The Tree of Pillar Grove: Part Four
Flicker's neck was starting to hurt. He had been staring up at the ceiling for a while, fixated on the patterns looming over his head.
Flicker and the others were inside the throne room, discussing the reason for their presence in Pillar Grove. While they were talking about that, Flicker had his attention elsewhere. The palace was built partially into the tree, allowing him to see part of the inside of it through the thick glass ceiling. The main thing that took a hold of his curiosity was the glowing green rings, similar to the containers that he saw in the lift on their way to the palace. He had begun to count them, but his boredom caused him to lose track at around fifty. Not like he would be able to tolerate it for much longer, as he had only gone through a tiny fraction of the rings present.
He decided to turn his focus back to the discussion. "I heard about what happened to the City of Lights. Is it true that you are no longer the king there, Lumin?" Zircon asked.
Lumin groaned. "Yes. It's shameful to admit, but I have not been king for about four years now. I'm sorry if I misled you into thinking that I still was."
"No, no. I'm not worried about that," Zircon replied dismissively. "The Engineer does terrible things to the cities and towns she appears in. Whatever chaos she caused the City of Lights to fall into does not rest on your shoulders."
Lumin didn't appear to believe that. In his mind, the damage that The Engineer dealt to the Fireflies was a result of his actions. Flicker remembered how much remorse Lumin showed when he told him the tale, so he doubted that Zircon's words would change that opinion much.
When Lampyri heard Zircon talk about The Engineer, she was quick to speak out, "King Zircon, has The Engineer ever appeared in Pillar Grove before?"
"Every once and a while I'll hear a rumor about a sighting in the nearby tunnels and caves. But thus far we've been fortunate to not have encountered her in the city proper," Zircon answered. "Although... A few years back I did send two soldiers to the City of Lights to inquire why trade with your lanterns had ceased. They were a Chia and a Poogle when they left Pillar Grove, but were Flotsams when they came back."
Lampyri cringed and muttered under her breath, "I remember that..."
"If you're looking for information about The Engineer, then I'm afraid I don't have much to give. You're welcome to ask the citizens if they know anything, but I doubt that they'll know much more than I do," Zircon added. The skunk Eyrie straightened his posture as he sat in his throne and said, "Now, I assume that's not the only reason that you've come here. I heard something about one of you wanting to study the tree?"
Jacenty perked up, his attention grabbed by Zircon's question. Like Flicker, he too had been fascinated with the rings up above, but to an even deeper extent. "Oh! That would be me! Yes, if you don't mind, I would appreciate it if I could examine your tree up close."
Zircon was quiet. He rested his head on his paw, unsure over how he should reply to Jacenty.
"O-Or, if that's a problem, I suppose I could settle for any reference materials you already have in your possession about it..." Jacenty stammered, sensing the caution in Zircon's eyes.
Flicker heard Zircon heave a sigh as he continued to mull it over. Eventually, he turned his head to the silver Uni guard standing to his side. "Chrome?"
The silver Uni bowed his head. "Yes, your Majesty?"
"If he or any of the others wish to observe the canopy, then I want you to accompany them," Zircon told him. He then addressed the others, "Understand that the tree is a crucial part of this city's well-being. We need to maintain our security over its well-being at all times."
"That's no issue at all! Thank you very much for the opportunity!" Jacenty said joyfully, grateful for even that small chance. "Although –if I may- I would just like to say that 'canopy' might not be the most accurate of terms, since it's actually at the bottom of the tree, whereas an actual canopy would be on the top, and..."
Everyone stared at Jacenty in silence.
The purple Zafara laughed nervously, "...But if that's what you want to call it, I guess that's fine too." He sat down and hung his head, hoping that the awkward atmosphere would fade away before long.
"While I think of it, I do want to apologize for the actions of the guards at the gate. It's true that we've tightened our borders in the past few months. A few of our top scientists have gone missing. The investigation is still ongoing, and we suspect that they left the city by force," Zircon explained. "But while I understand that everyone has been apprehensive about outsiders as of late, that's still no excuse for that kind of rudeness. I'll see that they are properly reprimanded."
Everyone stood up, as they all sensed that the meeting was drawing to a close. Even if Flicker had only paid attention to half of it, he felt a sense of satisfaction by the end. Jacenty got his permission to study the tree, which would in turn allow Flicker to learn more about the place at the same time.
"I bet all of you are tired from the trip. Chrome will take you to one of our inns for rest. Don't worry about the expenses; I'll cover it for forty-eight hours," Zircon said as he led the guests to the exit.
Everybody thanked Zircon as they made their way out of the throne room. Flicker had a bit of a bounce in his step as the excitement started to return to him. But he found that it was starting to dampen yet again, as he felt Chrome keeping a rather close eye on him as he lead them across the city.
* * *
When Flicker thought of an inn, he expected simple lodging areas that didn't always take comfort into consideration. But the one that he and the others were brought to was actually rather pleasant. Their room was a suite, one that appeared to be offered to mainly Neopets of high-standing in the city. With how glum Lumin ordinarily acted over his former position as king, Flicker was surprised at how much his connections could pay off.
Flicker spent some time looking out a window overlooking the city. As much as he was complaining both vocally and mentally over how much he wanted to explore Pillar Grove, he had to admit that he was starting to tire. Everyone else was as well, so Flicker thought that it would be best to remain on the same sleeping schedule as the others.
A Buzz's sense of smell was sub-par at best, but Flicker still caught a strange scent suddenly entering the room. He turned to find Jacenty handing out cups of tea, eventually offering him one. "One of the perks of being a botanist is knowing exactly which kinds of plants are best for making tea!" Jacenty stated as Flicker took the cup.
"It's true! Nobody makes tea better than Dr. Jacenty!" Wingen said. He took his time drinking his cup, as it had been quite a while since he last had any kind of tea that wasn't made from roots.
Flicker was a little reluctant at first, unsure about the green color of the liquid. But he eventually relented and found that he did not regret it. The tea had a bit of a tang to it, but it also had a sweetness that he quickly grew fond of.
"That's made from twirly fruit. They're quite common in tropical climates, so I was able to bring plenty of them down here with me," Jacenty said.
It took no time at all for Flicker to finish his cup. He rapidly reached for the tea jug and poured himself another serving. "Big Brother wasn't kidding! This is great!"
"It is good," Lampyri admitted as she took a sip from her cup. "I didn't think that I would like something made out of surface plants."
Jacenty chuckled, "I'm glad you like it! I'd be more than happy to make some more anytime you want. After all, I need to thank you all for bringing me here somehow!"
Nobody argued against that. Flicker certainly didn't mind; he had downed his third cup and was preparing his fourth.
"Dr. Jacenty..." Lumin said in mutter. He stared into his cup while deep in thought. "I'm curious... if you've seen a certain plant on the island. Would you know of a bush that has arrow-shaped leaves and red berries?"
Lampyri's eyes drifted towards Lumin, then to Jacenty. She waited for Jacenty's answer too.
"Hmm. Wild varieties of spiky bushes fit that description. Most domesticated ones have slightly duller leaves and lack the berries, since they're usually poisonous," Jacenty thought out loud. "But no, I've never seen one here. If they existed at any point on the island, they've probably gone extinct. Oh, but if you would like one, I brought a variety of different seeds for the expedition to Moltara, so I can see if I have the right kind and grow-"
"No, you don't have to bother," Lumin interrupted. A bitter frown formed on his face. "It doesn't matter now, anyways."
Lampyri copied the expression. Both her and Lumin went into their respective rooms on a frustrated note, leaving the other three Neopets in confusion over what was causing them so much distress.
* * *
For the past few weeks, Flicker had difficultly falling asleep. It was usually because of the same reason: The revelation about the nature of his fast-aging forced Flicker to remain awake and think about how quickly he needed to figure out what to do with his life. He was lucky that time, as he had succeeded in sleeping relatively peacefully. His good luck, however, often didn't last.
Sure enough, something jarred him awake and stole the gift of a sound rest away from him. Flicker sat upwards in his bed, looking and listening. He had always slept lightly, so he initially assumed that whatever woke him up wasn't anything major. But when he saw Wingen sitting up as well, Flicker began to think otherwise.
"Did you hear that?" Wingen whispered to him from across the bedroom.
"I dunno. What did it sound like?" Flicker asked, unable to remember the sound from his dreamy haze.
"Almost something like... crying?" Wingen answered, also confused.
Since Wingen was not the type of Neopet to investigate mysterious noises made in the dark, Flicker got out of bed to go look. Nothing in the bedroom seemed out of place, so he went into the living room area.
The first thing he did was look to the doors leading to the other bedrooms. The one for the room that Lumin and Jacenty stayed in was closed, but Lampyri's was open, even if just a little. Seconds later, Flicker found Lampyri herself by the window, looking out of it while she sat with her knees up to her chest.
It didn't take long for Lampyri to catch Flicker's glow from the corner of her eye. She jumped at the sight of him. In the hushed atmosphere, Flicker could her breath shake. And even with how he failed to light up the majority of the room, he could still see Lampyri shivering and the restless look in her eyes.
"Flicker? What are you doing up?" Lampyri said quietly, still possessing a quiver in her voice.
"Was that you?" Flicker asked. "Did you make that noise earlier?"
Lampyri held her look at Flicker. All the while, her lips tightened as her eyes resisted the urge to give any insight into her thoughts. Before either could reveal anything, Lampyri turned her head away. "Go back to bed, Flicker," she growled. Not out of anger, though. More like embarrassment.
Flicker did so without another word. He still might have desired answers to anything that piqued his curiosity, but lately he was starting to learn that some questions were better left alone.
* * *
A few hours later, Flicker was rested up and finally ready to explore Pillar Grove for himself. He stood on the metal walkway outside, surveying the area as he tried to decide where he wanted to go first. It wasn't long before Wingen caught up and joined him as well. The two of them were the last ones to leave the inn, as the others were currently doing their own thing around the city.
"Dr. Jacenty got up early to go to where the tree's branches are. Knowing him, he'll be there all day," Wingen explained.
"I thought you wanted to go with him?" Flicker asked.
Wingen smiled and laughed, "Well, I want to check the rest of the city out too. There's no reason why we can't do that together. Besides, we can both go and see Dr. Jacenty later."
Flicker mirrored his smile, always willing to have his Big Brother tag along. Things always seemed to be more fun for him when he had Wingen's company.
He allowed the Wocky to jump onto his shoulders as he stood on the railings. While Flicker spent a few moments bending his knees up and down in preparation to jump, Wingen took the chance to ask, "Do you know where Lampyri and your dad went?"
"I think Lampyri said that she wanted to ask the people here some questions. Papa's with Zircon, probably talking about some boring king stuff," Flicker answered. "Ready?"
Wingen nodded as he tightened his hold on Flicker and braced himself. Flicker then leapt into the air. He allowed himself to free fall for a few seconds, just long enough to derive a thrill out of it. Before he could descend too far down into the cave, he spread his wings and flew around the cave with a burst of speed.
Flicker weaved around the pillars and ducked under the walkways, for no reason other than the fact that he just found it fun. He made sure to avoid to occasional winged Neopet and kept his speed slow enough that Wingen wouldn't be frightened. Lumin sometimes told Flicker about how the City of Lights was tailor-made for flying species such as Buzzes, but Pillar Grove was the first place in his memory that he could honestly say that he and his wings fit right in.
Flicker flew around at a quick pace, but not too fast as to take his attention away from the layout of the city. He noticed that the types of buildings lining the pillars changed depending on their height into the cave. The ones at ground level dealt with mining and various types of craftsmanship, the middle layer had most of the shops, and near the top was the residential area.
He was so caught up in the environment lending itself to plenty of fun aerial maneuvers that he almost didn't hear Wingen pointing something out to him. He told Flicker to look at a few Neopets on the ground standing near some sort of machine. Neopets on one end of the machine poured concrete into it, while others on the opposite end retrieved the bricks that it was spitting out.
Flicker landed on the ground and watched the process for a while. It was mesmerizing how quickly the bricks were being formed, but also perplexing, as he had never seen such a thing before. Eventually, he asked the shadow Ogrin overseeing the machine, "How does that work?"
The Ogrin flinched when he noticed Flicker standing right behind him. He recovered from the shock within a few seconds, but was still startled enough that his reply came out as a stammer, "I-It's a company secret."
Flicker was about to drop the subject there when Wingen once again took notice of the "company secret." "What's that green thing?" he questioned, referring to the round, gem-like object sitting in a glass container attached to the top of the machine.
The Ogrin fidgeted a bit at Wingen's perceptiveness. "That's what's powering the machine..." he admitted in a mumble.
"But what is it?" Flicker repeated.
"Amber," the Ogrin grunted, starting to develop a touch of impatience in his mannerisms.
Flicker was about to prod the Ogrin for more answers, as he was only making him even more confused. Wingen alleviated some of it by telling him, "Fossilized tree resin." He then added his own inquiry, "But since when is amber green? And how is it able to power that machine?"
But the Ogrin finally had enough. "Look, you kids are holding back our work. Go bother someone else, alright?"
Flicker snorted at the Ogrin, more than willing to leave him be. Both he and Wingen decided that it would be a good time to head over to where Jacenty was, so he took to the air and left the workers in a huff. On their way, he couldn't help but notice that there were several other unique machines in Pillar Grove, all of which had that same green-colored amber in them.
To be continued...