A Piece of Thessalium: Part Two
The Third Day
Radiant sunshine had been replaced in Neopia Central by a grim overcast, gloomy grey clouds lingering in the skies above the busy marketplace. The taste of coming rain hung in the air, worried eyes darting upward as pets made their way through the tightly packed stalls and mysterious tents of the Wednesday marketplace. It would take more than the prospect of a few showers to deter them from shopping today; nobody wanted to miss the magical item merchants as they descended on Neopia Central again.
Jess left another stall behind, the silver Gelert merchant watching her with a curious eye. It was becoming a recurring problem, her obscure questions earning her many a curious glance and weary sigh as merchants treated her either as a raving lunatic or worthless time-waster. It was quickly becoming evident any knowledge of Thessalium was rarer than the mineral itself in a place like this. She just had to console herself with the belief that if Master Hog could find it on Kreludor, she could find information in the marketplace.
In the distance came the sound of the great clock tower in the centre of the marketplace, a trio of solemn notes resonating through the gloomy air. Time was running out, the strict trading rules imposed by the city's Merchants' Guild working against her. Once the stalls started to close, they would not get another chance.
Reflecting her mood, a soft drizzle began to fall, dampening her spirits still further.
Busy shoppers passed her by without a second glance as they continued about their business, casting excitable eyes over the plethora of magical items on sale. Rare and outlandish potions covered stalls with their fumes, the rich smells of baked muffins covering others with their crisp aroma, coaxing in customers despite the dangers of trying to eat them, while peddlers of magical cures and arcane tomes tried to out-shout each other over the din of a flourishing economy. Once, Jess had enjoyed watching them, taking in the sights as she patrolled the market for trouble, but not any more. Not since she had heard the name of Master Hog.
Her eyes met those of a disgruntled orange Yurble exiting one of the tents. Quickly he shook his head before silently heading off in another direction, seeking another likely stall to make inquiries. Watching him, Jess felt a sigh rise in her heart, and turned away to seek another area.
A flash of grey and white suddenly caught her eye through the display of a stall. Her heart leapt, the slim chance of it really being him ignored as excitement filled her. Pushing her way through the crowd she reached the stall and gave chase, staring through the heads in front of her.
Again she saw it, the chequered pattern adorning the back of a pet's head. It was a Kougra, a long grey coat hanging from his shoulders. Carefully she followed after him, trusting in the crowd to keep her obscured, but the pet made no effort to check for pursuers. Without a care the Kougra just continued through the market, showing no interest in the stalls around him, his unhurried pace suggesting nowhere in particular to go. It did not take long for Jess to feel her excitement wane, the prospect of having caught sight of her foe fading in her thoughts. Mistaken identity.
The Kougra paused before a stall, turning to look up at the charms and trinkets hanging overhead. Etched out in profile was the familiar stoic face, no trace of expression as he looked without interest at the display, yellow eyes almost bored by his travels.
There was no mistake. It was Kribal.
His interest passed, he moved on again, disappearing into the throng. Abandoning all semblance of caution, Jess bounded after him; if she could get her hands on Kribal, there would be no need to find out what Master Hog had done with the Thessalium. Through the crowd she caught another fleeting glimpse of the Kougra as he slipped away down one of the narrow alleys between the stalls. Forcing the shoppers aside she gave chase, running headlong into the path.
A gentle breeze was all that awaited her, disturbing the backs of the stalls to either side. Cautiously she pushed on, sharp eyes scanning the narrow path for even the faintest hint of grey or white. All around lingered the ominous echo of the busy shoppers, snared between the cloying stalls and stands with nowhere to escape. There was no way he could hear her approach above the din. The same could be said for her, she thought grimly, if Kribal was merely leading her into a trap.
Nothing happened the further she walked, following the narrow path back out into a quieter area of the market. Most of the stalls had already closed for the day, the merchants packing up their remaining goods without a care for what was happening around them. Only one tent remained, the faded green canvas rustling in the gentle breeze. There was no trace of Kribal.
No other path open, she approached the last remaining tent. Carefully she pulled open the canvas flap and stepped inside, eyes scanning for the dangerous Kougra. Instead she found a flustered eventide Lenny, his back to the entrance as he busied himself with something behind the makeshift counter. Various staffs hung from the tent's supports, filling the room with an eerie, ethereal glow that made the peculiar pet appear to shine like the night sky itself.
'Can I help you with something?' the Lenny suddenly asked, his back still to her.
Taken aback by his awareness, she awkwardly asked, 'Have you seen a Kougra come through?'
The Lenny shook his head. 'Business has been rather slow this afternoon I'm afraid. Until you graced our doorstep, nobody else had visited since shortly before lunch.' A professional smile was on his face as he finally turned to face her, peering through his thin-framed spectacles at her with an appraising look. A gentle sensation brushed through her fur like ripples across a pond, radiating forth from his every movement.
'You always get that around a large quantity of magic,' he explained, answering her unspoken question with a conceited smirk. 'Every movement disturbs it in the air. You grow accustomed to it after a while. Now, is there anything else I can help you with, miss? Or was it only after your friend you wished to ask?'
Her eyes passed over the hanging staffs again. 'You make these yourself?' she asked slowly, trying to force a false interest into her voice.
'I craft them, my brother enchants them,' the Lenny replied curtly, a look of irritation beginning to spread across his face. She was little more than time-waster in his eyes. 'We have been operating for seven years now. Would you care to purchase one?'
'I daresay you would sell more of them if you weren't so out of the way here,' she continued, pointedly ignoring his question.
'The right clientele is of vital importance,' he retorted firmly, speaking his words very carefully. 'Out here, customers seeking a quality magical staff know where to find us. The riff-raff stay away. Usually.'
With a sneer she reached into her pocket and produced the black claw she carried, holding it up before his disdainful eyes. 'Do you know what this is?' she asked coldly.
Somehow the Lenny managed to make his stare more loathsome as he quickly answered, 'A fake.'
Her sneer transformed in an instant to an incredulous stare. The Lenny was the first person all day to have recognised the Thessalium for what it was, even if his assumption was misjudged. A part of her remained wary, thinking of Kribal's sudden disappearance after bringing her here, a place she was unlikely to have come otherwise in the grand, sprawling market. Had he led her this far? Was this Lenny just another part of Master Hog's grand game?
'What if I told you it was real?' she asked. One eyebrow raised sceptically, but as she proffered the valuable item the Lenny reached out and took it. Immediately his face lit up, all disdain replaced by surprise. Hastily he muttered under his breath. In his wings the same glow she had seen the day before in Kauvara's shop radiated forth, sparkling in the magically rich air.
'By Fyora,' the Lenny breathed, gawping stupidly at the stone, 'it actually is real. Please, forgive my sharp words, if I had known the calibre of your custom I would-'
'Just shut up and answer my questions,' Jess interrupted harshly, growing weary of the Lenny already. 'How do you know about Thessalium?'
'As a craftsman I believe it my duty to learn as much as possible about my craft,' he replied quickly, visibly taken aback by her sharp comment. 'The study of Thessalium has been a hobby of mine for some years now, despite it being a strictly academic craft in the world today. To find a piece so freshly refined is quite astounding.'
It was Jess' turn to feel surprise again. 'You can tell when it was refined?'
'Not precisely, but you can get an idea for it. I have dealt with some pieces of inert Thessalium before, and despite still giving off an aura to one accustomed to handling magical items, it was far weaker than this piece. The extent of the reaction to the identifying spell was also quite striking, which records have always stated was a sign of fresh refinement. This particular piece cannot have finished its refinement more than a month ago, and depending on the method and style of refining it could even have been less, maybe a week at most to give such a strong reaction.'
Jess listened to his explanation with a blank look, the words passing harmlessly through her thoughts without a care for settling down. Only the echo of his last remark lingered, daring to ignite the elusive flicker of hope.
'Are you saying you can tell how this was refined?' she asked slowly, barely able to believe the question was coming from her own mouth. 'You can tell what it's for?'
'Given the opportunity to examine it, I believe so.'
'Then I suggest you get started, and be quick about it,' she finished sharply, treating the shocked Lenny to a sickly sweet smile. Even if Kribal had been the one to lead them this far, she could not turn down this opportunity to find out what was going on. Kribal would not have led them to false information; it was far too unsporting for Master Hog to deceive them so coarsely.
All former animosity forgotten, the excited Lenny disappeared into another partition of his tent before returning with a variety of small tools for examining the precious stone, one lens of his spectacles now replaced by a thick magnifying eye-piece. For several minutes Jess watched him in silence, listening to his peculiar excitable squawks and puzzled musings. Nothing he said made any sense to her, so after ascertaining he wasn't going to suddenly try and run with the priceless item, she turned her weary eye over the staffs again. She could still feel his movements carried by magically charged air, a part of her mind feeling for every slightest change.
The minutes continued to pass at an agonising rate. Every time she tried to distract herself, the constant sensation against her skin made her turn back to watch the meticulous study of the Lenny as he scrutinised the Thessalium under his microscopic eye, weighed it repeatedly on various sets of scales, and muttered incomprehensible words that caused the stone to glow anew, its radiance twinkling in the air and turning the interior of the tent to a midnight sky. Each time he seemed unsatisfied, and returned to his examination with renewed vigour, repeating what seemed the same motions again. What he was looking for she had no idea, his constant stream of muttering doing little to help her understanding.
After what felt like hours had slowly dragged past, the Lenny looked up at her, a smile beaming from his twilight face. 'It's a psycho-magical translator!' he exclaimed.
The Zafara responded with a blank look that was becoming all too familiar. 'Put it in words I understand,' she said coldly.
'It's a component that used to be used in crafting magical weapons a very long time ago, designed to augment the ability of the user by allowing them to take command of the power contained within the weapon itself.'
Her glare froze the air between them, chilling his burning enthusiasm. 'Okay, I'll try and explain it in simpler terms. Normally a magical staff is not used as a weapon, but rather as a means of controlling a person's magical energy. They channel their power into the staff, and the various components of the staff can be used to focus their power, increasing its effectiveness. Imagine using a crossbow; it is like the difference between taking aim down the sight or firing from the hip. If you take aim you get better control on your shot, and will be more likely to hit your target where you wish. In magical terms, your power becomes more focused and is therefore more effective. Some can also be used to alter the base state of the magic, such as charging it with fire or ice or something similar, which helps less specialised mages.
'In the old days there were staffs that were a bit different, however. They would instead be designed so as to enable the staff to draw out of the magical ability of the wielder. The staff would know what to draw, so would add the mage's magic to its own to create the most powerful form it could, which the mage would then be able to focus through the staff itself, much like we do now. The combination of command and control was devastatingly powerful. It would be the difference between my throwing a snowball at you, and being caught in an avalanche. This claw is akin to one of the components that used to be used. As a craftsman myself, it was naturally the first thing I looked for.'
Jess allowed herself a long moment for the words to try and settle into her mind. A life spent hunting criminals in Neopia Central and beyond allowed little scope for magical theory, however, and it was rapidly becoming apparent she was not going to fully understand what he was talking about.
One thing stood out at her. 'That can basically be used to make a magical weapon that is more powerful than anything we have at the moment?'
'On its own? No. To use my crossbow analogy again, this piece is like having the string, but not the stock, or the bolt, or any of these new repeating mechanisms. You see, in order to command the staff you first need to be able to communicate with it. But magic is not in normal words, and even magic words are very specific and used much like a focus. Instead it relies on psychic communication, with powerful psychic components required to enable the wielder of the staff to relay their brainwaves into the weapon. But then magical and psychic languages are as similar as Tyrannian and that stuff on the walls of the Temple of a Thousand Tombs. This little thing serves to translate one into the other, a psychic thought into a magical one, telling the staff what is needed, and allowing it to draw out the magical energy.'
He beamed triumphantly. Jess just wondered how much more of his rambling she could take before she decided to drag him to a cell for wasting Defenders' time. He could have stopped at "no".
The Lenny seemed to notice her dissatisfaction with his explanation, and he quickly summarised, 'What I'm saying is to create a staff, or any other weapon for that matter, a whole host of other items would be required. Very powerful ones too; you cannot make a golden necklace with just a piece of string and some rocks. Thessalium was just always the missing ingredient in this day and age. But with enough of it, and the right other tools, something could be made to rival even the power of the Faerie Queen's Sceptre.'
Jess felt a shiver run down her spine at his words. Thirty years of hunting had given Master Hog a catalogue of very powerful items, and it was beginning to sound like nine months ago she had allowed the last piece of his puzzle to slot into place.
* * *
'Well, there's no point blaming yourself about it,' the pink Elephante said reassuringly, treacherous fingers running across his moustache as he spoke, 'this would have happened eventually. He could only keep collecting things for so long before he realised he could use a few of them like this. I doubt anybody but him really knows the full extent of his collection.'
The three pets sat alone in the back of a café as Jess recounted her story, watching the rain continue to fall outside as the marketplace closed for another day. A handful of late stalls continued to try and catch the later shoppers, but with the rain building momentum after its early drizzle, fewer and fewer pets were bothering to trek through the paths between stalls and see what deals they could find. Around them most of the seats were now empty, one last couple still sitting by the window and gazing out at the rain, lost in their own world. A world distinctly devoid of Master Hog. How Jess longed for those days again.
'What I don't understand is how he can hide such a collection from us,' she mused aloud. 'If he's spent thirty years hoarding these things, there must be some record, somewhere?'
'He is far too smart to keep it all together like that,' the Elephante replied with a nonchalant shrug. 'The items are probably scattered far and wide around Neopia, hidden beneath bureaucratic tape and dummy companies and false identities.'
'More likely he's got the lot stashed right under our noses and we're too stupid to realise something stinks,' the grumpy orange Yurble mumbled, more to himself than either of his companions. Searching the market in the rain had done little to cool his temper.
'Perhaps,' the Elephante agreed, 'but either way we have no idea the extent of his collection. It is very possible he does not have everything he needs at all, and has merely created these items for later. If anything, a weapon seems his most likely course of action.'
Jess just shook her head. Her time pursuing Master Hog had taught her enough to see the impossibility of such an act. Master Hog would never take a risk like that, not with something so valuable. If he had refined it, that meant he had a plan for its use. The fact he had informed them of his work was proof enough of that; he liked to play games, but there always a reason for them.
'However you look at it, we've come as far as we can,' she concluded sadly. 'We've solved his riddle within four days, and we know what this can do. Without more information about what he's gathered over the years, there's nothing more we can do except wait for his next move. I'll see you both back at headquarters.'
Stepping back out into the rain, Jess reminded herself of the one detail she had left out to the others. Kribal had been the one who led her to the answers, the enigmatic Kougra all-but handing her the answer. If Master Hog had set them the riddle, why had he sent Kribal to make sure they found the answer? She trusted the information they had found, but something still pulled at her thoughts, desperate for attention. Something didn't feel right about all this.
With one last sigh, she put it to the back of her thoughts. Until Master Hog made his next move, there was nothing more she could do.