Agent of the Sway: Betrayal - Part Three
Thaddeus Oldnose and Alvare Thornpipe were waiting in the clearing near the Order's library when the carriage arrived. Oldnose kept glancing over his shoulder, as if they would soon be discovered and their plans unravel, but Thornpipe climbed inside like it was all a dreadfully exciting holiday.
"I should like to see the desert," the Draik informed them. "I think perhaps the sand is created from melted snow?"
Oldnose gave a little sigh as the carriage set off again, gently patting his mentor on the arm.
"Perhaps, master," he agreed half-heartedly.
"What is it with you two?" Clayton asked. "Why are you so desperate to get him to the desert?"
"Alvare Thornpipe was once a great man," Oldnose said sadly, Thornpipe now having an interesting conversation about drapes with the carriage wall. "The most brilliant magical mind in his generation. Just over fifteen years ago, he was struck by lightning during an experiment - on the Night of the Flaming Torches when Judge Irons was removed from power. Normally that wouldn't matter, there are a lot of insane old wizards at the Museum... but the Professor was the head of the Museum's magical research department. And the extent by which he became unhinged was... quite severe."
Thornpipe was now whispering to the wall as if it was telling him great secrets.
"He began to divert department resources towards ridiculous, half-baked experiments and inventions. There were serious results - talking shrubberies, people sucked into different dimensions, the odd release of magical monsters... you know, that sort of thing," Oldnose added. "Eventually the remaining, or rather, surviving wizards launched a coup. Professor Thornpipe was forced out of the Museum, with Professor Volgan taking his place."
"How did he end up in the Haunted Woods?" Clayton asked.
"Aside from being an insane old wizard, you mean?" Oldnose replied. "The Professor was a brilliant enough wizard in his youth that he had already been made a member of the Order of the Red Erisim. When the Museum kicked him out, he fled to the Order's headquarters in the woods. Unlike the Museum, membership of the Order is for life. As much as they'd like to, they can't kick him out."
"And you're his apprentice?" Clayton asked.
"Officially, yes," Oldnose replied. "Though some days, I feel more like his carer. I live on the outskirts of the Deep Woods, near the abandoned town of Neovia. Our paths crossed soon after he arrived at the Order's headquarters and he offered to teach me some magic. I think it must have been one of his few moments of clarity. Since then, he's gone further downhill. But I'm sure, if we make it to the desert, the peace and quiet will restore him. We just need to set up a camp far away from anyone else."
"Thaddeus," Thornpipe suddenly interrupted. "Did you remember to pack the spatula?"
"...Yes, master," Oldnose replied.
"Excellent," Thornpipe said with a relieved smile. "I suspect there may be a lettuce infestation in the desert. Spatulas, as you well know, are their mortal enemies."
"What about you?" Oldnose asked Clayton.
"We don't talk about ourselves," Clayton replied.
"Oh, of course not... Silly of me to ask, really."
Oldnose retreated into a self-imposed awkward silence. Clayton turned to Faversham, with the intent of asking him some questions, but a single glance made it clear that the Kyrii would not discuss such matters while the carriage contained non-Sway members.
Outside, the howls and screams of the Deep Woods continued as usual as the carriage picked its way along the hidden, secret route to the south.
Clayton settled in for the journey - it wouldn't be long until the desert greeted them.
Just after dawn, the carriage broke the tree line, Clayton waking immediately as the window of the compartment was filled suddenly with gleaming yellow light.
The carriage ground to a halt, forcing the occupants outside into the heat.
"Well, I certainly wouldn't call this inclement weather," Hopesmeade observed with a slight frown.
Faversham and Clayton exchanged a glance and a smirk.
"Positively freezing when compared with the Tyrannian Plain," Faversham replied, rolling up his shirtsleeves. "I imagine getting out of the city smog will do you some good."
Hopesmeade gave Faversham a scowl.
"Excuse me?" Oldnose called from the carriage. "We have a problem."
The carriage had ground to a halt not to give the occupants a nice view, but because the dense roots of the woods had been replaced by now endless sands that stretched as far as the eye could see. The carriage's wheels were now buried deep in a dune, and it did not seem like it would be able to travel any further.
"Expected," Hopesmeade replied. "But we could not risk using a desert-friendly mode of transport in case it drew attention. We shall have to walk the rest of the way, I am afraid."
"I could levitate us!" Thornpipe suggested.
"Maybe another day," Hopesmeade replied diplomatically. "Our destination is Sakhmet, the principle city-state in the east of the desert. It should be only a few miles to the southwest, at the mouth of the river. Come, time is against us."
With that, he set off up the nearest dune, the others trailing in his wake.
Hopesmeade's estimates proved to be a little off, as it was a good few hours of trekking before the great walled city finally came into view through the desert haze. Thornpipe and Oldnose gave a gasp of awe that Hopesmeade and Faversham did not echo. Clayton would have joined in, but he figured that a member of the Sway shouldn't be caught being surprised by anything, so kept his amazement to himself.
It was a citadel of impressive size - the outer walls clearly unscaleable even for the most agile Neopets. There was only a single entrance, a grand arch that led into a network of shanty homes that could easily put the slum-like Docklands of Neopia Central to shame. At the city's core was the grand palace, a structure which dwarfed all surrounding buildings, the over the top, onion shaped domes gleaming gold in the daylight.
"We should secure lodgings within the city first," Hopesmeade instructed. "We can contact our agent and rest before setting off to the tomb tomorrow. Sloth probably will not breach it until then."
"Probably," Faversham muttered. "The Sway do not make such assertions. Sloth should not be underestimated."
Hopesmeade gave Faversham a critical look. "Nor should he be overestimated."
"Either way, this heat is intolerable," Oldnose butted in. "Could we please head down to the city?"
Clayton agreed. For all Hopesmeade's talk of expecting losing the carriage, they didn't seem to have brought a great deal of water with them, and the desert heat was quickly drying them out.
A steady stream of travelers, mostly merchants from further west by the looks of things, were making their way through the great arch into the city. Sakhmet, it seemed, didn't have much in the way of an entrance policy. Clayton observed that, if the Sway's plans with Sloth succeeded, and he did indeed attack the city, there would not be much to stop him.
As they passed under the arch and entered the city itself, Clayton was immediately back on familiar ground. The sights and smells may have been different, but the atmosphere and raw feel of the place reminded him of home so well. The Kougra had grown up in the Docklands, the crime-rife slums of Neopia Central. This place seemed so similar, he could almost feel himself melting into the crowd.
Oldnose and Thornpipe parted ways with them, heading towards the palace in the hopes of making a formal introduction to King Coltzan and securing a safe haven outside of the city. The three agents of the Sway, meanwhile, made their way to some lodgings in the city proper. Sakhmet appeared to get many travelers from distant lands - this strange garb didn't raise many eyebrows.
Hopesmeade instructed them all to get some rest, and Clayton did exactly that. He imagined he would sleep through to the morning, but found himself abruptly woken by Hopesmeade clamping a hand over the Kougra's mouth. The Wocky held a finger to his lips, signifying that the pair should remain as quiet as possible. Night had long since fallen outside, but Clayton could still hear activity down on the street below.
"Faversham just left," Hopesmeade whispered. "He was not instructed to."
"Maybe he's stretching his legs," Clayton suggested.
"He was not instructed to," Hopesmeade repeated. "I suspect he has other motives. Get ready, we will go and meet a contact of mine."
"You need me to come along?" Clayton asked.
"Faversham is already acting suspiciously," Hopesmeade replied. "And he recruited you. I'm not letting you out of my sight."
The pair left the building soon after, Hopesmeade guiding them through the streets.
"The Duchess trusts you," Hopesmeade explained, glancing back over his shoulder. "She does not believe you have been compromised. I am still skeptical, but it is time you knew the true reason for me being involved with this assignment. The Sway believe that Faversham may have turned against us."
"And joined who?" Clayton asked. "Sloth? That's ridiculous, he's helped stop him three times now!"
"That is what I thought originally," Hopesmeade agreed. "But the Duchess seems to believe otherwise, and I do not have cause to doubt her. The tone of Faversham's correspondence changed somewhat after the invasion of Tyrannia, that much as certain. I believe it was when he discovered Dr. Sloth was working on time travel - he recalculated the strength of our adversary. We've had him under surveillance ever since. The contact we are going to meet should be able to tell us where he has gone."
Hopesmeade led them to a small fruit stall in the market, still busy even in the middle of the night. There, he paused as if looking at the Tchea Fruits, until an old Techo approached him.
"The target left the city about an hour ago," he whispered. "He is heading towards the Gebmids, and the camp the newcomers have built."
With that, he disappeared back into the crowd.
"That confirms it then," Hopesmeade said gravely. "Faversham has sold us out."
To be continued...