The Scholar and the Candle
Listen to the sound of that clock. I can't believe I'm up at this hour.
Lambert heaved a sigh and sat back in his chair, closing his eyes to clear his mind. An hour's sleep, an hour's rest, that was all he wanted. And yet, this research was critical.
He leaned forward again, hunched on the splintered wooden seat that creaked with the years—or was that the creak of his bones?—and glared at the vellum. His little table clock had finished sounding four, and his eyelids felt the weight of those hours. But there was so much to be done, so few hands to do it, and time was a precious thing. Around him, the largest tent of the Seekers' camp glimmered in fragments of light and shadow, scattered books and letters outlined by the glow of his third-to-last candle. He pored over words on the page that had turned singsong in his head, text that no longer seemed coherent. With undone hair and a pensive heart, he tried to force his eyes along the next sentence—but his will was beginning to fail, the darkness of night and the sound of the wind outside sinking in.
The candle flickered, causing the whole tent to flutter and shapeshift in dark against light. He lifted his eyes to stare at the wall. The Sway went back far, it seemed. Hundreds of years, maybe more. Direct mentions of the group were a rare treasure, but most alarmingly, such mentions were often in damaged books, pages burnt or crinkled or stained with earth or ash. What lay between the lines of this pattern drove him mad, and the sight of half-destroyed words made his thoughts turn wild, going frightful places until he could not help but picture it—historic documents and tomes full of precious insight, tossed into the sea, buried in the ground, or fed to a crackling fire. Knowledge that could have unlocked the secrets of Kreludor. Years of some poor scholar's labor, the sweat and tears of a kindred spirit after Lambert's own heart, gone from the face of Neopia in the space of a flame's life or the fifteen feet from deck to sea level. Such destruction, such a radical and violent thing to do. And all, it seemed, to keep the Sway a carefully-guarded secret.
He scowled, eyes closing. Barbarians, that's what they were. Barbarians who now had taken the obelisk. The Duchess had disappeared inside a matter of hours ago, and no one else yet knew what lay inside. If he could not find out who they were, what they were, how they operated, the chance of defeating them was slim indeed. Knowledge was power, and power was scarce in this company of injured scholars.
The candle sputtered, then went out. Lambert's eyes snapped open and he fumbled for his matches on the table. He struck one on the stool's leg in the shadows, then lit the glowing wick, filling the tent with chunks of light once more. But he did not return to his work, instead staring at the mesmerizing flicker, thoughts wandering loose.
I'm almost out of candles. Why do I torment myself so? There will be time for all this in the morning, or perhaps the afternoon, after tea—
He turned another page, hoping his concentration would return. His ancient Moltaran was rusty, each word laborious to recall. But there was talk of a war, one not spoken of in any other text. Talk of how the Sway were necessary to preserve the peace, though it did not say why. And that was the running theme, here, it seemed. The Sway's founders, its purpose, its history, all shrouded. Not shrouded, even, as other history was, by the creep of moisture and the onslaught of decades and the unfortunate accidents of time. No, this was deliberately hidden from him and all his kind, for just such a time as this. A fit of anger struck, and Lambert's blood boiled in his veins. Barbarians. Loathing enlightenment for how it exposed them! Stunting the future to steal away the present! Never thinking of the harm—
Lambert! Shh, shh, now. Anger is bad for my constitution. Lambert closed his eyes to the sound of the thoughts that sprang unbidden into his head. And so is this atrocious lack of sleep. Besides, some things simply can't be helped...
The ticking of the clock and the buzzing in his ears began to wear. Lambert laid his head back again, breathing deep, blinking at the dark ceiling. These peaceful scholars dragged to war, and for what? Just for the Sway to flatten them on the battlefield, for ignorance to take another point. Not just ignorance, but enforced ignorance. Secrecy mandated from the top down, carefully guarded from prying eyes. That was what the Sway had in store for Neopia, and seemingly what they had been perpetrating for most of recorded history.
Again he returned to his work. The clock joined the ringing of his ears joined his loud breathing as he read the same paragraph three times. Had the Sway started the war, or sought to end it? Evidence for both. Where had they come from? This writer thought somewhere North. The last had thought somewhere West. But no one had been specific. Who was their founder? "A brilliant young Neopet." Oh, a "neopet," how helpful. What a glaring lack of education—once the Seekers were back in order, he must make sure to mandate a course on how to properly document one's findings, with regular exams and weekly exercises. No, daily! And—
He sighed through his teeth and refocused. This "brilliant young Neopet", maybe from the north and maybe not, had organized what might have been the Sway, almost too many years ago to be believed, according to a single handwritten account that was not even dated and had a lovely pattern of burns all along the right-hand edge where one might have expected to find an author's name. Lambert could have screamed.
This is pointless, dear Lambert, pointless—
He had to find the answer, but he wasn't getting it here. He rose heavily and lifted the stack of books and documents that he'd been on for the past several hours, feeling their weight and jutting hard corners in his ribs. Gently, he laid them on the next table, careful to keep their order, then returned to the makeshift bookcase at the other end of the tent—though really it was only boards and bricks, but it was a bookcase for now. A wall of titles and dates expanded up into the shadows, and he craned his neck to look up at them, feeling his insignificance as the wind howled outside, the weight of ignorance like a millstone on his back.
Come on, now, is the next batch really going to reveal anything new? How much time do you have to find it? Is there anything more to be done?
It towered. Stuffed to bursting with everything he'd asked to be delivered from the archives. So much to be done, so much done already, and so precious little to show for it.
Listen to that clock.
Lambert took a deep breath, then picked out a book. Then the next, then the third. He cradled them in his arms like children. Tyrannian History. Faerie Prophecies. 500 Days in Neopia. Words of the Ancients. Their edges pained him, and as their weight filled his hands, tiny sparks began to gather at the edges of his vision. He went back to the worktable and began laying the tomes out in neat rows, blinking back tears of irritation from the dust, and then from the helplessness. He sat in the creaking chair, still blinking, blinking away the sparks in the shadow and light, shutting out everything around him down to the shine of the dying candle. If he could find out where they were based. Find a name, determine its culture of origin. Find one single clue. Then they could track them down, find them, break the operation, get some answers out of them. It had to end. They would take the obelisk back. Take Neopia back.
The battle is already lost, you know.
Lambert laid his head on the table. The night sank in, his arms aching, eyes stinging. The floor seemed to rock beneath him like a boat on the waves.
Then the buzzing in his ears finally ended. And the burn in his eyes softened, the sparks bidding him good night. The ache in his arms subsided, and the voice in his brain began to drift away:
Lambert, Lambert. You're a simple scholar from the hills of Brightvale. Not meant to shoulder the world this way. Not built for this sort of pressure. Why not sleep? Just for a little while? All the rest can wait, and oh, how late it is. Listen to that clock.
Touched by his elbow, Words of the Ancients fell from the table, landing face-down on the damp tent floor until the pages bled. He did not notice, did not stir, silenced for the night.
And Apathy left for the next lit tent, blowing out the candle as he went.