Caught Between Kingdoms: Part Twelve
The voices of Meridell rang in unison, joined only by one lone traitorous Eyrie and the cheers of Darigankind. Setarian gripped the blade tightly, blinking away tears.
Stupid spell. You're making me look weak. Setarian felt a knot in his throat. But it should. I am weak of mind, fragile of heart, and disloyal as they come. I'm sorry, Jeran... I'm so, so sorry...
"Kass!" he shouted, barrel rolling away from a projectile. "Face me. Face me, you coward!"
The usurper's contented expression soured. With a decisive wave, the military men stood down, but still held their weapons at the ready.
"You want to die so badly, brat? I'll grant your wish. Compared to the knight, you'll be child's play."
As long as I can hold them off long enough... that's all I need. Lord Darigan, where in Neopia are you?
Setarian laughed mockingly while descending to the ground. It was then that the pain started to set in. Instead of showing this, he waved two skinny fingers forward, issuing a challenge. Kass tched, spitting the ground in disgust. As the Lord's anger grew, so did the size of mysterious fog. Three red pairs of eyes stared back at Setarian from a cloud of purple haze.
"He can see us, Kass," said a feminine voice from the cloud, smooth as silk. "The child has been touched by dark magic, the work of my kin's pet, and saved by my accursed sister, a light faerie who took pity on the dying soul. Faerie favor, they call it, when we intervene with Neopian life. Slay him now, his presence will only bring you ruin. He desires your power, Kass, the power you alone deserve."
"Slay him..." two others echoed in agreement, one deep and booming, the other quiet and reserved.
Setarian's ears fell flat against his back as the voices faded. A step back sent him near the crumbling edge of the flying city. "What... what are you?"
"Did you say 'dark magic?'" His eyes flitted to Setarian. He looked almost frantic. One of his generals asked if he was in a right state of mind, to which Kass responded by pushing them to the ground. They coughed up dirt and stared up at him in shock. "You ask if I'm 'well', General? Are you insane? Of course I'm not well! This pest is a threat to my Lordship, can't you see? I won't have it! This is MY citadel. MINE! You're just jealous, child. You want this power I have. You crave it. I know you do."
"W-what in Neopia are you talking about, my Lo—I mean, Kass? I don't want your citadel! I never did!"
Without another word, Lord Kass stepped forward. His blade cut down quickly. Setarian jumped and spun away. The borrowed blade grazed Kass's tempered steel; sparks flew like miniature fireworks. Kass let loose an endless volley of cuts. Each missed by less and less of an inch. Once, the blade slid through his long purple bangs as he bent away, leaving a row of shortened fur hanging above his eyes.
He might have made a good barber, thought Setarian, but any closer than that and I'm done for.
A few times, the Meridellian blocks seemed effective, but Kass's strength outrivaled his five-fold. Setarian could feel sweat building on his brow as a numbness ran through his arms from blocking the forceful attacks. It would not be long, he realized, before his little body would give out.
That prison sentence really did a number on me...
Twice Setarian jumped over Kass's lightning fast tail, which he used for a whip. Then, Setarian made a grab for Kass's blade. It failed. Kass responded with a belting impact that sent Setarian reeling back in pain. He hobbled up to his feet. Too slow.
Grabbing hold of Setarian's right wing, Kass dangled the former General in the air.
"Owww..." Setarian whined before swinging down on the usurper's arm and slamming it. Kass let go, shouting curses as he did. Setarian landed on the dusty citadel ground, coughing and sputtering. His sword had fallen out of reach and was kicked below by one of Kass's soldiers. Setarian attempted to fly away, but flapping his right wing proved too painful. A sprain, he hoped, but any sort of damage would not do. A sudden pain shot through his side as he fell to one knee. Kass's boot was pressed against his front right paw. "Aaah!" he shouted, trying to pull away. After a kick to the head, Setarian rolled to the side.
Why am I so weak when I was once so strong?
Kass raised his blade, purple swirls lining his eyes. "Slay him..." the deep, masculine voice ordered from the fog. "Slay him now!"
He raised the blade decisively.
"To whom do I owe the pleasure, runt? I might as well know your name before I dispose of you."
"Setarian," he said at once, seeing Kass's initial shock morph into unbridled rage. "General Setarian... my Lord."
"I thought you looked familiar," he said, spitting upon him. "I shouldn't have been surprised. Like Father, like son!"
Setarian shut his eyes, preparing for the inevitable. After a few moments of silence, he opened up one eye to see that the false lord had... bigger concerns. From below the citadel rose a tall, bat-like creature in ornate purple robes that covered his skeletal frame. He scaled the citadel's craggy cliffs, easily climbing to the top.
"Lord Darigan?" Kass might as well have seen a ghost. "B-but, you're—"
"Dead? You're not the first to say so; neither will you be the last." He unsheathed a silver long sword with golden spiked ornamental handles, his personal blade. It was held at the ready. "I know they are controlling you, old friend, for I too fell for their temptations. But before my leave, you fought by my side for many years. Fight back again! You are far stronger than they are."
Kass was shaking his head in disbelief, all but forgetting the young Eyrie. Meanwhile, Setarian rolled onto his back, gasping for breath. With a turn of his head, he could see the reaction of Kass's generals: shock. Some tore their gaze between the two lords, terrified of the consequences that might result for their disloyalty. Those that looked the most afraid ran away, others flew off of the citadel to the land-locked world below, and yet others groveled for forgiveness from the presumed dead lord. Those that did openly denounced Kass's lordship, claiming to have been forced to follow his lead. In response, Darigan raised an eyebrow.
"Traitors! All of you, traitors!" shouted Kass, pointing his blade towards their throats. "Say good-bye to your beloved family members; they will never leave the dungeons now. I will see to it that Master Vex never gives them the option."
Setarian rubbed his temples before trying to failing to crawl away. What in Neopia happened after I went away? He's gone completely insane...
At that, most of his men sheathed their weapons and stepped back. Those that did called him every manner of names. A few simply stared, mouth agape and shaking.
"You're ruining everything, Darigan! This is my citadel now. MY citadel, do you understand? I have gone too far to lose it now." His eyes narrowed into slits as his paws twitched incessantly. His voice grew more frantic. "And you're not going to take it away from me. Your era is done. DONE, you hear me? Oh, but where are my manners? Since you have been gone so long," he mocked a bow, "I suppose I should welcome to Kass Citadel, the place of your demise."
Kass's maniacal laugh was interspersed with chuckles.
Lord Darigan hardly blinked in response. His gaze briefly fell upon Kass's ornate armor. It had shoulder pads decorated with the citadel's new sigil: a purple Eyrie. He sighed longingly before thumping his long, bat-like tail against the ground.
"If that is what you wish." He tightened his grip on the hilt. "I'm truly sorry, old friend. I wish I could have saved you."
For a Korbat with a skeletal frame and countless months without training, Darigan swung his blade faster than Setarian's eyes could register. Sparks rained from above after every clash. All other fighting had ceased as countless soldiers from both sides could barely tear away from their duel. It continued for minutes on end, neither side giving an inch to the other.
Kass deflected each attack. Strike after strike scarcely missed the Korbat's bony wings and torso. Darigan, despite his lack of armor, seemed remarkably calm as he parried each attack. A flick of Kass's back paw sent a cloud of dirt and dust into the air. It landed square in Darigan's face. He coughed and spit the dirt away, grunting when the enemy sword grazed his arms.
Caught up in the moment, Kass snorted in his minor victory. This gave Darigan the split second he needed to grab Kass's wrist and twist it down. He squeezed the muscular paw, attempting to loosen the blade from his grip. Kass fought back, attempting to headbutt the Korbat. He ducked away.
"Drop the blade, old friend. Don't make this harder than it has to be." The usurper lord struggled desperately to wring his hand free. His tail snaked behind Darigan's leg and sideswiped it in hopes of knocking him off balance. A spinning tackle sent Kass to the ground, blade and body crashing to the silver sand. A greenish charm flew from his neck and shattered into a million pieces. Lord Darigan gripped his sharply clawed hands against Kass's back and pinned the Eyrie's wings down.
"It's over, General."
Kass's once ornate robes were in tatters. His sigil, the silhouette of an Eyrie in flight, had been split into two by a well aimed strike. He pounded his fist against the ground, screaming so loudly as to elicit shouts of fright from the city's smallfolk.
We have won. Thank Darigan... we have won.
How odd it all was, to smile at the sorry sight of the fallen lord. Here he was, the one who had allowed him clearance into the military, trained and complimented him at every turn, defeated.
Everything seemed blurry, as if he had somehow came upon Kayla's sleeping potions in battle. With every step, he fell back down, dizziness overwhelming each simple motion. A figure stood over, shouting some order or another.
Then everything went black.
He awoke with a start, narrowly avoiding a large black thorn-shaped ornament hanging overhead. Based on the hard mattress below, he was on an infirmary bed. A cursory glance told him that many others, including skeleton thin prisoners, were being treated in the same room. A pony-tailed purple Tonu dabbed a lotion on his head, making it feel cool and pain free. When he went to sit up, he could see gauze and bandages wrapped around his waist and wings.
"Gees... I'm lucky to be alive," he muttered, not expecting a red-colored Grarrl to be hovering nearby.
"Indeed you are..." Setarian recognized the voice as Galgarroth, the Darigan loyalist who Lord Kass forced into servitude at the threat of banishing his entire family. "And I wager that you regret picking that fight now?"
"Not one bit." He tried to move some more, but yelped in pain when he did. "But.... speaking of Lord Kass"—Galgarroth winced at his use of the title—"where is he right now? In the dungeons?"
"Ehem. General...?" he whispered cautiously, eying Setarian down, a twinge of both confusion and frustration evident in his voice. It was understandable, though. He looked nothing like he did before. "Lord Darigan has asked that you tend to your wounds, but requests that when you are feeling better to discuss such matters in his study. We don't want to spread unnecessary rumors."
The gaze of many fell upon his back. I said too much, he realized.
"Now would be fine, Galgarroth. I'll manag—ow!" Moving the right wing quickly proved to be a bad idea. He sucked in his breath. "Really, I'm fine. Just a few scratches here and there."
"Well, you certainly have his stubbornness." The Grarrl's almond-shaped eyes rolled as he deadpanned. "And—"
"No assistance is needed," Setarian began with a huff, pushing Galgarroth's paw away until the sores started to burn again. "B-but if you would..." he could hear the whispers of those around; they seemed curious. "Just this once... steady me."
And for Darigan's sake, stop staring at me like I'm something to be pitied.
After being twice propped up on his back paws, Galgarroth insisted on carrying him. That is, if Setarian felt so strongly inclined to meet with the newly instated Lord. And he did. When Setarian finally relented to being carried, the muscular Grarrl seemed surprised, but said nothing to mock him. That was a relief. Besides, there were too many unanswered questions to let fester while in a room with so many strangers around.
The spiral staircase leading up to Darigan's chambers were narrowly cut and made of black stone. Newly lit candles flickered, illuminating each stone rung. With the extra weight in his arms, Galgarroth grunted, especially as he reached the hundredth stair. It was at the top where they reached the pinnacle of the citadel. Previously, Lord Darigan demanded privacy, and his heavily guarded, spike-covered door usually did the trick lest the incessant knocking of the men break his train of thought. Now, Setarian noted, the old fixtures were all but removed. In its stead, a wooden door stood, freshly painted with his seal: a plum and black spiked gate. Two guards were stationed at the door, a Kougra and Xweetok. They nodded when Galgarroth asked permission to enter.
So much has changed, he thought. And yet the citadel remains as bold as ever.
Galgarroth lightly tapped the door. "My Lord?"
"Come in," he said almost immediately, as if eagerly awaiting his arrival.
The moment they arrived in the room, Setarian was lowered to the ground. Lord Darigan was now dressed in long silken robes adorned with the citadel's old sigil. As ornately decorated as he was, however, it could not hide his malnourished frame. The Korbat eyed Setarian sadly, as if he were a broken sword. It almost seemed ironic, really, considering how unhealthy he looked now.
"There was no need to strain yourself," he said, standing up from his desk to pull up a chair. "But now that you have come, I am guessing your haste is related to my... former general."
Setarian nodded as the Darigan lord held the chair steady. He then hobbled back to his desk with the help of Galgarroth, and took a deep breath when he sat once more. "Don't worry," he said to the Grarrl, cracking the slightest inklings of a smile, "I'll be fine soon. Believe me when I say that your friendship is most welcome... most appreciated in this dark time."
The Grarrl bowed. "It is my pleasure, Lord Darigan. Our citadel has long yearned for her proper ruler."
"She has indeed, but I digress. Setarian,"—the Eyrie's ear twitched at the sound of his real name—"I regret to say that you have come to my chambers for little more than a disappointment." His gangly hands folded over the desk as Setarian shrank back against the chair. "Kass is gone. To where, I can only guess, but I fear that he is lost to us forever. Our mages found burnt fragments of his robes in the citadel's boiler room."
"What?!" Setarian breathed. Out of the corner of his eye he noticed Galgarroth hide a grin.
My, you certainly seem pleased.
"I know you regarded him highly, almost like a father figure, and for that I am truly sorry for your loss."
Setarian's head hung low. Was it elation he felt amidst his sadness? It was hard to tell.
"I will not lie to you, Setarian," he continued, "defeating General Kass proved to be my most painful challenge as this citadel's lord. And because of his and my mistakes, we have a great deal of problems to sort out over the next few years. I ask for your co-operation in our post-war efforts. As such, do not hesitate from I'm about to ask of you."
Setarian wiped a paw in front of his eyes. "Of course, my Lord. What is it you ask?"
"Good. I like your willingness." From his desk, he grabbed a rolled up parchment. Written in his hand were the cursive words: 'Peace Terms.' "I have called an armistice with Meridell and have organized a summons with him in the morrow. You are expected to accompany me to—"
"The castle," he asserted, "where we will finish the writing of a treaty to last—"
"Lord Darigan, I—"
"SETARIAN!" He pounded his fist against the table, inadvertently crushing the parchment. Galgarroth twisted his face in annoyance and a few shouts could be heard outside. Lord Darigan quickly placated them before continuing.
"Well," he grumbled, "it appears that neither my friend nor I will be sleeping tonight." Galgarroth eyed Setarian with contempt. "And before you ask 'why you,' I counter with, 'it has to be you.'" Before Setarian could open up his mouth, he continued, his voice becoming louder with each word. "General Malaner has been reinstated under the watch of my most loyal men, and has admitted that you spent considerable time with the late Sir Borodere and his sister. If their king was to learn that you had survived without retribution, it could mean disaster for the safety of my people." He softened up when he saw Setarian shaking. "Do you understand?"
The 'late?' Then he really...
"I said, do you understand?"
"I..." His voice trailed as he forced himself to sit up straight. "I understand, Lord Darigan."
The Korbat seemed tired after shouting, and let out a loud sigh. His wings drooped against his back. "Good. Realize I take no pleasure in this, Setarian, but it is something that must be done. Now, if you don't mind, I have a great many terms to re-write and you have many things to mend. Such a shame there is so little time for either..." He sighed. "Oh, and Galgarroth, I expect to see you back within the hour. Extend my apologies to your family."
Galgarroth expressed words of agreement as he lifted the Eyrie into his arms and brought him back to the infirmary. Setarian wished it could have been the same among the curious onlookers, who questioned him incessantly through the evening and night. Bothers, the lot of them. Not a word more he spoke that night for fear of who could be listening.
For if they realized who I was... well, it wouldn't be fun.
It proved impossible to sleep even as his eyelids screamed at him to close. Even the smallest moment of dreaming left him feeling sad. Too easy was it to let tomorrow's scenario play over and over in his mind. King Skarl would rightfully be angry. Lisha? It hurt to even think of her name. Each time he thought of her sisterly doting, he felt a wave of guilt. And the ever kindly Kayla, the poor girl; all her little friends, too...
It's all my fault. I'm the reason Lisha's alone now. If I didn't tell that Gnorbu his plans... he might have lived. Maybe I should have just let her end me that night. Everyone would have been happier. He wiped a tear from his eye and hid it underneath the pillow. Some sibling I am. Anyone who has dared to get closed to be has been hurt. Every. Single. One of them.
He lay in silence throughout the night, never bothering to cover himself with the soft linen sheets.
Dim rays of light ricocheted off the infirmary walls like shooting stars. It was morning in the citadel. Little more of the sun's light would be coming when the cloud cover proved to be so thick. Shortly after the sun rose, Setarian was approached by two of Darigan's men, both highly decorated, and led downstairs.
They handed him an oversized military uniform complete with patches befit for a Darigan Lieutenant. He clumsily put on the royal blue vest, taking note of its deep purple trim. Golden buttons, all of which were made in the likeness of the citadel's sigil, paraded down the middle of the jacket. A few years later and it might fit perfectly, he realized. He dug his paws into its deep, gold-trimmed pockets. Soft fabric brushed against his tender paws. Curious as to the odd sensation, he pulled a block of fabric out of his pockets and unfolded it gingerly. A striped bandana. It was just like Marielle's, and an almost exact match of the stone statue in the King's garden.
Is this coat my Father's?
"Lord Darigan, why did—"
"He was tried for treason long ago, the lieutenant that wore your coat." The Korbat did not even turn towards him as he spoke. "It's a wonder I happened to have his regalia saved away. Perhaps I regret the way he was tried... and punished." He sighed. "I was a different Neopian back then, you realize. But I digress. Since it won't fit any of the others, you can keep it."
Setarian asked no more about his father. He could sense that the topic was taboo from the moment he donned the coat. The others seemed interested in their conversation, but were noticeably perplexed by the apparent knowledge of some unknown child. One even lightly questioned why a broken youth would be put at risk by being in attendance with their party, but Lord Darigan refused to answer their curiosities.
"There are good reasons for all that I do, General," he would say. "You have to trust my judgment."
Luckily, they did. Or attempted to, anyway. A few of the generals kept eying him with curious pity.
The Meridellian gates were open, but heavily guarded. Guards armed with crossbows stood atop each tower, bows held at the ready. A line of knights, all of them armed with swords, kept their paws firmly grimed on red and blue pommels. After the Court Dancer incident, they would not be so quick to trust the peaceful nature of their visitors, especially those from the citadel.
The war had taken an obvious toll on Meridell. Brick buildings lie in collapsed heaps. Scorch marks and marrow-sized holes dotted the walls. White dust covered peasant and knight alike; many of them were coughing. Farmers with little more than the clothes on their back stared blankly as they marched by. A few tried to attack the party, only to be held back by the King's men.
When they arrived in the throne room, King Skarl showed no signs of warmth. The consequences of battle were obvious; his banner had been torn in half, all of the blades had been removed from the walls, and the various fineries were all but gone now.
Even the king himself looked older, more worn. And most certainly in a foul mood. His mop of brown hair had thinned, and a thin, untrimmed beard covered his chin.
"Darigan. You're not dead."
Lord Darigan straightened his posture, and stared the plump Skeith down. "It takes a lot more than death to stop me, Skarl. I think you know that better than most."
The King huffed before standing from his golden throne, apparently ignoring the previous comment. Every footstep he made echoed in the quiet throne room until he was but feet from Darigan. "I tire of war."
"As we all have. Our kingdoms have fought for far too long."
Everyone in the room could feel the tension. It was common knowledge that the leaders cared little for each other. Setarian crept behind one of the generals, a Pteri he did not recognize, and hid behind his legs. The Pteri rolled his eyes and tried to shake Setarian off. Setarian would not let go.
Please don't let her see me..., he pleaded.
"Then we ought to maintain peace, Darigan, and not just with empty words." King Skarl came within feet of the Korbat, his tone of voice cold. "Will you uphold your promise this time?"
The Darigan lord stiffly handed him the sealed parchment. "I will. And I expect the same from your end as well. For the good of both of our lands."
With one claw, Skarl broke the seal document and skimmed the terms. Once, he raised an eyebrow, but continued to read in silence. It was a wonder he could when the entire room was watching.
"Are these terms agreeable, Skarl? We can work through them in private later."
The portly king rolled up the parchment and nodded. "Surprisingly so. Yes, we will release your prisoners unharmed if our men have the same treatment. Yes, trade will be permitted. Escorted visitation of officials will be welcome." He then looked back down at it, furrowing his brow in confusion. "But what is this business about your general? I thought he would have been captured and tried for treason by now." When Lord Darigan would not respond, he urged on the question. Meanwhile, Setarian gulped. "So, did you find him?"
"But what does this have to do with me, Darigan? My patience grows thin."
"Very much, actually. He lived in both of our lands for a period of time."
Skarl shook his head, laughing as if told a joke. "I think I would have noticed a Darigan living in my land. Your people look nothing like mine, after all."
"Come forward, Setarian," Lord Darigan said calmly, staring back towards his host. The lot of them wrinkled their noses in confusion. When Setarian only gripped tighter to the Pteri's legs, the Darigan lord grew angry. King Skarl found the entire situation amusing, and smiled smugly.
"This is an order. To me!"
Setarian begrudgingly let go of the Pteri general, who kicked him out into the open with a huff. He fell flat against the floor and dusted himself off, but his tail drooped against the ground as his eyes met with the king. It hurt to move.
Skarl's face was twisted with rage. Deep lines formed from where his claws dug into his kingly garb. "YOU! What is the meaning of this, Darigan?!"
"Let the child speak, Skarl. Perhaps then you will learn where my quandary lies."
If not for the Darigan host, he would probably end me here.
Lord Darigan remained calm and motioned Setarian forward. With all eyes watching, the Eyrie slumped over and padded towards both rulers on all fours.
"Introduce yourself to them, child."
"Why? Because you have done a great deal of damage, I'm afraid. To both sides." Some of the knights looked away, clearly upset by something. "And if you are to live, our kingdoms must agree on it. You'll have some discipline to relearn as well. Now speak."
Setarian's heart sank. Lord Darigan means to sacrifice me for the greater good. He swallowed back salty tears and gripped his Father's regalia.
"I am S-setarian," he said, rising to his back legs while scarcely pausing between words. "I am a former General of Lo—the usurper—Kass." He heard a collective gasp, but continued in a rush, fearing these might be his last words. "I am the son of L-lieutenant Dorian of Darigan Citadel and Lady Mariella of the foreign lands. Raised just outside of the citadel as an orphan, trained by K-kass, cursed by dark magic, and saved by a knight. A bounty on my head landed me, by chance, to live in a castle I feared too welcoming. I was both pardoned and imprisoned by the king of Meridell. After I escaped, I was forced to relay Jer—a knight's battle plans." His mind raced as he felt the grip of sorrow. General Malaner's angry gaze seemed to be on his back. "It's my fault for what happened to him. It's all... it's all my fault."
"Well, Serian," Skarl spat, his arms crossed, "or whatever you wish to call yourself, frankly I don't care either way. At least you're aware of misery you've brought my people. Realize that my highest temptation is to destroy you right now, especially if you are who you say. But for the sake of the treaty... and for my people as well... your life rests with his." Setarian's eyes were misting over. He could scarcely believe what he was hearing. "In other words, if Jeran lives, you will as well."
Lord Darigan nodded his approval. "That is agreeable. It pleases me to know he still breathes."
"Yes, no thanks to you, Serian. It seems a faerie took pity on him and caught him as he fell. For that we are all grateful."
"Skarl, if I may." The King huffed, but waved him on. "I believe Setarian might serve our kingdoms best as an envoy. He, under the eye of Sir Borodere, could focus on the rebuilding efforts of both of our kingdoms."
Setarian looked aghast, as did a majority of those in the room, but this only made Skarl's laugh more profound; his amusement was more than apparent. "You would send the boy to his demise."
"Then it is time that your people learn that we are more than just your enemies. We too have kindness in our hearts, as unlikely as that seems."
The King snorted. "And what makes you think that Jeran would want anything to do with him now?"
Setarian bowed his head in shame. There was no way Jeran would ever want to speak with him again.
"I do not know what your champion will say. That decision will ride with your command and his willingness to listen."
"Hah. Even if I force Jeran to lead your pawn, this plan will not work. My people detest him. Surely you realize this, Darigan?"
The towering lord turned to Setarian, trying to hide the creases in his forehead. "Did you not make any friends in this land, Setarian? Surely they will listen to you."
Darigan's words stung deeply, whether he meant them to or not. "Any I've made will be lost by now, my Lord."
"It does not mean you cannot redeem yourself. I too have lost the faith of many." His face sagged into a frown at the realization. "Gaining back their trust will take many years, but it is always worth the effort."
"Fine." Skarl grunted, increasingly annoyed by their banter. "I'll play at your game, assuming Jeran survives. But if he does anything to provoke my citizens, his sentence will be far worse than prison." He clapped twice. "Enough of this! We hunger. Let it not be said that I am unfair to my guests, however... undesired they may be. All but Serian will eat at our banquet. He will wait in the infirmary and hope that my commanding officer survives."
At Lord Darigan's approval, they supped. Platters of steak, marrow, and potatoes whizzed down the hallway, served by various palace cooks. Setarian's stomach growled in protest. Lady Evelyn had remained on the home front, and had, to his strong dislike, been chosen to lead him to the infirmary.
"Eyes forward, traitor," she said, twisting his head.
"Let go! I—"
"You'll what? We know who you are, ex-general. You'll find few in this castle who will ever forgive you. I most of all. Jeran has always been a figure I respected; not once has he looked down on me." She paused. "You could learn a lot from him."
"Not once did I think lesser of you as a woman soldier," Setarian grumbled, breaking free of her grip. "Blame your cruelness and cold demeanor." She tched. "You remind me of myself when I was... younger. Always so loyal, so willing to please." It proved strange to say 'younger' when he looked half the age he did before. "I only hope you learn to treat others kinder soon. I would hate to see you suffer through what I did to learn your lesson."
Her lip twitched just a little as she tore her glance away from him. "Just keep walking," she said, gentler than before. "Just keep walking and keep your beak closed." He did as told.
She opened the infirmary door and pointed him inside. The scent of used bandages and too many potions to count flooded his nostrils. As soon as he was safety inside, Lady Evelyn shut the door slowly. Based on the sounds he heard outside the door, her blade had been drawn.
How nice it is to be trusted, he thought sarcastically, turning around to meet the patients. Nice to know they will treat me like fam—
Lisha. Morris. Boris. And Jeran.
The conscious trio drew their weapons. Lisha had tear stains running down her fur. It took little time for Setarian to start feeling remorseful once more.
"Stay away from him," she growled, teeth clenched and fur bristling. "You've already done enough!"
"You're no friend of ours," Boris chirped. "You were helping the Darigans!"
"He practically looks like one," added Morris. "Just look at that outfit!"
"We don't want to hear it, Serian, if that even is your name." Lisha's wand of Supernova was shining so brightly it looked like it might burst. "I've done my research and I think I finally know what is going on."
The nurses, a blue Acara and a red Grarrl, begged them to stop. "You're upsetting the patients!" said the Acara. "Please stop this at once!"
"Or make him go!" said the other, a clearly panicked, as she grabbed her bag of medical supplies. "Get him out of here!"
Setarian dropped to his knees, immediately feeling a jolt of pain. Citadel medicine is terrible in comparison to Kayla's potion mastery...
"I'm so sorry, Lisha," he said, head tucked down towards the floor. Her wand came within inches of his face. "You have every right. Every right to hate me. If you want to finish the job, then do it. I doubt anyone would mind. Your king even said it: everyone in this land detests me."
Both Boris and Morris backed down a bit, but Lisha remained firm. Her wand began to hum as it brushed against his light plum fur.
White light poured out of her wand and easily penetrated Setarian's body. At once, he felt a fierce burning sensation travel across his entire body. It felt like a bonfire had been lit, with him as kindling. He fell to the side and shouted in pain, scaring the others in the room. A plume of darkness trickled from his beak. Through his teary eyes, he could see Lisha's face. A paw was covering her mouth. The whites of her friends' eyes were all too visible. They looked downright terrified.
Then, as if nothing had ever happened, the pain was gone. He panted heavily on the ground, disturbing the dust.
"You're going—" he stopped talking when he heard a deep bass voice.
... to have to try harder if you want to destroy me, he mentally finished, frightened by what could have caused him to sound different.
"You..." she said, voice quivering. The others backed up against the walls. "W-who in Neopia are you?"
"I honestly don't know anymo—ow! Careful with that!" Lady Evelyn had her blade against his neck. "What has you so upset?"
She was breathing heavily. Her hair frizzed out in all directions. "You're just like the Court Dancer. A shape-shifter."
"What are you blathering on about?" he said, raising his paws in disgust. "I am who I—oh." Talons. Sharp, black talons. And purple dark paws. "Well, then. This is just wonderful." He blew a puff of air against his bangs, causing them to momentarily float. "Can this day get any worse?"
"What's wonderful?" croaked a voice from the back of the room.
Lisha darted her head back, still glancing back at Setarian. "Jeran?" she whispered.
She sprinted towards him, wrapping her arms around his body. He coughed a few times, and her grip loosened. Meanwhile, the nurses gathered any of the able-bodied Meridellians to the back of the room. Setarian lay on the ground at sword point. Strands of dark purple fur dangled in front of his face.
"You act like you've seen a ghost..." Jeran gently propped himself up and returned the hug. "I... what's the matter?"
Jeran slowly turned himself towards the noise and gasped. It almost seemed like a reflex for the knight to reach to his side and grab a blade. Of course, there was none there.
"General Setarian," he growled.
"Serian is fine enough with me. You've been calling me that for months now, anyway."
Jeran looked at him in disbelief.
Besides, I'm no general anymore. Lord Darigan has made that abundantly clear.
"I was right," said Lisha. "That magical rebound was because of a spell. You're..."
"The missing general? Yes, that's me. I think we've made this point clear enough. Now, if we're done with small talk—"
"SMALL TALK?" Jeran's scratchy voice carried a surprising distance. He tried to get up, but he was too weak. Lisha had to catch him with the help of her other friends. "No. No, you're not getting away with what you did. You lied to me! You betrayed all of us! The King would have given you a peaceful life. You would have been—"
"Attacked by Meridellians who dislike me?" His voice began to rise, despite the position he was in. "Oh, yes. That sounds like a great idea. If you haven't been able to guess, I'm not exactly the most popular Eyrie in town."
"And all this time... all this time I was housing a general of Kass..."
"Yes. I'm sure you're overwhelmingly happy about that fact, too."
Why in the world am I arguing with them? This is just making things worse!
Jeran huffed. "So, why are you back here? And in your full uniform to boot?" Lisha quickly mentioned her magic and what it did to him. He seemed intrigued.
He tried to steady his voice. "Look. I'm sorry for everything I did to you. I've broken your trust, lied to you, and nearly got you destroyed..."
Jeran raised an eyebrow.
"But Lord Darigan wishes to see the kingdoms allied once more. To stop these blasted wars from occurring. He thinks that I will be a good representative for our lands since I've lived in both." He shook his head. "If only it were true."
"Wait. Lord Darigan is—"
"Alive and well. He put an end to Lord Kass'—I mean Kass, confound my habits—and he... he wants me to help with the rebuilding efforts. With you."
"With me?" He shook his head. "I'm never trusting you again."
Setarian laughed lightly. You didn't have to tell me that. I already knew. "And this regimental jacket... it was my Father's. If you care."
Suddenly, a red blur burst through the door. "Pooootions! I got—eep!" A bright blue potion slipped from her grasp. Setarian grabbed it with his long, Noil-like tail. "What happened here? And, um, thank you... whoever you are."
"It's me, Kayla. I'm Serian. Just, you know, not small anymore."
"Serian?!" Three of her potions dropped on his mane, two of which broke. The combination of the two turned his fur lime green in the spot.
Ugh. Why did I miss these Neopians again?
"Um.... Um..." She flailed about, unsure of what to do first, "your wing looks really hurt still. Want me to get you something for tha—"
"Kayla." He held out a paw. "Kayla, please. I'm fine. Don't.... don't worry about me so much. You always do. I'll be... I'll be okay. I'm good."
"Then why are you crying?"
"Oh, me? No, no. That's just... that's just..." he turned towards an unoccupied bed.
Lady Evelyn sheathed her sword. "Do you require further assistance?"
Kayla shifted about on the floorboards, causing them to squeak. "I think we're okay. Thanks, though."
She left without another word, armor jingling outside of the door once more.
The full-sized Eyrie lay on his arms in silence. His full purple coat had grown in, albeit a few shades lighter than before. The stunted tail he had before was now long and graceful, with a large poof of black fur at the end. Although slightly crooked and painful to move, his wings would provide proper flying support... if they ever healed correctly. Even his large, thick beak looked pointed and menacing. Only his glowing blue eyes never changed.
"Hey, um, Serian?" Kayla was hovering above him.
He grunted a reply.
"Well..." She laid a potion in front of his face. He flicked his eyes towards her. "I heard you might be back, so I made sure to make your favorite pick-me-up potion. It's grape flavored! I mean, if you... if you like that sort of stuff now." When Setarian did not budge, she drew away. "Oh... Okay, then. I guess you're not a fan of grape anymo—"
"Wait." He gently took the potion from her hand and propped himself against the wall. "I would love it. Thank you."
All the while, the others were studying his behavior, as if he might snap at any moment.
"I would go," Setarian started, temper flaring, "but I doubt my bodyguard would allow it. If you want me gone that badly, however, I'm sure your king wouldn't mind it if you took matters into your own paws. He'd probably give you a medal of hon—"
"They're bright blue."
"Your eyes, General. They're bright blue."
He pounded the ground with his fist. "...So maybe I'm scared. Tch, you always did know me too well, Jeran." The Eyrie paused, rubbing his arm to pass the time. "It's not like I can control it or anything..."
Jeran went silent for a moment. All the while, his head rolled towards the open window and back. It quickly became apparent that his focus was not the bright, sunny day, but the distant citadel. "Your wings aren't going to heal any quicker from the floor. Thankfully, these kind nurses will let you rest here until your Lord requires you."
Neither nurse seemed to like the idea (even Lisha and her friends seemed uncomfortable) but they eventually allowed him to rest on a freshly made bed. After a long bout of silence, Lisha eventually drew closer. The Wand of Supernova was still gripped tightly in her right paw.
"You're really sorry, aren't you?"
Setarian looked directly into her eyes. It was hard not to cry. "...Of course I am, Lisha. Not an hour goes by that I feel anything but regret."
"To be honest, it's gonna take me a long time to forgive you, if at all."
"Same here," Boris added. Morris nodded emphatically.
Kayla rolled a bottle between her fingers. "I'm sorry, Serian, but I... well..."
"I understand," Setarian said, the crack in his voice was more than apparent. "You all would be foolish to trust me so quickly. It's a wonder I can I trust myself at all anymore."
"Well, that makes two of us," said Lisha. "I'm willing to give you one last chance, though. You do, after all, need to learn how much stronger I've become since we've last sparred." As she twirled the magical instrument in her paw, the Aisha smiled mischievously. "It would be fun, don't cha think, little brother?"
"Fun?" Setarian sank into the sheets. "Seeing as you just broke a powerful dark faerie curse, I'm not terribly eager to be a test subject. And... you're still going to call me your brother? After everything I put you through?"
Lisha shrugged. "Guess so, yep."
"Oh, but you do realize I'm older than both of you and your brother, right? I'm almost nineteen."
Jeran scoffed in response. "Seriously?"
Setarian rolled his eyes. "No, Jeran, I'm secretly a child prodigy that only looks like an adult. But really, since you're from the future, aren't you negative years old anyway?" His brow waggled. "Looks like I win the age game in any event."
"I don't think it works that way," she said through a laugh. It was nice to hear that laugh again. "Either way, it doesn't matter. You're still the little bro to me."
"And me too, I suppose," finished Jeran.
Lord Darigan and King Skarl both approached the room at the same time. It seemed clear that they've had their fill of one another, based on their scowls and stiff demeanor. When the Darigan lord first spotted Setarian, he did a double take, but then questioned him when his composure was regained. King Skarl, on the other hand, had a conniption about a Darigan being treated in their infirmary.
"He'll be living part of the time in this city, Skarl, so I see no reason for your dismay."
"Jeran," grumbled Skarl, "you're seriously willing to take this Darigan under your wing?"
Jeran kneaded a paw against his forehead. "Against my better judgment, I'll give him a chance. Just one, though."
"Are you certain that he won't betray you again?"
He hesitated, but answered a "yes" anyway.
"I was so looking forward to doling out a punishment to him, too. Well, fine then." He turned to Setarian. "I'll make sure you earn your keep, brat."
... You really don't want me to like you, do you, oaf? Setarian forced a stiff nod, then promptly planned to mock him the second he left the room.
"I see your fears were unwarranted, Setarian," added Lord Darigan. "You'll be pleased to know that we have come to a compromise. When you finish your services, as I have been told you bent the knee to King Skarl, I will offer you admittance as a lieutenant in my army." When Setarian seemed shocked, he continued. "With your skill, it would be a waste to shun you from a position in the military. Give it time, prove to me you are true to your word, and we'll see what can be done."
"Of course, my Lord."
It took months, but the Meridellians eventually took to his aid. Rarely if ever was it easy to offer assistance, especially when so few relished his company, but time helped lessen the emotional wounds of those around him. Perhaps, Setarian thought, by wearing Meridell's colors, the citizens will be more at ease. His plan succeeded. Even Bradley Agris allowed Setarian to sup with him, but only at his newly rebuilt farmhouse, miles away from the hustle and bustle of the city. It took many years before Bradley allowed Setarian to come alone. At that point, Setarian happily offered the elderly fellow his strength for household chores and garden care.
One day, Kayla sat down with Setarian and showed him a passage in Lisha's textbook, stressing once more (as she always did) that he need not know more about the future than the small snippets she showed him. Oddly enough, it seemed freshly printed, as if the words had been pressed but hours before. He studied the pages and saw mostly mundane passages about post-war Meridell farming and trading practices, but the most surprisingly part came in the form of a section header.
"The Redemption of General Setarian," he said aloud, scanning the text that followed below. "This diplomat helped to maintain peace between two warring kingdoms for well over a half-century. Scholars claim that such a peace might not have been possible without his strength and leadership. Loved and hated by both sides, Setarian would have failed if not for the aid of Sir Borodere, Lady Lisha, Sir Boris, Sir Morris, and Lady Kayla, also known as "Kayla the Kind." Lord Darigan would later offer Setarian passage into his army, but he declined, preferring to be a mediator for the lands instead. Scholars are unsure of where the General hid during most of Kass's short reign as lord, but assume it was somewhere in the city of Meridell. How he escaped detection is a question left unanswered by the grains of time."
Below the text was an inset of a picture. All of the aforementioned Meridellians were drawn by a local artist who offered her services, an Acara known as Liou-chan. Lisha looked much older in this drawing. She stood with one arm around Jeran, who easily looked the part of the gallant knight, and the other arm around Setarian. Kayla, he noticed, was shown to their left side and was holding an ornate glass flask high above her head. Boris and Morris stood to the right and had their blades crossed as if dueling. Both had fuzzy beards, but apparently Boris kept his hair short even into adulthood. Setarian guessed it looked more vampiric that way.
All of them looked happy.
Setarian closed the book with a smile. After thanking Kayla for the information, he walked into the court gardens. A blade from Darigan's armory clipped at the belt of his red and blue uniform.
I will make this history come true, he thought, taking a long look at his mother's statue. Just you watch, Kass. Your tool is much sharper than you ever could have imagined.