Overture: Part Two
Sound reverberated through the dusty silence, disturbing the comfortable peace with its unruly echoes. Slowly the sound shifted, a perfect rhythm continuing as a second note stumbled behind, struggling to catch up with a vulgar dissonance. The first sound stopped, the second pausing a moment later, their echoes chasing about the cavernous room for a long moment before falling still and allowing the complacent peace to return to its comfortable sleep.
Lost amidst the countless monotone shelves of the seemingly endless warehouse, the two pets gazed up thoughtfully, their eyes scanning the featureless boxes that housed the richest collection of artefacts ever to grace Neopia. A disconcerted look crossed the first pet's handsome face, the dark Halloween Moehog turning his attention back to the angular, functional script covering the sheet in his hand. They were certainly in the right place.
'Ah!' he exclaimed cheerfully, stepping back for a better view at the shelves. 'Somebody appears to have put it a shelf too high.' He pointed to a nondescript black briefcase high out of reach before them. Pointedly he glanced at his companion, the split Grundo returning the stare for a moment before realisation dawned and he hurried back down the aisle, returning moments later and pulling the ladder across the shelves with him. He had wondered for a while why he had brought along on this excursion into the bowels of the warehouse, but the deeper they travelled the more he came to realise just what he was: a pack man.
Obeying the unspoken command, he quickly scurried up the ladder and recovered the errant briefcase. It still held tumultuous memories for Parlax, claimed on the day he bade farewell to his failing old employer and entered the service of Master Hog. He had not expected to find himself doing the same infuriating tasks for his new master as well, even if the supposed end result was now more than just the wild fantasy of a raving lunatic.
A satisfied smile seeped across Master Hog's face as he surveyed the contents of the case, the intricately carved black stones smiling back up at him, their dark surfaces tinted with the delicate caress of a deep ocean blue. Beautiful.
'Wonderful,' he said lightly, closing the case with a snap and tossing it unceremoniously back to his companion, his mercurial attention back to the sheet of paper still clutched in one hand. 'This just leaves us one item still to go.'
He snapped his fingers sharply, the sound ringing out crisp and clear across the warehouse. No sound of hurried stride or shuffling steps answered his cry, just the ever-present stillness holding its breath, waiting.
'Sir, how may I be of assistance?' a smooth voice suddenly asked, causing the scarred Grundo to jump, the briefcase almost falling from his grasp. It belonged to a Darigan Kiko, his hovering shape tilted forward in the peculiar arrangement that served as a bow for a pet with no spine to bend. Looking up the Kiko's red eyes met his own, and a flash of distaste danced across his face. By the time he twisted upright again, only an insatiable desire to be of assistance remained.
'Where is item code 43615BI9?' Master Hog asked, glancing back at the sheet.
For a moment the Kiko's eyes slid out of focus. Parlax was reminded of the infuriating hourglass that plagued Virtupets screens when the systems were working, imaging them on those blank red eyes. They did not remain out of focus for long however, and soon the Kiko was smiling again as he replied, 'Ah, Vylare's Grace? One moment, I'll go collect it for you.'
Bowing again the Kiko drifted out of sight, knowledge accrued during his scattered years in these dusty paths guiding him to his destination. Parlax watched him go with an ugly scowl.
'You should be careful of the things you leave unsaid,' Master Hog mused aloud, keeping eyes averted from the Grundo. 'Oacus is perhaps the only other pet in all the world to know the full contents of these stores, next to myself, and is certainly the only one who knows where everything is. It is never wise to antagonise one with such power, and if I were to discover the animosity between the two of you had affected my operations in any way, you would both find yourselves in a similar situation to that of a certain speckled Xweetok.'
Parlax swallowed awkwardly, immediately wiping his face of any emotion toward the maddening Kiko. Remember Xandra.
Silently Oacus reappeared, drifting soundlessly through the air with his familiar helpful smile and clutching a box in his hands. A glimmer of excitement appeared in the Moehog's eyes he eased open the lid and gazed at his prize within, bought at the cost of Oacus' former master, its colourless radiance disturbing the dusty air.
'Magnificent,' he said casually, letting the lid drop closed again and instantly disregarding the priceless artefact. Abruptly he took the briefcase from Parlax's unsuspecting hands and nodded toward the box. Oacus shot him a last sneer behind their master's back as he took it. It was surprisingly lightweight. 'Kribal should have collected the last item by now, so once we bring these to our craftsman everything will be in place. Which reminds me, Oacus, the index not appear to contain the focus crystals recovered from the Bringer's tomb. I have a suspicion they may prove useful before long.'
'I shall begin my search immediately, sir,' the Kiko replied in his oiled tones. 'Will that be all, sir?'
'Send a message to Krawley too, tell him I will expect him to be here upon my return. Recent troubles have led me to believe it may be worth advancing the schedule. Now, let us be off, Parlax. It would not do to delay proceedings any further.'
Again the Kiko just bowed low as Master Hog spun on his heel and vanished back through the endless paths of the warehouse, Parlax scurrying along on his heels. Across the dusty chamber echoed once again the unruly cacophony of their travel, the graceful stride of Master Hog tainted by the discordant Parlax.
Listening to the sound, Oacus screwed up his face in disgust. 'Insufferable runt,' he muttered to himself.
* * *
Pale light filled the clearing as the late evening sun stretched toward the distant horizon, but even its warmth could not penetrate the thick gloom that still hung in the air across the Haunted Woods. All around the clearing the trees had grown thicker, drawing close to bear witness to the horror that each had felt from root to twig. The path had been closed to normal pets, though none had dared try approach the deathly grove since the trees had gathered, the breeze reduced to a mournful sigh as it swept through their branches.
Lucas gazed up at the clear sky, the first velvet hues of the coming night beginning to spread, and tried to remember what had happened. Still his thoughts were groggy, a persistent grey tint clouding his vision as he watched the scattering of other pets who had arrived ahead of the main force. The advance guard avoided him pointedly, knowing what was coming behind. It was almost time for another storm to settle, and one Lucas feared far more than the first, even with Kribal waiting in its eye.
A broad tent had been erected over the fallen tree, blocking it from the view of its chilling brethren as it was examined. When he had been awoken, Lucas had found the tree much as he had that morning, all trace of Kribal's presence gone aside from the axe still embedded in the stump; nobody had dared touch the deadly hatchet, even now. Still they were examining the remains of the tree, searching for what Kribal had sought, hindered by the fact they had no clue as to what was meant to be there.
Without warning the air suddenly tensed. As one the waiting pets sharply inhaled, standing taller to attention, their eyes locked on something behind the doomed Shoyru. Closing his eyes, he sighed inwardly and steeled himself for the inevitable, before finally daring to turn and face the source of the disturbance.
Immediately he longed for Kribal to return. Sharp eyes stared deep into his own, a scornful displeasure digging into his thoughts and sending a shudder down his spine. There was no emotion carried on her face, just that chilling stare, and after a long moment she finally averted her eyes, stepping past without a word. Lucas could already feel his heart sink.
'Remind me, what were your orders?' an icy voice asked, frozen into a deadly forced monotone.
'It wasn't that simple,' he began, but her voice cut across angrily, 'How wasn't it simple? You were told to get here and warn the Brain Tree so it could be ready for the enemy. If Kribal was already here, you had simple orders to observe what happened but under no circumstance to interfere!'
'I thought our job was to protect people?' Lucas argued hotly.
'And this is protecting people?' She waved a hand toward the tent that housed the fallen Brain Tree, its stark white linen a glaring beacon amidst the dreary backdrop. 'Your job is to follow orders, and if those orders are to watch while our enemies fight a battle, then you will watch the battle and not get in the way, and perhaps when the dust settled we'd have a lead on where Kribal went to, or what he took. Instead we have nothing. Tell me, Lucas, how is that going to help us protect anyone?'
The Shoyru backed down, further protests dying before they could even trouble his tongue. The blue Zafara's chilling stare had been replaced by a fiery glare, her displaced anger now centred entirely around him. Every agent in the organisation had felt that anger over the past few months, growing stronger with each passing week, driving Jess to new lengths in her efforts.
A lot had changed since the two of them had first met almost two years ago on Krawk Island. As far as Lucas was concerned, it was not for the better.
'So, what do we know?' she asked at length, finally stepping back from her disgraced companion, 'assuming anybody actually has anything they can answer with?' An uncomfortable silence greeted her, the loitering pets keenly averting their eyes and finding interest in the clustered trees all around. Lucas just stared sheepishly at his feet.
Salvation came from a new voice, her stern note cutting through the awkward silence, 'There is one thing.' It belonged to a faerie Pteri standing at the entrance to the open tent flap, her body obscuring the view of what was within. Wordlessly she motioned Jess inside, a flick of the irate Zafara's head ordering Lucas to follow.
A deathly chill filled the inside of the tent, the far reaching glow of magical lanterns somehow adding to the unnatural feel. The Brain Tree lay carefully across the vast, open floor, the tree itself now lying separate from the weakly pulsing brain, softly emitting its eerie radiance.
'You've found what's missing?' Jess asked sharply as she looked over the ruined tree.
'Not exactly,' the Pteri replied, 'but we are beginning to get an idea. I am afraid to say in our haste to preserve the brain itself, we overlooked something incredibly simple about the situation.' She nodded toward the blackened remains of the tree itself as she concluded, 'We managed to separate the two without any effort whatsoever.'
Jess gasped, Lucas staring blankly at her in amazement. 'It means the brain and the tree weren't attached,' she explained testily, waving him aside and addressing the Pteri. 'This means Kribal must have taken the connecting branches?'
'We can only assume so. It would be impossible for the brain to survive long without some form of host or outside influence. This means that somehow the brain and the tree must have been connected, else it would have died a long time ago. The psychic ability of the Brain Tree alone was enough to prove at least one connection existed. If we assume for a moment that every message between the brain and the tree went through just a tiny handful of branches...'
'Then we can only imagine the sort of psychic energy each one would contain,' Jess finished distantly.
'Furthermore, they were removed in such a way that we cannot tell where they were before,' the Pteri added. 'If it had not been for the complete lack of any connection we would never have realised. I have no idea who this Kribal is, but he is most certainly a professional.'
'You have no idea,' Jess and Lucas said together. Slowly she turned toward him, her expression twisting back into an bitter chill that made the rest of the tent feel warmer by the second. 'Leave us,' she said firmly, her stare ordering Lucas alone to stay put.
The other pets in the tent hurriedly left, the Pteri risking a glance back as she stepped out into the clearing, leaving just the two behind with the remains of the Brain Tree. As the flap fell back into place, Jess set about rummaging blindly in her pockets, her icy glare still frozen on Lucas.
'Do you have any idea how much trouble you might have just caused?' she snarled. 'If you had just followed orders instead of trying to play hero, we might have found some lead on all this, or at least know how much Kribal took. Instead we have Master Hog in possession of exactly the psychic power he needs, and us left looking like idiots.'
At last she found what she sought, producing a delicate glass orb, adding its soft glow to the magical aura within the tent. Irritably she whistled at it, the sound uncomfortable on her lips.
'Look, I already told you it wasn't that simple,' Lucas protested. 'I wasn't trying to play hero. Something happened when Kribal cut down the tree, and it messed with my head. Everything went grey and quiet and Kribal seemed more like a ghost than anything else as he came at me. I didn't know what I was doing.'
'Operator,' a smooth voice declared from the orb, but Jess seemed to have forgotten it was there. A troubled look spread across her face at Lucas' story, eyes staring off blankly at the canvas wall. Only when the smooth voice repeated itself louder did she snap back to reality.
'Put me through to Judge Hog in Neopia Central,' she answered before looking back up at Lucas, biting her lip awkwardly. 'What you felt was from the Brain Tree. Judge Hog warned me about it before I left. It's a sort of last gasp attack, and it puts out a tremendous psychic wave that is meant to break the mind of anybody nearby. It must have been meant for Kribal, but you were caught in the crossfire instead. We should have known Kribal would be ready for it; if Judge Hog knows something, you can be sure his brother does too.'
She fell silent, Lucas knowing her too well to expect an apology to be forthcoming. At least not these days.
A face suddenly appeared above the glowing orb, the masked Moehog looking troubled. Another familiar sight in the times they lived.
'Well?' he asked without preamble.
'Failure,' Jess replied bluntly. 'By the time Lucas arrived, Kribal was already here. He got caught in the crossfire of the Brain Tree's psychic blast, so didn't see what happened. All we've managed to deduce is that Kribal now has whatever part of the Brain Tree used to connect the brain and the tree together. We have no idea how big it may be, or how many. Nor we do know where he went after. We were too late.'
'I had a feeling you might be,' Judge Hog replied. 'With Master Hog we're always a step behind.'
'You would know.'
The Moehog fixed her with a stern look, but the Zafara just returned it with pure ice. He sighed the sigh of the defeated. 'What of the Brain Tree itself?'
'The tree is dead wood, but our people have managed to preserve the brain, at least for now. I don't know what more we can do.'
'I'll contact Ilere about what to do next,' he concluded. 'If anybody knows about growing a new host for the Brain Tree, it'll be her. The two of you will no more use there, so come back to headquarters. When Master Hog makes his next move, we'll have to deal with it then. Judge Hog out.'
In his office, Judge Hog watched the disapproving face of the Zafara slide from view, the orb on his desk falling quiet. Around him the twilight settled over Neopia Central, starlight bathing the evening city, oblivious to the nightmare stirring all around.
His nightmare was about to become Neopia's reality.
To be continued...