The League of Nox
The yellow Nimmo gently removed the dust from the wall with his brush, slowly revealing the symbols below. Moving the flaming torch closer, he became to read the complex series of hieroglyphs.
"Definitely ancient Qasalan," he whispered to himself. "Is that a Q? No, no... Surely it can't be...? Professor! Professor!"
"What is it, Shirdley?" a voice came from across the chamber.
"I think I've found something, Professor!" he called.
A moment later another torch made its way across from the opposite wall. A white Xweetok joined the Nimmo. She traced her hand across the glyphs, muttering under her breath. Slowly, a smile spread across her face.
"This is it, Shirdley, we've found it!" she told him. "The glyphs confirm it, this site was the last resting place of Emperor Razul himself! But wait... This glyph is out of order..."
Her hand brushed over it for an instant, but by the time her brain realised what she was doing it was too late. Her hand flinched back as the glyph moved backwards into the wall. Their was a brief rumbling, and then the floor gave way.
It was a brief fall, only down a level, but it still sent both of them down onto all fours. Shirdley recovered his torch quickly, and helped the Professor to her feet.
"Sorry, Professor, I should have anticipated a booby trap," Shirdley said.
"No, my fault," she replied. "I've been doing this far longer than you, I was stupid to miss it. Besides, I don't think it was a booby trap."
Her firelight fell onto a shape in the new room. A golden sarcophagus, carved with Qasalan symbols.
"This is it!" Shirdley gasped. "The very room where Emperor Razul slept for generations until the marriage of Nabile and Jazan returned him to life!"
"By careful where you stand," the Professor said as she edged forward. "There may not have been traps up there, but I would wager there will be this close to the tomb proper."
Shirdley nodded, making his way towards the ancient coffin. It appeared to have been carved out of a chunk of solid gold, not smelted. Was it Razul's magic that had done it? The lid was on the floor nearby, presumably from when Razul had awoken and fled the tomb towards Sakhmet. Otherwise, it was empty. Shirdley looked a little crestfallen, as if he had been expecting to see something inside.
"What is this?" the Professor asked, bringing her torch closer to an artefact on a shelf on the far wall.
It was a diamond, set in a gold pedestal. As big as the Professor's hand, it reflected her torchlight strangely, in an almost magical way. She gasped as she realised that deep within the diamond's crystal core was a nugget of black - somehow, there was obsidian deep within.
"Could it be?" she gasped. "The fabled Heart of Darkness gemstone? I assumed it a myth, not something of reality. Shirdley, we have to-"
A hard thump came down on the back of the Xweetok's head, knocking her unconscious. Shirdley stood behind her, a sorry look in his face.
"Sorry, Professor," he whispered as he took the diamond. "But my needs are greater than yours."
The Professor came to with a long groan. Her torch had gone out, so she fumbled in her pockets for some matches and relit it - Shirdley was gone, and so was the diamond. It didn't take her long to figure out what had happened.
A rope had been lowered down from the higher level - clearly, she had been out cold for a while. Shirdley must have had time to complete his escape, and perhaps help from outside. Carefully, she climbed upwards, finding the upper level equally as deserted. She made her way upwards, emerging out of the small entrance into the desert sands.
A red Techo was there, Etho, their guide. The man was covered in rags to keep the harsh desert winds away, but his eyes seemed happy enough.
"Professor Bougard!" he greeted her. "Mr. Shirdley told me of your success! I congratulate you on locating the tomb!"
"...Thank you," she said. "Did you help Shirdley out of the tomb?"
"Why yes," Etho replied. "I heard shouting from within - Mr. Shirdley explained the situation and I lowered down a rope for him. He said you were remaining behind to catalogue your finds - is it an impressive site?"
"It's certainly throwing up more than I hoped it would," Bougard answered. "Where is Shirdley now?"
"He took one of the Apis across the dunes," Etho said. "You instructed him to return to Qasala and inform the Royal Archaeology Office of the find, did you not?"
"No," Bougard replied. "I fear Shirdley has stolen something from the tomb. You are sure he was heading towards Qasala?"
"He set off in that direction, at least," Etho said. "You intend to follow him?"
"Yes," Bougard replied, taking one of the remaining two Apis and climbing atop it. "You stay here, in case he comes back. When I get to Qasala I will inform the Archaeology Office. They will send people out to secure the site, I'm sure. If Shirdley comes back, under no circumstances allow him entry."
"Yes, Professor," Etho replied with a nod.
Bougard urged the Apis onwards, setting off after the fresh set of footprints.
The streets of Qasala could never be described as busy compared to those of Sakhmet, but the market stalls still drew quite a crowd, making navigation difficult. Bougard's hopes of finding Shirdley were slim, he could have been anywhere in the city - if he was still there. If he had already left, she had no hope of finding him.
After stopping by the Archaeology office to make sure Etho would not be alone in the desert for long, she made her way down to the more seedy markets of the city. She was sure Shirdley would not be working alone - an artefact as rare and unique as the Heart of Darkness would require a similarly unique buyer.
She asked around at some of the stalls. Sure enough, the yellow Nimmo had been seen there recently. They were even good enough to point her towards a local tavern.
The air inside was thick with smoke, but still Bougard could easily make out Shirdley sat in a corner, busy trying to make himself look invisible. She made her way over and sat down - he almost jumped out of his skin.
"Didn't expect to see me again?" she asked.
"Please, it was nothing personal," he insisted. "I just knew you wouldn't hand over the Heart of Darkness without a fight."
"How much are you being paid?"
"Paid?" he questioned.
"Yes, paid," Bougard maintained. "You've been my research assistant for three years now, Shirdley, we've happened upon countless tombs and dozens of rare treasures. But this one, you suddenly up and steal. Someone must be paying you a great deal to ruin your career."
"I'm not being paid anything, Professor," he told her. "I'm sorry, but, I'm afraid I haven't been entirely honest with you. I only signed up to be your assistant because you seemed to be the most likely to find Razul's tomb. Obtaining the Heart has been my sole mission for the past three years."
"I am not being paid, but I am working for an organisation which desires the Heart," he said.
"Who? The Order of the Red Erisim? The Seekers? Not...." She leaned in to whisper, "The Sway?"
"No," Shirdley snorted. "Nothing so clandestine, though we do operate in secret due to our nature being... Less than favourable, in some people's eyes."
Bougard supplied a blank stare.
"I am a follower of the late Hubrid Nox," he admitted.
"The necromancer!?" Bougard gasped. "But he was evil!"
"And necessary," he countered. "You're not from the Haunted Woods, you don't understand what the place has become since he died. He was holding so much back, we didn't even know - power vacuums involving the most evil creatures on the planet never end well for innocents."
"Even so.... But, he's dead, Shirdley, how are you still working for him?"
"There is an organisation that was formed upon his death," Shirdley said. "They call themselves the League of Nox - it is their goal to resurrect Nox by any means they can. I was dispatched to the desert to try and locate and retrieve the Heart. They think they can use its power, just as Razul did, to help restore Hubrid."
"But that's... That's... Terrible!" she insisted. "I... I won't let you!"
"It's too late," he said. "I've already delivered the Heart to my contact. It's on its way to the Haunted Woods as we speak."
"I can still take you to the authorities!"
She lunged across the table at him, but he jumped back just in time. He took a small package out of his pocket and threw it to the floor, shouting, "Nox lives!"
The package exploded on impact, kicking up a thick purple cloud that flooded Bougard's lungs and forced her to the floor in a coughing fit. By the time it cleared, Shirdley was long gone. She had missed her chance, he wouldn't stay in Qasala now.
"Professor Bougard?" the Faerie asked.
"Yes," the Xweetok replied with a small smile.
"She will see you now," the Faerie said, gesturing through the doors.
Bougard nodded, gingerly stepping through the door into Queen Fyora's study.
It was rare for someone of such comparatively low station to be granted an audience at all, so Bougard was happy to make do with a brief meeting while the Faerie Queen attended to some of her paperwork.
She was busy writing at her desk, but she gestured towards a free seat and put the quill down as soon as she saw she had company.
"Professor Bougard, isn't it?" she said. "To what do I owe the honour?"
"The honour is all mine, your majesty," Bougard replied nervously.
"Nonsense!" the Queen laughed. "I am nothing but a Queen, but you... You are Hilary Bougard! You discovered Geb runes on the tomb of King Sutek! What can I help you with?"
"A matter of grave importance," Bougard said, her confidence growing slightly. "I recently discovered the resting place of Emperor Razul. Amongst his possessions was a diamond with a core of obsidian."
"The Heart of Darkness," Queen Fyora nodded. "I am aware of it. I had assumed Razul had destroyed it soon after he used it to prolong his un-life."
"It was stolen from the dig site, majesty," Bougard added. "Stolen by my assistant. He has subsequently revealed to me that he did so on the orders of a clandestine organisation. They call themselves the League of Nox."
"I believe their aim is to return Hubrid Nox from the grave, ma'am."
Fyora dwelled on this for a moment before her face brightened.
"I would not worry, the Heart, whilst a pretty trinket, will be of no use to them," she said. "Razul drained all of its power to accomplish his goal, it has no magic left. And even if it did, the Heart was only capable of extending Razul's life, not returning the dead. That form of magic is beyond even I. This League of Nox will not profit from your loss, I assure you."
"Is that all?" Bougard asked. "You're not going to try and stop them."
"It is not my role to be Neopia's dictator, Professor," Fyora replied. "People must make their own paths, good or bad. And if they do succeed, would it really be that bad? If Nox could live again?"
Bougard gasped, "But he was an evil man! He targeted Faeries as well!"
"Indeed he did," Fyora nodded. "And should he return to life, I should very much like to see him imprisoned in my dungeons for a very long time. In any case, it is after all my failure in tutoring Xandra which led to Hubrid's demise. It is my fault. Would you blame me for trying to help? To put things right."
"Trying to help?" Bougard asked, the horror forming on her face. "You're... Not one of them, are you? A member of this League?"
"Not a key member, no," she answered. "But I like to monitor their movements."
"This is too much!" Bougard shouted suddenly. "A conspiracy! All the way to the top!"
"Please settle down, Professor," Fyora said, her gentle tones somehow forcing the Xweetok back into her chair. "I am no supporter of Hubrid Nox. As I said, if he returns to life, so be it, then I will seek to have him imprisoned. I am not preaching his conquest of Neopia like some within the League seem to. But death is not a fate I would wish upon even my most bitter enemies. We are better than that, I believe. If there is a chance to save a soul, we must take it, no matter who it may be. No matter how dark their deeds. It is my believe, my founding principle, that all of us are capable of redemption. What kind of a leader would I be if I did not practice what I preach?"
Bougard tried hard to maintain her anger in the face of Fyora's words, but it was difficult. Later, she would convince herself it was part of the Faerie's magic, hypnotising her somehow. But in that moment, she relented.
"I will however be keeping a closer eye on the League from now on," Fyora said. "Theft and assault are crimes, and no matter what their goal, they should not be stepping outside the law for it. I will also ensure that, once they discover the Heart is useless, it is returned to you in Qasala. It is not magical, but it is still a piece of history which belongs in a museum. You have my word on this, Professor."
"Thank you, your majesty," Bougard said, getting up and delivering a bow before leaving.
Fyora stared thoughtfully after her for a few moments before reaching for her drawer. There, there was a small pin, emblazoned with the Nox crest. The sign of League membership. She stared at it for a little while and whispered, "Nox lives..." before setting it back in the drawer and returning to her paperwork.