March of the Fire: Part One
Art by blizard131
I had never been in a saltwater shower before. But that’s what it was. A shower that it seemed like someone had poured salt into. I felt the grains against my wavy black hair, tangling them in as I stood there, humming quietly to myself. I needed to think, about the past month, about the decision I was making. And so I thought.
I had never known my real name. I was called Mayella, because that was a name that Dr. D had always wanted to name a little girl. He gave so many odd names to us. Some of them were a whole lot worse, like Arvellie, whose name sounds like aardvark, or Veer, the snobbiest person I have ever met, who sounds like she’s veering off course or something. So Mayella was not the worst thing I could ever be called, and was easily shortened to May.
I grew up in Neopia Central, the pound itself my home. I have heard all of the happy stories of those who have gotten adopted. Half of them are notes we posted, making people want to adopt us. Half of them are very sweet, sentimental letters written by Dr. D to get us publicity. There are a few, though, that are trueish. Not many of those.
I suspect it was the 15th day of the month of Awakening that was the day that it all started. The Times, lamely posted on the bulletin board, as if they couldn’t spare an extra thumbtack, was not particularly fascinating that day. There was an interesting story near the front that talked about two explorers that had recently just emerged from a cavern within the earth that had been rumoured to be a time warp. Turns out they were right, as they had been in it for twelve years straight. Beyond that, there wasn’t really anything else worth reading. Unless you like hearing about your favourite player losing in Gormball.
Then it was when the ad caught my eye. There was nothing particularly interesting about its appearance, just black background, white text, looked like it might say “Buy now!” or some kind of persuasive note. But, for some reason unknown to me, I read it anyways. All it said was “Gifted children wanted. To apply, please neomail Hugo Fairweather.”
And so I did.
The response I got was obviously pre-recorded; all I heard was, “Thank you for your interest. If you would like to participate in our program, please arrive at the Cockroach Towers conference room at 4:00 today. You are not required to bring materials, though taking notes never hurt anyone. You should come directly after school. Thank you yet again for having an interest in our program.” The voice was definitely a female voice, so I wasn’t sure that her name was Hugo. I sincerely hoped Dr. D would never name someone Hugo. But perhaps he already had.
School that day was abuzz with the news of the ad, oddly enough, despite its small size and boring appearance. I guessed almost instantly that it had used magic to catch the attention of children (and only children perhaps), for that is what it wanted, correct?
I wasn’t exactly sure what kind of “gifted” it meant. Maybe athletically, maybe in smarts, maybe in something odd, like cooking or something. All I’m good at is thinking, but that isn’t much of a virtue. No one likes anyone who thinks.
There were plenty of people who weren’t going, most of which’s parents wouldn’t let them, but a few had struck out and decided to go. Most of which against rules. No one really cared what I did in my free time, as long as it was lawful, and nothing that said anything bad about the pound.
I created a small note written, supposedly, from Dr. D to say that I could go early. The study hall proctor just raised an eyebrow at me, but waved me from the classroom.
I noticed a few other people in the elongated hallways getting their backpacks. All of the ones who were probably skipping class.
Yanking my binder out of the world’s thinnest locker, I turned around and found myself face to face with Veer. She looked at me, eyes narrowed. “I’m reporting you to Dr. Death,” she snarled at me. “I wouldn’t go if I were you.”
I might have talked back to her, maybe, if I hadn’t been so worried about actually going. I nodded weakly, pretending, oh so very hard, to just not get in trouble. But I was going.
In my dreary existence, I have three things: books and hope. The third is my fedora. But I have my one hope of becoming an adventurer. All I have ever wanted to do is something, something beyond what I do right now. Just get some credit for doing something, anything at all. It’s all I really want from my life. I want something to do.
I hurried away from her, out the building, down the icy sidewalk, yellow fur cold and icing over with frost, black hair streaming out behind the hat I always wear. Dr. D said that he found it next to me, in cold rain, with a note saying that my last name was Chester. Half of the note was smudged with water, making him unable to read my first name or my parentage, though he thinks my mother was named Chatty. Not much of a name.
I noticed the large coat first. Hunched over, brown ears, a red Xweetok, panting a bit. She had green eyes, and a small pair of glasses hanging precariously over her nose. She looked to be about forty, but I couldn’t be quite sure. She walked quickly, the icy cold air escaping her mouth in small breaths from a long walk.
She was faster than me, and reached the hotel first. Cockroach Towers wasn’t exactly schmancy fancy shall we say, and a spyder fell upon my shoulder as I entered the door. I brushed it out of my long, curly black hair that so contrasted with my yellow Wocky fur. My ears stuck out of it like, “Hey! I’m May’s ears! I like being an ear!” just so they could get attention. That’s another reason for my hat.
I was surprised to find that I was certainly not the first person there. I saw easily a hundred children, milling about, talking to their friends, with the occasional neomailer. There was a rather nervous looking Tonu, with a greyish tint of age to his blue fur, standing up at the podium.
The Tonu, which I quickly realized must be Hugo Fairweather himself, cleared his throat, as if to silence the room. It didn’t work. If he honestly wanted to get us to be quiet, he had better have a pretty good pair of lungs. Everyone under the age of sixteen in this room was still screaming as loud as they could, or very close to anyways.
And then the Xweetok came out onto the stage, whipped out a megaphone, and shouted into it, “BE QUIET! THE FATE OF NEOPIA DEPENDS ON YOUR HELP! ... Thank you for coming.” She simply smiled sweetly and cheerfully walked off stage.
I kept on thinking, as I scrubbed the Uni shampoo through my hair; considering, thinking, and just imagining my future.
Hugo Fairweather cleared his throat again. Now everyone’s eyes were on him. “Thank you, Lillian,” he said, glancing sideways off stage. “Now I would like to address you all, and tell you about what type of journey you may, or may not, embark on.
“A few years ago, an island was discovered. This was before most of you here were born, but more recently, our agents have been looking into it a bit more. It seems to be inhabited with petpetpets, but...” he trailed off, and shuddered, “they are exceedingly large. This halted our further exploration of the island, and thus-”
A blue Moehog raised his hand and, without waiting to be called upon, asked, “Isn’t that the island that everyone says is a fake?”
He nodded. “It is,” he said, “but it is very much real. I have been there myself, in fact. But I would like to launch another expedition to the supposed lost island.”
“Yeah, but why in Neopia would you want a bunch of teenagers with plenty of better things to do?” piped up a rather short pink Ixi.
“Because,” he said, with a bit of a sigh of annoyance in his voice, “there is a prophecy about four children journeying to this island, so I took it upon myself to insure that it would actually happen. But,” he paused, and shook his head a bit, “last time, I suspect my daughter Lillian did not count as a child, or anyone else, except for perhaps Scrap.”
A red Jetsam raised his hand, a rather annoyed expression upon his face. “Where exactly does 'The Fate of Neopia' fall into this? It’s just an island.”
Mr. Fairweather looked a teensy weensy bit uncomfortable answering this question. “I shall tell you about that at our next big meeting. Thank you for your time,” he said, and quickly walked off of the stage.
Most everyone left the room, eyebrows raised, and failing to notice a blue Kougra that sat reading the Times. He glanced up occasionally, looking for just the right people for his plan. He had amber eyes, and a rather toothy smile. His grin was the exact opposite of his employer’s, who had the world’s biggest grin. He used it whenever he began feeling full of himself. But Jordan was not one to smile often, what with the strange life he had.
The next morning, I came to school with plenty to think about. Yet again, I had found an ad in the newspaper, this time directing everyone to the Money Tree. That wasn’t too hard to get to, but we would all freeze our socks off, as it was the 16th day of Awakening at this point. But there was another thing too. I had had a dream the previous night, and it was very unclear. I remembered standing in a clearing, in a forest, and two shaded figures surrounding me. I saw no colour, just blacks and greys. The people (or whatever they might have been) circled me very slowly, and they seemed to warble back and forth, in some kind of strange tribal language. But, as the alarm bell sounded for us to get up, I caught a voice saying, “We miss art, oh so very much!” I didn’t quite know exactly what that meant; there is plenty of art in the universe. I had never heard that voice before, though it sounded oddly familiar, like déjà vu or something.
The dream was whirling through my head the whole morning, through my clean shirt, through my cold cereal, through my ears, as I heard that voice again and again. “Art,” it had said, “art.”
I noticed the blue Kougra in the middle of assembly, just leaning there, up against the wall. He seemed fairly calm, standing there, observing the crowd. Very calm.
I saw him throughout the rest of the school day, always leaning on a wall. No one but me really seemed to notice him. At least, no one said anything to me, which wasn’t surprising.
Math class was when people started realizing he was there. They eyed him, and whispered to their neighbours about who he might be. Mr. Silent (ironically, a disco Kacheek), kept giving him a weird look, as if to tell him to leave.
But it was gym class when things got even stranger. For the past few weeks, we had begun learning how to play Darigan Dodgeball, and I must say that my overhand was getting pretty good. We were warming up, just passing back and forth with partners (a threesome in my case, since we had an odd number and no one wanted to be my partner), when the blue Kougra walked in. Instead of simply leaning against the wall, he walked over to the bleachers, near where our gym teacher, Ms. Filishimer, a blue Yurble, was standing, looking over whatever papers gym teachers like to read.
I couldn’t help but glance over at him, and at that same moment, a large plastic ball collided with the side of my head. The ball itself wasn’t particularly hard, but it had been thrown by Javier, the school’s best sport player, of any and every sport.
I fell a bit sideways, pain going through my left temple. “Art,” the word just went through my head with the pain. “Art.” I sank to my knees, and the world looked a bit wobbly, but I wasn’t especially concerned. The pain would probably pass in three minutes or so; the ball hadn’t been that hard. I stood up, and shook my head a bit, trying to clear it. A small crowd had gathered to ask if I was okay, but I was fine, and I told them that. I just couldn’t see quite straight.
Ms. Filishimer had greeted our mysterious Kougra, (I found out later they were cousins), and introduced him to a few of our class’s best athletes. After that, we did a drill in which three people weaved in and out of each other while passing a ball back and forth. I still couldn’t see quite right, and missed by a few feet whenever I had to throw to anyone, but I was perfectly okay beyond that.
I felt a pair of amber eyes staring into my back as I ran down the gym. I glanced over my shoulder, and felt yet another ball hit the side of my head. This time though, I didn’t sink to the ground for more then a second, and quickly picked myself back up as soon as I fell.
After that, we were all excused for a water break. Some pets just stood there and chatted with their friends, but most everyone went to the fountain. I always went, because I didn’t want to look too weird, since I didn’t have any friends to talk to. Usually, I just took a single gulp of water to fix my parched throat, and then was back off again. I never drink much water, nor eat too much food. I don’t know why, but I can survive off of so little. It can be rather useful at times, but I eat big meals if the food is good enough. Like sushi, which I’ve only ever had once. I think that was the one time when I asked for thirds.
I was still a bit dizzy as I sauntered through the snowy school courtyard. Fastest way to get to English class at the Neoschool. I heard him first. Then, I saw his shadow, looming over me. Ignoring him, I kept walking. He would probably just leave me alone in a minute; find me too uninteresting to follow.
I’ll say that I was slightly concerned as to why he was following kids; it was a little bit... creepy. I had sorta guessed that he had to do with the gifted children search, Hugo Fairweather, and the Lost Isle. But I didn’t know how he fit in.
My first guess was that he worked for the Fairweathers; perhaps he himself had gone to the Lost Isle. I guessed he was one of the agents Mr. Fairweather had referred to. I didn’t know.
I wasn’t surprised when I saw him, sitting amongst the roots of the money tree, at the next meeting.
“Good afternoon!” Mr. Fairweather greeted him.
The blue Kougra put a finger to his lips, but everyone had already noticed him.
“Hey, that’s the creepy Kougra that’s been following me all day!” said the same pink Ixi from the previous day.
“Me too!” announced the Jetsam. They eyed each other, suspiciously, as the old Tonu began his next speech.
“Ehem! I mostly needed to get a bit of a head count after yesterday’s meeting, just to see who hadn’t thought me insane yet.” He quickly did a count of us, and announced, “Forty six! Lillian, write that one down! Last time there was 329, correct?”
“Exactly correct, father,” claimed the red Xweetok.
“Good, good, good! Now, since I don’t exactly want to give out a bunch of classified information at such a public place,” he paused for a second, “the next location will be at 245 Marchfeather Drive. I am not going to be putting any more ads in the paper. That is all.”
A bunch of people glanced around at each other, eyebrows raised yet again. But most of them left, though I noticed the Moehog from before, muttering under his breath, and a group of friends consisting of an orange JubJub, a blue Aisha, and a pink Gelert. The JubJub and the Aisha were laughing (I guessed at the whole Lost Isle concept), but the Gelert stayed quiet. I wondered why.
If the Kougra was so intent on watching people, I decided, I was going to watch him.
I stood there, anticipating tomorrow. I was going to be wearing a disguise, and pretend my name was April. I was amazed that Veer had actually let me borrow her pink sweater. It was made for a Lupe, but it sort of fit. I would only wear it for a few minutes.
The Kougra got up, and walked slowly, calmly, following the crowd, seeming to search for certain faces. A puzzled expression came over his face, and he shook his head. I faded quickly into the background as he walked by, pretending to inspect a few objects.
That was when I spotted it; a coil of rope. The average pet may have said there wasn’t anything particularly interesting about the rope, but for some reason, all of the four smaller ropes that had been braided together seemed to each have an individual shade of brown. Simply glancing at it, one would not have seen that, or the note that lay on top of it. For one with guts, it read. Well, okay, I had internal organs, so I grabbed the coil and stuffed it into my backpack with all of my books.
Then I looked around, realizing that I had probably lost the Kougra. But, amazingly enough, there he was, leaning there against the tree, with one eyebrow raised. We made eye contact for a second, but he looked away.
I followed his eyes, and spotted the Fairweathers, walking away from the Money Tree, trying to pretend to be unnoticed. Lillian was on her tiptoes, “sneaking around” and Hugo was walking very slowly. I quickly ran over to them, but stopped myself. If they weren’t going to be “sneaky”, then so would I. And so I followed the two of them.
I stopped once, to “examine some books.” I then also noticed a green Zafara near by, who looked like he was also following them. I noticed this, and decided to follow him, leaving me less likely to get caught. But then, he tried to stop, and so I stopped as well, and realized that he was following me to follow them.
I nodded to him, and he nodded back, in silent understanding. Without a word, we continued to follow the two of them.
Eventually, I figured out where we were: Marchfeather Drive. I glanced over at the Zafara, and got his attention, which I directed to the sign. He looked a little bit puzzled, but we kept walking. As we were nearing 245, I stayed behind, almost faltering for a second, when the blue Moehog sprinted up from behind me. He was galloping and panting, as if out of breath. In one of his hooves, he held a calculator. He ran into the closed door of 245 Marchfeather Drive.
He backed up for a second, adjusted the glasses on his snout, straightened his collar, and the door opened. The door opener ushered him inside, and we ran to catch up with him.
As we knocked on the door, a rather flabbergasted royal Uni girl ran right up behind us... and right on by, shouting “Kerlie! Keeeeeeeeerlie! You’re going to be late for your appointment!” We watched her over our shoulders as she ran by, thinking just how slightly peculiar that was.
Lillian opened up the door, smiled a huge smile, and brought us inside. The house was quite large and spacious, as we found when we sat down in the chairs in the kitchen. She quickly poured us some lemonade, which I found ironic since it was the middle of February.
The Moehog, whose name I was guessing was Kerlie, was fiddling with his glasses. No one talked, just glanced around rather awkwardly. Eventually, after ten minutes or so of just sitting there, I took out my book, The Temples of Geraptiku, and read for a while. Kerlie followed my example, and took out a rather large geometry textbook and a small spiral bound journal. It appeared, after a while, that he wasn’t doing his homework at all, but rather simply just doing math for fun. The green Zafara just sat there, and proceeded to look as bored as possible.
A while later, we heard the door open again, and a panting breath saying, “I lost her. I can’t find her anywhere. She blends in far better then the rest of them. You will just have to tell the three already here about the-”
“No chance,” said a new voice, which was certainly not Hugo’s or Lillian’s, “I wasn’t even going to tell them until we got further forward, just in case one drops out. I am pretty confident they won’t, but...” he paused for a second, “one can just never be quite sure. In fact, I had a similar case when I discovered-”
“Yes, we know, Mr. I’ve done everything,” said yet another new voice, this time definitely female, “we need to live in the present for now, so it doesn’t matter quite what happened to you last time. We have to find her. We all know that she has some of the best skills in her area, and it’ll be hard to find someone-”
“Not unless you run another search.”
“We hardly have any time to pick from anyone else!” she exclaimed.
“Oh, don’t you “yes but” me, Ro-”
“Stop interrupting, everyone!” I heard Lillian shout, “You’re all acting like a bunch of conceited three year olds. Now will we all please calm down and search for this Gravy girl?”
We heard a small sound, a bit of a “Puff” like someone was teleporting, and a new voice said, “My name is not Gravy. It’s Gaviella. Do not call me Gravy again,” and with that, we heard the crackling of magic, and a flash of light escaped from the front entry hall.
I was out of my seat in two seconds, just in time to hear another (though slightly louder) “Puff!” noise. Lillian was sitting on the ground, her head in her hand. “I think I blacked out for a second,” she said quietly, and fell over backwards.
Hugo ran over to her, and asked Kerlie to get some get some ice out of the freezer. We sat her down on a futon, and I saw a long blue tail disappear up the stairs.
“Who was that?” I asked Mr. Fairweather.
“That was Gaviella, who will also be embarking on this expedition. She has amazing magical abilities along with-”
“Not her, the other two pets in the room. The ones who kept arguing. They just disappeared upstairs.”
Hugo glanced around nervously. “I suspect you shall find out soon enough. I will neomail you for more information, Ms. Chester.” He gestured to the door, as if saying that I could leave. I walked over towards it, and glanced back at the easily ninety year old man, and wondered if he was going to come with us. And how in Neopia he knew my name.
As I stepped back outside, I was confronted with the blue Kougra right in front of me. “You have guts, girl,” he said, “but do you have brains.”
My response? “Bwaaaaaaaaaaiiiinzzzzzzz,” and he burst out laughing. When he had finally controlled his laughter, I asked him, “So who are you?”
“I see what you did there,” he said, pointing at me, “and I don’t like it. I’ve had it done to me multiple times before. But I respect it. My name is Jordan E. Filishimer, but,” he said, sticking out his hand, “most people just call me Jordie.”
To be continued...