The Sisters of Pillar Grove
This series is the sequel to The Tree of Pillar Grove. I am SO sorry that this took so long!
145 Years B.N.
Wingen never wanted to be alone. But sometimes, he needed to be.
The fire Wocky squeezed himself into a narrow alley between two buildings that was barely wide enough for a child like him. Upon hearing the echoes of boots against the metal walkways and the clamoring voices that followed, Wingen tucked in his tail and pulled the collar of his jacket over the ruff of orange fur around his neck. He quieted his breath and listened. The fingers of his free paw absentmindedly fiddled with a yellow, gem-like piece of magical candy; if the soldiers got too close for comfort, he would vanish in an instant.
The footsteps faded off into the distance, taking Wingen's tension with them. His posture became less rigid and the urge to flinch at every little sound disappeared. But he stayed put. The presence of the troop of soldiers looking for him was nothing to fear; he could easily slip away if they managed to find him.
They were an interruption - a distraction from what Wingen wandered off by himself to do. Now that they were gone, he returned to what he was doing before. He sat down and thought.
Beyond the thin view that the alleyway provided Wingen was the Moltaran city of Pillar Grove. It was named as such because of the dozen steel pillars stretching from ceiling to floor that served as the city's foundation. Nearly all of the buildings were attached to the pillars, and the sight overhead was dominated by several crisscrossing walkways.
But in truth, the pillars were not solid steel through and through. It was a tree - a gargantuan tree that grew up-side down. The "pillars" were actually a trunk along with several modified roots, all coated in protective steel. Had Wingen never arrived in Pillar Grove to help an old friend study the tree, he would have been none the wiser.
Old friend. Yes, that was an accurate way to put it.
The world around Wingen turned into a blur that he was only minutely aware of as he let himself slip into days long gone. He could see himself in front of a stand full of surface plants, gazing at their strange forms and colors. The island Kougra at his side would try to quiz him on what was valuable for potion-making and what wasn't, but her efforts were wasted on her overly-engrossed pupil.
But the purple Zafara behind the counter was much more successful at grabbing Wingen's attention. He was eager to feed Wingen's curiosity by pulling out a crate full of more unknown plants and presenting it to the boy.
Eventually, the Zafara asked, "What's your name?"
Suddenly, Wingen's shy nature bubbled up to the surface and shoved aside his burst of extroversion. He gave his answer under a mumble while he looked off to his side.
However, the Zafara seemed to have made it his mission not to let Wingen stay in his shell for long. With a cheerful smile, he said, "I'm Dr. Jacenty. It's a pleasure to meet you, Wingen. Kiele is very lucky to have such a bright apprentice!"
For a brief moment, the Wingen of the present day felt a rush of warmth come over him upon recalling that compliment. Over the course of his forty-three year life -only remaining a child due to a curse that slowed his aging- he could count all the friends he made and kept on his two fore-paws. And whenever he made another, he always held the feelings close.
Then, the still-fresh memory of the news of who truly caused the trouble and grief that Wingen and the rest of his friends went through in the past few days returned. Wingen looked at the eight fingers he extended. He withdrew one of them.
He didn't even find it odd that he wasn't surprised. Why should he be? It wasn't the first time it happened. He knew what betrayal felt like. By that point, he could no longer give an exact number on how many times his trust had been ripped apart, only an estimate of "plenty."
Wingen's hands reached to the rim of his top hat and tugged it, all while he kept a sob contained in his throat.
He might have grown familiar with betrayal, but it still hurt every time.
* * *
The thing that gave Moltara its identity was its massive system of caves. And those caves often held marvelous sights and fantastic oddities. In a way, going from one cave to another was like going to another land entirely.
Less held in esteem were the tunnels that connected the caves together. And Flicker could see why; there was nothing more boring than walking for hours on end down a linear path with nothing but the drab rock walls to look at.
At least it felt like hours. Flicker's already warped sense of time was further distorted by the tedium. The glowing Buzz didn't truly know how long it had been since he and Lampyri left Halloy's laboratory. On the way from Pillar Grove, they were at least able to keep their minds active by searching for the entrance to the lab. But all they needed to do on the return trip was retrace their steps back to the city.
This time, though, they had the added company of the kidnapped mechanics they rescued from Halloy's lab. However long it was that they were stuck in there, they were weak and malnourished by the time Flicker and Lampyri found them. The red Skeith no longer had the energy to walk and had to have Flicker carry him on his back. Flicker gave a quick glance at the other two mechanics: a shadow Kau and a brown Nimmo. Judging by their gaunt faces and heavy trudge, he would not have been surprised if their legs gave out either.
All throughout the trip, Lampyri would ask them questions: “Where in Pillar Grove do you live?” “Have you been mechanics long?” “Do you have families waiting back home? What are they like?” The blue Buzz’s sudden chattiness sounded almost alien to Flicker. But the mechanics, even as weary as they were, forced themselves to conjure up enough strength to answer. Thus, they stayed alert and responsive.
Despite Lampyri's efforts, the mechanics eventually lost the desire to talk at length. Soon, the atmosphere became dull and quiet once more.
When it became apparent that the mechanics didn't have much to say anymore, Flicker decided to give a try at breaking the silence. There were some pressing questions on his mind that he wanted answers to, and he figured that a Royal Guard like Lampyri would be able to answer them. “So... who is Halloy anyway?”
The mechanics were jolted back into attention at the question. Flicker couldn't see the Skeith's face while he was on his back, but he imagined that he looked just as startled as the Kau and Nimmo.
There was a flash of surprise on Lampyri's face too, but it was suppressed within milliseconds. Flicker found that even his friends and family had to remind themselves that -despite looking like an adult- he was only five years old because of his curse that sped his aging, and that he simply didn't know as much as they did. Thus, Lampyri explained, “He's a scientist from Pillar Grove. When they went to war with us Fireflies, he betrayed his city and instead decided to work for the king at the time: Lumin I – your grandfather.”
The mechanics were further astonished. Flicker heard the Kau whisper to the Nimmo, “He's the prince?” They eyed the gruff-looking Buzz up and down. They didn't seem to believe it.
Flicker remembered learning earlier that his father, who he always heard called “Lumin” was named after his father and was actually known as, “Lumin II.” Interested in hearing about his family history, he listened intently as Lampyri continued, “About a year before the war ended, Pillar Grove's forces found Halloy and arrested him. I can't even begin to guess what Jacenty wants from him, but I imagine Halloy wants to finish what he started with your grandfather and conquer Pillar Grove.”
Flicker tilted his head. “So is my grandpa in the dungeons too? Is Jacenty gonna try to break him out?”
That time, the shock on Lampyri's face lasted long enough to leak into her voice. “No! He's...” she blurted, before remembering her sense of patience. She took a breath and said delicately, “Fourteen years ago, Lumin I put everything into one last siege on Pillar Grove. He managed to breach the palace, but died after he was defeated by Zircon in battle.”
Flicker stopped in his tracks. He suddenly straightened his posture, which caused the Skeith on his back to grunt in surprise. His eyes widened as his thoughts went to Pillar Grove's king and how his father interacted with him. “But... Papa looks like he gets along with Zircon just fine. Shouldn't he be really upset that Zircon killed my grandpa?”
Lampyri pursed her lips and held her arms up to her chest. Then, she took a few steps closer to Flicker and muttered, “You're going to have to talk to your father about this. It's really not my business to say much more about it.”
Though he wasn't keen on the idea of having to save the topic for later, Flicker relented and didn't press Lampyri further. As he continued in silence, he mulled over what he was told. He sought to get answers, but just ended up even more questions.
Flicker's thoughts were broken when he felt the Skeith begin to slip off his back. Flicker swung his arms backwards and caught the Skeith before he fell, as the mechanic made little effort to hang on.
“Hey, you alright?” Flicker asked as he –and the rest of his group- came to a halt.
The only reply the Skeith could give was an unintelligible moan. His eyelids opened once in a while, but only enough to provide the dimmest and blurriest of images. The Skeith’s mouth hung open as he released labored, yet quiet breaths.
“What’s the matter? Say something!” Flicker pleaded while his frown started to deepen. But upon receiving nothing but silence, his mind began to race once more. And yet again, he asked himself a million questions, but could not come up with an answer for any of them.
Flicker urgently shouted, “Lampyri, something’s wrong with him!”
Lampyri ran to Flicker and instructed him to lay the Skeith down. She knelt to the ground and looked him over while Flicker and the other two mechanics watched uneasily. After a while, Lampyri straightened her posture, knit her eyebrows, and exhaled.
Once again, she began to question the Skeith. “How do you feel?”
Unlike Flicker’s earlier attempt, the Skeith managed to squeeze out a response that time. “Weak…”
“Does anything hurt? Have you been injured in any way?”
The Skeith was unresponsive again. The quietness that his lack of reply caused was too much for Flicker, spurring him to break it by asking Lampyri, “So what’s the matter?”
Lampyri released another sigh. “I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?!”
“Do I look like a doctor to you?” Lampyri snapped. Taken aback by the sharpness of her tone, Flicker had no retort. Lampyri continued in a calmer manner, “Look, all Royal Guards are trained to treat battle wounds. But if he doesn’t have any of those, then there’s not a whole lot that I can do.”
“So we can’t do anything?” Flicker said quietly while his fingers brushed against his short hair.
“He needs a doctor to treat him. After spending so long in Halloy’s lab, I imagine that he’s very ill. All we can do is pick up the pace and hurry back to Pillar Grove as soon as possible,” Lampyri replied as she resumed walking.
Flicker listened to all of what Lampyri had to say, but it was the word, “hurry” that echoed in his ear holes. Yes, he could do that. He knew how to hurry. He knew how to hurry very well.
“Alright! Got it!” Flicker shouted. He quickly hoisted the Skeith onto his back and had his arms drape over his shoulders like before. With his own arms behind his back to support the Skeith’s lower half, Flicker tilted his head to him and said, “Hang on tight!”
It took a moment for Flicker’s words to reach Lampyri and register in her mind. Her face fell and she yelled, “Flicker, no! That’s not what I-”
Flicker didn’t hear the rest of that sentence. By then, he already dashed past Lampyri and tore across the tunnel.
Strictly speaking, there was no silence in the presence of Flicker’s heavy footsteps pounding against the rock floor. But the Skeith was still not speaking. Flicker didn’t expect a constant update on his condition when the Skeith was so malnourished, but the quietness was still discomforting.
But then Flicker remembered Lampyri’s earlier actions to keep the mechanics responsive, and decided to follow suit. “Hey, I know Lampyri already asked you, but did you say that you have a family?”
The Skeith released a pained grunt, in what was probably a failed attempt at a reply. He tried to speak again, that time with success, “Yeah…”
“Got any siblings?”
“Is he older?”
Flicker smiled. If he was given a subject he was familiar with, then that would make it all the easier to keep the conversation going. “Does he worry about you?”
The Skeith gave a short, weak laugh, “All the time.”
“My Big Brother worries about me a lot too. And I know that’s what Big Brothers are supposed to do, but I still don’t like seeing him like that. So I try not to give him reason to get all anxious over me. But… I guess I’m not very good at it,” Flicker said with a laugh in return. He turned his head a little to get a glimpse of the Skeith’s face. “I’m sure your Big Brother misses you and is wondering how you’re doing. But once we’re back in Pillar Grove, the doctors will fix you up and make you better. So then he won’t have any reason to worry, right?”
“R-Right…” the Skeith said after a short pause.
Satisfied, Flicker gave a swift nod. “Great! So I just need you to keep hanging in there until then, okay?”
Another pause later, and the Skeith returned the nod. Once he felt the mechanic’s grip tighten, Flicker forced his mind to ignore any signals that he was growing tired, and instead put all his energy into running even faster.
Before long, Flicker heard something coming from the stretch of tunnel up ahead. It sounded like… voices? He slowed down marginally as he approached a nearby turn in the road, expecting the noises to grow clearer and louder once he made the corner.
He was right. In fact, the troop of soldiers waiting for him erupted with shouts and commands once the Firefly entered their sight. In an instant, they surrounded Flicker, each with their swords drawn and pointed at him.
At the front of the crowd was their captain, a silver Uni named Chrome. He seemed have a perpetually angry look to him – at least in Flicker’s presence. That time was no different. His scowl didn’t budge as he unflinchingly approached the Buzz. Before long, all Flicker needed to do to make out every nick and scratch on Chrome’s sword was to adjust his line-of-sight slightly downwards towards his neck.
After a moment of studying Flicker, Chrome took notice of the Skeith on his back. His glare intensified. “Kidnapping too, huh?”
Upon hearing Chrome’s words, the rest of the soldiers finally realized who the Skeith was. Flicker heard them murmuring among themselves, all while shooting him looks that matched the harshness of their captain.
“I didn’t kidnap him!” Flicker was prompted to say as soon as the stares were beginning to get to him. “Jacenty did! He are Halloy are working together!”
As soon as he spoke Halloy’s name, the whispers in the crowd suddenly became much more audible. The truth of the matter was that as much as Flicker was treated as a dangerous criminal by Chrome and his troop, he was still believed to be merely a henchman for the rogue scientist. In their minds, if they got to Flicker, then they were a step closer to getting Halloy.
While Chrome’s facial expression remained unchanged, Flicker nodded his head at the Skeith and continued, “He’s been in Halloy’s lab for a long time and he’s really sick! I was just trying to get him back to Pillar Grove so he can get help!”
Flicker spent another few moments watching Chrome stare back at him in absolute stillness. But eventually, he moved. It was no more than a couple, brief hand gestures to two soldiers and then the Skeith, but a reaction was a reaction.
The two soldiers quickly, but cautiously, approached Flicker. He tensed up as to not make any sudden movements. But once the Skeith was lifted off his back, he was at least able to breathe a sigh of relief.
The Skeith’s eyes cracked open as soon as he realized that he was being carried away. Before the soldiers picked up their pace and whisked him off, Flicker heard him mutter, “Wait… The Firefly didn’t…”
But while Flicker was preoccupied watching the two soldiers and the Skeith disappear into the tunnel, he didn’t realize until too late that Chrome closed what little distance was between them. One swift kick from the Uni’s hoof later, and Flicker was on the ground. Chrome didn’t offer him so much as a second to react before he forced the Firefly back onto his feet and into a nearby wall.
“Where are the others?!” Chrome hissed into Flicker’s face.
Flicker groaned as his mind finally caught up with the attack, “They’re coming this way! I just ran ahead ‘cause he need to get to the city quicker!”
Chrome wasn't swayed in the slightest. Flicker could have told him the entirety of what happened and how he was framed for Jacenty's crimes, but he doubted it would change a thing. In Chrome's mind, Flicker was as guilty as could be.
Suddenly, a chain rope wrapped around Chrome's arm and pulled him away from Flicker. The binds released him a moment later and he drew his sword and spun around to meet his assailant. Lampyri stood by the turn in the tunnel, with the other two mechanics nervously watching the scene behind her.
Without Chrome pinning him against the wall, Flicker was about to make his move and run back to the others. But the thought of doing so didn't even have the chance to fully form before he was met with the return of Chrome's soldiers and their weapons. His shoulders dropped; he didn't even feel threatened that time, only exasperated.
Lampyri stood still, but readied her chains to strike again if need be. Chrome didn't make any sudden moves and instead took the still moment to size up Lampyri. His rigid expression and posture was serious, but not fearful.
Lampyri gestured to the other mechanics. “You wanted to know where they were. Well, here they are.”
She nodded at the mechanics and signaled for them to head over. Still on edge over the unfolding situation, they hesitated to move. But eventually, Chrome beckoned them and allowed them to walk to the waiting group of soldiers.
Lampyri then glanced at Flicker -with a healthy dose of irritation- and said to Chrome, “Now how about releasing that pain-in-the-tail over there?”
Chrome scoffed, “Do either of you think you're in any position to be making bargains, just because you got cold feet about keeping them around?”
Knowing that trying to convince Chrome that they had nothing to do with the kidnappings was futile, Lampyri instead responded, “If you want us back in Pillar Grove, then I'm all for it. We have information that your king needs to hear. Because while you've been wasting your time with Flicker, Halloy and Jacenty are getting ready to attack the city.”
Lampyri's statement grabbed the attention of the other soldiers, but Chrome remained unconvinced. “Great. He can talk all he wants about it in the dungeon.” Chrome prepared to leap forward and growled, “And you're joining him.”
Lampyri took on a defensive stance. “I don't think so.”
The two warriors stopped in their tracks. Chrome was no more than a few steps away from being within striking range and Lampyri was ready to dodge and outmaneuver him. All heads in the tunnel turned to face the Nimmo mechanic.
“The Fireflies didn’t kidnap us! They saved our lives! If it weren’t for them, we would’ve drowned in Halloy’s lab!” the Nimmo shouted.
Chrome’s eyes widened by a minute amount.
After a moment of thought, the Kau mechanic stepped forward and said, “It was a purple Zafara that kidnapped us! He hypnotized us into working on Halloy’s inventions! He must have done the same thing to Flicker!”
Chrome began to lower his sword. He stared at the mechanics for a while before he faced Flicker. Once he saw the disbelief in his eyes, Flicker muttered, “It’s true…”
The captain stood absolutely still, allowing Flicker to watch the changes in his facial expression. For a moment, the anger that Flicker thought was permanent faded a little. And when that layer of rage subsided, the rush of realization caused Chrome’s tightened brows to loosen and his mouth to hang slightly open.
But in a flash, the anger returned twice as strong as before. “No… They’re delusional!” he spat.
Flicker clenched his jaw as the scrap of false hope dissolved into thin air. Lampyri, who had also waited to see if the truth would sink into Chrome’s head, prepared herself again for combat.
“Sir! Sir!” a voice from the tunnel ahead yelled. Soon afterwards, a shadow Krawk soldier approached the group as he continued with thin breaths, “Sir! A message from King Zircon! He wants you to return to Pillar Grove immediately!”
“I was just about to. The missing mechanics have been found and we’ve got two criminals for the dungeon. The sooner we get back to Pillar Grove, the quicker all of this can be resolved,” Chrome replied.
Flicker was tempted to break out running right then and there while Chrome and the soldiers were distracted. But he forced himself to remain still for a little longer upon hearing the mention of Zircon. He -at least- seemed like he could be a voice of reason. Likewise, Lampyri paused herself once again – although by then, her patience with holding back was rapidly draining.
As the Krawk soldier bent down to catch his breath, he gave a glance at the two Fireflies. A nervous grimace spread across his face. “Uh… That’s the thing, sir… King Zircon says that the Fireflies and their Wocky friend are not to be arrested, as he has reason to believe that they’re innocent.”
“What?!” Chrome snapped. “What do you mean ‘innocent?!’ There are more than enough witnesses to his crimes! We know he’s guilty!”
The Krawk took a small step back and said quietly, “Sir, I’m just telling you what he told me. He didn’t go into much detail about it…”
Chrome was wordless, unable to articulate much more than a confused grunt. Once again, he turned his head back to Flicker, who gave a slight scowl in return as he asked, “Now can you let me go?”
Chrome looked back and forth between Flicker and the Krawk. Torn between his own intuition and the orders of his king, he hesitated for several drawn-out moments. Eventually, while wearing a severe glare, he barked at the soldiers to withdraw their weapons and stormed off.
Now with his personal space vacated, Flicker was finally able to sigh in relief. All the tension that loomed over him for the past few days was gone, and his shoulders felt palpably lighter as a result.
Flicker happened to look to his side, only to catch Lampyri narrowing her eyes at him. She grumbled, “You can be such a hassle, you know that?”
Flicker was rarely in a mood to argue, and even less so at that moment. So instead of firing up Lampyri even more, he changed the subject. “You think Papa convinced Zircon that I’m innocent?”
“At the very least, he probably made him realize that there’s more to the story,” Lampyri answered. As the last of the soldiers and the two mechanics passed them, Lampyri began to trail them as she said, “We need to make sure he hears everything we saw in the lab. So let’s not keeping him waiting, alright?”
Now she wanted him to move fast. Flicker let it go. He was more than glad to pick up the pace and clean up the whole mess before it got any worse.
Luckily for him, they were only a short distance away from the city. Before long, the entrance to Pillar Grove was within sight. At first, he couldn’t see more than a very thin glimpse of one of the pillars over dozens of heads in front of him. But then they all suddenly parted to the sides. Fortune shone on Flicker’s eagerness to clear himself of his accused crimes, because he was met with the sight of King Zircon waiting for him.
To be continued...