Neopia, Year 200 Book II: Earthly Winds - Part Eight
Chapter Eight: Drastic Measures
“So how do we get from here,” Cillo mused, finger tracing a path on the map, “to there?”
The five were standing near the back of the Kadoatery, where they’d returned after a stop at the house to pick up their packs. Layla sighed.
“We walk, Cillo. Then let me do the rest,” she said.
“Aren’t you the one with all the answers,” Kayna said dryly. “How do you plan to get us into the tunnels?”
Layla glared at her. “We’ll need to get into the Art Gallery again. I think that after this morning’s paper security will be even tighter, so we’ll need some sort of distraction in order to get into the tunnels.”
“What about getting into the place itself?” Brianne asked.
Layla smiled. “Oh, I’ve already thought of that.”
“Hello there, miss. How can I help you?”
Layla took a deep breath and looked up at the rather obtuse-looking Usul the CCN seemed to have appointed as the Catacombs’ guard.
“I need to get into the Art Gallery,” she said, voice choked with emotion.
The Usul shook her head. “Sorry, miss. No can do. Ever since last night’s incident, we can’t let anyone in without prior notification. You’ll just have to wait till this whole thing clears up.”
“But I have prior notification,” Layla said quickly, hoping the guard wouldn’t notice her abrupt change in tone. “I’m from the Neopian Times! I talked with Erik last night.”
The Usul blinked. “Erik? As in Erik Longhair?”
“Well, yes,” Layla said. “We’re kind of on a first-name basis.”
The Usul paused for a moment. “Well, I guess. If you’re on first-name basis with Erik, I mean, it should be okay.”
“Thank you,” Layla said. “This is my crew, by the way.”
The Usul looked at the other four pets standing a short distance behind the Aisha. A Draik was holding a sketchpad and a pencil. A Zafara had a clipboard with what seemed to be countless pieces of paper on it. A Techo and a Nimmo were carrying a chair.
“That’s a pretty big crew for the Neopian Times,” the Usul said, raising an eyebrow.
“It’s a big story,” Layla said. “The editor wanted as many people as possible on it.”
She frowned. “Even a chair?”
“Even reporters get tired sometimes,” Layla said, as if bringing chairs into art galleries was something she did regularly.
The Usul frowned, then nodded. “Do you need any help setting up?”
“No thank you,” Layla said. “We’ll just be on our way.”
The Usul nodded and waved them through, but paused before opening the door.
“If it’s not a problem, can you mention me?” she asked eagerly. “I’ve always wanted to be in the Times.”
“I don’t think it’ll be a problem,” Layla assured the guard, who beamed and resumed staring at the street.
“Okay,” Layla said as the group walked down the stairs to the gallery doors, “here’s the plan.”
“Before you tell us the plan,” Cillo grumbled, “can we put down this chair? My back is sore.”
“And how long do I have to wait to change out of this costume?” Brianne muttered from within her guise as Alice the Nimmo. “It’s starting to itch.”
“Don’t worry,” Layla said reassuringly. “As long as we get into the tunnel without anyone becoming too suspicious or the real writer showing up, we’ll be fine. Just keep calm and pretend you’re professionals.”
They pushed the doors in front of them open and the group, headed by Layla, walked out of the stairwell into what looked at first glance like just barely-organized chaos.
CCN were everywhere. All of the exits leading out of the Gallery’s main hall were roped off, and two pets were already heading towards the group with expressions so grave on their faces that they rivaled stone.
“You must be the people from the Times,” one of them said gruffly. “Step over here, please.”
The group moved to the side as the other pet that had greeted the group handed them a box of badges. Each badge had a different name on its surface.
“We don’t know who each of these badges belongs to,” they said, “so you’ll have to do that yourselves. The rules are: always keep your badges on, don’t touch any of the evidence, and stay out of restricted areas.”
“Those are the roped-off areas, right?” Layla asked. The pets nodded.
“Oh, and don’t mention either of us,” the two pets said. “We’ve no need to be in the Neopian Times.”
“Got it,” Layla called in the guards’ direction as they walked off. Then she turned to the group.
“Has everyone got their badges on?” she asked.
“Yeah,” Yorick said in a low voice, “but how are we going to get into the tunnel? We’re not allowed into the restricted areas!”
“That’s what the distraction is for,” Layla said. “I need you four to make as much noise as possible, alright? Just make sure no-one sees me enter the Artifacts exhibit.”
The others nodded, and promptly got to work.
“Hey! You two— I mean, um, Jerome and Shirley!” Kayna yelled at Cillo and Brianne as the Zafara stood in the middle of the hall. “Bring the chair over here! I want to see if this would be a better place to report from! You too... uh... Niles!”
“Got it, Francesca,” Yorick called, causing Kayna to stare at him in confusion.
“Francesca?” Then she saw her badge.
“Where did you want this chair, madam?” Cillo yelled back.
“Over here!” Kayna called, gesturing to the rope that separated the main hall of the Gallery from the Artifacts exhibit. “And make it snappy! The Times waits for no-one, you know!”
As Cillo and Brianne arranged the chair in front of the rope, Layla sat down and pretended to be deep in contemplation about what she was going to write about.
“Ready?” Kayna yelled. “Let’s go! Niles, start writing what she’s saying down!”
Layla took a deep breath and smiled at Yorick. “I’m in front of the Artifacts exhibit in the Art Gallery, where the Cloak was seen late last night in what the CCN are calling one of the strangest break-ins in Neopia Central history. Nothing was taken. After being let in by the very nice officer at the front door, I—”
“Hold it!” Kayna called. “This gallery is too cold! It violates the, um, Times Reporter-Editor Agreement, Number, um, Number Fifty-Six! She needs a scarf, now!”
She whirled around. “Where’s a scarf? I need a scarf!”
“No, she doesn’t!” Brianne appeared at Kayna’s side and put her hands on her hips.
“Oh, what do you know about accessorizing, Shirley?” Kayna snapped, pushing the Nimmo-costumed Faerie to the side. Both moved ever closer to Layla’s chair.
“Hey!” Yorick said, pushing forward. “You’re both crowding my note-taking space!”
“I think the chair needs to be moved,” Cillo said, forcing his way into the left side of the semi-circle that now formed around the chair. Yorick looked at Layla and mouthed the word Now.
The Aisha slipped beneath the chair and began to crawl under the rope, hoping that the noise generated by the others would be sufficient enough to distract the CCN. After what seemed to be hours of crawling, Layla reached the darkened entrance to the Artifacts exhibit and quickly found what she was looking for.
It took less than a minute to pull the antique maroon blanket once owned by King Skarl’s grandfather (or so the plaque beside it claimed, although Layla really didn’t care at the moment) from the iron rod that kept it on the wall, and even less for the Aisha to wrap herself in it. Once the disguise was ready, Layla concealed herself in an alcove near the rope she had just crawled under and prepared her voice for what would be the most difficult part of the plan.
“Look!” she said in the deepest, most officious voice she could come up with. “The Cloak’s in the Artifacts exhibit!”
Then she bolted out of the alcove and ran down the hall. The two guards nearest to the exhibit, occupied with snickering at the bedlam caused by the purported reporters, suddenly froze and leapt over the rope cordoning off the exhibit.
Kayna looked at Yorick as she saw the guards dash off, her face pale. “I didn’t know she would be chased,” she murmured in a shaken voice.
“That’s the thing,” Yorick said grimly. “She knew that if she told us, we wouldn’t let her.”
Layla peeked out from behind a collection of evening dresses worn by notable visitors to old Chocolate Balls to see one of the two CCN members that had given chase, a starry Nimmo, glancing up and down the corridor. Avoiding the two pets had been easy, but a Baby Aisha could only run so far before stopping to catch her breath. Thankfully, the dresses she was hiding under had very large hems and what felt like hundreds of layers, so she was at least well-hidden. But Layla knew couldn’t she hide for long.
The other CCN member, a green Scorchio, returned and took his place beside the Nimmo.
“Boy,” he remarked, “this chase is really starting to take its toll on me. I’m running out of breath.”
“Tell me about it,” the Nimmo said. “I hope we catch this Cloak guy soon. He’s starting to get on Erik’ nerves.”
“Yeah,” the Scorchio said, “but at least he’s giving us something to do.”
“Have to agree with that,” the second said. “How’s your Warf doing?”
“Fluffy? Oh, he’s much better now. He just had one of those nasty Vernax.”
“Oh, those are bad. What did you do?”
“Well, I tried a lot of things, but in the end I—”
A flash of maroon appeared at the end of the exhibit.
“That way!” both officers bellowed as the Cloak appeared at the end of the exhibit. Before they ran off after the Cloak, the two pets looked at each other and grinned.
“We are so going to be in the Times for this.”
Layla waited a moment or two before peeking out to confirm that the guards were gone. She grinned, took a deep breath, and turned the corner to go back to the exhibit’s entrance.
Only to collide with a tall figure draped in maroon.
Layla gulped as she took several steps back, mind racing with what to do. Should she run? Should she defend herself? Should she shout? Nothing in particular seemed like a good option.
“You and your friends are doing great,” the figure said. “Don’t give up.”
Layla eyed the Cloak with suspicion. “Why should I be listening to you?” she hissed. “And why are you encouraging us? You’re a thief!”
“If only you knew,” he said, chuckling, and lifted back the hood of his cloak.
Layla gasped. One question soon came to the forefront of her mind and just as quickly to her tongue.
“Why does nothing I find out ever make sense?”
“She should have been back by now,” Yorick hissed to Brianne under his breath. “It’s getting harder to keep this up.”
The Nimmo shrugged and spoke louder. “No, Niles! I do not agree with your preferred methods of turnip farming!”
“I know what you mean,” she murmured. “But give her credit. She had the guts to do this all by herself. That says a lot for someone her age.”
One of the guards standing guard at a nearby exhibit came over and tapped Kayna on the shoulder. “You’re the organizer of this thing, right?”
“Yes,” Kayna said grandly. “I, the great Francesca, am the creative force behind this project. How can I assist you?”
“I don’t really mind what you call yourself,” the officer said in a low voice. “What I do mind is the spectacle you’re putting on. We don’t need flashy types like you distracting the CCN!”
“Don’t worry,” Kayna said, quickly resuming her grandiose tone. “We shall have finished our work very soon.”
“Good,” the officer said. “So whatever it is you’ve left to do, make it quick.” As they walked back to their post, Kayna tapped Yorick on the shoulder.
“When is she coming back?” she whispered in quiet desperation. “That’s the fifth warning we’ve had so far!”
“Hi guys,” Layla said, slipping back into the chair. “Miss me?”
“Layla,” Brianne hissed, “we need to get into the tunnel to find the Cloak. How’s that going to happen?”
“The Cloak isn’t our priority,” Layla muttered, “Empesta is. Now, I’ve arranged for a distraction, but once it happens we’ll have to act fast. So follow my lead.”
The two guards that had been chasing Layla emerged from the entrance to an exhibit further down the hall and shouted, “The Cloak’s been spotted!”
Every CCN eye in the hall was on the guards. “Where?”
“In the Pottery exhibit,” one said. “Let’s go!” The crowd of CCN guards began to follow the two pets into the exhibit, at which point Layla hopped out of her chair and slipped beneath the rope leading to the Artifacts exhibit.
“The tunnel should be open,” Layla said. “Brianne, you can give us some light, right?”
Brianne nodded and quickly discarded her Nimmo costume before joining Layla and the others in ducking past King Coltzan’s curtain and entering the hidden passage.
“Where are we now?” Cillo asked, half an hour into their journey through the tunnels.
Yorick unfurled the map next to the sphere of fire Brianne held in her hand and peered at it.
“We’re about halfway through the Bazaar,” Yorick said. He noticed Brianne pause out of the corner of his eye. “Is something the matter, Brianne?”
The Fire Faerie frowned. “Do you sense that? Oh, wait, I forgot. You can’t.”
“Sense what?” Yorick asked.
“Faerie magic,” Brianne said. “I’ve been picking up traces ever since we entered the tunnels, but they were so faint I didn’t bother saying anything. But now...”
She frowned. “It’s getting stronger. And we’re headed towards the source....”
Brianne began to lead the way down the tunnels, the rest of the group forming behind her. Every so often, the Fire Faerie would stop, frown, and either continue on or turn into another passage.
“It’s fairly fresh,” Brianne pronounced twenty minutes later, “but I still can’t tell what element it is. It seems to be a mix of two or three... ah, here we are.”
She stopped for the last time in front of a dark tunnel that seemed to, despite the rest of the system’s dryness, be covered with a thick layer of moss. The rock at the tunnel’s mouth was the same pale grey as every other tunnel mouth, but deeper in, stones dark with moisture were evident.
“Well,” Brianne said gamely, “here we go.” The Fire Faerie entered the tunnel and soon disappeared into its depths, the group following.
Minutes later, they emerged into a chamber flooded with the light of several dusty lanterns. At the chamber’s nexus, their enemy awaited.
It was Empesta. But not the Empesta they had expected.
To be continued...