Chiaroscuro: Part One
Moltara has a shop that sells nothing but fantastic lights. Wonderful lamps. Extraordinary lanterns! But nothing I can afford. I'm a de-tinkerer; I make my living taking things apart, separating the small parts and sorting them into piles. I think I'm rather good at this; I can disassemble an Albot in five minutes, a Shiny Mechanical Faerie Fountain in ten. But Moltara does not often need things taken apart. And even when I do find a job it doesn't pay much. Because really the only thing I have to offer is efficiency. Anyone can dismantle; it's building that is appreciated, and I can't do that.
So my house has very little light. I am the proud owner of a single dim lantern which occasionally flickers out and requires much more oil than is efficient.
But even if I had the neopoints to buy ten thousand lights and make it so bright I wouldn't be able to see anymore, even then I don't think I would be satisfied. I want light, but not Moltaran lantern light, nor the glow of the magma that seeps through the caves. Something else. Something I have never seen.
Because I have never left this city. Generations of my ancestors, all de-tinkerers, have been born here, and have lived and de-tinkered merrily. Or in my case, not so merrily. But I hear business was better back in Moltara's early days. Because Neopets back then were not so skilled with metalwork and machinery. And so de-tinkerers were valuable. The same cannot be said for today. But I digress.
I am not going to leave this city any time soon. With barely enough money to pay for food and lantern oil, how am I supposed to buy a ticket out? And I'm a Kacheek; I can't fly. Once I considered collecting parts and building myself a pair of mechanical wings. But like I said, I can't build; it's destruction, not creation, that I'm good at.
Once I begged someone on the street who was wearing Charred Steam Wings to lend me them. I'd fly out of Moltara, I told him, and earn neopoints with my de-tinkering. They must have enough use for de-tinkerers on the surface, after all. I hear they're not so skilled with machinery up there. Then when I had enough money I would buy my own set of wings and return them to him. And so I made my case. But the winged stranger said, "Why would you want to fly out of Moltara?" And he gave me a strange look and did not lend me the wings.
It was not the first time I had heard the question, or some variation of it. Why leave this marvelous city? This wonderful place with its cozy caves and warmly-glowing magma pool, and its shop of fantastic, glorious, wondrous lanterns? This place that has been my home for my entire life. This ingenious city of mechanical wonder—why leave? Why would anyone want to do that?
For me there is one reason.
Do you know what sunlight is?
The dingy sign that hangs on my front door reads "UMBRA: KACHEEK DE-TINKERER EXTRAORDINAIRE! TAKES APART ANYTHING!"
Today there are no customers.
Well, what did I expect, anyway? On most days there are no customers. But at least I'm not bored. I've found something lying in someone else's junk heap, a sculpture of a Wocky that once spun and played tinkly music when its key was turned, but one of the little parts inside has snapped and the music is gone. A rare find. For the rest of the day, unless a customer arrives (unlikely) or until I get tired (inevitable), I'll be sitting here methodically separating the sculpture into parts and storing them away. And someday when I accumulate enough parts, I will be able to sell them as scrap metal and buy a set of Steam Wings.
I begin disassembling the Wocky sculpture. I open it up, revealing its mechanical guts, and begin to work. Remove this cog, take out this tiny little rod. But then it slips off my lap—
The once-spinning, once-singing Wocky sculpture hits the ground with a shivery metallic clang. Parts fly everywhere. No! I can't lose those parts. Every cog, rivet, turning-key, is worth something, I don't know what, but they must be worth something, and I have to save every something so someday... someday... I have so much of nothing now, but maybe someday... I need those parts. They're Neopoints. And Neopoints will buy me wings. And wings will send me to the sun.
The ground is rough dark rock, run through with cracks. I kneel down and scrabble around on the ground and come up with a handful of brass gears and the Wocky's head. But I've lost more than that. Where's the rest of it? I look around and see something: a glint in the alleyway. Something metal. Something. I hurry towards it, and then—
"Who are you?"
Soot stains my fur. I look more Grey than White. One of the consequences of having light-colored fur in a dark-colored city. One of the consequences of living in an alleyway.
A long time ago my fur was definitely White, I was cheerful, and my paint-box was full of colors. Then I heard of the new land that had been discovered underground. They spoke of art, beautiful art, would you believe what they could make out of metal down there? And the rest of the city—softly-glowing magma and shiny, deep black obsidian rock. Beautiful! And the colors, as I imagined them, appealed to me, so I sold my winter coat—for there would always be the heat of the magma down there—and jumped down into Moltara with my paints and brushes and easel and white-furred Xweetok self.
At first Moltara was everything I wanted it to be. I wandered around painting the sculptures, the lanterns, the Magma Pool, the Town Hall, the glow-worms that give off their soft bioluminescence. I looked at everything there was to see and existed in some sort of half-conscious state of wonder. I used up all the paper I had because I painted so much. I bought some more; I used up that too and had an empty Neopoints bag and a full portfolio of paintings.
Do you know the old saying? An empty coin bag is like the life of someone who idles his days away. So much potential but all of it wasted.
Well, as it turned out, my paintings were as useless as my coin bag.
My first potential customer was a Magma Bori. She looked at the painting I offered her—a rainbow glow-worm—and scoffed. "Why'd I want one of those?" she said. "I can just go catch one and trap it in a lantern. Why're you painting glow-worms when there are so many anyway? Nobody wants pictures of those glow-worms."
The next one was a Fire Uni, who examined my depiction of the Town Hall and said slowly, "Don't understand. Town Hall's right there. Don't need to see it twice."
The last one was a Shadow Skeith, who took my painting of a Shiny Mechanical Faerie Fountain, glanced at it briefly, and ate it. I didn't have the heart to make him pay up. Nor did I have the heart to sell my paintings anymore. But I was already trapped in the magma city.
Luckily there were many other tourists in Moltara, and they were much better-off than I was. They could afford food from Molten Morsels. And sometimes they wouldn't want to finish those morsels, and would leave them on the ground, and I would have a meal. I would dart out and take the Fried Ginger or the Singed Dinner Roll, whatever they had dropped.
Then I would creep back into my sooty alleyway, eat what I had taken, and dream of being back on the surface again, in my small cozy house in Neopia Central. But transport back and forth from Moltara is expensive. And I can't pay the taxis with paintings, can I? They're all ruined now, anyway, so soot-stained you can barely recognize them anymore.
A bite-marked Ionized Onion glows just outside my alleyway. Somebody has tossed it there. I suppose they didn't like the ionization.
I hurry out, pick it up, and dash back into the darkness of the alley. I used to hate the dark—I used to be absolutely terrified of it. But one gets used to it in Moltara. One gets used to the dark when one cannot afford light.
The onion glows faintly blue. I remember I painted one of these; I'd loved the colors. The soft blue glow. The fire-red flesh. The picture is probably still in my grubby portfolio, worthless as all the others.
I eat the onion. Then I lean against the wall of the alleyway and sigh. Soot covers my fur. Soot covers my paintings. There is no escape. I close my eyes.
Something hits the ground and rolls around. Something metal. Outside the alley there is noise. I make my way to the entrance and look out. A Black Kacheek is kneeling on the ground looking for something. Then she stands, runs to the alleyway entrance, and crouches down again, her paws moving across the ground in a frantic search for something.
"Who are you?" I whisper.
Her name is Umbra.
To be continued...