He didn’t have long, he thought he could hear the screams coming from the trail as his pursuer threw the pilgrims aside. His heart was beating in his chest and his lungs gasped for air as he forced his legs to continue running up the steps to the bend, ignoring the ramp to the right and instead picking his way through the ornate statues that lined the path and through the branches that scratched his arms and ripped his jeans, he reached up and grasped the ledge above him with his fingertips and used the broad back of the statue to push upwards with his feet and pulled himself up to the next level where he paused and looked behind him.
The trail snaked down through the trees but you could see its descent to the summit of the mountain from the golden buddhas that lined either side. The status were wooden with a yellow laminate coating that was in various states of disrepair, each statue depicted buddhas of various shapes and sizes; big fat ones that smiled at the pilgrims as they climbed, tall thin ones that sneered at those that struggled with the ascent, broad stately ones with outstretched arms pointing to the top of the mountain as inspiration. Alex was near the top so he could not see the three armed men guarding the entrance of the trail. He could, however, see Sylvester striding furiously towards him, a small family scattered behind him fleeing in the opposite direction, children screaming in fear at the bloody brute. He did not have the head start he thought.
Alex carried on running. The steps were levelling off as he neared the summit, and the onlookers were distracted from the sight of his dishevelled appearance by the screams of pilgrims below them that encountered Sylvester. His lungs ached, his legs felt like lead and his face was dripping with sweat but he fought onwards, the faces of the Buddha status becoming a yellow-gold blur, his path was straight and then –
An ornate red structure burst over the lip of the trail. Alex felt a new surge of adrenalin course through his exhausted limbs – he was near the village! He felt his feet gain pace and after a few more strides he stopped climbing upwards and turned a corner into a sprawling square. There was a small white temple in each corner and the giant red pagoda in the centre. He stopped running and looked over his shoulder. He seemed to be alone. He could not hear any screams.
Now uncertain of the location of Sylvester, Alex felt a knot tighten in his stomach, and he became suddenly aware of a stitch in his side after the gruelling run-turned-slow-jog. Every step caused him to wince in agony and he was seeing stars due to the lack of oxygen in his body – he made it to the centre of the square and collapsed against the building. It was wooden and the paint was peeling, leaving fat red flakes on his palm.
For a few seconds he took ragged, panting breaths, and began to feel his legs seize up when –
“Alex, up here!!”
A woman’s voice screamed towards him and he whirled on his heel, determined to find its source. The point of the pagoda shielded his eyes from the sun, and in its shadow he could just about make out the silhouette of a woman leaning out of a balcony near the top, waving desperately at him.
The sight of her was like a jolt of electricity, he hauled himself upright only his legs did not cooperate; they buckled and he fell onto his outstretched palms, his knees collided with the concrete step below him. He felt sharp stones pricking into his palms.
Sylvester had heard the voice as well, just a few hundred metres below Alex. He too had whirled round in shock but was yet to crest the summit, so had not seen the woman at the top of the pagoda; if he had, he would have perhaps taken a different course of action. Sylvester knew that there was no way to access the top level of the structure. He knew that Jean was currently in the Paris bakery. He knew the history of the village. However, at this precise moment, he was focussed on the task at hand – ensuring Alex reached the summit – and so it was for this reason he removed his gun from the waistband of his trousers and fired a shot into the air.