Eye of the Crokabek: Part Three
The guards were clearly members of the Sway. Even if they hadn't been attired with coattails and fob watches, the Crokabek perched on the shoulder of one would've given them away. Tim, Marta and Phil huddled in the bushes out of sight.
“Looks like our new mayor's decided to tighten security,” Tim commented.
“D'ye reckon they'd let us past?” Phil wondered aloud.
Tim shook his head. “I don't think they're letting anyone past,” he said slowly.
Marta looked more closely. The guards' menacing, watchful stance seemed to support Tim's statement. They were there to keep people out.
“So, do we have some kind of a plan?” Phil asked Tim.
“Yep,” chirped Tim, “Cool. So I was thinking: You know how Moltara has those supply routes...” Blank looks greeted him. “Cool. Okay. So Moltara was hidden for thousands of years, and this entrance was locked, right? But the Moltarans still came up to the surface from time to time to bring back supplies, right? They had back routes they used for doing that.”
Comprehension dawned on Phil and Marta's faces.
“I figure we use one of those back routes,” Tim told them simply.
“And the Sway don't know where they are?” Marta queried.
“Nope,” said Tim confidently, “Very few people know where they are,”
“But you do?” asked Phil.
“We-ell...” Tim trailed off “I kinda do.”
“Kinda?” asked Phil, “What do you mean by 'kinda'?”
Tim knew where the tunnels let out underground. And he had a vague idea of the direction they went in. But he hadn't exactly accessed them from the surface before. “But we'll find them all right,” he assured his companions. And so saying, he set off into the uncharted jungle with Phil and Marta trailing reluctantly behind.
The sun was already past it's zenith when they eventually found what they were looking for. And even Tim had to admit that it was probably pure luck that had led them there. It turned out to be rather difficult to find a small hole in the middle of a dense jungle. You could pass within a few paces of it without noticing it. But as luck would have it, they did find their entrance.
The shaft descended into the earth at a steep angle. But the walls were well supplied with hand- and foot-holds. Climbing would definitely be feasible.
Tim stood on the edge of the hole uncertainly. He wondered if they could use a rope... But they couldn't very well leave the rope tied there – that would be asking for trouble. Anyone who came looking would know exactly where they had been. Then another thought crossed his mind...
“Marta,” he asked cautiously, “You can fly right?”
The Vandagyre looked confused at the obvious question. “Yeah,” she replied slowly.
“I was just wondering...” said Tim, “If Phil and I climb down using a rope, do you think you could coil it and fly down after us?”
“Yeah, sure thing,” smiled Marta. She was pleased to have a way of being helpful.
“You know,” said Tim, warming to his theme, “We could even set up a belay around that tree trunk there, that'd make the climb much easier.” He withdrew a set of pulleys from his pack as he spoke.
“What, and have the rope fray internally as it runs over those rocks there?” asked Phil, pointing. “Yeah, not keen.”
Tim sighed and conceded the point.
In the end, they settled for using a simple safety rope. Tim went first. He lowered himself cautiously over the edge. Moving bit by bit, he slowly made his way down the shaft. It was with great relief that he finally emerged from the tunnel onto solid ground. He untied the safety rope from around his waist. Then he tugged twice and watched as Marta drew it back up the shaft.
Tim looked briefly around himself, then sat down to wait for his friends. It wasn't long before he saw Phil's yellow feet appearing at the entrance to the shaft.
“That was easy,” the Krawk announced as he jumped the last few metres. “Well, sort of,” he conceded. Truth be told, there had been some moments when he'd lost his footing. Those had been rather tense.
Tim looked at Phil's unadorned waist. “You didn't use the safety rope?” he asked incredulously.
“Nah, too easy bro,” Phil told him.
Just then, Marta appeared behind him, holding the rope. She looked a little shaken.
“We wanted to be quick as possible,” she explained to Tim, “You see, we were being watched,” she added in an undertone.
“Yeah, soon as you left this Crokabek came and sat in a tree, just watching us,” Phil told him, “It was super creepy.”
Phil sounded more like he was excited than creeped out. But Tim knew that was just Phil's way. He'd never let on that he was actually scared by something if he could help it.
Tim ground his teeth together with annoyance. So it wasn't ideal that the Sway had tracked them down and were keeping tabs on them. But really, he'd expected something like this. I mean, we're talking Sway here. And nothing escapes the Sway. Nothing. Besides, Tim told himself, maybe it was just an ordinary Crokabek. Maybe it had nothing to do with the Sway.
Tim turned away from the tunnel and together, he, Phil and Marta set out towards Moltara City. If he'd looked back just then, he would've seen a Crokabek emerge from the tunnel they'd just left. It glanced briefly in their direction then silently winged it's way towards the Town Hall.
The three friends sat on a ledge overlooking the city.
“So what's the plan, Tim?” asked Marta.
“Mmh,” assented Tim, “Cool, so we need to get some more information. I was thinking maybe we should get in contact with Igneot again. Just in case he's heard anything new. Also,” he hesitated, “I reckon it's worth talking to Cog. If anyone's willing to talk about what's going on here, it'll be her.”
Marta and Phil nodded agreement.
“How 'bout we split up,” suggested Marta, “I'll go visit Igneot, while you two poke around here and see what you can find.”
Tim looked uncertain, but Phil was convinced.
“What's the worst that can happen?” he asked, “The Sway aren't going to ambush anyone in the middle of the magma caves!”
The Sway's activities had clearly centred on politics here in Moltara City. The cave dwellers had their own governance system, and the Sway didn't seem interested in messing with that. Yet.
Tim was convinced. Marta departed to visit Igneot.
“If you can't find us, Marta, you can just assume that we've gone to ground somewhere. Spend the night at Igneot's if you have to. We'll come find you when we can.” Marta nodded acknowledgement as she headed off.
Tim and Phil headed in to the city together.
“Don't try and walk in the shadows” muttered Phil out of the corner of his mouth, “it looks sus.”
Tim looked contrite and forced himself to walk across the town square as normally as he could. He looked about as awkward as it is possible for a Yurble to look. Phil gritted his teeth. He'd just have to cope with the fact that Tim was going to look 'sus' regardless of how he walked.
To Tim's surprise, Cog's Togs was still closed. That boded ill. Tim led Phil into one of the many side-streets leading off the main square. He made his way confidently through the maze of twisted streets towards Cog's house.
Eventually, Tim came to a halt in front of a heavy metal door that was covered in a bewildering array of gears and sprockets. He knocked. Phil thought he heard a faint scurry on the other side of the door, but he must've imagined it. No-one answered the knock.
Tim looked at Phil uneasily. Should they go in?
Decided, Tim moved a series of gears on the door into their proper alignment, then flicked a switch. Every cog on the surface of the door began to whirr quietly. A moment later, they heard a slight click, and the door swung open on well oiled hinges. They stepped inside and Tim closed the door behind them.
“Ah, Tim...” came Phil's uncertain voice beside him.
He turned back around. A White Kacheek stood facing them. Her eyes were cold and hard, and she held a sword confidently in a ready position.
“Who are you and what do you want?” she demanded.
Marta looked around Igneot's empty abode. There were signs of a struggle. The earthen floor was marked by hoofprints and footprints. And by the doorway, she could see a pair of long, even grooves. They looked like they had been made by Gnorbu hooves. Perhaps, Marta thought, the hooves of an unconscious Gnorbu as he was dragged out of his house by members of the Sway...
She frowned as she followed the furrows out the door. They seemed to lead towards–
Suddenly everything went black.
Tim eyed the White Kacheek warily. He thought of the weapons in their packs and wished he'd had the forethought to get them out. “We're friends of Cog's,” he told the Kacheek slowly, “and we're looking for her”
Tim felt Phil's elbow jab sharply into his side. He shrugged. Even if this Kacheek was an agent of the Sway, there was no point lying. It would be fairly obvious what they were up to anyway. Besides, Tim always felt honesty was the best policy.
“Cog's not here,” the Kacheek told them, equally wary, her sword still raised.
Tim swallowed nervously. That much was obvious. Cog was definitely not here. But who was this Kacheek? And what did she have to do with the situation?
“Well, could you tell us where we'd find her?” he asked, as politely as he could while confronted with a menacing sword.
The Kacheek cautiously lowered her sword. She shook her head. “I don't know,” she told them warily, “you'd have to ask the Sway.”
To be continued…