The Fire Within: Part Two
The smell of acrid smoke filled Moltara City, lying there, stagnant and choking. Yardley had experienced the pollution of cities like Neopia Central, but Moltara was something else. Above surface there was wind and rain, the products of industry were cleared away, albeit slowly. But down at the bottom of the rickety old lift shaft that led to Moltara City, things were different. Yardley couldn't help but break into a coughing fit when the lift reached its destination, getting curious looks from those who had come before - they had come prepared with breathing aids and pollution masks.
The Gelert brushed his white hair without thinking, some part of his mind already worried the fur was beginning to stain black with soot.
"Mr. Yardly," came a voice from nearby. "A pleasure to see you again."
Greenback was there, the Yurble looking every part the Moltaran in his cog-emblazoned brown suit.
"Mr. Greenback," Yardly replied. "I was not expecting to be greeted by anyone. My instructions were that I would require no further assistance, though..."
"Andesite," Greenback supplied with a knowing smile. "We... That is, Andesite and I, thought his services might be helpful. He's waiting at the city limits, he'll guide you down into the caverns."
"And why are you here?" Yardly asked.
"There has been a development," Greenback said. "This morning. I doubt news reached the surface yet, so I thought you should be personally informed."
"Another attack?" Yardly asked.
"Yes," Greenback said with a nod. "Come with me, I'll explain on the way. Talk like this is best done on the move, believe me."
The lift came out atop a hill on the outskirts of Moltara City. They would need to cross the main cavern to the lava chutes that led deep into the cavern system. Now his eyes were adjusting to the gloom and the smoke, Yardley could take in the city properly. It was beautiful, in a strange, inorganic way. Cogs and gears adorned most of the buildings, and steam and clockworks seemed to be built into the very architecture. Lanterns burning with oil and gas hung on strings across the streets, casting a red glow over the entire place. The city was dominated by the town hall, a large building with an even larger mechanised hammer atop it, constantly clanging and adding to the circus of industrial noise that assaulted Yardly's senses. The entire place reminded him of Neopia Central's industrial district, but for the fact that there was rock above them.
"Where on the mining route was attacked?" Yardly asked as they walked.
"It wasn't on the mining route," Greenback said. "That's why it has changed things. The Company's headquarters in the city itself were the target."
"This far?" Yardly gasped. "I hadn't heard of any attacks within the city itself."
"This is the first," Greenback confirmed. "It was small, the authorities say the slothite used must have been in tiny quantities and thankfully no one was hurt. But it is a chilling sign of things to come."
"The authorities haven't apprehended anyone?" Yardly asked.
"No, nor will they," Greenback said. "No one, not even Three Cogs, wants a riot. And that's exactly what will happen if you go and arrest people in the local magma population for questioning. Everyone knows Marbelle's group is behind it, and they'll have fled back to the deep caverns like the vermin they are. The magma Neopets that come to the city, they are progressive, they don't hold Marbelle's views. None of them will be involved."
"You are certain?" Yardly asked.
"Andesite is certain, as well as the magma Neopets advising the Mayor," Greenback said. "And that, in these matters, is as certain as one can be."
"With all due respect, men like Andesite can be wrong," Yardly chuckled.
Greenback did not mirror it.
"With all due respect, in these matters, no they cannot," Greenback said. "You're going to learn very quickly, Mr. Yardly, that things do not work the same down here as they do on the surface. The deep caverns, even more so."
"I'll take that under consideration," Yardly said.
They skirted round the outside of the city to the small hole in the cavern wall that led to the deeper parts of Moltara. There, canals of lava were sailed by tamed beasts and reinforced steam ships. Trade routes between the various settlements were lively, as well as explorers setting off into the unknown. Few of the latter ever returned. Moltara remained one of the last true frontiers in Neopia.
Andesite was waiting by the lava docks for them, the magma Kyrii was decked out in his brown, patchy robes.
"I'll leave you here," Greenback said, turning back towards the city.
"Mr. Yardley," Andesite greeted him. "I trust Mr. Greenback has briefed you."
"He has," Yardley said. "If at all possible, I should like to begin by talking with Igneot."
"I thought you would," Andesite agreed. "I've already booked us passage to the Font."
He gestured to a nearby steam ship, leading him aboard.
"Do you think Igneot will know where Marbelle is hiding?" Yardly asked.
"Almost certainly," Adesite said with a grim nod. "Most of us do."
"You know where she is?" Yardly asked. "What exactly is the purpose of all this then? If the authorities can find her, why haven't they?"
The captain was ringing a bell from the wheelhouse, signalling the ship's move away from the pier and down the tunnel of molten lava.
"I think it is time I explained a little more, Mr. Yardly," Andesite said with a sigh. "Please, sit. I will try my best to cover the basics."
Yardly did as he was asked, taking a seat on one of the deck's benches.
"Many people assume the difference between those living in the city and those living in the caverns is merely cultural," Andesite said as he joined Yardly. "They are correct, of course, there are such differences. But it goes far deeper than that. It's not like the difference between Brightvale and Meridell. It is closer to the difference between Maraquans and Sakhmetians. We are physically different, and have been for generations. Magma is more than a mere colour, Mr. Yardly, it is an identity."
"You mean the Daken Nar," Yardly said. "You mentioned it on the station. What is it?"
"When a Neopet becomes magma, they are transformed, from skin to core," Andesite said. "We plunge ourselves into the purity of the Magma Pool at the Font, and that magma flows through us and into us. It becomes a part of us, and we become a part of it. We are joined, both with the planet, and with each other. This connection is what we call the Daken Nar - in the new tongue, they might call it the Dark Fire. The heat that burns even in the deepest darkness. The light that binds us all together in the gloom of the caverns."
"So you are telling me you are psychic?" Yardly asked.
"That is a base description," he said. "But, I suppose, if it helps you understand, then yes. It is limited, we can sense each other's approximate location and emotions. It helps us understand each other."
"So when Greenback told me you knew no one from the city was involved in the attack on Third Cog, you knew," Yardly said.
"Marbelle attacks the surface interests in Moltara City because she and her followers believe in the purity of the Font," Andesite said. "With every new person from outside that bathes in the Magma Pool and becomes magma, she believes the Daken Nar becomes tainted. To find Marbelle, to kill her, that would reduce the proportion of the old blood in the Daken Nar. It would make us, as a community, lesser. It would be like cutting off ones own arm. That is why she hasn't been arrested. Doing so would confirm what she is saying, that those from beyond the caverns are a threat. It would drive more to her side."
"Better the madman you know," Yardly said.
"That has been exactly the thinking," Andesite said with a nod. "But they have allowed her to fester, and Marbelle's power and influence has grown in the deep caverns. She has grown too bold, and now she needs dealing with."
"It won't be enough for me to find her, then," Yardly said. "I will need to destroy her reputation. Either make her surrender her beliefs, or make the rest of the caverns turn against her."
"That will be difficult," Andesite told him. "As I said, as a community we are connected. We are naturally very empathetic. To manufacture a turn of opinion so dramatically against one of our own... Marbelle must be seen so be doing something so terrible that there could be no turning back. Such a thing, I would think, would be nearly impossible."
"The nearly impossible is my specialty, Andesite," Yardly said with a small smirk.
Yardly took the silence that followed as an opportunity to look around the ship. There were other passengers. A couple looked like traders from Moltara City, loaded up with food and water. But there were only a smattering of others, and almost no magma pets.
"Greenback mentioned there is a magma pet community in Moltara City," Yardly said.
"Yes," Andesite replied.
"They don't travel home regularly?" Yardly asked. "I expected to see more on the boat."
"It is true to say that the people of the caverns are mistrusting of those who don't know of the Daken Nar," Andesite explained. "As a result, we have become quite xenophobic. Those who come to Moltara City are considered outcasts by the standards of those living in the caverns. They don't return home often because... It is no longer home to them."
"And what about those who head to the surface, like you?" Yardly asked.
"We are considered madmen," Andesite said. "Things down here are reversed. To those in the caverns, the skyward world is a place where the poor and the immoral make their homes. It is a place for the highest of the high... Er, I believe, in your culture, the phrase is the lowest of the low? Any man who would consort with such people would be treated the same."
"So you don't go to the caverns often?" Yardly asked.
On this, Andesite looked sad. The first real emotion that Yardly had seen him express.
"This will be my first visit in twenty years," he admitted. "I do not think I will be welcomed, Mr. Yardly."
"You expect trouble?" Yardly asked.
"No, nothing like that," Andesite said. "Even an exile is still a relative friend when they hold the Daken Nar within them. But there will be mistrust... Suspicion. I will be an outsider, bringing a surfacer in their midst. They will believe we are up to something."
"They'll be right," Yardly told him. "We are."
To be continued...