Fine Line: Part One
The footsteps of the small party echoed dimly in the narrow corridor. Alamor could only see a little way ahead into the darkness, thanks to the light of the twin torches carried by the tour guides. The glow of the first, held by the shadow Elephante in front, lit the passage walls, fading into the gloom that lay further down the hall. The Desert Ruki carrying the second torch trailed at the back of the line, the firelight shining dully against her brown skin.
Alamor wrapped his majestic purple cloak closer around him in the cold, stale air. The camouflage Kougra silently celebrated his victory. After weeks of hard work and good lies, he had managed to infiltrate one of the Great Gebmids as part of a private tour group. At last, he would have the opportunity to get his hands on some of the greatest treasures of the Lost Desert.
He couldn’t help but be curious as the Elephante guide led them deeper into the reaches of the ancient structure. The narrow stone walls that rose up on either side were sure to fall away and reveal a great chamber soon, a refuge for the spirits of the ancient kings. And, of course, the kings would not have been sent off to the afterlife without their finest possessions to accompany them.
“Ah, here we are,” said the shadow Elephante, finally stepping out of the long hallway. A large blue Tuskaninny who had been in front of Alamor eagerly hurried out of the passage and into a wide space, clearly relieved to be out of the close quarters. Alamor followed him into the open room.
As an old Acara and the Desert Ruki brought up the rear, Alamor could see the light of the torches reflecting off of the many treasures which lay about the room. It was such a broad area that most of it was still draped in shadow, but the tour guide swiftly went about the perimeter, lighting wall torches with his own. Soon, an orange glow warmed the stone, and Alamor could see clearly.
“Welcome, gentlemen,” said the guide, his voice sounding echoey in the large room, “to the antechamber of the largest burial place in Neopia.”
The finely-dressed Tuskaninny let his eyes and mouth grow wide as he looked about him. Alamor couldn’t help but be impressed. Though he had come to steal, the majesty of the ancient rulers of the Lost Desert overpowered him, making the Kougra forget about which objects might fetch the highest price and simply stare in awe.
Fine shields and armor rested against the walls, emblazoned with crests of the ancient kingdoms. Delicate scrolls were stacked in the corner, covered in dust and spyderwebs and tied with faded ribbons, and jewelry was on display everywhere, glinting in the orange glow of the torches. Tall figures were painted on the walls, their bodies fading away into blackness beyond the reaches of the warm firelight. Tables were adorned with crowns and staffs, weapons hung from niches in the stone, and everything had an alluring sheen of gold or silver.
Alamor experienced a fleeting fear: would he be able to steal anything from this room, where everything was clearly visible? Even though he was planning to return to the Gebmid on a later night, he wondered if the objects would be immediately missed, and the room would be searched. Alamor was a wise thief; he knew to steal forgotten things, so that his crime would not be discovered until all traces of his presence had faded away.
The camouflage Kougra glanced at the doorway that lay in the opposite wall. The hall beyond was dark, dusty, unused. His reverence of the ages-old kings forgotten, Alamor silently decided to explore further in hopes of finding objects that had greater worth and less security.
“What do you think?” asked the shadow Elephante, smiling at his three guests and bringing Alamor out of his thoughts. “Is this not worth the visit?”
“Very much so,” breathed the blue Tuskaninny, smoothing out the white cloth that adorned his head. “There are some artifacts here that even the wealthiest collector would envy.”
“They may envy all they want,” said the guide, “but these artifacts have remained here for thousands of years. You collectors will have to look and not touch.” He smiled. “But is not looking in itself a treat?”
“Certainly,” said Alamor, his voice taking on a practiced royal tone. He stepped forward toward the center of the stone floor, his long cloak sweeping the dusty ground, and looked around reverently. “This exhibition is one of great worth indeed.” He turned to face the Elephante. “But I am quite sure that this is not the only room in such a vast structure.”
“No, it isn’t,” said the guide. “This place is the one and only stop for most tours. It is well guarded and closely watched.” A glint appeared in his kind eyes. “But in special tours for art collectors like you, we have much more freedom to explore.” He pulled a torch out of its place on the wall and handed it to Alamor. The shadow Elephante gave a small smile. “Shall we?”
“After you,” said Alamor, returning the grin. The camouflage Kougra fell in behind the large guide, and the others followed them out of the large room and through the lone doorway. With the firelight dancing on the walls, they passed through another corridor and came out in a second chamber, this one with two dark passages looming at the other end.
As the small party filed into the room, the guide said, “This is one of the most beautiful sights in the entire Gebmid. It is as ancient as the foundation itself.” He waved a torch over the broad stone floor, and Alamor stared, stricken once more by awe.
The entire center of the room was covered in a vast floor mural. Old ropes around its perimeter protected it from the feet of visitors, and the many colors shone dully in the glow of the torches. Alamor could see painted figures dancing on the rolling dunes, the wavy pattern of a river winding through the scene; towers and ghosts and crowns and staffs and countless other images lay just beyond the ring of light cast by the flames. Each brushstroke appeared perfect, melting into the next like a dream. The shifting patterns of the burning torches made the mural look almost living.
If Alamor could have stolen it, he would have.
“Ugh, what is that?”
Alamor glanced over at the blue Tuskaninny, who was pointing into the corner of the room with a ringed finger. A shape was hidden in the gloom, resting where the two walls met at the other side of the mural.
The silent Ruki guide stepped up to the rope and raised her torch, illuminating a frail skeleton. Alamor looked at it curiously. It sat huddled in the corner, its legs pulled up to its chest in a tight hug. The skeleton’s skull leaned back against the wall, and its eyes stared out blankly, betraying no emotion, but seeming at a sad, reserved peace.
“The painter,” said the Elephante solemnly. The Ruki lowered her torch, and the circle of light moved away from the bony creature. “Legend says that he died here, after finally completing his masterpiece.”
“What happened?” asked the Tuskaninny, clutching his robes closer about him.
“He had concentrated so much, been so intent on making each stroke of the paint brush flawless, that he found himself trapped in the corner,” said the guide. “Fearing to walk across the wet paint and ruin his mural, he stayed there, unmoving. He never strayed from that spot, and he diminished, leaving behind this work of art.”
Alamor was silent. The painting was indeed the most beautiful that he had ever seen. He couldn’t help but wonder, though, what it must have felt like to that painter, having finished something so perfect and not being able to survive to see it adored by the generations. Once more, thoughts of his job were lost amidst a sea of emotion. Being in this burial place had provoked new thoughts in Alamor, and his thieving ways fell into the background as he wondered about those Neopets of long ago.
“Now, we come to a crossroads,” said the guide. “I will take whichever of you are interested to the old library which is located down the left passage.” He motioned to one of the two dark doorways at the other end of the room. “It contains ancient scrolls and spells which were supposed to guide the spirits of the kings in the afterlife.”
“I would be happy to accompany you,” said the Acara, who had not spoken much since they entered the Gebmid.
Alamor had not come to steal old scrolls. “What lies in the other direction?” he asked.
“Sintah can take you,” said the Elephante, motioning to his assistant guide.
The Ruki spoke. “Down that hall lie the Tombs of the Ancients. Most are closed off to all visitors, but one that is available for you to see is the Tomb of Nefertissi, the greatest Queen ever to rule the Lost Desert.”
The Tuskaninny grew very excited at this. “Oh,” he said, clasping his hands together, “do please escort us to the tomb. I have heard that it exhibits many great works dedicated to the Queen.”
“We may not go into the tomb itself,” said Sintah as the Elephante guide led the Acara away into the darkness of one hallway. “However, we may look into it from the entrance.” Her brown skin shone dully in the light as she lifted her torch. “Follow me.”
Alamor allowed the Tuskaninny to walk in front of him, holding his own flames high as he followed at the rear. He would have to keep his eyes open. Perhaps this Tomb of Nefertissi might hold what Yasmyn was looking for. The Kougra’s thoughts strayed to the Neopet who had suggested stealing from the Gebmid in the first place. If he could only catch a glimpse of something, come back with the name of an artifact, Yasmyn could tell him what to take. She would know which objects had the greatest worth. She would make him rich.
The corridor was not long, and the Ruki called Sintah soon stopped in front of a stone doorway. “Remember,” she said as she stepped back, her voice echoing in the narrow passage, “Do not enter the tomb.”
The Tuskaninny leaned forward, peering into the dark chamber. Alamor came up behind him, holding his torch out so that the two could see.
The orange light reflected off of an array of objects lining the walls, but Alamor’s eyes were drawn immediately to one thing, the sculpture sitting alone on a stone table in the center of the room. It was the head of a beautiful Hissi, wearing a tall crown and staring proudly ahead of her. The carving was so ornate that it appeared as if Alamor was looking at a living Neopet, frozen in time.
“The Bust of Nefertissi,” breathed the Tuskaninny, his whisper resonating in the small chamber.
As soon as he heard the words, Alamor knew that he had found what he was looking for. Yasmyn would be most pleased. Perhaps soon, Alamor would be rich beyond his wildest dreams. He would no longer need to pretend to be an art collector, nor even sneak around the tents of Sakhmet pilfering anything within reach. No, with this object of immeasurable worth, he could cast aside his thieving ways forever, and live in luxury.
Alamor’s thoughts did not stray as he followed Sintah and the Tuskaninny back to the room with the floor painting. He did not lose his concentration as they joined the Elephante and the Acara and traveled back into the antechamber. Even as they exited the Gebmid and emerged into the sunlit sands of the Lost Desert, Alamor’s mind stayed true to one thought.
If he could steal the Bust of Nefertissi, he would be set for life.
The only thing that stood in his way was the Great Gebmid, guarded by the Elephante and Sintah, who stood at the doorway holding torches as Alamor parted with the group and set off across the dunes. Nothing but the two guides and the ghosts of the ancients could stop him now. All of the reverence for the kings which had filled him not long ago now vanished, fading away into a feeling of hope and confidence.
Alamor the camouflage Kougra walked a fine line, but he was a thief of master skill. He could walk the border between morality and dishonesty as cleanly as he could slice a Tchea with the sharp blade of his knife.
Yes, Alamor could cut a fruit and feed it to his young son as easily as he could steal a precious artifact from an ancient tomb. He walked a fine line, but with such perfect balance, Alamor knew that he would never fall.
To be continued...