Agent of the Sway: Discovery - Part One
9 Years Ago...
Hanso stepped off the boat, wrapping his coat around him to protect against the wind that flung the desert sand at his face.
The Ixi glanced back. Fellow thieves, hidden in the crowd of travellers disembarking, all looked back.
One, a Bruce, stepped into line beside him.
"Well?" he asked.
"Well what?" Hanso replied.
"Any ideas yet?" the Bruce added.
"We've literally just arrived," Hanso pointed out. "Just relax - jittery thieves are bad thieves."
The path through the dunes led towards Sakhmet, their destination. The great city shone like a beacon, or some sort of horrible mirage.
It was their target.
"Quite the honour, this," the Bruce said absently. "Being given such a big task by the Guildmaster himself."
Hanso did a little scoff at the term. Kanrik was no guild master. He'd gotten the position by killing Galem Darkhand - an impressive feat, but hardly one requiring stealth and a steady hand. Kanrik hadn't risen to his position by proving himself the best thief.
Unlike Hanso, of course. And oh how the Ixi had made sure Kanrik knew it. There was no love lost between the two, that much was public knowledge. Well, as much as anything can be public in a secret guild of thieves.
"I wouldn't call it an honour," Hanso replied. "Searching for the lost treasure of Qasala? Sounds more like a fool's errand to me. If I didn't know any better, I'd say our glorious leader sent me here to get rid of me while he rebuilds the Guild."
"Don't be silly, Hanso," the Bruce scoffed. "He's giving you a chance to prove yourself, with the biggest haul in the history of Neopia, no less!"
"If it even exists," Hanso said. "Razul and his Empire crumbled into dust long ago. Even finding the ruins will be difficult."
Finding the ruins.
That had been the sole thought occupying Thaddeus Oldnose's mind for the past few weeks.
Qasala! Even the thought of it was laughable. It was a rumour, a ghost story. There were some historians in the palace libraries who doubted the place had even existed.
But Oldnose was sure. The Meerca knew better than to doubt those who had set him the task. They didn't ask questions unless they already knew the answers.
He shouldn't, by rights, even know the name. A shadow in Neopia's history, silently guiding civilisation's path. And now they wanted the ruins of Qasala.
Why, Oldnose didn't know. Nor would they tell him, of course. It was on a need to know basis, like everything else with the Sway.
He made his way back to the chambers he shared with his master, confident that at last he had something to show them.
The two agents were waiting inside. One, a green Wocky who looked far too much out of place in the desert, was sweating profusely. He was Duke Hopesmeade.
"Ah, Mr. Oldnose," he said, looking up from some scrolls. "I take it, from your excitable demeanor, that you have something for us?"
"Not a definite location," Oldnose hastily stressed, rolling out a map on the table. "But better than nothing. This is a map of the desert, from the time of Chen-Ra."
"Is it accurate?" the second agent asked.
He was Clayton Moore. Hopesmeade's assistant, and someone who seemed far more comfortable in the desert. Oldnose suspected that the brown Kougra had once been a member of the Thieves Guild, with his heavy cloak and devious little dagger, but of course he would never say one way or another.
"Of course not," Oldnose said. "But nothing is in this place. But the important part is here."
Oldnose gestured to some runes on the map.
"Now, my ancient Sakhmetian isn't all that great, and I didn't want to take it to Enarka and the scholars in case they got a whiff of what you are up to. But to me, it would appear to say... 'Domain of the Kyrii Sorcerer'. Sounds like Razul to me."
The two Sway agents exchanged a glance.
"Excellent work, Mr. Oldnose," Hopesmeade said. "You have given us a rough location, at least. We will set out on an expedition immediately."
Oldnose smiled. It was always good when the Sway left town - it meant nothing interesting was going to happen. The last time they had been in the desert in force, Dr. Sloth had invaded, and King Coltzan had died.
"While we are gone, continue to gather information," Hopesmeade instructed, causing Oldnose's smile to falter. "I realise this may seem strange to say... but I think your master may be on to something."
The three of them glanced towards the room's fourth occupant. The ancient camouflage Draik was hunched in a corner, poring over his own scrolls and calculations. He was busy muttering to himself.
"Follow the scarabs, follow the scarabs..."
Alvare Thornpipe was a master wizard. He was a member of the Order of the Red Erisim and had once been the head of the Magical Research Department at the Neopia Central Museum. He was also quite mad.
Quite mad. Even by wizard standards. Thaddeus was, technically, his apprentice. Though the Meerca had engineered the pair's exile to the desert in order to get the Draik somewhere quiet. Oldnose had hoped the desert may ease Thornpipe's insanity. In fact, it had only increased it.
Thornpipe's latest obsession was scarabs, for some inexplicable reason. He had sketches of a strange contraption to move them for reasons unknown. The man was already an old Neopet even when Oldnose had met him, but now time had taken its toll. He was not eating and sleeping, and it seemed as if this latest project may in fact be the great wizard's last.
"The scarabs?" Oldnose questioned. "What do they have to do with Qasala?"
"I'm not sure yet," Hopesmeade said. "I happened to glance over some of his research notes while he was out... erm... walking his toenail clippings. He's been monitoring their migration patterns - they seem to focus on an old ruin in the desert that the locals call the Temple of One Thousand Tombs. It is a structure from roughly the same period as the last Qasalan Empire."
"Regardless, any and all information may be useful," Clayton added. "Even if it doesn't seem like it will be. Gather what you can, we'll review it when we get back."
"About that..." Oldnose said. "I have been getting some questions about you. Amira is a much more keen ruler than Vyssa was, it will not be long until I am expected to explain your presence here. Perhaps, when you return, it would be better for you to get lodgings in the city."
Hopesmeade completely understood Oldnose's subtext - he wanted rid of them. But even so, he nodded.
"A reasonable idea," he said. "We do not wish to raise suspicion. You will still report to us regularly."
Oldnose nodded reluctantly.
Two two Sway agents left Oldnose and Thornpipe to their research, heading away from the palace and back into the city proper.
"I didn't want to say in front of them, but I also have news," Clayton said. "We're not alone in the city."
"Hanso," Clayton said. "A thief I vaguely remember from my Guild days. I spotted him this morning in the bazaar talking to a few members of the Desert Scarabs. There were a few other Guild undesirables as well."
Hopesmeade frowned. "You weren't seen?"
"No, I made sure," Clayton said. "But I did manage to overhear part of the conversation. They were asking about Qasala."
Hopesmeade let out a little sigh.
"I'll send a message to the Duchess once we are on route," the Wocky decided. "Hopefully she will know more of this Hanso's motives. Regardless though, we must now move more carefully. If you recognised them, they will surely recognise you. And word will get back to Kanrik. We cannot afford this operation to be jeopardised. Too much rests upon it."
Too much, in fact, was the fate of Krawk Island. The Sway tended to play long games, and after disposing of Captain Scarblade earlier that year, they had set their sights on making sure he would not return by installing a Governor on the island.
To do that, their leader had decided, they would need to command the oceans to some degree. For that, they needed magic, and Razul's vaults had proved fruitful in that regard once before.
The Sway required the treasures of Qasala.
And they would have them.
The wagon came to an abrupt stop as it hit the first dune, the wooden wheels digging deep into the sand and locking fast.
The driver, a Shoyru, cursed under his breath, while his passenger, a Kau, leaned out of the wagon's window.
"What's happened?" she demanded, her face barely visible beneath a veil.
"Sand," the Shoyru replied. "We can go no further."
"This is intolerable!" she said, scowling at him. "You should have been prepared! I was intending to pitch up near Sakhmet!"
"Not that I wish to offend," he countered. "But someone of your talents should surely have seen this coming. It is, after all, your job."
She shot him a look of pure contempt.
"Do not forget who I am, nor who I represent," she said. "The Order of the Red Erisim are not the type of people to throw idle remarks at."
The Shoyru seemed to reconsider.
"No, of course, sorry, ma'am," he said, climbing down. "But the wagon can go no further. We take what we can and go the rest of the way on foot."
Sighing, she opened up the rear door and climbed down into the sand.
"This is not becoming for a fortune teller," she muttered.
"What will you need?"
"The canvas," she replied. "With no wagon, we will need to pitch a tent. And my crystal ball... Oh, and yes, the scrolls. We'll need the ones about Sakhmetian hieroglyphs. And the Qasalan ones, too. Yes, we'll be needing those."
Her foreboding words were lost on the Shoyru, who bundled what he could into his arms.
"You're carrying the rest."
To be continued...