do you want?”
“I imagine we want the same as you,” Darigan continued. “I can’t think of another reason why you would come to this glade. We wish to cure Skarl of the illness that has fallen over him.”
Jeran’s hand relaxed ever so slightly.
“So it is true,” Darigan said with a satisfied look. “We captured a friend of yours on the Citadel, Sir Marcel, but he would not provide details of Skarl’s condition. But he is... different, somehow, is he not?”
Jeran nodded slowly. “He has become irrational, and has been acting on intelligence that none of his aides have provided. He is a shadow of the man who signed the peace treaty with you... I don’t even think he’s left the throne room in a week.”
Darigan nodded. “As I thought.”
“You know what’s wrong with him?” Jeran asked, sudden hope blooming in his eyes.
“I believe so, but it will take some explaining,” Darigan answered.
He turned and headed back to the hut on the forest floor, gesturing Jeran to follow.
The Lupe was led inside to a large oak table. Vadellen, Jeran and Darigan all took seats, while the Meridell and Darigan soldiers formed an uneasy guard watch outside.
“The curse that has fallen on Skarl is a form of magic that is not often observed,” Darigan began to explain. “I myself was not aware of it until I fell victim to it.”
“When the knights of Meridell stole our orb, years ago now, I was driven insane by my desire for revenge,” Darigan added. “Those in the inner circles of the Citadel have since attested how I became unreasonable, sacrificing so much for my desire, even going as far as lifting the Citadel from the very ground. Indeed, General Galgarrath has since informed me that he was puzzled as to how I located the orb in Meridell, as no intelligence had revealed that it was there. He said that it was almost as if I had been taking council from the very shadows of my chamber.”
The phrase struck a chord with Jeran. He remembered how Skarl seemed to listen to the darkness behind his throne, despite no voice ever saying anything.
“My madness reached such a peak when I eventually reclaimed the orb that my own people turned against me,” Darigan continued. “You of course know how that ended.”
“You disappeared in a flash of light, and the orb shattered,” Jeran confirmed.
“No one, save myself, was aware of what had overcome me in the months leading up to the battle,” Darigan revealed. “They are a trio of spirits, each representing a different, dark emotion. Revenge, Ambition, and Greed – they are collectively known as the Three. It is only in my subsequent research that I have discovered that they appear throughout history, mentioned in the ramblings of Kings deemed insane as their kingdoms fell around them.”
“Spirits; they are ghosts then?”
“I must confess that even now I am not entirely sure,” Darigan admitted. “It began at first as merely dark thoughts in my mind, pushing me toward my objective of revenge... but over time, those thoughts came to control me, and I became their puppet. Research on the Three is slim; it is possible they are merely the magical personification of our own dark emotions, and not spirits at all. Either way, they are dangerous.”
Vadellen suddenly piped up, “What happened to you? After the war?”
“I have not spoken about that to anyone, just as I have not spoken of the Three,” Darigan admitted. “Upon my failure when the orb was destroyed, the Three enacted a terrible price, throwing my mind into such new madness that I thought I would lose myself completely. I became no different than a rabid animal, eventually finding myself in Meridell. A kind young farm girl nursed me back to health, and I gradually regained my identity. When Darigan soldiers attacked the farm, I returned to the Citadel, as I knew exactly what was happening.”
“What?” Vadellen asked.
“The Three had only left me alone during my recovery because they had found a new target,” Darigan explained. “General... sorry, Lord Kass.”
“Kass was under their influence as well?” Jeran asked, feeling a sudden pang of sympathy for the Eyrie.
During the war, he had hated him to his very core... but now, to find out he may not have been in control of his own actions... no different to the King.
“Kass had always been an ambitious General,” Darigan added. “The Three played on that, gradually moulding him as they saw fit. When I returned at the conclusion of the second war, the Three felt that Kass too had failed them. They vaporised him as a punishment.”
“And now Skarl has fallen to them as well...” Jeran considered.
“The Three play on emotions,” Darigan pointed out. “With me, they sought to manipulate my desire for revenge. With Kass, they focused on his ambition. With Skarl, I imagine they found their way in through his greed.”
“How do we defeat them?” Jeran asked at last.
“That I do not know,” Darigan told him. “As I said, research on the Three is slim; there are only handfuls that have survived their onslaught. Obviously, as spirits, they have no physical weakness, but I have yet to find any magical wards. Our own magical libraries on the Citadel are less than comprehensive, I had hoped that Meridell or Brightvale may hold more answers, but I have not been able to gain access. However, there is one countermeasure I have observed first hand.”
“Those manipulated by the Three, though puppets, still retain some sense of their self. By appealing to that, if the individual is strong enough, it may be possible to overcome the chains the spirits have cast him in. In his final moments, Kass appeared to have overcome them, and though they have tried to tempt me since my return, I have been successful in resisting them.”
“That doesn’t seem like much of a plan,” Jeran pointed out. “You said they vaporised Kass because he failed them. What if they do the same to Skarl?”
Darigan opened his mouth to reply, but at that moment a Shoyru archer burst through the door of the hut.
“Meridell soldiers!” he informed them. “Coming this way!”
To be continued...