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The First Crashing of the First Festival


by liouchan

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"Your Royal Highness Queen Consort General Aethia!"

      "Just General," she reminded him again. "Hello, Hanso."

      He saluted as hard as he could. "Happy Festival!"

      She took in the Ixi's festival attire, a composition of mesh, glitter, and denim that had gone past the point of distress and into agony. "Shouldn't you be showing off on the dancefloor with the other kids?"

      "I'm saving my energy for DJ Delina's set." He shoved his hands in his pockets, skipping two steps to keep up with each of Aethia's strides. They walked between game booths full of plushie prizes, fluttering foods evading capture from nets, bright craft displays and dazzling magic shows. A mix of different trendy songs played from different areas.

      The longest line was easily the one that led up to Queen Fyora's stage, where she greeted festivalgoers one by one and posed for photographs. Many young faeries practised magic spells they had prepared to cast before the queen, and many Neopian held gifts for the pile that grew next to her.

      "Check out the fanmeet!" Hanso glanced at Aethia. "What about your gift?" His fingers were already rifling through her pockets, sorting through daggers and potion grenades. "Don't tell me you forgot? Are you making a diplomatic Foe-pah as we speak?"

      The Battle Faerie calmly lifted him and plucked her belongings back one by one. "She and I don't really do gifts. Not for the Festival, at least. It's complicated."

      The first Faerie Festival had been a much smaller, more secluded affair, tucked away in the heights of the western mountains.

      An entire cloud platform, created just for the occasion, hovered amidst the peaks, decorated by delicate garlands of enchanted rain twining from cloud to cloud. A nervous Lady Psellia was hosting, hoping to satisfy the Queen by emulating the comforts of Faerieland itself. In truth, it was not the first gathering of its sort; but it was definitely the first to make an impression on faeries' memories down the line, and most agreed to remember it as the first Festival. But it was none of the events that had impressed them so.

      The first to raise the alarm were the smallest faeries hovering below the clouds. They fluttered up to the outer ring of guards with frantic rumours of a beastly cloaked wanderer wielding uncountable blades.

      Winged faerie Kougras and Eyries, aglow with blessings, flew down the floating steps to meet the intruder. At this vertiginous height, she did not need to take flight once. She met one opponent on every step, and each she parried with one perfect counter, sending them spinning into the high-altitude winds.

      When she reached the top of the steps and the edge of the cloud, she was met with the fierce group of faeries that guarded the Queen's court. She strode into the middle of the group without a glance at them. Their spells and magic auras crackled left and right of her. Blasts in orange, purple and green flew straight for the intruder.

      She kneeled swiftly. Most of the spells collided and sizzled into nothingness above her head. The rest were caught in the arc of her sword, reflected back to their senders in one fell swoop.

      The intruder stood up, and took in the festival. A few faeries draped in flowy, gossamer gowns had paused in their dances, frozen with fear. They scampered away to huddle by the centre stage. The few select Neopets in attendance were saturated with faerie magic, eyes glowing, fur-coated in runes, and content to be pampered by the faeries. Once the drowsy music from plain flutes and harps had stopped, the entire festival was quiet.

      The Battle Faerie pulled down her hood. Her blocky purple fringe sprang up from where it had been tucked. The rest of her hair hung in a rough braid over her dull grey cloak. She faced the dais where the Queen and her inner circle in their silk gowns lounged on cloud divans.

      "Now I can understand why you hide this pitiful shindig from the rest of Neopia," she said, her voice echoing much too loudly in the dead silent party. "The disappointment would crush them. No wonder I didn't hear any cheering or laughing on my way up here. Are these all the games you have? What sad music. And what are you all wearing? You look like you've copied the storybook illustrations for the kids down below. Going for that mythical and legendary look, are we."

      A neatly dressed dark faerie seated just below the Queen spoke up.

      "The doings of the Court are not the business of outsiders. May we know for which doubtless important reason you are crashing this invite-only gathering?"

      Aethia grinned. "I was just passing by in between my many, long, dangerous travels over Neopia, and in between vanquishing two terrible foes that were terrorising the innocent, I thought I'd come pay my respects to our Queen."

      The Queen in question finally spoke up. "It would be more sensible for a warrior roaming dangerous lands to don a helm for protection."

      "Translated from Queen speech, that means she'd rather not see your face," whispered a smirking fire faerie.

      The Battle Faerie's eyes turned to her and scanned her slowly from head to toe. She switched her focus to each faerie around her in turn, sizing them up leisurely, making some of them flinch, until she met the Queen's gaze.

      "I see no reason why I should need a helmet here."

      The slightest flare of Fyora's nostrils betrayed her irritation.

      Aethia pointed at a light faerie in a corner. "Except for you with the soup, maybe. Your knowledge in potions would do a right lot of damage, and give you wicked stamina." The light faerie, in her best apron, hid in the vapours of the large cauldron she was stirring, blushing even more in the heat.

      The dark faerie assistant cleared her throat. "Your... reasons aside, what tribute have you brought for our Queen?"

      Aethia raised her eyebrows. "You take tribute now?"

      Without sparing her one look, Fyora addressed her attendants instead. "Each gathering is an occasion for us to showcase our growth and accomplishments."

      Aethia scoffed. "You're right, after all this time I spent saving people in the lands below, I really must be getting back to my accomplishments. What tribute would you request of me today?"

      Queen Fyora smiled at the dancers and waved for them to resume their show off to the side. The court waited stiffly, glancing between her and Aethia.

      "Why don't you start," the dark faerie assistant suggested, "by winning the prizes of our festival games?"

      It was annihilation. A booth had been set up for faeries to showcase their talent at the noble art of archery. Aethia destroyed the targets. Off to the side, Lady Psellia was wringing her hands. Aethia herded the Cirrus by staring them down. She shredded a devastating violin solo until the music master gave her a thumbs-up just to stop her.

      In the dainty arena set up for elegant spellcasting, she waited as a few terrified faeries bravely walked up to face her. After thoroughly outmatching each of them, through sheer speed or using their spells to her advantage, she shook hands warmly with them, dispensing advice. The festival-goers began to watch Aethia's progress with less fear and more interest.

      When she dropped her pile of victory tokens in front of the Queen, she realised that Fyora was under the effect of a spell. Fyora glowed and her hair blew in a magical wind, all in slowed motion. She had slowed herself down... or rather, fast-forwarded time around her, using powerful magic to avoid waiting through this display.

      Fyora cut her spell as Aethia arrived. "Are you done yet?"

      The Battle Faerie smiled sardonically. "If that's enough for you."

      "You will need nothing less than the main prize from the duels to make up for crashing in. Your final opponent shall be me."

      Hushed gasps spread through the audience. Their queen's patience had finally worn down, and the intruder would be taught a proper lesson. The faeries seated around Fyora tensed, trying to shrink away from her without being noticed. The Queen made no move to stand.

      The Battle Faerie gave her a gallant bow. "I will let you make the first move."

      "You shouldn't."

      Fyora blinked. Aethia vanished.

      She fell through the clouds beneath her feet as if nothing had been there. She fell and fell through the mountains below, the cloud platform shrinking to the size of a speck overhead. She fluttered and flapped and beat her wings fruitlessly through the air, but the wind would not bear her.

      Turning over, Aethia understood what was happening as she saw the ground, the land, hurtle towards her. She summoned her armour and all her magical strength to shield herself against its onslaught. She grasped the wind as she fell, dragged the very air around her into her fall, spinning it into a shield and rolling to the side. The impact shook the ground for miles and left a cloud of dust. She heard pebbles clatter down.

      Left in a shallow crater, she made to stand up, but her feet remained firmly rooted to the ground. The land.

      Overhead, the Queen floated down in a cascade of lavender silks.

      "Of course, ruler of the land, land magic. You do wield quite a force of attraction." Aethia braced her hands against the ground and grunted in effort, but only sank deeper.

      Fyora's hand rested on the hilt of her sword. "What were you hoping to do against it?"

      An earthy boulder sped straight for Fyora, who narrowly dodged it, only to be grazed by another. Aethia's bare hands were digging right into the ground that held her, scraping out massive chunks. The next projectiles were caught by Fyora's spells, which melted them back into fine dirt.

      A single pebble hit her right on the forehead, making her yelp. Aethia freed her legs and took flight.

      "Since you started out with your most difficult magic, I just needed to distract you. By now, you should know how I fight."

      Brushing dirt off her face, Fyora glared at her. "Everything becomes your weapon, and everything becomes your shield. It is quite irritating, really."

      She drew her sword. Aethia smiled and drew her own, crossing one arm behind her back.

      Fyora's face fell and she flew to her opponent. Their blades clashed. "Don't you dare fight me one-handed, Aethia!"

      "Make me use two."

      The Battle Faerie moved like water, appearing wherever she needed to be to parry an attack, so fast that she appeared to be using foresight. The Queen, far from outmatched, pushed her further and further with well-aimed slashes and jabs, from every direction, attacking from above to her advantage.

      Aethia had to circle around her to avoid her attacks. Fyora followed just as fast, her blades drawing sharp winds in their wake, causing swirls of leaves to rise from the trees around them. She alighted on the ground for a second and kicked herself up, blade speeding straight for Aethia.

      The Battle Faerie's eyes widened and she caught Fyora's blade in a double-handed parry. For a split second, the two gazed down at Aethia's left hand. Then she sent Fyora hurtling back again.

      The Queen's attacks were growing broader as she spun more and more to keep her momentum. The Battle Faerie, lips tight and eyes glaring in her stony focus, met her head-on, tossing her blade aside as though clearing vines in a jungle. As a whoosh of wind telegraphed Fyora's next move, Aethia blew out a gust of wind herself, and the Queen's purple hair flew into her face. Aethia knocked her sword out of her hands and onto the ground with a dull clatter.

      "You should consider a ponytail."

      "That's it?" breathed the Queen, through a mouthful of hair. She floated in the same spot, frozen. "That's all you have to say?"

      "Well, you're excellent, obviously - I trained you."

      Something shifted in Aethia's vision - not only her vision, it rippled through her entire being, connecting with the invisible parts of her and the senses that let her touch the fabrics of magic, of the space and time that formed this world.

      When turned back to where Fyora had stood, she had to blink several times to clear the imprint of gossamer-thin, petal-like membranes that spanned dimensions. Her eyes finally adjusted to the Queen's physical form. Aethia's mouth fell open. She turned, and ran.

      Behind her, the towering pink serpent reared and launched itself into the sky. Aethia was fast. But this was a different range altogether.

      "Haven't seen you in this form forever!" she said as she ran, grinning. She watched the wyrm's shadow twine and loop on the ground around her.

      Blasts of pink energy rained around her. They left fuming glass where they struck the ground. Shards struck her left and right.

      Aethia reached the top of a path and stood in front of a flat plateau. At her feet, she saw pink light wreathe her shadow. She turned to face the wyrm and raised her shield.

      It hesitated for a moment, pink light glowing in its maw, then blasted her with all its might. Aethia's arms shook from the blow and she was pushed back at breakneck speed by the beam, her boots scraping deep dents in the ground. She could feel its intensity through her shield, her arms shaking so much she thought she might drop it.

      At last, she reached the other edge of the plateau and tumbled down. Quivering, she watched the pink light continue its path above her with a deafening thrum, obliterating boulders in its way. She was panting to catch her breath, exhilarated by this sheer might she had unleashed. Right. Now, to resolve it.

      Aethia kicked up, took off and sped into the air. She twisted and spiralled to dodge more blasts, but kept going, buffeted by the winds, until the wyrm was forced to take off and fly after her.

      Aethia was very fast. The much larger wyrm took longer to switch directions. It was still high overhead when Aethia hit the ground. She crouched awkwardly, as she'd landed roughly. An easy target. She looked up warily at the wyrm.

      It roared and gathered light into its maw, aiming a beam straight down. Aethia jumped lithely out of the way, smiling. The energy beam hit the ground instead. The wyrm had underestimated its own power. Its energy was not enough to move the ground. But the recoil was more than powerful enough to send the wyrm itself blasting into the sky.

      Aethia watched it flail in midair and unwind its coils. She could easily have flown up to strike its head, but what she needed, the tip of its tail, was now right at hand.

      She grabbed the serpent by the tail and, with a mighty yank, sent its entire body slamming down. Its head landed with a splash in a nearby lake. Aethia took off and body-slammed it further into the water.

      The echo of the crash died down. Clouds of dust in the battlers' wake settled. Cracked stones rolled off cliffsides. Petpets emerged from their hiding places. The surface of the lake settled.

      Aethia rose out of the water. Beneath her, she held up Fyora, bracing her in her arms and over her knee. The Queen's hair trailed in the water.

      They held each other's gaze, catching their breath. Aethia broke the silence.

      "Yes, I would still like you if you were a wyrm."

      "Where have you been?"

      "Away from all these court antics."

      Fyora draped her arms around her shoulders. "I missed you so, you fool. I need your strength."

      "You seem all set for strength. You've got it all handled. My skills are a much greater asset if I'm travelling -"

      "You're not an asset. You're the only one with whom I can be like this. You're the only one with whom I can be anything else than the queen. Will you stop treating me as queen and just treat me as me! Stay by my side, and remind me what it's like to be brave."

      Aethia held her tighter. "You're the one who's really brave. I fled right out of these court proceedings. You're the one who stayed behind to wrangle and herd all these new faeries. I can't do that. I really can't."

      With a pleading look, Fyora reached for her face, running a hand along her cheek.

      "Aren't you glad I didn't wear a helmet," Aethia said with a smile.

      She squeezed Fyora's hand. "If I am to spend time in your court, someone will need to travel through Neopia and help those in need instead."

      "I am in need too."

      "Yes, specifically. You've done a great job stopping these faeries from messing around with the Neopians... but they need us to be less elusive, more accessible - not through tokens."

      "Everything in this world works better in twos. Us included."

      Aethia had led them out of the water. Reaching to the side, she plucked a late pink flower from a branch and tucked it into Fyora's hair. "Here's my Queen's tribute. Let's go back."

      With a smile, she parted her hair to reveal another flower, still alive, woven into her locks. "The first you gave me," she whispered.

      Hanso waved casually at the Faerie Queen as he and Aethia passed her. She smiled up at them. The next fan in the line, noticing the hulking Battle Faerie, took a step back.

      Aethia leaned down and conjured a pink rose. Fyora took it, twirling it in her fingers.

      "Is the Festival entertaining enough for you this year, Aethia?"

      "Yep, should be fine. No need to spice it up."

     The End.

 
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