The Tree of Pillar Grove: Part Three
No one ever said the trip to Pillar Grove would be smooth.
On the contrary, with the herd of black Pwerkos rocking the carriage back-and-forth, the Chumablahs trying to claw their way inside, and the Baby Fireballs attempting to incinerate anything flammable, the trip was actually rather eventful.
With all the chaos unfolding, there were only three Neopets left inside the carriage: Lumin, Jacenty, and the shadow Korbat driver. The Korbat was wide-eyed and tense watching three groups of petpets descend on them all at once, but he couldn't help but devote part of his attention to how unusually calm the other two Neopets were.
Jacenty explained as he pointed out the window, "They seem to be handling things rather well, don't you think?"
Indeed, Flicker, Wingen, and Lampyri had absolutely no problem whatsoever dealing with the petpets. Even from inside the carriage the sounds of Flicker's hammer connecting with the Pwerko's horns and their defeated roars could be clearly heard. Wingen skillfully used his magic shield to block every last ember that the Baby Fireballs spat at the carriage, all while he spoke softly to the Marlock to keep him from running off in a panic. At one point, a Chumablah climbed up to the carriage window and shrieked at the Neopets inside, causing the Korbat to jump back. But the threat was short-lived, as a string of chains grabbed the Chumablah by its midsection, allowing Lampyri to hurl it towards the tunnel wall.
Eventually, the petpets realized that they had made the wrong choice in attacking that particular group of travelers. After being thrown around for the past few minutes, they all decided to cut their losses and flee the scene in a hurry.
Flicker twirled his hammer around with his fingers and grinned triumphantly. Petpets usually weren't as strong as many of the Neopets that he fought were, but they could still put up a fight, which was all that mattered to him. "Beat them!" he shouted proudly as he began to head back into the carriage.
"You still need work," Lampyri commented to Flicker while she coiled up her chains. "I defeated twenty-two petpets while you only beat ten."
"You were counting?" Wingen asked, baffled at the two Buzzes' fondness for fighting.
Aside from Flicker and Lampyri squabbling over who fought more petpets, there was no more disorder to be seen, which the Korbat saw as his chance to glide back to his seat and continue the trip. Flicker barely noticed it as he was busy trying to convince Lampyri that he was certainly capable of defeating them all by himself and that he didn't need her to save his tail, but he caught a glimpse of the Korbat staring at the passengers like he found them all completely bizarre.
Both of the carriage doors slammed shut simultaneously as Flicker and Lampyri stepped inside. Their eyes locked with each other. Neither of them said anything further, instead letting their heated glares continue the conflict in silence.
"My, the fauna of Moltara is rather... intriguing," Jacenty said with a deep breath. He was the only one willing to attempt to defuse the two Buzzes and was definitely alone in his belief that changing the subject would help.
There was an awkward silence hanging around for a while after the carriage started moving again. Neither Flicker nor Lampyri wanted to concede, and thus they held their persistent stares for some time longer.
Lumin groaned to the others, "Don't be alarmed. Lampyri only makes a competition out of everything with people that she considers friends." He didn't even attempt to hide his comment from her, as he knew that her concentration was elsewhere.
Wingen and Jacenty believed that easily enough. They gave brief glances at Flicker, figuring that his excuse was just plain stubbornness.
But even Flicker got tired of the staring contest after a while. He finally broke his rigid expression with a snort and a roll of his eyes. He crossed his arms, lowered his head, and muttered, "Whatever. I'm going back to sleep."
Had Flicker kept his eyes open, he would have seen Lampyri create a small, but victorious smile. "I thought so."
Flicker tightened his eyelids even harder and gave an ever louder grunt than before. It wasn't easy, but he decided to pretend that he didn't hear that. Sleep was the far more attractive option at the moment than trying to butt heads with the equally-obstinate Buzz.
Not that Flicker had much of an opportunity to achieve much of a nap, as Lumin interrupted, "I wouldn't bother, Flicker. We should be getting close to Pillar Grove."
Lumin turned out to be spot-on with his prediction, as the carriage stopped right in front of a large cliff looming overhead just a short time later. That was as far as the Marlock could take them, so they were forced to make the rest of the trip on foot. Once the passengers unload their possessions, the Buzzes flew up the face of the cliff while Wingen and Jacenty climbed up the thin stairway built into it.
"The driver said that he'll camp out and wait there for up to three days. Should that be enough time for you, Dr. Jacenty?" Lumin asked once they reached the top.
"If that's all the time that we'll be allowed, then it'll have to do. Honestly, I'm just grateful that you've agreed to bring me there at all!" Jacenty replied with his usual chipper tone.
His attitude was contagious, as Flicker eagerly floated ahead of everyone else. "That'll be plenty of time to explore the city, right? I can't wait!" he exclaimed with a big grin. "Papa, what's it like there?"
"I wouldn't know, actually. Believe it or not, this is also my first trip to Pillar Grove," Lumin answered. "I've most certainly met with several important Neopets from the city, but it was always on neutral ground."
Flicker turned to Lampyri, hoping that she at least had some knowledge over what the place looked like. But instead, she shrugged her shoulders and said, "Don't look at me. I was a teenager when the war ended, so I never had a reason to go there."
He couldn't lie and say that he wasn't displeased to hear that, but he also couldn't hold onto that feeling for very long. The way he saw it, the less he knew then, the more exciting it would be once he actually got there.
* * *
Waiting was a game that Flicker had never found fun. Having to sit still inside a carriage for several hours was bad enough, but even traveling by foot quickly got tedious for him. He made the switch from flying to walking several times, giving each about ten minutes before he got bored of it.
Flicker had considered landing to start walking again, as the rhythm of his wings beating had turned dull and weary. He was tired, although not in the same sense that the others behind him were. The only one that had managed to match his vigor without any issue was Lampyri. The others were trailing behind, not even coming close to having energy to burn like the glowing and blue Buzzes did.
But just before Flicker's feet touched the ground, he saw something up ahead. Squinting, he could just make out the shape of a gate. "A door! We're here! We're finally here!" he shouted eagerly. He drew upon the excess of energy that he was forced to keep pent up all day and swiftly zoomed towards the gates, leaving everybody else in the dust.
In mere seconds, Flicker was able to make out the intricate, circular designs on the gate in much clearer detail. But he just as quickly found himself in the path of two spearheads pointed directly at him, causing him to abruptly halt himself, stumbling down to the ground in process.
The two guards, a red Tonu and a fire Lutari, kept their weapons aimed at Flicker as he tried to right his posture. They stood firmly in place, refusing to move away from the gate while they forced Flicker to remain perfectly motionless once he got standing again.
They eyed Flicker curiously for a while. The guards weren't about to relent and let him go forward anytime soon, which gave them plenty of time to think about exactly what kind of Neopet was in front of them.
"Well what do you know? An actual Firefly. I thought glowing Buzzes had gone extinct," the Lutari commented with a gruff laugh.
The others had caught up with Flicker by that time. After seeing that he had made no further actions beside holding his awkward pose, the guards finally drew back their spears. But they were still fixed on blocking the groups' path into Pillar Grove.
"All outsiders are being checked before being granted entry into the city at this time," the Tonu explained. "What's your business here?"
Jacenty immediately declared, "Research! I'm Dr. Jacenty, and I'm interested in learning more about this tree of yours!"
"Yeah, well the last time we had Neopets interested in the tree, a war broke out," the Tonu stated harshly at Jacenty, but still kept his eye on Flicker.
The glare that the Tonu was giving Flicker was unsettling. Paired with the tone of his voice, he was starting to grow rather uncomfortable. He was no stranger to being treated in low-regard, but -somehow- that situation felt different.
While Flicker was confused over the scene, Lumin and Lampyri understood the Tonu's actions perfectly. That did not mean that either of them were impressed, though, as they had returned his scowl. Lumin stepped forward, managing to keep his calm while he asked, "Is Zircon still the king here?"
The Tonu and Lutari exchanged glances. "He is. Why?" the Lutari questioned.
"Tell him that Lumin II is at his gates and wishes to speak with him," Lumin answered sternly.
The two guards blinked in surprise. After a moment of uncertainty, the Lutari turned around and passed through the gates. He had a look in his eyes that suggested that he followed Lumin's instructions not out of compliance, but out of a desire to find out if his disbelief was warranted.
While they waited, Flicker spent some time looking at Lumin. "'Lumin II?'" Flicker eventually repeated, tilting his head a bit as he tried to figure his father's statement out.
Lumin hesitated for a while. Flicker saw a hint of a grimace on his face. Eventually, he muttered nearly-inaudibly, "I was named after my father." That expression was not quite as subtle, as even Flicker could taste the trace of bitterness behind it.
The quickness of Lumin's reply was a clear indication that the matter was not to be discussed further. But even if Flicker had the desire to learn more, he would not have gotten that chance, as the Lutari returned shortly afterward.
The Lutari still looked disbelieving, but this time it seemed to directed at the order he received. "...He says to let them in."
The Tonu could hardly believe it either, but orders were orders. The guards had no choice but to open the gates for the visitors. But even while they let them through, Flicker could still feel their stares targeted at him.
Once they were past the gates, a silver Uni guard waiting on the other side escorted them from that point on. The gates were located a fair distance from the city itself, so there was still a small amount of walking left to be done. But the added distance soon became inconsequential to Flicker, because the tunnel soon opened up to reveal the city of Pillar Grove.
Flicker immediately understood how the city got its name. At least a dozen pillars of steel spread out across the cave stretched from the high ceiling all the way down to the floor. They were thick enough that entire buildings were attached to them, each pillar creating its own neighborhood. Walkways connecting each one crisscrossed the space up above in an orderly, methodical fashion allowing for optimal convenience.
Everyone was stricken silent in awe at the structures. Even Flicker -who ordinarily would be spouting out his excitement like a fountain- had nothing to say. All he could do was stare upwards and think to himself how he had never seen anything like it.
"That has to be it! That has to be the tree! It's... It's incredible!" Jacenty exclaimed as he gazed at each of the pillars, being the first one to find his ability to put his emotions into words.
"But there are so many of them, Dr. Jacenty! How can you be certain that any of them is the tree?" Wingen broke himself out of his amazement just long enough to ask.
"It must be similar to a banyan tree. I would guess that most of the pillars are actually modified roots that are indistinguishable from the trunk," Jacenty speculated.
Jacenty began to smile at the thought of learning more about the tree, but he was beaten to the idea by Flicker. He had recovered from his initial state of wonder and had began to dance around in place. Finally, he couldn't contain it any longer and zipped up in the air as he yelled, "What are you guys waiting for?! Let's go check it out!"
"Flicker!" Lumin called out, bringing him –as well as Wingen and Jacenty- to a halt. "First we need to go to the palace and talk to the city's king. Without his approval, Jacenty probably won't be able to study much of the tree at all. There will be plenty of time for exploration after that."
Flicker crossed his arms and grumbled, "Can't you just go and talk to him, then? Why do I need to be there?"
"Because I want you to meet him," Lumin replied simply. "Now come along."
Flicker gave a short moan, but otherwise listened to Lumin. He hoped that whatever Lumin wanted to say to the king was quick, because he had enough of being patient for one day.
The Uni guard let them to a lift sitting at the bottom of one of the pillars. It felt redundant for the four Neopets that had wings, but Flicker didn't expect the Uni take the risk on allowing them the chance to slip away by air, even if he was capable of pursuing them. The guard was the last one inside, as he pulled a lever after everyone else had entered.
The lift traveled far up the side of the pillar, allowing Flicker an aerial view of a good portion of the city. Most of the city was built alongside the pillars, but there were plenty of ground-level structures as well. Even though Pillar Grove was much smaller, it felt more dense than Central Cavern; the latter of which had plenty of empty spaces while the former was bustling at every corner.
As they got off, a thought entered Flicker's head. He turned around to give a brief glance at the lift, wondering how it even brought them there in the first place. All the ones he had seen previously required another Neopet to operate a crank from the outside. But that one ran mostly on its own. Flicker did notice that there were glass containers attached to the lift. He didn't know what was in them, but whatever it was it had a green glow not unlike his own.
"That can't be its natural bark, though..." Flicker heard Jacenty mutter to himself. He was staring at the tree again, trying to inspect it as much as he could externally.
"It's not. Look," Lampyri said as she pointed upwards. There was a group of Neopets doing some sort of maintenance on one of the pillars. Squinting his eyes, Flicker could see them pulling off a small section of the steel covering the pillar and then replacing it with a new one.
Before Flicker could ask why someone would steel-plate a tree, he and the others arrived at a large palace. The tree had already been covered up enough with the steel shell, but the palace provided that pillar another layer of thickness. Flicker didn't get much of a chance to look at the outside of it, as the walkway leading up to it became more like a closed-in hallway.
The guard told the group to wait in front of the main entrance for a moment. When that moment passed, the doors opened to let out an Eyrie. He was obviously an older Neopet, but Flicker had some trouble figuring out if the strip of white between his ears and the faded black feathers all over the rest of his body was due to age or if it was natural. Regardless, the Eyrie was still rather fit and had an air of experience to him.
The Eyrie examined Lumin, finding something peculiar about the white Buzz. "You seem different," he said. After some consideration, he added, "But there's still no mistaking you."
Lumin cracked a smile. "Likewise." The two of them shook hands. "It's been a long time, Zircon."
Lumin turned to face the others and introduced the Eyrie, "This is King Zircon. We met many years ago, when we agreed to end the war."
Zircon started to laugh, "After waves of burly soldiers knocking on my city's gate, the last thing I ever expected was for this kid to come by proposing a peace treaty."
"'Kid?' I was twenty-five," Lumin said with his own laugh.
"Hmph. At my age, that's still a kid," Zircon grunted. "But –even as young as he was- that kid still managed to convince both sides to come to an agreement. He had quite the talent for persuasion. And would I be right to assume that hasn't changed?"
Understanding what he meant, Lumin replied, "Well, yes. I was hoping that you could grant us a request. Shall we talk about it inside?"
Zircon agreed. As the guards standing post by the entrance opened the doors and let the guests through, he spotted Flicker with them. Before Flicker could go inside, Zircon stopped him. He asked Lumin, "Is this your son?"
"Yes he is," Lumin replied as he gently guided Flicker over to his side. And then said to him, "Why don't you introduce yourself?"
Lumin might not have found introductions to be terribly difficult, but that wasn't true for Flicker. He had noticed that people would introduce themselves differently to certain people, but he had no idea what or when such actions were appropriate. He fell back on the only method he knew, which was to raise his hand to Zircon in an informal manner and say, "Uh... Hey. I'm Flicker."
Luckily for Flicker, he managed not to offend the king. On the contrary, Zircon seemed mildly amused as he reached his paw out and shook Flicker's hand. He looked Flicker up and down and commented, "If you're Lumin's son, then you can't be very old. Don't take this the wrong way, but you seem to be going through quite the growth spurt."
"Th-that would be accurate, so to say..." Lumin said nervously.
Zircon shrugged it off, though. He gestured for Lumin and Flicker to enter the palace. "Well, like you said, it's been a long time. We have a lot of catching up to do."
To be continued...