The Sisters of Pillar Grove:Part Seven
Wingen and the others watched in awe. Yet merely “awe” did not feel sufficient enough to describe the way Pillar Grove's tree appeared to gain a will of its own.
The wood had such a hold of Lumberjack that it remained suspended in the air even though it was pushed away from the pillar itself. Its mandibles twitched as they struggled to operate. Eventually, it managed to bite through the wood before its jaws could be bound as well. Lumberjack fell, taking out two walkways below it. The third buckled under the robot's weight, but remained attached to the pillars as Lumberjack laid on it.
The remainder of the wood on Lumberjack's head covered up its front windows. But detached from the tree, the wood became surprisingly brittle, as Lumberjack's tail bent forward and ripped it off with ease. Lumberjack scrambled to regain its footing and return to the pillar.
More wood spilled forth from the tree. The rippling, liquid-like way that it moved reminded Wingen more of lava than it did plant matter. As it traveled further from its source, it began to branch out. Before long, dozens of wooden vines spread out, grasping at whatever it could. They almost looked like misshapen hands blindly reaching around. As soon as something -anything- was grabbed, the tendrils squeezed it as tightly as they could. More walkways were crushed and the outer walls of some buildings started to crumble under the pressure.
“Did I hear right that there's an earth faerie inside the tree?” Frazer asked uneasily.
“She and her sister, an air faerie, have been taking refuge here for centuries. The air faerie is what's powering the robot,” Zircon said as he nodded. Tense, he gazed at the wooden tendrils spreading further and wider. “There was no chance that the earth faerie would do nothing while her sister is in trouble. Still, I've could never of expected something like this...”
Wingen saw Frazer's face fall once filled in on the situation. After a brief moment of speechlessness, he grit his teeth and growled under his breath, “Of all the abominable...”
Frazer gave a heavy breath as he tried to compose himself. Once he did, he said to Zircon, “I know it's no consolation, but if Jacenty thinks that he's going to use the faeries to sweep through the rest of Neopia unopposed, he's out of his mind. I don't know what possesses him to think that Faerieland will sit idly by while two of their own are being treated in such a manner.”
Dimitri, who also looked visibly horrified, laughed humorlessly, “If this is what happens when one faerie gets mad, imagine what a whole civilization would look like!”
“I assure you, I have no intentions of letting it get to that point,” Zircon responded. “Even if I have to personally to see to it, neither Halloy or Jacenty will be leaving this cave.”
Zircon's attention was brought back to the creeping vines. As they spread, more and more of the city's infrastructure was at risk of being crushed. Zircon's voice gained a sense of urgency as he observed, “Much as I hate to say it, however, the earth faerie is putting the city in danger. If this continues, innocent people could be harmed!”
“Then we gotta hurry and free her sister!” Wingen exclaimed, adopting the same urgent tone as Zircon to spur the others into action.
Just as they started to head for Lumberjack, it began to climb up the pillar again. Though the tree's tendrils appeared to lack any sense of direction, they did seem to be able to pick up on Lumberjack's presence. As the robot moved, the tendrils followed.
Wingen noticed Lumberjack hesitate for a moment. Then it crawled past the hole, apparently abandoning the notion of chewing its way to the earth faerie. It circled around and around further up the pillar as it tried to avoid the tendrils' pursuit. Lumberjack faced the pillar that Wingen and his friends were on and readied its legs.
“Run!” Wingen shouted once he realized what Lumberjack was about to do.
Sure enough, Lumberjack leapt in their direction. Wingen and the others ran around the pillar and made it about half way to the other side when Lumberjack landed above them. The impact sent all of them to the floor. Wingen rolled over and lifted his head to see where Lumberjack was; it would not have hit them if they had stayed put, but it would have come distressingly close.
As Lumberjack ran further upwards, the tendrils were not far behind. Their approach was rapid. Wingen did not realize just how fast they were moving until he got a closer look. Everyone picked themselves up and resumed running. Zircon kicked open the front door of a store and beckoned the others inside.
Wingen heard a shout behind him. He turned to see Frazer being dragged across the floor as a vine grabbed a hold of his leg. “Professor!”
Frazer tried to struggle and pull his leg free, but it was no use. The tendrils began to lift him into the air. As they did, they tightened around his legs and increased the volume of his shouts.
Dimitri rushed to Wingen's side. He took a deep, yet ragged, gasp of air and blew into his arm cannon. He shot a fireball at the section that held Frazer and burned it to cinders. The little bit that still gripped his leg withered into dust seconds later, and the tendrils above him writhed in pain.
Frazer fell to the floor. He didn't take a large drop, but it was just enough to keep him stunned. While the tendrils were still recoiling, Dimitri ran to Frazer and urged Wingen to follow. “Hurry, help me out, Wingen!”
Wingen and Dimitri each took a hold of Frazer's arms and pulled him into the store. After they crossed the threshold, Frazer regained his senses and tried to stand. But he barely twitched his leg before he flinched and sharply hissed through his clenched teeth, “I think my leg is broken...”
While Wingen and Dimitri gingerly propped Frazer up against the nearest wall, Zircon stood guard at the door. He kept a keen eye on the movements of the vines and readied his sword in case they came too close.
Then, Zircon's demeanor was suddenly relieved of a little pressure. Wingen peeked at what Zircon must have seen, and noticed several Neopets flying down from the palace. A brown Shoyru landed just outside the door and saluted Zircon. Judging from her armor, she appeared to be a soldier.
“Lumin sent all of the soldiers that can fly to evacuate the citizens,” the Shoyru explained. “He wasn't sure at first about moving anyone with that robot on the loose, but the branches are coming dangerously close to the residential levels.”
Sure enough, Wingen looked up and -in the dim light- could just barely make out several soldiers ushering civilians out of their homes and carrying those that lacked wings.
“Good. Be extremely careful of both the robot and the branches. And mind any structural damage either of them inflict,” Zircon told the solider. He glanced at Frazer. “We do have a Grarrl here that's been injured. If you could send for others to come by and-”
“Get your citizens to safety first,” Frazer cut in. He growled as he tried to mentally suppress the pain. “It's just a broken leg; it's nothing I won't live through.”
Wingen and Dimitri's eyes met and reflected the same feeling of apprehension. They knew the professor too well to make any attempt to change his mind, but that didn't mean that they had to be happy about it.
Sensing that he and Frazer were of like minds when it came to stubbornness, Zircon relented and changed the subject, “Very well. What is the status of Flicker and Lampyri?”
“They're still waiting for your signal. Apparently, Flicker had to be stopped from jumping into the fight early...”
“The eager type, I see,” Zircon couldn't help but chuckle. He nodded to the Shoyru and dismissed her.
The Shoyru took her leave and joined the rest of the soldiers. Once she left, Wingen looked at Dimitri and Frazer. Dimitri rummaged through the store, looking for anything that could make Frazer comfortable. Wingen could tell by the focused way Dimitri moved that he was of a much clearer mind now. The few moments that Wingen could see his face in full revealed that the relief of hearing that Flicker and Lampyri were alright had done wonders in bringing his lucidity back. However, when Dimitri realized that Wingen was watching him, he said nothing and sheepishly turned away.
There was another tremor. Zircon and Wingen whipped their heads to see that Lumberjack had once again leapt to an adjacent pillar. The tendrils, though becoming thinner and thinner the further they traveled from the main trunk, relentlessly chased after the robot. A leg here, a bit of its tail there; the tendrils grasped at it time and time again, only for Lumberjack to break free.
Lumberjack stopped, anchored itself to the pillar, and aimed at the hole in the trunk. An orb of green light glowed in its mouth. Then, a beam of earth magic burst forth and vaporized the tendrils in the way.
The shock of the main pillar being struck with the blast shook the entire cave. Rocks began to crumble from the ceiling. Wingen saw a boulder smash into a house just minutes after a family had been evacuated from it. If they hadn't left when they did...
Smoke poured from the hole in the crater. When it began to clear, Wingen saw that most of the wood that had grown from it had been destroyed, leaving a much smaller, convulsing clump in its place.
Lumberjack, echoing the confidence of its pilot, leaned towards the main trunk. It readied its legs, then jumped at it again.
The wood erupted from the tree a second time. This time, it grew with a vengeance.
Even more tendrils, thicker and stronger than the first wave, caught Lumberjack in midair, just above a walkway. The wood grew even faster than before. In no more than a few seconds, Lumberjack's head, body, mandibles, and legs were all wrapped. Though the tendrils didn't seem strong enough to crush Lumberjack, they were able to hold onto it so tightly that it was only able struggle minutely.
It was completely immobile.
Seeing this, Zircon didn't waste another moment and pulled out a flare gun. “It's not how I envisioned it, but all that matters is that it can't move!”
Zircon aimed the flare gun in the air and shot out a stream of green smoke.
Wingen knew exactly what part of the cave to watch, but even then he had to focus to notice something moving around in Pillar Grove's dim lighting. Dimitri, who had no foreknowledge of the plan, was only confused as he struggled to see anything.
Then, a wave of realization came over Dimitri's face as he caught a fleeting glimpse of a glowing green dot dropping towards Lumberjack from the highest levels of the city. It dove so quickly that it appeared as no more than a blur to any onlookers. But his suspicions were proved correct when the blur slowed down just enough to reveal its form. And that was only when Flicker and Lampyri hovered in mid-air after smashing their weapons into Lumberjack's windows.
* * *
It was not in Flicker’s nature to hide. In the most literal sense, trying to remain unseen was usually rendered a futile effort by his glow. But for him, it was not a matter of being unable to hide, it was that he didn’t want to hide.
Perhaps it was because of all those years of having no control over his own life and being told that he had no worth as a person. Once Flicker got a single taste of the ability to solve his problems with his own hands, he became entranced by the idea of jumping into any battle he could. To stand aside and let others solve fights without his involvement was par the course a few months prior, but unthinkable now. Whatever the reason for it, Flicker felt a rush of satisfaction the instant he was able to throw off his cloak and bring his hammer down on Lumberjack.
The windows cracked and tiny shards of glass flew off here and there, but they still remained intact. It was tougher than Flicker thought. He imagined that all the pummeling it received, combined with his hammer and Lampyri's chains, would have been more than enough to shatter it.
Flicker only made out the presence of Jacenty and Halloy through the web of cracks in the window. Much as he wanted to, he couldn't see the looks on their faces when it turned out that he and Lampyri were alive and well. But there was still an evident sense of shock and anger in the way that Halloy jerked a control stick to tilt Lumberjack's head. Its mandibles tried to break free of the tendrils that had entrapped it, but to no avail.
Lampyri, however, never believed in an overabundance of caution. She directed Flicker away from Lumberjack, concerned of an energy blast at point-blank range. She flew towards the walkways and beckoned him to follow, though he already planned on making a beeline there as soon as possible. He scanned the area for Wingen and flew straight to him as soon as he saw him run out of a building.
As soon as he landed, Flicker said, “Sheesh, those windows are tough! I thought it would be easy to break through them, but-”
He stopped himself short when he saw that Wingen nearly lost his balance when someone rushed past him and shouted Flicker's name. It startled Flicker enough that it took him a few seconds for his mind to register who it was. “Oh, hi Dimitri! I didn't know you were here!”
For some reason, Dimitri looked the most frazzled and out-of-breath Flicker had ever seen him. He heaved deep breaths as his mouth hung open. All the while, he stared at Flicker so firmly and intently that he was starting to wonder if he said something wrong.
“He says it so casually...” Dimitri laughed with a strained drop of humor to no one in particular. Once he stopped, he put his hands on his hips, looked at the floor, shook his head, and mumbled, “No wonder Lumin's such a worrywart...”
Flicker turned to Wingen, hoping for an explanation over Dimitri's odd behavior. Instead, he just shook his head as he adjusted his hat, and mouthed the word, “Later.”
Lampyri lowered herself to the walkway and also watched Dimitri in bewilderment. As soon as Dimitri noticed her, he lifted his head and gave another weak laugh. “You guys have no idea how glad I am to see you.”
Lampyri blinked a couple times in surprise. She didn't seem to know what to say, as she stalled for a few seconds before responding, “It's... good to see you too.”
She slightly lifted her head in Lumberjack's direction. “Though honestly, I was hoping not to involve you in this mess. At any rate, Halloy probably built those windows to be tougher than ordinary glass. But one more hit should be enough.”
“Then let’s go!” Flicker shouted eagerly. Once Wingen was on his back, he bent his knees, spread his wings, and leapt upwards.
Lampyri jumped into the air too, but lingered for a moment as she asked Dimitri, “Do you have any firepower left?”
“You kidding? I can hardly breathe anymore,” he answered as his shoulders dropped.
“Well, will your breath come back?”
“Eventually, if I take it easy for a little bit.”
“Then don't go too far. We should end all this now, but who knows what Jacenty and Halloy have up their sleeves,” Lampyri instructed Dimitri before taking off.
The tangle of tendrils that Lumberjack was caught in was located in the higher part of Pillar Grove's middle level. Flicker and Lampyri met up with Wingen and Dimitri around the lower level, so Flicker intended to close the distance as fast as he could. But as they approached Lumberjack, Lampyri held out her palm to stop him before he got too close.
They were close enough to Lumberjack that it was within the range of Lampyri’s chains. She spun one of her chain ropes around at her side before launching it at her target. The windows had taken enough damage by that point that even the impact of the tip of the chains was all it took to shatter the glass into tiny pieces.
Lampyri looked at Flicker and Wingen and nodded her head at Lumberjack. “Watch the vines.”
There was almost nothing left of the glass to speak of. The minuscule shards littered Lumberjack's face. Against such a tough exoskeleton as his, broken glass that size was little more than an annoyance to Flicker.
Already, the vines were creeping into the open control room. As Flicker got closer, he noticed a few tendrils try to reach out for him once they sensed his presence. They didn't seem as strong as before and were waning in energy, but it was probably better that he listened to Lampyri and still took them seriously.
Flicker did his best to avoid touching the vines. He put so much focus into dodging them that he didn't notice until he was practically inside Lumberjack's head that the two chairs at the control panel were vacant.
When Jacenty presented the request to Halloy, he expected to be denied. But the scientist was so on-edge that he simply responded with a curt, “I don’t care!” Jacenty was sure to make his way to the engine room before Halloy calmed down enough to change his mind.
Jacenty grabbed a handful of amber beads out of one of the containers. He didn’t take so much that Lumberjack’s power supply would be set back by any significant amount, only enough so that he could make use of the city’s elevators. With the hole that Lumberjack chewed out of the tree blocked, there was only one other way to the earth faerie, and Jacenty was not about to expect Halloy to be on board with the idea of flying him there.
He stood by the door on Lumberjack’s right side, thumping his foot impatiently. With the robot incapacitated, the opposition would surely try to corner him and Halloy if they remained inside. They had a much better chance at fighting back out in the open space.
He waited and waited. Jacenty was ready to throw the door open and jump out at any moment, but Halloy took his time. When Jacenty last saw him, he was fiddling with something at the control panel. The next time he looked, he was still there. “Get moving, Halloy! You’re wasting time!”
“Shut your mouth! I’m coming!” Halloy yelled back at him. He finished with whatever he was doing and ran to catch up with Jacenty, but at a pace that was still far too slow for his partner’s liking.
“The sooner we get out of here, the sooner we can regain control of the robot,” Jacenty said harshly, faintly hoping that the statement would speed up Halloy’s feet.
“Oh? And what is this great plan of yours?” Halloy asked with a scant amount of faith. “If you ask me, we should just let them get inside, circle around, and blast them when they have nowhere to run!”
“And destroy the robot in the process?”
“Better that then let them win!”
“You fold too easily. What I’ll do is put the robot inside my Inventory. While you blast them to your heart’s content and give me cover, I’ll sneak inside the palace and take it out there.”
Halloy laughed, not yet convinced. “And how are you going to do that? Zircon’s not as stupid as he looks! He’ll have guards posted in there and –considering how eager you are to let me do the fighting- you don’t strike me as combat-ready!”
“You act like this is the first guarded palace I’ve ever broken into,” Jacenty said with a sneer. “Trying to use brute force to get to the earth faerie clearly didn't work. A more careful method is needed.”
Halloy was quiet for a brief moment. Jacenty thought that he might finally admit defeat, but proved him wrong when he asked, “How do I know you’re going to follow through with this? That you’re not going to just take Lumberjack and run?”
“What good would that do me?! You have the key to start it!” Jacenty snarled. Their enemies were coming closer and closer, and Halloy was still so set on making the whole ordeal more painful than it needed to be.
“It might not do you any good, but it'd be a great way to spite me,” Halloy replied. He grinned as one of his feet held the key to Lumberjack’s controls. “How about this: Since I don’t trust you and you don’t trust me, let’s make sure that neither of us can stab the other in the back. Once you do your thing, I’ll let you have Lumberjack’s key. But in return, you have to give me the key to your Inventory! Otherwise, I’ll just say, ‘so long,’ and let them capture you! The dungeon’s an awfully boring place, you know?”
Jacenty took a deep breath through his grit teeth and dragged his hand down his face. They wouldn’t have been in that situation in the first place had Halloy stuck around his lab long enough to make sure that Flicker and Lampyri perished. But despite his face overheating just hearing Halloy talk, Jacenty conceded. “Fine! Just as long as you start cooperating!”
The sound of the front windows shattering was Jacenty’s cue to jump. He leapt out of Lumberjack and onto the walkway below, careful to avoid the earth faerie's vines. Halloy was right behind him and the two rushed as far away from Lumberjack as they could before their enemies took notice.
* * *
“What do you mean 'they’re gone?!'” Lampyri yelled to Flicker. It couldn’t have been. How could they have managed to slip away so quickly?
“Um, I mean that they’re not here? I don’t know how to word it any differently…” Flicker muttered back to her sheepishly.
“It was a rhetorical q- Oh forget it.” Lampyri flew above Lumberjack while Flicker and Wingen investigated the inside. Jacenty and Halloy could not have gotten far. Either they had just escaped, or they were hiding in wait. “Be careful while you two are in there. They might be setting up an ambush.”
She went around the robot, hoping to find anything out of the ordinary. Indeed, Lampyri found an open door on the right side and then spotted Jacenty and Halloy making a run for it on a nearby walkway.
Lampyri rushed to the door and lingered just long enough to shout her findings to Flicker and Wingen. When they ran to her with the intent of assisting, she held up her hand and said, “I’ll take care of them! You two release the faerie!”
She took off towards her enemies. For somebody that fought at close range like Flicker, Jacenty and Halloy were well out of reach. But they’d have to run much, much further for them to be out of Lampyri’s range.
Lampyri watched Halloy. The clay Jubjub’s malleable form made trying to restrain him a wasted effort. But Lampyri couldn’t let him run free. So she aimed her chains at the one part of his body that he couldn’t reshape.
The chains bound Halloy’s wings together. He gave a shout as Lampyri yanked him backwards and lifted him in the air. He tried to squirm free at first, but then Lampyri spun him around in the air. Soon, the dizziness set in and pacified his struggling. She swung Halloy over her shoulder and slammed him towards Jacenty. Jacenty evaded the hit and instead caused his acquaintance to pound into the walkway.
There was a noticeable lack of intensity as the Halloy hit the metal. With flails, there was usually such satisfaction in swinging around a heavy object, followed by a nice resonance that came with smashing things to bits. That, however, felt more like flailing a plush toy around.
Lampyri sighed. She never thought she’d see the day when throwing her enemies at each other would be so boring.
“Oh well.” She shrugged. Lampyri figured that with enough momentum and force, even a ball of clay was eventually going to hurt. So she swung Halloy at Jacenty again.
But Jacenty was just as nimble as he was in their encounter the day before. He didn’t seem strong, but he exuded a sort of an experience at dodging enemy attacks. No one would be so lucky as to consistently evade Lampyri's attacks unless they had significant practice.
“Stop it! You’re making me sick, you brat!” Halloy screamed at Lampyri as she pulled him back in.
Initially, she thought that Halloy would be the bigger threat. But as she kept her eye on Jacenty and saw that he was getting in position to do something, she realized that he was the one that needed restraining more. Lampyri obliged to Halloy’s request and released him from his binds by throwing him at Jacenty.
Jacenty moved his head at the right moment, causing Halloy to splat against pillar behind him like a ball of mud. While Halloy tried to pull himself off of the wall, Jacenty took out the Inventory key he used back in the lab. At a turn of his wrist, a pair of large doors appeared in the air and opened wide. The doors and the Inventory inside were large enough to hold Lumberjack. But Lampyri wondered what good it would do Jacenty there, so far away from it.
Jacenty swung the key forward. The open doors sped through the air in a straight line, swallowing up the robot in their path and slicing the vines holding onto it. He turned the key again, and the doors slammed shut before they could hit the pillar on the opposite side. The outline of the Inventory’s entrance faded from sight, as if they never existed.
Lampyri stopped and hovered in one spot. Her awe at the sight was brief – so brief that it was entirely forgotten in a matter of seconds. The realization set in, and then horror washed over her.
* * *
There was an odd sensation. It came across Flicker like a wave, something passing through the air that scrambled his thoughts as it went by him. It didn’t take long for his head to level again, but he could still sense that something wasn’t right.
“Ergh, what was that?” Flicker groaned as he rubbed his forehead, trying to alleviate the last of his headache. He looked down to his side and saw Wingen doing the same while dizzily trying to move about.
Wingen happened to look towards the front of Lumberjack instead of their destination in the back. But then he turned around completely and stared at something outside. As if he had completely forgotten about their mission, Wingen slowly approached the broken window and withered vines near the control panel. When he pulled himself up and through the opening, Flicker heard an audible gasp escape his brother’s lips.
Flicker followed Wingen. He looked outside too, and saw nothing – literally nothing but a white void, stretching on for what looked like forever.
“Big Brother… Where are we?”
To be continued…