Keep Smiling: Part Seven
The throne sat on a raised platform. It brought whoever sat in it higher than anyone else in the room. But for three years, that throne had been unoccupied.
Infrared didn't dare to sit in it. No matter who tried to convince him, be it the other Royal Guards or the citizens of the kingdom, Infrared would not claim the throne for himself. Everyone told the red Buzz that –in Lumin's absence- he was the most qualified Firefly to fill the position. Infrared knew that was a lie. If he couldn't even protect his own nephew, how could he expect to protect a city?
Instead, Infrared sat on the steps leading up to the platform. The other two Royal Guards, Neon and Glowstick, did the same. Infrared felt far more comfortable putting himself on equal standing with the Royal Guards instead of raising himself up on a pedestal.
A pink Moehog entered the throne room and approached the Royal Guards. A solider usually came by each day to report on various happenings of note within the city. If The Engineer was not present, there was usually nothing major going on. This time, however, the solider that stood before them was noticeably perturbed.
"Four of our soldiers standing guard at the main gate were attacked today," the pink Moehog began. All three of the Royal Guards gave the Moehog their complete attention; if a threat to the city was deemed to be serious enough, they were the ones that stepped in and put a swift end to it.
"By whom?" Infrared asked, interested in gauging the threat that was being posed.
"We're not sure. They were found blindfolded, gagged, and tied up with ropes. They were a little shaken, but not injured. We were told that the culprit wore a Spyder mask and wore a long, brown robe. Species, color, and gender was not able to be determined. The soldiers said that they were attacked just as they were letting the patrol out and that the gate was left open after they were incapacitated. A few citizens claim to have seen the culprit sneaking around the city, possibly with an accomplice.
"Furthermore, we've received reports that some citizens went missing in the time period between the attack on the soldiers to when they were discovered. We don't know if the two events are related, but we're worried that the person in the Spyder mask either kidnapped the Fireflies or coerced them to leave," the Moehog concluded his report.
Infrared didn't know what to think. He felt like he should have been troubled by the news, but he wasn't. That wasn't to say that he was shrugging off what the Moehog told him, but he had a fair amount of suspicions about the report that was preventing him from being particularly worried.
He looked into the faces of the other Royal Guards and tried to figure out what their thoughts on the matter were. Neon looked nervous, but he was always like that. Infrared could tell when the green Buzz was genuinely anxious, and that wasn't the case. He appeared to be concerned, but not distressed.
Infrared looked at Glowstick's expression. The yellow Buzz held his head low enough that Infrared couldn't make out much. All that Infrared could see on Glowstick's face from that angle was a grimace.
"What are your orders? What should we do about the one in the Spyder mask?" the Moehog asked in a calm, but firm voice, as he was prepared to take any action necessary.
But Glowstick's immediate answer caught the solider off-guard. "Nothing."
The Moehog's eyes widened in disbelief. Neon was just as shocked; he swiveled his head towards Glowstick and stammered, "G-Glowstick! You can't be serious!"
He was, though. Infrared stretched his head a little farther to look into Glowstick's eyes. He wasn't sure if Glowstick was completely focused on what was going on in front of him. Glowstick's embittered, pained face told Infrared that at least part of him was still reflecting on the past.
Glowstick ignored the reactions of Neon and the Moehog and ordered, "Let the person in the Spyder mask do whatever they want. Don't interfere. And don't stop any Fireflies from going with them."
The soldier's eyes shifted over to Infrared, silently asking him if Glowstick's orders were really appropriate. The more Infrared read Glowstick's expressions, the more he felt that he knew what he was thinking and –by proxy- what the situation really was. Infrared nodded and reiterated, "Leave them be. You're dismissed."
The Moehog could hardly believe what was coming out of Infrared's mouth as well. But he still saluted and followed his commands, even if reluctantly.
The Royal Guards were completely quiet. None of them were too willing to say anything. It wasn't long after the Moehog departed that Glowstick stood up and began to leave the throne room as well. Each sullen and bad-tempered step he took was quick, as he intended to exit the area before anyone had the chance to speak.
But Infrared was not going to let that happen. "Just how long do you plan on being angry?"
Glowstick stopped. He continued looking straight ahead and refused to give Infrared eye contact. "Stay out of my business, Infrared," Glowstick growled crossly before continuing on his way.
Infrared didn't move from where he was. All Infrared could do was watch the throne collect dust and witness the eroding solidarity that the Fireflies used to have.
* * *
When they had ran a fair distance away from the City of Lights, Lumin revealed himself to the Fireflies. Each and every one of them were shocked, but that was the only reaction that they all shared. Their opinions of Lumin aiding them were mixed. Most were relieved that the king was alive and the revelation raised their spirits a little. But others were leery of the prospect, as they had doubted Lumin three years ago when The Engineer started attacking. Regardless of what they felt, they all followed him on their way to Central Cavern.
Lumin spent the remainder of the trip with his mask off, but Lampyri kept her identity hidden. She lead the group through the tunnels, staying far ahead of them as she walked and said nothing. She would periodically look behind her to make sure everything was going according to plan and made hand gestures to give the Fireflies directions, but she otherwise kept the attention off of herself.
At one point, Lumin caught up to Lampyri and requested to speak with her. Lampyri noticed the other Fireflies standing far behind them, probably as per Lumin's orders.
"How much farther do we have to go until we're at the halfway mark?" Lumin asked.
The Fireflies were a fair distance away, but still close enough that they could hear the conversation if Lampyri spoke too loudly. Therefore, she whispered to Lumin, "A few more hours and we should be there."
Lumin sighed and took a glance over his shoulder, looking a little displeased with Lampyri's answer. He then said, "They're getting tired. If I'm correct in regards to our location, I believe there's a village with an inn not too far from here. I think that it would be best if we stop there instead."
Lampyri would have rather that they kept going so that they could make it to Central Cavern sooner. But as she looked over to the Fireflies -many of whom started to sit down in an attempt to regain their energy- Lampyri relented. "Alright. But will we be able to pay for their stay?"
Lumin nodded. "I brought plenty of Neopoints with me in case we needed them and I should have enough."
A short time later, Lampyri and Lumin arrived at the village and promptly brought them to the inn. As the Fireflies got themselves comfortable, Lumin paid the fare for twelve hours worth of lodging for ten Neopets. Lumin and the nine Fireflies stayed at the inn, but Lampyri never set foot within the front door. Instead, she left the village as soon as she entered and continued forward.
* * *
The inn was a very simple one, having one large room to accommodate all the Neopets staying there. Lumin watched over the Fireflies claim their beds and set down the few possession that they were able to bring with them. But every now and then, Lumin would stand up from his bed and walk over to the window. Lampyri had left without letting him know where she would be. It had been a couple hours since then and Lumin was starting to get worried.
The innkeeper, a skunk Aisha, suddenly entered the room. "Are you Lumin?" she asked him. When he said that he was, she continued, "Someone just came by and left something for you."
Lumin walked out to the entrance and found what the Aisha was talking about. It was Lampyri's backpack. He understood now. Lumin brought the backpack inside and distributed the food and bottles of water in it among the hungry Fireflies.
Once the Fireflies had taken what they needed, Lumin took a carrot for himself and stood by the window. He didn't get the chance to look outside it for very long until he was interrupted. "King Lumin?"
Lumin turned his head to the orange Kacheek standing behind him. "I was wondering... Who's the person in the Spyder mask?" the teenage girl questioned.
Lumin thought back to how adamant Lampyri was about keeping herself concealed from the Fireflies and those memories influenced his answer to the Kacheek. "I'm not sure. All I know is that they're someone that's interested in helping us."
The Kacheek didn't look too comforted by Lumin's reply and held a cautious look on her face. She then asked nervously, "Can we trust them?"
Lumin looked back out the window. He finally caught sight of Lampyri, who was sitting on the roof of a building on the other side of the cave. Her mask hid her expressions and she was far enough away that very little of her could be made out anyways. But strange enough, Lumin could still tell what emotions were running though her as she sat alone with her head down: shame, self-loathing, and guilt.
But Lumin was more concerned in what Lampyri was doing in the present. Whatever it was about the past that bothered Lampyri so much, Lumin saw how Lampyri was still willing to help the Fireflies. Because of that, he gave the Kacheek a reply, even though it was one that Lampyri might not have given if she was the one being asked. "Yes. I do."
* * *
They were a little later than they would have been if they had kept travelling, but the Fireflies had finally made it to Central Cavern without any problems. Lampyri couldn't really complain, since she was prepared for and had been expecting a lot more obstacles along the way. All in all, things worked out pretty well.
Now that the task of bringing the Fireflies to the city had been completed, the last thing to do was get them settled in their new –and hopefully- temporary homes. Just like they promised, Dimitri and Professor Frazer were there to meet them at the outskirts of the surface-dweller's city.
Lampyri stayed behind the crowd as the Grarrl stepped forward and introduced himself, "My name is Professor Frazer and welcome to Central Cavern. You may notice that our city is rather large and can be fairly intimidating, but myself and my colleagues will do everything in our power to make sure that you're comfortable in living here."
The Fireflies eyed Frazer and Dimitri warily, as none of them were quite sure what to do or think. They were quiet for a while and their eyesight began to drift away from the two surface-dwellers. Eventually, Dimitri decided to break the silence by suggesting, "We can show you to your homes and all the important places in the city. And if you have any questions about the place, I can answer them!"
"Your new homes are spread out across the city, so myself, Professor Frazer, and Dimitri will each be showing you around," Lumin explained from where Dimitri had started.
The Fireflies split up into groups: the light-maker and his family went with Lumin, the two siblings went with Frazer, and the other three went with Dimitri. As for Lampyri, she felt that her role in the mission had ended. She silently broke off from the Fireflies and headed back to the apartment before anyone had noticed.
* * *
Once Lampyri took off her disguise and her mask, she laid down on one of the couches and stared upwards. For a long time, she listened to the broken clock in the kitchen; she heard the minute hand clicking, but the hour hand never made a sound as a good portion of the day went by.
It was quite a while later until Lumin walked through the door. Lampyri didn't sit up, only turning her head enough to face him while she said, "I'm sorry about having you shell out money for the inn. I'll pay you back."
Lumin shook his head and held up his palm. "That's not an issue. Don't worry about that." He set aside his folded-up cloak and the Moltenore mask as he told Lampyri, "The Fireflies are grateful for your help, you know."
Lampyri scoffed, "That's only because they don't know who I am."
"Lampyri, I think that they would still be thanking you even if they did," Lumin countered. Lampyri didn't believe that. There was still no way that she could show her face to them.
Before the discussion went any further, Dimitri entered the apartment. "How did it go for you?" Lumin asked him.
Dimitri groaned and scratched the back of his head. "It was... awkward. I did the best job that I could, but they didn't really want to talk to me at all. I don't think they had a whole lot of trust in me." Dimitri looked away as he muttered, "Is this because I'm from the surface?"
Lampyri didn't say it, but Dimitri was right, at least to a degree. The Fireflies had spent several generations in isolation, which bred a feeling of distrust over outsiders. That especially applied to the surface-dwellers, whom most Moltarans in general knew little about. The younger Fireflies weren't quite as leery over strangers as the older generations, but such opinions were still too deeply rooted to be discarded easily.
Lumin did speak up to Dimitri, but gave another for their cautiousness. "Dimitri, I would imagine that they're more scared than anything. They're in an unfamiliar environment and they probably have a lot of doubts over what direction their lives are going to take from this point on. Please be patient with them. They've gone through a lot and it will take much time for them to heal."
Dimitri exhaled and prevented the matter from upsetting him too much. "Okay. If you need help with anything else, I'll do what I can." The Draik then left the apartment, calmed down but still appearing a little slighted by his interaction –or lack thereof- with the Fireflies.
After Dimitri had left Lampyri thought what Lumin said just a few moments ago about taking time to heal. It was true; it had been a month since she ran away from the City of Lights, but she didn't feel any more at ease now. She still had bad dreams and she still boiled with anger and resentment when she thought of The Engineer. Most of all, Lampyri still couldn't help but think constantly of every mistake that she had made and could not stop those thoughts from clinging onto her conscience.
Lumin turned around to see Lampyri sitting up. She tugged at the rim of her glove anxiously as she struggled to find the courage to speak. But she fought on. She didn't want to dwell on the past forever. Lampyri wanted to make everything right for the Fireflies in the present and future. If she wanted to solve the plight of her home city, she needed to learn how to deal with the strife inside of her as well. It would be slow and gradual. But like Lumin said, it takes time to heal.
"I'm ready to talk."
* * *
"You can run, but you can't hide."
The Engineer was not the first to say that. It was simply a saying that she picked up on over time, albeit a fitting one considering the situation.
"They ought to start following their own advice, though."
The Engineer teleported from roof to roof, traveling through Central Cavern at such a speed that no one could hope to match. Especially not from the Neopets below that were blissfully unaware of her presence. As she went, she spotted a few that she recognized from the City of Lights.
"Do they not realize that finding them is such a trivial matter for me? Are they in denial?"
Perhaps they underestimated her intelligence.
"They have a tendency to overestimate their own comprehension of the world, if anything."
The Engineer found a small cliff jutting out near the ceiling of Central Cavern. She reclined herself against the wall and watched the activity in the city.
"So many insects scurrying around..."
She had every reason to go down there and squash the Fireflies in the midst of their overconfidence. She could put an end to their insignificant and futile attempt to outsmart her in an instant.
"But such an end would be abrupt and uninteresting."
Or she could prolong their game. Let them think that they finally escaped and that they could find hope again. And when enough time has passed, she would strike them down and gaze upon their rekindled fear that would burn far hotter than ever before.
The Engineer grinned.
"That would be so much more fun."