The Sisters of Pillar Grove:Part Eleven
"Carefully, set him down right here,” Lumin spoke with both urgency and composure.
Lumin and Lampyri gently lowered Zircon to the floor. Zircon had his eyes closed tight and gave a series of ragged gasps. As terrible of a state he was in, he was still conscious. Lumin needed make sure that he remained that way.
“I saw some first-aid kits when we were looking for candles and lanterns earlier,” said Lampyri.
“Good. Hurry and bring some.”
Lampyri stood and rushed off. As she left, Lumin took a look at Zircon's injury; he had to keep himself from recoiling at the sight of it. “You continued to fight with this kind of wound?”
Zircon tried to laugh, but it came out as a sort of rough growl, “I've... dealt with worse...”
“In that case, you can survive through this too,” Lumin firmly told him. “Don't you dare give up.”
“Don't plan to...”
Lampyri returned with multiple kits. Lumin promptly grabbed one from her hands and opened it. “Thank you, Lampyri. I can take it from here.”
Lampyri was getting ready to treat Zircon herself, but froze in place when Lumin assured her he could handle it. She considered him curiously. “Very... well...”
They let Lumin work in absolute silence for some time. He tried to put his undivided attention on treating Zircon and the quietness of the throne room allowed him clean and disinfect the wound with no distractions. But even with that kind of focus, Lumin could still sense the intentness of how Lampyri and Zircon watched him.
Eventually, Zircon broke the silence as Lumin began to apply the dressing. By then, he had an easier time talking, but his voice was still weak. “I didn't know you could give first-aid.”
“Neither did I,” Lampyri added. “I mean, I learned it when I was in Royal Guard training, but...”
At that point, Lumin felt comfortable enough with Zircon's state to allow himself to split his attention. He said to Lampyri, “That's where I learned it as well.”
The silence returned. For a while, Lumin wondered if Lampyri heard him. She sat there and wordlessly stared at him while her facial expression remained still.
“Wait...” Eventually, Lumin's answer began to fully register in Lampyri's mind. “Wait, what?!”
Lampyri leaned herself forward so much from her sitting position that Lumin thought she might fall over. “You trained to be a Royal Guard?!”
The tone of disbelief caused Lumin to pause for a moment. He glanced at Lampyri with raised eyebrows.
Lampyri's hands went to her mouth once she realized what she said. “Sire... I-I mean absolutely no offense...”
Lumin nodded his head and calmly held up his hand. He was surprised by her comment far, far more than insulted. Lampyri was put at ease, but was still taken aback from the revelation. Likewise, Zircon looked at Lumin in shock.
Knowing that neither of them would settle for that small tidbit of information, Lumin elaborated, “I trained to be a Royal Guard. I never said that I was any good at it. The first-aid lessons were the only parts that I had any skill in. Everything else...”
Lumin chuckled, though there was no humor to be found in remembering those days. “I made it known that I didn't want to be a warrior at all, let alone a Royal Guard. But Father enrolled me in the program the moment I turned thirteen – the minimum age that they would allow trainees.”
Zircon narrowed his eyes. “That's... quite young.”
“That's why I put an end to the program,” Lumin responded.
Lampyri nodded to Zircon. “Me and my best friend were some of the last Fireflies in it.”
Lumin's voice took on a graver tone as he proceeded, “It didn't take long before it became apparent that I had no aptitude for combat. The instructors made it clear to Father that I'd never survive in battle and that I'd be nothing but a liability. But he didn't listen, and intimidated them into passing me through. He believed that eventually, something in me would just click, and I would suddenly turn into the warrior he wanted me to be.”
Lumin felt his face muscles tighten. “To him... I wasn't my own person. I was merely an extension of himself. If he was the strongest Firefly that ever lived, he felt it was only natural that I followed in his footsteps. But not as much to forge my own legacy; only enough to reflect better on him. He considered any less than that to be a personal embarrassment.”
His hands stilled. He held a strip of bandage over Zircon just as he was in the process of putting it on. His sight became unfocused. “I quit the program shortly before I turned twenty; just before I would have been eligible to take the final exam. Father, he...”
Both his hands and voice shook. “...he was not pleased with me.”
Silence reigned in the throne room once again. Lampyri sat with her head down and her fingers steepled. Zircon's face remained pained, but now it was difficult to tell if it was from his own wounds or what he just heard. Neither of them, it appeared, knew what to say to Lumin.
Lumin inhaled and steadied his hands. Once his stoic disposition returned, he resumed his task. Digging into his past was never a pleasant experience. The more memories he recalled, the more a sense of bitterness would creep into his present demeanor.
But though he loathed to talk at length about his father, there was still one more thing about him that he couldn't continue to ignore for much longer. He sighed, steeled himself, and asked Zircon, “Back there... you weren't bluffing about my father, were you?”
Zircon echoed his sigh. “No.”
A grimace came over Lumin. He always thought he had closure, that he didn't need to spend any more emotional energy over how he was treated. Yet with that one revelation, it almost felt like his father's ghost had appeared before him and ripped off the scabs of decades-old grudges within Lumin's mind.
Seeing that Lampyri was once again confused, Lumin explained what Zircon revealed to Jacenty in the hallway. Though she didn't erupt with disbelief that time, her jaw hung open in shock.
“I don't believe it; it was what we've all been told!” Lampyri said as her perceptions of the past was also shattered. “Even Exray and Gamma told us that was what happened! And they said they were right there when it did!”
“Those two Royal Guards that were with him... Ha, I never did get their names...” Zircon breathed. “Lumin I and I fought in this very room, in fact. But...”
Zircon winced and clenched his fists. By that point, Lumin finished giving aid. But he simply patched him up to hold him over until doctors could treat him in better detail. Though Lumin succeeded in dulling Zircon's pain, there was nothing he could do to fully take it away.
“Perhaps this conversation would be better suited to a different time and place,” Lumin suggested.
Zircon nodded as he clamped his eyes shut, quietly agreeing to revisit the matter later. But before he dropped the subject, he added, “Just know... that I didn't lie for the glory. I don't care about that. I only did it to keep the earth faerie safe.”
Lumin and Lampyri said nothing more, and allowed Zircon the peace and quiet to continue his fight to keep his strength from slipping away.
* * *
Long past the range of lanterns, the tree hollow was lit only by the red rings running against its walls. But it merely accented the darkness. It was so smothering that even Flicker had to strain his eyesight to see more than a few inches past his glowing hands.
Lumberjack descended down the hollow in a spiral, running along a wide staircase that hadn't seen use in decades – if not centuries. From behind them, Flicker could hear parts of the structure collapse from the stress of Lumberjack's weight.
Earlier, the sudden appearance of the Inventory's exit took Flicker and Wingen by surprise, in spite of spending an unknowable amount of time waiting for that very thing. But Jacenty's failure to enter right away allowed them to take a couple invisibility gems and scramble to Lumberjack's back before they could be spotted. Once they got the opportunity, they would jump back into the control room and capture Jacenty once and for all.
But whether it was to outrun the crumbling staircase or out of his own impatience, Jacenty made it a point to move as quickly as possible. The constant, unsteady movement of the robot kept Flicker and Wingen glued to the back spike they clung to. Every time Flicker tried to stand up, he was sent right back down when he failed to get a footing. And at the speed that Lumberjack moved, Flicker wasn't sure he'd be able to keep up with it in the air. Even if the plan was to corner Jacenty in the control room, there wasn't much they could accomplish if they couldn't even get there.
Then, as if the universe heard Flicker's dismayed thoughts, Lumberjack stopped.
Flicker and Wingen tightened their grip as they lurched forward from the sudden stop. Given a moment to think, it didn't make much sense. They weren't close to the earth faerie's chamber; Flicker still couldn't see the bottom of the hole. And though the spot that Lumberjack stopped on seemed stable, that was only relative to the rest of the staircase. Flicker couldn't picture it holding the giant robot for any real length of time.
Nonetheless, their chance had arrived. Flicker looked to Wingen, Wingen looked to Flicker. They both nodded.
Flicker picked up Wingen and took flight. He beat his wings enough to gain height, then straightened them to glide the rest of the way. Without the droning sound of his wingbeats, Flicker could hear Jacenty's frustrated grumbles coming from Lumberjack's head. Once he was close enough to get a glimpse of Jacenty, he saw that he was preoccupied with the control panel, which he seemed to struggle with.
A ray of Flicker's light caught Jacenty's eye. He lifted his head. Flicker dove into the control room.
Jacenty unfastened himself and jumped out of his chair. He seized a sword that was propped up against his seat and pointed it at Flicker. Startled at their entrance, his fur stood on end. But his face scrunched up into a scowl that lacked surprise at their interference.
I didn't know Jacenty had a sword, Flicker thought. But he didn't think too much about it. He and Wingen bit into the blue gems they held in their mouths. Flicker, with the magic shield in one hand and his hammer in the other, leapt forward.
Jacenty swung at Flicker. Flicker held his shield up and blocked him. The waves of the strike spread from the shield to his arms, then to his whole body. His claws scraped across the floor. Meanwhile, Jacenty stumbled back from the recoil.
There was his opening. Flicker shoved the shield at Jacenty and knocked him down. Jacenty quickly brought himself back onto his feet. Seeing his own chance, he thrust the sword towards Flicker's abdomen.
Wingen jumped in. The tip of the sword bounced off of his shield. Jacenty swiped again. And again. Each time, the brothers held firm. Each time, Flicker pressed a little bit forward.
There was something in the way that Jacenty wielded the sword. Flicker never had the privilege to see a sword master in action – that day would still have yet to come. Though he had scant knowledge on proper sword use, he was fairly certain it wasn't meant to be swung around like a club.
Flicker gave a quick nod to Wingen. He could handle Jacenty on his own. Wingen nodded back and dashed to the control panel.
Another push from Flicker and Jacenty was almost against the wall. There was a crack on the bridge of his glasses. His hat had fallen off and exposed a disheveled mess of hair. His demeanor grew more nervous by the second. Though he might be adept at dodging, there wasn't much space to run in a confined room.
Lumberjack stepped forward. The inclination of the entire robot shifted, throwing off Flicker's balance. He heard Wingen groan with exasperation. Wingen stood above the control panel, disoriented at all the levers, switches, and buttons. Shutting off the field protecting the air faerie's capsule sounded like a simple task. But Wingen soon learned that all his knowledge of magic couldn't help him when it came to technology.
Jacenty heard Wingen's exclamation and realized what he was up to. Taking advantage of Flicker's momentary stagger, he kicked at his legs. Flicker slammed into the floor. His shield broke on impact.
Flicker's sight consisted entirely of the metal tiles. He lifted his head about an inch just in time for his peripheral vision to catch Jacenty's feet running past him and straight at Wingen.
“Big Brother!” Flicker breathlessly shouted.
Wingen spun around and gasped as Jacenty loomed above him. Jacenty held the hilt above his head as he aimed the sword straight at Wingen. Grinding his teeth, he plunged the blade downwards.
Wingen didn't even have the time to even raise his shield. He skirted to his side. The blade stabbed into the cloth of his left sleeve. Pinned against the panel, Wingen desperately tried to pull his arm free. Eventually, the seams of the sleeve came undone and ripped away from the suit. All that was attached to the blade was the loose cloth and a small clump of shaved fur.
Jacenty pulled out the sword and stepped forward for another attempt. Though Flicker's muscles ached, the surge of horror that coursed through him upon seeing Wingen in danger forced him back on his feet. The temperature of his face rose. He prepared to charge at Jacenty.
There was a strange glow coming from the front of Lumberjack's head. Jacenty paused to glance at it. His eyes widened in alarm. “What the-”
Lumberjack shot an amber blast at a nearby wall.
The shock waves from the blow sent Lumberjack backwards. All three Neopets were thrown to the floor.
Wingen was tossed into Flicker. Once Flicker caught him, he grunted, “I don't think that was anything I did...”
It all seemed so strange. If Wingen didn't direct Lumberjack to fire that blast, and if it didn't respond to Jacenty's earlier commands, whose control was it under?
* * *
Zircon hadn't said anything for a while. But the loud noise he, Lumin, and Lampyri heard from within the hollow must have grabbed his attention. When he said the scientist's name, he did so in a barely-intelligible cough. However, he soon gathered himself and prepared to speak again. Lumin and Lampyri listened intently.
“Halloy... was always paranoid of others. He believed that everyone was out to steal from him, to take advantage of his genius, or even to benefit from his creations without his express permission. Eventually, he began to sabotage his own inventions. He designed them so that they would malfunction if used by anyone other than himself. If someone didn't press certain buttons in a certain order, or perhaps turn a key a certain way, the entire machine would refuse to operate as it should. All just to spite his perceived enemies. To get the last laugh...”
* * *
Flicker slowly sat up. The entire atmosphere of Lumberjack suddenly became heavy with volatility. There was no telling what it would do next. It seemed as if even the slightest movement would spur the machine to act again. He knew it was a silly notion, but it began to feel like Lumberjack managed to gain a sort of malevolent sentience.
He remembered Wingen at his side and what Jacenty just tried to do to him. Flicker was about to ask him if he was okay, but Wingen preempted him by saying, “I'm not hurt. All he got was my sleeve.”
Wingen examined his exposed arm. The infinity symbol on his forearm that he normally kept hidden was now in full view. He looked a bit odd wearing only one sleeve, but – as he said – the main thing was that he was unharmed.
Though relief came over Flicker when Wingen's safety was confirmed, he felt a jolt of anger when he saw Jacenty laying down on the other side of the room. The sword had been wrenched out of his hand and sat on the floor a few feet away. Jacenty spotted it and began to lift himself up and reach for it.
Flicker got up and stepped on the flat side of the blade. While he held a firm glare at Jacenty, he bent down, picked it up, and tossed it out of Lumberjack's front window.
Jacenty's head turned in the direction of the clattering sounds the sword made as it fell down the hollow. He turned back to Flicker to see the full extent of the fury in the Buzz's face. Jacenty lost his weapon and had no more tricks. There was nowhere to run or hide. It was just him and Flicker.
“N-Now Flicker, there's no need to resort to violence...” Jacenty laughed uneasily.
Flicker stepped forward. Jacenty's breathing grew heavier as he pushed himself backwards. “It's not too late. W-We... We can still talk this out!”
Flicker seized Jacenty's collar. “Flicker, no! No!”
Jacenty tried to pry himself free from Flicker's grip, but it was no use. All the memories of everything Jacenty did, the pain and hurt he caused, and the people he harmed stood front and center in Flicker's mind. No amount of struggling or begging was going to distract him from any of that.
They reached the wall. Flicker slammed Jacenty against it. “NO! LET GO OF ME, YOU DUMB BRUTE!”
Flicker scowled at Jacenty for what must have felt like an eternity to him. He broke the stare to glimpse into the engine room and at the air faerie. She was on her knees with her head down and her wings limp. Even from a distance, Flicker could see her shaking. He then looked back at Jacenty, who shielded his face with his arms.
Flicker growled at Jacenty and threw him to the ground. His anger at Jacenty had not subsided, nor did he possess any feelings of pity or mercy towards him. But there were more important things to do than deal with him any longer. “You're wasting my time.”
Jacenty wasn't hurt so much that he physically couldn't move. But he still stayed in place. Even if Flicker ended up not lashing out in violence, the mere idea that he came within seconds of doing so kept Jacenty petrified.
As Flicker walked away, Wingen got up and put himself and his shield between his brother and Jacenty. “Go. I'll keep an eye on him.”
Flicker entered the engine room. The air faerie's head rose slightly. Up close, it was apparent that the machine that drained her magic caused her incredible pain. But fortunately, whatever caused Lumberjack to act out shut off the field surrounding the capsule. Upon noticing that and Flicker, she was at last able to feel relief and a small smile appeared on her face.
There were tremors at Flicker's feet.
For a moment, he thought Lumberjack was about to do something again. But the robot itself wasn't moving. Nor did anything change from the inside. The air faerie looked around in confusion; it was nothing of her doing either. When the tremors reached their peak, the realization struck Flicker.
“The floor's collapsing!”
He and Wingen rushed to grab a hold of the threshold between the control room and the engine room. It wasn't much. It probably wouldn't make much of a difference. But it was something.
The staircase below Lumberjack gave out. It slammed into the section below, crashing through it, then into the next one and the one after that. The fourth fall was longer, forcing Flicker to spend several seconds bracing for the next impact, while wondering if it was ever going to come at all.
Then, he lost consciousness.
To be continued…