Hiding the Clockwork Negg: Part One
Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.
The intricate clockwork tick-tocked along. She didn't mind it. She had never minded much of anything. And right now, she didn't mind that this tick-tocking would be the soundtrack of her entire life.
Every morning, she wandered around the entrance of the cave, looking at plants that grew there and collecting them, if not to study, then at least to liven up her new home. Every night, she kicked open a roll of soft bedding and leaned against the pillar that held the Clockwork Negg, letting its tick-tock-tick-tocking lull her to sleep. And every week, she would go down and gather supplies, taking care to not draw attention, to not hold conversation, to not be followed...
The times in between, she sat and listened and stared at a necklace with a bright blue crystal hanging from its chain.
She had been standing still with a dopey grin on her face for longer than was comfortable, much too close to the Kau than she'd have liked. The entire group aimed their smiles towards the small box propped up in front of them, which was being fussed over by the old professor. Behind him were five baskets, one of them ticking, all almost obscured by the tall grass of the clearing that they were all standing in, out in the middle of Nowhere somewhat left of Nothing Interesting.
She absolutely hated daguerreotypes, hated how slowly the magic crystals inside translated light into a picture, hated how you had to stand still and wait, frozen like statues, hated how popular they had all gotten. She was feeling increasingly awkward, standing next to all these people she didn't know. And she let her smile falter somewhat as time went on. Who cared if the picture was ruined? Why was the old geezer taking a picture anyways? Wasn't this supposed to be a secret mission?
But finally, he was done, and finally, she could breathe again, and finally, they went down to business.
"These the things?" said the blue Kau gruffly, lumbering towards the baskets as the old pink Lenny looked over the picture.
The Lenny professor coughed, tucking the picture away. "Ah, yes. I'm rather delighted that you all offered up your services for this most delicate task. I'm very sorry to inconvenience you so, and I hope my... compensation has made up for any trouble you may find."
Her hand flew to the hefty pouch of gold coins. Professor Menseiz certainly had been generous.
"I place the utmost trust in all of you, to keep your oath of secrecy in this matter, and to carry out your duties. I give to you now these five neggs, and I will let you all decide which ones you would prefer to take and where you would like to take them."
"Excuse me, sir," interrupted the brown Acara. "Wouldn't it be wiser to simply assign them at random, so not even we would know where this important artifact is going?"
"Well," coughed Professor Menseiz, "I... yes, it would be. But... I feel more comfortable giving all of you a choice in the matter... because you see – "
"Great," bellowed the blue Kau, swiping up the basket with a cloudy, light blue negg, almost toppling over the one with the glassy negg in the process. "I'm taking this one!"
"Well, wherever I'm going, I'm not going to the Lost Desert," the purple Ixi piped up. "Too many Scamanders, and – "
"Wait! Quiet!" the professor shouted, waving his wings so hard that dull feathers flew off. The five adventures waited. "I don't want to hear any of your decisions! I want to know as little about this as possible! Barely anybody in the Hidden Negg Society even knows this is happening for security reasons, the few who do decided that it would be safer to get those outside of the society involved rather than within, so for safety's sake, I don't want to know! And even before any of you make any decisions whatsoever, you must take this next thing I say into consideration, because it wasn't explicitly stated in your contracts."
He took a breath.
"Whoever transports the clockwork negg must guard it for the rest of his life. Or hers," he added, eyes darting to the two women of the group.
Silence fell, until only the ticking could be heard. The green Kiko, she noticed, started chewing his lip. The blue Kau stood with his recently-claimed basket hanging comically in his grasp. The Acara started muttering, something along the lines of "I don't like the looks of this..."
"Now hang on," the Kau exploded, swinging the padded basket dangerously around. "I didn't sign up for this! I thought this was a simple concealing job!"
"...don't like the looks of this..."
"Oh, what do you have to worry about, you already chose what you wanted!"
"...don't like this..."
"Well, then I definitely don't want to go to the Lost Desert."
"I KNOW!" shouted the professor, immediately silencing them all. "...I know. I know this is a lot to ask for, but this is a highly dangerous... it's just... if this Negg fell into the wrong hands, it would be disastrous. There's a... I don't think I should even tell you, but it's bad. Ancient-slumbering-beast bad. Horrible-consequences-for-Neopia-and-maybe-the-universe bad. So for the greater good, there must be... precautions... such as a perpetual guard..."
"Then shouldn't you be the one to do it?" the Kiko pointed out before being elbowed roughly by the Ixi.
"'S true," said the Kau defensively. "He's the one who found it."
"Well, obviously he's too old to do this at all, which is why he hired all of us!"
The Ixi's words started off another loud argument among the three of them. The Acara seemed strangely unaffected, still muttering to himself, ("...don't like this... at all...") leaving the remaining member to cover her ears in irritation, until she noticed the professor packing up his camera.
"Are you really just going to leave us here?" she said, not angry, but skeptical.
"I trust you all to make a swift decision on what to do without me," he replied, shouldering his bags.
"You really are placing a lot of trust into us. We don't know each other. We don't even know you."
"Well," the professor sighed under his load, "I chose the five of you specifically because you all are, frankly, unknown. No offense."
She shrugged. "Well, I know that. And as unknowns, I guess you thought we would be open to any sort of job if you paid us enough. Or that nobody'd miss any of us if we disappeared to hide a negg. Or we don't have anything more important to do. But that doesn't mean – "
"I'm not done," he said, starting to walk now. She kept up with his pace. "I chose you five specifically because I consider myself a good judge of character. And you all are reliable, I know. I know that, despite any appearances to the contrary, you all hold yourself to a code of honor. You keep promises. You are honest. You are selfless. You understand how important this job is, and the consequences if it is not done."
She gave a wry smile in reply. "Thanks for the compliments, but you're being rather optimistic here."
He shrugged. They reached the edge of the clearing.
"Hey, can I have that daguerreotype?" she blurted out, surprising the both of them. "Well, I mean... if you kept it as a memento, then someone would see it... and, you know... kinda ruins the purpose of this being, uh, secret... so..."
The professor just grinned softly and handed the picture over. And before she said anything else, he disappeared from the clearing. She listened to his feet as they brushed against the undergrowth, but that sound eventually disappeared as well.
When she returned, conversation was going on more civilly, but the atmosphere was rather icy. The Kau spotted her and bounded over. She waved, and he took it as an invitation to clap roughly on her back so hard, she felt her teeth jitter.
"Wondered where you got off to. Hey, where's th' prof?"
"He went home, I guess."
"That little coward," he snarled, gripping her shoulder tighter. But in a flash, his expression was serene again. "Ah well, we all decided to think it over anyways. Don't tell anyone, but I really hope someone else offers to do it."
She winced. "Oh?"
He nodded. "Yeah. I'm an explorer, see? What kind of explorer stays in one spot all the time?"
"Well – "
"None of them, that's what. By the way, name's Voughn. What's yours?"
"Rutu," she replied, gingerly shaking his hoof. "The botanist."
The next few days were awkward. Rutu spent most of them writing in her journal, trying to ignore the serious debate around her, but even she couldn't help but absorb the tension. It was finally released when they all agreed to simply forget about the issue for now and work out who would take the decoys first.
That took three days.
If it took that long just to decide on one trivial thing, Rutu felt certain it would take weeks to decide what they actually had to decide.
"Anyways, I don't really care about which one I carry," she said as the group sat around the campfire. Selvin had performed a spell to conceal the smoke. She didn't even realize there was a spell for that. The wizard had replied that there was a spell for everything. "But nobody minds if I go to Shenkuu, right?"
Selvin shuddered distastefully. "Too high. I would never want to go there."
"Nobody asked you," Ricky snapped.
"It's literally been my lifelong dream to go there," Rutu continued, ignoring the two. "I mean, the exotic fauna, the exotic flora, even if I visited just once, I would..." She stopped. It became apparent to her that what she was about to say was a bit too enthusiastic than what she wanted to show.
"An' it's good for stargazing there too," Voughn piped up.
Rutu didn't care about the stars. As far as she was concerned, the stars were the same wherever you went. You could literally look up anywhere and the stars would pretty much be the same.
But she didn't say that aloud.
"...Yes, that too. So you've been there before?"
"'Course! Real pretty there, an' – "
"Let's not get off-topic here," Hurok interrupted, his arms crossed. "So the gist is you want to go to Shenkuu. Any objections?"
The camp was silent.
The knight nodded. "Alright. So everybody agrees that... ah..."
"Rutu, yes, will go to Shenkuu."
She couldn't help it. Her face exploded into an uncontrollable smile. She tried to hide it quickly. Her cheeks ached as she pressed her hands against them, trying to quell her excitement.
"So." The Acara rubbed the back of his head, for once looking nonplussed. "If... if nobody else has anything to offer... then I should say. I cannot carry the clockwork negg."
"Heeey, I thought we agreed we wouldn't talk about that 'til later," Ricky complained.
"No, I'm serious. I honestly can't."
Voughn gave an alarmingly violent snort. "Ha! An' I thought knights were supposed to be noble."
Hurok matched the Kau's eyes with a glower. "Believe me, if nobody else was able, I would take up that duty without question. But, as you have pointed out, I am a knight. I must protect my people. I cannot be tied down by an obligation to stay with this one negg for the rest of my life. Besides." He crossed his arms. "I don't like the look of the thing."
There was a pause as every member of the group glanced towards the ticking basket, which, as always, served as a passive soundtrack for their encampment.
"W-well. Okay, then." Selvin clapped her hands, breaking the silence. "Sure. So what does that leave you? Plant, sand and... uh..."
"Glass. I'll take the glass negg."
The rest of the night, they tried to valiantly focus on the task. But the conversation kept veering off track and they eventually conceded that they all should go to sleep.
Rutu settled down on her bedding, feeling much too excited to sleep. It would be impossible, inconceivable, completely unachievable.
A second later, she felt herself being shaken awake roughly.
"Gghhn. Whaaaat." She rolled over, refusing to open her eyes. She could tell it was still dark out through her eyelids.
"Hey Rutu," a voice whispered over the ticking of clockwork. She vaguely recognized it as Voughn's. "You asleep?"
"Oh, good. Wanna talk?"
Quickly realizing that subtlety would be lost on someone like Voughn, Rutu squinted painfully upwards at his face. "Morning would probably be better."
"Naaah, that stuffy ol' knight'll get us talking about neggs soon as brekkie starts. Also, I can't sleep. That ticking's been driving me crazy for the past few days, and, well, you mentioned Shenkuu and then I was gonna tell you about it but then..."
Rutu rubbed at her eyes as a twinge of excitement throbbed at her throat, giving her a tiny surge of wakefulness. "...Yeah. Okay. What were you going to tell me?"
Voughn glanced around. "We should probably talk away from the fire."
Rutu's body said absolutely not, it wanted to stay right in one place, and that's lying down.
"Yeah, sure, okay."
She found herself under a nearby tree, at the edge of their clearing. The grass tickled her legs. Beside her, Voughn spun stories from memory. The city floated in and out of view above her as he described the landscape, the architecture, the people, the royalty, the food... he was a good storyteller, she had to admit, and she drifted dreamily through the tales he told as his voice came in and out of focus. Eventually, it stopped, but she paid it no mind. Eventually, Voughn's head fell on her shoulder, and it was heavy, but she was able to bear it. Her eyes only snapped open once he started snoring.
Voughn thought the ticking was bad. If only he knew how much worse his snoring was. And it was right in her ear.
She tried to shift away, but a heavy arm suddenly wrapped itself around her shoulder and pinned her down. And she was left to helplessly watch the sun rise over the treetops.
Hurok raised an eyebrow when she desperately called him over in the morning. "Help me," she begged. And, taking pity, the knight whacked his staff against Voughn's head.
As Voughn leapt up, starting a shouting match even before his eyes were properly open, Rutu fled for her tent and slept until the afternoon.
"Doooo... you not like Brightvale... 'cause you're scared of stained glass windows!"
"No. Stop asking."
"You're scared of books?" Ricky snickered.
"Guys, it's been days already. Days. Do you think you two could be mature, perhaps, and leave me alone?!"
Voughn and Ricky shared a serious glance.
It was over in a second.
"Okay, so you got in trouble there, and – "
"Stop," said Hurok, eating his meaty lunch. "You two are utterly vexing. I can actually feel you pollute the air with it."
"Ah, c'mon ya ol' stiff sticks. S' just fun."
"Which he never has."
"You really should stop," Rutu added, and Voughn ceased his protests. Ricky rolled his eyes. The two sat down quietly, for once. Selvin took the chance to sit as far away from them as possible, and sat near Rutu.
"These people," she spat. "So I'm very selective! Doesn't mean they can harass me everyday..."
Rutu didn't know when she had ever given Selvin permission to rant at her, but she endured it and continued writing in her journal.
"You know what, I would've been happy to tell them if they just asked, but nooooo, they had to poke fun at the wizard! Who makes fun of a wizard? That's the stupidest thing I've ever what are you doing?"
The mental whiplash it took for Rutu to quickly shift conversation gears was astounding. "What?"
"You're writing something. What is it?"
Rutu carefully pressed the pages against her front, suddenly aware that everybody was now staring at her. "...It's just a journal."
"You shouldn't make any sort of physical recording of this," Hurok said sternly.
"It's really just a journal... I'm not even writing anything, okay? It's... harmless."
"Hn. Well, has anybody put any thought into who's carrying what yet?"
Silence. Except for the ticking.
"The plant negg doesn't have a bearer yet."
Voughn sighed, picking at his teeth. Hurok stared at him, disgusted, before tearing his attention away.
"Well, if nobody wants the plant negg, then I could carry it instead and someone else can have the glass one."
"Nooooooo way," Ricky laughed. "I'm not touching that at all. You know how fragile that thing is?"
"Yeah, Hurok, a blacksmith's arms would be much too clumsy," Selvin drolled.
Ricky shot up from the ground. "I'll have you know," he hissed dangerously, "that a blacksmith's job is a delicate work. Do you really think I just swing a hammer around randomly?"
Selvin was standing up too now, glaring right back. "I bet you're a horrible blacksmith. No, I know. Do you know why? Because you don't have legs. You're just floating there! You're not anchored to the ground in any way! When you swing your hammer around, you'd push yourself up by your own force, negating any effect you might have on your stupid metals!"
Ricky had managed to raise himself to Selvin's eyelevel and was pressing himself up against her face. "I have no idea what you're even talking about, but I don't care, because guess what! Do you know what you hold hammers and tongs with? Your hands! So, hm, I wonder what blacksmiths don't necessarily need? Oh, wait, LEGS. So I have no idea how it got into your thick skull that I would need legs to hold anything with, unless you got your whole body upside-down there and use your feet to hold your little magic wand -- "
"IT'S A STAFF!" Selvin shrieked.
Silence fell, and with it came the tension. Rutu didn't dare look up from her journal. She didn't dare write anything. So she simply stared at her lettering.
Ricky turned away. "...I'm getting more firewood."
Hurok jumped up as Selvin sat down, her fists clenched. The knight stepped towards the retreating blacksmith and shouted, "Voughn!" but didn't pursue any further.
"...Dude, I'm Voughn," said the Kau crossly.
Hurok twisted his head towards him in surprise. "...Right. Yes. Sorry. I'll try to remember."
"You've been saying that for th' past week, man." Voughn pushed himself up and headed towards a different direction.
"Where are you going?" Hurok demanded weakly, but he got no answer.
The knight fell back down and quietly composed himself. Rutu tried to scrawl in her journal as inconspicuously as possible. Selvin continued to fume.
"So, ah, ladies, perhaps... you have any preferences you'd like to voice? About the neggs, I mean."
Selvin sighed. "Really, it's hard to say anything when you don't give a flying whig for what you get."
"Oh really," he replied coldly. "You don't care. I suppose that means you'd like to guard the clockwork negg, then."
Selvin grew silent. Hurok turned to Rutu instead. "What about you? You don't care either?"
"Please don't drag me into this," she muttered, subconsciously hunching her shoulders.
"Oh? And why not? You took an oath, did you not? You were paid, weren't you? You offered up yourself for the purpose of the greater good, no? Don't you feel invested at all?"
She didn't answer.
"...Well, you should."
Hurok didn't leave in a huff like the others, as much as Rutu hoped he would. So she brought it upon herself to leave. She mumbled excuses about cataloguing plants. But it wasn't as though the flora was particularly exceptional here, and she wasted time kicking some grass around.
To be continued...