The Obsidian Sword: An Unusual Quest - Part Two
Chapter 2: The Earthquake
After a hasty breakfast of ptolymelon, I begin my journey. I would bring Stephen along, but he's out training with his early-morning Tai Chi group. And besides, the kingdom of Ombre is far off - about a day's journey on foot - and I know I need to get an early start if I'm to be there before nightfall. Part of me wishes he was along, but the quiet is nice, too. My house isn't noisy per se, but it's stuffy. Even with all the doors and windows open, there's a feeling of being caged up. I can't figure out if it's just me, or if everyone else feels that way as well. I've never heard complaints from any of the others, so I assume it's me. Sometimes I feel as if I'm walking on eggshells around and around myself. Being alone brings a certain peace. There are fewer people to run into while I'm circling in my own head.
By the time I reach the castle, the sun has just begun to make its descent.
"Who goes there?" the castle guard demands to know.
"Tar- I mean, Hamtaro." It's probably poor form to use a nickname when addressing a royal guard. "I was summoned by His Lordship the Duke of Ombre - may his reign be lengthy and full of peace," I recite, hoping I remembered the words right.
The guard turns and confers with another, speaking in hushed tones and looking at me out of the corner of his eye. I resist the urge to shift from foot to foot, hoping I look less uncomfortable and scrutinized than I feel. Finally, the guard turns back to me.
"You are granted passage," he proclaims.
I take a deep breath and let it out through my nose. "Thank you."
"I will lead you to the entrance. From there, you will be escorted to the throne room."
I nod my understanding and give another thanks. I can't help but wonder if they've always been this careful in Ombre. Guards are one thing, but an escort to the door and then another escort once you're inside seems a bit over-cautious. Then again, this is a castle. I've never been in one, so there's no real way of telling what's normal and what isn't.
After several turns, we reach the end of a hall and come upon a pair of massive double doors made of solid wood and painted green.
"Once I open the doors, I will announce you," my escort tells me.
I nod, unsure of what the proper answer to something like that is. My version of being announced is either walking into a room or knocking on a door, neither of which seem to be the appropriate thing to do here.
The Usul pulls open the doors with a mighty tug. Stepping inside, he clears his throat and then announces my full name and the land I was born in. It's all very regal and official, and I'm struck by how odd it is that some people live this life day to day. It's all quite normal for them.
The duke rises from his throne. "Thank you, Frederick," he tells the escort-turned-herald. "Your services are no longer required." The Usul - Frederick - bows and turns to leave, closing the doors soundly before him.
I notice that on this side, there is the crest of the kingdom painted on the double doors. It's split in half - a Eyrie standing on one side of the door with an outstretched hand, and a Draik on the other side with its own hand outstretched. When the doors are closed as they are now, the two figures come together and clasp hands in brotherhood. I heard once in school that this was to signify unity, and what happens when Neopets feud - kingdoms are torn apart. What's interesting about it only being on this side is that you don't see it when you're coming in to see the duke. Only when you're leaving. It is a constant reminder to remember to respect one another and treat each other as companions - not to leave angry, and to remember to keep the lines of communication open. This philosophy is likely one of the reasons Ombre has prospered as long as it has. Three hundred years, if I remember right.
"You came quickly," the duke observes.
I bow my head to speak. "When a letter is received from His Lordship himself, it's hardly right to keep him waiting."
The duke chuckles. "Raise your head. In this circumstance, I request your assistance, and therefore must put myself in your debt, should you accept."
It is only then, when I raise my head to meet his eyes, that I notice they are dark and troubled. The pleasant, official expression on his face doesn't match up with it at all.
"What could you possibly need my help for?" I blurt. "What I mean is -," I rush to correct myself, "- why call on me, rather than one of your soldiers?"
Papineaux grunts and rubs at his chin, where a slight stubble is growing. Highly unusual for a monarch. It startles me. Whatever is wrong, it must be something big. "If I knew, I would tell you, young one," he says somberly. "I only know that I have been relieved of a certain magical item. A sword, first obtained by my grandfather and passed down for generations, has been stolen from me. This sword is important. I cannot tell you how or why, as that is information for only a very select few." His eyes lose focus and his voice grows agitated. "All I have been able to do since I lost the sword is pace the halls and worry. If the wrong person obtains it, the consequences --" He comes back to the present and cuts himself off abruptly with a raised hand. "Never mind that. I get ahead of myself. My apologies. Suffice it to say, it is of the highest importance that the sword does not fall into the wrong hands. I've sent out search parties, but none could find it. I went, finally, to search myself, thinking that Terror Mountain might have information of its whereabouts. That is how I sustained this," he says, gesturing towards his injured wing wrapped in bandages. "I am unfit to travel. But perhaps it's for the best, because the night before the Snowager incident, I began having dreams in the night. Dreams of... a red Shoyru, and a whisper. It took until a week ago for me to be able to fully discern the appearance of the Shoyru, and catch his name in the whisper. And as it turns out..." his voice trails off, and he looks at me pointedly.
I blink, and my mouth attempts to say something, but nothing comes out. What do you say to that? The duke not only needs help and is calling on you because you're there, but because he needs you specifically. Not only does he need you specifically, but his apparently prophetic dreams have told him this. Is there ever a right way to respond to that?
When I manage to speak, all I can say is, "It would be my honor to assist you in any way I can, Your Majesty."
He nods, satisfied, and turns to sit back down in his throne when all of a sudden, the ground begins to shake. I plant my feet, attempting to stay upright, but fail and fall to my knees. The duke grasps the arm of his throne, but it does little good because just then, a crack begins at the top of the throne and zig-zags its way across the entirety of the room. The gold of the throne is marred beyond repair, and the marble tiles on the floor are shattered to bits. As the crack nears me, I know I have to act quickly. But my bones are frozen within me, hard and still as statue. I close my eyes for a split second, concentrating like I've been taught in my years of training. Breathing like Stephen has taught me from his vast knowledge of Tai Chi. When my eyes open again and stare into Neopia's ground opening like a maw before me - wider and wider, consuming debris that falls from above - I can think again. A crash sounds, and I realize I'm now separated from the duke on the other side of the gaping chasm.
Before I can open my mouth to speak, the duke is shouting at me. "Go!" he yells, commanding and desperate, eyes flicking between me and the corner of the room. Wait. Why is he eyeing the corner of the room? I glance to the left and notice a Dark Faerie hiding in the shadows. All I can see from here are her glimmering eyes and a sharp-toothed, gleaming smile that looks more like a smirk. My first instinct is to find a way back to the duke, but he just shakes his head.
"The sword," he insists, voice gruff. "It is the only way. Get the sword, and then return."
Heart pounding with fear and adrenaline, I nod, and turn my back to him. My only exit is the window, and luckily the earthquake has smashed the panes of glass. I run for it and launch myself up. Climbing out as quickly as I can, I run into the depths of the forest without looking back. The urgency in the duke's voice haunts me. I only stop once I'm deep inside the forest, shrouded by the canopy of innumerable trees. I stop to catch my breath and notice something strange.
The noises are missing. The chirping, chattering, and buzzing are nonexistent. I turn my head from side to side, and then turn in a circle. Gone. Everything is gone.
The noise is deafening in the silence, and I whip around. My eyes widen in shock at what I see.
To be continued...