The Sisters of Pillar Grove:Part Ten
Lumin heard a commotion coming from the palace entrance. When he went to investigate, a group of soldiers told him that Jacenty had done something to Zircon and that he was taking commands from him. Although he never saw it for himself, it sounded like what Jacenty did to Flicker to set the whole scenario into motion. He couldn't do anything about it back then, but he was not about to let Jacenty go unimpeded this time.
Jacenty did not look at all threatened by his presence. If anything, he seemed amused. Lumin had to suppress a shiver. That smug, quiet sense of delight over such disorder reminded him too much of The Engineer. Lumin always knew that those kinds of people existed. But he would've been able to live a much less distressing life he hadn't come in contact with that sort so often.
“Lumin, don't be a fool,” Zircon pleaded as he reached for his sword.
Lumin remained steadfast. Was he terrified? Absolutely. But he had to keep himself from showing that. When all was said and done, there would be plenty of time to recount how he felt fear swirl throughout his entire being in that moment.
“Don't attack him,” Jacenty ordered Zircon, whose arm immediately returned to his side. He chuckled, “You cannot imagine how surprised I was to find out that the Firefly king was residing above a quaint little light shop in Central Cavern. Were the responsibilities too much for you? Or perhaps you realized you could never live up to your father's name?”
Lumin intensified his scowl. But he kept his anger from boiling over, and instead replied with as much decorum as he could muster, “I dedicated my rule to being everything my father wasn't. I could not allow his views to continue to poison the City of Lights. And I cannot bear to watch as you attempt to succeed where he failed.”
“Oh, you can't?” Jacenty said as his smile widened. He snapped his fingers to Zircon. “Seize him. He's coming with us.”
Zircon stomped over to Lumin and grabbed his arm. Lumin shouted at the pressure of his grip and the force of his pull. The pain increased as Lumin struggled to keep up with him as he continued down the hallway.
Zircon did not look at Lumin as he walked, but mumbled softly, “I'm sorry...”
Jacenty followed close behind. Lumin turned his head to see the Zafara watching him closely. Though he heard it from Flicker and Lampyri, he just saw with his own eyes that Jacenty wasn't actually as absent-minded as he pretended to be. No, he was cautious enough to keep his sight on Lumin so that he wouldn't pull any tricks.
The hallway was long. To ward the monotony off, Jacenty spoke, “I must confess, I actually knew far more of Pillar Grove than what I initially suggested. Through my discovery of Halloy's laboratory and subsequent research on my part, I learned much about this city's customs and history. An interesting bit of trivia if you will: The center of the tree's main trunk is hollow. In centuries long past, citizens would descend into the earth faerie's chamber through a large hole in the throne room to conduct various ceremonies and give thanks for the faeries' blessings.”
Jacenty then said directly to Zircon, “But then your predecessors realized that there are people smart enough to seize power when the opportunity presents itself, and that expecting otherwise was terribly naive. So the passage was sealed. Of course, the faeries do need to leave someday, so the seal was made so that it could be unlocked by future kings and queens.”
Lumin's eyes widened a little. That must have been Jacenty and Halloy's backup plan when the robot couldn't reach the earth faerie directly. They were instead going to enter the chamber through the throne room. But he did think it odd that Jacenty arrived to the palace alone – not counting Zircon. What was he planning on doing without Halloy or the robot?
Jacenty continued, “I digress, however. Your history – specifically the war between your cities – was what fascinated me. A war of attrition, fought over the rights to the faeries' power. Both cities nearly brought themselves to ruin. Yet, it all ended with a peace treaty. And on the side of the Fireflies: a newly-crowned king that believed that they could all move on and happily coexist as equals for the rest of time.”
He paused for a moment. When he resumed, there was a hint of disdain in his voice. “What idiocy. While you Moltarans crawl around in your squalid caves, I've seen all corners of Neopia and I know how the real world works. What you have is only a temporary peace. True peace, true order, can only be achieved with force – when the weak are subdued by the strong.”
Lumin grew up hearing that kind of talk and he loathed to hear it again. But before he could counter, Jacenty addressed him, “Your father had the right idea. And I doubt he was the only one in the City of Lights that believed it was their natural right to conquer whomever stood in their way. In spite of all your efforts to change the Fireflies' attitudes, I wager that they resent how you denigrate their hero and attempt to befriend the one that killed him.”
It was Zircon. He spent all of Jacenty's monologue quietly seething – as Lumin had – but something finally compelled him to speak. Lumin glanced upwards into his face. He stared straight ahead, but wore a deep scowl.
Jacenty scoffed, “About what?”
“All of that nonsense,” Zircon retorted. “But in particular, I didn't kill Lumin I.”
Lumin snapped his head to Zircon. “What?!”
In that moment, not a single thing made sense. For fifteen years, that was the only story Lumin had been told about his father's demise. It was the only story that the entire City of Lights had been told. And now what he always believed to be a fact was suddenly set alight and burned to ashes.
Jacenty demanded Zircon to halt. He walked in front of him and Lumin. He looked Zircon directly in the eyes, while his own were topped with brows that furrowed in disbelief. “If not you, then who?”
The only movement Zircon made was to lower his eyes at Jacenty. Zircon glared at him with an intense, burning rage. He snarled, “The earth faerie.”
With those three words, every ounce of haughtiness that took residence in Jacenty's face suddenly vacated. A sense of dread moved in to fill the void. If the hallway had been any quieter, Lumin thought he might have been able to hear Jacenty's heart pound.
But then Jacenty narrowed his eyes at Zircon. After the initial shock wore off, he became skeptical. “Your concern is touching. But I'm very well capable of taking care of myself.”
They resumed their trek to the throne room. Jacenty abandoned the notion of giving another speech for the last stretch of hallway. He no longer appeared shaken by Zircon's statement; he called his bluff.
But was it even a bluff at all? Lumin looked to Zircon. He didn't expect any sort of further explanation while they were in a such a position, but he at least hoped he glean something from his expression. Zircon's eyes met Lumin's; he said nothing, but the uneasy look in his face conveyed a sort of silent apology to Lumin.
Lumin grimaced. The questions that swam through his head deafened all other thoughts. But as much as he wanted answers, he knew that he wasn't going to get them for a while.
Eventually, they arrived in the throne room. In spite of the lanterns dotting the walls, the majority of the light still came from the red tree rings. They were of such an infuriated shade that Lumin half-expected the tree to catch on fire. Though it was hard to notice after spending the past few hours within the palace, the ring's color had only intensified since the earth faerie's rage began.
Jacenty examined as much of the spacious room as he could while pacing a small area. His sight lowered to the floor, where he could see the outline of the seal. But his cursory search of a switch did not produce a result. Lumin scanned his surroundings for a way to open the floor and could not figure out a way either.
“Well, I don't know how you'll go about it, but nonetheless: I order you to open the seal to the earth faerie's chamber,” Jacenty said to Zircon.
Zircon heaved a sigh as he moved. He dragged Lumin with him while he walked behind his throne. He grabbed the back of it with one paw. It took some effort with only one free arm, but the throne began to slide towards him as he pulled. Lumin quickly looked to his feet. He would have never noticed it before, but now he saw two long grooves in the floor stretching from both edges of the throne.
When the throne was pulled back as far as it could go. Zircon went around to the front. Now that the throne had been moved, a round cavity with a slot in the middle was exposed. Zircon drew his sword, causing Lumin to instinctively flinch. But then Zircon took the blade, inserted it into the slot, and turned it as he would a key in a keyhole.
Lumin heard a mechanism activate underneath his feet. He lifted his head to see the floor in the middle of the room slowly split apart. Jacenty backed up as the rift grew. Soon, the semicircular doors made a slamming sound as they fully retracted.
In their place was a vast, abyssal hole. Stagnant air that had not moved for years was suddenly lifted up through a softly howling up-current. If Lumin stretched his head, he could see a huge, dilapidated staircase spiraling downwards.
Jacenty gave a singular, triumphant laugh, “Excellent. Now, we will simply need to wait for Halloy.” The humor suddenly drained from his face, to be replaced with a barely-repressed vexation. “That is, if he doesn't dawdle.”
They waited. And waited. In spite of his wishes, Jacenty was forced to stand around with his arms crossed and his foot tapping as Halloy lagged behind schedule. He impatiently watched the entrance to the throne room, ready to act at the very first glimpse of Halloy.
Halloy was evidently taking his time. So much so that Lumin thought that the poison in Zircon might wear off before he arrived. But when he noticed that the entirety of Jacenty's focus was on the entrance, he decided to put an early end to Zircon's plight.
Lumin discreetly reached into his pocket. Carefully, his hand took a hold of a small dart and removed it from its case.
Lumin and Wingen were alone in the throne room, as the others had left for their respective stations. Wingen emptied the contents of the potion he just finished into a dart. Once it was ready, he presented it to Lumin. But his face was scarce of confidence and much more abundant in doubt.
“I'll be honest, I'm not sure if this is gonna work. I've never made this potion before, and I usually have a lot more time to get things right,” Wingen warned.
“Hopefully, we won't need it. But if we do, we'll just have to wait until then to make any judgments. There's no need to be so hard on yourself in the meantime,” Lumin said encouragingly.
Wingen nodded minutely, understanding – but not entirely absorbing – the message Lumin tried to convey.
Wingen began to leave to catch up with Zircon, but Lumin stopped him for a moment to sate his own curiosity. “If I may, though, how will this help if Jacenty tries to control someone else as he did Flicker?”
When asked to explain his methods, Wingen was able to express much more faith in his own abilities. In contrast to the preemptively apologetic tone of his previous statement, he spoke assuredly, “Well, Lampyri said that Jacenty used a voidberry mixture to force Flicker to do his bidding, right? I remembered reading a long time ago that voidberries have properties that counteract Spyder bites. But it's also true vice-versa. So a potion made from Spyder venom should be able to snap someone out of it if Jacenty does the same thing again.”
Lumin thanked Wingen for his hard work. That time, Wingen accepted the compliment more readily, and left the palace in higher spirits.
* * *
Lumin kept his eyes on Jacenty as he slowly pulled out the dart. If Jacenty's head so much as twitched in his direction, he was ready to hide it back in his pocket. But luckily for him, Jacenty kept his attention elsewhere. Even Zircon didn't notice what Lumin was about to do.
I'm sorry, Zircon. You'll thank me for this later.
Lumin quickly administered the antidote. Zircon's only reaction was a rasp kept contained in his throat and a brief shrinking of his pupils.
They waited. Zircon's eyes moved back-and-forth, examining as much of his own body as he could while unable to turn his neck. Lumin bobbed his head forward slightly, hoping for a visible result. Zircon glanced at Lumin, then clamped his eyes shut. It was all he could do in lieu of shaking his head.
Lumin sighed. Wingen did say that it wasn't guaranteed to work. It was worth the try, at least.
Then, Lumin saw Jacenty's head perk up. Lumin assumed at first that Halloy must have finally caught up to him. But a few seconds later, Jacenty's demeanor suddenly switched from impatience to alarm. He made several backward steps as Lampyri burst into the room.
Lumin's heart rose into his throat. At any other time, he would have been relieved to see her. But with Zircon under Jacenty's command and the antidote failing to work, all he could feel was apprehension. He knew how powerful Lampyri was, but Zircon was on an entirely different level.
She held a large, golden key in one hand. In her other was whom Lumin presumed was Halloy, covered in a tight wrapping of chains. But instead of the malleable clay color that Lumin heard so much about, Halloy's body was baked dry with noticeable cracks.
“Looking for these?” Lampyri barked as she lifted both the key and Halloy to Jacenty's eye level.
Jacenty growled and grit his teeth. At that point, he had experienced one too many setbacks. Any semblance of equanimity in him finally vanished. He snapped, “Zircon! Eliminate her!”
Zircon released Lumin's arm and glided over the hole. As soon as he reached the other side, he drew his sword and slashed at Lampyri.
Quick-witted, yet still taken off-guard, Lampyri dodged his attack at the very last second. In her shock, she dropped both the key and Halloy. Instead of trying to retrieve them, she whipped out another chain rope from her belt and wrapped it around Zircon's dominant arm.
Zircon pulled his arm back. Lampyri pulled her chains in turn. They were locked in a stalemate. Both were motionless. But then Zircon took his free hand and yanked on the chain. He rotated himself, trying to throw Lampyri off. She remained on her feet, but with difficulty.
Zircon gave another swift, strong tug on the chains. Lampyri stumbled and briefly loosened her grip. With more slack available, Zircon moved his sword into his left hand. He sliced the chain rope in half and freed his right arm.
Lampyri looked at the shortened rope she was left with, then back at Zircon. She backed up. Lampyri had a talent for finding hope in the bleakest of situations. But a stranger would not have known that if they gazed at the dread that came over her face in that very moment.
While Zircon kept Lampyri occupied, Jacenty lunged for the key it before anyone else could retrieve it. He then seemed to feel obligated to do something about Halloy, whom was inches away. Jacenty worked on untangling Halloy from the ball of chains, though he did so with clenched teeth and biting insults that were muttered too lowly for Lumin to hear.
On the contrary, Halloy was much louder and articulate with his comeback, “Well why don't you get set on fire and see how you take it?!”
Lumin shifted his focus back to Lampyri. She tried to whip at Zircon to deter him. But nothing slowed him down. All that her efforts accomplished was a further shortening of her chains, link-by-link, until she was barely left with anything at all.
Eventually, her back hit the wall. Lumin could see her chest heave while she stared up at Zircon. Zircon returned her gaze with a rueful look.
Lampyri glanced to Lumin. Her frown tightened and trembled at the same time. But then, with a deep, resigned breath, she became oddly calm. She gave a single, respectful nod at Lumin, rested her head on the wall, and closed her eyes.
Zircon readied his sword.
“Lampyri!” Lumin shouted. In spite of his own weakness, he began to rush to them. “Zircon, no! Don't!”
Zircon plunged his sword forward.
The breath was stolen from Lumin's lungs. He froze in place.
But to his surprise, he began to breathe again. His posture became less rigid. In his haze, he couldn't understand why. But when his mind began to clear and fully process the images in front of him, he realized it was because Zircon's sword sunk into the wall next to Lampyri. Lampyri herself was unscathed.
It was a fact that not even she seemed to comprehend at first. To her disbelief, she was alive. Her jaw hung open as she glimpsed at the sword that was mere millimeters from her left flank. The sight of how close the blade was injected a greater sense of distress than when it was pointed directly at her chest.
Both Lumin and Lampyri directed their sight to Zircon's hands. He tested his fingers by stretching and retracting them. Then, his head moved. It was only by a little bit, but it moved of his own will. Zircon gave Lumin and Lampyri a small, but determined nod each.
It may have taken some time, but the antidote finally kicked in.
Behind them, Jacenty finally removed Halloy's chains. As soon as Halloy was free, Jacenty hastily used his key to summon a giant set of doors made of light.
Zircon pulled his sword out of the wall. He hung it at his side for a second. But then he suddenly spun around and broke out into a run.
Jacenty had his back to the others. But Halloy caught the king sprinting towards them and shrieked, “Zircon!”
Jacenty quickly turned to the sight of Zircon right behind him, his arm in mid-swing.
Without a word or thought, Jacenty picked up Halloy and shielded himself.
Then, all was silent.
Moments later, a pair of goggles fell to the floor and clattered around.
Zircon's stance faltered. His legs wobbled, causing him to teeter to his side. Seeing his chance, Jacenty dropped Halloy and kicked Zircon in the chest. Zircon howled and collapsed to the ground.
Lumin had ran to Lampyri to make sure she was alright, but now both of their concerns were shifted to Zircon. He was motionless, but still alive and kept his grip on the hilt of his sword. But in his agony, he was far too weakened to resist when Jacenty bent down and pulled it out of his paw.
Lampyri promptly banished all traces of residual anxiety and stepped forward. But Jacenty was quick to respond. He pointed the sword at a defenseless Zircon and glared at Lampyri. She stopped. They stared one another down.
Then, Jacenty slowly walked backwards. Eventually, he dashed to the doors and threw them open. Before Lampyri could charge, Jacenty had already leapt into his Inventory.
* * *
From the outside, Lumberjack looked exactly as Jacenty and Halloy left it. But Jacenty wasn't about to make any assumptions about the interior.
Tightening his grip on Zircon's sword, Jacenty climbed into Lumberjack, taking on a fighting stance as soon as he entered. No one was there to ambush them. The control room was empty. The engine room was also vacant – save for the air faerie, who glowered at Jacenty while half her face was hidden under her arms as they rested on her knees.
Frustration began to build up. Flicker and Wingen couldn't have possibly gone anywhere. They weren't wandering about the Inventory where they would have stuck out. Jacenty made sure to check the back and underside of Lumberjack and they weren't there either.
He couldn't leave them to their own devices and allow them to make a surprise attack. But the longer he waited to leave the Inventory and enter the earth faerie's chamber, the larger the chance of his efforts being all for nothing.
Jacenty stomped over to the air faerie. “Where are they?!”
The air faerie didn't reply. She only glared at him in spite.
“ANSWER ME!” Jacenty screamed and slammed his fist against the capsule. But the repulsion field only caused his hand to bounce off and return the force back to him. He shouted and dropped Zircon's sword as his hand immediately grasped his wrist.
He began to double over in pain, but willed himself to ignore it. He couldn't let a pulled muscle be his downfall. Jacenty picked the sword back up and stormed into the control room.
Time was of the essence and he couldn't waste it playing hide-and-seek. Jacenty sat down in Halloy's seat and pulled out the key to Lumberjack. At least that inane deal Halloy forced him to oblige by turned out to bear some fruit.
Jacenty turned Lumberjack on. He took hold of the controls with confidence; he felt that he had watched Halloy keenly enough to have an idea how to operate the machine.
Without further ado, Jacenty piloted Lumberjack out of the Inventory. He simply had to hope that Flicker and Wingen were still inside the Inventory, where they could rot for all eternity.
* * *
Lumin never had much in the way of physical strength. But he mustered up as much of it as he possessed to lift up Zircon's legs while Lampyri picked up his torso. He moved as quickly as he could to get Zircon out of harm's way, but that still only amounted to him hobbling sideways with tiny steps.
“How could a simple kick do this?” Lumin wondered aloud. As strong as Zircon was, it didn't make sense. Zircon himself didn't give an answer, as his pain distracted him from everything else.
“Apparently, he was injured fighting the robot,” Lampyri replied.
Lumin let loose a distressed groan. With the benefit of hindsight, Zircon did seem out-of-sorts in a way outside of the effects of Jacenty's poison. He couldn't spend much more time without being treated. They needed to get him to safety as soon as possible.
Lumin and Lampyri heard a noise from within the Inventory. Lumberjack emerged from the entrance and the doors slammed shut the instant it left. The Buzzes stood their ground, but struggled to keep their balance in the midst of the shock waves the robot made as it walked.
Lumberjack stood at the precipice and peered into the hole. As enormous as the robot as, the passageway was more than wide enough to allow it to crawl inside with no issues. Lumin's heart sank. After all that resistance, after everything they all did, Jacenty was on the cusp of victory.
But as Lumberjack made its first steps into the hole, Lampyri shouted to Lumin with a tone of relief, “Sire! Look!”
Lampyri tilted her head towards Lumberjack's back. At first, Lumin didn't see anything. But then he looked closer. The air around one of Lumberjack's back spikes warped in the shape of a Buzz and Wocky. Soon, the invisibility gems wore off and allowed Lumin a clear view of Flicker and Wingen as they clung to the piece of steel as hard as they could.
Lumberjack slid into the passageway on its destination to the earth faerie, with Jacenty none the wiser.
To be continued…