The Tree of Pillar Grove: Part One
This series is a side-story to the Infinity saga. Knowledge of the other stories would help some things in this one make more sense, but it's not strictly required.
145 Years B.N.
It all started with a bang.
Specifically, the bang that followed the malfunctioning of a machine somewhere in the apartment. It drew the attention of all five Neopets present, causing them to turn their heads in its general direction. No one knew exactly where it came from and four of them had absolutely no idea what to do about it. The one that did have any sort of aptitude with machinery suddenly found himself on the receiving end of four expectant stares.
The spotted Draik quickly got the hint. "I'll get it," Dimitri said flatly as he got up to take a look.
The others in the apartment returned to whatever it was they were doing before. In Flicker's case, it was finishing up the last of the art books he checked out of the library some time ago. After how hectic things were for the glowing Buzz a month prior, it felt nice to be able to relax and take it easy.
Flicker had only lived in Central Cavern for a short amount of time, but he was already finding the Moltaran cave quite to his liking. After four years of constantly moving around and putting up with less than pleasant –and sometimes downright corrupt- Neopets, Flicker finally felt like he had found a good place to call home.
But the best part of it was being surrounded by friends and family, which was a new experience for him. The apartment and the light shop below was owned by Flicker's father, a small white Buzz named Lumin. Technically, he was also the owner of an entire city, being the former king of a place called the City of Lights and its residents, called the Fireflies. That was a fact that Lumin disliked being reminded of, however. It didn't matter to Flicker either way, though, as he was just glad to be reunited with his father after being separated for so long.
Lampyri was also from the City of Lights. The blue Buzz had once held a significant position in the kingdom as one of the city's four Royal Guards. The story as to exactly why she left the city was still largely incomplete to Flicker; but even though he was curious about it, he knew better than to ask. Lampyri was usually on her own away from the light shop –that day being an exception- so it wasn't like he had many opportunities to question her anyways.
Flicker had only known Dimitri for a short time before he moved to Central Cavern, so it came as a surprise to him that the Draik was already acquainted with Lumin. From what he had been told, Dimitri had been renting a room from Lumin ever since he arrived in Moltara from the surface about three years ago. He was unaware of Flicker's connection to Lumin at first, but Flicker still had to thank him all the same; after all, Dimitri did inspire him to look into living in Central Cavern in the first place.
And lastly, there was Wingen. He was Flicker's Big Brother; a bit of a misnomer, as the little fire Wocky fit neither criteria. They had developed a sort of kinship over their similar curses: Flicker aged faster than normal while Wingen aged at a much slower rate. It only took Flicker five years to reach adulthood while Wingen was still a child at forty-three. Flicker and Wingen had been inseparable for the past three years, supporting each other through their hardships that would eventually lead them to Central Cavern in search of a better future.
Flicker's mind had been so absorbed in all the circumstances that brought him to where he was that he didn't even notice Dimitri walk back into the living room until he cleared his throat. He hadn't been gone for long at all, but apparently he didn't need much time to be able to report his findings, "It's the air filter. The whole thing was rusty and old, so it was only a matter of time before it croaked."
"Hmm. Will you be able to fix it?" Lumin asked, crossing his arms.
Dimitri held out his arms and flicked his hands in a defeated manner. "'Fraid not. It's busted to the point where I might as well make a new one right from scratch. Which I can do, but it'll take me a few days."
Everyone else in the room accepted Dimitri's answer, but Flicker wasn't as relaxed about the situation. "Uh, but what's going to happen to the air in here in the meantime? Will we have to live somewhere else until we get a new filter?"
The groan from Lampyri came instantaneously. "No, Flicker..." Flicker heard her take a breath as she reminded herself to have patience with someone so inexperienced. "If we lived in here for more than a month without a filter, we'd probably get sick. A couple days isn't going to harm anyone, although the air is still going to get a bit stale and disgusting," Lampyri said with a hint of dismay added in at the last part.
"Not necessarily," Lumin chimed in.
Lumin left the living room and headed towards the kitchen. Flicker heard him rummaging around in a few drawers before returning with something in his hand. It looked like some sort of clear, white crystal that had a wispy, spiraling sort of shape. When he flew upwards to hang it from the ceiling, its shape caused it to spin a little before finally becoming still.
Flicker got up from the sofa to get a closer look at it. It was a pretty ornament, but he wondered what it had to do with their air problem.
Seeing Flicker's confusion, Lumin explained, "Before we had mechanical filters, we used these to keep the air clean. If we put one of these in each room, they'll attract all the dirt and other impurities for up to six weeks, which should give Dimitri more than enough time."
"Wow, this little crystal will really do that?" Flicker said as he stared at it, mesmerized.
"I thought the same thing for quite some time, actually," Lumin gave a small laugh. "Believe it or not, that's not a crystal, but actually a leaf."
Flicker blinked in surprise. He had just spent the last several hours looking at pictures of all sorts of leaves from the surface, and that crystal looked nothing like any of them. It wasn't until he moved his head even closer to the crystal and saw the very faint veins in it that it started to sound plausible to him.
"What? No way..." Dimitri remarked, not believing it at first either. Both he and Wingen went over to take a look as well. When Wingen saw the same thing that Flicker did and pointed it out to Dimitri, their skepticism faded away into amazement.
The only one besides Lumin that wasn't astonished at the leaf's existence was Lampyri. Instead, she seemed surprised at its presence. "Where did you get that, sire?"
"They're fairly common in a few of the markets scattered around the city," Lumin answered. "Times sure have changed, haven't they?"
Lampyri silently agreed with Lumin. Everyone else, however, was left with questions over what he meant. Flicker watched him intently, waiting for him to elaborate.
"I thought Moltarans don't like going up to the surface? So how would something like a leaf be so widely used down here?" Dimitri asked, also prodding Lumin to discuss the matter further.
Instead, the response that they got was a very short one. "Ah, it's a long story. Perhaps I'll tell you some other time," Lumin replied quickly, but also nervously.
Flicker gave a pout in displeasure. But as impatient as he was to hear the story, he had no choice but to let the subject drop for the time being. Shrugging it off, he picked up the art book again and occupied himself for the next few hours.
* * *
The sound of the covers slamming against pages echoed in the living room. There was a sense of finality and satisfaction in the simple action of Flicker closing the last art book. That was it. He had finished them all.
Flicker stretched his limbs after setting the book aside, having not moved for quite a while. He considered getting up to find something else to do, but at that hour he was feeling the last of his energy leave. So instead, he began to entertain the idea of just laying back down and calling it a day.
"All done?" Wingen asked Flicker as he walked by, noticing that the book was no longer in the Buzz's hands.
Flicker nodded. Just realizing something, he asked, "Big Brother, didn't you get any books from the library?" He knew just how much Wingen loved reading, so it came as a bit of a shock that he hadn't done so for some time.
"Nah. The only magic books in the library are the ones I've been studying for the past ten years, so I wouldn't be learning anything new by going through them again," Wingen answered. He was a magician, and Flicker always used to see his nose in spell books whenever he was lucky enough to have free time.
"I suppose that's really no excuse for not reading, though," Wingen admitted a little ashamedly. He then added in a perkier tone, "How about you and me try to find something that the both of us would like looking through next time we go to the library? Maybe we could check out some more books about the surface?"
Flicker gave a grin at the thought. "Sounds like a plan!"
It wasn't just the idea of spending time with Wingen that excited Flicker, it was also the opportunity of learning more about the surface world. As a Moltaran, Flicker had lived his entire life without ever setting foot outside of the caves. He had already brought up the idea of going up to the surface, but until the day where such a thing would be feasible, he had to settle for reading books about it.
Just then, Flicker heard a knock at the front door. Lumin was the one to answer it, and no sooner had he opened the door, he was met with a voice asking, "Excuse me, are you Lumin?"
"Yes, I am. I'm afraid we're closed for the day," Lumin replied.
"Oh, no, no! I'm not interested in buying lights. I was actually wondering if I could talk to you for a little while. May I come in?" the voice replied. The tone of the voice was airy, yet refined while possessing a hint of intellect.
But the light-hearted tone was still not enough to fully convince Lumin. "Pardon me, but... who are you?"
Flicker turned around to take a look at the visitor. He was a purple Zafara, well into his middle years. He was dressed in clothing that gave the impression that was expected of a professional. The presence of small glasses balancing on top of his small nose suggested a vision problem, but Flicker didn't see how they were doing him any good with how worn out and scratchy they appeared.
"Ah, where are my manners?" the Zafara commented to himself with a laugh. He then tipped his green hat to Lumin as he finally introduced himself, "Dr. Harland Jacenty of the Brightvale Institute of Botany. Pleasure to make your acquaintance."
The reply was immediate, but it didn't come from Lumin. Instead, it was Wingen and Dimitri that shouted in unison, "Dr. Jacenty?!"
The Wocky and Draik ran over to the front of the living room to confirm that they heard the name correctly. Lumin had to move out of their way in a hurry as they rushed to the Zafara in excitement.
Dimitri was the first of the two that Jacenty had taken notice to. He recognized him instantly, exclaiming, "Dimitri! My goodness, the last time I saw you, you were just a young lad!"
Dimitri smiled widely in response as he said, "Told you I'd get to join you guys someday!" When Dimitri caught a glimpse of Lumin looking rather bewildered, he told him, "Dr. Jacenty's a senior member of the exploration team from the surface. I met him years ago, when I was too young to go with them."
"He was so eager to prove himself to our team. Honestly, with as much skill with machinery as he had –even as a child- I always had a feeling that Dimitri would eventually join up with us," Jacenty added.
"Dr. Jacenty! Remember me?" Wingen called to him, eager to make his presence known too. Several years in the past, Wingen had been mentored by a few of the surface-dwellers in Central Cavern. It was only a month ago that Wingen reunited with one of them after having been separated for nearly ten years.
Jacenty furrowed his eyebrows and adjusted his glasses. It took some effort, but he eventually recognized the Wocky in front of him, and the realization elicited an astonished gasp, "Wingen?! Is that you?!" Wingen confirmed that he was, which struck Jacenty speechless. It was the relieved kind of speechlessness, though, as a weak smile formed on his face as his breathing calmed down. "Oh, am I glad to see that you're alright. I heard that you disappeared, and I thought that something horrible might have happened."
After seeing that Wingen was doing fine, Jacenty couldn't help but return to his jolly state and laughed, "And you're looking as youthful as ever! I'm actually a little jealous! What's your secret?"
"Uh..." Wingen muttered, still not terribly comfortable about revealing his curse to others. "It's a secret?"
Jacenty seemed to accept that answer easily enough. Wanting far more to move on with other topics, Jacenty turned back to Lumin, gestured to the inside of the apartment and asked again, "May I?"
"Well... Alright. Come in," Lumin said after some consideration. Seeing that Dimitri and Wingen were familiar with Jacenty appeared to relax Lumin a little.
Tipping his hat once again to Lumin to show his gratefulness, Jacenty entered the apartment. Dimitri and Wingen followed right behind him, both of them excited to do some catching up.
"Have you dropped by to see Professor Frazer yet?" Dimitri asked, referring to the leader of the exploration team.
"Of course," Jacenty replied swiftly. He appeared to have already planned out a course of action once he was allowed into the building, as he went straight to glowing Buzz sitting down on the couch. "And you must be Flicker!"
The eyes of everyone else widened at Jacenty. Flicker himself was caught off guard and wasn't sure what to say to him. He was the first to admit that he had a history of supposed strangers actually being people from his past, but he still didn't have a clue as to how Jacenty knew him. And judging from the reactions of the other residents, neither did they.
"Uh... yeah? Do I know you?" Flicker asked, confounded.
"Well, we've never met before, but I've heard plenty about you!" Jacenty responded. When Flicker was still wordless, Jacenty stated cheerily, "What modesty! In just this one trip I made from the forest up above to all the way down here, I've listened to so many stories about how you drove out the tyrant that ran Obsidian Quarry! Such a heroic deed for somebody as young as you!"
Flicker doubted that Jacenty realized just how young he actually was, but the compliment still delighted him, nevertheless. The feeling of being praised by someone other than Wingen still felt rather odd to Flicker, as it was not that long ago that he was on the receiving end of constant criticism.
Jacenty saw Lampyri watching him. She hadn't made any effort to hide herself from the scene, but she still remained silent and just listened. That silence was about to broken when Jacenty –yet again- realized his bad manners and approached Lampyri. "My apologies. I did not mean to ignore you! You must be the other Buzz that was involved in that battle..." Jacenty struggled mentally for a moment. "Lampost!"
She gave him a dull glare. "Lampyri."
"Sorry, sorry. Anyways, glad to meet you, Lampyri," Jacenty said as he held out his hand towards her.
Flicker saw a small spasm in Lampyri as she stared down at Jacenty's outstretched hand. "I... I don't do handshakes," she replied, far more nervously than what was usual for her.
Jacenty intended to say something to make up for it, but he didn't as he realized that he had already apologized enough in the span of just a few minutes. Instead, he decided to get to the reason that he arrived at the apartment. "I know this is slightly rude of me after just getting acquainted with you all, but there's something that I would like to ask."
Jacenty might have had some questions, but Flicker had some as well, one of which he blurted out before Jacenty could speak again, "How come you don't live down here with the rest of the surface-dwellers?"
Jacenty's reply was quick, "As a botanist, it should be obvious that I would find the environment of the island above Moltara far more to my liking than the caves underground!"
Flicker stared at Jacenty.
Eventually, Jacenty was forced to say, "I study plants."
"You know, I'm actually glad you asked that, as it would be better to explain things thoroughly first," Jacenty began. "As I said, I spend my time in the forests studying the flora that grows there. Botany may not seem like the most thrilling of professions, but I am quite passionate in my belief that it is far more exciting than what it appears to be.
"I came across this strange phenomenon while exploring previously uncharted parts of the island. At first, I thought it was an odd rock formation that stretched for well over a mile. But investigating it further, I realized that it was actually a massive system of roots! The enormity of the roots suggested that the tree that produced them should have been gargantuan, yet there not so much as a sapling to be found in that area!
"That's when it hit me. What I was seeing was something completely unprecedented in the world of botany. I believe that the plant I saw grows its roots above the ground, while the trunk and the branches are below!"
The five Neopets listened to Jacenty's story with a mix of wonder and incredulity. Dimitri was the first to voice his disbelief when he chucked, "A tree that grows upside-down? Dr. Jacenty, that sounds a little far-fetched, don't you think?"
"No. He's correct," Lumin interjected, to mostly everyone's surprise. "The tree you refer to is located in a cave called Pillar Grove. There's a city there, built around the trunk of the tree."
Lumin took the crystal leaf that he hung up on the ceiling earlier and showed it to Jacenty. "This leaf comes from Pillar Grove. It's used as an air filter and is one of many utilities that the tree provides the Neopets living there."
"Fascinating..." Jacenty whispered as he examined the leaf. Soon, his excitement burst forth, causing him to appear rather shaken at the revelation. "The magnitude of this discovery is just... Oh, this could change the field so much! Again, I'm sorry to spring this on you so suddenly, but I would like to see this tree up close! I'm afraid of traveling into unfamiliar parts of Moltara by myself, so I ask if you would please escort me there, Flicker! You've already proven how strong you are, so I have absolutely no doubt in your abilities!"
Flicker had absolutely no idea where Pillar Grove was. Nor did he understand a good amount of what Jacenty was talking about. But what he did understand –namely that there was a tree that was strange somehow, and strange meant interesting- was more than enough to win him over. "You got it! Let's go! I want to see it too!"
Flicker glanced over to Wingen, wondering if he had the same emotions running through him. To his surprise, he did, although he displayed them in a much less hyper manner. "It sounds interesting! Is it alright if I go along with you?" Wingen asked Jacenty.
But before Jacenty could give an answer, Lumin broke in once again, "Wait a moment, please."
Flicker groaned and adopted a slouched posture, his enthusiasm growing damp after hearing Lumin stop him. "But Papa..."
"No, no. It's not what you think, Flicker. Actually, I would like to come too," Lumin requested, betraying Flicker's expectation that he'd try to prevent Flicker from running off into parts unknown.
"Sire, would you like me to accompany you?" Lampyri asked as well.
"Yes, that would put me a little more at ease," Lumin replied. "Is that alright with you, Dr. Jacenty?"
"I suppose not," Jacenty replied. "Well, if that's settled, then how about we set out bright and early tomorrow morning?" When Jacenty was met with silence, he corrected himself, "Oh, I mean... in ten hours? How's that?"
The others accepted Jacenty's proposal. With that, Jacenty thanked them again and promised to meet up with them in the agreed time-frame and left the apartment.
While Flicker could hardly prevent himself from bouncing in place over the prospect of an exploration, there were somewhat troubled looks on Lumin and Lampyri's faces. When he saw that, Flicker questioned them, "Why were you so interested in that tree all of a sudden?"
Lumin sighed, "I suppose I'll have to tell the story to you sooner than I expected. I'll explain it in full later, but –as I said earlier- the tree is the foundation of a city called Pillar Grove." Lumin's face tightened in distress as shut his eyes. "Many years ago, the City of Lights was at war with them."
To be continued...