In retrospect, walking home so late wasn't the smartest
thing in the world to do. The moon had long since reached the apex of its journey
and was now on its downward slant. Natalie would have known precisely what time
it was if not for the branches that snagged the half-orb and hid it from her gaze.
Low wisps of cloud helped conceal the light, trailing a veil over the stars and
vapors of moonlight. There was no wind.
It unnerved her to be walking home so late.
Generally she avoided anything that kept her out too far past dark, her subconscious
concocting a thousand dangers for her. But she needed Neopoints - being a plain
green Lupe was growing old and she had her heart set on a paintbrush, any paintbrush.
When Trevor had asked, no, pleaded, for her to cover his shift at the late night
store she worked at, she reluctantly agreed. It wasn't out of friendship or
anything, Trevor was a right pain to work with, but the hours were too tempting
to pass up on. She needed the money.
The only problem was that Trevor worked late.
Very late. And he closed up the store alone. She kept stepping on her tail that
evening as she swept the floors, swearing she'd heard a rattle in the backroom
or a creak at the front door. It took all her nerve to finally put the lights
out and venture into the deserted street of Neopia Central, locking the door
behind her. The fur on her spine had stood in a ridge the whole time her back
was turned to the street.
In theory it sounded like such a simple matter.
Three blocks down the main street, off onto a side one, past a park, and then
one more block to her house. Simple. Natalie knew in her heart that she could
do this quite fine, just keep putting one paw before the other, ears sharp and
eyes alert. There were dark things that roamed Neopia, but surely none of them
were this deep into civilization.
If she hadn't been so high-strung she might
have missed the flicker. As is, she almost walked right on by, dismissing it
as an overactive imagination. But instinct caused her to freeze, dropping to
all fours and slinging her center of gravity low, hackles raising on the back
of her neck. Something had moved. She couldn't be imagining it. For a long time
she crouched there, her eyes focused on the dark alley from where she had seen
the movement. Two sharp sniffs brought the scent of some garbage and stagnant
water to her nose. Nothing more.
Natalie eventually forced her legs to unlock
and rose to her hind legs once more, reluctantly returning on her path towards
home. Just past the park and one more block.
Behind her, something detached itself from the
wall. As insubstantial as a shadow it flitted away, a mere distortion of the
pale light hounding the Lupe's steps.
The park itself was small and shabby. It certainly
hadn't helped to improve the neighborhood she lived in, if anything, it brought
the quality down. There was debris scattered amongst the grass and just a day
ago one of the children had cut his paw open on some broken glass. She sorely
wished someone would do something about it. The thought had occurred to her
more than once that perhaps she was the one, but lack of Neopoints and time
hindered her. Someday. When she could.
The shadows seemed deeper within the shelter
of the trees rimming the park. She shuddered and quickened her pace, her ears
like radars on the top of her head. When her paw splashed in a puddle, the sound
seemed to reverberate through the open air. Why couldn't there be more people
out? It was far too deserted here.
There, again. The flicker of motion. She wasn't
imagining things. Again she dropped to all fours, slowly backing away, a feral
growl coming from deep within her throat.
"I know you're there!" she cried. "Show yourself."
A whimper greeted her in response. Her ears
shot straight up, turning their delicate insides towards the noise. Soft and
strangled noises, the telltale gasp of a suffocated hiccup. Someone was crying,
there in the darkness of the park.
"Hello?" she called, edging closer to the line
of shadow that marked the boundary. "Is someone there?"
The crying was more distinct now. It seemed
to be a child, huddled in the darkness and utterly terrified.
"What are you doing out here?" Natalie pressed,
slipping into the darkness and scouting for the source of the noise. "It's too
late to be out. Did you slip away from home? C'mon, we need to get you out of
She saw the child now, an uncertain form with
its back turned to the tree. Natalie hesitated, her nose tickling at the child's
scent. It was impossible to determine exactly what kind of pet the kid was and
for some reason that sent ice into her gut. But the shape let out another half
sob half hiccup and she swallowed her doubts.
If she was frightened just walking home, how
much more so this one must be.
"Hey. It's okay. I'll help you."
She edged closer, trying to instil gentle reassurance
in her voice. But another sound tore through the night and her blood seemed
to freeze in her veins.
"Get away Lupe."
Natalie spun, lowering herself almost entirely
to the ground, lashing her tail in agitation. Someone had snuck up behind her
without a sound. Someone who was bigger than she was, a strange blue Wocky with
a dark vest and eyes that were like moons themselves, yellow and narrow. She
found breathing very hard all of a sudden. There was a cuff on his pointed ear
and a scar across one eye, making it seem larger than the other.
"I said - step away," he repeated and his voice
was utterly emotionless.
For a moment her defiance didn't seem natural.
She may as well have been a spectator watching the scene: Natalie defies the
"Oh, for faerie's sake," he snarled, "Move!"
There was an odd clicking noise behind her,
like vertebrae popping from a prolonged stretch. She started to turn, confused,
and the Wocky moved. She caught a glimpse of harsh green light around one fist,
throwing sharp daggers of highlights on his fur, and then a hand closed on her
ruff and threw her aside.
She bounced when she hit the ground. Bounced
and rolled. As she scrambled to her feet her eyes met a horrible scene. The
Wocky locked in battle, hovering in mid-air with a glowing ax made out of pure
power, with a creature she could not even begin to identify as his opponent.
It was like shadow, shifting as quickly as the strange Wocky could bring his
weapon to bear. Neither of them made a sound. Horror filled her mind. He wasn't
the enemy after all - he'd been trying to save her from that thing!
Rage filled her mind. She wouldn't let him fight
alone. With a battle cry that shook the branches above her she broke into a
charge, throwing up dirt beneath her paws. With wild abandon she leaped -
-and tendrils of green light wrapped around
her, squeezing her body painfully tight before hurling her away from the battle
again. She smashed into a tree and lay in a heap at the base, her eyes spinning
and red clouding the edges. Her mind vaguely registered the battle before her,
just flashes of movement and the flow of light and dark. Then, with one last
flash of that ax, the Wocky cleaved the darkness and the shadow fell into mist
and was gone. He hovered there in mid-air, panting and Natalie finally found
the strength to stand again, staggering over to where he was.
"Why did you throw me?" she asked, softly.
"You were getting in the way," he replied. "This
was my fight. Not yours."
The Wocky landed and the ax vanished from his
hand. Her eyes slowly adjusted to the absence of light now that whatever power
the stranger was calling on was gone.
"You saved me."
"Thank you. What was that thing?"
His jaw tightened and he turned away from her
slightly. She could see something staining his fur almost black near the waist.
"Best if you not ask. Hubrid Nox is all you
need to know."
Her stomach twisted itself into knots and to
distract herself from all the possibilities running through her mind, she sniffed
deeply to catch a scent of the stranger. Thick fur and an overlay of copper.
"You're hurt," she whispered, trying to get
a better look at his injury.
He shied away from the Lupe.
"It's nothing. Go home."
"But let me help! Please. It's the least I can
The Wocky spun to face her directly, his eyes
blazing, and she could see something hidden deep within him come to bear on
her. The scar was livid in the moonlight.
"I said - LEAVE. Don't you know who and what
"I - I only want…"
"To stick your nose where it doesn't belong!
Get out of here! Don't you see - I'm Magax! Does that name mean nothing to you?
You can't help me."
She nearly fell over her tail scrambling to
get away from him. The anger was fearsome and she remembered how effortlessly
he had tossed her around earlier.
"I'm sorry," she whimpered, "I'm sorry."
There was no remorse in his eyes, just cold
tight anger and a deep loathing that did not seem to be directly focused on
her. She hesitated for one last second, hoping against hope that he would let
go of whatever it was that was causing him to shove her away. He took a step
forwards and her nerve broke. She turned and ran, and did not stop running until
she reached her home and was able to lock the door behind her and collapse into
a sobbing heap. Magax. No, she couldn't help him.