Night fell on the great and scholarly city of Brightvale at two o'clock in the afternoon that day.
Leia looked outside the window, frowning at the dusky outline of Brightvale Castle's towers. She checked the clock, mounted on the pale pink kitchen wall, even though she was quite sure she couldn't have been kneading dough for more than ten minutes.
She was right. It was definitely eight minutes past two. Yet, outside, it looked to be sundown already. It was the Month of Collecting, and so summer still reigned, meaning it was usually light until late evening - nine o'clock some nights!
Leia brushed off her hands on the apron she wore around her waist. She had been making florange and squibble berry bread for her two children to come home to - their favourite. The kitchen had very suddenly been filled with long shadows, just as she'd retrieved her rolling pin from the drawer. It was very peculiar.
The brown Aisha walked down the hall, the soft footsteps of her bare paws barely making a sound on the shag carpet, and, reaching the end of the corridor, she opened the front door. She stepped outside, felling a strange breeze in the air; colder than usual for the season, and coming from no particular direction that Leia could discern. She heard another door open, and looked around to see the old shadow Lupe, Carlton, her neighbour, stepping from his cottage to squint at the sky.
Leia followed suit, craning her long neck upwards, and gasped, bringing her paws to her mouth.
"Oh my Fyora," she whispered, struggling to take her eyes off the sky.
For there, casting Brightvale into shadow, the bottom of Faerieland could be seen. It was a sky full of purple, angry clouds. The colour of Dark Faeries, the colour of bruises. Leia felt the suffocating grip of fear take her heart immediately.
"Leia," Carlton cried out to her. "What is it?"
"Faerieland," she whispered, and then loud enough for him to hear. "Faerieland is sinking, and we're directly beneath it."
The words tumbled out of her mouth before she had time to really believe it. She dragged her eyes away from the mass of land coming rapidly down upon them, and looked at her neighbour. He was staring at her, wide-eyed, confused, as he often was these days. This would be too much for him.
"Come inside," she told him, taking him by the arm and beginning to lead him into the cottage. She already regretted so bluntly telling him the news. "Don't worry, the faeries won't let it reach Brightvale!"
She did not feel as convinced by her own weak smile, but she plastered it on anyway. She took him into her parlour at first, and then changed her mind. Instead, she led him down to the basement with a gas lamp in hand, cooing words of comfort as she might to her children, though she knew he was too old to need them. Hurrying upstairs, she poured some tea for him from the kettle she'd left on the stove. When the Lupe looked settled in the old leather chair they had thrown down there, she gave him a blanket she'd retrieved from the parlour, and excused herself.
Leia ran back out on the street, and then she did not stop running. She had forgotten to put shoes on when she'd left her house, but it didn't matter now. No stones or glass or moulding fruit that littered the floor would slow her down.
She had to get to the Neoschool.
She had to get to her children.
As she ran, Faerieland fell.
As she ran, she passed so many people staring up at the faerie haven that would soon crush their land, and perhaps the residents too. Her feet were being cut, but she didn't notice, numb with determination. People were pointing and whispering about their imminent demise, and no one even noticed the Aisha, bare foot and dressed in an old floral dress, streaking down road after road after road. Her breath came ragged, and her lungs ached, but not for a moment did she slow.
The Neoschool was two miles from her house, but she found her children a half mile from the school entrance. They were walking slowly, dragging their book bags behind them as she'd told them repeatedly not to do, their eyes glued to the sky. Meryl, a blue Gelert, and Shaun, a purple Blumaroo. Both tiny and easy for Leia to grab as she came to a halt. She held them up to her chest and squeezed. They were just small enough that she could lift them.
"Mummy!" cried Meryl, the youngest of the siblings. "What's that in the sky?"
"Never mind that," their mother said, trying to keep the relief out of her voice. "We have to go."
"But where?" asked the little boy, Shaun. "School let us out early."
Leia said no more, not sure if she could. She was suddenly terrified. It was almost as dark as night now in the small city, and she could hear people wailing. Where was King Hagan? Did he not hold the wisdom to evacuate his city? She was suddenly angry. If she, a lowly housewife, had the foresight to see what was necessary, why did her king not see it? What would happen to all these people? To her friends, to her children's friends, to Carlton, a little old Lupe barely able to fend for himself. She suddenly felt guilty. She shouldn't have left him, perhaps. But she had had to. She had to save her children. They were all that mattered.
She placed them both back down onto the floor, and took them each by the hand. She knelt down to their height.
"Listen," she whispered, looking around her, but still no one was interested in the distressed Aisha with her two children. "We must walk very, very quickly, and you must not complain. Don't worry, we're going to go and see Daddy."
The children gave a small cheer at the thought of seeing their father, and more guilt niggled its way into Leia's heart. She wasn't sure she would make out of Brightvale at all, let alone to Neopia Central.
"But we'll never get out; you have to open the gates!" she shouted at the guard, desperate and scared. She saw her own spittle hit his shining helmet.
"I'm, uh, sorry, madam, but uh, we cannot allow a mass evacuation until explicitly ordered to do so by the King," the guard told her.
Behind the helm, she could see shining blue eyes. They looked young, and scared - scared as she was. He was merely a pawn, he didn't have the authority to open the gates, that she knew. But fearful as she was, she needed someone to shout at, and all the other guards currently had other angry Brightvalians pressed up against them, screaming and cursing in their faces.
Over by the single open gate, the only one that was always open, the crowd was swelling like a bloated Koi. It bulged and shouted. So much noise, so many pets. At least a hundred, trying to flee their doomed city. Few seemed to be able to move through the double file gate, small as it was. It was designed to allow a small carriage through, and those passing in and out of the city. Brightvale was not a popular enough location for it to justify keeping all its gates open at once.
"Why isn't the King evacuating us?" she said, keeping her voice low but angry still. She gripping her two babies' hands tightly so she would not lose them in the crowd that moved around, one that looked close to hooliganism. "Is he not a wise King? Does he not have eyes to see we will all be crushed beneath the weight of a Faerie city?!"
Her speech was getting faster, the more panicked she became. She took a deep breath. She had to remain calm, remain a rock for her children. But their very presence only made her nervousness more extreme.
The young guard, a small purple Draik, leaned in towards her.
"We have not heard word from Hagan since the city began to fall, madam," he whispered nervously, and she saw his eyes dart around under the helm, as if checking no one else was listening in. "Please, please don't let the panic spread, but you and your children need to find somewhere safe - underground maybe. We don't know if the gates will open, and the crowd is getting angry... it won't be safe for them."
Leia let the information sink in. Even the guard seemed frightened, and he would have to remain here until he was relieved - if he ever was. She nodded once, feeling herself calm now she had official instruction.
"Thank you," she whispered, meaning it deeply.
Then she turned around and began walking home briskly, pulling her two children with him.
Behind her, she heard the crowd begin to shake the other gates, and calling to tear them down.
On the way home, she past the university. It was eerily quiet. Usually, students littered the lawn outside, reading books, eating lunch, and sitting in large groups chatting anxiously about coming exams, or the lectures they had just been in. Today - although it felt like night - even the lights within the university were off. She wondered where the students were.
When the small family were past the huge, stately building, and out of the eye line of the gates, Leia picked her little girl up.
"Okay, loves," she said to them both quietly. "Let us race home."
Shaun looked up at her with sad eyes, while Meryl squealed with excitement. She was too young to sense the danger, as her little Blumaroo had amongst so many panicked Neopians. But he set off at a run nonetheless, and Leia followed after, Meryl bouncing and letting out little giggles. "Quick, Mummy, catch him!" she shouted into the silent day-night.
They reached home quickly, Leia's breath ragged and feet aching once more. She had ignored the rock that had split her heel, stumbling only once. Fear and the will to protect her children had bore her onwards, taken her home.
She stepped into the house, into the deep silence of their home. The children didn't spot their unbaked bread on the countertop, and she put the kettle on the stove after setting Meryl down. She turned to the two children.
"We have a visitor today," she said, trying to make her voice sound cheerful, sad now that she knew Shaun would not for a minute fall for the facade. "Down in the basement, Mr. Hubbard popped in for a cup of tea. If you go join him down there, I'll be with you in a minute - and I'll bring some hot cocoa for all of us!"
Meryl hurrahed, and took of at a jog towards the basement, Leia calling out for her not to run down the stairs. The Aisha heard excited little footsteps racing into the darkness nonetheless. She never listened when she was excited - the little Gelert loved Carlton so.
"Mummy --," Shaun started.
"Go down to the basement, Shaun," she said, sternly. "Go stay with your sister - and take a lamp down with you."
He hesitated for just a moment, shivering as he rested back on his oversized tail, before he nodded and grabbed a gas lamp from the table. She lit it from the stove for him, and watched him go after his sister.
As the kettle boiled, she let out a deep sigh, as if letting out all the feelings caught up inside of her from their long day. She couldn't bare to look out of the window, tears welling in her eyes as she thought of what would happen should the city from above, the city she had always seen as a wondrous place but had now become a nightmare to her, came crashing down on top of them. On top of her, on top of Carlton, on top of that huge crowd gathered by the gates who had either pulled it down by now or been subdued through ugly means... on top of, Fyora forbid, her children. She wanted her husband to be there, to hold her while she held her children. But at least he would be safe - if only the same could be said for the four who sat inside the tiny, stone cottage. And where was her King in all of this? She trusted him so as a monarch, and she felt betrayed by him. If she survived... well, she couldn't think about what she would do. That would be treason.
The kettle began to sing, pulling her out of her dark thoughts. She poured four cups of cocoa, making her children's extra sweet, and pouring a little borovan into the bottom of hers to strengthen it. Balancing them carefully on a tray, she added a small plate of biscuits and a few ripe and juicy purblares. She slowly made her way downstairs, making sure the tears were out of her eyes, and that she would hold firm with the children. In her other hand, she took another gas lamp with her.
It swung wildly in her fingertips, elongated and then quickly shortening the shadows around her, but she could see her children and neighbour sitting in a circle, Meryl chattering away to poor Carlton. She was grateful now that her husband had never wanted to throw any of the old furniture away, and so rickety chairs were left down here to gather dust, finally now put to use. Carlton still sat in the huge Gobbler-feather stuffed leather chair, the only really comfortable thing in their basement.
She set the tray down on a termite-eaten chest of drawers, and pushed it into the middle of the ring of chairs. Between the children, a small chair sat empty. Meryl patted it with enthusiasm.
"This is for you, Mummy," she said brightly. "This is just like camping, without all the icky petpetpets!"
Leia smiled sadly at her. Always so enthusiastic. They sat and drank their cocoa, Carlton seeming grateful for finally having another drink, in almost silence, had it not been for Meryl talking half-nonsense, and Carlton humouring her in conversation.
After a long time, though it was impossible to tell how long, and may have been less than hour though it felt very long, the sound from outside started to seep through the walls and floors, to downstairs into the basement.
It was a deep, earthy rumble, which sounded like the sky itself was falling upon the small, usually scholarly city. Carlton went up, in the guise of refilling their drinks, and returned ten minutes later with fear on his face. He handed the mugs around, before pulling Leia into a shadowy corner of the room.
"There are things out there," he whispered to her. "Things not of this world."
His voice quaked, and she felt more terror fill her. "What kind of things?" she asked, though she wasn't sure she wanted to know the answer.
"Shadows that are not shadows," he said. "Shadows that move and fight and bite, like nightmares come to life."
She wanted to believe it was an illusion of his old age, but she knew she would be kidding nobody. She nodded sternly.
"I closed the blinds when they disappeared around the corner," he continued. "I don't think they saw me; we might be safe if we are quiet."
"Okay, keep the children entertained."
She marched up the stairs out into the kitchen once more. Temptation pulled her to the window, but she resisted, instead getting on all fours to crawl past the still open window in the living room, to the closet in the corner. Quickly, she found spare blankets and a ratty duvet that had not seen the light of day for years, and would possibly never. The room was dim, filled with only the murkiest of light, and she squinted around her, pulling cushions of the sofas, before hurrying back down the stairs.
"It's time for bed, Meryl," she called, keeping her voice low but as cheerful as she could muster. The little girl believed it easily. "You too, Shaun!"
The little boy looked particularly grumpy at this. Perhaps from understanding that something was very wrong - if he hadn't worked it out from the angry clouds above and the rioting crowd - he believed he had the right to stay up late with the older pets. She gave him her sternest look, and slowly he nodded, conceding.
She lay the duvet down to cushion them from the hard, stone floor, and tucked them into crocheted blankets. Meryl asked for a story, and Leia wasn't sure how she could refuse. So she told them the story of Jeran, their favourite story, the great knight who saved Meridell, and, by extension, Brightvale.
"And so the great city lived happily, and Jeran could live in peace with his sister," she finished, looking down at the two siblings, who had fallen asleep some time ago. She stroked the hair out of Meryl's face to behind her ear, and kissed them both softly on the forehead before getting up.
"You should probably sleep soon, too, Carlton," she whispered, reaching onto the dresser to turn the gas lamp down, turning the basement over to darkness, with only just enough light to see her neighbour. The old man looked tired around the eyes, and the line of his mouth was set grimly.
"I think you're right," he said, his voice still shaking. "I'll probably have a quick nap before I keep you company for the rest of... for the rest of this."
The old man fell asleep quickly in his chair, mouth open, breathing loudly. He did not look like he would wake back up for some time.
Leia seated herself, unsure of what she should be doing. She fidgeted perpetually, tugging at the end of her dress, thinking of the panic she had felt earlier when she went to find her children, and the panic she still felt now she had them. It was deep, right in the base of her stomach. She wondered what Rian was thinking, probably unable to make his way back into the city, if he had even the chance to try. His children and his wife, his childhood sweetheart, trapped in a city about to be destroyed.
She began to sob, as quietly as she could, her fist in her mouth to stop the children or Carlton hearing. It was like a great gate had been opened, and now she had begun, the tears kept coming, racking her with every wave. She was so tired and so scared, more than she ever had been in her life.
And amidst these tears, she eventually, accidentally, fell into a slumber.
When she awoke, the gas lamps had burnt down to their wicks. The room was filled with the sound of old Lupe's snoring, hitting the walls and bouncing back at them, and the soft breaths of her children.
Leia didn't remember falling asleep in the wooden chair, but the small line of drool that slicked the fur by her mouth, and her aching neck, said otherwise. She stretched slowly, the chair groaning under her, and tried to get up as quietly as possible. Carlton's eyes flickered, but he did not fully wake, and so she slowly ascended the stairs into the house proper.
When she open the door, light was streaming through the window, and she almost began to cry. With shaking fingers, she ripped the curtains open, sun light pouring into the little kitchen, almost blinding her. She recovered quickly, blinking away the sun spots, so happy to see her old, much missed friend. She practically ran to the front door, throwing it open, to look upwards, always upwards.
The sky was empty, but for rain clouds, which Leia welcomed with open hands. She cried out, quite by accident, so filled with joy and relief and so many other emotions she couldn't place. Closing the door behind her, she took off at a run. Never having previously ran through the streets of her home city, she found this was the third time in two days she had done so. It was so bright, and the air so fresh and crisp, she could not contain herself standing still. She had to let the emotions build and throw themselves out of her and into the wind, to fly away and upwards, always upwards.
She grabbed the first pet she could find, a yellow Lutari, wandering the streets much slower than she. He turned in surprise as she approached, her feet pounding the dirty street, and she grabbed both of his arms in her paws.
"What happened?" she said, much louder than she had meant to. She adjusted her volume. "What happened to Faerieland? Why is Brightvale not flattened?"
"Are the shadows gone?" he asked in turn, his eyes wild. "Are they going to take us still?"
His confused expression did not leave his face and so she pushed him gently out of the way, finding him of no use, and running towards the city gates, the far end, away from where she had been the day before. If there was destruction, she could not bare to see it.
But as she ran, destruction she saw. Discarded items littered the streets, plashes and trinkets and books and bags, everywhere she looked. Houses with windows smashed - looting, she wondered? Or the shadow pets Carlton had described? She felt a shiver run over her as she thought of them. Before long, she reached a set of gates, manned by two extremely tired looking guards, one faerie Skeith, the other blue Shoyru.
"What happened?" she cried, slowly down as she approached them. "Are we safe?"
The guards looked at each other uneasy.
"For now, we think," the Skeith told her. "Faerieland landed twenty miles from here, nearer to the Haunted Woods. And the shadows... they are gone. Wraiths, our captain told us. We're safe from them, for now."
She couldn't help but let out of shout of delight, and the guards drew back, confused.
"And what of the king?" she asked, half turning to leave.
"We don't know..." the Skeith said quietly, her expression grim. "Last night, the people pulled down the south gate - you might have seen on the way over. But still, the King did not speak. We expect an official statement this afternoon."
The Aisha nodded.
"Thank you for your honesty."
And then she started running again, homeward bound and happy. Even if the danger was not passed, there was time now. Time to tell her children everything was okay, and, if needs be, then to find safe or smuggled passage out of Brightvale to her husband in Neopia Central, where safety would find them. She hoped she would be able to find Carlton somewhere to go, for she knew they might not be able to take him with them.
But for now, she would go home, finish the bread she had begun as provisions for the road, if the dough hadn't spoilt, and would make the children pack a small bag to take with them. They would be pleased that she would live up to her promise of them seeing their father. She would be pleased that they were even given a chance.
She kept her head high as she made her way back, ignoring the signs of destruction, the signs of families not as lucky as hers, that lay all around her.