A Little Knowledge is a Dangerous Thing: Part Four
Sierra burst through the University doors, checked in with the receptionist, and rushed to Professor Lambert's office. She found him sitting at his desk with a mug of tea and remnants of breakfast on a tray.
"Ah, good morning, Sierra!"
"Good morning, Professor. I'm terribly sorry, I would meet at a more decent time but I am extremely busy, we're going to the Battleground this afternoon, I-"
He waved off her excuses. "Don't worry about it, eight in the morning isn't too early at all! Have a seat. What would you like to meet with me about?"
She lowered her voice. "It's the Sway... I can already see that they are not who we think they are." She took out her notepad and handed it to him on the page that her map notes where on, and explained what happened over the last two days. "Taking a photograph of the maps is too risky, and I won't have time anyway since we are beginning our journey to Tyrannia this afternoon. I have to be there in a few hours."
The Professor nodded, looking concerned. "Obviously they are suspicious already, which has nothing to do with your actions. How did they find out about your article?"
"I don't know. Martha refused to answer me when I asked the same thing," she replied.
"Hmm." He paused. "I need you to find out, if you can."
"I will do my best."
"Also, you mentioned that there are 'missions' that are run?"
"Yes, I believe those are what the maps are for, as well as informing their sources. Based on my observations, that means that there are missions conducted to the various faction headquarters on a regular basis... including ours."
The Professor's eyes widened. He began rummaging through the papers on his desk and drawers. "Right, all catalogues of everything must be reviewed, as well as checking if there's anything missing or in a different condition than what was in since it was seen last, more library monitors must be hired-" He looked at Sierra. "Oh, dear, I apologize. Thank you very much for imparting this information to me."
"You're welcome. I understand that this will be an added burden to our faction and I wish I could do something about it..." She heard a pattern of clacking noises from outside. "What's that noise?"
"It just sounds like the typewriters from out in the library."
"Right." She subconsciously drummed the S.O.S signal with her claw on the desk. Her face lit up as an idea came to her. "I've got it! I know what we could do!"
"Whatever do you mean by this?"
"A handheld morse code clicker. Whenever I'm in the building during a mission, if that ever happens, I would click out a message, like S.O.S. or something to that effect, to warn you of our arrival. However, this would be in an ultrasonic frequency, so only a special receiver can process it and bring to frequency to an audible level. However, when I'm not in range, I can send you a rushed neomail with a certain message, like this-" She grabbed a pen and wrote down, 'Brace yourselves for those in black.' on a scrap of paper. "What do you think?"
The Professor smiled. "I shall go get Katie." He stood up, then turned to her.
"Wait a minute, did you say you would be on a mission here?"
"I have no idea if that would ever happen, but I get the impression that eventually every member goes on one."
Professor Lambert sighed. "Please be careful as you continue your research. Try to stay safe. You know how important you are to us."
"If I try to stay safe, then I won't find out anything."
"Sierra, help me set up these tents!" Martha yelled irritably, loaded down with supplies like a pack Bika. Sierra lifted her bicycle off of the rack on the back of the carriage and set it on the ground. "Can I at least get our stuff?" she huffed. She looked at her and Martha's bags, thinking of the best way to cart them over to the tent site. She propped up her main bag on her bicycle ,slung her weaponry bag over her shoulders, and attempted to pick up Martha's duffel bag. "Good grief! What do you have in here, a stack of bricks?" She struggled to half-carry, half-drag the bag over to the tent site.
"I have everything that I need in that bag and the weaponry bag you left by the carriage. What did you bring?"
"Everything that I need, as well."
Once they had finished setting up and the carriages had left, the red carriages from the Order began arriving nearby. Members began pouring out and unloading the carriages, while higher officials ceremoniously flew in on their broomsticks. She saw Lily appear from one of the carriages and begin helping out. They made eye contact, and Lily seemed to begin to move in her direction. Sierra subtly shook her head, and Lily nodded, turning away to continue working.
"Lily Tamir, fifteen, purple Shoyru, short term Order member, best friend of Sierra Hardingson."
Sierra turned around in shock to face the green Techo she knew as the Nefarious Plotter.
"Sir! How do you know this?"
He eyed her dubiously. "We know everything about everyone, Sierra. Especially about faction members. It is suspicious and dangerous to be so closely connected to members in the other factions."
She shifted her posture, leaning back slightly and crossing her arms. "You still haven't answered that question."
The Techo did not respond.
Sierra sighed with a hint of irritation. She was getting nowhere, and just raising suspicions further. She decided to take a different approach.
"So... um, what's our plan of attack? I mean, how are we planning to win this?" She plastered on an innocently eager façade. The Techo seemed to buy it.
"We're going to fight in various day shifts and night shifts, starting with tonight. You will be fighting the morning shift tomorrow and the day after, and on the final day you will be fighting the morning and afternoon shifts. During these shifts, you will fight as many battles as possible, and you will need to win a minimum of twenty battles against each opponent within your HP limit each day."
"That would be the fourth most difficult challenger if he or she did not take the HP and stat booster."
"Correct. You should use your healer while fighting opponents with significantly less HP in order to get more wins in."
"Right. Do I need to do anything else except fight?"
"You will be given a list of the weapons our members are using, and based on that list you will recommend the weapon combinations to used based on the number rounds that are being fought. You mentioned in your paper that the weapon combinations are different for those mainly fighting two round fights versus three to five rounds, versus seven or more rounds."
"I see you've read it. I shall do my best to provide helpful information."
"You have been very useful to us, Sierra."
"Thank you, sir." She paused in thought. "Is it common that people like me get the jobs that I have, yet know so little about us?"
He hesitated. "No and yes. Members who were previously loyal to other factions, such as you, usually receive jobs that require little to no intelligence, such as making the wax seal molds for our letters, act as decoys or distractions during missions so that his or her partner who is a full member can complete the task at hand undisturbed, or simply fighting. However, we make sure that everyone whom we know will not be loyal to us for life gains as little information about us to prevent them from spreading the information to other factions or the Neopian press. It is our secrecy that makes us so successful. We can anticipate the behavior of our opponents, but they cannot do the same for us. Your... talents make you an exception, and that is why we wanted you to join."
Sierra nodded. "That makes a lot of sense for a group such as ours to do this. Thank you for your explanation, sir."
"Wait a minute... You said that you wanted me to join... What do you do when you want someone to join? How do you persuade him or her to join?"
"There are various methods that we used, one of which you already know."
Sierra thought for a moment. Her eyes widened. "That dream... That wasn't a coincidence."
He said nothing, just continuing to stare off towards the Obelisk.
"You sent it to me, didn't you?"
He merely nodded without looking at her.
She paused for a moment before speaking, trying to process this. "Well, I must get going now, I have yet to make my final preparations before the battles tomorrow. "Good afternoon."
"Very well, good afternoon. Also, Sierra - you are forbidden to attempt to communicate Lily Tamir while you are here, or accept any communications attempt from her. Do I make myself clear?"
"Yes, you do."
After a long morning of hard battling the next day, Sierra wearily returned to her tent. She drank one of her healing potions, then began cleaning her weapons and returning them to their cases. After she changed out of her fighting outfit, she walked outside to be greeted by a Crokabek. It deposited a letter in her paws, screeched obnoxiously, then flew away. She hastily opened it. She sat down, and squinted at the written code. Ugh, Eliv Thade code. I'm terrible at this.
Damien passed by in full fighting gear as she struggled to decode the message.
"D- I mean Agent Night?"
"Good afternoon. Would you help me with this, please?" She handed the letter to him.
He skimmed the letter.
"Do you have a pen?"
"Yeah." She ducked into her tent and returned with one after a moment. He took the pen, wrote something on the letter, and handed the letter and the pen back to her.
I would like a private audience with you in the Grand Tent at four thirty today. Don't be late.
She looked up at him. "Who's it from?"
He lowered his voice. "Most likely from Norheim, using one of his aliases. The Grand Tent is where She resides during the duration of the skirmish. You can't miss it."
"Okay. Thank you for your help."
He nodded. He turned to leave, then turned back around. "By the way, hot chocolate will be served." He then turned and walked away. She pondered his words. Hot Chocolate? She searched her mind to think of what he could mean. She remembered the Innocuous Hot Chocolate from the War for the Obelisk prize shop in the catalogue. They must have the same hot chocolate that was offered in the prize shop! I wonder what is really in that stuff anyway... She returned inside the tent, and rummaged around in her suitcase, being careful not to disturb the carefully arranged healing potions among her clothes and various miscellany. She pulled out a small, opaque white packet. Curious, she opened it and emptied the contents on her sleeping bag. There were several empty, closeable vials, a vial full of a blue liquid labelled 'disappearing ink', a small pair of scissors, cotton swabs, a pocket knife, and a box of matches. She inspected the scissors, and saw a pair of glasses discreetly engraved in them. She smiled. Thanks, Katie.
The Grand Tent loomed over Sierra as she approached the cloth doors. She knocked on the wooden beam just outside. Norheim appeared in the entryway. "Good afternoon, Agent Nova. Come in."
"Good afternoon, my lord." She followed him inside, and took a seat in the chair across from her. She looked in awe at the intricate patterns on the tent walls, and the lavish furniture around them. "How did you transport all of this here?" she asked.
Norheim poured her and himself a cup of hot chocolate. "We make special arrangements. Her ladyship requests only the finest furnishings for her residence." He took a sip of hot chocolate. "Aren't you going to have some?"
"I'm going to wait until it cools, thank you." She paused. "I am honored and surprised that you requested a private audience with me."
Norheim nodded, as if he wasn't listening. "How did your battling go today?"
"Quite well, thirty wins, no draws or losses."
"Very well done. Do we need to send out for more healing potions?"
"No, I have nine left, that should be more than enough."
"Very well. You are enjoying your time with us?"
"...What do you mean?"
"You enjoy being a member?"
"Well, yes, I believe I do. It took me some time to figure out exactly what my job was considering I didn't receive any direct training, and there are some, well, members, that I, uh..."
"Aren't used to their personalities and ways of thinking?"
"Yes, I- wait, what?"
"Never mind. We are glad to have you as a member."
She chanced taking a small sip of the hot chocolate. It tasted good to her, but she wasn't sure whether the odd undertones she was tasting were real or if it was just her paranoid mind. She coughed and discreetly spit it back into the mug as an idea came to her. She looked around her saucer. "It seems that I am missing a spoon for the cream." She set down the cup.
"Oh, I shall get one for you. One moment please." He got up and disappeared behind a curtain.
Now's my chance. She quickly took the vial from her inner coat pocket, took a sample of the hot chocolate, then placed the closed vial back in her pocket. Norheim returned with a spoon and handed it to her.
"Thank you, my lord." She took it, scooped some chantilly cream into her mug, and stirred it. "Why did you want my talents and my essay so badly? I get the impression that multiple attempts were made to get me to join."
"What makes you say that?"
"You sent me the dream, didn't you? You used magic to take a video and then you sent to me as a dream in order to convince me. You did the same thing with the voices. I get the impression you usually don't do that."
"It's true, we don't. We do things very differently now than we did before. Before the War for the Obelisk, we only recruited members ourselves, and we did not recruit members as young as you, only members who were legal adults. You saw that from my reluctance in the mandatory Neopedia article. But as we needed more reliable members with unique talents, we began searching for and recruiting younger members. All the members we don't recruit have simple jobs, and they are the sheer numbers for the battling. The recruited members do the real work. Take Agent Night, for instance. He is one of our decoding agents since he has so much experience in the field. We recruited him just before the Obelisk was discovered. Strategically minded members such as you and him are very important."
"But what about my knowledge specifically, and my essay?"
"Success is like the valuables inside a box with many different locks. When you obtain the box, you gain the main opportunity. You must find all of the different keys to the locks in order to unlock the box, and obtain the reward inside. We already have the box and some of the keys, yet we still have much work to do. We believed that your essay is one of the keys, or at least part of one, and our assumptions were proven correct."
She thought about his words, and pretended to take another sip of hot chocolate.
"Oh, I have something to ask of you, Agent Nova," Norheim said after a moment's silence.
"What is it, my lord?"
He lowered his voice. "I have heard rumors of a suspected spy in our organization. I don't have any solid proof yet, which is why I am assigning you, Agent Night, and several other members to be on the look out for any suspicious behavior, and report it to me if you find anything. We do not tolerate traitors in our society, nor do we mourn the loss of them."
"Yes, I understand." She tensed, and sat up straighter to hide it. I'm not scared. No. I'm not scared of anything. She thought she saw him reaching for something in his pocket, and she discreetly wrapped her paw around her dagger handle hidden by her jacket. "Is that why you trust no one?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"Is that why no one except a select few know what we are really fighting for? What our values really are? How can one know if the faction's values match up with one's own if the faction's values are unknown? You need the members to just do as they're told, and to trust that they're doing the right thing. How can they if they don't know?"
Norheim scowled. "I disapprove of your searching questions, Sierra."
"But knowledge of one's morals is everything!"
"Yet curiosity killed the Kadoatie," he warned. Sierra realized what she had just said. "I think I must get going, thank you for the hot chocolate. Good afternoon, my lord," she hurriedly left. Norheim did not get up, but took the pen and paper lying near him on the desk and began to write a letter.
Sierra returned to her tent, closed the door flaps and buried her face in her pillow. Did I say too much? I did, didn't I? Oh, I did! Oh Fyora! Her heart sank. A couple of teardrops fell onto her pillow. What have I done? Her mind swam and her paws shook as she sat up, her heart racing. She got up, and decided to take a bike ride. She walked over to the rack, got her bike, and sped around the inner circle between the campsites and the ledge that isolated the obelisk from the rest of Tyrannia. She loved feeling the wind blowing through her fur, and feeling so free. She was near the far border of the Order's campsite when she saw Lily walking among the tents. Sierra slowed down and swerved. She leaned to the side slightly, and jumped off in an attempt to make it look like she fell. Her bike clattered loudly. Lily ran over to her. "Are you okay- Oh, hi!" She lowered her voice. "You didn't really fall, did you?"
Sierra shook her head, and grinned. "I'm fine."
"How's it going?" Lily helped her up.
"I'm not supposed to talk to you, they know about us."
"Suspicion is rising," Sierra whispered. She picked up her bike. "Maps of factions headquarters. My essay. Infinite knowledge. They trust no one." Lily's eyes widened. "You need to tell her, you know."
"I'd better go, then."
"Me, too," Sierra got back onto her bicycle, and continued her circuit around the Obelisk.
Sierra paced along her row of tents the next afternoon, watching the dust stir with her steps. I've said too much, but what do I do? Leaving immediately after the battle ends would save me a lot of trouble, but they would get even more suspicious and I feel like I haven't found out enough. How long should I stay? Probably just until I figure out what they do during the truce time, and what a mission entails. She bumped into someone, and she mumbled an apology before noticing that something silver fell to the ground. She picked up the open locket, and a young, yellow Cybunny stared cheerfully back at her. She looked up to see Damien. Sierra closed the locket and handed it back to him.
"Who's that in the locket?" she asked as kindly as possible.
"Someone. It doesn't matter." He didn't look at her. She couldn't tell if he was nervous or just being cold.
"Come on, you can tell me. Who is she? A family member? An old friend?"
"It doesn't matter!"
"Damien, please tell me. It's okay."
He hesitated. "My... she's my sister," he mumbled. "She's not so little anymore."
"Is she at home?"
"Where is she, then?"
He hesitated again. "I don't know."
"I haven't seen her in six years!" His voice and paws trembled.
"...Oh." Sierra wasn't sure how to respond. "I'm very sorry."
Damien shook his head.
"...Do you think we could find her?"
"What do you mean by 'we?'"
"Well, I could help you find her. We could go through whatever files and archives she has, and maybe we'll find an address or a Neoschool name, or at least a place where recent purchases have been made under her name."
"We'll have to be careful, though. I don't know if we'll be able to access those areas of the vaults. My access card is heavily restricted."
"Well, it's always worth trying, isn't it?"
He cracked a small, grateful smile. Hope glimmered in his eyes. "Thank you."
She smiled back. "No problem. See? It's not that hard!"
He didn't respond, but kept smiling.
Sierra walked up to her house after spending the day completing her Defenders of Neopia courses. The front porch light flickered in the darkness, struggling to stay on. As she stuck the key into the lock, she heard a noise from inside. That's odd, she thought. Zane and Mom shouldn't be here until tomorrow morning... She pressed her ear against the door, but she didn't hear anything. She shrugged and quietly opened the door. In the foyer, she spotted a tall, cloaked, unfamiliar silhouette. She dove behind a large potted plant. Part of her screamed at her to run away, yet she stayed put. Two other silhouettes appeared out of the darkness. She could barely make out what they were saying.
"Did you find it?" the tall one whispered.
One of the other silhouettes shook its head. "We searched everywhere, but she must have taken it with her."
"Hmm... This could prove to be a problem. Norheim will not be pleased about thi- Someone's here. Move!" They disappeared and she heard the back door closing.
She left her hiding spot and turned on the lights to find her whole house trashed. Some of the Sakhmetan pottery was gone, as well as a small, antique desk lamp. She ran upstairs to her room to find a few of her books and her typewriter were gone as well. Tears streamed down her cheeks. I'll find whoever did this, I have to...
Sierra woke with a start, smacking her head against a metal tent pole. Dawn barely peeked through the flaps. She blinked and wiped the dried tears from her face as she realized what had just happened. She quickly dressed, brushed her unruly hair and ran outside. She passed Damien as he returned to his tent, wearing his now-tattered fighting outfit. He tossed his weapons into the tent and pulled out a healing potion. "Sierra, what's going on?"
She whirled around. "Where's Norheim? I must speak to him immediately."
"Why do you nee-"
"Where is he?"
"He should still be in the secondary grand tent, to the right of the Grand Tent."
"Thank you." She nodded her head and ran off. He ran after her.
"Sie- Agent Nova, wait! Wait!"
She kept running until she reached the tent.
"Nova, why do you need to speak to him?"
She whirled around and scowled. "I have my secrets, you have yours. Excuse me."
"But I already told you something about me, and I know nothing about you! Surely it's fair-"
"Why are you so interested in my past now? I thought you wanted nothing to do with me!"
"Obviously things have changed in the past few days!"
"I'll explain it to you later, just not now. I have something to take care of." She hurried to the tent, leaving Damien outside. She burst in, not bothering to knock, and Norheim looked up at her in faint surprise. She slammed her paws down on the desk and the surrounding papers fluttered messily in the air. "You! You were the one responsible for it all, weren't you? You-"
"Now that's not a very polite way to greet your superior, Agent Nova. I expected better of you. Now what is this that you speak of?"
"The robbery of my house two and a half years ago, that's what! It was planned, a mission that you carried out where you assigned former Thieves Guild members to break into my house and steal my essay! I can't believe that you would stoop that low and do such a thing-"
"'Stoop that low,' you say? Oh please, we did not 'stoop' at all. We did what we had to do to get the essay in our possession. You can see how important it is to us, I explained to you two days ago. The essay was important to us then, but when the Obelisk appeared we realized the full extent of its importance. We knew all along you would choose the Seekers, but we needed to shift your loyalty, so to speak, to us."
Sierra's eyes widened. "Did you have anything to do with the Neopian Times rejections?"
"We may have spoken briefly with the editors about the matter-"
"I can't believe it!" She slammed her paws on the desk again, fire raging in her eyes. She turned her back to him, wiped her face with her paws, then whipped around to face him again. "I can't believe you would go this far to get such a small tidbit of information when you already know so much... But why did you have to ruin my life in the process? We lost 200K in valuables from the robbery. It may not sound like much to you, but it was a lot to us, and it still is. You turned me into a paranoid freak who sleeps with a dagger under her pillow ever since, all for an essay that you just could have gotten from the Neopian Times!"
"Oh no. The value is lost completely when something like that becomes public knowledge. It is no longer an advantage when everyone uses the same tactics."
"Right, if your opponents can predict what you're going to do, they're more likely to gain the upper hand. That much makes sense, unfortunately."
"You seem familiar with this topic."
"And you're straying from the subject of importance."
"You got your knowledge from the Seekers, I suppose? We've found out about your position in their society. I'm surprised that you would give all of that up to join us."
Sierra froze, eyes widening. Oh no. They've found out!
Norheim smiled thinly. "Oh dear, have we run across a slight problem?"
She tried to hide her trembling in her cloak. "How did you find out about that?" She gritted her teeth.
"We know many things, Sierra."
"How? I'm sick of your cryptic answers! Give me a literal one, for Fyora's sake!"
"I will not. It's my and Her Ladyship's best kept secret, after all."
"Fine. If you'll excuse me, sir, I have some business to attend to. Good morning- actually, no, don't have a good morning, I hope you have a miserable one." She irritably marched out of the tent, where Damien was still waiting for her.
"So that's what all of that was about-"
Sierra stopped walking and whirled around. "You were listening to my conversation? I'm pretty sure that I made it clear that it was a private-"
"-And that you'd tell me about it when you were finished talking. I was... gathering background information, of sorts."
"Yeah right, 'background information.' How convincing." She rolled her eyes and continued walking.
"Are you going to tell me about what that was about?"
She sighed. "To make a long story short, about two years ago some people broke into my house and stole a lot of stuff. I had always thought it was solely the Thieves Guild who were responsible, but it wasn't until last night when I had a frighteningly accurate dream about it that I realized that Norheim organized it to steal my essay, which I had just finished.
"I went to confront Norheim about to only for the conversation to veer off and to find out that he discovered my former position with the Seekers, which I didn't want him to find out."
"Because I don't want them to use my knowledge that way. They've already got my essay, and that's already more than I bargained for when I joined. I just can't let them continue to leech knowledge from me." She paused. "I don't want to continue being used like this, being just a pawn in her chess game. I didn't realize this would be what I was getting into when I joined."
"We're all pawns in her chess game. Every single one of us. She uses us all whether we like it or not, and we just have to go along with it. The consequences of betrayal are too great."
She lowered her voice. "Do you know what her plan is?"
"All I know is what I've been told, and that her ultimate plan that she has been working towards by making sure certain events throughout Neopia go a certain way is for the greater good of Neopia."
"But how can you be so sure that it's for 'the greater good?' How do you know that when you don't know what their plans or ambitions are at all?"
He responded with a look of confusion.
"You see what I mean? They refuse to trust any of us, save for the select handful who know almost everything, so how can we ever trust them? It's kind of like us: the more we know someone, the more we trust them. They would only be so wary and careful around everyone, including their own members, if they have something to hide where knowledge of it would change everything. It can't be a good thing if people knowing about it would change their plans. If it truly was for the greater good of Neopia, then they should have no trouble telling the public and convincing them to help out."
Damien nodded. The pieces were slowly coming together. "They've been working towards this great plan since the beginning of recorded history, maybe even before then."
"So that's what, two or more thousand years? We can conclude from that since it's such a long term project that it could result in drastic changes in Neopia, whatever that may be."
"Wait a minute, are you trying to find out-"
"But, but-" he hesitated, a little flustered. "The consequences-"
"I know. I need to find out anyway." I've got a plan, she added silently. She paused. "Do you still want to be just a pawn in her chess game? Think about it." She walked back to the tent, leaving him standing there in utter, overwhelmed surprise.
To be continued...