Keep Smiling: Part Two
Lampyri stood by the front door of the shop below the apartment. It was a light shop, as made quite evident by the sign that said, "Lights" nearby. Sure, the name let people know what the store was selling, but Lampyri couldn't help thinking that it lacked creativity, something catchy that would draw customers in. Somewhere down the line, the shop was definitely going to need a better name for it.
That was just Lampyri's intuition, though. She was a warrior, not an entrepreneur. Of course, neither was Lumin. The more Lampyri thought about it, the more this was seeming like some strange dream she would wake up from and then tell friends about for a laugh.
As to be expected from a place called the City of Lights, light-making was regarded as an art form. The Fireflies had an affinity for making lanterns in many different shapes and colors. It was a popular hobby in the city, but the best light-makers were able to export their craft all over Moltara.
Yet, when Lampyri walked into the shop, she could immediately tell that the lanterns hanging from the ceiling paled in comparison to what could be seen in the City of Lights. The lanterns looked like they worked well enough, but their designs lacked style and splendor. To a Firefly, how a lantern looked was often more important than its efficiency and if the ones that Lampyri saw were being sold back in the City of Lights, they probably would not sell very well.
Lampyri found Lumin cleaning the glass on one of the lanterns. When he noticed her out of the corner of his eye, he perked up and said in a relieved tone, "Ah, I'm glad to see you're awake. How are you feeling?"
It would have been a lie for Lampyri to say, "Better." She might have been more coherent at that moment than she was when she arrived in Central Cavern, but there was still a lot weighing on her mind. "Alright," she said, although that wasn't close to the truth either.
Lampyri looked at the lanterns again and asked Lumin, "Did you make these?"
"Yes, I did," he answered. He then laughed nervously, "I will admit that they are quite amateurish, though."
Lampyri had to bite her tongue. Lumin was absolutely right in that regard, but she wasn't about to agree to that out loud. "I have to say, sire, I never expected to find you doing something like this," she said instead.
"Lumin," he corrected her. "Call me Lumin."
"What?! I... I can't do that..." Lampyri stuttered. Not once since she started became a Royal Guard had she ever called Lumin by his name to his face. She certainly couldn't start now.
"'Sire' is what you call a king. I'm not a king anymore. I haven't been for a long time now," Lumin explained as he lifted himself in the air to put the lantern on a hook. "What happened back in the City of Lights was enough proof that I'm not fit to rule. Which is why I'm here now, making whatever Neopoints I can to keep myself afloat."
That wasn't true. There were still some bitter feelings in the City of Lights over Lumin's supposed involvement with The Engineer, but the kingdom overall still wanted Lumin to come back. Lampyri did. So did the other Royal Guards: Glowstick, Neon, and Infrared. Especially Infrared. He was essentially the king in Lumin's absence, but he would react so angrily if anyone tried to refer to him as such. Lampyri knew that if Lumin returned to the City of Lights, Infrared would give back the throne in a heartbeat.
Before Lampyri had the chance to say that, Lumin said, "That's beside the point, though." Lumin briefly went into a room in the back of the store and returned with two chairs; one for himself and one for Lampyri. "Lampyri, what happened to the City of Lights?"
Lampyri gave a sigh that was ragged and tense. She was definitely going to have to use the chair that Lumin gave her, as there was much to tell him.
"Everything got so much worse after you left. The other Royal Guards and I were able to calm the rebellion down, but once we did, The Engineer came back. In no uncertain terms did she announce to the entire kingdom that she owned the City of Lights from that point on," Lampyri began. As difficult as it was, she managed to keep her tone of voice calm.
"Within a few days, every last Firefly had their color changed. Everyone. No one is glowing anymore. But she wasn't done there. It wasn't enough for her to take our glow away. She still saw that we all shared the same species and tried to hang onto that as a symbol of our unity. So she took that away too."
It took a lot of strength from Lampyri to keep herself from grimacing as she went on. She clasped her hands and held them up to her forehead, taking deep breaths to keep herself together. "The Engineer went around changing everyone's species. It wasn't all at once either. She would appear one day, transform a few Fireflies, leave, then come back later to do the same thing. And in the time in between, everyone was left in a state of dread with absolutely no idea when she would be back and who her victims would be.
"The Engineer changed the species of every last Firefly about two years ago. And yet, she's still returning and doing the same exact thing! There's just no end in sight! We're all living in constant fear of her and –sometimes- I feel like I'm the only one that hasn't given up. Just about everyone else... has."
By that point, Lampyri's head was lowered and her sight on the ground. She then looked up to find Lumin distraught by what he was told. He squeezed his eyelids shut as he shook his head with a sense of remorse filling his face. Despite how much The Engineer had manipulated Lumin to turn things in her favor, the white Buzz still felt that he was responsible for how things turned out.
But as Lumin used the silence provided by Lampyri to think to himself, she saw him look a little confused. He furrowed his eyebrows and questioned, "If The Engineer changed the species of all the Fireflies, then how are you still a Buzz?"
That was all it took. That one question was all it took for Lampyri's restraint to be pierced and shattered into a thousand pieces. It brought up memories from the past three years that all replayed themselves in rapid succession, overwhelming Lampyri's train of thought. The end result was a cheery laugh that was grossly out of place considering the situation. "I am a Buzz, aren't I?" she giggled as she lifted her hands up in front of her eyes and began to gaze at them. "Hehe, that was rather dim of me, wasn't it? It's just that I really do forget what I am sometimes!"
Her response was bothered Lumin, which prompted Lampyri to elaborate in a still-jolly tone, "I didn't tell you that part, did I? Oh yes, me and the other Royal Guards are Buzzes. You know, it's really funny how all the Fireflies will say that we got off easy." Lampyri then deepened her voice in an imitation of a male Neopet, "'At least you got to keep your species! We weren't that lucky!' But the thing is, sire, we're not lucky at all!"
Lampyri leaned forward, grinning, but slowly starting to clench her fists. She stared straight into Lumin's eyes, who watched and listened to Lampyri without a word, but was still obviously and immensely troubled by what was unfolding
"See, whenever The Engineer would drop by, she chose which Fireflies she would go after at random. But she usually wouldn't transform the same ones twice in a row. That would be way too boring for her, you know? But me, Glowstick, Infrared, and Neon? She would transform us every single time. We had our species changed plenty. Usually, we would go through it several times in just a few minutes. It's just that The Engineer changed us back into Buzzes afterwards. Isn't that just... gracious of her?" When Lampyri spoke, her voice had an airy tone to it – a heavy contrast to how stern and hard it usually was. As a matter of fact, Lampyri couldn't ever recall speaking so bubbly before. Merriness wasn't typically in her nature. But things change, after all. Just like everything else.
"Sire, I couldn't tell you how many species I've been! Nor all the colors that came with them! Species that I've never seen before, colors that I didn't think existed! It truly does give you a new perspective on things. Like how I was supposed to run away if I was a Koi. Or the time I tried to fly away from The Engineer, but I was an Aisha, so I didn't even have wings!" Lampyri's laughing became even louder. Her stare at Lumin tightened, and so did her smile. She then asked him, "Did you know that Buzzes are one of only two Neopets that have exoskeletons? Do you know what it feels like to transform into a Neopet that has bones?"
Lumin's face filled with horror. Lampyri's face didn't change.
"But the other Fireflies don't know about what The Engineer does to us. They just see us being Buzzes and come to the conclusion that we're working with The Engineer so she'll let us off lightly. They hate us. They don't trust us. Me especially." When Lampyri blurted out that last sentence, she saw the definite signs of a question forming in Lumin's head. Therefore, she quickly added, "Abandoning the city like I did will do that, I suppose."
As she thought about the events that were coming next her story, Lampyri joyful demeanor began to waver. She tried to keep it up, but both her words and facial expressions were letting small bouts of anger slip past. "I don't care if they hate us. I don't care if they hate me. Honestly, I wouldn't even care if they adored me. Because it doesn't make a bit of difference either way! It doesn't change the fact that I can't protect any of them!"
Lampyri's smile slowly faded as she grit her teeth and heightened the volume of her voice. "How many times have we tried to attack The Engineer now? How many ambushes have we set up? And do you know how many of those worked? ZERO! There's nothing we can do! We can't lay a hand on her! The Engineer just disappears and reappears faster than we can keep up with! We're absolutely USELESS! Nothing works! NOTHING! I can't do a thing but watch everyone dear to me have to put up with that psychopath! I can try to stop her, I can try to stand up and fight back! But it all just blows up in my face! As a Royal Guard, I'm nothing but a fail-"
Lampyri abruptly became quiet. The upset and distressed way Lumin was looking at Lampyri seemed like he didn't even recognize her as she let her thoughts spill out. And as Lampyri realized what she had been saying and how she was acting, she couldn't recognize herself either.
Lampyri didn't think Lumin knew what to say to her after that. He stood up with a sigh and suggested, "Perhaps it would be better to take small steps and not talk about this all at once."
Lampyri nodded, agreeing with him. "That... would be best." Letting herself rant and rave as she did wasn't cathartic at all for her. She didn't even know why she let herself lose control of her thoughts like that.
She got up and went back to the apartment upstairs and back into her room. Lampyri thought that explaining things to Lumin would relieve her a little, but it did no such thing. Instead, all it did was magnify her problems even more for Lampyri to dwell on. She knew that is was by no fault of Lumin's, but rather the way she had been shaped by all that had happened to her recently.
* * *
After doing nothing but sleep for so long, Lampyri wasn't ready to turn in for a while. She spent a good amount of time staring up at the ceiling and thinking about home. She already wanted to go back. But what good would come of that? And as much as she wanted Lumin to go back to the City of Lights too, she knew as well as he probably did that it wouldn't change anything. Whether Lumin stayed in Central Cavern or took back the throne, they'd be no closer to getting rid of The Engineer than they were now.
Lampyri thought about the Fireflies. First she thought about specific ones, such as Glowstick. He had been her best friend for many years. Not that anyone would believe that by the way they would bicker and compete over the littlest things. Or by the way they constantly duel each other in an effort to prove that they were the better warrior, which was exemplified by how they kept a record over it. 583 wins, 581 losses, and 725 draws. In Lampyri's favor; something she used to tease Glowstick about whenever that was the case. At least until he moved ahead, and then the situation was reversed. But no matter how much they fought, they held more trust in each other than anybody else in their lives.
She wondered how he was doing. How did he react to her departure from the City of Lights? And how would he react if she saw him again? When she tried to answer those questions mentally, the outcome she was getting ended up causing her to bury her head in her hands. Lampyri truly did want to see him again, but how could she now?
Her mind moved to the Fireflies as a whole. She was lying to herself when she said to Lumin that she didn't care what they thought of her. The thought of falling out of favor of the citizens she swore to protect tormented her every time it would come up. The last thing that Lampyri wanted was to be hated.
Lampyri loved the City of Lights. And she would have done anything to save it.
To be continued...