Brightvale castle is almost always silent, especially once the moon rises.
Early to bed and early to rise makes Neopets, uh... something, something, and wise. Roberta's heard her uncle recite that proverb a million times over, but she always forgets how it ends. Mostly because she wants to. After all, there's nothing she loves more than staying up late and reading a book by candlelight, kept company by the beautiful light of Kreludor, the chill of the evening air, and the sound of the waves crashing down upon the Brightvale coast just outside the castle walls.
Yet still, she has a curfew. Which is ridiculous, she thinks, considering she, you know, saved the world and all.
But Uncle Hagan seems to think that heroes still need a bedtime, and need guards constantly posted outside their door, and need all lights to be out by 11:35pm NST every night, on the dot.
But what fun is that?
Roberta's been waiting eagerly for the evening guards to be relieved by the late-night guards, since the late-night guards always tend to fall asleep on the job, leaving her free to do whatever. But tonight, they're running incredibly late, and Roberta's patience is running thin. Not to mention she's on a bit of a time crunch...
So here she lies, in her bed, fidgety and anxious, pretending as hard as she can to be asleep. Still, despite trying her best to stay optimistic, time just keeps ticking on... and on... and on... and on...
Finally, thankfully, after what seems like years of agonised waiting, Roberta hears the guards outside begin to stir and chit-chat, and she breathes a sigh of relief. "Everything's been quiet." "Always is." "How's Princess Dona?" "Still crying about her prince." "Roberta alright?" "Always is." Blah, blah, blah. Roberta finds herself mumbling quiet come ons and hurry ups as they prattle on... and on... and on... and on...
Then, she hears her door creak open as the guards check to make sure she's alright, or whatever it is they're supposed to check for. Then, when nothing seems amiss to them, the door closes again.
Then, Roberta eagerly tosses away her blankets, leaping out of bed, already fully-dressed and ready for the night's adventures. She grabs her wand from off of her desk; then, without skipping a beat, begins a nimble and rather acrobatic descent into the courtyard below her window, scrambling down turrets and parapets, sliding down vines and columns.
Roberta lands in garden below with a little oof, then checks all around for any signs of nosy onlookers — she's luckily alone. Excited, and more than a bit relieved, she dashes across the courtyard, scrambles up the vines that hang from the castle wall, climbs up and over, and finally lands herself outside of Brightvale city, free from her uncle's rules and regulations.
The problem with Uncle Hagan is that he still seems to think that she shouldn't be practicing battle magic — she's supposed to be a diplomat, and the world's already been saved, and they already have a royal sorcerer, and blah, blah, blah. It's all completely ridiculous, but it still leaves her unable to practice magic when there are others around.
But at night, there's nobody but the Crokabeks to watch her, and nobody but Kreludor to judge. There's nothing to fear in the night, even if Uncle Hagan seems to think that the forests are all full of baddies and bandits. Roberta knows that that isn't true — knows that there's nothing in the shadows but starberry bushes and roosting colonies of Karrens. In all honesty, the night is when she feels the most safe and free and happy, because nobody is out to control her. Nobody is after her. Nobody thinks she can't handle herself. She's all alone, and it's absolutely wonderful.
But tonight is a little different...
Carefree and careless, off she darts through the trees that skirt the coast, desperate to get to her practicing spot before it's too late. She leaps over stones and ducks under low-hanging branches; squeezes through tight-knit trees and brushes aside vines and fruits. Eventually, a clearing comes into view — a glade where Kreludor shines bright upon the torn-up grasses, the trees are scorched from all her various "experiments," and all else has been pushed aside to make for a perfect practice arena.
She's almost there.
Six, seven, eight more bounding strides, then she leaps her way over one last juppie bush, and is in the clearing. Panting from her frantic run, she slows her steps to a jog, then a walk, then a stop, standing in the centre of the ring, her hands on her knees as she doubles over to catch her breath. She's pretty sure she's not behind schedule, thank Fyora. She should have enough time to practice everything she wants before she needs to get back to the castle. She lets out one loud, pleased sigh of relief, standing back upright and wiping the sweat from her forehead. "Made it," she sings to herself, her ego infallible.
But a man's strong, taunting tenor then comes from the shadows behind her, and her excitement is shattered. "Bit late for a diplomat" — he mockingly emphasises the word — "to be out and about, isn't it?"
Roberta lets out a little squeak of panicked surprise, then whips around violently, drawing her wand with the motion.
Through the blackness of the trees, Roberta hears the distinct sound of a blade being drawn — steel against steel, like a metallic serpent's hiss. Illuminated by the moonlight that spills through the trees, she can just barely make out the faint glow of golden eyes and a sparkling ruby and ivory broach from within the darkness. She hears soft footfalls crunching on the fallen leaves and dying grasses below as someone begins a slow approach. Then, out from the trees, his steps full of an arrogant swagger — his cloak billowing regally in the seawinds and his sword already eagerly drawn — slowly walks an, unfortunately, very familiar foe:
The nameless Gelert Assassin.
Maybe Uncle Hagan was right...
Roberta somehow manages to maintain her excited confidence as she takes a few slow, cautious steps back, then strengthens her stance. The Gelert calls out to her again from across the glade. "Still using a wand, eh?" he muses sarcastically, his tone full of a nasty, haughty air. "No wonder you're still struggling to learn..."
Roberta narrows her eyes at him, and a bright blue magic begins to glow in her wand. "What's the matter with wands?" she questions, her fair-timbred soprano completely corrosive, trying to stay confident despite knowing that the Gelert is a more skilled sorcerer than she is.
The assassin lets out a short, breathy chuckle, then his left palm alights in a bright violet, mirroring her wand's intensity. "Hindrances," he says calmly, giving a flippant little shrug. He then flexes his fingers, like a pianist playing a scale, making the dark magic his hand conducts dance in a brilliant display of purples and mauves. "Relying on a wand is one of the most foolish things a sorcerer could do," he continues. "If you are disarmed, you are powerless — nothing but target practice." He then crouches low, as if preparing to lunge. "So why don't you get rid of the toys and fight like a real sorcerer?" he taunts.
Roberta refuses to allow his words to sting her. "Says the guy who completely relies on a sword to accomplish anything," she sneers, trying to mirror his overconfidence.
And the assassin laughs again in response, shaking his head slightly, entertained by her audacity. "Bit feisty tonight, aren't we?" he mocks, though he looks more amused than offended. In fact, he looks solely amused.
Roberta, on the other hand, has murder in her eyes.
A silence settles between the two of them as they stare each other down, the assassin still smiling cruelly, and Roberta still just trying to hold her ground. When the silence persists, and Roberta's confidence doesn't falter, the Gelert snickers again. He slowly extends his left hand out towards her, palm upwards, curling his fingers in a beckoning motion. "Well then, come on, diplomat," he hisses through his cruel, snaggletoothed smile. "Show me what you've learned."
And Roberta doesn't hesitate any longer.
Her attacks are relentless as she takes strong, dedicated steps towards him, firing off shot after shot of magical energy, the bursts' intensity and strength a fiery testament of just how powerful she is. Still, despite her best efforts, her spells are no match for the Gelert. She steps and strikes with Meerca speed, but he skilfully — effortlessly — lifts and twists his blade in response, catching and deflecting each and every one of her attacks, sending the once-powerful magic skidding to the ground in a puny display of sparks and light.
Still, seeing him so casually deflecting her magic doesn't deter the young hero, but rather fuels her. She summons more and more energy from her core, and her magic becomes more and more powerful, and the assassin has to react more and more quickly... but she still doesn't land any hits.
But she refuses to let her failure to strike him snuff the flames of her wanting to. She grits her teeth, and she strengthens her grip on her wand's hilt; then, with an audible grunt of furious force, she slams her wand's tip against the ground with all of her might, her magic's light intensifying as she strikes the dirt in front of her, casting the most powerful spell she knows.
But nothing happens.
The light dies immediately, and all the energy evanesces.
Roberta lets out a little gasp, and her eyes widen in shock. Oh no... it didn't work...
The Gelert sneers at her with a short, scoff-like laugh, then immediately strikes her with a flash of dark energy, sending her skidding backwards. She manages to not lose her footing, steadying herself on her toes and fingertips, but she still collides painfully with one of the trees behind her. "I knew you didn't have it in you," the assassin gripes. "What a waste of my time this is..."
But his hurtful comments only fuel Roberta further. "Just you wait!" she calls out, then begins another quick approach.
And it's déjà vu, honestly — step, strike, deflect. Step, strike, deflect. Then, she slams her wand against the ground once more, with twice the speed, and twice the force, and twice the overwhelming light.
Even more nothing.
And an even more patronizing laugh escapes the Gelert's lips. "Worthless," and he shoves her to the side with another powerful wave of darkness.
Roberta tumbles to a clumsy stop over the dead grasses, somehow still managing to land on her hands and feet. The assassin laughs maliciously again at her struggling to fight back. "I knew you weren't skilled enough to handle my spells," he mutters, his tone suddenly darkening; then, he begins to walk towards her threateningly, his own violet magic growing brighter in his palm.
Roberta scrambles to her feet, but finds herself getting knocked to the side again by blackness. The Gelert continues to berate her as he approaches, all playfulness now gone from his voice. "Your magic will never be strong enough to handle my spells," and he summons a bright orb of dark energy, casting it forth at her with an effortless flick of his fingers.
Roberta quickly casts her strongest shield spell and deflects the shot back at her attacker, but he disappears in a quick flash of black smoke, then reappears slightly to the left, completely dodging the attack. His ease with these complicated spells honestly terrifies Roberta... but also infuriates her more.
The Gelert continues his menacing approach. "Try all you want, but you will always fail," and he fires another magic burst at her.
She deflects his attack again, and he dodges in another cloud of smoke. Roberta grinds her teeth in what has begun to feel like legitimate fury. "You're wrong," she hisses as she backs away, trying to maintain a decent amount of distance between them.
But this time, he doesn't smile in response to her impudence. He only looks more frustrated. He fires at her again, and again, and again, and again, each time getting deflected, each time dodging, each time continuing with his barrage of insults. "You are not as strong as you think you are."
Strike, deflect, dodge.
"The only reason you were able to hold your ground against me before was because of that little Lupe."
Strike, deflect, dodge.
"You are useless on your own."
Strike, deflect dodge.
"You are weak."
Roberta can feel tears beginning to fill her eyes, but she still fights on — strike, deflect, dodge.
"You might as well just give up, diplomat."
Strike, deflect, dodge.
"Just accept the fact that you are not skilled enough!"
Strike, deflect, dodge.
"You have no hope of beating me!"
Strike, deflect, dodge."
"And you will never become a true sorceress!"
And Roberta can't take it anymore. "That's because I already am one!" she cries. Then, with a howl of heartache-infused rage, and one strong, furious stomp of her foot, she thrusts her wand downward with all the force of her burning desperation to prove him wrong.
And it finally works.
There's a blinding flash of violet as her wand strikes the soil, then a powerful, electric-seeming shockwave of dark magic radiates around her — a deadly halo of heated retribution. It radiates outward at an almost unfathomable speed, and the assassin has his breath stolen from him at the sight. He desperately tries to cast his teleportation spell again, but he was caught too off-guard by Roberta's incredible display of power, and he is unable to react in time. He is struck by the wave of magic — hard.
Roberta watches with a strange mix of pride and apathy as the Gelert is knocked to the ground, skidding shamefully through the dirt and fallen leaves. He manages to land on his hands and knees, but his entire body seems paralysed by the blackness that's just been shot through him. All he can do is hiss in pain and try to hold himself upright.
And Roberta just waits patiently, still fighting back her tears, simply trying to catch the breath she lost from the huge outburst of energy.
Barely able to move, but in a desperate need to, the assassin reaches for his sword, gripping its hilt as tightly as he can, then plunges its blade as far into the ground as his weakened muscles will allow. He leans himself upon the sword's hilt, and a warm white light begins to encircle him, filling the air with a soothing heat and the pleasant smell of apples and cinnamon — all signs of simple healing magic. Eventually, he manages to free himself from the paralysis of Roberta's spell, steadying his breathing, gaining control over his body once more. His energy returned, he slowly stands — shaky at first — then pulls his sword out of the ground.
His expression is absolutely impossible to read.
Roberta couldn't care less, though. She still hurts too much. She just holds her wand strong and waits for his next move.
Finally, after what feels like ages of hate-filled tension, the assassin smiles, warmly and genuinely. "Outstanding," he says, laughing proudly. "Absolutely incredible."
And Roberta lets out a loud, groaning sigh of relief, relaxing her tense shoulders, hunching over in exhaustion.
The assassin sheathes his sword, then stretches his back and limbs, trying to shake away the last remnants of her spell's suffocating hold. "I'm incredibly impressed to see that you managed to learn such a difficult spell in such a short amount of time," he says as he begins a casual approach. "You truly do have the makings of a master sorceress."
Roberta sniffles back the tears that still sting her eyes as she looks back up at him, scowling fiercely. "What happened to me being 'useless' and 'weak' and all that garbage?" she asks, her tone pure acid.
He gives her another genuine smile, crossing his arms as he stands before her. "Obviously untrue, but still necessary," he says. "You weren't channelling the correct energy, so I had to encourage it."
She sniffles again, wiping her eyes with the palm of her hand. "You could've been a little less harsh," she mumbles.
He shakes his head, no. "Dark magic is fuelled by emotion, Roberta," he says, and Roberta immediately pushes her discomfort aside and listens up. "It's a misconception that dark magic is fuelled by death and evil. At its core, it is nothing but a manifestation of the feelings that make us strive to become stronger — fear, rage, sorrow, regret, revenge, any sort of blinding emotion." He pauses for a second, then gives a flippant wave of his hand. "Except happiness, of course — pfft," he scoffs.
Roberta can't help but giggle girlishly.
He doesn't acknowledge her response — just keeps talking. "These emotions are associated with negativity, of course, but it doesn't change the fact that they are still just emotions." His tenor then turns stern. "This is also why I say you need to get out of the habit of using a wand," he says firmly. "The power of many elements can be intensified through a wand, but since dark magic is so directly tied to the soul, a wand simply leeches its energy. Your dark magic will be stronger if you use your bare hands, as well as your water magic since you are an Acara." His expression then turns mischievous. "Just think, if you could pull off that spell so strongly with a wand, imagine how powerful it could be without one."
Roberta finds herself smiling at the encouragement and praise. It's something she rarely hears around the castle in regards to her magical abilities.
But the assassin ignores her smile and continues once more. "Regardless, if you truly wish to master this element, you will need to be able to freely access your darkest feelings and dwell in them... at least for the duration of the spellcasting. It can be painful, and will be difficult for your goody-goody hero heart to handle," — Roberta rolls her eyes as he says this — "but it's the only way."
She scoffs at him. "And how am I supposed to do that without you insulting me?" she asks, only half-sarcastically.
He shrugs impassively. "Somehow."
Roberta places her hands on her hips with brazen sass. "So, basically, I'm never gonna be able to perform dark magic correctly unless I'm fighting someone as annoying as you, is that it?"
He gives her a cocky half-smile. "You can always pretend," he says.
She snorts. "Pretend I'm fighting you?"
"Or anyone else that you might hate more."
She hums for a second in a mock contemplation. "Mmm... nah, you're on the top of that list," she says.
And he snickers in response, making Roberta feel a bit proud. Then, the assassin sighs, looking off towards the seashore contemplatively. "If imagining you're fighting someone you hate helps you reach that emotional nexus, then use that to your advantage," he says.
"Is that how you do it?" Roberta suddenly asks, without really realising the words are coming out. "Imagining you're fighting someone you hate?"
And his eyes widen in a sort of fearful shock as he whips his head around to look at her.
She looks completely confident.
And he doesn't really know what to say.
So she just continues speaking to fill the space. "You're awfully powerful, you know," she says. "What fuels you?"
And for a few painful seconds, the assassin's mind flits away to a place he used to call home — a place where love once lived, but was stolen away, and where he swore to avenge its death...
He forces a snicker before he can finish the thought — uncomfortably, but still somehow genuine. "Well now, I've got to keep some of my secrets, don't I?" he says with another grin.
Roberta rolls her eyes. "I'm just trying to get ideas," she says.
"Well, you aren't going to get any from me."
His words are resolute.
Confused by his sudden change in tone, Roberta looks up towards him curiously. She sees the sudden flare of sorrowful something-or-other that has now shown itself on his face, and she immediately remembers the book she'd found in the Rathbone family's crypts... She decides she doesn't want to prod anymore. "Fine," she says, trying to mirror his stubborn cockiness, "I'll just pretend I'm fighting you," and she crosses her arms prissily.
There's an awkward lull in the conversation for a few seconds as the waves continue to crash upon the shore beside them. They're both incredibly uncomfortable now because of the subject that was almost so awkwardly broached... then the assassin clears his throat loudly. "Well, you need to be more punctual if I'm going to continue teaching you, Roberta," he says, trying to return to business talk. "I could have easily just killed you when you summoned me and asked for my tutelage, but I made an exception, because it's obvious you have something special." Her eyes light up a bit at the words, thrilled to hear him acknowledge her power, but her excitement is crushed as he continues talking. "Despite that, I am a very busy man, and I really don't have the time to be teaching children. You're not that special."
Roberta rolls her eyes again. "It's just... difficult," she says. "Uncle Hagan keeps me under really tight watch..."
He snorts, shaking his head frustratedly. "I understand, which is why I've been making accommodations for you, but if it comes down to me needing to choose between your lessons and my work, then I'm sure you know which one I will need to prioritise."
Roberta looks down and away embarrassedly.
He continues once more. "And you need to practice," he says sternly, like a father scolding his child. "Especially since you insist on learning such complicated spells."
She sighs, still sounding sheepish. "It's just... I can't really practice dark magic with Seradar, you know," she says. "He would seriously freak out if he knew I was studying dark magic..."
The assassin snorts again. "Then you need to practice elsewhere."
Roberta exhales loudly — not quite a groan, not quite a sigh. "It's hard to find the time..."
"Then you need to make the time," he scolds.
And she looks up to him again.
And she's surprised to see that he looks authoritative, but in a caring sort of way.
As much as Roberta hates being told what to do, this feels different, somehow. She much prefers being commanded to be rebellious than commanded to stay cooped up like a maid-in-waiting. She finds herself smiling slightly. "I'll try," she says softly.
He gives her a firm nod of his head in response, then draws his sword once more. "Well, I suppose I'm finished with my little lecture," he says, backing away towards the opposite side of the glade. "Let's try that again, shall we?"
Roberta strengthens her grip on her wand. "Umm... how about you teach me that fancy teleportation move instead?" she asks cheekily.
He laughs loudly at her request. "Be realistic, Roberta," he says through obnoxiously genuine snickers. "That spell is far too dangerous for someone who is still an amateur."
Roberta narrows her eyes at him... but then makes a puzzled face. "Is that, uh... is it really too dangerous, or are you just trying to insult me into finding my 'emotional nexus' or whatever again?"
The assassin crouches down low, his smile turning mischievous. "Well, you'll just have to find out, now, won't you?" he teases.
And Roberta's excitement returns tenfold at the sound. She eagerly takes her battle stance, grinning wickedly as she begins to charge her spells. "Bring it on."