The Tree of Pillar Grove: Part Ten
Flicker wore a cloak that blocked his glow and he had taken one of Wingen's yellow gems that turned him invisible. But Lampyri –as adamant about being stealthy as she was- insisted that it wasn't enough.
So there he was, clinging to the ceiling of the tunnel while the soldiers below stopped to discuss their progress. Flicker didn't listen to any of what they were saying specifically; all he knew was that they were going on and on about how they couldn't find him. And while they were taking their time with that, he continued to dig his claws into the rock, desperately trying to keep himself from slipping.
Finally, the soldiers moved on. Flicker immediately let go of the ceiling, not even bothering to lower himself gently. When his back hit the ground, he let out a loud breath – not from the impact, but from the relief.
The effects of the gem wore off shortly afterward. Flicker was still lying down by the time that happened. Lampyri lowered herself down more slowly, as she clearly did not have as much of a problem as he did. Flicker couldn't tell earlier because of the yellow gems, but didn't doubt that Lampyri found his struggle hilarious. She stood over him and shook her head. "I thought you said that you had stamina?"
"I do! But not doing stuff like that!" Flicker retorted.
"Oh come on. I know kids your age that could last longer than you," Lampyri said cheekily. "Sheesh, how did Gabbro even train you, anyways? By making you punch bricks all day?"
Flicker made a grunt at her, refusing to answer. If he did, he'd be forced to admit that she was absolutely right.
Lampyri continued to head down the tunnel, leading the way. They had been walking for a while and Flicker was starting to lose his sense of attentiveness. It was a good thing that Lampyri had heard those soldiers coming, or else Flicker would have walked straight into them. She was being particularly perceptive at that time, as if watching for something in particular.
Eventually, something caught her eye. There was a stream of water in the path, although it wasn't enough to submerge or obstruct much of anything. It came from a small crack in the wall and –as Lampyri explained- likely originated from a nearby spring or underground lake.
Lampyri pointed in the direction that the stream was flowing, to a branch in the tunnel. They were forced to wade through the water, as any dry walkways disappeared in a hurry. Flicker had grown accustomed to dry, warm places, so the dank smell irritated his senses and the temperature of the water made him feel chilled.
Lampyri suddenly halted, nearly causing Flicker to run into her. There was a split in the stream, but it didn't look natural. The rest of the tunnel had been carved out by the running water, but the new path appeared to be far too cleanly cut for that. He and Lampyri inspected it closer and found that the bottom of the stream there was coated with metal instead of mud.
While Flicker continued to stare down the side tunnel, Lampyri began to look for something else nearby. She called him over once she found it: A flipped switch hidden underwater. "Somebody's been here recently."
She urged Flicker to proceed with caution as they entered the path. But her expectations were once again betrayed. The main stream was barely out of sight before they ran into the remains of numerous traps, all previously set off.
"Why would all of these traps be set off? They didn't look like they managed to catch anyone," Lampyri wondered out loud. "Unless... Halloy disabled them because he's expecting company."
"More like Jacenty. But how would Jacenty know where Halloy's lab is? Actually, how could he even be connected to Halloy in the first place? There's no way that he could have known him from the war and –from what we know- he didn't have the opportunity to meet with him while he was still imprisoned in Pillar Grove. He clearly ordered you to free Halloy, but he didn't seem to actually leave the inn himself."
Lampyri still didn't budge an inch forward. She didn't appear to be as concerned with the traps as before, but still took the time to scrutinize the tunnel. "Furthermore... Why would Halloy leave the entrance wide open? According to what I had heard in the past, he was a secretive Neopet and very protective of his work, so he would always be sure to keep the laboratory hidden. But now he's not even bothering?"
Flicker didn't have a clue, so he allowed Lampyri to speculate to herself. "They plan on coming right back out. That would explain why none of the traps have been reset yet," she theorized. It was a guess that she apparently put a lot of stock in, as she immediately started to talk through a whisper, "We need to be quick and careful!"
Their pace hastened just quick enough for them to make fast progress while still allowing Lampyri to continue studying their surroundings. She stopped once again just as Flicker could barely see the end of the pathway and the entrance into the laboratory proper. They could hear two voices, although they were too far away for any sort of context to be discerned. But their presence was reason enough for Flicker and Lampyri to use the last of their yellow gems as they ran towards them.
Flicker had previously been impressed with the sorts of machinery and tools he saw in Pillar Grove. But the sight of the dimly-lit laboratory brought him to an even higher level of awe. The inventions there had grand designs, as if the thought of making something mundane was an insult to their creator. There was some weaponry to be seen, but the function of many of the machines was not obvious to Flicker. However, the one thing that was clear was that there were numerous unfinished projects laying around, appearing as though they had not been touched for a very long time.
The voices in the cavern become clearer to Flicker and Lampyri as they walked down the spiraling staircase. They were approaching. The two Buzzes were forced to stand still near the wall and hope that nothing would tip them off to their presence.
"For the past fifteen years, I have never let so much as a drop of information leak out about the location of my lab. The soldiers could whine and plead all they wanted, but I wouldn't say a thing! Nothing! Zilch! So how did you –a surface-dweller of all people- manage to stumble upon it?" an unfamiliar voice asked.
"There are tunnels near the roots that connect the surface to Pillar Grove. I simply happened by the lab while I was searching for a way to examine the main part of the tree," answered another voice: Jacenty's.
"Dumb luck, eh?" the other voice grumbled.
"I wouldn't say that. I've always fancied myself as a person with an keen eye and an acute ability to evaluate the environment," Jacenty replied proudly.
The two Neopets walked into the main part of the lab and came into full-view. Flicker scowled at the sight of Jacenty; he had already believed what Lampyri said about him, but her statements being proved true before his eyes still caused his face to turn hot in anger. Jacenty had fooled him to the extent that Flicker could hardly recognize the purple Zafara. His demeanor was more sharp-witted and there was a chill in his eyes that annihilated any trace of a light-hearted nature.
But as much as Flicker wanted to keep a sharp eye on Jacenty, he couldn't help but divert his attention to the Neopet by his side. He had met Jubjubs before, but that one was strange in many ways. For one, he seemed to be made of clay; Flicker had almost confused him for a sculpture until he started moving again. Then there was the Jubjub's feet. They were encased in a bronze-colored metal that did not appear to be simple shoes, but rather completely mechanized modifications. But it was the wings attached to a species that was ordinarily flightless that caused Flicker to stare in amazement. However, the wings were obviously artificial, since he could see the gears that lined the top spin rapidly as the metal feathers spread outwards.
The clay Jubjub laughed through a grin. Even when he wore such thick, red goggles, Flicker could tell that there was amusement glimmering in Halloy's eyes. "Are you? You're certain that you're not just lucky?"
Halloy wandered around the lab, inspecting it thoroughly while he avoided Jacenty's slighted glare. "You've certainly kept the place tidy, I'll give you that. Everything is organized, all the surfaces have been dusted, and there is such a fresh aroma wafting in the air! What may that be?"
"Lilacs to freshen the air. I was sick of the musty cave odor," Jacenty said with a dose of acid.
"So it is!" Halloy exclaimed. He held cheerful smile and tone held as he added, "It smells terrible!"
The patience in Jacenty's face was leaving at a quick pace. It was strange for Flicker to see such irate emotions start to develop in his eyes, considering how carefree he always saw him act. "You should be thankful I found your lab at all. Had I not discovered your research into the tree and the blueprints lying around, the machine you put so much thought into would have been left unfinished forever."
"Yes, well, I doubt that somebody that spends their life staring at leaves would have enough knowledge in machinery to fix their own watches, let alone construct one of my inventions," Halloy rebutted, unfazed by Jacenty's harsh tone. "Which would be why you went and 'recruited' the help of Pillar Grove's mechanics, am I right? And which would also be why you had your minion free me to finish the job."
"They couldn't finish the job because were unable to decipher the most vital parts of the blueprints," Jacenty told him.
"I can't say that's terribly shocking," Halloy mumbled smugly. "Now! The actual construction of the machine has been finished. All that's left is to retrieve the power sources. Since I've been kind enough to use my greatest invention to assist with your plans, let us talk about how you'll compensate me for my hard work."
"If you're expecting Neopoints, then you'll be sorely disappointed. Money is not the ultimate goal I have in mind," Jacenty stated firmly.
Halloy growled in shock. He tried to look menacing in his offended rage, but merely achieved an almost comical effect as he hopped up and down while he shouted, "You break into my laboratory, put your grimy hands all over my beloved blueprints, bring in such a nauseating stench, and you're not even going to pay rent?!"
"If word spreads about your escape and you become the most wanted Neopet in Moltara, I doubt money will be of any use to you," Jacenty argued.
Halloy took a breath to respond, but immediately cut it short. His toes began to massage the area just under his mouth, which was the closest a Jubjub could get to rubbing their chin. "Hmm, you do raise a point..."
Halloy made a small jump and straightened his posture. Looking up at Jacenty, he gave him a more jovial expression, although his words were spoken through clenched teeth, "I suppose I can delay the due date for your payment by a bit. If we succeed, then I doubt you'll have much trouble with paying me back."
Jacenty matched his expression. "Once we've reached our objectives, there won't be a single soul in Moltara that will be able to stop us."
Jacenty and Halloy nodded in agreement. They didn't shake on it, though. At first, Flicker assumed that was simply because of Halloy's lack of hands. But then he realized that it had more to do with the wary looks that they were giving each other.
Halloy scurried off into another room, yelling something about wanting to take another look at his "finest work." Jacenty followed him at a calmer pace, clearly not sharing the Jubjub's bursts of energy. They were both out of sight again, allowing Flicker to loosen his stiff posture, not having to fear his movements making a sound that would cause him to be noticed.
Flicker felt a tug on his cloak, which nearly caused him to shout. Luckily, he resisted the urge. It was only Lampyri as she tried to lead him to another part of the laboratory. She hastily brought him to a metal door, opening it quickly, but quietly. They slipped inside, and no sooner had the door closed, their invisibility gems ran out.
The room was pitch-black, with only the bit of Flicker's glow that managed to escape his cloak allowing any sort of visibility at all. Even then the light was insignificant and incapable of truly piercing the darkness. It took no time at all for him to feel the effects of the room. The dark environment was stifling and giving him the feeling of constant danger. He threw his cloak off, desperate for the ability to see again. The freed light flooded the open room and provided much-needed relief from a sort of fear that he had never experienced. He didn't care if Lampyri complained about him discarding his cloak. But it only took a glance at the stress fading from her eyes to tell that she didn't mind at all.
Just as the glow shattered the darkness, a bunch of gasps from behind them broke the silence. They spun around to find three Neopets shackled to the walls. A red Skeith, a shadow Kau, and a brown Nimmo stared at the two Buzzes that suddenly barged in. Even when his glow barely illuminated their appearances, Flicker could see that they were dirty, hungry, and very scared.
Flicker and Lampyri placed their ear-holes against the door when Jacenty and Halloy began to talk again. "You did remember to have them reinforce the capsules with Aversion Stone, right?" Halloy questioned with very little confidence.
"Of course. Do you think I'm an idiot?" Jacenty snapped back at him.
Halloy ignored the tone of Jacenty's response and continued, "If everything has been completed, then we might as well set out now. You said that you have a way to bring the machine to the target location, so get to it!" Halloy ordered.
"First, we should take care of the prisoners."
"Aww, we can do that later! You're the one that wanted to get moving so badly!"
"You'd never last in my former job. The first thing you would learn is that you never, ever let people involved in your plans out of your control."
Jacenty's footsteps were approaching the door as he spoke. Flicker and Lampyri stepped away from the door once they heard them; the latter nodded to the former just as it began to open.
The instant Flicker saw the light from outside start to creep in, he forced the door fully open and charged at Jacenty. The Zafara flew backwards at the impact. He struggled onto his feet, glaring at Flicker as he stood up. Jacenty winced in pain, but was more angry at Flicker's presence than surprised.
Flicker ran at Jacenty with his hammer. Jacenty was quick on his feet and rather adept at evading the strikes. But the large Buzz never allowed much distance, knowing that the Zafara could only keep it up for so long. It was a fact that Jacenty himself realized, as his movements were growing more desperate by the second.
Lampyri's chains shot out at Jacenty, grabbing his forearm. It wasn't enough to immobilize him totally, but still gave Flicker plenty of time to close the gap.
Flicker thought back to how friendly Jacenty had been to him for the past few days. It almost caused him to hesitate, but instead it began to fuel his fury as he reminded himself how all of it was simply part of his plot. He brought his arm back, shooting his own glare right into Jacenty's eyes and he shouted, "I am never drinking any of your tea again!"
A small explosion at Flicker's feet halted his attack. His balance was thrown off as he instinctively stepped away from the ball of metal embedded into the ground. If Flicker looked close enough, he could spot a faint trace of green light coursing through it.
Another burst and Flicker backed away even further. That one was shot at Lampyri's chains, breaking the string in half. Jacenty scrambled away from the Buzzes, eliminating any chance for another strike.
The whirring of gears caused Flicker to turn in head in the direction that the sound was coming from. Halloy was hovering in the air, pointing one foot at Flicker. His toes were hollow with smoke pouring out of them, like miniature cannons. A second later and the metal shifted shape and returned to normal.
Halloy raised his eyebrow at Flicker, recognizing him. "Isn't this your minion?" he called to Jacenty as he continued to stare at the glowing Buzz. He then chuckled, "What were you saying about letting people out of your control?"
"He was only a temporary worker," Jacenty snarled. Flicker growled, to which Jacenty addressed, "Oh, don't give me such a disappointed look. My boy, I only needed you to take the fall and nothing more."
Jacenty reached inside his coat and swiftly pulled something out. It was a key, not unlike the one that Wingen used for his Inventory. Only that one was much bigger, almost the size of Jacenty's forearm. "I do not have the time to spare with you two! Halloy, finish them off! I'll rendezvous with you in Pillar Grove!"
Halloy's eyes widened as he stuttered, "E-Excuse... Excuse me? Since when am I your lackey?!"
"I'm disappointed, Halloy. I was certain that you'd be able to do a fine job with defeating them. I suppose I have no choice but to do it instead, since you cannot," Jacenty said calmly. A cunning smile formed as he read anticipated Halloy's reaction.
Halloy's toes suddenly sharpened until they became six daggers itching for combat. He jabbed them in Flicker's direction, who stepped out of the way at the right moment. "Fine! Have it your way!" Halloy hollered while Jacenty had already begun to do his own thing.
Flicker had no choice but to ignore Jacenty and deal with Halloy for the time being. The Jubjub kept at his attempts to slash at him while Flicker tried smack the blades away with his hammer. His metal toes changed shape several times in a mere minute; from knives to spears, shields, and bludgeons. Halloy's gleeful grin suggested that he was showing off his variety of weapons not to thrown Flicker off, but just for the fun of it.
"Ugh! You're like Granite!" Flicker grunted as he tired of warding off Halloy's constantly-changing feet.
Lampyri took what was left of her chain rope and wrapped Halloy's round body in it. His wings flapped furiously as he flailed around in mid-air to shake them off. But Flicker pounded his head with his hammer, sending him to the ground before he could make any progress.
Halloy grunted in annoyance at the impact. The under-reaction confused Flicker for a moment. However, his true astonishment came when the dent in Halloy's head disappeared, the clay bringing his body to its original shape as if Flicker had punched a pillow instead.
"Hmph. I don't know who that is, but I'm going to assume that they're a relic Neopet?" Halloy said. His body began to shift shape again, contorting and twisting until he squeezed himself out of the chains. "It's true that relic is a sturdier color, but clay Neopets are much more flexible with what they can do with their bodies."
Flicker and Lampyri weren't given any time to expression their awe and frustration. The laboratory began to rumble with the sound of a mechanism starting up. As he looked towards the noise, Flicker suddenly noticed the doors of light nearby. They were massive enough that they nearly touched the ceiling, putting the size of Wingen's Inventory to shame. The Inventory was wide open, awaiting something as equally large to enter it.
The belt built into the floor rolled towards the Inventory, carrying a monstrous-looking machine. It resembled a Lyins – a petpet that Flicker had seen in paintings of desert biomes, but could rarely be spotted in digging about in Moltara as well. The machine was plated with thick, dark-colored steel. It appeared to be big enough to carry Neopets inside and –indeed- Flicker noticed a small door near its head. But it did not seem to have anybody piloting it, as Jacenty simply stood nearby and watched the Lyins disappear into the Inventory.
No sooner had Jacenty slammed the Inventory doors shut, he sprinted to the laboratory's exit. Flicker and Lampyri tried to slip past Halloy and chase after him, but the Jubjub would allow none of it. He resumed his previous game, buying Jacenty time by playing around with the Buzzes. Flicker now realized that Halloy's metallic feet did not morph on their own, but were merely guided by the clay inside molding into the desired shape. He exploited that for all it was worth and annoyed his opponents with his shifting tactics until he grew bored himself.
Halloy suddenly glided towards a box sticking out of the wall. He unlocked it with a makeshift key from one of his toes and grasped the lever inside. The lever broke in two at the swiftness of the action and was promptly tossed to the ground. Halloy giggled to himself as flew towards the exit.
"So sorry that I can't play with you anymore, but I am on a schedule! Thanks again for releasing me, Firefly!" Halloy laughed on his way out.
Lampyri reacted quickly enough to take to the air to pursue him. Then there was another tremor. The ceiling began to crack until a column of water burst out of it and slammed Lampyri back to the ground.
Another waterfall gushed down from above. Two more. Three more. A leak in the wall spat out a torrent, followed by several more of its kind. Within seconds, Flicker and Lampyri were knee-deep in water, watching the laboratory rapidly flood and collapse in on itself.
To be continued...