Caught Between Kingdoms: Part Two
Setarian awoke with a start. Try as he might, all he could see in front of him were little white specks, likely an effect from whatever happened before. He patted the ground, trying to get a feel for his surroundings. From what he could tell, especially after giving it a good knock or two, the ground was made out of wood. Reaching forward, he felt something cold—probably made of metal—and cylindrical in shape. The tip of his bushy, lion-like tail brushed against a similar barrier. A few pats against his fur revealed neither sword nor armor.
I'm in a prison, but where?. His thoughts danced like the specks fizzling through his vision. There was no point keeping his eyes open; he attempted to move about without sight. Who knows where they are storing my gear. It was probably sold to the highest bidder. His right paw dug through a layer of soft fur. Argh, how could I have been so stupid? Kass will have my head if he learns of my failure! He groaned, imagining the sort of punishment he might receive if he made it out of this situation alive. Now that the enemy has captured me, they will surely use me as a hostage in an attempt to weaken our Citadel even further. Besides his stumbling about, it was silent, which haunted his thoughts even more. Images of torture flashed in succession like that of a play: meticulous, precise, and worst of all, in the public eye.
Perhaps it would be better if they just disposed of me now... Even blinded, General Setarian could feel droplets of what he presumed to be sweat trickling down his face.
And yet... For an inkling of a second, he imagined Kass sacrificing everything to save his "most reliable blade." A wave of relief washed over him, quickly replaced by guilt and sorrow. He scrunched his right paw, pounding it to the ground with a decisive thud. Grooved wooden boards dug into his skin, making it sting below thin layers of fur.
Maybe I can escape on my own.
He began to feel out an escape route. Suddenly, he felt a spray of liquid lap over one of his paws. A loud splash could be heard across the room.
"Ugh," he muttered in a high, squeaky voice that resembled the incessant meowing of "Scruffles," a Darigan Angelpuss that frequented the Lord's chambers. Coughing, he continued mumbling to himself while massaging both ears. They perked up, closely honing in on any sound that would come next. "Don't tell me that pipsqueak destroyed my voice as well as my dignity!"
The General froze.
So I wasn't just imaging things. My voice really is higher...
Quick, sharp breaths burned his lungs.
I just have to regain my composure, his normal, deeper voice assured him. Everything is going to be fine. And once I am out of this mess that accursed Bruce shall pay dearly.
His eyes cracked open. This time, he could make our blurry blotches, such as what appeared to be a small, compact prison and a bowl of something that smelt remarkably like the clear soup fed only to dungeon prisoners. At first glance, no weapons could be seen. In fact, the walls only held faded scrolls with poorly drawn scribbles. A single wilted rose drooped over a crayon drawn picture of what appeared to be a house and some stick figures.
Eventually, most of the bowl's contents came into foggy view. His paw crept towards the container while his stomach grumbled at the sight. After a minute of hovering over the concoction, his paw darted back. Green blotched potatoes floated atop the brew. He stared at the bowl for many minutes, unaware that a door opened only feet from his prison.
"You awake?" someone asked. When there was no response, he added, "hey, you feeling alright?"
He jumped back. Doesn't this fool realize who I am? Why does he treat me like some sort of guest? Ignoring his hunger pains, he swatted the bowl away, causing its contents to spill all over the floor. It must be poison, he decided with a low growl.
Out of the corner of his eye, Setarian spotted a bony blue-gray Lupe with an unkempt white mustache that stretched as far as his thin neck. His big, round eyes seem to sag, adding even more wrinkles to an aged, worn face. A straw hat lined his head and complemented yellow corduroys that seem to droop over his bony flesh.
"You sure gave me a scare!" the Lupe said with a half smile, bending down to meet Setarian.
The General's eyes bulged as he lifted both paws in a defensive pose, ready to spar with this new threat. Whatever escape plans had been forged were replaced by survival instinct. Unnervingly, the stranger seemed unfazed. A grin—for some reason or another—had spread across the Lupe's face, unsettling the General even more.
"Aw... calm down. It's gonna be alright."
Calm down?! he thought. Are you insane?
"I wasn't sure if you were gonna make it or not! Seems you got hurt by something out there and fainted! It's the strangest thing, really. Seeing a little guy like you collapsed in the middle of a field. You know, I remember a time when..."
Setarian studied the Lupe's sunken face as he continued to banter on about insignificant topics. He looked to be reasonably old, probably senile. On closer inspection, he had a bunch of straw caught within his scruffy tail. A small doll resembling a green Xweetok flopped back and forth in his front suspender pocket. Given the fraying and tufts of stuffing coming out of the doll's head and paws, it looked like it was played with to near dismemberment.
In between his musing, he hardly noticed that the ground seemed to be getting further and further away.
Only when he could feel a small breeze pass by his stomach did he let out a small yelp.
"What in Kass' name—"
He felt himself being lifted higher into the air. After a moment of shock, he began to flail wildly, desperately picking at his side in an attempt to grab an invisible sword.
"Now, now, little guy. "There's no need to be frightened. I ain't gonna hurt you." The Lupe placed one paw upon the Eyrie's head and patted it.
Setarian's blood boiled.
"Little?! Stop treating me like a child!" the General shouted in a fury. "Either you let go of me this instant or I shall charge you for assault, lock you away in the dungeons, and make sure you never see the light of day again!"
The Lupe's brow furrowed slightly as he lowered the glaring Eyrie to his eye level. Setarian's eyes widened, mind racing as to how a Lupe could possibly be so tall. Although a tad smaller than the average Darigan Eyrie, he still towered over a majority of Skeiths and Cybunnies. Occasionally, a JubJub or two would join his ranks. Setarian height nearly doubled theirs.
"Uh huh." The Lupe rolled his eyes, keeping his tone relatively low. "Okay, partner. Someone's been playing army just a little too much—"
"How dare you, a senile old fool, refer to me in such a manner! 'Partner?' Do you have any idea who you are speaking to?"
Rarely did Setarian lose his composure, but this was an exception. He punted the Lupe in the gut and landed on the floor with an earsplitting thud. In the process, a vase containing red flowers tipped over from a nearby wooden stool; its shards scattered all across the floor. Setarian's entire body stung from the impact. Paws shaking, he pondered how it was possible for him to fall from such a height. No explanation seemed logical. Moreover, even with his eyes working again—for the most part anyway—neither his sword nor his armor could be found.
Meanwhile, the old farmer had been standing above, doubling over in pain.
"Serves you right," Setarian muttered.
Setarian began to explore the abnormally large home, eventually trotting past a cracked, dusty mirror. After a superficial glance towards the smooth, reflective surface, and his breath caught as if trapped. The face staring back at him was not his, but that of a youthful Eyrie. He backed up slowly from the mirror, eying the reflection that followed his every moment. Assorted objects collapsed around him, including a wet mop, which splashed dirty water in his face.
This is a trick. It has to be a trick.
Soft, light grey fur covered his body where a regal purple coat once grew. Small, useless wings took the place of his once long, graceful ones. The only thing recognizable about the old him were bright, icy blue eyes that stared back at him in horror across the cracked surface.
"That glowing contraption must have done this," he mouthed silently. "I look like a child..." The Eyrie took in small, painful breaths as his legs wobbled from beneath him. Setarian hardly noticed the Lupe pick him up a second time.
What do I do now?
The Lupe wore an irritated frown, scolding him on proper treatment of his elders. It wasn't like Setarian cared, though.
How was I so careless? Why in Kass' name didn't I just smite the child? Must I pay for my stupidity in such a way? His eyes darted about the room looking for anything he could use to defend himself, find the army, and somehow reverse this vile curse.
"Now, look here," asserted the Lupe while placing him in a Petpet pen. "You can't be kicking Neopians all willy-nilly. That just ain't nice. You're in a time-out, little guy." The farmer turned towards the broken shards and floundering flowers that Setarian had knocked to the ground in the confusion before. A bent blossom began to perk up when placed within a rosy colored clay vase, although his arms shook so much that the flower almost missed its watery home. "It's a good thing these flowers are so hardy," he muttered under a low sigh. "Now, if you don't mind, I'm gonna go get something to calm my nerves." The Lupe walked into another room, tail dragging along the floor.
"Actually," Setarian began as the farmer disappeared from view, "I do mind. Release me at once!"
There was no response.
Setarian attempted to escape from his prison using a mixture of shouts, battering into the cage and attempting to pick the lock, but it refused to budge. After trying for over twenty minutes to escape without even the slightest reaction from the Lupe, he fell over to one side, right paw covering his face. Heavy breathing disturbed some of dust on the floor, leading to his fur getting coated in a thin layer of gray powder. At last he remained still, quiet sputtering gasps escaping from his little body.
Before things had quieted down, the Lupe entered into a dimly lit room. A small fire was crackling in the hearth. Steam poured out of a blackened kettle's spigot placed only centimeters from the flames. He removed a set of tea cups from a cupboard, slowly pouring water into three of them. A thick layer of steam still rose from the kettle, stinging his eyes.
A layer of fine dust covered the wooden dining room table. A few circular outlines could be seen where plates and cups had been placed in the past. When a cup, plate, and utensils had been placed at each spot, the Lupe sat down, glazed eyes gazing at the muddled reflection in the rippling tea. Two cups of cooling tea were his only company. A purple and black box marked with the words "Food Quota" lay in the corner of the room. On it, a list labeled with the phrase 'or face the consequences' dangled loosely from a nail. Filled almost to the brim with produce, it looked as if it could have been part of a great feast.
He sighed deeply, glancing back at the Eyrie who had since curled into a ball. Gingerly, he removed the doll that was hiding in his pocket. The doll's worn face and misting marble eyed stared up at him. On the doll's dress, the letters E-M-M-A were stitched by fading pink thread.
Muffled sniffles carried through the room as he tucked the doll away. The cups of tea rest on the table; puffs of steam still rose from two of them.
"Hey, I got a question for you," the Lupe said to Setarian, slowly making his way towards the imprisoned general.
Setarian perked up his ears, but refused to lift his head.
"What do you want?" he hissed, paws balling into fists.
"W-well," stuttered the Lupe, who found his fingers twisting around strands of his wispy hair. "I was thinking, if you had no place else to go... would you wanna stay here?"
Of course, Setarian had absolutely no intention of staying within an enemy's homestead. Without a second thought, he responded with a huff and a turn of the head.
"Them Darigans," the Lupe blurted suddenly, "takin' joy in our misery. That Lord Kass and General Setarian are especially awful. Such an evil bunch. Destroying the lives of innocent Neopians when we did nothing but provide food for their accursed army—even after the war!" He shook his head angrily, teeth bared and eyes glimmering ever so slightly.
Bolting up, Setarian eyed the Lupe with contempt. The farmer stepped one leg back; his tattered ears lowered.
Me, evil? How am I the evil one? These accursed Meridellians robbed my people of the orb that brought prosperity to our land and drove our previous lord into insanity!
Based on Setarian's personal experience and the ever-honest words of Lord Kass, no Meridellian was innocent. Each and everyone one aimed to cause pain and suffering for the Darigan nation. According to him, Meridellians not directly involved with the war acted as spies and informants. As Setarian's ruler, it would be treason to question Kass' judgment. Thus, it had to be fact.
It was bad enough that Setarian was being quartered in an enemy stronghold; worse yet, he was ensnared within a trap, unable to escape. Letting out a sigh, he attempted to stand on his back legs. As he did, they wobbled violently until, with some effort, he managed to balance one paw on top of another. By then, his features had relaxed. Training dictated that it was wrong to show weakness to the enemy, especially one of such a pitiful rank. Besides, emotional torture is the most efficient way to force compliance.
"Let me out of this cage," he demanded, placing a paw against the prison bars. His precarious position and the surprisingly slippery surface of the bars sent him crashing downwards to the wooden floor.
So much for being intimidating...
The farmer shook his head. He then unlatched the pen and opened the top. "You certainly are a vocal little fellow." He placed the tea on a nearby table. Reaching in towards Setarian, the Lupe moved backwards to avoid the incoming paws.
"I can get out myself."
"Can you now?" The Lupe's eyebrow rose.
"I can and I will."
"Sheesh. You act just like my son used to back when he was a youngster. Always trying to do daring..." he trailed off, voice quieting to a whisper. "...Daring and unnecessary stunts."
Instead of listening to the farmer's blathering, Setarian bent his back legs and sprang up, flapping his small wings as hard as he could to propel himself forward. He nearly cleared the cage, but his foot caught along the top, sending the Eyrie's head and shoulders skidding across the floor. Rubbing his paw against a sore spot, he could see a stain of red covering his white fur.
Bah, he thought, suddenly feeling achy. Can nothing go my way? He attempted to walk, only to feel pain shooting through his body.
Before Setarian could stop him, the Lupe had dashed to and from a supply closet with bandages, ointment and a large red fruit of some kind. Even though Setarian protested vehemently, the farmer continued to help. He held Setarian steady with one paw as his other paw wrapped bandages around the Eyrie's front arms and forehead.
"What am I gonna do with you?" The farmer laughed, finishing up his handiwork. The second he let go of Setarian, the Eyrie bolted away and backed into a corner. His fur bristled on end as he hissed in defiance.
"You will do no more," stated Setarian coolly. The pain may have subsided, but he still felt weak.
"And why's that, little fellow?" Both of the Lupe's paws rested snugly on his sides.
"What if I told you I was a member of Lord Kass' army? The very same army that spares peasants like you—occasionally, anyway—to sustain our troops?" The Lupe froze up, his face unreadable. "Would you be... angry?"
"What did you say?" the Lupe responded airily, staring off into the distance; his paws slid up towards the doll nestled within his pocket and rested upon it.
"It is just as I said, peasant," Setarian spat. "Or do your ears work as poorly as your brain?"
Their eyes locked. It looked as if the old farmer's eyes were silently pleading the Eyrie to take back his words. He would never. There was no use lying to such a pitiful soul about his identity.
"You aren't one, are you? A Darigan?"
"Yes, I am." Setarian smiled weakly, brushing wet fur away from his face. Even in his current state, he could almost feel a surge of pride rising up from within his gut. "Like the rest of your kind, I'm sure you hate me now."
The Lupe averted his eyes and turned his back away from the Eyrie before haphazardly throwing the red fruit nestled within his paws onto the ground. Setarian eyed the Lupe suspiciously, unsure of how to react.
"I think it best fer the both of us if you go then." Drops of water pattered to the ground. "You can keep that fruit, if only as a way to remember the kindness of my kinfolk. It was... It was Emma's favorite."
Setarian bowed his head and shuffled out the door in silence, only briefly stopping to glance at the piece of fruit. Grabbing onto it with his beak, he continued with a hesitant stride. Out of the corner of Setarian's eye, the Lupe looked back at him, tears streaming down his face.
To be continued...