Agent of the Sway: Betrayal - Part Two
Clayton Moore didn't have any especially great feelings either way towards Duke Hopesmeade. Certainly, he was a lot less friendly and jovial than his present superior within the Sway, Lord Faversham, but there didn't seem to be anything particularly wrong with him. Certainly nothing to warrant the icy reception Faversham had rolled out from the moment he had learned the Duke would be involved in the operation to ally with and then betray Dr. Sloth.
Life in Faversham's mansion over the previous few weeks had been, as a result, quite quiet. The Duke had evidently gathered Faversham's feelings towards him, but for whatever reason, had not addressed them.
They had watched with interest as Dr. Sloth had approached the mysterious Spectre and recruited him for the effort to steal Brucey B's lucky coin. They had lurked in the shadows during the illegal rigged Cheat game where Brucey had lost everything, his coin included, to Spectre. Now, at last, with the Jetsam delivering the coin to Dr. Sloth, the plan could enter the next phase - they could leave the mansion.
"Brucey B will soon search out Spectre to reclaim his coin, that much is certain," Hopesmeade explained to Clayton as Faversham's servants loaded the carriage. "He won't find answers in Neopia Central, as Sloth will no doubt take him to the desert as insurance against us - still hopelessly convinced that Spectre is some sort of secret agent working for us. As such, Brucey will seek to consult the greatest repository of knowledge he can think of - the Brain Tree. We must get there first, and make sure the Brain Tree gives the answers we require."
Faversham at last emerged from the mansion, giving his final orders to the servants that would be staying behind.
"You have finished your target practice today?" he asked Clayton curtly as he sidled up to the pair.
"Of course," Clayton replied.
Clayton had been a member of the Thieves Guild before joining the Sway, so his combat skills were decent enough. Unfortunately, during the invasion of Tyrannia, Faversham had discovered that the Kougra's aim with a crossbow was less than acceptable. As a result, Clayton had been forced to undergo daily target practice in the mansion's grounds ever since. He was, in his own opinion, getting better. Faversham, and Hopesmeade too for that matter, begged to differ.
"Then we should be going," Faversham said with a curt nod to Hopesmeade.
With that, he climbed inside the carriage.
"What is it between you two?" Clayton asked. "He's been angrier with me as well since you arrived. Do you have history together?"
"No more than any member of the Sway has a history with any other..." Hopesmeade considered thoughtfully. "Not that it matters. He is right, we do not have time to waste."
The pair followed Faversham into the carriage, and with the luggage all packed, the driver set off.
"After we have contacted the Brain Tree, we will pick up our passengers from the Order of the Red Erisim and head to the desert ourselves," Hopesmeade continued once they were on their way. "Alvare Thornpipe is as mad as wizards come, but he may yet prove useful. Once Sloth has the staff, he will target Sakhmet, of this we are quite certain. If needs be we will neutralise him, but I imagine that situation will take care of itself. Sloth's remaining army will be scattered - he will be forced to retreat and rebuild, removing him from our plans for the foreseeable future. We meanwhile, must focus on this."
He presented the pair with the book he had been studying, and the image of the magical amulet.
"Another of Razul's cursed treasures," Hopesmeade explained. "We believe it is contained in the same vault as the magic staff."
"What does it do?" Clayton asked.
"It contains ancient Water Faerie magic," Hopesmeade explained. "It can be used to control the very tides of Neopia... though it is exceptionally fragile. It has been calculated that we will only get one use of it. We need it as insurance against Captain Dread, a pirate running out of Krawk Island. He's currently cooperating, but he is demanding higher levels of protection money from King Kelpbeard in Maraqua than usual. If he refuses to back down, we will need this artefact."
"Why not use Chiazilla?" Clayton asked. "We still have the power to summon him, right?"
A few months previously the Sway had found a magical gem capable of summoning and controlling the giant aquatic beast, Faversham had used it to cripple Sloth's invasion of Maraqua.
"Not an option for what we have planned," Hopesmeade replied. "Destroying Captain Dread, whilst possible, would only create a power vacuum. The problem would repeat. We require a more permanent solution to secure the safety of Maraqua. This necklace will provide it."
"A need to know basis," Hopesmeade replied. "This is my operation, the betrayal of Sloth is yours. We work together only when they overlap."
"What if Sloth's army proves more capable than anticipated?" Faversham suddenly asked. "We have witnessed what he is capable of, unless my reports of time travel on the Tyrannian plains were ignored? What if the Sakhmet army falters? Do we have a contingency plan?"
"Of course," Hopesmeade scoffed. "In that event we three will lead a head on assault using any and all resources we can muster. That is why I have suggested bringing the mad wizard and his apprentice. The goal is to make Sloth flee back to his flagship, but if we must, we have been authorised to deal with him."
"And the time travel technology he possesses?" Faversham asked.
"Plans are in motion," Hopesmeade said simply. "Need to know basis."
The two stared steely at each other, the distaste between the pair clear for all to see.
Clayton simply looked to the floor. When he had first joined Faversham, the Kyrii had seemed to know all the answers to everything, but now upon meeting Hopesmeade, Clayton realised just how low ranking Faversham must have been. Hopesmeade was able to parade around with secrets, and Faversham could do nothing about it. If Faversham was low ranking, though, Clayton didn't want to think what that made him. The Kougra didn't even know the name of their leader.
The Haunted Woods were not a place to venture off the beaten path. The Brain Tree's grove lay far in, on the border of the evil forest known as the Deep Woods, a nearly impassable section of monstrous creatures and twisting paths that would serve as the gateway to the Lost Desert - soon to be Found.
The grove was certainly not a place of life. The trees in the wood were always devoid of greenery, but here especially the plant life had withered and died. Any nutrients in the soil had long since been claimed by the master of the area - the Brain Tree.
It stood as a silent splash of colour in the moonlight, a streak of brown and orange amidst the grey of the surrounding trees. The odd creak was all that could be heard as the three Sway agents approached, until at last they were only ten paces away.
At once the great brain atop the tree began to pulse and throb, as if the presence of others had somehow activated it. The bark of the tree's stump began to move and distort, revealing two red eyes, gleaming out into the darkness.
"I... have been... expecting you... for some time," the croaky earthen voice came as the bark ground to make the noises in what passed as the creature's mouth.
"Good," Hopesmeade remarked.
"Agents... of the ones they call... the Sway..." the Brain Tree continued, his branches thrashing about with the effort of forming the words. "My roots... go far... and show me... many things. You are... seeking... to ally with... the doctor who calls himself... Sloth."
"You disapprove?" Faversham asked.
"I know your mistress..." the Brain Tree added. "She would not be content... to share power. You will... betray the doctor. That much... is clear."
Mistress... Clayton leapt upon the word. Now at least he knew one morsel of information about their enigmatic leader.
"If you have been expecting us then you know what we want," Hopesmeade said. "Brucey B is on his way here. You must guide them towards the Deep Woods, and the desert beyond."
"I must do nothing!" the Brain Tree boomed with sudden force, his tendrils flailing. "I do not... serve... the Duchess!"
The Duchess... Clayton thought. At last, a name.
"That can be remedied," Faversham said, gesturing to an amulet hanging around his neck.
Clayton knew it all too well. It was magical, of Bori origin - an amulet of hypnosis.
"Foolish creature!" the Brain Tree boomed with an odd creaking laugh. "Your parlor tricks... will not work... on one such as... me!"
"True enough," Hopesmeade agreed with a distasteful look at Faversham. "However, you are not immune to the more simple tactic we are known for employing - the threat. You are a tree, at the end of the day, and as such immobile. And we, quite easily, can bring fire here."
"You would not... dare!" the Brain Tree shrieked.
"You know our creed," Hopesmeade replied. "The furthering of Neopia - at any cost. You are a valuable resource, but not one which is inexpendable. Stand in our paths and the Sway will bring you down. You know enough to remember what happens to obstacles in our plans."
The Brain Tree fell silent, but for the odd creak. The brain continued to pulse as it thought over the situation.
"I will... cooperate..." he conceded. "But not... because... I wish to serve. I do not wish... Sloth to... triumph. For now... our goals... are aligned. I will tell... the Bruce... where he needs... to go... when he... arrives."
Hopesmeade provided a deep bow, which he signaled Faversham and Clayton to mirror.
Slowly, they backed away. The tree once more fell silent, the pulsing coming to a stop as they left the clearing.
"The Duchess," Clayton said. "That is the name of our leader?"
Faversham and Hopesmeade exchanged a glance.
"Very well," Faversham conceded. "Yes, but this is all you are getting."
It was enough. How many Duchesses could there be in Neopia? Clayton would begin researching as soon as they returned to Neopia Central.
"Now we must pick up our guests at the Order of the Red Erisim's library," Hopesmeade said. "We had best not keep them waiting."
To be continued...