Meridell at War: Part Five
Darigan’s eyes met Jeran’s. “More of your unit?”
“No,” Jeran said, standing up, “and I doubt they will be willing to let you explain as much as I have.”
“Is there a way out?” Darigan asked the archer.
“We’re surrounded,” the Shoyru replied. “I’m sorry, I should have spotted them sooner, but the forest has changed so much without Lady Illusen to guide it.”
“I can try and speak to them?” Vadellen suggested. “They may be open to reason. All of you should stay in here.”
Leaving the Darigan and Meridell soldiers to cram inside the hut, Vadellen and the Shoyru made their way toward the edge of the forest clearing.
Around a dozen Meridell soldiers emerged, hacking at the undergrowth to carve themselves a path. Vadellen winced as he saw the damage they were causing.
“Greetings, Knights of Meridell,” Vadellen announced. “How goes the Battle? May we be of service?”
“Silence, peasant,” a Krawk grunted. “We’re here on official business. There have been reports of Darigan soldiers in the area.”
“I have seen none, I can assure you,” Vadellen lied.
“Sir Grouse doesn’t take people by their word, he prefers to be sure,” the Krawk sneered.
In the hut, Jeran gasped, “Sir Grouse!? There’ll be no reasoning with him!”
He dashed out into the clearing, coming to meet Vadellen and the soldiers.
“Sir Jeran!” the Krawk barked. “We received reports that you were meant to be at the Brightvale border.”
“Spice smugglers got past us in the night,” Jeran lied convincingly. “We trailed them as far as Market Town, but lost their tracks. We decided to spend the night here before heading back to the border. We have seen no Darigan soldiers here; how far away did the report sight them?”
“Not far at all,” the Krawk replied. “No matter, lads, we still found Jeran, eh?”
“Sorry?” Jeran asked.
“His Majesty has ordered that you be escorted back to the castle, Sir,” the Krawk announced. “Sir Grouse has been authorised to use any force necessary.”
“I am being arrested?” Jeran questioned.
“His Majesty feels that the Darigan soldiers may be attempting to rendezvous with yourself,” the Krawk told him. “I’m sure it’ll all be sorted out and you’ll be proven innocent at the trial, Sir, but you must come with us now.”
“I’m afraid I can’t do that,” Jeran announced.
The Krawk narrowed his eyes, glancing to the hut behind Jeran.
“Lads, search that building,” he ordered.
Jeran grabbed the Krawk’s arm before it could reach his sword.
The soldiers around the Krawk began to react as Jeran’s soldiers and the Darigan guards emerged with their weapons drawn from the hut. Silence filled the clearing for a moment before an unearthly shriek filled the forest air. All eyes drifted up toward the forest canopy as a dark form slid down from the branches and landed on top of one of Sir Grouse’s men. A flash of claws, and another fell.
Jeran meanwhile disarmed the Krawk while the Shoyru archer did the same to a soldier on the other side. Three of the soldiers had surrounded the newcomer, but with a vicious flurry of feathers and claws, all were soon on the ground.
The forest returned to silence as the purple, mangy creature stood over his fallen prey. It was Darigan who broke the silence, stepping forward from behind his guards.
“It can’t be...” he gasped.
The Eyrie pierced him with his gaze, the familiar soul buried deep within those fierce eyes.
“Kass...” Darigan whispered, taking in the sight of his former General. “What have they done to you?”
The Eyrie seemed to deflate slightly at the sound of his former friend’s voice, sinking to his knees and declaring in a raspy voice, “My Lord.”
The Eyrie fell forward, unconscious.
Together, Jeran and Darigan carried the fallen Kass back to the hut. The gathered soldiers formed a circle around his makeshift bed, each watching with interest as he regained consciousness.
“It was horrible,” he croaked at last. “I felt... like I had lost who I was... tumbling through madness with no escape.”
Darigan placed a reassuring hand on his shoulder, “I know the feeling well. The disorientation you feel, it will pass.”
“Here,” Vadellen added, handing the Eyrie a cup of green liquid. “One of Lady Illusen’s tonics, it will help you regain your strength.”
Kass nodded in thanks and drank the potion, adding, “It was a farm girl who rescued me in the end. I was hiding in her barn, and she fed me. With kindness like that... echoes of my previous life began to ring in my ears.”
Darigan smiled, “A farm girl? Tell me, was her name... Sally?”
Kass’s eyes opened wide with recognition as he nodded.
“Strange, how fate ties us all together,” Darigan mused, standing up. “But, in any case, your survival only strengthens us.”
“What are you talking about?” Jeran asked.
“I thought the Three destroyed Kass,” Darigan answered. “They brought all of their power to bare against him, but look – he survived. They crippled his mind, but his body is something that their magic could not take.”
“They are beings of torment,” Kass croaked from his bed. “Torment is all they can muster.”
“Skarl is not in danger,” Darigan added for Jeran’s benefit. “All they can do is what they did to Kass and me. Whilst that is not a fate I would wish on him, he would survive it.”
Jeran nodded. “Then we make for Meridell Castle. The sooner the better.”
“Sir Jeran!” the guard on the gate greeted the Lupe. “I thought you were posted on the Brightvale border?”
A swift blow to the face followed, flooring the guard.
“Remember,” Jeran hissed to the collection of Meridell Knights, Darigan soldiers, and forest archers approaching behind him. “Non-lethal force. If this works, I don’t want to wake up tomorrow to find we killed all our allies trying to get to the King.”
“We have the element of surprise,” Darigan considered. “Casualties should be minimal.”
Jeran carefully prized open the great wooden gates that led to the castle’s inner courtyard, and signalled the other troops through.
It wasn’t long before a shrill whistle filled the air, and shouts came from the castle battlements.
“We have the element of surprise, do we?” Kass remarked darkly.
“The Three must have instructed soldiers to be on watch,” Darigan admitted. “It looks like we’re going to have to do this the hard way.”
Meridell soldiers rushed forward from the castle’s innards, and the intruding forces clashed with them in the courtyard.
A single figure watched the chaos from one of the highest towers. The noise of clashing steel and shouting Neopets had caused her to stop the magical music she had been playing.
The yellow Aisha looked down on the courtyard, and the battling forces. She focused on the figure of Jeran, now fighting against several of the King’s personal guard.
What was it Jeran had been concerned about a few days earlier? Something to do with magic and the King? Lisha had been so absorbed in her own magic that she had paid him no attention... but perhaps, just perhaps, he had been right.
She glanced to her desk, where her wand was buried under countless sheets of parchment she had used to practice gothic writing. She reclaimed the wand now; it was a simple, cheap plastic thing. A pink nova atop a yellow rod. It held no particular power of its own, but in her youth she had used it to wield powerful magic.
She had not even looked at it in many months. The garish pink seemed at odds with her new lifestyle. But now, she felt a strange sense that she might need it.
Holding it tightly, she made her way to the door.
The battle burst into the throne room with explosive force, the doors being ripped off their hinges.
The throne, however, was empty, and only the briefest of flickers in the shadows behind it could be seem.
“Where’s Skarl?” Kass demanded.
“They must have moved him,” Darigan answered. “Where?”
“He won’t go to the dungeons,” Jeran considered, forcing a soldier back with his sword. “Illusen’s there. That means he must have gone up, to his chambers.”
“It’ll be difficult to fight our way there after getting here,” Kass said, swiping a soldier with his claws.
Jeran’s Wocky friend, Danner, interrupted their conversation. “We can hold this lot here. You take the King’s Passage; it’ll bring you out close to his chambers.”
Jeran nodded, patting his friend on the shoulder before leading Darigan and Kass to the back of the throne room.
“The King’s Passage?” Darigan asked.
Jeran merely smiled, punching the back wall with force. The brickwork slid back, revealing an ancient stone passage behind.
“For quick exits.” The Lupe smirked.
Fresh cries erupted from behind them as more castle soldiers arrived in battle.
“Then let’s exit quickly,” Kass remarked, taking a torch from one of the brackets and disappearing down the tunnel.
Skarl sat patiently in his chambers, in a rickety old chair that barely supported his weight, facing the door. Or maybe he wasn’t waiting patiently... but just waiting, as if he’d been told to and couldn’t disobey.
His tired and sunken eyes now looked deader than ever, and the shadows flickered around him with a greater intensity.
He heard the gentle thump as his personal guard outside hit the floor. He noticed as the handle of the door slowly began to turn. When the door was flung open, he did not even flinch.
The shadows surged forward toward the newcomers, taking on the ghostly forms of the Three.
“Failures!” the Faerie rasped. “Even now, your little rebellion is being crushed, and the Darigan forces will soon buckle under the power of Meridell’s army. This is futile! You have lost!”
“The Fat King is ours!” the Skeith added. “You cannot liberate him!”
“Nor can you do what you know must be done!” the Gelert mocked. “Your morals and your codes blind you to the truth. To save Meridell and Darigan, Skarl must die!”
Darigan swung his staff, momentarily dispelling the ghostly form, “Your words mean nothing. We did not come here to speak with you.”
Jeran instead rushed forward to his King’s side.
“My Lord, I know you can hear me,” he pleaded. “You must fight this, you can do it, you are strong enough!”
“Nonsense!” the Faerie cackled. “He is ours!”
“You are the King that led this great country through two wars, protected its people, and welcomed me as a citizen,” Jeran continued. “You are stronger, so much stronger than this, Skarl. Fight it!”
From behind Jeran, Kass added, “If you do not, your Kingdom will crumble.”
Skarl’s dead eyes flickered toward Kass, a sudden sharpness appearing within them as they took in the sight of the Eyrie, before returning to Jeran. Fresh fire of determination was reflected back at him in the Lupe’s eyes.
A sharp intake of breath followed as Skarl began to reclaim his senses.
He leaned back, and with all he could muster shouted, “Get out! Get out of my mind!”
Rather embarrassingly, his chair chose that exact moment to buckle under his weight, sending him crashing to the floor. Jeran rushed forward to help his King, but he turned as he heard the snarls of the Three behind him.
“You!” the Gelert screamed.
“The faithful Knight!” the Faerie echoed.
“We were so close! We almost had it all!” the Skeith shouted.
The Faerie’s lips crinkled in an enraged smile, “We shall take from you what you denied us!”
All three spirits rose into the air. “Everything!”
All three plunged down at Jeran, swarming over him as he screamed in pain. The Three attempted to do what they did best, rip out Jeran’s mind and replace it with a maddened beast.
The scene abruptly changed, pure white light enveloping all the room’s occupants and forcing the Three back from Jeran’s body. When the light subsided, the spirits turned to see an adolescent yellow Aisha standing in the doorway, wand raised high.
“Get away from my brother!” Lisha snarled.
The spirits rounded on the Aisha, and plunged forward to give her the same treatment as Jeran, but another blast of light from the wand forced them back.
Through the blinding light, only Lisha’s voice could be heard. “You are not welcome here, spirits! You never will be!”
The light once more subsided, but this time the Three did not linger. There were no more flickering shadows or lurking whispers.
Jeran barely recovered his breath before Lisha was on him, embracing her brother in a deep hug.
Jeran replied in kind, and let his eyes drift over the occupants of the room.
Darigan and Kass, two rulers of the Citadel united at last.
King Skarl, recovering from his perch on the floor with some difficulty under his own weight.
And Lisha. There was a certain familiarity to the hug that put Jeran in mind of a young schoolgirl who finally found her lost brother.
Some things had changed. Some things lost, others gained. But deep down, Meridell was just the same as it always had been.