Order of Four: Part Nine
The Lupe calmly observed me for a moment; then, apparently deciding that I was in earnest, he sheathed his sword and beckoned me to follow him without a word. I wondered idly if not speaking was some part of his role in the Order, but I had no way of finding out, so it was useless to speculate. He led me to a black coach that was waiting on the road by Lance Carlisle's drive, and as he opened the door for me I got in, trying to conceal the fact that I was trembling and my heart was racing. He seemed to mean me no harm, though – at least for the present. We took the road back toward Neovia, and then at some point we turned off the main road and down a narrow, winding, overgrown little place. Could this, I wondered, be the official seat of the Order of Four? Here in Neovia? If so, it struck me as very strange that my mother had chosen to stay here and live for fourteen years.
But when the carriage stopped and we both alighted, I could see no signs of any habitation; we appeared to be in the middle of the wilderness. I did notice a strange ring of stones, each of them marked with white chalk, set a little away from where we were standing. The Lupe gestured toward it, and I understood that I was supposed to walk into it, though I couldn't imagine why.
Immediately as I stepped into the circle the forest around me vanished, replaced for an instant with absolute nothingness. I blinked; when I opened my eyes, I was somewhere entirely different.
It was a vast, dimly lit cavern, in which sound seemed to echo and outcroppings of rock cast strange shadows over the cave floor. The magma Lupe had appeared next to me; some distance to our right stood a robed pirate Hissi; and across from us, I recognized the speckled Xweetok I had seen in our apartment, the day my mother disappeared. But even her familiar presence was nothing compared to what lay in the very center, capturing my gaze with its incredible brightness: the largest diamond I had ever seen.
The diamond wasn't complete, though – I could see that even from here. It had been partially reconstructed, but perhaps a fourth of it was missing, with an ugly jagged edge very unlike the smooth perfection of the rest. I stared in fascination, unable to help myself, until a soft, smooth, musical voice pulled me out of my trance.
"Felix Blakesley," said the Xweetok, "it's so good to meet you at last."
I took a deep breath. I had to find out more, and I could not let them know what I thought of their Order – at least not yet. I had to be conciliating, to make them believe that I was interested. "I might have come sooner, if anybody had explained to me what was going on."
"Well," she said pleasantly, "perhaps you are right." I couldn't deny that she was quite beautiful, although I was not sure I liked her strange black eyes. "In that case, allow me to introduce myself. I am Ilyis, your Leader." She had a faint accent, from the far North perhaps, though it was unfamiliar to me. "Let me also introduce the Seer" – she indicated the Pirate Hissi – "and I think you have already met our Sword." I had already known, of course, that the Lupe was the Sword, and now that I knew the Xweetok was the Leader the role of the Hissi was quite clear. I noticed that each of the three wore a matching surcoat, long and dark grey with a strange, faint symbol threaded in silver on the sleeve.
Ilyis turned her blank eyes on me again. "And now, Felix Blakesley, perhaps you will return our hospitality and tell us why you are here."
Hastily I organized my thoughts. I had had some time, in the coach, to compose my story; it was vital that they should believe I meant to cooperate. If they suspected me, I would have no chance of escape, let alone sabotage. "I have lived nearly all my life hiding from your Order," I began slowly, "but never knowing why, or anything of your identity. After my encounter with – the Sword – in Neopia Central, I decided to take matters into my own hands and seek some answers. Mr. Lance Carlisle told me about you, and about my place in your organization. I am interested in your diamond – I wish to claim this place and fulfill my duties, which I have unknowingly neglected for years."
"Wise words," the Leader replied, looking searchingly at me. "But true ones? I wonder..." She drew nearer, close enough for me to hear her piercing whisper, which hit me like the lash of a whip. "Tell the truth."
To my horror, I found that my mouth opened of its own accord and began pouring forth my true opinions. "I have come to sabotage you, if I can, and destroy the Order of Four. Everything you have ever done has caused me nothing but harm. You murdered my mother, you hunted me, and now you expect me to join your order of thievery! As if I could be tempted by money to abandon my revenge!"
"I see," she said, quite quietly. Already I was terrified of her anger, but her expression gave no hint of that emotion or any other. "You are very like your father – in looks and, evidently, in spirit. But Lance Carlisle has informed you wrongly." She turned back to me, black eyes glittering. "We are far, far more than diamond thieves. Did he tell you that our goal is personal gain? What a thing to sacrifice all our lives for!" Her silky laugh rang out in the empty cavern. "Oh, no. This diamond is worth so much more. You see... we intend to restore Neopia. To cleanse it. Protect the innocent and administer justice with our own, better management; that is what this completed diamond will allow us to do."
I absorbed this new fact with growing dread. However little I had liked the idea of my birthright in a gang of thieves, this was infinitely, incomparably worse! From all that I knew of the Order, I was certain that they would do no good for Neopia. And yet I was equally certain that Ilyis believed they would; the light of true fanaticism burned in her eyes.
"But I can see you're not convinced," she said pointedly.
There was no use in lying, I had learned that already. So I did not reply.
"Very well. You will serve the Order just as faithfully anyway... at least, for now."
For the first time, the Hissi spoke. "That could be unwise. I think we've seen what can happen when a member's heart isn't in it." He had a peculiarly soft, hissing voice, and in the already-unsettling atmosphere it sent shivers down my spine.
"But the diamond will be moved if we do not act quickly," she argued. Hitherto I had assumed that the Order of Four was a sort of dictatorship, with only the Leader's voice heard, but I realized that she was quite genuinely weighing the Seer's words. (Of course, I had absolutely no hope whatsoever that she would extend me the same consideration.)
"You may be right," he conceded. "But we will find it again, in time. The danger of losing our Conjurer again is too great a risk; we'd be better off completing the transfer first."
Ilyis seemed to be considering this. "Think of the time, though, that it may take to find a suitable replacement. Finding the right person is no easy task, and in the meantime we can make use of this one, unwilling as he is."
I did not particularly like the way they were discussing me as though I were absent, or inanimate. But my uneasy curiosity was roused – what did they mean by the transfer? Presumably it was possible to choose one's successor, as my father had done with me, but what had Carlisle said – something about the power usually reverting to the Order when its custodian died... I felt a cold sweat break out as I realized that they probably intended to kill me after I did whatever they wanted me to do.
The Seer was still pleading his case. "Haven't we learned our lesson? For every order you may give him, he will find something you've missed and take advantage of it. Much better to eliminate that possibility now, and set about finding a replacement."
"What do you say, Sword?" The Leader turned to the Lupe.
To my surprise (for I had assumed that he was mute), he thought for a moment and then replied, in a calm, expressionless voice. "We should waste no time. May as well use him while we have him."
"Very well," declared Ilyis. "It is decided. We will go ahead with retrieving the next piece, and we will do it tonight. Blakesley, you will open a portal to Lance Carlisle's manor."
"I – I –" I had opened my mouth to protest that I had no idea how to open a portal, but that was before the second half of her order sank in. "Lance Carlisle's manor?"
She smiled coldly. "Did he neglect to tell you? Lance Carlisle holds in his possession a large piece of the diamond."
To be continued...