Baroque Storm: Part Three
The Catacombs are vast and huge and strange and impossible to understand.
There’s the normal part, the part that everyone sees, the big cold cavern straight ‘neath the statue. The air has a strange echo to it, like everything that’s said lingers a moment or two longer, and considering that it’s the place where all those literate arty things take place, this makes sense. The Neopian Times is based there, crisp papers peeling in the damp. Storytellers sit on atmospheric logs around a flickering fire, reciting to each other; poets exclaim extravagant rhetoric and flourish their hats and bow. Cityfolk can sit at outside tables at the Coffee Shop and wrap their paws around mugs and pretend they’re all intelligent and adventurous, staring bravely out at the tamed little sliver of dark that’s all they can comprehend. For most people that’s enough.
For thieves, though... for thieves, and outlaws, and outcasts, the darkness isn’t anything to be scared of because the darkness is what we are, and because there’s a special kind of cruelty that lets you recognise other cruelties when you see ‘em. We know that just because something happens to be well-illuminated doesn’t make it good, and shadows are at least honest about their danger. So the Catacombs became ours, gradually, over the years. There’s tunnels that no one’s ever found, and then there’s tunnels that people have found but no one’s ever found them, and there’s people that wander lost forever. More often, though, we find our way around well enough, because twists and turns need twisted people to navigate them. Our minds work the right way. We think in mazes.
Might be you’ve heard tell that we of the caves consider ourselves to be a kind of kin, and that’s true to a point. Certainly it’s true that any outsider who finds his way here likely won’t find his way out again. We guard the homeness of this place fiercely, and one thing that all the people here have in common is that we are mighty fierce.
...Don’t go looking so worried, friend! It’s nothing to fret over. Honestly.
Yes, there’s nothing that cavefolk could do to you that’s worse than what the caves themselves could. You could wander for hours until your feet were bloody and still see no glimmer of a way back into the open air; you could lose your wits when you lose your way, down here in the dark. There are treacherous places where the air gathers and rots, and you won’t suspect a thing until your breath thickens in your throat, and then all you can do is fall down, gasping, and wait until you –
“Stop!” Mem said in a distraught wail of a voice, clamping his flippers over his ears. “Please please stop. Please? Please please please stop.”
Baroque cast a grin over his shoulder. “But I was just getting to the interesting part.”
Mem uncovered his ears long enough to shoot him an anguished look. “By ‘interesting’ do you mean ‘the part most likely to terrify me’?”
Mem sighed shakily. “What’s the point of this?” he said, trying to stay calm.
“I though you might like a little background knowledge,” the Krawk said, pausing at a place where the tunnel split into seven smaller tunnels. He closed his eyes, for some reason, and then smiled broadly and set off down one. Mem hurried after him, not wanting to fall behind. “And I wanted to squash any ‘I think I will wander off!’ impulses you might otherwise have been fostering. And I wanted to make sure to scare you good and proper so you wouldn’t be likely to run your mouth about this place to any of your corrupt Banky friends. I wouldn’t be taking you here at all, but it’s a handy place, and I figure you’ll be too terrified to tell anyone, so...” Baroque stopped, stooping, at where a low wooden door was set into the wall. It was the same colour as the stonework, almost impossible to see. “Here we are,” he declared brightly, and opened the door, and gave a little bow to show that Mem was to go first.
Mem went through, cautiously. It was not what he’d been expecting.
Given how Baroque had been talking – all grandiose and glorious and strange – he’d been expecting some vast cavern hung with stalactites, possibly with a crystal-clear stream and waterfall or mysterious phosphorescence glowing gently on the walls. This... wasn’t that. It was bigger than the tunnels leading to it, which was something, but the room was only about the size of, say, the lounge and the kitchen and the dining room of a house all squished together, and that did, indeed, seem to be most of the purpose of it: there were some couches and tables, a cupboard, a stove. There were a couple of doors in the walls that presumably led to other rooms, but only a couple. There was a hole in the ceiling that was maybe for ventilation. And that was it.
As though the ordinariness of the place wasn’t enough, it was a mess. The couches were battered and sagging, with pillows all over the place. The cupboard’s doors were thrown open, its shelves in disarray, and, though there was a sink, dirty dishes and half-eaten remnants of food were scattered everywhere. The floor was made of rock, and there weren’t any rugs on it, no paintings to soften the bareness of the walls. There were a few torches, but they didn’t give anywhere near enough light. It was... slovenly, stark, forbidding.
“Home sweet home,” Baroque said happily, and he tossed his coat onto a couch.
Mem noticed that he’d closed the door, and wondered if he’d bolted it. Silly thing to think. There was no way he was braving those caves alone. “Where are the others?” he asked timidly.
“Shine’s crew?” Baroque collapsed onto the couch himself. It was elegantly done: he sort of unfolded, long limbs stretching out until the entirety of him was sprawled across the couch, though his tail hung off one end. Once seated to his satisfaction he gave a dismissive wave of one hand. “Oh, they’ll be about.”
Mem, for lack of anything else to do, started picking up plates and piling them neatly in the sink.
“Somewhere,” Baroque said. “No doubt.”
Mem went on stacking plates.
“... They’re in Altador,” Baroque said. “On a job. My ruddy job, my plan, but do they wait for me to pull this job first? ‘Oh, Baroque, you’ve done so much for us, we can afford to wait a few days’ – that, you are thinking, is what they would say.”
“I—” Mem started.
“And what they should have said,” Baroque said, tapping his hand restlessly against the handle of the hammer. “I mean, certainly, yes, I’m more than capable of getting there myself, we don’t need to always clump together, but... I’m not on their crew, technically. Mostly that doesn’t matter, or so I thought. Seems that, sometimes, it does.”
“Um,” Mem said.
“I mean, yes, we argued, and I’m sure Shine thinks this is the equivalent of teaching me a lesson or some such nonsense. Honestly. The nerve of that Lupe.”
“Mm,” Mem agreed, thinking that agreeing was probably the safe option.
Baroque glanced at him and sprang to his feet. “I am being a terrible host,” he said. “Honestly, if I’m going to kidnap you, I should at least be mannerly about it, right friend?” And he gave a charming smile. Somehow the charming smile was so very charming that Mem found himself smiling back, as though Baroque wasn’t vaguely frightening, as though this was the delightful adventure that Baroque seemed to think it was. The Krawk danced over to a door and flung it open, revealing a cupboard.
“We’re going to have to spend the time until we go to meet your employers here, so... this might take a while...” He rifled amongst things, and then gave Mem a doubtful look. “How are you at bored games?’
“I...” said Mem, uncertainly. “Don’t you mean board games?”
“Same thing, really.” Baroque considered the cupboard thoughtfully, and then slammed the door shut with a cheerful laugh, hard enough that there was the rattle of things falling down from inside. “Oh well. Two clever gentlemen such as ourselves, I’m sure we can think of something.”
“We could clean,” Mem suggested. “This... this place, ha, this place certainly needs cleaning!”
Baroque gave him a disapproving look. “It,” he said sternly, “has an evocative and mysterious ambience.”
Mem sighed. “Of course it does.”
“Well,” said Baroque brightly, and he gave a sagging armchair a suspicious sort of frown and shrugged and settled down cross-legged on the bare stone floor. “I suppose we’ll just have to talk, then. Excellent way to pass the time, talking.”
Mem laughed. Actually laughed. “You kidnapped me!” he said. “And you’re a thief and all... interesting, and I’m a banker and not. What could we possibly find to talk about?”
“... and then,” Baroque said, stirring his coffee, “it rebounded. Actually rebounded!”
Mem laughed. “No!” he said, more because he felt he ought to show some sort of disbelief than because he actually felt any. Baroque was inexplicably plausible.
“Oh yes,” Baroque said seriously, nodding several times. “Rebounded right on her in this...” He gestured. “Big magicky ball of light and stuff, very slick and shiny, and then I made my escape, and to this day I still don’t know what she was trying to curse me with, but I always read the Faerieland Gazette just in case there’s rumours of, I don’t know, Fyora turning into something at the full moon or being unable to eat legumes or whatever...”
He trailed off, smirking. Mem was too busy laughing to drink his caramel latte, so Baroque neatly hooked a claw around one handle and dragged it over to his side of the table, already littered with the detritus of coffee-that-once-had-been: empty mugs and plates and a bowl or two and some snowberry stalks. Mem, wheezing with laughter, watched as Baroque glanced at the latte, and then at his own current drink, peachy tea. He gave an enterprising sort of shrug and poured one into the other.
“I don’t think you’re meant to do that,” Mem said, eating some ice cream to stop himself from being so thoroughly amused.
Baroque took a sip and winced, then took another sip in a determined sort of way. “Nonsense,” he said, “it tastes of both caramel and peaches, it’s ingenious cookery.” He nudged the cup towards Mem enticingly. “Oh, come now. The alien would try it.”
“Alien Aishas have their tastebuds surgically removed at the age of five,” said Mem, trying to be straight-faced, but he collapsed into laughter again. He couldn’t help it. There was something about Baroque, an energy, a liveliness; it made you want to like him even if you happened to be kidnapped by him at the time. And he told delightfully entertaining stories. Mem almost didn’t want the Manager to show up with the money. He was enjoying himself too much.
Baroque added several packets of sugar to the coffeetea, then drained the cup and shuddered and grinned. “Bracing,” he said. “Bracing is definitely the word. Ma’am?”
This was to the Shoyru who owned the café, and was, at that moment, bustling past with a tray. She smiled teasingly when she realised that he was talking to her. “What, another one?”
“Can I help that the quality of your goods is so excellent?” he said solemnly.
“I’d normally be shooing a customer out the door by now,” she chided. “And you’ve been here, what, an hour?”
“Basking in your radiant glow, friend,” he assured her.
“Wellll,” she said, drawing out the word. “I suppose I could spare some strawberry spice tea for my favourite customer, seeing we have some goin’ spare. On the sly, like.”
“You are a wonder!” he told her, smiling happily, and she smiled back and bustled off. Mem watched this all with admiration. He could never talk to girls very well.
“I thought you said to meet here because it’s a nice public place and easy to get to,” Mem said, “but, admit it, you’re just here because you like the food!”
“The drink,” Baroque corrected, dipping one claw in the sugar and licking it off. “But otherwise, yes, that’s quite entirely accurate.” He gave a chuckle. “My friends are always telling me that I ‘live on caffeine and glory’, and I rather see their point.”
That explained his thinness. “Glory,” said Mem thoughtfully. “So that explains the...” He tried to make the kind of gesture Baroque always made, an explainy sort of gesture, and succeeded in knocking over the milk jug. “Oh, sorry! I’ll just clean that up. Sorry.”
“It’s fine,” Baroque said, generously, “strawberry tea’s better milkless anyway. You were saying?”
“I was about to ask about the whole... y’know, the whole ‘I am Baroque Storm! Lord of Lightning! I am very dramatic and the Lord of Lightning!’ thing. That.”
Baroque tilted his head enquiringly. “Ask what about it?” he said. “Seems fairly self-explanatory to me.”
“I... are you?”
“Am I what?”
“All... storm-magickish. And chosen. And stuff.” Mem was rather starting to wish he hadn’t brought it up, because he was doing a terrible job of explaining it.
“Oh, that!” said Baroque cheerfully. “Nah. ‘s good showmanship is all. A little sparkle, a little dazzle... No real magic, and of course I’m no storm-lord.”
“That would be silly.”
“I just thought it would be good to foster a reputation,” Baroque started, and just then his tea came and he stopped to smile at the Shoyru and then to take an appreciative sip. He continued, “It seemed like a good plan to make my name known, and I wanted to be distinctive. So. Storm. Made sense, really.” He shrugged, sipped more tea, smiled.
“Oh,” Mem said again, trying not to feel too disappointed. It had seemed so interesting.
Baroque glanced at a clock. “Oh, excellent!” he said, and sounded like he actually meant it. “Nearly twelve. Your boss or whoever he’s sent should be here soon, and then you can be rid of me.” He grinned.
“Oh,” Mem said.
Baroque offered him his hand. “It has been,” he said, “a pleasure. Truly. We should do this again some time.”
“...What, a kidnapping?”
Baroque nodded seriously. “Good to stay on good terms with the victims of your fiendish crimes, I’ve always felt,” he said. “Send them Givingday cards. Nod to them on the street. That sort of thing. One must be courteous, after all.” He drank some more tea and set it down with an appreciative sigh. “And here we have... Oh. Hm. Interesting.”
Mem glanced at where he was looking, and his heart fell. He’d... he’d half been hoping that Baroque would actually get away with this. But no. They were sitting at one of the outside tables, and from here the people gathered could be plainly seen. The Manager was there, smirking... and so were a number of the Defenders of Neopia, and some of the Chia Police, and a lot of hired muscle. Far too many for one thief to deal with, if Baroque could fight at all.
“See anyone carrying a huge bag marked ‘ten million neopoints’?” said Baroque. “No? Drat.”
“Storm!” said the Manager, proving to have much better projection than Mem had ever thought he had. “Stand up slowly. That goes for you too, Bruce.”
Mem stood up slowly. Baroque finished his tea, and wiped his mouth, and spent a few seconds fiddling with the napkin so that it was neatly folded. Then he placed some neopoints on the table and stood, stretching luxuriously. “Is that slowly enough?” he said innocently.
The Manager growled. Mem tried to hide a smile.
“You are under arrest,” called one of the Chia Police, and one of the Defenders nodded vigorously and added, “Fiend!”
“Mem,” said the Manager, “walk over here, out of the shop, and then we’ll deal with him.”
Mem lingered, glancing at Baroque. “I’ll make sure the papers talk of this,” he said suddenly. “That, I mean, that the story’s told and that you’re in a good light. Lots of people will know your name. It’s the least I can do.”
“You are far too kind,” Baroque told him, putting a hand on his shoulder and pushing him gently towards the assembled force. “Really. And you might want to close your eyes.”
“Close...?” said Mem, turning to face him with a frown.
Baroque winked at him and picked up the hammer.
It was difficult to tell what happened next, exactly. Mem knew nothing of magic. The Krawk’s face got sort of distant and distracted, and he clenched his hands on the hammer, and he murmured a few words in a language Mem didn’t know. The ground rolled and rumbled as though with thunder, and Mem fell and covered his eyes, but he wasn’t quick enough: lightning was already spearing from Baroque, blinding-bright, far too bright, fierce sheets of lightning dancing. Mem closed his eyes, but the brightness was burned into the inside of his eyelids. The air smelt of burning.
In the sudden silence, a cheerful voice called, “The name’s Baroque Storm, friends. Might be you’ll remember it better now.”
And there was maybe the sound of footsteps as he left, quick spry dancing footsteps, but if there was, it was drowned out by all the groans and curses. Mem opened his eyes. Every single one of the people the Manager had brought to take Baroque to justice was lying on the ground in various poses of discomfort. Some of them looked scorched.
The Manager was the first to get to his feet, though he wobbled distinctly. “Get me the press,” he growled, and then gave an irritable roll of his eyes and kicked the lesser banker he was talking to, who groaned sadly. “As many as we can find at this hour! We will make this thief known! He won’t be able to walk down the street without people recognising him!”
Mem couldn’t help feeling that there was a fundamental aspect of Baroque’s motivations that the Manager hadn’t quite grasped, but then, even the sharpest of minds could be forgiven for being a little muddled after a light show like that. “I think that’s...” Mem started, and then he said, very quickly, “An excellent idea! I mean, that idea’s good. For us. Good for us. Definitely.”
The Shoyru edged her way out of the shop. She looked around at the scorched, battered, scattered group. Then she said, brightly, “Anyone want tea?”