A Piece of Thessalium: Part One
The Second Day
Ever the air sparkled in this place, the palpable taste of magic filling the air like a dream. Shelf after shelf was filled with colourful bottles of potions for every purpose, from potions to cure a pet's ills or turn one invisible through to potions to change a fate in the Battledome or inflict a comical ailment on one's enemies. Temporarily at least, or so the owner always claimed. Rumours even declared there were potions buried in the depths of the magical stores that could change a pet's appearance, morphing them into new colours or even new species entirely. Few ever saw these fantastic potions however, but it never stopped visitors from flocking around when the latest brews reached maturity, hoping to find one of these elusive potions appearing on the shelves.
At the counter stood a bespectacled grey Ogrin, peering closely at a list clutched tightly in his hands, reeling off the complicated contents to a weary shopkeeper. The day before had been long and tiresome for the starry Kau, toiling through the unseen depths of her magically infused storerooms to search for long lost relics and ingredients for the latest batch of potions, and she had hoped dearly for a quiet day to follow. It was a hope she had held many times before, but always when the shop closed for a day the one that followed was full of pets like this.
'We also need something for the sub-basement,' the Ogrin was saying, his thin, reedy voice grating on her nerves. 'It gets rather dark down there at this time of year, and we can't afford to keep blowing money on torches down there.'
You just keep blowing money on magical potions that last nowhere near as long, Kauvara thought to herself. 'Perhaps another Starlight Potion?' she said instead, unable to raise her typically cheerful smile any longer. She had held it so long for the last customer, her cheeks were still aching.
'Ah, was that what we used in the guest room last month?' the Ogrin replied distantly, checking his list again. Yes, it was, she thought. And in the third bathroom the month before that. Such a large estate in the country, and she was certain the Ogrin spent more time pestering her on menial issues than he did actually on his estate.
Another pet stepped quietly from between the shelves and approached the Ogrin, staring intently at Kauvara over the counter. She felt a chill run through her body under the hard stare, the unfamiliarity of it chilling against the familiar face of the Zafara. It was as though someone else had usurped her old friend's body.
Without taking her eyes from Kauvara, the blue Zafara leaned close to the Ogrin, still mumbling to himself. 'Go wait outside,' she said firmly. The Ogrin jumped visibly, his glasses falling from his head and crashing to the floor with his list. His mouth opened as if to respond, but she just turned her glare on him and he quickly thought better of it. Picking up his possessions he hurried away, muttering under his breath about the discourteous nature of today's youth. The Zafara just ignored him.
'Although I'm glad he's gone, that was unnecessary,' Kauvara said reproachfully. 'A little politeness goes a long way in this world, Jess.'
The Zafara shrugged. 'It also takes a lot longer to get what you want from it,' she retorted. 'When you're in a rush, that's not a good thing.'
She placed something on the counter. Curiously the Kau peered over, pushing back the brim of her pointed hat for a better look. It was a black stone, carefully carved into the shape of a single claw, delicate lines of an ocean blue running across its surface. In the magical glow of the shop they seemed to shift before her eyes like the waves of the ocean itself.
'Very nice,' she said quietly, looking up at Jess expectantly. 'But what do you want?'
'I want you to tell me what it is for. You're supposed to be our local expert on magical items Kauvara, and there's not a lot more magical than that in Neopia Central at the moment.'
'What is it?'
Kauvara's eyes widened with a mixture of shock and excitement. Awkwardly she laughed, the sound strained and twisted, but quickly fell silent. There was no trace of humour in Jess' cold expression. She was serious. There was one way to find out.
Slowly Kauvara reached over and took the stone, half-expecting the Zafara to stop her, and held it carefully in her hands. Softly she muttered to herself an old incantation she had almost forgotten since her spell at the tower of the Light Faerie. Suddenly the stone flared blue.
Her eyes widened further still. It was real.
'Now you've got that out of your system,' Jess said coldly, 'perhaps you'd like to tell me what it is used for.'
'The uses of Thessalium are countless,' Kauvara explained breathlessly, returning the stone to the counter carefully, as though afraid it would break if she dared touch it too long. 'A single raw piece can be refined so many ways for so many different effects, it would be practically impossible to tell without closer examination, at least for someone like me. You need to understand, I've only dabbled in what this stuff can do; there is so little of it left in the world, the study of Thessalium is just an academic thing now. All the pieces were refined centuries, if not millennia ago, so for anybody to not know what it was for is quite odd.'
'More was found, and that piece is what it was refined into,' Jess offered in explanation. 'We need to know what for, or at the very least what is isn't for. Can you tell me anything?'
The Kau looked at the piece again, still awestruck by the majesty of the discovery. 'I can tell you it isn't for use in healing. Powdered Thessalium is said to be the most powerful restorative ever discovered. In fact the last raw reserves were used in the first days Queen Ollauri before the Ice Age to cure a plague that had swept across Neopia. It had already claimed her mother and Lady Ollauri was critically ill, so the story says they refined the last into powder and saved her life with it. She was able to find another means to combat the plague afterwards.
'Aside from that... I remember reading something once about the offensive capabilities of refined Thessalium; turning it into a weapon for use in potions and the like, but this doesn't look capable of that. Anything I have read is the result of refining it into a powder or smaller pieces, which can be used in potions or as catalysts for spells, but this looks more like a fitting for something.'
'Can't it be refined further?'
She shook her head. 'Thessalium is tricky stuff. I'm no expert on how it works, but I can tell you the refinement involves extracting the unwanted... fibres of the ore, so to speak, leaving others behind. Some would cancel others out, you understand? The extracted pieces are lost however, so you don't get the best of both worlds. To refine it to this stage, much of the magically useful elements would have been removed, at least for magical ingredients or catalysts.'
Jess hung her head sadly, her cold expression cracking at last. Taking the black stone she returned it unceremoniously to her pocket, a look of mild repulsion at its touch. Kauvara could not believe anybody would find such a treasure so repulsive.
'Where did it come from?' she asked.
'Nowhere,' Jess replied bluntly, looking up at the Kau with a hardened look again. 'What you just saw doesn't exist, are we clear?'
Kauvara just nodded back, disgruntled. Politeness really would have served her an awful lot better, and not taken any longer. Especially after she went to the trouble of helping the Zafara out in the first place. Gratitude seemed lost on her these days however, and without another word she spun on her heel and swept back through the shop.
'You know, I liked you better how you were before,' the Kau called after her. She did not get a response.
Kauvara sighed, but thoughts of the pet who had once been her friend were quickly pushed from her mind as a weedy, rasping voice began to sound through the shop, and from between the shelves stepped the bespectacled grey Ogrin again, continuing on as though he had never stopped.
At least some things never changed.
* * *
The First Day
Jess stared down at the item on the desk between them, remembering the last time she had seen it. A lot had changed since then, but still the black stone stood out clear in her memory, the soft lines of ocean blue shining in the radiant sunshine streaming through the high windows of Judge Hog's office. Now the rough edge had been honed back, the shapeless ore refined into a delicate claw that could sit comfortably on the palm of her paw.
Thessalium. Her latest gift from an enigmatic enemy.
'It's not real, surely?' The cantankerous orange Yurble looked dubiously at the item, trying to instil some confidence into his belief, but his voice trembled with every word. No amount of willpower could turn hope into reality.
'If only that were so, old boy,' his companion replied wearily, the large pink Elephante unconsciously stroking his distinguished moustache. Ever since entering stepping into the office he had been unable to stop his nervous ritual, the very sight of the Thessalium putting him more on edge than even the Yurble typically managed. 'I had the fortune to examine the ancient staff of Shaman Wanatanaku when the museum did their Mystery Island exhibition some years ago. Crude pieces of Thessalium had been used in its construction, and the feeling I get from this piece is exactly the same as what I got from that staff.'
'And I saw it when it was still unrefined, back on Kreludor,' Jess added thoughtfully. 'Either way, we have to assume it's real; if it turns out to be fake we've just wasted a bit of time.'
'It is real,' the fourth member of their meeting supplied, leaning forward in his tall chair and pulling the piece closer. The dark stone made the black glove of Judge Hog pale by comparison, its shining veins standing out clearer against his palm. 'Master Hog would never send us something false. He likes to play games, but doesn't get any amusement out of watching us run around needlessly.'
A chill silence fell over each pet around the desk, all eyes turned to the Thessalium as it was placed carefully back onto the wooden top. It had been nine months since the incident with the Kreludan Mining Corporation, wherein Master Hog had obtained a scarce handful of pieces of Thessalium, a mineral that had vanished from Neopia countless centuries ago. Jess had stood before him at the end, but was unable to stop him escaping with his prize. To see a piece again, now fully refined, sent a shudder down her spine. Why had they been sent it?
'So, what do we know?' she asked at length, breaking the uncomfortable silence. She turned her attention to the nervously fidgeting Elephante. 'That staff you mentioned, what could it do?'
The Elephante fingered his moustache again as he answered, 'Nothing, I'm afraid. The staff had been in use for many generations of Witch Doctor and Shaman before it disappeared, and by the time the Mystery Islanders found it again the Thessalium had been rendered inert. If there had been any use left in it, I doubt even the most honourable of archaeologists would have handed it to a museum. Thessalium fetches quite a price, even when refined.'
'Wait a moment, inert?' Jess interrupted, picking up the refined piece again and tossing it in one paw as though expecting to feel it giving off some signal. 'I thought these things lasted forever?'
He chuckled at her words, the sound shrill and unnatural. It was quickly stifled. 'My dear, nothing lasts forever. In fact it is generally the case that the more powerful a magical tool, the quicker it is consumed. The candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long, as the saying goes. After my examination of the staff I researched this further with Thessalium specifically, and found records showing many of the older staves and other magical items created using it had also grown inert over the years through use. If they hadn't there would still be a lot more refined Thessalium in the world, waiting to be re-used. Those that are still active are now prized incredibly highly, and loose pieces sell for quite the premium to the right buyers as a result.'
'Then can't we just find a way to render Master Hog's stock inert?'
'If you believe you have a way to put thousands, if not tens of thousands of powerful magical charges through his entire stockpile, wherever it may be, then I would be glad to try.'
They fell silent again, their ignorance of the enormity of their task hanging over them. Thessalium was still taught in Neoschool, but only in passing; it was little more than a footnote in the annals of history these days. Even scholars had largely abandoned the pursuit in the long centuries since the days of Queen Ollauri, their knowledge lost in books few ever read, and most barely even knew existed. If their belief was correct, they didn't have the time to search through books to find the answer to Master Hog's conundrum.
A new voice pierced the silence. 'That can't be the only idea we have?' the pirate Shoyru asked, leaning back in his chair. Slowly he leaned forward as four pairs of eyes turned to him, the chair legs hitting the ground with an audible thump. Awkwardly he tried to smile, deflect their harsh looks, but it failed spectacularly. 'I mean, don't we have anybody else in the city we could ask? Neopia Central's a pretty big place.'
'But it's not a place most scholars bother with,' the Yurble snapped irately.
'Scholars don't bother, but mages and sorcerers do,' Judge Hog corrected. 'A lot of them know a lot of things, if not a lot about them. It's possible we'll be able to find scraps of information in the shops. I know Kauvara studied at the Tower of the Light Faerie once, and there were a few scholars who still researched Thessalium there. She would be our best bet, but the other shops may still yield something.'
'We'd have to hope so; Kauvara's shop was closed this morning, so she'll be no help today,' Jess warned. 'We can ask around elsewhere though and maybe get lucky.'
'Wednesday is the day most of the magical item sellers come to the Marketplace,' Lucas supplied, 'so we might want to try there day after tomorrow. You can get all sorts at those stalls.'
'And what if this all turns up nothing?' the Yurble cried. 'You can't trust yourself to luck when playing with Master Hog of all people! What we need is a scholar, someone who has studied the ways of refining Thessalium and actually knows, knows the different sorts of effects it can have. We should be sending people out to Altador, to Brightvale-'
'Edna.' All eyes spun to Judge Hog, the Yurble's voice trailing off into an incoherent mumble. 'Not many know, but Edna wanted to be a geologist was she was young, before she came into her magical ability. Even after becoming a witch she continued to study magical minerals and their uses, and even now she still does so as a hobby. In fact it was the reason she moved to the Haunted Woods in the first place, to search some of the caves in the mountains and the old ravines in the depths of the Woods. She still owns a lot of very rare books in that tower of hers. If we want a specialist, we want her.'
Hope shone in Jess' eyes as she turned them to Lucas, the only pet in the room with wings. 'How long would it take you to get to her tower?'
The Shoyru shrugged. 'There are no safe landing spots nearby, but even with a bit of a trek I should be able to get there not long after nightfall, if I go alone.'
'Then go. Edna will just ignore it like always, but we'll send word ahead to tell her to look out for you. And take this with you.'
The Yurble gasped as Jess lightly tossed their precious Thessalium to him, the Shoyru catching it lightly and rising to his feet. 'You can't send him off with that!' he protested angrily, waving a fist wildly at the room in general. 'We need it to show people around here too!'
Jess just smiled knowingly. From a pocket she suddenly another black stone, carefully shaped into the image of a claw, its surface alive with veins of a deep ocean blue that seemed to dance in the radiant sun shining through the windows. The Yurble's jaw dropped stupidly, his voice trailing off again into an incoherent mumble.
'Master Hog sent us four pieces,' she explained. 'Which means one each for three of us to take around the city, and one for Lucas to fly out to Edna.'
'Four pieces?' the Yurble breathed, transfixed by the stone in the Zafara's paw. 'What would compel him to send us four pieces? They must be worth a fortune.'
'Tens of billions of neopoints, if not hundreds. The fortune in terms of magical power... I'd rather not try to imagine that. Because of that we've taken the number of pieces to be another message. Four. Worst case scenario, he's giving us four days to work out what use he plans to turn the rest of this stuff too. We don't have time to visit Brightvale and Altador, not before our time's up. We're going have to rely on a bit of luck around the city, or for Lucas to find something from Edna. Find anything, send word immediately to Judge Hog,' she added pointedly to the pirate Shoyru.
He gave a quick salute, the effect ruined by his broad grin, before hurriedly disappearing from the office.
'I suppose we had better get started then,' the Elephante said cheerfully, his jovial attitude tarnished by the sight of his fingers running nervously through his moustache again. He was right to be nervous.
'I'll meet you in the lobby in ten minutes with the Thessalium,' Jess said. Both Elephante and Yurble nodded agreement with varying degrees of enthusiasm before following Lucas out.
Only Jess and Judge Hog remained in the office.
'He's never followed through with anything before,' the Moehog whispered ominously, staring blankly at the ceiling.
'You know what this means?'
Jess nodded. 'It means you need to come up with an answer. Nine months ago I asked you a question, Judicius: whose side are you on? Your brother has changed the way he plays, so we have to assume he's upping the stakes in this game. Choose your side now; you won't get the chance later.'
Without another word she followed her companions from the office, leaving the dejected Moehog alone with his thoughts.
To be continued...