Through Moltara and Back
150 Years B.N.
Moltaran cuisine was defined by roots, roots, and more roots.
It was a land that was not known for its dietary variety. When root vegetables made up such a huge part of a Moltaran's diet to the extent that they could taste potatoes and carrots in just about every dish, anything that deviated from the norm was a novelty. Most Moltarans were not willing to put up with the difficulty of finding more uncommon ingredients or the exorbitant price tags attached to them.
But Lampyri was not about to let something like rarity or price get in her way.
She was no stranger to doing whatever it took to complete a mission. Lampyri was a Firefly, a glowing Buzz that lived in the City of Lights, a cave located in the uppermost region of Moltara. A short time ago, the city's water supply had been contaminated by poison, and the only known cure for it was located in the jungles on the surface. As one of the City of Light's Royal Guards, she was ordered to track down the necessary plant, no matter how many trips it took.
While Lampyri never managed to find the cure, it miraculously found itself in the king's hands. She never asked how. She didn't really care. Many lives were saved and that was all that mattered. But if that had not come to be, she would have taken a thousand more treks up to the surface. With what was at stake, she couldn't afford to give up.
A few days later, Lampyri found herself on another journey for a different item. Luckily for her, this time she didn't have to set foot out of Moltara at all. If what she had been told was correct, what she was looking for could be found in one of the tunnels that connected Moltara to the outside world, allowing her to stay underground.
Unluckily for her, her destination was a specific tunnel. She couldn't just take a short walk to the outskirts of the City of Lights, get what she wanted, and be back in a matter of minutes. No, it required a several-hour long trip on foot to a tunnel near a tiny village that she had never heard of before.
She navigated the dark caves for hours, equipped with only a piece of parchment with the vaguest of directions on it and a small sack. The path was so rarely used by other Neopets that nobody had bothered to set up lanterns in it. Not that she needed any, as her color lit up the way for her. When she saw that her green light began to mix with a couple of glowing yellow spots up ahead, Lampyri knew that she had finally reached her destination.
Giving a satisfied smile at the sight, Lampyri hastened her pace to the spots. As she got closer, their form became more apparent. They were yellow mushrooms attached to the higher parts of the walls of the cave, releasing a same-colored light from under their caps that made them resemble miniature lamps. The mushrooms were much larger than the varieties that grew in small amounts near the City of Lights. The caps, although flat, were as wide as Lampyri's head and the stalks were as thick as her wrists. There were only two of them, but that was all she needed.
Lampyri's attention was so focused on the mushrooms that it took her a moment to notice something on her foot. Something slimy. She jumped in the air the instant its presence registered in her mind. The slimy matter was thick and brown, camouflaged so well with the floor and walls that it would evade almost anyone's sight unless they were looking for it. Even with a Buzz's inferior sense of smell, Lampyri was eventually able to pick up the strong stench that came from the sludge. It's appearance and scent was almost like...
Lampyri shook her head hard to force that thought out of her brain. No. She wasn't going to think about it. Rapidly kicking her foot in the air to throw off the clumps of slime stuck to it, she took a deep breath and forced her attention back to the mushrooms.
She focused her eyes on the mushrooms' stalks. Then she observed the wall they were attached to. The wall that was coated with the same slime that she just stepped in.
Lampyri's posture slackened and her wings drooped down her back. She was starting to see why that path was rarely travelled.
She took her carrying sack and held it tightly in her clenched fist. "This will be worth it," Lampyri told herself as she stared at the slime oozing down the wall.
She stiffened her lip as she floated up to a mushroom and pulled on it. The feat proved to be more difficult than what she expected. It wasn't attached so deeply into the wall that it was a real challenge to Lampyri, but just enough so that she was forced to bring her hand closer to the beginning of the stalk, scooping her fingers into the sludge in the process. Her face twisted in disgust as she tried to ignore the oily feeling and tough it out.
Lampyri yanked the mushroom out, but pulled a large mass of sludge with her. Once again, she tried to shake it off, but this time it was stuck onto her more firmly than before. The longer it stayed on her hand, the more she began to feel the sludge tightening its grip and its form shifting in order to do so.
That's when she saw that the pile of sludge had eyes.
Lampyri shrieked as her gaze met the creature's. Its eyes were slanted and unlevel from each other, almost as if their existence was a mere afterthought. There wasn't much to read in its vacant expression, merely a vague understanding of what was going on. Looking closer, it also possessed a wide mouth and what might have appeared to be a couple of barely-functional limbs.
It wouldn't let go. Lampyri tried to stick it back on an empty section of the wall, but that only served to glue her to it. After yanking her arm more vigorously, she finally managed to release herself from the creature.
She quickly put the mushroom in her sack before the sludge creature tried to grab a hold of her again. A tiny part of her was begging Lampyri to call it quits, but a louder section of her conscious reminded her that she needed both mushrooms if she was to make the trip worth it. And it would be. In the end, everything would be fine and that unpleasant experience would become nothing more than a memory.
As Lampyri lifted herself back into the air for the second mushroom, she caught the sound of viscous movement right over her head.
She would soon regret looking up.
* * *
Every Neopet walking in the village suddenly wrinkled their noses. The species that had more sensitive senses of smell promptly ran inside their homes. The ones who were more tolerant of repugnant stenches all turned to stare at the weary-eyed glowing Buzz trudging past them.
Lampyri tried to do the best job she could at wiping all the sludge off without access to water, but obviously not good enough. She could still feel clumps of it everywhere on her body and all throughout her black hair. She ignored the stares of the townsfolk – she knew how filthy she was and didn't need anyone reminding her.
The directions on her parchment, which managed to avoid the waterfall of sludge for the most part, were much more precise once the task of obtaining the mushrooms was complete. The address she needed to go to was written clearly and Lampyri soon found herself at the door of a small eatery.
Lampyri walked into a dark, quiet dining room filled with empty tables. The few Neopets that were occupying seats immediately recoiled the moment their noses picked up on the stink attached to her. Her eyes avoided theirs as she kept walking with the hope that she didn't destroy their appetite.
Wiping one of the tables clean was an unusually lanky fire Skeith, one that was probably not much younger than Lampyri. Like the rest of the villagers, he flinched when he took notice of her. The Skeith overcame the initial shock quickly and said, "Oh, one moment, please."
The Skeith turned his head in the direction of the kitchen and yelled, "Grandma! We've got a customer!"
"Yeah? And what do they want?!" a loud, cantankerous voice responded.
The Skeith was momentarily rendered speechless. "Um, food, I'd imagine..."
"I'm coming, I'm coming!" the voice shouted. Soon after, the kitchen door opened to reveal an old Gnorbu. Her red wool was faded so much that it looked more like a very light pink. What was likely once a long, lustrous mane was now short and dull. The Gnorbu's face was wrinkled in such a way that it gave the appearance of a permanent scowl.
When she came close enough to Lampyri, the Gnorbu took a step back and waved her paw in front of her nose. "Missy, what've you been rolling around in?! Smells like you've been around a Sludgy or a dozen!"
Lampyri decided to skip the story. She took out one of the mushrooms and showed it to the Gnorbu. "I heard you can make soup out of these?"
The Gnorbu grabbed the mushroom and examined it. She requested to see the others that Lampyri brought, and upon looking into the bag, she commented, "Only two? You won't get more than a couple servings out of that!"
"That's more than enough. Can you make it right away? I have to get back home as soon as possible," Lampyri said.
The Gnorbu grunted, "That'll be ten-thousand Neopoints."
"Ten-thousand?!" Lampyri exclaimed. She had only half of that price on her. "I was told a batch goes for four-thousand at the most!"
"It did, but I raised the price!" the Gnorbu replied sharply, putting her hands on her hips. "My family's the only one in all of Moltara that knows how to make that soup! That makes it worth more, don't you think?!"
"Oh come on! I'm not stupid; I know when someone's trying to con me!" Lampyri snapped back at her.
"If you don't like it, then go take your business elsewhere. Oh, but there's nowhere else to take your business to," the Gnorbu said with a smug smile, as if she felt that the argument was won.
If it was a option, Lampyri would have been more than happy. But she neither had that nor the time.
Before the tension could escalate any further, the Skeith intervened. "Grandma, no one's going to buy the soup for that price. Four-thousand is more than enough, don't you think? Not to mention that she brought the main ingredient for us," he said delicately.
The Gnorbu considered him silently, but still with a frown. Eventually, she gave in. "Alright, fine! Four-thousand it is! On one condition!"
Lampyri sighed heavily. "And what is that?"
The Gnorbu began waving her hands in front of her face again. "Go take a bath, missy!"
* * *
Within an hour, Lampyri returned to the eatery. She spent the time washing up in a small spring on the outskirts of the village and hunting for a store that would sell her a change of clothes. She was far more presentable then and didn't elicit such sickened reactions from the townsfolk.
When she entered the building, she was met with a pleasant smell wafting from the kitchen. It was the nostalgic kind of scent that reminded her of the stews that her parents would make for her when she was a child. Yet, the smell was still very different and had a special quality to it that was unlike anything else she experienced before.
Lampyri sat down at one of the tables and waited. She began to pass the time by braiding her hair into a ponytail, as she usually wore it. She resisted the urge to nod off, no matter how relaxing the scent made the atmosphere.
Within a few minutes, the Gnorbu came out of the kitchen. Upon noticing Lampyri, she said, "Back already? Hold your Marlocks, missy, your soup will be ready in a few minutes."
Lampyri let out relieved breath. She had already spent enough time away from home. The City of Lights might have been peaceful for many years, but there was no telling when she'd be needed.
"Why are you in such a hurry to leave, anyways?" the Gnorbu asked.
The Gnorbu didn't strike Lampyri as someone that would be pleasant to converse with for an extended period of time. So she kept her answer short, "I have a job that I need to get back to."
"Hmph. Is your boss such a stickler for punctuality that you're that afraid of getting fired? Doesn't sound like that great of a job to me." the Gnorbu said with a bit of a laugh.
Lampyri gave a laugh as well, but hers lacked any humor. "My 'boss' is an extraordinarily patient and understanding person. I'd just rather not take advantage of that." She scowled at the Gnorbu. "And I enjoy my work very much, thank you."
"And what is your job?"
"I'm in the military," Lampyri answered. As priceless as she was sure the Gnorbu's face would have been if she told her the entirety of her job description, she refrained herself. She had to be right mood for that sort of thing.
The Gnorbu looked over her shoulder at Lampyri. She could see the old Neopet's glare shooting right at her. "Oh, are you now?" the Gnorbu muttered. Her expression suddenly became colder, even more so than it already was. But it was not an unfamiliar look to Lampyri, and she could tell that the Gnorbu thought that she suddenly knew everything there was to know about the Firefly.
The Skeith exited the kitchen a moment later, carrying the pot containing the finished soup. The Gnorbu gestured to it and asked Lampyri cynically, "So I take it this is going to feed one of your raiding parties?"
While Lampyri held herself back from showing any offense, she saw the Skeith give a visible cringe. "Grandma! Fireflies don't do that anymore!" he tried to explain while trying to hide his shock at her comment.
His statement went ignored. The Gnorbu still wore her scowl and made an effort to continue directing her glare at Lampyri even as she walked back into the kitchen. Part of Lampyri wanted to give her a few choice words, but she kept her calm and decided that the Gnorbu wasn't worth her breath.
The Skeith handed the pot to Lampyri. "I'm sorry," he silently mouthed to her, as if expecting his grandmother to overhear anything he spoke out loud.
Lampyri nodded to him, giving her own silent thanks to the Skeith. She refused give any indication that she was even the slightest bit annoyed, because in a short amount of time, her trip to the eatery would show its worth. But she still planned on it being her last.
* * *
The City of Lights was known as the bright spot of Moltara. The Fireflies made it their mission to leave no spot in the cave unlit. Every structure was decorated with colorful lanterns and the open air was filled with the glowing Buzz populace going about their lives.
In the back of the city was the palace, a glittering treasure of building. Not only was it home to the royalty of the city, but also to many members of the military, ordinary soldiers and Royal Guards alike. The room that Lampyri approached was not her own, but she still held a key for it. The real owner had made it clear to her that she was more than welcome to drop by unannounced whenever she felt like it.
The living area of the room was not particularly lavish, but still far fancier than the average home in the City of Lights. Weapons of all sorts decorated the stone walls, especially those of the sharp, pointy variety.
As much she wanted to collapse on one of the plush sofas, her task was still unfinished. Lampyri set the cauldron inside a stone oven and lit the coals with a match. She leaned back on a nearby counter as she waited for the temperature to rise, her eyelids growing heavy from the exhaustion of her trip.
But a noise coming from behind Lampyri prevented her from falling into a slumber. Without even moving her head in the direction of the sound, she said, "Go back to bed, Glowstick."
The glowing Buzz merely grunted in response. When Lampyri finally did give a glance at him, she saw his faint and sickly glow. Despite all the bed rest he was required to have, his face was still tired. He could barely walk straight without needing a wall or piece of furniture to prop himself up, so he headed straight for one of the couches and sat himself down. Glowstick looked absolutely miserable. But even then, his health had shown significant improvement from a week ago.
Like Lampyri, Glowstick was a Royal Guard. A sedentary lifestyle didn't suit him, so she didn't expect him to actually listen to her advice. Or the doctor's, for that matter. He was too stubborn to admit just how ill the poisoned water made him and was going to fight the need for rest every inch of the way.
Glowstick rubbed his forehead as he mumbled, "You haven't dropped by in a while. Is something going on?" He took a deep breath and inhaled the scent coming from the oven. "And what're you heating up over there? It smells good."
Lampyri answered him by putting a bowl of the soup in his hands. It took a few seconds for him to realize what it was. "You're kidding..." Glowstick lifted a piece of the chopped up mushrooms with his spoon, confirming his thoughts. "You seriously went out and got some of this?"
Lampyri stood behind Glowstick, resting her elbow on the back of the couch and holding her head in her hands. "I remembered you telling me about how your mom found you some of this soup when you were sick once, and that it helped you recover quicker. So I asked her where and how she got it."
"That was over fifteen years ago!" Glowstick exclaimed. For a while, he didn't seem to know what to say. The best he could come up after staring into the bowl with a hint of guilt in his eyes was, "Lampyri... You didn't have to go through all this trouble..."
"Well, I did. So hurry up and eat it before it gets cold!" Lampyri prodded him.
After a bit of hesitation, he relented. He put a spoonful into his mouth. The taste of the soup brought forth a visible sense of pleasure in his face, his eyes widening slightly the moment the flavors met his tongue. He let out a soft sigh and shut his eyes while he relished the taste. He began to smile.
Upon seeing that, Lampyri's own smile grew twice as big.
Lampyri walked around the couch's arm and sat next to Glowstick. She slumped down into the seat, finally seeing her chance to relax. It didn't truly hit her until that point just how sore her wings and feet were, but it was never a concern to her.
Glowstick worked at emptying the bowl at a fast rate. Upon noticing that there was nothing in Lampyri's hands, he said, "Hey, c'mon. You went out of your way to get this. Go get yourself a bowl too."
Lampyri shook her head and held her hand up to Glowstick. "You're the sick one here, not me."
Despite his efforts to claim that he was fine, Lampyri could get an accurate reading on Glowstick's health by taking note of his willingness to argue. When he didn't, she gave a short, knowing chuckle. But she had a feeling that before long, he'd be back to normal.
"The king was fine with you leaving the city?" Glowstick asked, aware of the lengths that Lampyri must have gone through.
"Of course. I told him that I knew of a way to make you get better faster, so he didn't mind at all," Lampyri explained. "It's not going to make a liar out of me, is it?"
Glowstick let out a loud laugh. "It better not! I can't stand staying in bed all day!"
Once he finished one bowl, Glowstick was quick to go back for a second –and final- portion. Lampyri didn't mind. The process of obtaining the soup in the first place no longer mattered either. Even if the journey was less than pleasant, the end result more than made up for it.
"Thank you, by the way," Glowstick said in between a spoonful.
Lampyri let another wide smile spread across her face as she folded her hands over her lap and closed her eyes. "Anytime."