The Tree of Pillar Grove: Part Eleven
Lumin honestly didn't think that he'd be able to sleep at all with everything that had happened the day before. But to his shock, he somehow managed to rest rather easily.
He opened his eyes, immediately finding that his vision was blocked. He sat up and groaned in discomfort. There was something stuck to his forehead and hanging down in front of his face. Lumin tore it off of him and held it out to get a better look.
It was a note from Lampyri.
While Lumin began to read it, he heard small footsteps from outside of his room. The door squeaked open after Wingen knocked lightly on it. "Mr. Lumin, we overslept again..." he mumbled. He may have looked physically rested, but not so much mentally. His posture was weary and his frown equally gloomy. With the events of the previous day still fresh in his mind, he didn't even have the energy to panic properly.
Wingen took a couple steps further inside Lumin's bedroom. His eyes opened up a little wider and became more alert once he happened to notice that someone was missing. "Where's Jacenty?" He leaned out to take a glance at the rest of the suite. "Lampyri's door is wide open; she's not here either. What's going on?"
Lumin finished reading the note. He had an answer for Wingen, although he hesitated to give it to him.
"I had a feeling... that something wasn't right. That there was more to the story," Lumin exhaled, trying to placate the grim look on his face. "We've been tricked, Wingen."
"'Tricked?' By whom?"
Lumin sighed. He didn't have a choice; he needed to be straight with Wingen. "Jacenty."
It was amazing –in a sad sort of way- how a particularly crushing blow could bring tears to someone's eyes so quickly.
* * *
The typical instinct when one found themselves in a flooding cave was to rush to the nearest exit. But Flicker's instinct was to head deeper inside.
He planted one foot on the wall and grasped the chains tightly. With one swift pull, they were yanked out of the stone, finally giving the Skeith prisoner some freedom. He then did the same for the Kau and Nimmo. But although they regained the ability to move around more than a couple feet from the wall, all three of them were frozen in place. They watched the cascades of water rapidly filling the laboratory, their previous fears merely being replaced with another.
Lampyri joined Flicker in the cell, hoisting the Kau onto her back. Once Flicker took a hold of the Skeith and Nimmo, they rushed out of the room. Dodging the waterfalls, they rose above the increasing water level and scrambled to the exit.
"Why would Halloy destroy his own lab?! This doesn't make sense!" Flicker shouted while he and Lampyri desperately flew to the main gate.
"Of course it does! Think about it! This laboratory was supposed to be secret! But Jacenty found it and then you and I found it!" Lampyri yelled back.
The only water in the area that Flicker and Lampyri came in through was the stream that was already there, but they both knew that wouldn't last for long. They sped down the tunnel as fast as they could while the Neopets hanging onto their shoulders tightened their grips in terror.
About halfway through the tunnel, Flicker heard a sound, like something heavy grinding against the ground. Then he heard the clattering of gears that grew louder as he went on. His face fell when he saw what it was coming from: Halloy activated the machine that kept the laboratory's entrance hidden. The exit was sliding shut. Flicker and Lampyri weren't even close to it.
Flicker hastened his wings, but he knew it was futile. There was no way he'd be able to reach it in time. Aside from the rock on the outside meant to disguise it, the door was made with thick steel. Even he would not have been able to break through it before the water reached him. He hated to feel hopeless and to see that he had no further options. But what else could he do? Flicker couldn't bear to look back, but at the same time he lacked the will to keep his eyes open as he rushed forward.
And then the door suddenly stopped.
Flicker opened his eyes back up once he heard the gears strain. The door struggled to close, achieving merely a few twitches as the machine malfunctioned. He scanned the mechanisms lining the wall for a reason why. He caught a small glimmer of light, a bit of blue wedged in between two of the gears. It was a shield made from one of Wingen's blue gems.
His head snapped to Lampyri. Instead of a vocal answer, he was met with her handing him a green gem while she held onto a second one. "Hold on tight!" she yelled to the other Neopets.
She and Flicker ate their gems and charged at the opening with an explosion of speed. The machine's creaking grew more intense as the blue shield began to crack from the force of the gears trying to grind it. The shield finally shattered to pieces and the gears spun once more until the door slammed shut. But by then, Flicker and Lampyri had already made it out.
The instant the doors were behind them, their wings folded against their backs, sending them splashing into the stream. Flicker wanted nothing more than to catch his breath, and he imagined that the rescued Neopets desired a chance to take a breath too. But he had enough of water for a while, so he and Lampyri plodded forward until they left the steam and reached the dry tunnel.
Once the Nimmo and Skeith let go of him, Flicker stumbled to the nearest wall and slid down it. His tongue hung out of his mouth as he took heavy gasps. He was certainly tired physically, but he had been through much worse. More than anything, he needed to take a moment to settle himself from how close he and the others came to be trapped in that laboratory. He may have liked adventure, but there was a limit to how much he could stand.
"Sorry to ask this again... But Wingen won't be angry when he finds out that I took more than those few yellow gems, right?" Lampyri asked as she bent down, grabbed her knees, and tried to catch her breath too.
Flicker shook his head, replying with confidence, "He'll just be glad that we're alive."
All of them were silent for a few minutes as they tried to get a little rest. After a while, Lampyri grabbed the attention of the three Neopets they just rescued. She sat down next to them and asked to hear why they were in the laboratory in the first place.
None of them were eager to speak. The Nimmo's lips twitched before she finally decided to be the first one to say, "We're not really sure... One day I was in my home in Pillar Grove, and then the next thing I knew, I was in that cell."
"We didn't even know that we were in Halloy's laboratory. The only time when we'd be able to see much of anything was when that purple Zafara would walk in the cell and force us to drink some sort of liquid," the Kau continued.
Lampyri listened to them as she wrung the water out of her ponytail. She nodded to Flicker. "Probably the same stuff he gave you so that you would follow his orders."
Flicker resisted the urge to rant about Jacenty again. Instead, he remained quiet while the Skeith said, "I have no idea how long we've been in there. It was just the same thing over and over... We'd wake up, languish in the dark for several hours, drink the Zafara's tea, and then black out." The Skeith held his hands to his head, whimpering as he thought more about went he had gone through not that long ago. "I just want to go home..."
Flicker wasn't surprised that Lampyri decided not to press them any further on the subject. When he saw that she had no more questions to ask, the Kau said, "We're sorry that we can't tell you more..."
"No, it's plenty. Don't worry about it," Lampyri responded. Her eyes widened slightly, as if suddenly remembering something. "There was talk in the city about a few mechanics that went missing. That would be you three, wouldn't it?"
They all looked at each other in surprise before nodding. "I-I would assume they meant us. We are mechanics. I don't intend to brag, but we were rather highly regarded back in the city..." the Nimmo commented.
"I thought as much. Jacenty probably kidnapped the three of you so that he could hypnotize you into finishing Halloy's machine," Lampyri stated. She turned back to Flicker. "But if he knew where to go to get that kind of expertise, that means that he never needed help getting to Pillar Grove at all."
"So why did he want me to escort him there?" Flicker questioned while he shook his hands through his hair to dry it out.
"It's not obvious? He wanted a patsy," Lampyri laughed humorlessly.
Flicker still had to wonder why Jacenty wanted him specifically to bring him to Pillar Grove. But as he took the time to think it over, he remembered how he was treated as suspicious before he even entered the city. When those guards had such preconceived notions about how he would act, perhaps it wasn't so surprising that they would immediately suspect him when a crime was committed, which might have been the case even if he had not been spotted in the act.
He glanced over to the mechanics; they were still trembling in fright, as if they were still in those cells. But for the first time in probably a while, they had a slight bit of hope in their eyes, manifesting in the form of yearning stares down the tunnel.
Flicker stood up and began taking the lead. He called out to the mechanics, "Hey, you guys wanted to go home, didn't you? We can take you back there!" He quickly addressed Lampyri, "We will, won't we?"
Lampyri typically had something to criticize about whatever plans Flicker came up with. But that time, she just nodded at him. "Right. Not only do we need to bring them back, but we need to catch up with Jacenty and Halloy too. Although we didn't hear much about what they plan to do, it will almost certainly involve the tree. And with that machine that they built, we're going to need help taking them down."
"Like Big Brother's!" Flicker added eagerly. Anybody could use the magic gems, but Wingen was the one who could utilize them to their best ability. Having him to help in a battle made Flicker feel more confident in winning than he would on his own. Besides, it was just that much more fun that way.
"Yes, but also the help of your father," Lampyri responded. "I just hope that he's seen my note by now."
Flicker scratched the back of his head, unsure how to voice his thoughts without sounding hurtful. "Uh, Papa can't fight, though..."
For the second time that day, Lampyri gave that sort of smile; the smile that said to him that she understood something better than he did. "No. But he's always been good at enlisting the assistance of people that can."
* * *
"So you haven't found them yet," Zircon said, his powerful voice echoing in the nearly-empty room. The old skunk Eyrie's paws were entwined as he sat straight in his throne, in what was likely the first chance he had at even the smallest of breaks in a couple days.
Chrome sighed and shook his head. "No, your Majesty. Rest assured... we are doing everything we can." His last words were saturated in shame, as if he was well aware that it clearly wasn't enough.
The Uni quieted himself for a moment. The silence made it all the easier for his concentration to move towards how sharply Zircon watched him. In an effort to shift the focus, he added, "The soldiers stationed in the inn have not woken up yet. Neither have the ones in the dungeon nor those at the facility that was broken into. Once they do, they should provide information as to where the Firefly might have gone to. Furthermore, all of the other 'guests' in the inn are missing, so I've instructed the guards to search for them too."
Zircon let out a deep breath. "Continue what you've been doing. Let me know if anything changes or if you've caught a lead."
Chrome bowed to his king, his face loosening in relief. It seemed that he was certain that Zircon would be cross at his report of little progress. The Uni didn't show any notions of questioning how quickly the meeting ended and promptly left the throne room.
Once the doors closed, Zircon stood up. His eyes drifted back and forth, an eyebrow raising at each movement. The room was still and empty; Zircon was left alone with only his heavy footsteps breaking the soundless atmosphere.
He moved his eyes again. Not to scan the whole area, but towards a certain, deliberate spot. Staring at the corner to the left of his throne, Zircon said, "Just how long will you stay like that?"
A discomforted grunt came from the spot that Zircon was looking at. "I'm certain that it'll wear off soon."
Only a few seconds after he said that, Lumin's visibility returned. He was by himself, as Wingen decided to try to figure things out on his own. Lumin almost did not want to ask a favor from him when he was in such a distant mood, but he was glad that Wingen agreed and gave him a yellow gem anyways.
Lumin had to force himself into a stiff posture while Chrome was in the room, out of fear that even a slight movement would make a crisp, clear sound in the giant room. The white Buzz wanted to relax after that, but he knew that he wouldn't be able to as long as he could feel the hardened look he was receiving from Zircon.
Zircon exhaled again, giving him a growl as he spoke, "How can you look me in the eyes and tell me that your son is innocent now? I wanted to give you the benefit of the doubt. That there was a possibility that my guards were mistaken. That you –the one that had shown me all those years ago that the Fireflies were not all the same- would not try to deceive me like that," Zircon hissed, the feathers on the back of his neck starting to stand up. "Now there's no question of your son's guilt. If you've come here to try to claim that my soldiers are liars, then you might as well leave right now. After what happened a few hours ago, I don't even know why I let you approach me at all!"
"Because you still have a bit of faith in what I have to say. And because you know that there is more to this than what it seems," Lumin answered. He stood composed, even in the face of Zircon's fiery tone.
Zircon laughed shortly, "And what is it that I have not seen or heard that you have?"
"Flicker did indeed steal the amber," Lumin admitted painfully. "But he was not acting on his own free will. He was being manipulated – hypnotized, in a sense. He was so adamant that he had nothing to do with the robbery and Halloy's escape because he had no memory of the event.
"It was Jacenty that was pulling the strings. He had Flicker commit the act and take the fall to distract you while he proceeded with his own plans. He is the one that you need to search for, not Flicker!"
Zircon gazed at Lumin for a while longer. "Jacenty... You mean the Zafara that wanted to study the tree? The one that you and your party brought here in the first place?"
"Yes..." Lumin muttered with cringe. "We had no idea of his true intentions. I swear that we never would have brought him to Pillar Grove if we suspected that he would bring harm!"
"That doesn't change the fact that you did and now the city is in danger because of it," Zircon countered. "And what proof do you have of this? Merely the word of the guard that accompanied you?"
"I hold a great deal of trust in my Royal Guard; I don't question for an instant that she's telling me the truth," Lumin replied. His voice was starting to shudder nervously. He felt fourteen years younger, picturing himself as a newly-crowned king standing in front of the leader of the enemy city. That leader and all his soldiers had their hands near the hilt of their swords, not believing for a second that a Firefly could ever be trusted to uphold peace. And for a few moments, Lumin felt himself hesitate and lose hope that he could succeed in winning their favor.
Lumin snapped himself out of those memories and returned to the situation at hand. But in a way, he felt as if he was still in the past, as he forced a jolt of confidence to run through him. That resurgence of poise was what helped him change the futures of both cities. Now it was solidifying his stance and showing Zircon that his position would not budge. "You need to redirect your search. If you waste your time looking for Flicker, then Jacenty and Halloy will be able to make their move. I don't know what it is that they're planning, but whatever it is, it will only end in disaster if you don't believe me!"
Zircon listened to Lumin. He still wasn't sure if he believed him entirely, but at least he listened. The previous day, Lumin doubted that Zircon truly paid his pleas to let Flicker go much heed. But now he knew for certain that he was considering what he had to say. He didn't interrupt him nor move his attention elsewhere. He simply eyed him carefully while he took the time to think it over.
The Eyrie's head lifted up. He stared at the glowing tree rings looming overhead. Zircon then took another breath, albeit one that was much softer than before. Yet, there was still a clear sense of apprehension about it. "Halloy was always interested in the tree. He thought that we weren't tapping it to its full potential. Whatever he and Jacenty are planning, the end result will be what he wanted to achieve by working with your father." Zircon looked back at Lumin as his hard expression returned. "They're after the source of the tree's power."
Even as a prince in the days of the war, Lumin knew little about the city that his own was fighting. Most children learned about Pillar Grove from their parents, one or both of whom were likely serving in some shape or form. His father being the king and his mother being a Royal Guard allowed for numerous opportunities to find out more about what that strange place was like. But those chances never came. His mother passed away when he was young, and she didn't expect him to truly grasp what war was like at that age. And his father...
Well, his father stopped expecting much from Lumin at all after a while.
So despite the bitter taste in his mouth over the mention of his father, Lumin found himself curious over what Zircon meant. "And what would that be?"
Zircon stared at the rings again. "No. Not what."
Another breath. It was not frustrated, slighted, or even apprehensive. Instead, it sounded weighty. It was the sound of a breath made while shouldering a large amount of burdens. Burdens whose age could be measured as equal to the green rings that circled the inside of the tree.
* * *
When Halloy escaped from his cell and to his laboratory, he wasn't allowed the opportunity to look back on Pillar Grove. He knew that Jacenty was probably waiting impatiently for him, but the clay JubJub decided to make up for lost time by hanging around the city's entrance for a few more moments. There were many soldiers collapsed on the ground around him, and Halloy decided to choose the back of the burliest one –a red Draik- as his seat while he tilted his entire body upwards in his gaze at the tree.
That grand tree... It was the centerpiece of the entire city as well as the final target of Halloy's ambitions. He had taken many a longing look at the magnificent pillars, but he hoped that his current one would be the last of that nature. He begun to think about the last time he had the tree in his sights, causing him to chuckle, "It's too bad that old King Lumin had to die before he could capture the tree. This could have been over fourteen years ago if he wasn't so arrogant. I wouldn't be here now having to work with such a brat in order to move forward with my original plans. And maybe –just maybe- you wouldn't have had to see my amber-powered cannon in action first-hand."
He was met with no answer from the unconscious soldiers. It hardly bothered Halloy; by then, he had grown accustomed to having his monologues ignored by the guards.
Nevertheless, he continued, "Hm, I had meant to ask that Firefly if he had any relatives that served in the war. Something about him seemed familiar. A little rough around the edges, but he probably would have fit in quite well back then," Halloy began to laugh again, "Oh well. Guess I'll never know."
He hopped of the soldier's back. Figuring that he allotted enough time for self-reflection, he decided that he had better meet up with Jacenty before reinforcements arrived. There were two steps to his plan, but he only needed to complete the first for the entire army of Pillar Grove to be rendered helpless.
Halloy took one more glance at the tree. Had anyone been watching him, they would have seen the JubJub facing no one in particular, yet speak as if he was looking at someone directly.
"Well, after all these years, it looks like today will be the day that I'll finally get to meet you two face-to-face."