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A Hot Heist


by drifbilim

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      "The Ice Crystal Shop could make a fortune down here,” Inhi muttered to himself as he wiped another coating of sweat from his brow. He hadn’t even entered Moltara proper, he was still waiting in the elevator queue on the surface. But it was insufferably hot—even for a Hissi like himself. There was a shadow Cybunny a few spots behind him who was more sweat than fur, and Inhi hoped that the Cybunny didn’t come here expecting a vacation spot.

      He sure hadn’t. Moltara was hardly even a tourist spot anymore. The novelty of a new land had worn off, Moltara didn’t have anything to offer unless one was looking for ore, or a specialty item. Food was subpar (not that that was particularly surprising from a city built in a subterranean tunnel), and there was only so much lava one could look at before it was a part of the scenery, no different from snow or grass. And the average hour long wait time to even enter the city threw a lot of Neopians off. It threw him off, really. But he didn’t have much of a choice.

      It was lucky that he didn’t have to come here often at least, because he was coming up to the part of the trip that he absolutely loathed.

      Security check.

      Nothing wrong with it—Inhi could appreciate the need for safety—especially since the Altador Cup games were coming up, there were some cases of very unhappy supporters who weren’t pleased with their teams’ performance. Standard stuff, even for a new team like Moltara. It was only really an issue a month or so before the games started. But security was thorough, and they often kicked up a fuss when they checked him.

      Case in point—the unimpressed guard that stared at his chest plate, and all its assorted wires keeping him alive. Space Station tech wasn’t uncommon, but it was usually in the form of weaponry, not…this. But beggars couldn’t be choosers after all.

      He let the guard stare at the plate for a moment, before he raised a brow and crossed his arms to hide the elaborate machinery. The guard raised his gaze to stare at him, and Inhi gave him a careless shrug. “Bad accident,” was all he offered, but it was enough for the Scorchio, who grunted and moved onto the next hapless Neopian.

      But now of course everyone was staring at him. He didn’t have to see it to know it. And maybe they weren’t staring at his chest plate (there were a decent number of Robot Neopians off the Space Station), but they were certainly staring at the long shiny black scar that spawned from the corner of his mouth all the way down to his shoulder junction. He couldn’t blame anyone for staring, not really. He stared at it a lot himself. He covered the scar, or as much of it as he could without passing out from heat stroke, and resumed his position in line. It took a couple of minutes, but eventually everyone went back to minding their own business.

      The rest of the line passed without incident. The guards eyed him warily as he drew up his hood—everyone else was all but ripping off their clothes in the intolerable heat—but he was allowed into Moltara without a fuss.

      There were worst places to visit on a regular basis, but Moltara made Inhi uneasy. Perhaps it was the lack of sky or the cramped space, but Moltara raised up every single red flag in Inhi’s bones. His gut rolled, and his shoulders cramped from where he unconsciously scrunched them up and he couldn’t help but pick irritably at his chest plate, like there was a pack of Blechies scurrying about beneath.

      It was infuriating because it made no sense. Inhi frequented far more dangerous places with a firmer lid on his fear, but Moltara was like Darigan Citadel. Something always seemed to be watching, and it prickled at Inhi’s senses intolerably.

      His neutral expression slipped briefly into a grimace, and then a light frown. He really needed to get it together. Moltara wasn’t a city that anybody had any interest in. For such a small population though, it was loud. Steam operated machinery was deafening, and there wasn’t anything soothing about clang! clack! clang! of the gears as they turned, clack, clack. The sharp hiss of steam, the loud whirl of the fans sucking up the smoke and ash into ventilation tunnels.

      The city was sleepless, in that sense. It was impossible to get away from the noise.

      Inhi moved noiselessly through the city, hating the prickling feel of his nerves, he couldn’t shake the feel that he was being watched. Ridiculous. He still kept to the back alleys and maintenance tunnels—an old habit he couldn’t kick—slinking across the open areas only when he needed to. He didn’t feel any less watched, but the familiarity was nice. He felt good, still a shade of his former self, but he still had his tricks and ticks to fall back on.

      He slithered down into the depths of Moltara, past where the bustle of the city was, and into the more subdued, shadier area of the subterranean city. It was no less loud, but there was a bubbling waterfall of lava that pooled near the center of the cave which steered away most. It was gated off, and a guard stood at its only entrance. Inhi wasn’t entirely sure for the reason, but he’d heard the guard rumble that only those worthy could approach. Not that there were a whole lot of people (if any) lining up to visit the pool. The waterfall of lava had a terrible (if obvious) tendency to flare up with geysers, plumes of smoke and fire that made it hard to breathe.

      Inhi had no idea who could’ve looked at this particular cave and thought it liveable. The lava pit was an instant turnoff, in his opinion.

      He stared back at the guard at the lava pit as he climbed a set of narrow steps, leading into the abandoned, yet to be explored tunnels. It was odd that the lava pit was guarded yet the path leading into the unknown wasn’t, there was no telling what was past here. Maybe a molten version of the Snowager. Erupting lava was reasonably alarming, sure—but Inhi wasn’t sure how he’d feel knowing that they were guarding a lava pool and not a potentially more dangerous threat lurking in the caves.

      He kept a steady pace despite the heat until he reached one inconspicuous dark cave, the farthest there was before it became impossible to see. He stared at its black open maw.

      While the regular security check was by far the worst part of his journey, the dark cave was a close second. It took too long (and was rather suspicious) to gather the worms hidden about the caves for a bright enough lantern, and Inhi didn’t like spending any more time than what was necessary in Moltara. Perhaps if it had been a place like Meridell or Mystery Island, he might’ve been inclined to meander and linger, but the shorter his time in Moltara, the better.

      He wasn’t going to get anything done staring at it. With a huff, Inhi pulled out a long tether of string, neatly tying to a rock before he ventured in, ignoring the itch in his chest plate and the tingling on his neck.

*~*

      Memory didn’t serve in a cave like this.

      There was nothing to remember. It was indescribably dark, he kept pressing his hands together, touching his tail to his head to assure himself that he was still all there, not a simple conscience wandering the gloom.

      He brought a light into the cave one time, to cast the shadows away, to reassure himself of its size. The cave wasn’t cramped, it did not bare down on him, not with the light. But it was different in the dark. He only has his imagination to work off, and it insists that he is in a space small and tight, a space that a Petpet would struggle to move in, and that the next step forward he will meet the end, surrounded by—

      He ground his fangs together, and shook his arms out, trying to shake out the trembling. He was past that, he wasn’t there anymore—

      He hated this cave. Hated, hated, hated it. It always brought him someplace far gone, far away, long past. That monster was dead, he knew.

      Not dead enough. Never dead enough for him. Not when his body shook and trembled, and he couldn’t look at any sort of enclosed space without it reminding him of a grave.

      The horrors of war weren’t here, he told himself, as though it would make a difference. He kept moving through the shadowy cave.

      At the very least, the cave wasn’t bearably hot, it was warmer than he would’ve liked—a smoky heat that flushed his scales—but it was a nice relief from the heat by the bubbling lava. He wasn’t quite sure why that was, would it not be hotter in a smaller space?

      Inhi let himself zone out as his body moved mechanically through the caves, tracing the routine path only it knew. He held the ball of yarn tight in his hand, occasionally adjusting his grip to ensure that yes, it was still there. Couldn’t be too careful in a cave like this. Especially not when he was as jumpy as a Hopso.

      The temperature rose, or at Inhi found his hand straying towards his water sack a bit more frequently than he would’ve liked, there wouldn’t be any secret oasis in here that he could miraculously use to resupply. He couldn’t help it though—it was hot. It tickled at his throat, and he knew it was smoke because it stung at his eyes, and the smell was rotten. He didn’t know why it was suddenly getting hot and smelly, but he didn’t like it. His nerves were restless, at this rate he’d need to spend another night in Moltara to catch up on needed sleep. He didn’t like the sound of that.

      The cave moaned, a long wailing noise that cut through his musings, turning his flushed scales to ice. What was that?

      Nothing he wanted the pleasure of meeting that was for sure. Nerves alight, his passage through the tunnel was sluggish and torturous, but if he rushed forward, it was likely he would run straight into trouble. In spite of himself, he kept the slow pace. Slow and steady. That was what beat the Cybunny, wasn’t it?

      Something sounded like a gurgling stomach. Was the cave itself a—no that was ridiculous. It was loud, louder than before. Closer. The rock beneath his body was scorching hot, like there was lava lurking just below. He held back a yelp as he quickened his pace, swearing that he could feel the rock melting, turning into lava right before his—

      “Oh Queen Fyora,” he swore, and reached under his chest plate to retrieve his concealed dagger. It was the standard dagger given to members of the Thieves’ Guild (until they went out and acquired a better blade inevitably), but it would be enough. He hissed threateningly, brandishing the blade. He’d taken on worse, much worse, in Tyrannia. Whatever monster was plaguing him here didn’t stand a chance.

      The cave gurgled, and the ground was bright with heat, and for once Inhi wasn’t pleased that he could see.

      What emerged from the ground could’ve been a Sludgy, but the friendly and Puppyblew-like expression wasn’t anywhere to been found. Its eyes and mouth were the only things that glowed, and despite its cavernous mouth Inhi could hardly see a thing.

      Well it would be difficult to miss, hazards aside.

      Inhi didn’t give the beast a chance to attack. It barely had a chance to form before he swung the blade down on its approximation of a head, cutting through the sludge that made up its eyes and mouth. It shrieked as he did, and that was encouraging—otherwise he would’ve needed to flee from the only light source and that wouldn’t have been fun—he leapt back before the monster could get any ideas. He had to get to leave before it became dangerous to be near—or he’d need to resort to an unpleasant deed. Not that he had any qualms about doing so, but fighting a monstrous sludgy creature made out of lava didn’t really appeal to him.

      A cavernous wail rang out again, the sound growing steadily louder as the monster recreated its mouth. Did it only care about making that horrid noise?

      It lunged at him, shrieking all the while, and trailing splatters of lava in its wake. His chest plate was becoming uncomfortably hot, and he met it halfway, and sunk his dagger into its body, withdrawing it jerkily with a startled hiss when the cooling lava drooled down around the blade. Could this thing even die?

      His chest plate was going to start glowing at this rate, and he didn’t fancy that that would be good for him in the long run, or even the short run. He hadn’t fought with the darn thing before, and the last time he had fought had caused the need for the plate in the first place!

      He was hot and exhausted, and it wasn’t like this thing was going to give him enough of a breather to pull out his water sack and drink.

      Wait. Perhaps—

      His arm already brandished his water sack like a whip before he could finish the thought, and the thing shrieked as the water connected, its gelatinous body and face stiffening and cooling into hard rock before his eyes, immobilizing it.

      He didn’t hesitate, and slammed his dagger hilt into the space between its hollowed eyes. The rock was brittle, newly formed, and fell off in chunks when he slammed the dagger down upon it.

      The cave descended into darkness, but he stared at that spot for some time. How long, he didn’t know. Perhaps awhile. But perhaps not long at all.

      He let his body fall into its routine as he withdrew into his mind. The monster would bother him no longer.

      He’d done such a thing before. Many times, but each time felt like his first time, so long ago, in that rainy alleyway in Neovia. He fell back into his own head then too.

      The warm glint of the ruby stone caught his eye—the stone he came all this way for—and he exhaled softly as he carefully picked away at its base, gently lifting it to eye level.

      Red Moltite. The only thing on all of Neopia that he could use to get his chest plate running again, if it went through the proper hands up on the Space Station. What they used the Moltite for Inhi didn’t know, and didn’t really care. His contacts on the Space Station were few and far in between. Likely just a rare and precious ore that couldn’t be found on Kreuldor, something that was passed around in the more illicit areas of the Space Station—given that Moltarans were yet to approve the mining of the substance. But it wasn’t very hard to smuggle it out, all things considered. But he supposed he was the professional.

      The journey out of the cave was shorter than the way in, if only because all Inhi had to do was follow his tethered string. He fell into thought as he did, trying to form a game plan to get the Moltite past security, but inevitably his thoughts strayed to his encounter in the caves.

      First time he had taken down something that wasn’t an obvious Neopian. He supposed it was perhaps a Moltaran Sludgy, but the chances of a Sludgy growing that large were slim, and a Sludgy couldn’t survive down here regardless—too hot and dry. He’d never seen its kind before, not in any of the other times he ventured into that cave.

      He stared back at the guard who stood at the lava pool—same guy, he had to hope he wasn’t recognized and ratted out to the rest of the guard—slithering past him to make for the heart of Moltara. He needed a disguise for his cargo, as it were.

      Focus, focus, focus. He just needed to focus. Focus on the job, the heist, and all parts remaining. He’d gotten out in one piece. Perhaps one day he wouldn’t. But that day wasn’t today.

      The End.

 
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