Caught Between Kingdoms: Part Three
Setarian felt a tight knot in his stomach as he dashed across the field on all fours, attempting to forget about the Lupe and his actions. Until, that is, he tripped on a Petpet-sized rock and tumbled forward. The fruit rolled away into the darkness, swallowed by the inky blackness. A dull soreness returned and trickled all along his right arm and across his body. Tightness welled up in his chest and an irritating, dull ache settled on his heart. One of the bandages wrapped around his paws had slipped off and fell to the ground.
"What am I to do?" he asked no one in particular.
A light breeze started to blow across the damp fields, causing the Eyrie to shiver. He attempted to warm himself by rubbing both paws together, but the pain only grew worse. Light had yet to make its way above the horizon. In fact, it seemed hours away.
Perhaps the thought of a warm fire, acceptance from the troops, and forgiveness from Kass clicked in the Eyrie's mind at once, for it brought him a sudden surge of energy. Well, that and the knowledge that stopping to rest now would do nothing good for him.
That's it! A second gust roared past. Given the thinness of his coat, he began to shiver. My minions will have to accept me. No matter my appearance, they are bound to Lord Kass' army and have sworn eternal allegiance to both of us. Anything else would be treason.
With only a vague guess as to where his troops might be, the Eyrie set out across sloping fields. In the mean time, he thought back to his survival training and searched for something edible for which to subsist as well as clean sources of water. Acres and acres of corn and marrow lay in ruins. Piles of ashen remains lay before him, none of it even the slightest bit palatable. Most of the wells were too polluted to draw clean water.
There was nothing. Absolutely nothing.
For the slightest inkling of a moment, Setarian almost felt sorry for those Meridellians. The rumbling of his stomach seemed to agree with his pity; now, he also suffered. It was only now that he yearned for the Lupe's red fruit, whatever it had been. He would have searched for it, but such an effort would be a poor use of time. Only a small sliver of Kreludorless could be seen in the sky, making the fields seem dark and foreboding.
The only morsel of food he could find was a charred husk with a few dried out kernels. It looked like a Petpet might have gnawed on it before. Although he had grown used to army rations, such meager fillings would never have been given to even the worst behaved soldier. And yet...
His mouth opened and gnawed at the crunchy, charcoal reeking kernels, grimacing more than a few times. After every bit of food had been sheared from the husk, he turned towards the sky and could see the shadow of Kass' mighty citadel flying overhead. He yearned to call to him from below, but since Kass was more of a destroy everything ask questions later kind of an Eyrie (not that the General minded most of the time) getting his attention would probably not end well.
After the citadel had flown past almost a half-hour later, Setarian followed in its wake. If the General knew anything about Kass—and he definitely did—it was to expect frequent monitoring from above. And if this expectation remained true, his troops would be in the same direction as the citadel's travels.
Some time passed before hunger began to gnaw at him again. The sudden smell of smoke began to waft in the air from a distant fire. The winds began to pick up as he walked forward. Dust and debris flew into the air. The aroma of a recently cooked meal drifted from a fire pit.
When he spotted spiked purple tents and the unidentifiable shadows of Neopians huddled around the flames, it took every ounce of his willpower not to barge into the middle of the camp. Kass would have reprimanded him for such rashness. Still, he wasted no time edging towards the fire pit and the warm, juicy meat that flavored the air.
As he came closer to the group, reality hit. Will they believe me? There is nothing with me to back up my claims. Without a sword, a shield, and my adornments, I will sound like an insane child... He sighed, looking at his claws and wiggled them, watching each furry digit move. They didn't look very menacing to say the least. That and they certainly would not be able to protect him in battle.
The chilly air blasted him yet again.
I have no other choice but to confront them. If I stay here all night, it'll mean certain sickness. He stared longingly towards the warmth. Won't they be in for a surprise.
His little legs limped across towards the mostly darkened tents. The familiar sounds of a few voices could be heard, all of them hushed. Instead of going forward and speaking with them, he craned his neck and listened, feeling the shakiness in his paws. It was probably just the wind, he assured himself, as its chill penetrated him once again.
"I always knew the Commander was nothing more than a coward!" a silhouetted figure shouted in a loud, mocking tone, easily heard from afar. "But who knew he would be a turncoat as well? I mean, really. Leaving his weapons and armor out in the middle of a field... you think that he wanted to give the Meridell scum a pile of presents or something." All that could be seen of her were large, pointed teeth that ripped through the night air. Next to the figure lay a long wooden spear. Its metal head glowed as if declaring a warning to all potential trespassers. "Who actually says, 'come, you worthless minions,' unless they have some major confidence issues, anyway?"
A mixture of groans and chuckles resonated throughout the camp, many of them originating from deep and gravely voices.
Setarian nearly rushed in then and there, but clenched the dewy grass instead, gritting his beak together. At his angriest, the troops would whisper the name "Burning Blue," which he assumed to be associated with his eye color given the stiff way they looked at him.
"Well, we all knew that to be the case," stated another matter-of-factly between a drawn out yawn. "The only reason any of us followed him was because Kass made us. And money." A small grinding sound akin to a nail forcibly rubbing against raw hide could be heard among the occasional crackle of the fire. "Not like Kass pays us enough to deal with him, anyway."
Rage stewed inside of him. If Darigans could blast their foes with fire balls, Setarian would have certainly done so now. Without thinking, he stomped forward. At that second, he wanted nothing more than to see them begging for mercy for their deplorable actions.
"So, Lord Kass wants the traitor eliminated, you say?" It was the first solider. There was the slightest inkling of joy in her deep, booming voice.
The General froze in place just before landing on a single stick. It made a loud cracking sound as it snapped in two. His eyes widened in fear. Both ears fell back. Air struggled to escape from his lungs.
The laughing suddenly subsided as a wave of silence fell upon the group.
"What was that?"
Setarian felt a sudden warmness spread throughout his body. As if poisoned, every limb felt numb. All the while, loud popping and crackling sounds came from the fire pit as a large branch slipped into the inferno. Sparks scattered as it hit the ground.
Darigan armor often makes a distinct creaking sound when moved like a tree swaying during a strong storm. Setarian could hear multiple trees moving, some of them very close. One of them was coming his way.
"It's probably nothing," said one with a deep, feminine voice as she clutched onto an extra sharp looking dagger. The approaching soldier about-faced just as she neared Setarian's view. "Either way, we should double the guard just in case. Everyone, we're on alert tonight."
While the Darigans headed back towards the campfire in a tired daze, one soldier beckoned them 'back to business.'
"According to recent reports, Lord Kass thinks he may be helping the enemy." It was the nasal-sounding Darigan again. He never left the fire pit while his comrades searched. "Detaining him on the spot seems a little harsh, but hey, you know how Lord Kass is."
Silence fell over the group, as if they were musing.
"Orders are orders, I suppose. But it seems odd of Lord Kass to turn on him so suddenly. And here I thought he was fond of the guy. I mean, he did convince Lord Darigan not to dispose of him all those years ago—Ouch! Hey! Why did you do that?"
"Best you don't talk about ancient history around a bunch of young ones like these. It ain't wise."
"Hmph. It's not like Lord Darigan is going to come back from the grave and haunt me or something.
The lot of them laughed. "You never know!" one quipped.
D-dispose of me? Why wasn't I made aware of this fact? Setarian thought, still trying to making out each and every word of the disgruntled Darigans.. I always thought they provided a place for me because of my honorable late Father's military blood! Well, after they found me worthy of being trained, that is.
"Anyway, if you two nimrods are done fighting," a fourth soldier added in a bland monotone, "and you're done spouting illegal knowledge to younger, uninformed Darigans," she glared at the third soldier while letting out a loud yawn, "here are the facts. No matter his origin, it's not like he will be missed or anything. Not one Darigan in our fair citadel will mourn him."
Around half of the group, most of which had been silent, muttered words of apparent agreement as the fire continued to consume yet another branch. Tufts of smoke billowed into the crisp night air.
"Besides, I never did like those blue eyes," the first soldier sneered. "And although I'm sure most of you never wanted to say it, they look so... un-Darigan. I for one am glad that we finally have an excuse to get rid of him."
A mixture of gasps, chuckles, and snorts erupted from the campsite before calming down.
"Well,"—it was the third voice again—"coward or not, we will need everyone at arms and ready to take him down as a unit, if necessary. We all know how strong he is. And if he is a traitor, given his personality, I doubt he will struggle with taking us down."
They all nodded.
"So, we leave at first light to snuff out the traitor, eh? Sounds like my job finally got a bit more interesting." It was hard to make out, but it almost sounded as if the money-loving soldier was rubbing his paws together and licking his lips. "Morning can't come soon enough."
"Well," the monotone one stated, "maybe we'll have some sport to play with while searching him out. It might be a good way to kill some boredom."
Many of them laughed. Some of them pretended to swing at each other, with mock shouts of terror coming from those playing the victim.
Little did they know that the 'traitor' had heard every word, and was now frozen in place in speechless horror. His eyes darted around looking for some sort of makeshift weapon. Of course, nothing could be found.
Setarian crawled away, his mouth agape and legs dragging slowly as if they were made of heavy, wet cement. Retreating may be equivocated with treachery, but being found seemed like a punishment far worse than element related death. At least one of the options would not be agonizing. He thought of those Meridellians that he had chased and taken down. At the time, it seemed almost fun to target the weak. Now, he was the sport. He could feel the color from his face draining. And to make matters worse, it was raining.
Such a strange rain this is, he thought as his bandaged head drooped towards the ground. It is only falling upon me.
To be continued...