Made of Stars
Darkness, as the night sky and the cloak of a thousand million stars. Darkness, as forbidden things and destructive power. They had another name for darkness. They called it evil. I heard the word as it echoed through the lower halls of my keep, up the smooth stone sides of the castle they'd tried for days to breech. I didn't call it evil. I called it power, and with it I had an advantage over them that they were denied only because they denied it to themselves.
The Council Room was dim. I had insisted that we meet at dusk, when the attempts of the army outside to break my warding spells were slowed by fatigue and for a moment I could turn my attention from my arcane pursuits to the earthy demands of my title. Here I was Queen. Those in my keeping looked to me to command them.
The twin Draik guards swung the double stone doors out as I approached, and within the chamber I saw the silhouettes of my most trusted advisors: Rorrigun, Hamest, and Nicarina.
They stood arrayed around a hexagonal table. The side closest to the door was vacant, as was the one to the right of that and also the side farthest from the door. The sole shadow on the right side was Rorrigun, an Aisha, like myself, who was born to power and privilege. Directly across from Rorrigun was Nicarina, my handmaid and spymistress, a Korbat who melded so easily with shadows—both real and in stories of my court—that half my realm was certain she didn't exist. Hamest sat to her right, the only of the three who took a chair. He was aging, blind, his Skeith frame barely able to support itself; his mind, however, was sword-sharp.
I took my place between Rorrigun and Hamest and regarded the last two sides. It would have been easy to ignore them, pretend that the table was a rectangle and everyone who should have been there was, but only a poor ruler lets herself be blind to betrayal. I would not forget.
Nicarina, as always, tore into the relative silence first: "We are surrounded. Their camp reaches half a day's flight across the plains. Fortunately, most of them sit idle. Their magic users are few and far between, and the artifacts they possess can do nothing to our wards."
"With enough time," Hamest's heavy, wheezing voice filled the air in a way that Nicarina's light, high one never did--his presence is much grander than hers, "they will undo the wards. They experiment by day and rest far more than we do. With enough time, they will undo us."
"Then what do you suggest?" I asked the elderly Skeith.
"We drive them off. And when we are gone, we fashion the world around us to discourage such vain attempts. Seed a forest, my lady, and let them try to rise against you through its branches and shadows."
"But," Rorrigun started, "if you drive them off, you must do it so they do not return for a very long time. Otherwise you will not have time to prepare for their return." He reached into his bag, a silk satchel Nicarina sewed for him for his birthday the year before, and handed a scroll over the table.
The parchment was purple, deep purple, like the moment that dusk turns to true darkness, and it was bound with a ceramic ribbon into which was molded the shape of an eight-pointed star.
"I brought that for you from the armaments. I think you should use it."
My Scroll of the Dark Star. Powerful magic. Magic designed to distress, to terrify, to amaze, even, but not destroy. Never to destroy. I gripped the scroll so tightly that the ring left an imprint on my paw.
The castle corridors were lined with sleeping figures by the time my advisors and I finished talking—refugees from the town the invaders had overrun and my own servants and courtiers, slumped over with exhaustion in the attempt to comfort their countrypets. I sailed by them silently, the dark slippers on my paws muffling my steps. Even so I stepped carefully: there was no reason to disturb them. When they woke, the siege would be broken.
I can imagine how I looked to him when I stepped out on the third-story balcony, overlooking the beset gardens: my gown, as the color Eventide but stripped of all lingering traces of sunlight; the crown on my brow a glittering star too close to Neopia, drowning out the features of my face and shoulders with its light. Maybe he thought I was a dark faerie—certainly he saw me before I saw him, one of the few knights awake in the camps below.
I smashed the ceramic ring on the smooth stone of the balcony railing and unfurled the scroll. It was written in a lost language, but the characters like pictograms made it easy to understand nonetheless. Something flashed from below me. I saw a patch of pale blue fur wrapped around the neck of a royal blue vial; I started to read the scroll. The patch of fur moved in a strange way, it took me a moment to realize, words still pouring from my mouth, that the knight was opening the bottle.
The knight who had seen me, and had probably guessed what I was about to do. It was too late to stop myself, but in that dread moment I recognized the small image etched on the bottle and realized what the knight was holding. I was vaguely aware of Nicarina stepping out onto the balcony behind me as I finished the last words of the scroll and the cork of the bottle came free. It all happened at exactly the same time.
Well, I guess it had to have happened all at the same time. I felt magic roar to life in the parchment in my hands, but it was void of the darkness power I expected. All that was left was starlight. Glittering starlight. Nicarina gasped, and I felt my body melt away, soaring up from the balcony.
The castle grew smaller and smaller. I was so focused on its retreating shape that I hardly noticed that I could see more of the land around with each passing second—the edges of the camp surrounding my home, the stretch of plains I had thought for many years was endless, the fledgling town growing to the southeast. Neopia Central they had started calling it.
I watched and the buildings of Neopia Central grew more sophisticated. At first, there were just two streets of shops that looked all the same. They transformed into unique buildings—a book shop shaped like a book that had casually fallen to the floor; a mailing box fashioned of wood and nails and lacquer that served as a post office; a gavel that Neopets streamed in and out of at all times of day, some kind of Auction House; a metal Uni in full battle armor, not unlike that which I furnished for the soldiers who had served under my own command, that radiated an aura of defensive magic. As I watched, the population swelled. The residential neighborhoods grew farther away from the center of town and sprawled outward. I watched hundreds of Neopets take to the roads to other realms, and hundreds more chart new courses.
They discovered the ancient kingdom of Altador, with which I had forged a wary peace. They took to rickety boats and explored the uncharted oceans, plotting Krawk Island on a map for the first time. I watched a Bruce wander into the Lost Desert, and explorers on Terror Mountain break through to the untouched-by-time Tyrannia. One even forged a path from Neopia Central to Moltara, deep beneath the crust of Neopia.
And Kreludor. The dark, rocky moon that sometimes blocked my view of the world. It was with Kreludor that I realized the truth: I was farther from Neopia than its own moon. The Starlight Potion uncorked by that knight had countered the dark magic of my scroll... but not the star magic. Undirected, it turned on me.
I was an outsider, looking down on the world I once called home. I had become as the darkness, a star. One among millions, identical to my peers in the eyes of those I watched.
There were legends that stars had power, but over the years—what passed before me had to be years, though it felt like no time at all—I tried and failed to influence what went on below.
After a while, the flow of time convinced me that I would remain a star forever, my purpose to watch and remember the history in which I no longer played a part. It was like getting to the end of a book and recalling all that had led to its conclusion, except every moment a new conclusion loomed up after the last. Time always marched on.
My vision started to cloud. I remembered Hamest and wondered whether he had experienced the same thing—slowly losing his ability to see—or if it had happened to him suddenly. I thought the former would be easier to bear. As Neopia grew more and more obscured, the things I did see became a nuisance to my senses, flashes of color without context. Seeing nothing was a relief after my mind, unable to occupy itself with other thoughts, had to scramble to piece together the things my eyes perceived. If you could really say it was my eyes perceiving it at all.
The darkness lasted only a short time, and near the end it was accompanied by the feeling of falling. For the first moment—it could have been an age, for all I knew—I was afraid. The fear faded, almost the same way my sight had faded. I barely had time to realize that I was at peace before my mind was filled with a cacophony of voices.
Young voices, old voices. Feeble ones and quavering strong ones, certain ones and uncertain ones. Ones that spoke as though they had been waiting a lifetime to speak, and ones that spoke as though the thought had just occurred to them that they could. It was impossible to discern one from the mix long enough to hear a full sentence, but the chorus of their song was plain to me:
I stopped falling. The voices stopped. Everything was still, dark, and quiet.
Leaves and twigs crunched somewhere behind me and to the right. Suddenly I could see as though I had never stopped, and before me stood a stone wall, cracked and leaning, draped in vines. I looked around for the rest of the world, as I was accustomed to seeing, but there was only a forest growing at my back. I looked over my shoulder and saw an old Lupe picking his way through the undergrowth.
He was focused on his feet and didn't notice me until his front paw missed clearing a log and he lurched forward. I reached out to help break his fall, and he looked up at me, startled.
"Who are you?" he asked.
"Skyleur," I answered, giving the name I hadn't used in ages, even before I was confined to the night sky.
"Thank you. I'm not used to running into anyone out here."
"Where is here, exactly?" I asked.
I looked at his paw. It was paler blue than it had been that twilight so many, many years ago, but something in me knew that this was the one. This was the knight who uncorked the Starlight Potion. It occurred to me that he didn't recognize me, and I glanced down at my gown. It wasn't my trademark eventide shade.
It was the colors of dawn—bright orange and gold, tinged with exciting and promising streaks of red.
"Well," the Lupe continued, "it used to be special. My career started here. This castle belonged to a sorceress, and I defeated her. Me, newly knighted with no special magical talent, just happened to be standing in the right spot, holding the right thing, at the right time. My wish came true that night."
"Your wish?" I asked him.
"I wished on a shooting star that I would be great one day. I was, and as the years have passed I've gone on to do a great many things. No one seems to remember this castle or the great battle that was fought here in my youth. The forest grew up around it, and time forgot. But I remember that strange Lenny woman I met on the road, who handed me a Starlight Potion and told me that I would want it some day."
"Time may have forgotten, but not everyone has," I said.
He looked at me, puzzled, but I didn't say more. Instead, I tried to recall the words of the wishes I heard as I fell to Neopia. Somewhere in that mess of sound there was a wish I would fulfill. Maybe more than one. Maybe a thousand millions.