153 Years B.N.
Lampyri's life had been all about attaining perfection.
The Royal Guards, the best warriors that the City of Lights had to offer, were the heroes of every young Firefly. Most lost that sort of wonder as they grew and pursued different interests. But not Lampyri. The Royal Guards were still role models, yes. But more than that, they were a goal; a symbol of absolute flawlessness that she needed to emulate.
Nobody would take notice of someone that merely did "well." When Lampyri, a glowing Buzz, lived in a city full of Neopets that shared her species and color, she needed to put in the extra effort to stand out. She needed to fight harder, run faster, and fly higher.
Eventually, her future would be decided by an exam. Anyone in the military could take it when they wanted and as many times as they wanted. But most only took it once, either because they passed on their first try, or they failed and were too broken to give it another thought. In order to weed out the unfit, the exam was designed to be brutal and unforgiving. Only the finest Fireflies would persevere against the grueling tests of endurance, strength, intuition, and leadership.
At the end, Lampyri stood inside a large room within the city's palace, and silently waited for her results. The hard part was over. It was a long, excruciating week, but it was all behind her now. As she watched the Royal Guards file in, her heartbeat pounded a little faster. This was it. She had waited for the day that she'd join their ranks her entire life. When she sensed that one of the oldest Royal Guards was about to deliver their answer, her breath stopped just long enough to hear him more clearly:
"No. You've failed."
Three words. Every inch of confidence Lampyri spent so many years building up within her was instantly dismantled with three words.
For a moment, it did not sink in. Lampyri stood speechless and stared at the half-dozen Royal Guards that were –in turn- staring back at her. Most of them were over three times her age, yet not at all lacking in prowess. They knew inexperience when they saw it.
Lampyri realized that the shattered pieces lying about in her mind was not confidence, but arrogance. Rightfully so, it needed to be torn apart. Without a word or a chance for the Royal Guards to elaborate on their decision, she bowed her head and left the room. She was inadequate. She didn't deserve to be in their presence. How could she ever think she could stand among them?
* * *
On every building in the City of Lights, there was at least one colored lantern attached to its walls. But more often than not, most Fireflies decorated their homes with several dozen lights. The Fireflies themselves, with their natural glow, made sure that the City of Lights always lived up to its reputation as Moltara's most well-lit cave.
But the brightest building of them all was the massive palace at the very back of the cave. It was home to the City of Light's royalty as well as many important members of the military. Thus it was adorned with only the most luminous of lights. For as long as Lampyri could remember, she would gaze at the sparkling marvel and envision the day when she too would live in that beautiful structure.
Now she couldn't bear to give it even a glance. Lampyri sat at one of the outer tables of a small, popular eatery with her back to the palace. As her elbows rested on the table and her palm held her head, she instead watched the other Fireflies going about their lives.
The city was in high spirits that day. The Fireflies were smiling, laughing, and joyously zipping about in the wide, open space in the center of the cave. Was Lampyri jealous? A little. But if anything, the sight of her peers happy with their lives dug her further into her inner hole of misery, rather than cause her to boil with anger. It was her own problem caused by her own faults, therefore it was only fair that she dealt with it alone and didn't bother anyone else. So she sat there in silence, staring at the platter of roots that had stopped steaming long ago.
"Mind if I join you?"
Lampyri slowly lifted her head. At first, her expression remained static. But her eyes began to widen as her line of sight traveled upwards, and the jaw muscles holding her frown in place suddenly became lax. Instinctively, the wings limply hanging down her back tensed once she finally reached the face of the Firefly that stood opposite of her.
Lampyri knew the Firefly. Everyone knew her; everyone wanted to be her. She was the leader and the strongest of the current batch of Royal Guards. She was the queen.
It had only been a few hours since the queen and the rest of the Royal Guards informed her that she was unfit to join them. But it was first time she met the queen face-to-face, one-on-one. And all Lampyri could do was ask herself: Why? Why did she seek her, a common citizen, out? And why would she show up at such an ordinary establishment? It was popular, yes, but certainly nothing benefiting royalty.
As Lampyri tried to organize the thoughts that ran through her head, she realized just how foolish her wide-eyed, slack-jawed expression must have appeared – in front of the Firefly who was the incarnation of everything she wanted to be, no less. Immediately, Lampyri bowed her head as far downwards as she could manage.
"M-My queen..." Lampyri sputtered. Once she took her eyes off the queen, Lampyri realized just how unlike herself she was acting. She could hold a conversation with plenty of poise any other time, but now she was nothing more than a blob of anxiety?
"Oh, none of that, please..." the queen pleaded while she held her hands up. It was just as well, as Lampyri was seconds away from throwing herself to the ground and kneeling. Lampyri then heard the queen pull out a chair and mutter to herself, "Anyways, I'll take that as a 'no.'"
By the time Lampyri lifted her head again, the queen had seated herself and placed her entwined fingers on the table. She had a calm smile, perhaps made in an effort to soothe the younger Buzz's tense spirits. It worked, but only marginally.
Literally and metaphorically, the queen was a much bigger person than Lampyri was. Even with the two Fireflies sitting down, she still had to look up in order the meet the queen's eyes. The queen was not excessively muscular, but enough for Lampyri to look scrawny in comparison. Then there was the fact that Lampyri's accomplishments paled in comparison to her. The queen served in a war, had been running the city beside the king for over a decade, and protected the citizens with her mighty war hammer. Lampyri, however, had yet to make any such mark on society.
"Lampyri, right?" the queen asked. All Lampyri could manage was a nod. The queen gave one of her own, and then widened her small smile a little more. "I'm Ultraviolet."
"I know," Lampyri blurted. She suppressed the urge to slap her forehead. Right in front of her was the opportunity to have a meaningful conversation with her hero, and she was already messing it up.
Fortunately for Lampyri, one of the servers approached the table before Ultraviolet had much of a chance to take notice of her awkwardness. The server bowed his head briefly before he addressed Ultraviolet, "My queen. May I get you anything?"
"Oh, just the usual. Thanks," Ultraviolet responded casually. After the server left with an understanding nod, she was quick to get the conversation back on track. "Anyways, about your exam..."
There it was: The number-one subject Lampyri hoped that Ultraviolet wouldn't bring up, but knew was inevitable. Why else would she be there to talk to her? Instead of lowering her head again, Lampyri diverted her line-of-sight downwards, away from Ultraviolet's gaze. "I... I'm sorry for my shameful performance..." she said in at a more audible volume than before, but still far quieter than she spoke in her best moods.
"I've seen worse," Ultraviolet said nonchalantly with a small shrug. She sat her chin on her fingers and looked at Lampyri curiously, as if searching her face for an answer to a question the younger Buzz was unaware of. "You seemed very confident in yourself going into the exam. Now... not so much. Why such the change in attitude?"
Lampyri laughed humorlessly in her head. Her only external reaction was to hold her arms against her chest and sit back further in her seat. "Because I was a disappointment," she answered.
She didn't tell Ultraviolet the specifics. Besides the frustration aimed at herself, the other thing that kept Lampyri in that same spot for hours was the thought of how her loved ones would react. Her parents were soldiers too. They weren't strong enough to be Royal Guards; instead they opted to put their support behind their daughter, so that one day she would rise above them. Lampyri was sure they were waiting for her, expecting good news, and ready to tell her how proud they were.
And then there was her best friend. She remembered all the childhood arguments she and Glowstick shared over how one of them would become the greatest Royal Guard in the history of the City of Lights, since they were so much stronger than the other. But after the years passed and they matured enough to recognize each other's strengths, they made a promise: The two of them would be Royal Guards together. And to see to the fulfillment of that promise, they'd train and spar every day. They each made sure that the other never dulled their senses nor grew soft.
How was Lampyri supposed to look her parents in the eyes and inform them that their encouragement was a waste of time? How was she going to tell Glowstick that all their hard work was for nothing?
Glowstick had yet to take his exam. If he learned about her failure to keep the promise, he'd have the same reaction she did. They vowed to join the Royal Guard together. It was either both or neither. Lampyri could picture Glowstick abandoning his aspirations on the spot, and there would be nothing she could say to convince him otherwise.
Ultraviolet didn't respond to Lampyri's answer right away. Instead, she shifted the focus of the conversation. "So what are you going to do now?"
There was a seconds-long gap between Ultraviolet's question and Lampyri's response. And in that time, the realization came over Lampyri. "I... I don't know..." She never thought about it before; she never thought about what she'd do if she couldn't get into the Royal Guard.
For the first time in their meeting, Ultraviolet's lighthearted, carefree air began to chip away. Her eyelids lowered and she released a quiet sigh. Lampyri looked into her face and –immediately- the word she used earlier came to mind: disappointment.
"You know..." Ultraviolet began, the last word trailing off slightly as she noticed the large seared turnip steak that the server put in front of her. A sense of eagerness flashed in her eyes and for a brief moment, she was distracted from the matter at hand.
After a couple bites, she regained her focus and continued, "We get a lot of young Fireflies that take the exam the instant they hit the minimum age. Many of them are promising warriors that would make wonderful Royal Guards one day. But for whatever reason, they're just not ready yet. So we have no choice but to fail them.
"Time and time again, I wait for these Fireflies to spend a year or two honing their skills so that they can take the exam a second time and pass. But they don't. I never hear of them again," Ultraviolet explained. She took her attention off her dish and looked into Lampyri's face again. "And I want to know why."
Lampyri took a moment to process Ultraviolet's words. Did she possibly mean to say that she saw that same kind of potential in Lampyri? Even in the midst of her sullen mood, she couldn't help but crack the tiniest of smiles while she felt the rest of her face warm underneath her exoskeleton.
But the delight over such a compliment was short-lived. Within seconds, the disheartened part of Lampyri returned to shoot down that insinuation. "No... I'm not good enough for that. If I took the exam again, I'd just fail like before."
As their talk drew on, Lampyri noticed that Ultraviolet's confusion steadily became less subtle. Her frown deepened and her eyebrows knitted as she asked, "What makes you say that? I saw for myself how good you can be. You're strong, fast, and agile. And you have an interesting choice of a weapon. Have you been using chains for a long time?"
"Yes, I have," Lampyri said. She conjured up the memory of her as a small child trying her best to drag a heavy chain rope across the ground and gave a brief laugh. "Ever since I could pick one up."
"It shows. You know how to make the best use of it; for both offensive and immobilizing your opponents," Ultraviolet commented.
Ultraviolet told Lampyri, "Your problem is that in the heat of a battle, you allow yourself to go a little wild. In a tight spot, that extra bit of adrenaline can be a big help. But too much of it can cause you to lose control, and that's never a good thing. You could end up hurting both yourself and the people you're protecting." When she saw Lampyri start to sink into her seat, she quickly added, "Still, that's nothing that can't be worked on! And it's certainly nothing to give up over!"
"But what if I can't do it?!" Lampyri questioned both Ultraviolet and herself. She always worked as hard as she could to eliminate her flaws. But in spite of that, she was careless enough to let one persist. The volume of her voice started to rise and the tone became more feverish as her thoughts spilled out of her mouth, "I don't understand! Why do you think I have that kind of potential?! If I have flaws, why would you even consider me?! To be a Royal Guard, you have to be perfect!"
Ultraviolet was stricken silent. Stunned, she said nothing and did nothing. Then, about half a minute later, she closed her eyes and nodded. She had said earlier that she wanted to know why so many Fireflies gave up if they failed. And to Lampyri, it seemed as if she had found her answer.
Eventually, Ultraviolet set her eating utensils aside and sat back in her chair. She ran her hand through her short, black hair and said, "Back a few weeks ago, a band of thieves tried to raid the city. They weren't terribly skillful or strong, so I captured them before they could make off with a single Neopoint."
"I know! I heard all about it!" Lampyri exclaimed. She didn't mean to interrupt Ultraviolet, but the mention of the queen's feats was too much for her to remain quiet. "It was amazing how you did it all on your own!"
But Ultraviolet shook her head, immediately dismissing Lampyri's praise. "Well..." Ultraviolet rolled up the right sleeve of her purple silk robe, revealing a long scar on her arm, likely caused by a blade. Lampyri suppressed a cringe. It didn't look like the sort of scar that would completely vanish in time.
Ultraviolet explained, "One of the thieves ambushed me and gave me that. I'm lucky that I didn't get hurt worse than I did." Once she concealed the scar with her sleeve again, she continued, "The only reason I took all those thieves on by myself was because I was too impatient to wait for the other Royal Guards. I didn't want to wait around when I could take care of it immediately. But if I had waited a little longer and had someone backing me up, that thief wouldn't have gotten the chance to attack me." She gave an embarrassed, guilty laugh as she glanced at the palace. "And maybe Lumin wouldn't have grown as many gray hairs as he did."
She sighed once more. "Lampyri... We're not perfect. Call us heroes and role models if you want, but at the end of it all, we're just people. We grow, we learn, and we all have our strengths and weaknesses. We can hone the former and do our best to reign in on the latter. Sometimes, we are able to overcome a few our flaws. But we'll never truly be rid of all of them."
While Ultraviolet returned to her plate, Lampyri was left to weigh what she was just told against what she believed all of her life. To hear the person she always held as the paragon of perfection, the one that she should copy, admit that she didn't meet that definition, was thought-provoking, to say the least. Years and years worth of perceptions and beliefs were suddenly being called into question.
"It's good to set high standards for yourself, but I think you –and many Fireflies like you- set them too high. And then when they can't reach a goal that's impossible in the first place, they end up disappointing themselves. No one is -or ever will be- perfect. Anyone that tries to claim otherwise has a lot of growing up to do. Instead of aiming for perfection, Lampyri, aim to be the best you can be," Ultraviolet said as she worked on finishing her last bits of food.
When Ultraviolet saw that self-doubt still lingered in Lampyri's face, she advised her, "I find that it helps to keep a positive mind about these sorts of things. Don't see this as the end. See this as your opportunity to improve and come back even stronger."
Positive... Lampyri repeated the word in her head. When she had been in the miserable company of its exact opposite all day, the idea of positivity seemed all the more attractive.
"Well, I suppose I should be heading back now," Ultraviolet stated as she stood up and stretched her limbs. But instead of immediately taking off, she walked up to Lampyri and looked her straight in the eyes. "I want to see you again someday, alright?"
The younger Buzz still felt puny in the queen's presence and her towering figure didn't help matters at all. But what soothed Lampyri was Ultraviolet's warm expression, her smile that told her that everything would be alright. When Ultraviolet first approached her, that demeanor did little to raise her spirits. Now, after some much needed encouragement, it was far more successful.
Lampyri thought of how deep in resignation she was earlier that day. She was ready to throw everything she dreamed of away, just because of one setback. How could she let herself fall to that point? That wasn't her. That wasn't the way she wanted to live. No, she wanted to be the kind of person that would keep fighting, no matter what obstacles lay in her way. And for a moment, she felt a wave of shame come over her when she realized that she had almost betrayed that principle.
But now was the time to shove aside self-pity. Lampyri tightened her brows in determination, and gave a single, strong nod to Ultraviolet. "You will."
Short as it was, that was exactly the answer Ultraviolet wanted to hear. Her smile widened in satisfaction. With no more advice left to give, she merely replied in a joyful tone, "I look forward to it!"
Ultraviolet got in a brief running start before she leapt into the air and flew towards the palace. Within a matter of seconds, she was beyond the reach of Lampyri's voice. Perhaps she flew at such a speed on purpose, as by the time Lampyri noticed a bag sitting on the table, filled with more than enough Neopoints to pay for both their meals, she was unable to object.
Lampyri didn't take her leave right away. Instead, she reviewed everything Ultraviolet told her. Glancing at a clock attached to a nearby building, she saw that their conversation had passed far less time than she thought. Yet, if not for those few minutes, she knew that her life from that point on would be set on a much different path.
After a while longer, Lampyri packed the food that she never got around to eating, finally stood up, and readied herself to head home. But before she spread her wings, she willed herself to briefly turn to the palace that –earlier- she couldn't bear to look at.
The determination to get up and move forwards was always there within Lampyri. If it wasn't, her goal would have been discarded as she grew up. But thanks to Ultraviolet, she was able to rediscover it and know make sure that she never lost sight of it again.
Upon its return, her first order of business was to think of the ways to prepare for next time. If she was faced with another failure, then she'd try again. She would try as many times as it took. From that point on, no matter the difficulty or the hardship, Lampyri was not going to give up.