Caution: Quills may be sharp Circulation: 197,125,118 Issue: 964 | 15th day of Swimming, Y24
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Valrigard's Travels: Freedom

by mutagens


Chapter 1: Escape

     Valrigard held his breath as well as any expert diver as another dull Purple Grarrl guard stomped past. The guard was not but a few tail-lengths away from where Valrigard was hiding, but his deep blue scales blended in well with the shadows of the rocky dungeon wall.

     The Draik gripped the hilt of his sword, feeling its familiar rough-hewn handle digging into his palm. He still couldn’t believe that he was able to find the same jagged crimson blade each time he slipped out of his cell. Its heft was so familiar to him now it felt like an extension of his own arm. It was an old friend. Perhaps the only one he had left.

     Valrigard prepared to strike, but the guard continued along his patrol without so much as a side glance in the Draik’s direction. Once the Grarrl was well out of sight, Valrigard slowly released his breath as quietly as he could.

     This was the last level of Meridell Castle’s dungeon. He could do this. His freedom was so close, he could almost smell the fresh air of the beautiful countryside of his homeland.

     He took another breath before slipping out into the windowless hallway. He slithered like a Cobrall, crouching low and moving like water over a bed of stone. Valrigard could see a sliver of rainbow-coloured light coming from the top of the stairs ahead. The end of the final floor. He only knew about the stained glass windows that decorated the dungeon’s exit because some of the Korbat guards would complain about having to clean them. “Who sees those things other than us, anyways?” they would say.

     Valrigard was endlessly grateful that because he had been there so long, they didn’t think twice about who they were gossiping around.

     He silently climbed the stairs, his claws clicking very faintly against the slick stone steps. The light grew ever closer, ever brighter, until he emerged into the last floor of the dungeon. His eyes widened as he saw three shining arched windows of red, green, yellow, and blue. Faint rays of moonlight shone through them, giving the room an eerie glow. Sitting at the end of the hall was a set of wooden double doors reinforced with iron: the exit.

     Valrigard willed his heart to be still. If he faltered here, there may not be a second chance to escape. He crept through the room, sword at the ready. It was unsettlingly quiet here. There wasn’t a guard in sight. Valrigard’s instincts were screaming at him that silence like this was never a good sign, but it faded away as he looked at the door. He was so close...

     Then something boiling hot hit his back, and he was overcome by a sharp, searing pain between his wings. He cried out as the flames from a fireball reflected off of his blade. The Draik whirled around, gritting his teeth, to face his attacker.

     A Yellow Kau in purple robes hovered before Valrigard. He was frowning behind his long grey beard, and his eyes were sad.

     Valrigard’s heart sank into his stomach. “Sir Beramore, the court wizard,” he choked out, his voice strained from the burning pain on his back.

     “Valrigard,” the Kau replied, his own voice cracking with age. “You can’t keep doing this.”

     Valrigard gripped his sword even tighter. “I have to try.” He looked pleadingly at Beramore. “You know I’m innocent. I’d never betray our king or his people.”

     Beramore shook his head, his eyes lowered. “I don’t know that. And I have my orders to stop you. You know how important those are.” His eyes shot back up and locked with Valigard’s as he slowly raised a hoof towards the Draik. A white-hot flame flickered to life between his fingers.

     Valrigard clenched his jaw, his heart breaking. He and Beramore were once friends, back when the Draik was a knight. A memory of the two of them laughing over tea on a sunny day in the castle garden flashed through his mind. It felt like a distant, pleasant dream.

     He quickly buried it along with his emotions.

     He had to escape.

     “I’m sorry, Beramore,” Valigard whispered. He raised his sword into the sky and took to the air, his webbed wings pumping furiously as he rushed towards the Kau.

     A single tear ran down Beramore’s cheek, leaving a damp streak in his dull yellow fur. “I am sorry as well, Valigard.”

     Fire engulfed Valigard, and the world went black.

     * * *

     Valrigard woke up with a start.

     The Draik glanced frantically around the dark room he found himself in, his muscles coiled and ready to spring. As his vision adjusted to the space, he realised he was somewhere distressingly familiar: He was back in his barred cell in the rotting depths of Meridell Castle’s dungeon. He checked the scales along his back and found that they were decorated with fading scars rather than fresh burns.

     He sighed in relief. It was just an old memory disguised as a nightmare.

     Valrigard leaned against the damp stone wall, its familiar cold chill seeping into his bones. He rolled his head to the side to glance at where flesh met rock and saw his once sapphire blue scales now a dull dusty navy from time in the windowless dungeon. How long had he been trapped in this place? How many years had it been since he was falsely labelled a traitor? How many times since then had he tried to escape his prison and prove his innocence, only to fail and get tossed even deeper in the dungeons?

     His mind ached. The only memory that was clear to him now was when he was arrested. Valrigard remembered the feeling of the iron chains around his wings and paws. He remembered the pain of his jaw slamming into the floor in front of his king’s feet when a guard shoved him. He remembered his brother in arms, Sir Tarvon, presenting letters between Valrigard and Meridell’s enemy, Lord Darigan, that Valrigard had never seen before in his life.

     He remembered protesting against these accusations, saying how he would never betray his king and homeland. He remembered the disgusted looks from the other Neopets in the room as they whispered: “Traitor.”

     Valrigard remembered it like it was yesterday. But all else since then? Nothing but blurred memories of lightless dungeon walls and failure.

     The Draik sighed, curling his tattered wings around himself and sinking into his misery. He could feel his heart becoming as numb as his body in the prison.

     His eyelids grew heavy. Draiks were notoriously long-lived, and he was still regularly given food and water by the guards. He wondered how much longer he would last in this place, devoid of all hope.

     All he wanted now was to see the sun again.

     * * *

     Valrigard flinched awake to the sound of keys rattling in a metal keyhole. He jumped to his feet, instinctively reaching for a sword that hadn’t been strapped to his side for countless nights. Blinking the sleep from his yellow eyes, he saw standing before him one of the familiar plum-coloured Grarrls that patrolled the dungeons and had been his ever-watchful keepers for as long as the Draik had been in Meridell’s dungeon.

     “On your feet- Oh,” the Grarrl rumbled. “Never mind.”

     A figure behind the Grarrl sighed deeply. Stepping into the torchlight, a handsome Blue Lupe with gleaming golden armour revealed his very disappointed expression to the Grarrl, who immediately looked ashamed and a bit sheepish. The Lupe then turned to lock eyes with Valrigard.

     Valrigard felt fear clutch his throat. Standing before him in full armour was Sir Jeran, one of King Skarl’s most loyal and skilled knights. And Valrigard stood before him as a falsely accused traitor who had been in Meridell’s dungeons so long that even he had forgotten how many years it had been.

     The Draik assumed all things had to come to an end sometime, even life sentences. He tensed his muscles as his mind raced. Should he resist? He had been fighting back all these years, why stop now? But he was so very tired. Tired of fighting, of failure. Tired of the dark, damp dungeon that filled his days and nights. Tired of it all.

     Valrigard unclenched his fists. Maybe it was time to stop trying to escape.

     He closed his eyes. His voice, rusty from disuse, croaked out, “Well, get on with it, then.” Valrigard presented his unarmored chest before the Lupe. “But make it quick. I’ve waited down here long enough.”

     Dead silence met his statements, and then Valrigard heard a bark of laughter from the Grarrl guard. The Draik opened his eyes to see a very confused-looking Sir Jeran with a chuckling Grarrl behind him.

     “Valrigard...” Jeran began, sadness in his voice and his eyes. “I’m not here to...” He sighed again, softer this time. He slowly walked over to Valrigard, causing the Draik to subconsciously pull away from the Lupe. Valrigard’s back hit the stone wall of the cell, and Jeran stopped to reach out a paw and gently place it on Valrigard’s shoulder.

     “I’m here to release you, Valrigard. You’ve been freed of all charges against you.”

     Time seemed to slow down for Valrigard. Freed? How? Why? He opened and shut his jaws like a Pfish grabbing at treats. His brain tried to will the questions out, but his mouth wasn’t listening.

     Valrigard’s bewilderment must have been plain on his face, because Jeran squeezed his shoulder reassuringly. “I know it’s a lot to process, but I swear on my honour that it’s the truth.” The Lupe lowered himself to one knee to look Valrigard straight in the eyes. “After a series of political... events in Neopia, King Skarl began looking more seriously into the members of the court and the knights. I was even subject to scrutiny for a while.”

     The grip on Valrigard’s shoulder tightened. “Valrigard... They looked into Sir Tarvon. They found out what he had done to you.”

     Valrigard’s breath caught in his throat. He swallowed it down.

     Jeran’s eyes turned sympathetic. “Valrigard, Tarvon was the one who had written those letters with details on Meridell’s battle plans. He was the one who was anonymously sending them to Lord Darigan to prolong the war. Not you.” The Lupe’s expression twisted into one of guilt, and he looked away from his former friend. “I’m so sorry it took us this long to find out.”

     The sporadic dripping sounds that echoed throughout the dungeon sounded muffled and distant to Valrigard as he proceeded exactly what he had just heard.

     He was truly free?

     “Am I free to go?” he asked, the words spilling out before he could stop them.

     Jeran turned back to give him a sad but kind smile. “Yes. That’s why I came down here.” He looked around at the stone walls covered in moss and mildew and grimaced. “And perhaps I should talk to the King about renovating this place.”

     Despite his situation, Valrigard laughed.

     He was free.

      To be continued…

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