Caught Between Kingdoms: Part Six
Three days of rest came and went before Lisha dragged Setarian out of the room once more.
The Aisha stopped in her tracks and turned back to face her new found younger brother. Setarian's face was washed out and his eyes seemed distant and unfocused. Lisha's smile seemed to vanish instantly as her long, stalk like ears drooped.
"Serian, are you alright?"
"...Of course." As if to reinforce his point, he added volume to his wavering voice. "Why wouldn't I be?"
"You don't look alright." Her head tilted to the side. "Perhaps we should have our magic training another—"
"—why do you still choose to trust me? You hardly know anything about me, Lisha!" Setarian's beak slowly clamped together, but his eyes focused squarely on her large framed glasses. She tried to place a paw on his shoulder, but he bent away.
"Jeran told me that no Meridellian would claim you as their kid and... it made me sad. No one should be alone, Serian. No one. I mean, it's really..." Her voice cracked. "It's really hard to go on without a sibling, 'specially when, without them, you feel really lost."
Apparently, one of Lisha's friends, a caped blue Blumaroo with a pension for vampiric theatrics, overheard her speech and rushed in to give her a hug. Lisha had to promise she was okay before the Blumaroo would let her be. Then, with a quick nod and a friendly wave to the duo, he was bouncing down the hallways. Literally. A suit of armor nearly fell onto the floor in his stead.
She wiped a tear from her eye, mentioning that Boris always knew the best ways to make her smile. Setarian watched the bouncing Blumaroo in a stunned confusion.
"This is probably going to sound really sappy, Serian," she interrupted his thoughts, "but sometimes all we need is someone who will stand beside us and say, 'I believe in you.' I want to be that Neopian—no, big sister—for you. That is..." The Aisha shifted from side to side, thumb against her lowered lip, "if you want to be my little brother... I mean, if not, it's okay, I guess, but..."
Setarian rolled his eyes, but did so while turning away from her gaze. You want me as a little brother? When I'm years older than you? Well, Kass wants me on trial no matter what I do now, Skarl almost threw me into a dungeon, and yet... Lisha had stopped breathing the last few seconds and her eyebrows were tightly arched. His sigh resonated throughout the hallways when he saw her anticipation. What other choice do I have?
"Alright, Lisha. Show me that I can be welcome here and I will stay."
For now, anyway.
"I'm so glad..." Exhaling loudly, she hastily wiped her sparkling eyes, trying to hide them with a beaming smile. "I wouldn't want to lose my second chance."
"Your wha—oh, never mind." I have more important curiosities to have answered than asking about some 'second chance.' "So, now that I live in this castle, what will we do first?" A sarcastic edge began to dig into his voice. Far too long had he it been since he had the opportunity to speak his mind. "What teachings shall I learn in the magnificent art of magic, oh wise and powerful one? Turning objects pink and frilly?"
Lisha's grin metamorphosed into a frown. Setarian couldn't help but uttering a laugh, which merited a light punch to his back. Luckily, she missed a sore spot.
"Humph!" Lisha gripped the glowing instrument in her paw, placing her opposing paw against her side in an arch. "Magic is a lot more powerful than you think, Serian. And it's not like I do girly stuff with it, either."
Oh, I know magic can be strong. Ancient magic such as that Bruce's little toy is a prime example. But I doubt your skill could hold its own against anything of merit.
"Well, no use just telling me. If you're this powerful," he poked her cardboard shield, "prove it."
The Aisha jumped back, nearly losing her balance. Clutching the wand tighter, she stamped forward. "You're on!"
Trekking through the castle, Lisha resonated between grumbling pouts and bubbly grins, depending on whether or not others were around. Setarian's nonchalant smirks left most of the passing Neopians looking rather confused.
After making a pit stop for supplies in Lisha's room (Setarian had to wait outside), they arrived at a small courtyard. Manicured hedges lined the periphery. Various topiaries, all shaped like King Skarl, dotted the corners and a large fountain shaped eerily like the Usul saleswoman sat in the center, water pouring out of her cupped hand. It appeared to be partially painted, with bright blends of color covering the base and only a splattering of purple paint near the face. It seemed odd given the light tan covering her arms and legs. She appeared to be in the middle of an intricate dance; creases lined her stone skirt. Her carved eyes firmly focused on them as they walked along. The Eyrie could not take his eyes off the dancer, perhaps because of its semblance to a mysterious figure. What intrigued him the most was her smile, or lack thereof. It starkly contrasted with her otherwise jovial display.
"Serian! Will you stop looking at that statue and focus?"
The Eyrie whipped his head around to see Lisha tapping her foot against the grass. He glanced back at the statue's frozen design before shaking his head and walking towards his mentor. But not before rolling his eyes. The Aisha grunted lightly, but began the lesson anyway.
"Alright, Serian. Time for me to teach you what magic can really do." The slightest burst of light came from the Aisha's paw. It raced up the rod as if climbing a spiral staircase. At the object's tip, a bright golden light burst in all directions before coalescing upon its center. Quickly, he turned away, shielding his watering eyes from the powerful display.
"Magic must be channeled through different artifacts to keep it from going out of control," she explained. "Some wands can store large amounts of energy. For example," the wand hummed loudly, its golden pulses distorting the air around it. "This is the Wand of Supernova. It takes a very strong magic user—and one that is well studied—to control it properly." Setarian blinked rapidly, his eyes barely able to make out anything past the wall of magical light.
"But such power cannot be contained for long and it should be fired off in small bursts." Her hand fell back before flicking the wand forward, similar to how one might cast a fishing line. A ball of light propelled towards a hedge, only stopping when it plowed through a tangle of brambles. Piles of glowing ash drifted below sparking branches. Setarian's beak dropped wide open.
"See? So now you can stop —"
"Lady Lisha! What will the King say about this?"
She froze, turning slowly to face the palace gardener.
"Ah... I can fix this," she laughed nervously, all of her previous anger all but vanished. "But first..." Her paw raised into the air, releasing a laser of light at least a foot wide. It cut through any passing clouds; electricity bubbled between the fluffy masses. Setarian lowered his ears as the gardener, a sternly faced blue Pteri with hair in a bun and snugly fitting work clothes, twisted her beak to the side. The rake she held in her wings resembled talons.
Lisha sprinted towards the bush, waving Setarian closer. Before he even had the chance to move, the gardener kicked up some dirt, making him cough incessantly.
"Well, aren't you going too?"
Setarian pressed his beak together tightly, coughing as he did, but said nothing as he brushed chunks of filth to the ground. I would love to kick you in the shins, gardener, but that would only get Lisha in more trouble... Instead of retaliating, he used his anger energy to stamp closer to the broken hedges. Low mutters escaped his breath as he watched Lisha attempt to sew the branches back together. Neighboring bushes moved in to give an illusion of fullness. When the process was slowly, Setarian eyes gravitated back towards the statue.
"I wonder who you could be..." he muttered as if in a trance.
"What's that, Serian?"
The Eyrie could feel her touch against his back. He shivered. "Serian, I'm sorry for getting so angry before over something so silly..."
Silence hung over the two for a few seconds. Setarian rubbed his arm, suddenly feeling guilty. Small clumps of dirt fell to the ground around the Eyrie's feet. "Lisha, it was wrong of me to mock you."
The last branch slipped into place. After Lisha promised that nothing else would be bothered, the gardener muttered something about, "the courtyard being no place for children," and left to continue her work. Occasional glares shot from behind a particularly large topiary of King Skarl.
Setarian balled his left paw into a fist and pounded it to the ground when she would not respond, crushing the grass below. "I have no right to insult my teacher and superior." He gulped, feeling pressure well up within his throat when she approached to give him a hug. "I've seen better, though. I mean, plenty of Neopians can do magic!"
She stuck out her tongue, and stood up straight before they could make any contact. "Serian, you're a jerk."
He grinned wryly. "Always. But... in all seriousness, you proved me wrong this time. It probably won't happen again."
"That's what big sisters are for, right? You need someone around to pop that ego bubble of yours!"
With a flick of his tail and a huff, Setarian turned away from Lisha, but he could not hide a chuckle.
Maybe. Just maybe.
"So... do you want to learn next?"
He flashed a mischievous smile, eyes twinkling. "Anything is good with me if she's"—he motioned towards the gardener—"my first target."
"I don't think zapping the gardener would make the king very happy..." She attempted to keep a straight face, but kept chortling.
Like I care about what that fat oaf says...
Lisha bent over and placed a small bag drop to the ground. She rustled through it, and removed a small wooden wand. At its base was a hastily carved letter 'S'.
"It's for you."
Setarian rubbed the smooth surface and traced out letter's rough edges.
"Try to focus your attention—all of your energy—onto one spot. This wand should be relatively safe to use as it only stores little bits of power at any given time. Quick!" the Pteri's head was down. "Aim for this little spot of grass here."
The General could feel power surge up within his body as he gripped the wand. He stood upon his shaking hind legs, trying to balance. At first, nothing happened. It took all of his effort not to glance back at the angry gardener. Then, his magical energy started to materialize. But unlike Lisha's pure energy, inky black energy snaked about the wand. From the carved "S" a screen of darkness poured, causing the both of them to let out audible gasps. A burst of energy sent Setarian propelling into the air and his wand flew out of his paws in the other direction. The blast sent him sailing towards a stone turret. His wings flittered about uselessly as the wall grew nearer.
He prepared for impact. Oddly, when he stopped moving, he felt not even the slightest bit of pain.
Setarian's eyes cracked open to see a mass of soft, cloud-like material surrounding him. Lisha was breathing heavily; a stream of energy could be seen still pulsing about the wand's periphery.
"Both of you, out!" shouted the grumpy gardener, who now waved around the rake. "I don't care if you helped to save Meridell, Lady Lisha. There is only so much one Neopian can take!"
As he lowered to the ground, Lisha's face came into view. There was an amalgam of worry, curiosity, and... fear?
She lowered him close enough to the ground, but he still fell a good foot to meet the manicured garden grass. Quick to ruffle his feathers and stand up on all fours, he tried to keep up with Lisha. She was speed-walking away, head tucked down and glasses hidden.
"It looks like I'm a pretty strong magic user as well..." the General started while the two of them scurried back into the castle. Just like the stone statue that greeted them as they arrived, Lisha would not respond.
"What? Surprised by my natural talent?" He puffed his feathers into the air, making him appear slightly larger, if not like an Eyrie that first took a bath and then was forced into the sun to dry. Each stride was deliberate and he held his head high. Maybe he could still make light of the situation.
"... Serian, stop."
Immediately, most of his feathers flattened down against his now slumped shoulders and back. His eyelids drooped when he noticed her apparent sadness.
I got you in trouble, didn't I? Of course I would. Even when I try to change it backfires.
The two of them managed to make it back to the door of Jeran's quarters. When no one answered on a knock, she opened the door and slammed it behind the General, who glanced back at the door in shock.
"That was no fluke, Serian." Her brow was furrowed. Setarian could feel the tenseness in the air and recoiled slightly. "What are you hiding?"
The General could feel heat spreading throughout his body—especially by his face—and much of his fur, especially on the tail, stood up on end. A pounding sensation bombarded his chest.
"I-I... w-what do you mean?" He found it difficult to look her in the eyes.
She exhaled loudly. "I know magical rebound when I see it."
"Yes." Her voice became more distant, even mechanical. The frame of her glasses kept being shifted slightly after every couple of words. "According to a good deal of research on the subject, large bursts of power don't just appear—especially with such basic instruments. Someone cast a spell on you—a powerful one at that—and the energy you felt was likely a product of leftover magic looking for a place to escape. And power of that size is usually reserved for some sort of transformation spell; if my hunch is correct, this spell was probably semi-permanent, perhaps even permanent in nature."
"T-transformation spell?" His eyes widened to the size of King Skarl's dinner saucers.
"Yes." Her gaze froze on the Eyrie while the rest of her body remained completely motionless. The slightest of cracks penetrated her voice.
"Lisha..." Setarian lowered his head to the ground, paws shaking. A lump seemed to be competing for space in the General's throat. Each word seemed to further compromise his ability to speak. "E-everything before the day you and Jeran found me is just a blur now. You and Jeran have been far too kind to me and for that alone, I... I could never betray you—either of you."
A long silence penetrated the room. Setarian's breathing was short and slight.
"Promise me you're telling the truth, Serian." Her lip was quivering. "Please... please don't lie to me."
"I'm telling you the truth, Lisha. I swear it."
It almost looked as if her little eyes were scanning every fiber of his being for lies. They stopped a few times, causing more than a few heart beats to jump out of his chest.
"And I just scared you, didn't I?"
"Scared?! No, I was—"
"S-sorry for getting so worked up, Serian. I sometimes let my fantasies get the better of me." The Aisha's paw rubbed back and forth along her head. A few steps later, Setarian was in her arms and desperately trying to squirm away from the sudden affection. "Some big sister I am."
"You've been more than kind, Lisha," he said carefully, nearly freeing himself from her tight grip. "And in truth, you're wise to be cautious. I only hope you can learn to trust me."
Since you don't quite believe me, do you? I see the skepticism written all over your face.
Before Lisha could comment, the door crept opened. Jeran hesitated before entering, turning his head from side to side between the duo. Setarian managed to jump away from her clutches and pushed himself against a wall.
"Is everything alright?" The door shut. Jeran eyes were fluttering between half-open and closed, head nodding slightly. "Serian, are you... are you feeling sick again?"
The Eyrie's face looked flush and he struggled to keep his paws from knocking.
"Us?" said Lisha. "We were just talking about what it's like to be a knight!"
Setarian raised an eyebrow quizzically, too numb to react more.
"Were you now?" The tension felt in the room before seemed to melt away. He patted his face three times before bending over to rustle Lisha's yellow fur, which she returned with a crushing hug. A squeal could be heard as she was lifted off the ground and rocked from side to side. The girl faked her feelings so well. She almost seemed like a different Neopian now.
"Speaking of, Lisha, I couldn't be prouder! Today you have shown more courage than any knight I've ever known. Of course," he lifted her high into the air, causing her to squirm a little. "Few brave Neopians are airborne for this long, unless they're Pteris or something."
"But I'm not a Pteri."
"How about a Draik? A Shoyru?"
"Guess not! Oh, I suppose you'd like to be let down now, right?"
"Yes, big brother..."
After a nod, the Lupe took care to place her gently upon his bed. The bed's coils bounced up and down when she reached its surface. They were chuckling.
"So... why am I so brave?"
"Well," he bounded onto the bed, offering an arm to sling around Lisha's shoulders. The other he patted against the cloth blankets. Setarian shook his head decisively and turned away. "Serian, are you sure you—"
"Alright, then." Shrugging, he continued. " It's easy to hide when faced with a hard decision. Many will run away from their fears instead of facing them head on." It seemed as if a ton of weights dropped on the General as both shoulders slumped over his arching back; his drooping eyes caught sight of a most intricate rug pattern. "But it takes true courage to stand up for what is right, even if that means challenging the King." Jeran's booming voice resounded throughout the room and echoed out of an open window. He cringed, lowering both paws to the side.
Glowing blue eyes shifted to the knight. A string of muted mumbles, including "The King himself, eh?" flitted about the room. "We all know how well that almost ended for me..."
A light cough from Lisha seemed to snap Jeran out of a daze.
"Oh right! Speaking of King Skarl, he said I could start training Serian tomorrow!"
"Really, Jeran?" blurted Lisha, to which he replied with a barely audible, 'yep.' The General rolled his eyes. He had since jumped onto a wooden chair and was scanning the titles of various books on the Knight's shelves. One was thin and crisply bound, and though covered in dust, had an eerily synthetic sheen. Written in small, oddly symmetrical letters were the words, 'Meridell, a History.'
I wonder how they glorify their thefts. If this has anything to do with our previous encounters, we're probably depicted as the monsters of their war...
"Serian, you'll be great." The Eyrie tched a response. "But, I can't truly start training until I have the permission of my trainee. So, little guy, are you ready to fight?"
He blinked a few times, spinning around to see the two of them staring him down. "Wait, what?"
A few lines on the Lupe's face turned in and rushing air came out of his snout. Before he opened his mouth to speak, all traces of frustration melted away.
"Serian, would you like to train with me?" The Lupe spoke both slowly and firmly, but it was veiled by his gentleness. "I think with some dedication, you could be a great knight one day. If you are feeling up to it, we could even start today."
Lisha seemed bubbly enough, but there was a slightest inkling of strained tenseness in her shoulders and face. When the two army commanders locked eyes, her brother shrugged before holding his paw out as if making some sort of an offering. Setarian never looked away from his opponent as he drew his paw closer to Jeran's, receding multiple times before finally letting them interlock.
"Today it is. You have yourself a deal, Jeran."
The two, a former general of Kass and a knight, walked into a large enclosed field where bushes dotted the periphery. Lisha opted out and took back to her study. White brick paths lay between towering walls. Turrets scraped the sky. A wooden rack held a variety of weapons, ranging from dull bladed practice swords, to tightly sheathed live blades. Deep cuts resembling giant claw marks lined the rickety wooden structure.
"Must I wear these garments?" lamented Setarian as he walked onto the soft, squishy grass.
Jeran sighed, shaking his bright blue head slowly. The Lupe donned bronze plate armor with the Meridell logo blazing on his breastplate. A light breeze billowed through his blue fur, making it move in waves.
"I'm sorry, Serian, but if you wish to train with me, you are going to need some sort of protective mail." The Lupe patted the groaning Eyrie's head. "Don't be so glum. I'm sure the uniform will grow on you."
Serian snorted, but said nothing. His small, talonless paws tugged at dangling metal chain that hung loosely over his body. A bright red tunic rippled after each tug, displaying the Meridell logo like a waving flag. Worse, it smelt of musty potatoes and chunks of rotten chicken.
I'd love to see you wearing our emblem, Jeran. Only then could you see how I feel. This is more than an issue of wearing some hand-me-down mail...
"Now, Serian," said Jeran, breaking Setarian's concentration. The Eyrie raised an eyebrow, misery written all over his face. Jeran removed two wooden long swords from the rack, crossing them over each other while he spoke. "Before we begin, do you have any prior experience with long sword combat?"
Setarian almost blurted the words, "Are you kidding?" but managed to keep his beak shut and nodded forcefully.
"Good!" The knight smiled, carefully handing the wooden sword over to Setarian's open paw. "This should go a lot quicker then."
Setarian grabbed the sword, gripping it tightly before swinging his right paw to the side.
"Ah! That's great, Serian! Keeping your posture solid is very important. Otherwise, your opponent can—"
"Easily knock you over," he interrupted, feeling antsy from being spoken down to, although the knight did not mean it as such. "In other words... you're an easy target if you can't deal with moderate amounts of force without falling to the ground."
Jeran blinked, nodding slowly with his lip out. "Wow, Serian. Yeah, that's correct. How about the Standing Gate Block?"
He scoffed. "The what? I've never heard of a technique with such a name."
"Really?" Jeran began calmly, tilting his head. "Well, okay then. Stand over there and hold your blade upwards as if blocking an aerial blow." Setarian did as instructed. The long sword, even pointed upwards, scarcely reached the height of the Lupe's neck. Jeran paced over to the Eyrie and lightly grabbed his sword paw, causing Setarian to flinch.
"What are you—"
"Calm down, little guy, just trying to help," he began, lightly twisting Setarian's paw. The sword now angled slightly downwards. Setarian broke away and jumped back with a gruff exhale. The sword pointed at an intermediate height, causing Jeran to say, "Lower than that. You have a tendency to keep your blade too high."
What is he talking about? He holds his blade too low.
Jeran signed when Setarian refused to budge. "Okay then. Guess I'll just show you what I mean. I'm going to make an attacking strike from above." Setarian looked skeptical. "Don't worry. I'll go slowly so you have plenty of time to block."
"Just get on with it, then," spat Setarian.
Jeran massaged his face, trying to his keep his expression neutral. "Sure, after an apology."
"I will do no such thing."
"You always seem so well-mannered when you're with Lisha," he mused, hurt in his eyes. His sword arm fell to the side. "Perhaps today is not a good day to train after all."
Oh, for Kass' sake...
Setarian grumbled under his breath as he milled about the grassy field. A barely audible "sorry" escaped from his beak.
"Shale gray, huh?" Jeran's face was unreadable.
Setarian shook his head in confusion.
"Your eyes. They're shale grey right now. Given how many times your eyes changed color since I've met you, guess that means you are sorry?"
Setarian steadied himself on two legs and gripped the sword tighter. "Something like that. It's not like I can control it." He shifted uncomfortably, reminded of the Darigans who so bluntly denounced him for such a trait. "But enough about that. You said you would train me. Let's see what you can do."
He lifted the sword again, brow raised. "Let's see indeed."
To be continued...