Baroque Storm: Part Two
“Keep an eye on him,” the Manager told Mem. “I’d rather it be me, seeing you’re so incompetent, but it might conceivably be that this is some attempt for him to get close enough to me to pick my pocket or something ridiculous like that. I doubt he’d bother with you. If you fail at this, you are, of course, fired.”
“Of course,” Mem stuttered. “I. You want me to keep an eye on him? B, b-but you said that I couldn’t tell if he was crooked.”
“Mm.” The Manager looked bored. “Tell me if he does anything that seems honest, then.” He adjusted his suit. “To the Vault. And do keep an eye on him, Mem.”
Mem stared at the ground and nodded.
The Manager strode back into the Hall, and Mem followed him. Baroque was standing off to one side, chatting cheerfully to some bankers – the same ones who had condemned him as a conman a few minutes ago, and who were now hanging off his every word. Mem couldn’t help but admire him.
“Storm,” the Manager said testily. “Don’t tarry. The Vault will only be open for a few more hours.”
Baroque touched one claw to the brim of his hat, deferentially. “Right you are,” he said brightly. “No tarrying. Oh, hang on, I need my hammer.” He waltzed over to the door, opened it, came back a few moments later with the heavy hammer – made mostly of wood, with rings of metal set in the head – swung casually over one shoulder. “Where were we? No tarrying, yes! Off we go!”
The Manager gave him an icy glare, which he met with a sunny smile. The Manager gestured tersely to the two Chia security guards, muscly unsmiling people, and the five of them went through a few corridors and out into the outside world. It was sunnier than Mem had expected, and he blinked at the dazzle. The building was a smallish one, used mostly for Bank bureaucracy, and it wasn’t as well-lit as it could be. The grandiose, important Bank bureaucracy was done at the Vault, the main Bank complex, which was across the square from where they were now, a walk of ten minutes or so.
The Manager set off, walking rather faster than was necessary, but if that was an attempt to catch Baroque off his guard, it didn’t work; the Krawk sped his feet up easily, still managing a carefree saunter. To keep up with him, Mem had to half-run, and when Baroque glanced at him and saw him doing this he gave a generous sort of smile and slowed down to Mem’s pace.
“Sorry about that,” Baroque said, and jerked his head in the Manager’s direction. “You know what these big important types are like. Always with the hustle and the bustle and the knowledge that their business is ever so much more important than everyone else’s.” He flashed Mem another grin. He grinned a lot.
“Oh, no, it’s fine, really,” Mem said, noticing how the Manager was now forced to slow down and that he did not seem very pleased about this. That was probably what Baroque had wanted to achieve. “I. You know, it’s strange, but I’ve never heard of you.”
Now Baroque was the displeased one.
“I mean,” said Mem, hastily, “I mean, I mean it’s strange because, here you are, this grand important person, and it’s stupid of me not to have heard of you, that’s all.”
Baroque cocked an eyebrow. “Bit self-deprecating there, aren’t you,” he said. “That can’t be fun. And no one ever rushes to contradict, I suppose? Y’know, if you were...” He waved a hand vaguely, and for a moment walked along with an exaggeratedly upright posture and a look of steely determination. “Assertive and suchlike,” and then he lapsed back into his normal posture, “then you probably wouldn’t have so much trouble with that.”
Mem stared at the ground.
Baroque sighed. “Why do I keep on meeting awkward people today?” he mused aloud. “Oh well. At least you don’t have the antennae. Blasted creepy, those.”
“I,” said Mem, uncertain. “Good?”
“Good,” Baroque assured him. “And, I mean, you’re not an alien either. Nor are you painfully tactless. Actually, not tactless at all. So you’re an improvement.” He clapped Mem’s shoulder with enthusiasm, and then sped up his pace again a little, whistling.
“...Thank you,” Mem said happily.
“Any time, friend.”
They didn’t talk any more, and Mem spent the remaining few minutes of the walk leafing through his notebook awkwardly and trying not to fall over. They took a roundabout way to avoid the Rainbow Pool, as it was packed with people, so they passed a lot of shops, Baroque eyeing them with idle speculation. When they were nearly at the Vault, Mem burst out, “Look, I, I’m sorry to ask, but assertiveness, you said, so I... Why are you here? Are you here to steal the Storm Amulet?”
“Steal it?” said Baroque absentmindedly, wandering to the side a little way. They were passing by the Auction House, and he tapped it thoughtfully with his knuckles. Mem wondered why, then shrugged it off. Maybe he just had a thing for hammers.
“I... yes, that’s right, I mean, I don’t want to offend you, but.”
“I’m not offended,” Baroque assured him, taking a few steps backwards and tilting his head sideways with a squint. He nodded decisively once or twice and took several more steps backwards, and then several to the side – if he’d gone a step or two further, he would have tripped over a bush sitting on the grass. He stomped the ground hard and gave a pleased grin. It was odd behaviour, and Mem was glad that the Manager was, by this point, a decent distance ahead of them, nearly at the Vault. “I’ve been accused of worse things. And less truthful things, too. Even stupider things on occasion, but not that often, because, well, really, Mem. It is Mem, isn’t it?” Mem nodded, and Baroque continued, “Really, Mem, what would I want to steal the Storm Amulet for? You people are giving it to me.”
“Oh,” said Mem, surprised. “I... I hadn’t thought of that. That makes sense, actually. But this is more trouble than just trying to steal it, surely, and dangerous, too, you don’t want to... The Bank aren’t people you want to anger. What’s this all for? Are you going to use the Amulet to protect people? Like you said?”
Baroque shook his head. “I am a terrible liar,” he said, crouching down. “By which I mean that I am excellent at it. Ain’t actually the Amulet I’m here for, because,” and he swung his hammer down from his shoulder and held it over the ground, “I have plenty of storm magic already; why would I need more? And money doesn’t motivate me that much. Certainly not that small an amount of money. Not impressive at all.” He glanced up and flashed a grin at Mem. “So it’s okay, you can stop worrying that I’m here to steal the Amulet or something. I’m really not.”
Mem sagged a little in relief. This was good, it meant he didn’t have to try and Keep An Eye On Him. He had no idea what he would have done if Baroque had tried to steal something. “Why are you here, then?”
“Hm?” said Baroque, straightening again. He lifted the hammer up over his shoulder as if in readiness to strike. “Oh, right. Well, that’s easy, really. I’m here to steal you.”
Baroque slammed the hammer hard into the ground. There was a blinding flash of lightning. The ground under Mem’s feet collapsed, and he fell into darkness.
He landed in a crouch and moved smoothly to his feet, lifting his hammer to push against the trapdoor they’d fallen through. It was quite long, more of a platform than a door, a platform that could split in two to allow people to fall through – and a thin layer of dirt, of course, which he blinked against as he pushed the doors up until they shut. He clicked the lock so those burly Chia guards couldn’t follow them, and turned to grin at Mem, who was looking quivery and terrified.
Baroque remembered that the Bruce probably couldn’t see very well in this dim light. “I’m grinning at you,” he said helpfully. “It’s an encouraging grin. Meant to make you feel better.”
“What did you do?” Mem squeaked.
Baroque shrugged. “It was a trap-platform,” he said, “if that’s a word. We’re in the Catacombs now, more or less.”
“No no,” Mem said, shaking his head, “I’ve been to the Catacombs for the poetry, it’s under this... statue thing. Big statue thing.” He looked around in the dark. “And it’s not like this.”
“The Catacombs are a ruddy huge cave complex, you really think they have only one entrance?” said Baroque. “I’m raising an eyebrow sceptically, by the way. In case you were curious.”
“I can’t see,” Mem whispered, staring around with terrified beady little eyes.
“Give it time,” Baroque said cheerfully, “your eyes will adjust.” Which was probably not true. “Anyway, you’re not missing much.” Which was. This particular tunnel was dim and dark and shrouded with spyderwebs. He crouched low – it was a small tunnel – and started to move forward at a half-trot. “Follow me,” he said, and he must have said it with confidence, because the Bruce followed him for at least five minutes before he said, with sudden indignation, “What are you doing?”
“Went a bit too close to the ceiling,” Baroque said, brushing spyderwebs from his hat and examining it critically. Even he couldn’t see too well in this light, but he could make out the shape of it well enough, and when it seemed cleanish again he put it carefully back on his head. “Not like I’m lost or anything like that. We go this way now.” He started off down a tunnel, only to be stopped by the banker tugging insistently at his sleeve. “...This is an expensive coat, y’know.”
“I meant what are you doing,” Mem said plaintively.
Baroque gave him a thoughtful look then said, “I’ll tell you when we get someplace with light, how’s that?”
The Bruce set his chubby face into an expression that was probably meant to be determined. “Tell me now!” Entirely out of curiosity to see what would happen, Baroque gave a low and menacing growl. The Bruce quivered and added, shakily, “Please?”
Baroque laughed. “I’m kidnapping you,” he explained. “Simple enough, isn’t it?”
“Yes. But. Why...”
“You’re Secretary to the Manager, Mem! Got all sorts of secrets in that head of yours.” Baroque tapped a knuckle against his own head, and then felt slightly irritated when he remembered that the Bruce couldn’t see the gesture. “All the extortion and bribery and such, I’m sure you know of it, yes? You must be all kinds of clever with numbers, to be working where you are.”
“I’m okay with numbers,” Mem said, then: “Extortion? I don’t...”
“Underhanded dealings. The Bank’s got its hand in a lot of pockets. You’ve maybe told yourself that it doesn’t, but it does. And you’ve got a head full of dirty little secrets. So.”
“So...” Mem said, hesitantly. “You disapprove of the corruption in the organisation, and you’re trying to give it a wake-up call?”
Baroque gave a coarse crowlike laugh of sheer amusement. “I disapprove of the corruption in the organisation,” he said, “and delight in the fact that it gives me an opportunity to get ruddy rich. Your folk’ll pay plenty to get you back in one piece, so’s you can’t spill your secrets. And then I’ll be the daring thief that stole one of the Bank’s own employees out from right under their nose. Coming?” He set off down the tunnel.
From behind him, Mem said, in a small scared voice, “I... I won’t let you get money out of the Bank, I’m a good employee, I’ll stay right here until I’m rescued—”
“Less than likely, that. I mean, here, anyway. No one knows the tunnels but us dodgy criminal types.”
“Then I’ll find my own way out!”
Baroque nodded agreeably. “Alright,” he said, “you can find your own way out through the meandering miles of labyrinthine tunnels that loop back on themselves and’re packed with dead ends and sudden drops and strange unknown creatures that never see the light of day. I mean, I don’t mind. You’re welcome to wander the darkness for eternity, looking for the way out, never finding it.” He set off down the dim tunnel, letting his clawed feet thump solidly on the stone floor so the Bruce could hear the sound of them receding. “I wish you the best of luck.”
There was a wail of “Waaaaait!”
Baroque grinned, and laughed, and waited.
Once the Bruce had caught up they went on, not talking much. Baroque’s head wasn’t right for talking. The Catacombs were, indeed, a labyrinthine mess, and he could navigate them with ease and delight, but only if he focused utterly on the dance of it. After a few tunnels and one wrong turning, he finally got exasperated enough to close his eyes and let his feet do the walking. A tunnel here, yes, he could feel the damp breath of it on his face, he could remember dancing his way through it, going deeper and deeper underground, coming out by the shore of a lake whose waters shone where no light could ever find them. Not that way. He let his feet take him sharply and suddenly to the side, sliding sideways through a thin crack – Mem had more difficulty with it – and then it was keep on dancing sideways for ten steps, then bow as the ceiling dipped, straighten as it opened out, whistle joyously and hear the thin music echoing off the ceiling high above.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” he said.
“I don’t know,” Mem said testily. “I can’t see.”
Baroque opened his eyes and glanced around and laughed. “It looks,” he said, “all dark and dim and... subterranean? Cave-ish. Y’know. Much like you’d expect, and not at all what I was referring to. But it doesn’t really matter.” He danced on, wishing there was music to this. Cave-music would be dark and dim and dripping, capturing the dark dreary beauty of it, but Baroque had never had any kind of gift for music. He had to satisfy himself with the rhythm of his feet on the floor, hearing the different timbre of echoes as they changed when he entered the shoot-off tunnel with the much lower ceiling, as he passed other turn-offs from that (the echoes sank into the shape of them, blankly, the sound falling dead before it could return), as the ground gaped suddenly and vastly below him...
“Oh, watch yourself here,” he said, remembering that Mem didn’t know the caves as he did. “Walk along the side. Like so.” He skipped back a few paces and pressed Mem’s flipper against the wall.
Mem nodded and went on walking, careful shuffling steps, staying so close to the wall that his chest brushed against it. “Why?” he asked.
Baroque danced on ahead, calling over his shoulder, “There’s a... whatchamacallit. Abyss?” He gestured vaguely. Remembered he couldn’t be seen. Felt annoyed again. “Huge ruddy hole, anyway.” He laughed. “Wouldn’t want to fall down that. Could go on forever.” Mem gave a small scared squeak. Baroque glanced over his shoulder and grinned. “If you push yourself any closer against the wall you’ll become it, friend.”
“Abyss?” Mem squeaked. “What. What would... would would happen if I...”
Baroque scratched his nose. “Nothing to be that scared of,” he assured him.
Mem gave a huge relieved sigh.
“You’d just fall to your death,” Baroque said, reaching where the cave floor was solid again. He held one foot out over the abyss, enjoying the possibility of height, the giddy what-if feeling of the potential to fall. “And that,” he murmured, “would be a dance and a half. You’re on solid ground now, by the way.”
Mem collapsed to the ground, hugging it and shivering. He looked terrible.
“Does everything scare you?” said Baroque, more curious than scornful.
“Does nothing scare you?” Mem retorted.
Baroque’s face went blank, and he glanced down at the pit again. It was blank shadow, hiding who-knew-what, and thinking of it like that – as a vast unknown, a vast nothingness, as a place you could fall into and never come out again, a place you could lose yourself in – somehow made it far more terrifying than thinking of it as merely being a deadly peril. “...Nothing scares me, yes.”
Mem misunderstood it, as people always did. “Must be nice,” he said wistfully. “Not being afraid.”
“Certainly comes in handy!” Baroque adjusted his coat collar and fiddled with his hat until he felt as carefree as his words sounded. “No more dawdling, now. We have quite a bit more ground to cover.”
The way there was quite varied, and the part that Baroque liked the least was where the tunnel was so low that the only way to get through it was to get down on your hands and knees and crawl. There was no grace to that, no elegance, no dance. More practically, if there happened to be a cave-in or some such thing, there was no way to turn around. He endured it because he knew that this part of the caves was kept in fairly good condition by the thieves that used it, and because he knew it meant they were nearly there. He could tell by how he kept on passing over the grainy roughness of trapdoors, and by the distant murmur of voices he could hear through the stone. They were passing over the Catacombs proper. The cave Shine’s crew used wasn’t far from the Catacombs: drop down at the next trapdoor hoping that there was no one around to see, saunter to the crevice half-concealed by an outcropping of rock, and then just some twisty turns that were impossible for an outsider to navigate and you were home. Shine’s crew weren’t there, of course, but it would be a good place to hide in the time between somehow getting a message to the Bank and actually getting the ransom.
“Easy,” Baroque said happily. He put his hammer to the side for a moment, unhooked the trapdoor, and dropped directly onto one of the Chia guards.
It would be difficult to say who was more surprised.
Baroque recovered first, because he was Baroque, because life was a dance to him: a stumble was just something you could use to dance in more interesting ways. He got his feet on the Chia’s chest and jumped off, pushing the Chia down in the same movement that sent him landing lightly half a metre away, arms extended for balance.
“Hi!” he said, baring his teeth in a grin.
The Chia stood up, its partner helping it to its feet. “We’re looking for you,” the Chia – male, though it was always hard to tell with Chias - said accusingly, its flat eyes fixed on him.
“Well,” said Baroque, and gave his elegant bow. “You’ve found me. What now?”
The Chias glanced at each other.
“Uh,” one said. “We’re... we’re looking for you—”
“Not anymore,” said Baroque. “Plainly.”
They stared at him.
“Your quest,” he added, “is complete. Well done. If you don’t mind, I have business elsewhere, so – oh dear.” He ducked beneath the arm of one of the Chias, who had been trying to punch him. “That was unwise,” he said, and jabbed the Chia hard in the stomach and danced nimbly back as it dropped and wheezed.
“We’re looking for you,” the other Chia continued, frowning in thought, “to get back the Manager’s Secretary. You stole him.”
Baroque gave an unapologetic shrug, keeping a wary eye on them, ready to dance back again. “Thief, I’m afraid,” he said. “It’s what I do.”
“The Manager wants the Secretary back,” the Chia said stubbornly.
“Well, I’m sure the Secretary will be delighted to hear that.” He walked sideways a little, and – yes, there was the rocky outcropping, and all it would take would be a quick dive to gain it. And then he could hang around for a few minutes until the Chias got tired of him and go and retrieve Mem, or, if Mem dropped out before then, go and snatch him out from right under their noses. Ha. Easy. “Now, if you don’t mind, I have gah!”
While he’d been occupied, the other Chia – the one he’d thought too short on breath to act – had sneaked up behind him and had its arm around its neck to choke him. Baroque was wiry and quick and could wriggle his way out of most things, but before he had the chance to, before he even had the chance to snap out a slightly garbled but impressively witty insult, a bar of fire scorched its way through the air a few centimetres to one side of Baroque and the Chia and burned a line of molten slag into the rock beyond them.
The Chia dropped Baroque. “What did you do?” it said, sounding terrified.
Baroque got to his feet, pleased with himself for not staggering. “That’s what you get for tangling with the Lord of Lightning!” he barked. “Now...” And he walked over and gave the Chia a contemptuous shove. “Go tell your Manager that I’ll be happy to give him his Bruceling back, if he’s willing to part with ten mil for ‘im. At the Coffee Cave, midday tomorrow. Got that? Run along, now.” He shooed them, and both Chias scrambled away from the shadow of the outcropping and into the wider area of the Catacombs, presumably to exit by the big statuey thing and tell their employer a garbled terrified story of how Baroque Storm could shoot lightning...
Baroque picked up his hat and dusted it off, then put it on, then adjusted it slightly so it was at a more pleasing angle. His claws were a little dusty, so he polished them against his coat. Only then did he turn and say, “That was a bit risky, wasn’t it?”
The Chronicler stepped out from behind the rock, looking a little guilty. “Yes. I am sorry.”
“I mean,” Baroque continued, giving the Aisha a thoughtful look, “not that I’m not grateful and such, but that there laser beam could’ve easily caused Mr. Muscle some serious harm, and, more importantly, was only an inch or two shy of boiling my brainpan.”
“I know,” Nickel said unhappily. “I could have scorched your very fine hat.”
Baroque stared at him for a moment, and then grinned uneasily and said, “Yeah, that’s... that’s true, shame on you,” and took a careful step back.
The Aisha’s tall earstalks were drooping sadly. “I did not mean to do anything!” he said. “I was intending to direct some guards in the direction of Shine’s cave to find you if these did not, but even that would have troubled me; I do not like to interfere.”
“Unless it involves shooting at people?”
Nickel sighed. “That was an accident,” he said. “I did not intend to fire. My ray gun is... not functioning as it should.”
“Not holding down enough papers, eh?” Baroque said with maliciously sarcastic cheer, but Nickel gave him a look of such incomprehension that he gave up on that particular line of mockery. “How do you know about Shine’s cave?”
Nickel went very still. “I...” he said. “I am not clever with people, but I somehow do not think it is wise to tell you that. I know the policy of the criminals that use these cave formations is to look unkindly on any observers who happen to—”
Baroque stared at him in disbelief. “You’ve been spying?” he said, incredulous. The criminals of Neopia Central had very few rules amongst themselves, but you didn’t tattle, not ever, and you certainly didn’t know about the caves if you weren’t a thief yourself, not if you knew what was good for you. “Do you have any idea how watch where you’re pointing that thing!”
Nickel made a small ‘oh!’ sound and pointed the ray gun at the floor again, and Baroque eyed him cautiously and stood up; he’d thrown himself to the ground when the Aisha’s aim had gotten twitchy. “Do you have any idea,” he continued angrily, “how stupid that is? Most folk here would kill you if they knew. It’s...” He sought for words. How to explain? It would be difficult to explain to anyone, let alone this awkward alien. “They’re the dregs, mostly. The bottom of the cup. What’s left when the coffee is done. Cold coffee. Bad cold coffee. When it’s, it’s all stuck to the cup and...” Not a flattering metaphor. He went on hurriedly. “This place is all they have, some of them. We...” He wasn’t included, really, but he’d spent enough time with cave-folk to have picked up some of how they thought. “We’re kin, sort of. I mean, twisted kin, we hate each other more often than not, but the safety and secrecy of this place is all we have, the knowledge that we can return here when we’re wounded. That we’ll be safe.” He met the Aisha’s gaze and gave a rueful grin. “Nick, I highly suggest you get out of here before I or someone else try to kill you for this.”
Nickel bit his lip, then said, staring at the ground, “I knew of this, that people here considered themselves a kind of family. Even if they are foul criminal scum—”
Baroque gave an annoyed little hiss and said, “Or just for being so obnoxious. Really. Leave.”
He turned and walked back to the trapdoor. It was harder to see the dance of individual things here, so close to the hustle and bustle of the Catacombs in general, but he could hear Nickel’s hesitation and then his footsteps receding, slowly at first and then more quickly. Good. Baroque had seldom met anyone anywhere near as annoying.
Baroque looked through the trapdoor and knocked cheerfully on the stone. “Come on down, Mem. Trouble’s over.”
The Bruce’s head appeared in the space. He said, miserably, “Your hammer’s in the way.”
To be continued...