Order of Four: Part Six
So I lived for nearly nine months. Winter came and went, my sixteenth birthday along with it, and I continued at the factory. Every day I rose at dawn, hurried off to work, and directed the paint into the appropriate vats; at noon we had a half-hour lunch break, and then I generally worked until six, except on days when the factory was running behind and the manager agreed to pay us overtime.
It was on one of these days, a frigid night in March, that I was walking home near midnight. I had not left the factory until eleven, and then I had stopped to buy my dinner. The warm sandwich felt blissful to my gloveless hands, not to mention my empty stomach, and my spirits were reasonably high as I walked along the little alleyway to my room by the sea.
There were very few people around here at this time of night; nearly everybody who lived here was a factory worker or a fisherman, and in either case it was necessary to be up with the sun. But I soon came to realize that there was somebody else on the streets, and that that somebody seemed to be watching me.
At first he was a shape of pure darkness in the corner of my eye, so black that I wouldn't have noticed him except for the hairline traces of fire that glowed around his edges. Somewhat nervously I sped up my pace, and was alarmed to see that he did the same. By now the figure was close enough for me to determine that it was a Lupe, though the color was one I had never seen before – like a strange, unearthly cross between shadow and fire. I had only read about his kind, and I knew they inhabited the deepest reaches of Moltara.
My position, I realized, was a bad one. I had no idea whether this pursuer was a common robber or something more, but either way I was defenseless. There was nowhere to run, and nowhere I could possibly hide in this narrow dark alley walled by two-story buildings. Until it crossed with the street up ahead, I would simply have to hope that the Lupe wished me no ill. Or that, if he did, I could outrun him.
I heard the footsteps behind me growing faster and faster, closing the distance between us. Almost unconsciously my steps quickened as well, and I could not resist turning around to look behind me. Molten, fiery eyes met mine not two yards away – and I broke into an outright sprint.
In an instant, my pursuer had pounced on me, pinning me to the ground and standing over me, looking down. Heat seemed to roll off of him in waves, and the flames that had been dim hairline cracks before had roared into foot-high tongues of fire. I wriggled frantically, but I could not shake his grip. Then to my horror, he calmly and deliberately drew a flaming sword.
I was certain that he intended to behead me, and though my mind could make no sense of it, my instincts were more effective. With a strength and resourcefulness I had not known I possessed, my hands scrabbled on the ground beside me and found the lid of a trash can, which I slammed as hard as I could at my attacker.
The Lupe flipped out of the way, and then, with impossible speed and dexterity, he leaped up onto the fire escape above my head. Faster than the eye could follow, he was back down again on my other side. I raised the trash can lid and held it in front of me as a makeshift shield, but the fiery sword simply sliced through it like butter, and I found myself once again face to face with my attacker and without the slightest chance of victory.
By now I had more or less resigned myself to the idea of death, and I reflected that at the very least the world would not be much changed by my absence. My terror was replaced by a dull, calm feeling that probably they had killed my mother that day, and had intended to kill me, and that the inevitable had merely been delayed for a while.
But, to my complete astonishment, the magma Lupe made no move to kill me – instead he reached forward and took a firm hold of my arm. His grip had a strangely electric feel, which sent a jolt down my spine and seemed to burn a new energy into my spirit. True, I was outmatched and facing impossible odds; I had no idea what he or they were after; I'd been a pawn all my life in some mysterious game beyond my understanding. And yet still there was no reason why I should give up without a fight. I realized it was only weariness and hopelessness that had inspired my momentary apathy, for I was still burningly curious to know what all of this was about. If I was going to die, at least I wanted to know what the purpose of my life had been.
The Lupe led me along the alleyway without a word. I assumed he had some means of transportation, something that he could spirit me away in to his destination; but I also knew that it was not here, for I would certainly have noticed it. I guessed that, at some point, we would have to rejoin a busier street – and that would be my chance.
In order to avoid arousing his suspicion, I followed silently and without protest or struggle. He didn't loosen his grip, but I had never felt much hope of that. Unquestionably, he was strong enough to hold me for as long as he pleased; I would have to rely on trickery to escape his grasp. I had a plan of sorts, though I also had plenty of doubts as to whether it would work. Still, it always did in books, and that at least was something.
The Lupe continued marching us on at his own sedate, powerful, unhurried pace. Somehow his lack of emotion, not to mention his invariable silence, made him a thousand times more frightening than if he had explained his purpose to me in a rage.
We were finally approaching the cross-street, and it took every ounce of determination that I had, not to tense my muscles in anticipation.
It was a space of only about ten feet, where the buildings lining the alley broke off to accommodate the larger street; but I reckoned that if I could get out into the open, under the lamps and in the crowd, he would be mad to pursue me any farther. I knew, though, that I would only get one chance at this. It was imperative that I do it perfectly. My heart beating in my ears, I forced myself to wait as we stepped out onto the street and began to cross. I judged that the best time to make a break for it would be in the exact middle of the open space, where I would have the most room to maneuver and the most lamp light shining on me.
Only three more steps, I thought. And then two, and then one... and slipping out of my coat, I dashed wildly away from the Lupe and toward the crowd.
Luckily my coat was too large, and it slid off easily. But my attacker was so unnaturally fast that he nearly caught me, in spite of his surprise, crossing the distance in a single lunge. I barely made it, diving into a group of laughing people who hardly seemed to notice my presence among them.
Would he follow me anyway? I was seized by the sudden terrible thought that perhaps he would simply enter the crowd himself, grab me and drag me off, whether there was anybody to witness it or not. I held my breath for a minute or two, ready to feel his burning hand on my back at any moment, but nothing happened. When I gathered the courage to look back, I could see no trace of him.
Now I had to consider what to do next. My first thought was that it would be too risky to return to my rented room and get my things. However, my common sense soon reasserted itself; I reasoned that if they had known my address, they would have ambushed me there. Either I had been recognized in the street, completely by chance, or they had somehow discovered me at the factory. Probably it would be unsafe to return there, but I had other ideas anyway.
I kept looking over my shoulder as I walked along, realizing how easy it would be for the Lupe to shadow me and wait until I was once again alone. My coloring made me conspicuous and recognizable, as always, though at least I had lost the coat splattered with three bright colors of paint (the downside to this was that I was shivering). Still, caution seemed necessary, and I took a long route back through the most crowded streets I could find. There was no guarantee that I hadn't been followed, but it was now significantly less likely.
Once back home, I quickly gathered together my woefully small pile of neopoints and everything else I owned into a brown potato sack, the only suitable repository I could find. Then I turned southward, retracing the road my mother and I had taken almost two years ago when first we arrived in Neopia Central. I wasn't sure how I would manage it, but, whatever it took, I was going back to Neovia.
I had made a decision: I needed to speak with Lance Carlisle. Perhaps he was on my side; more likely he was not. But either way, I was finished with hiding. I was finished with being a pawn, always reacting and hiding and never taking anything into my own hands. If he was one of the enemy, then so be it – I would rather confront him directly, whatever the results, than continue this half-life of mystery and fear.
To be continued...