Caught Between Kingdoms: Part One
Whirlwinds of dust circled about Darigan Citadel, Neopia's most impenetrable flying fortress. From a turret top window, a single candle glistened like a charm. The semi-darkness nearly obscured the hardened face of Lord Kass, Eyrie ruler of the fortress for a short fifteen months. He surveyed towering plumes of smoke billowing from farm villages below with interest, as if watching some sort of a play.
The longest war ever known in the citadel's history had finished three years prior. Since then, apparent peace had been made between the warring factions, Darigan Citadel and the far away kingdom of Meridell. Perhaps their peace treaty denied Kass the ability to attack the city, but much to Kass' delight, Skarl did little to protect the outlying villages.
Ever since the previous leader, Lord Darigan, had vanished, the Citadel had been in chaos. That is, until Lord Kass came into power through less than honest means. Any internal threats who dare to speak against him were often removed by, in his words, "releasing" them from the Citadel. Permanently.
Civil uprisings occurred, but rarely if ever did they succeed. Once, a disgruntled Tonu demanded that Kass seek true peace with the medieval society below while he addressed the peasants at a rally. If nothing else, the Tonu claimed, trade relations would improve and more youth would survive the citadel's harsh winters. Some say they can still hear her howls in the dungeons each night, cursing the name of the one who locked her there.
Even from far away, the lord seemed to exude a dark aura. Some swore that he had eyes in the back of his head. With deep purple fur, pointed claws, demon-like wings, and a sharp, calculative mind, it was no wonder the outside world feared him. Gold and black armor adorned him and the shape of a purple Eyrie projected from his spiked shoulder pads. A leather belt fit snugly around his waist. Occasionally, his armor would give off a greenish glow. Lord Kass dispelled rumors that he was using dark magic, and claimed the glowing to be tricks of the eye. He would smile, according to his generals, each time another burden had been disposed. He often smiled.
While it had been some time since the Great War, Kass encouraged his citizens to despise the landlocked world below. Meetings were held in public detailing the injustices that had befallen the Darigan people in years before. He claimed, and who could deny, that Meridellians lived lives of ease while they struggled by with meager rations of dried spike-fruit and pickled Kasscumbers (a vegetable hardy and reliable enough that he named it as the savior of the Darigan people). It did not take long before nearly all of the citizens had a hunger for revenge. Their anger to destroy Meridell's over-fed orb-stealing king rose to a near fever pitch only months after Kass took total control of the citadel. The frequency of anti-Meridell displays only increased as time went by; it was only a matter of time before their anger would manifest as further conflict. And none believed this more than Kass' loyal army, a mass of Darigans headed by five like-minded generals. The most infamous of these was General Setarian.
Setarian had been known as the youngest general ever appointed in the citadel's thousand-year history. After his military prowess in the Great War, Kass granted him the honor of leading around a third of his troops. Sporting decorative mauve robes beneath metal mail, the medium-sized purple-furred Eyrie stood out from his fellow Darigans. With eyes the color of a winter sky—an icy blue that penetrated through the very being of anyone he would converse with—it is no wonder he would garner such attention. Within the fortress, no other Neopian had such eyes. In fact, no one could recall a single citizen who had such a trait in recent memory.
General Setarian spoke little, but when he did, it almost always referred to either military duties or Lord Kass. His troops become accustomed to being called minions or sub-ordinates, as Setarian hardly referred to them by name. If he did, it was accompanied by a sneer. Lord Kass constantly gave the General praise, often calling him "a most reliable blade." After a while, Setarian demanded his underlings to refer to him as "Commander," a title previously unheard of during Lord Darigan's reign. Kass granted Setarian's title, but emphasized that he remained a tool to be used only in the name of the Kass' regime—that he was nothing without a great ruler. Setarian wholeheartedly agreed.
With the outer fringes of Meridell quickly becoming a smoldering pile of ash at the hands of Kass' army, it seemed as if the Lord would soon rule over all of the land. Once all of the surrounding area was compromised and any farms unable to provide, the capital city of Meridell would eventually become crippled. Anything not destroyed would soon be his, including King Skarl's throne. Moreover, no Meridell troops stood in his way thus far. It appeared the Meridellian army truly believed in Kass' so-called truce. If all went as planned, Setarian would receive laud and a place of honor in his new world. If not, well, such thoughts rarely crossed the Lord's mind.
Such a talented tool he is, thought Kass. I was right to keep him alive all of those years ago... Letting out a laugh, he walked back into the fortress, shutting a wooden door with a loud ka-thunk.
Nothing can possibly go wrong...
Below the Citadel's towering island, a group of Kass' army was crusading through the outskirts of Meridell farmsteads. While a lady colonel known as Malaner kept watch in the distance, Setarian led the troops on to cause misery for the farmers. On his order, they slashed and burned anything in sight. An eerie glow could be seen from a distance where large fires consumed fields of grain, corn, and giant marrow plants. Villagers not attempting to put out the flames were fleeing towards the enemy stronghold, the city of Meridell. Setarian enjoyed fighting the resistance, if any, as they came along. A skilled warrior as he was, none of their wooden gardening tools and crude skills could match up to his steel sword and shield. Sure, the occasionally skilled peasant would confront them. They made the best prisoners.
Suddenly, something caught his eye. A small grove pine trees clustered together amidst otherwise charred fields. An alluring scent wafted through the air and danced in the Eyrie's nostrils, reminiscent of strong Meridellian perfume. Setarian tilted his head to the side.
That's rather odd. I could have sworn we would have destroyed a potential hide-away like that. He snorted, feeling somewhat lightheaded. Well, if anyone is foolish enough to reside within this thicket, they will learn that no place is safe from my Lord Kass' eye.
A group of Skeiths had stopped to stare at the General's sudden fascination with green trees. Some of them began to chuckle.
The Eyrie's head whipped back towards them, eyes narrowed. "Continue on, minions! I have business to attend to."
With a collective grumble, they marched forward. The sound of harsh whispers slowly melded into the wind as they traveled into the distance.
"Tch," muttered Setarian, a scowl spreading across his face. I shall punish you all later...
Pulling back the spiny branches, the General began weaseling through the thicket; needles embedded in his thick black mane. In retaliation, the greenery soon lay upon the ground in a heap of thorns, thistles, and vines. Massaging his stinging hands, the General hardly noticed a hooded figure standing in the clearing.
"Show yourself!" The Eyrie bellowed, placing one paw against the hilt of his sword.
It remained still.
"Are you the bully they call 'Setarian?'" Its voice was almost indistinguishable from the low howls of the wind. Some sort of object glistened from beneath its robes. It was making a low humming sound akin to the types of machinery that kept the Citadel airborne.
"Tch. No commoner may speak to a military commander in such a crude manner, especially one of an enemy nation. Perhaps you seek retribution for your insolence within our prison walls?"
The figure remained silent, gingerly removing its green cloth hood. A small yellow beak shimmered in the moonlight as light pink fur brushed against the falling cloak.
Much to Setarian's surprise, the individual appeared to be no more than a youthful Bruce, perhaps one of only a few years of age. Normally, enemies of such stature would shake in his presence, but this one seemed remarkably calm. Before Setarian had the chance to utter another word, the Bruce inched closer, all the while keeping his hands hidden. A chugging sound could be heard from where his hands rest. Setarian stepped back, slowly drawing his blade from its jeweled sheath. Although the sword remained closely gripped to his angled body, it pointed towards the youth's heart.
"Identify yourself!" the Eyrie shouted. Whatever creatures had been finding solace within the isolated trees skittered away, making all sorts of startled shrieks. The Bruce stopped momentarily, but continued to plod closer with the same cautious stride.
"You are a bully," responded the youth. He placed a strained emphasis on the word 'bully.' Then, for the first time, there was a slight hesitation in the Bruce's voice. "I've heard of you from some of the villagers as well as from my... friends." At the very moment, Setarian noticed the child's face contort ever so slightly before returning to the unemotional youth he saw before. "They told me that you and your army burned down their farms and made them very sad!"
Setarian merely chuckled under his breath. A mist escaped from his mouth in the evening air. "Do you think I care, little pest?" He continued with a grunt, spitting upon the grass. He then looked around, making sure no other Darigans were in earshot. "Look, child. You may be from Meridell, but it seems almost wrong to clip a bud so young. Perhaps, if I let you go, you could talk some sense into your dishonorable people." Shimmering orbs looked impassively upon the enemy. "You have two choices: either flee now with your body intact or I will destroy you." With some hesitation, he added, "you will not get another chance."
The Bruce shook his head, his webbed feet planted firmly on the ground. Setarian watched the Bruce's flipper disappear into the recesses of his cloak. When it resurfaced, he was holding a sort of strange, humming contraption. It appeared to be wooden, but reeked of some sort of strong perfume. Darkened tendrils manifested from the gadget as it spun; a menacing aura filled the area.
"Before you ask," the Bruce muttered, cradling the object as if a Petpet, "this was given to me from the faerie I call 'master.' All they said was 'have fun' and sent me off to find you." He grinned evilly at Setarian, who snorted at his mention of the faeries. A muted green light illuminated the Bruce's face from below. "Wanna to play a game, bully? Either way, I win."
Setarian had been told stories of the faeries and their magical abilities in the past, but paid little attention to them. They were probably just old tales used to scare children, he sometimes thought, never imagining that he might be face to face with the darker side of its magic.
The two of them continued to stand still in a stalemate. Setarian eyes flitted between the item and the Bruce, waiting for him to make a move. The Eyrie gripped his sword's hilt tighter and waited for the right moment to leap into action. With every breath, his pulse quickened and blood pumped heavily against his gripping claw.
"You give me no choice," the Eyrie choked on his words, recoiling slightly. If there was anything he could remember about faerie magic, it was that it was dangerous. Lethal, even. But looking like a fool in front of a youth was not an option either. "Remember this: if you chose to repent, you could have been spared!"
After a few seconds of silence, Setarian still had not taken the initiative to move. The Bruce cackled, turning his beak up to smile. "Silly bully. When you met me, your choice was already made."
Setarian leapt forward. He charged towards the youth, blade swung back and ready to strike a decisive blow. His blade was only inches away from the target's neck when a bright, rainbow colored beam fired from the contraption. In an effort to shield his eyes from the blast, Setarian recoiled as a sudden rush of energy hit his body. A searing pain shot through his arm and spread like an uncontrolled blaze. Setarian's knees buckled before he collapsed. His claws tore at the ground, ripping out tufts of grass. The fire only continued to burn. It felt as if every cell was rebelling.
For the first time in his life, he begged for forgiveness. Screams of agony echoed throughout the seemingly endless countryside, all of which addressed his lord and leader, Kass; his heart pounded like a bass drum against the cool grass.
In his last moments of consciousness, the Bruce's blurry form danced above in the cool night air.
"You asked who I am? Some call me trouble, others "my special pawn," but the ones who know me best call me 'Boochi...'"
To be continued...
Author's Note: I can't thank liouchan enough for her countless hours of editing and wonderful sense of humor. You're a true friend and I'm so thankful to have met you! Many thanks to pikachu315111 for pointing out continuity errors, and a final thank you to the many Neopians who supported me through the writing and editing of this story. I couldn't have done it without you.