Eye of the Crokabek: Part One
Tim stepped out of the dark tunnel. The reddish glow of Moltara city greeted his eyes. As usual, there was a hum of whirring and puffing machinery. The city was alive with 'pets going about their daily business. And yet, something seemed different today. Tim couldn't quite put his finger on it.
The Yurble ran a hand through his black and white mane and stood where he was. Contemplating the city. So far as he could tell, there was nothing out of place. Cog's Togs seemed to be closed today, but that wasn't too remarkable. It really seemed that everything was as it should be. Tim shrugged and moved on. He was probably just overthinking it. He did that sometimes. But all the same, he couldn't shake off a feeling that something was wrong.
First stop on Tim's agenda that day was a visit to Tangor. Tim called a cheerful greeting as he entered the workshop. Tangor looked up from his work desk as Tim approached.
“Oh, hi there Tim,” he said “I thought it might be about time for you to drop in again. What've you got for me today?”
Tim laid his materials on Tangor's workbench. The Myncii seemed a bit flat today. He wasn't quite his usual exuberant self... It was as though he had something on his mind. Tim flicked his mane back as he shrugged off the thought. It was none of his business what might be bothering Tangor.
Moments later, Tim was walking out of Tangor's workshop. He now had a shining new Daloop under his arm. As he crossed Moltara city, a flash of rainbow caught his eye. Sure enough, there was a rainbow worm sitting just in front of Lampwyck's Lights Fantastic. Tim gave a quick cry of joy and almost tripped over his own feet in his haste to pick it up. This earned him some reproving looks from the townspeople passing by. He looked at his toes, contrite, and muttered a word in apology.
As Tim rifled through his inventory, he smiled to see that he had now collected all ten worms. With satisfaction, he proceeded to fill his lantern with worms. Then, armed with a glowing lantern, he made his way to the dark cave.
When Tim stepped into the Magma caves, he was greeted by the friendly glow of lava. He felt his shoulders relax in the comfortable warmth. He crossed the cavern to the dark cave. He gave a friendly nod to Boris, the Magma Pool Tonu, as he passed.
Tim was one of very few Neopians who still did his Moltara dailies diligently. So he was no stranger to the dark cave. But that didn't mean he never got lost. Today, however, Tim got more lost than usual. He wasn't scared. He knew it would be safe. Long years of experience had taught him that there was nothing new in these caves.
He turned left into a cavern lit by a soft red glow. And stopped short. Black shapes covered the cave wall here. What were they? Maybe Barbats? For a moment Tim imagined being attacked by a flock of flapping, scratching, biting Barbats. Then he fought back the thought and stepped cautiously into the cavern. One of the shapes moved. Tim jumped. Not a Barbat, he saw, but a Crokabek. It turned it's red eyes on him and stared menacingly. Then, one by one, more and more Crokabeks turned to face him.
It was too much for Tim. He broke and ran, listening as he went for any rustle of feathers that might mean he was being pursued. At long last he was out. He leaned against the cave entrance panting heavily. There was not a Crokabek in sight.
Thank goodness there was no-one around to watch that undignified retreat. Tim smiled wryly. He remembered his earlier thought. “There was nothing new in these caves.” He'd never been frightened out of the cave by Crokabeks before! Maybe the cave did have some more surprises waiting for him.
After a while, Tim's breathing settled and he plunged into the cave again. He reflected, as he went, on the sight of the cavern full of Crokabeks. There was something rather unnerving about it. Crokabeks weren't native to Moltara, and he wouldn't expect to find them this far underground...
Just then, Tim's thoughts were interrupted. A glowing crystal of Red Moltite lay on the cave floor in front of him. He excitedly picked it up, and made his way back out of the cave. The last of the worms' energy was clearly fading. He picked his way cautiously over the stony cave floor in the fading lantern light.
Eventually Tim stepped out into the more open space of the Magma Caves. The warm glow of lava was more than sufficient to see where he was going here. Boris flashed him a friendly smile as he passed the Magma Pool, “Took you long enough,” he jibed. Tim just smiled and walked on.
As he entered Moltara City, Tim once again felt that sense of foreboding. As though something was wrong. This time, he saw what it was – everyone was acting very tense. You could see it in their body language, even from a distance. Everyone was hurrying about their business with heads bowed. No-one was willing to stop and chat as usual. Clearly Tangor wasn't the only one out of sorts today. But why the sudden drop in mood in Moltara City? He resolved to ask Lampwyck about it.
Tim called out a friendly greeting as he entered Lampwyck's shop. It didn't come as a huge shock when Lampwyck only grunted in response. Apparently, he was feeling about as cheerful as everyone else today.
“Is everything all right, Lampwyck?” Tim asked with concern evident in his voice, “Everyone seems really depressed today...”
Lampwyck looked up and eyed Tim suspiciously. Evidently he didn't suspect him of guile, because he merely grunted in response and said, “Yep, everything's fine.”
Clearly it wasn't.
Tim wouldn't normally pry into other people's affairs, but this seemed different. He had to get to the bottom of this.
Just then Lampwyck came back from putting the worms out the back of his shop to recuperate (and no doubt escape again, Lampwyck really needed to work on worm-proofing his back room). Tim went for the indirect approach. He leaned carelessly on the counter and asked as casually as he could, “So, anything new happening in Moltara?”
Lampwyck glanced searchingly at him. Tim felt uncomfortable. Clearly Lampwyck wasn't fooled. But he answered anyway.
“Yeah,” he grunted darkly, “We've got a new mayor.”
Tim stood stunned. A new mayor? Really? “But what happened to the old one?!” he blurted out before he could stop himself. It occurred to him that the dignified Chomby he knew as mayor of Moltara might not appreciate being referred to as “the old one”. Oh well. Too late now, he shrugged mentally.
Lampwyck gave Tim that searching look again. Tim got the impression he was trying to decide how much to say. “I dunno,” Lampwyck said at length, “maybe he abdicated or somethin'.”
“What, really? Has anyone seen anything of him?” Tim rejoined.
“I don't know” said Lampwyck, more forcefully this time. And he turned away and started banging cupboard doors behind the store counter. Tim took that as an indication that the conversation was over.
“Well thanks for your help with the worms,” Tim commented as he turned to leave.
“You're welcome,” Lampwyck told him. He seemed relieved that Tim was going.
Tim, however, was frowning as he let himself out. Lampwyck was normally quite politically astute (all Moltarans were). The idea that Lampwyck would not know why they suddenly had a new mayor was ludicrous. Clearly he was hiding something. And Tim had no idea why. There was something fishy going on here. He had to get to the bottom of this. But how?
Tim looked around at the grim 'pets hurrying past him. These were probably not the ones to answer his questions. He doubted they'd be any more communicative than Lampwyck. It seemed everyone was too frightened to even talk about it. Cog would normally be willing to talk, but her shop was closed for the day. Who could he ask? The answer, when he thought of it, was childishly obvious. Igneot.
“The fires burn brightly. A young Skunk Yurble approaches this cavern intent upon his question.” Igneot looked up to see Tim standing in his doorway. His eyes wrinkled in a smile.
“You're early young Tim,” he said, eyes shining.
Tim grinned back at him. He strongly suspected that Igneot had seen him approaching and made the 'prediction' just for show.
“Very funny,” Tim told Igneot. He deposited his bag and sat cross-legged on the earthen floor of the cavern. “You must be the wisest Gnorbu I know,” he said sarcastically.
“You know, I probably am” observed Igneot mildly.
Tim conceded the point. He didn't actually know very many wise Gnorbu.
“Anyway, what's eating you?” asked Igneot.
Tim smiled quietly. Igneot could be rather down-to-earth when he wasn't trying to sound all mystical. Tim's smile broadened as he realised that Igneot was, quite literally, down right in the centre of the earth. One didn't get much more down-to-earth than Igneot. But the recollection of Igneot's question quickly wiped the smile from his face. In a few brief sentences, Tim told Igneot everything he'd discovered that morning.
“Ahhh,” said Igneot ponderously, “Yes, the city are in dire need of your help.”
“My help?!!” Tim exclaimed. “Why me? Couldn't someone else? Couldn't you?”
Igneot shook his head slowly. “I'm a lava mage, Tim – I mean, I'm on fairly good terms with the city dwellers, but they'll never fully trust me. I can't meddle in their politics.”
Then as an afterthough he added “and they're certainly in no position to help themselves!”
He stared broodingly into the fire for a long while.
“Well, did you want to explain all this?” Tim asked after he felt Igneot had pondered long enough.
“The fire dims, and so do the chances of this,” Igneot replied vacantly.
Tim rolled his eyes, sighed, lent his chin on one hand and waited.
“All right, all right,” said Igneot at length. “What did you want to know?”
“Well, everything, I guess,” said Tim, “You know... like what happened to the old mayor? What's wrong with this new one? And why's everyone so frightened to talk about it?”
Igneot looked directly at Tim, his expression serious.
“I can answer all three of your questions with one word,” he said. “Sway.”
To be continued…