From The Shadows...
“The First Levellers are getting more daring, that’s for sure.” Snuze commented absently as he and NiGHTS defended themselves against a horde of Minions under Puffy’s command. Puffy herself was doing all she could to stay out of the battle, possibly from fear of injury, but more likely out fear of getting herself dirty.
But Snuze was right. The First Level Nightmaren hardly ever left their comfortable lairs in Nightmare, preferring to let the Minions do all their dirty work. Reala, and to a lesser extent, Clawz were the only exceptions, both truly enjoying getting their claws quite literally into their work. Of course Reala hadn’t been seen for years and was no longer a threat to anyone, Human, Pian or Maren. But a recent report had indicated that Clawz was currently engaged in a rather heated battle with a group of Kuraido-trained Pian on the outskirts of Frozen Bell. NiGHTS and Snuze had gathered some more Pian and had been on their way to back them up when they’d run into Puffy and her group of Minions.
“It is almost dreamfall for Elliot, Claris and Roger.” NiGHTS pointed out. “They should soon be here to help.”
“I dunno, NiGHTS…” Snuze sighed as he swung at an attacking Mamu. “They’re just kids…should they really be involved in our war?”
“The dream realm belongs to all.” NiGHTS said. “It should be free and safe to all who enter…not Wizeman’s personal playground.”
NiGHTS let out a painful yelp as a Kircle clamped its lobster-like claws around his ankle and started dragging him towards the creek bed below. His pain brought a delighted chuckle from the distant Puffy.
NiGHTS smirked to himself. He was very close to the ground now. He kicked the Kircle with his free foot, sending the Minion flying. Reaching down he scooped up a handful of mud.
“Oh, Puffy?” He said brightly as he took careful aim. “Here is mud in your eyes!” He threw his makeshift missile with the speed and accuracy of a Major League pitcher.
Puffy shrieked as she was splattered across the face and upper body with the cold, wet projectile.
“You will pay dearly for that, renegade.” She snarled as she wiped the mud from her eyes, smearing her heavily applied make-up as she did so.
“Ooohhh.” Roger smirked. “Nice shot.”
“Oh, great.” Elliot mumbled. “We’ve dreamed ourselves right into the middle of a war zone.”
“Where’s Claris?” Snuze asked, noticing the two boys were alone.
“Perhaps she is yet to fall asleep?” NiGHTS suggested.
“Or maybe she just dreamed herself to be near her BOYFRIEND?” Roger teased Elliot with loud kissing noises.
“Give it a rest, Roger.” Elliot growled, shoving the older boy away.
Noticing the newly arrived dreamers, and knowing of the dream energy they possessed, Puffy and her Minions backed off a little. But she was smirking none the less. “Fall back!” She ordered her Minions. “Fall back to Frozen Bell.”
“Well…” Roger mused. “That was surprisingly easy.”
“Easy?” Snuze snorted. “Clawz and another legion of Minions are tearing apart Frozen Bell as we speak…if Puffy regroups with them…”
NiGHTS grabbed both boys by their shirt collars. “Then we had best see to it that she does not.”
Claris screamed as a flock of Hollow bared down on her.
“This is truly a dreamer’s nightmare.” A familiar voice spoke from nearby.
She sighed with relief as Kuraido put himself between her and the swarming Minions. The Hollow came to a screeching, mid-air halt at the sight of the black clad creature.
“Kageboshi Shinde!” They shrieked as one, before turning tail and fleeing.
“You certainly seem to have built a reputation for yourself.” Claris commented at their retreating backs.
“Perhaps.” Kuraido agreed. “But Wizeman is growing more and more aggressive.”
“Maybe he just doesn’t like you.” Napp suggested as he flew down to hover beside the pair. “But we got other fish to fry.”
“I have already dealt with the fish.” Kuraido informed him. “Gulpo will be days recovering.”
Napp rolled his eyes. “It’s just an expression.” He sighed. “We’ve got confirmed reports that Jackle is buzzing Soft Museum, Puffy is engaging NiGHTS in Spring Valley and Clawz is making a mess of Frozen Bell.”
“Which leaves only…” Kuraido began before a high-pitched shriek cut him off. The trio looked up to see Gillwing descending out of the clear blue sky. He quickly scooped up Claris and took to the air.
“Yipe!” Was Napp’s only comment as he joined them in their dash towards the distant Mystic Forest.
“He cannot follow us into the trees.” Kuraido said.
“True.” Napp agreed. “If we can outrun him.”
Claris glanced back and almost screamed. For something so big, Gillwing was awfully fast. The massive dragon-like creature appeared to be gaining. And Kuraido, fast as he was, was weighed down by both his armour and Claris. But she knew from experience just how well he could manoeuvre, even with the added weight.
“Do not look back.” Kuraido told her. “Never look back.”
But Claris couldn’t help herself. She could feel Gillwing’s breath, hot against her face. She could almost feel his sharp teeth nipping at her, sinking into Kuraido’s ankles…
Then they were in the trees. Gillwing let out another shriek. A different shriek. A defeated shriek as his prey escaped him. He crashed into the trees, unable to stop his massive form in time, knocking several down. They fell about the trio, forcing them to quickly, and frequently change course to avoid being squashed by the mighty forest giants.
They didn’t stop until they reached the ancient temple, deep within Nightopia’s green and shadowy realm. Kuraido gently set Claris on the ground. Napp fell down beside her.
“That was too close.” He commented with a sigh of relief.
“What is Wizeman up to?” Kuraido wondered softly.
“He IS trying to take over the waking world.” Napp pointed out. “And he doesn’t take too kindly to anybody that stands in his way.”
“We should join up with NiGHTS.” Kuraido said. “We cannot let Wizeman divide and conquer us.” He offered a hand to Claris, and headed off towards Spring Valley. With a loud sigh, Napp followed.
Jackle drifted towards the edge of Mystic Forest, his legion of Minions in basic ranks behind him. He had heard Gillwing’s shriek, and knew the massive Maren had found something. He desperately hoped it was that accursed Kuraido. He had been somewhat humbled by their last meeting, and for a being without a true face, Jackle hated to lose any.
He found the dragon-like creature, tail curled about him, licking his wounds. Jackle noticed the damage he’d caused to the forest as he’d chased down his prey, prey that had obviously escaped into the trees.
“Poor, poor, Gillwing.” Jackle soothed, as he stroked his massive head. “Not having a good day, are you?”
Gillwing just snorted in reply.
“And what were you chasing, Gilly?” Jackle smiled. “Was it that nasty NiGHTS?”
Gillwing tossed his massive head once from side to side.
“No…” Jackle mussed. “Was it those pesky little dreamers?”
Gillwing’s response was neither positive nor negative.
“Was it a single dreamer?”
Again, the same non-committal reaction.
“A single dreamer and somebody else?” Jackle suggested.
Gillwing tipped his head forward. Jackle’s smirk widened.
“A single dreamer and that black clad freak, Kuraido?” Jackle prompted.
Gillwing’s response was once again in the positive.
Jackle cackled wildly. “Excellent!” He crowed, glancing at his Minions. “I owe that guy big time!”
Kuraido, Claris and Napp were close to Frozen Bell when they heard Puffy’s unmistakable laugh.
“You said NiGHTS was doing battle with Puffy?” Kuraido looked to the Mepian for confirmation.
“Yep.” Napp nodded. “He must have her on the run.”
“And Clawz is in Frozen Bell.” Kuraido added grimly. “They must not be allowed to join forces.” With a flick of his foot, he altered course, heading towards the sound of Puffy’s laugh.
Carrying Elliot and Roger, it was all NiGHTS could do to keep Puffy and her Minions in sight. He couldn’t close the distance between them. His irritation at this was obvious to his two passengers.
“Why is it so important that we catch her?” Elliot asked.
“Yeah.” Roger added. “Just let her bolt back to Nightmare.”
“We have known not a moment’s peace for days.” NiGHTS told them. “The First Level Maren have been attacking relentlessly. And Clawz is wreaking havoc in Frozen Bell. Puffy is not retreating, she plans to join forces with him…”
“We get the point.” Roger said.
“Maybe you should just drop us off?” Elliot suggested. “You’d be able to catch her if you didn’t have us weighing you down.”
“I cannot do that.” NiGHTS shook his head. “No place in Nightopia is safe for you.”
“Well, that’s reassuring.” Roger mumbled.
“Clawz!” Puffy called to the Maren cat. “NiGHTS and two of the dreamers are right behind me. How goes the rest of the plan?”
Clawz smiled and pointed towards the trees of Mystic Forest. Puffy frowned. Claws sighed and began drawing in the snow with his index talon. He drew a rough sketch of Gillwing chasing something into the trees.
“Gotcha.” Puffy said. “The other one’s in the forest…the black one…the one the Master wants.” She laughed loudly. “And what Wizeman wants…we get!”
NiGHTS came to a screeching halt.
“We are too late.” He moaned as he saw Puffy and Clawz redistributing their Minions. “We cannot fight so many.”
“Wait a sec. Look!” Roger pointed to where Kuraido, Claris and Napp had just emerged from the trees of Mystic Forest.
“We’re still hopelessly out numbered, Roger.” Elliot pointed out.
“But THEY’RE hopelessly outclassed.”
Before either NiGHTS or Kuraido could make a move, Puffy and Clawz made theirs. Puffy hit a high C and bounced straight at NiGHTS while Clawz leapt at Kuraido with a roar. NiGHTS dropped Elliot and Roger into the snow in order to face the rotund rabbit, while Kuraido lowered Claris in order to engage the cat.
Clawz slammed full force into Kuraido’s chest, knocking him to the ground. His armour saved him from any nasty injures from Clawz namesakes. The cat snarled in his face, then, surprisingly, sat back on his haunches, a brow raised in confusion. He leaned forward, snuffling at Kuraido, taking a good long breath of his scent. This seemed to confuse him even more.
Kuraido mumbled something under his breath before smacking the cat hard about the head. Taken by surprise, the cat keeled over, unconscious, into the snow.
Claris and Napp exchanged a glance. They had seen it all.
“What do you suppose that was all about?” Napp wondered.
“It was almost as if Clawz knew…” Claris was cut off as Kuraido suddenly took to the air, flying to NiGHTS’ aid.
“It would seem that you could use a little help.” Kuraido said as he appeared at NiGHTS’ side. Puffy smiled and drew back at the sight of the pair together. Minions closed in from all sides, overwhelming them with shear weight of numbers.
Elliot, Roger and Snuze joined Claris and Napp, all casting their eyes skyward to watch the battle in the air. Minions were literally dropping like flies, but for each that fell, there were two more to take its place.
“I don’t like the look of this.” Elliot commented.
“They’re being pushed towards the border.” Napp said, a hint a fear in his voice. “Another few meters and they’ll be in Nightmare…and under Wizeman’s field of influence.”
“We have to help them.” Claris said desperately.
“And just how do you propose we do that?” Roger wanted to know.
“How indeed.” A voice spoke from behind.
The three dreamers screamed as one as they turned to face Jackle and his legion of Minions.
NiGHTS heard Kuraido curse.
“What is it?” He asked.
“They are pushing us towards Nightmare.” Kuraido told him. “Where Wizeman’s power is at its zenith.”
“Then we shall just have to push back.” NiGHTS declared.
“Somehow I don’t think you’ll be doing that.” Jackle smirked, holding up Claris and Elliot, rather painfully, by an ensnared wrist. Clawz poked Roger in the small of the back with an equally menacing expression.
NiGHTS’ face fell and Kuraido let out an angry snort.
Puffy bounced up and studied the armoured creature closely. Her eyes travelled slowly up and down the full length of his impressively built body. She smiled suggestively. “Wizeman is just dying to meet you.”
“So this is the infamous…KURAIDO.” Wizeman chuckled as a pair of his hands circled the silent, black clad warrior. Both he and NiGHTS were bound by heavy iron chains, but Kuraido had the Lord of Nightmare’s full attention.
“We have the Ideya prisons ready, Lord Wizeman.” Puffy informed her Master with a reverent bow.
“That won’t be necessary, Puffy.” Wizeman said with a wave of his hand. He turned his attention back towards his captives. “KURAIDO is no threat to me.”
Jackle sneered at the three dreamers, standing silently near the captive NiGHTS. “So what are we gonna do with these kids?” He poked at them menacingly. Kuraido surged forward, cracking Jackle in the jaw with his cuffed hands.
“Oh, drop the act.” Wizeman said.
“It is no act.” Kuraido snarled at him.
“Oh, please. It doesn’t convince me at all. You may have been able to pull the wool over their eyes…” He gestured towards NiGHTS and his companions. “But I MADE you! I would know you no matter what your form.”
“What is he talking about?” Claris asked nervously, looking to her friend for an answer.
But it was Wizeman who answered her. “My dear, sweet child.” He said in a mocking tone of voice. “You were so eager to accept your knight in not-so-shining armour, you never stopped to consider just WHAT that armour contained.” He began to chuckle. “Allow me to illuminate the situation for you.”
He hurled a fireball at Kuraido so swiftly he didn’t have a chance to dodge it. The others gasped in fear for their friend, especially NiGHTS who had often been on the receiving end of such projectiles himself, as he was hurled back against the wall by the sudden blast of flame.
“Don’t worry.” He soothed mockingly. “He’s way tougher than that.” He turned his attention to Kuraido, who was hissing with pain from the touch of his now red hot armour. “Oh, dear…” Wizeman’s voice dripped with fake sympathy. “Not so agile in all that heavy armour, are you? Did I make you all hot? Did I burn you? Then let me cool you down.”
He hurled a massive ball of ice at the unfortunate creature. It turned to steam around him, but the sudden cold on the fiery hot armour, caused the metal to become brittle. Wizeman tossed a small lump of stone straight at Kuraido’s faceplate, shattering it.
With a yelp, Kuraido covered his now exposed face. Claris broke from the others to help her friend, Wizeman indicating to his Minions to let her go. The faceplate had shattered like glass. Even on his black-gloved fingers, Claris could she the dark stain of blood. She tried to pull his hands away, to assess the damage, but he wouldn’t let her. He just shook his head.
“What’s the matter…KURAIDO…? Afraid to let her see what you really are?” Wizeman chuckled.
He raised his head. Claris could see his eyes, his true eyes, so full of hate for this most hateful of beings, through his fingers.
A cold, icy blue…
He let his hands drop.
“I fear nothing.” He said. His voice, no longer muffled by the metal faceplate was hauntingly familiar.
Claris screamed, backing away towards the relative safety of NiGHTS and the others.
The voice had been familiar, but there was no mistaking the face, even speckled with blood as it was. Smooth and white, as white as snow. The distinctive tattooing, vivid black against the white, in a parody of the traditional ‘comedy’ mask.
And the eyes…
Nothing colder existed in any world.
“Ah…the prodigal son…” Wizeman said in a voice that seemed to be choked with emotion, ignoring, or perhaps not noticing, that those cold eyes were directed at him. “Welcome home, Reala. I have missed you so.” With a simple gesture from Wizeman, the heavy chains fell from his wrists. “Now take your place.” He gestured with one massive hand to his side.
“No.” Reala said flatly.
“Do not vex me, Reala.” Wizeman warned. “I will not offer it again.”
“You could offer it a thousand times and I would still refuse.” Reala shot back, a hard edge to his unnaturally calm voice. He turned a hand upwards, cupping his own little ball of fire, its blue flames indicating its magical configuration, as he glared at Wizeman menacingly.
“Do you really mean to do me harm with that little bit of magic?” Wizeman laughed.
Reala just smiled, turned his hand and threw the cobalt flames at his intended target. The fire struck and melted the bonds restraining NiGHTS. The renegade Maren was a little shocked to find himself freed by his greatest rival, but he wasn’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth either.
“I do believe that discretion would be the better part of valour under the circumstances…” Reala said to NiGHTS, even though his eyes were still directed at Wizeman. NiGHTS was frozen to the spot, too confused to move. Reala caught the indecision with his peripheral vision. “Oh for pity’s sake…” He rolled his pale eyes, grabbed Roger and Elliot, and jerked his head at Claris.
“Get back to Nightopia!” He yelled as he took to the air with his cargo.
Acting entirely on reflex, NiGHTS grabbed Claris and shot after his dark twin, Napp and Snuze at his heels.
“Stop them, you idiots!” Wizeman bellowed at his Minions, knowing full well that none could hope to outstrip either of the fleeing Maren, even weighed down by the dreamers. But his Minions knew equally well not to question their Master, and all took off in pursuit.
Elliot had to admit, it was the most unlikely of scenarios…fleeing Nightmare in Reala’s powerful grasp. Elliot had always thought that the two, almost identical looking Maren were more or less identical in just about every aspect, but it was obvious that Reala was much stronger, physically, than NiGHTS. NiGHTS had struggled to carry him and Roger before, but Reala didn’t seem to be having a problem, and he had the added weight of the plate armour.
And Reala had used some form of magic to free NiGHTS back in Nightmare. Elliot had never seen NiGHTS use magic…
Beside him, Roger made a grab for a slender tree branch as it flashed by. They must be back in Nightopia now for something like that to be growing. It didn’t register with Elliot just what Roger was doing until the blonde youth brought his stout weapon down across the back of Reala’s neck with all the strength he could muster.
Reala let out a pained shriek and immediately dropped them both.
“Bad idea!” Elliot screamed as the pair fell towards the waiting trees.
Reala cursed as he swung around, diving down to grab each boy by a wrist. But the momentum of their falling bodies dragged all three towards the ground. Reala used all his strength to pull up, but when he found he couldn’t, he twisted, so he’d take the brunt of the impact. Claris screamed as she watched them go down.
Roger rolled off Reala almost immediately upon hitting the ground, elbowing the Maren in the ribs as he did so for good measure. He raised his weapon, which he had some how managed to hold on to during the fall, and brought it down towards the prone Maren’s face for another blow, but Reala caught it before it could impact and wrenching it from Roger’s hand surged to his feet.
“I save your life and this…” he brandished the stick. “…is how you repay me?”
“You better believe it, you pasty faced creep!” Roger growled.
Elliot, all but forgotten, looked from one face to the other, unsure of what to do.
“That is enough.” NiGHTS said as he dropped down between the pair. “From both of you.” He added, more to Roger than Reala. NiGHTS turned to face his dark twin, making sure to keep himself between the Maren and his friends.
“You should realise by now that you have nothing to fear from me.” He said simply.
“Dry that out and you could fertilize the lawn.” Roger mumbled, shrinking back as the cold blue eyes focused on him.
Claris felt numb. Of the entire group, she had been closest to Kuraido, she’d cared about him the most. And now, finding out he was in actuality one of their greatest enemies…she felt nothing but betrayed. “You lied to us.” She said quietly.
“I did not.” Reala protested.
“Oh, really…” Roger sneered. “KURAIDO?”
“I never claimed that to be my name.” He said, a little haughtily. “Yume called me that…Claris merely assumed…”
“And you did nothing to clear up that little misunderstanding.” Elliot said.
“I will admit, I withheld the truth.” He turned to Claris, his blue eyes unusually soft. “But answer me truthfully…would you have accepted my help if I approached you as I am?”
She looked at him. There was such earnestness in his eyes, she wanted so much to believe that he’d changed…
“Don’t listen to him, Claris.” Roger objected. “You said he needed Ideya from you to get out of that place. He wasn’t helping you, he was just saving his own scrawny butt!”
Reala turned his attention to the youth, the iciness returning to his eyes. “I ASKED for her Ideya.” He pointed out as he moved slowly towards him, NiGHTS watching his every move. “I could have easily just…” His hand flashed out, faster than even NiGHTS could follow. When he drew it back he was holding a blue sphere, Roger’s Ideya of Intelligence, in the palm of his hand. “Taken it.”
NiGHTS tensed to leap at him, but Reala had already tossed the sphere back. Roger’s reflexes, thanks to countless hours of basketball training, fired, but the Ideya vanished, disappearing back from whence it came, before he could catch it.
“That is enough, Reala.” NiGHTS warned.
Reala frowned at the threatening tone of voice. “Why so cold, NiGHTS?” He asked innocently.
“You need to ask?” NiGHTS shot back. “With all that you have done?”
Reala lowered his head, seemingly sorry. He sighed deeply. “I make no excuses for my past.” He said softly. “But, recently, has it not been like old times? We have fought together…suffered together…does this mean nothing to you?”
He looked around him. Roger glared at him with a complete and utter hatred, which Reala couldn’t blame him for. Elliot, Snuze and Napp looked at him with a mixture of fear and revulsion. Claris just looked confused.
NiGHTS was obviously battling some inner demons. He and Reala had been the best of friends once, for as long back as either could remember. The team supreme. Nothing could stand against them. But NiGHTS had changed, softened…and Reala hadn’t. He honestly didn’t know what to do.
His silence spoke volumes to Reala.
“I see.” He said softly. “NiGHTS can have a change of heart… Roger can earn his redemption…but you cannot afford me the same luxury.” He lifted slightly into the air.
“Very well…you have made your choice. I will not hinder you in your fight against Wizeman…” He deliberately turned his back on them. He glanced back over his shoulder, his eyes growing cold again. “Nor will I aid you.”
He took off with such speed that the sudden sting of the wind in his face brought tears to his eyes.
Or at least that was what he told himself.