In This Together: Part Seven
The cork gun gallery disappeared out of sight as Ladorna and I walked out into the main village area of the Haunted Woods. "Nothing'll be attacking you here, Bootsie my dear," she reassured me. "The folk here are all very civilised and nice."
"Evening, Lady Luck!" called a Cybunny, his red and white head peering menacingly, if short-sightedly, over a shop stall. Above him, glowing orange lanterns hung from the lowest branches of the trees, lending their light to the crowded town.
"See what I mean?" She smiled, waving a paw at the petpet salesbunny. "No fierce Werelupes and the like here."
"I... I guess." I nodded. "But you know, there's always stories. Like that one Fiona told me once about the Blumaroo and his pals who came ghosting to an old lady's house on Darkest Night, the last night of Collecting, and were never seen again..."
My Aisha companion turned to me in interest, an odd smile on her face.
"You don't tell me? Where did your Fiona get to be hearing that story, Bootsie?"
"It was in the encyclopaedia," I told her. To my surprise, Ladorna threw back her head and began laughing riotously.
"It was so? Oh, there's nothing for it. I'll have to tell Minette."
She sank down onto a tree stump, doubled up with her giggles. "She and her brothers made the whole thing up, years ago. Don't the species sound familiar? A Halloween Ixi, a Blumaroo and a Lenny? They'll kill themselves with laughing when they get to hear."
I laughed too. Somehow, at Ladorna's side, the real and present dangers of the Haunted Woods seemed less frightening too.
We asked everywhere about sightings of a Darigan Kougra. Finally, and in the unlikeliest of places, we found an answer.
"Kougra? Oh, be sure I've seen one," the old Zafara snapped, slamming her mixing ladle against the side of her cauldron with an enormous clang. "He was here a few hours back. Seized some of my magical equipment, ate all of the Gummy Rats I was saving for my Meowclops without so much as a word, and jumped right out through the window. I tried to zap him with a quick Charm of Kougra Sparking, but the daft blighter was too fast for me to hit."
"Thanks, Edna," Ladorna said politely. "Are you wanting help to sweep up the glass?"
"Don't be impudent, young kit," Edna snarled. "I can do it perfectly well myself, thanks. Now get gone before I turn you into Mortogs both."
"No, wait," I put in, trying to fight the image of Voltare's fur torn by broken glass. "Where did the Kougra go after he... jumped out of the window?"
The old witch pointed out a direction, and Ladorna nodded, guiding me carefully down the spiral stairs.
"This track leads out into the forest," she told me. "Stick close to me and whisper if you see anything."
We carried on walking for hours. Rachel, tucked into my satchel, fell asleep as the bag rocked gently from side to side. From time to time, a sudden noise would make Ladorna start and brandish the magical wand she'd brought with her; but it would always be just a fellow-traveller, stepping apologetically past us, or a lone Petpet scuffling in the bushes.
"Honey, it's dark as can be now," my companion said gently. "We should stop and sleep. Your brother surely can't be going much further. The land to the west of here is almost uncrossable."
"No..." I wanted to keep going, but Ladorna was already spreading out the blanket rug she'd brought in the shade of a large tree. "Oh, OK. But as soon as morning comes, we're following Voltare again."
It didn't rain here often, Ladorna assured me. I lay down among the blankets with just Ricky's coat to keep me warm, staring at the dark sky above my head, as she lay beside me breathing softly in her sleep.
Voltare, are you out there? Are you there at all? Is the big brother who told me he'd always be at my side still there, or... is someone else?
I didn't remember falling asleep, until suddenly I wasn't asleep any longer. Ladorna's yell woke me, and I jumped to my hooves with a start. "What is it? What is it?"
A huge, dark paw swept round past my friend's face, scratching her cheek as it snatched the wand from her grip. The fierce form of a winged Kougra stood in front of us for a moment, holding the wand in his mouth as he panted for breath.
Unable to say a word, I looked up at him, but he couldn't see me in the shadows.
A shiver ran through my whole body as I looked into his face. I tried to speak his name, but the word caught in my throat.
That face was not my brother's. I saw what I'd been seeking, all the signs— his torn ear, the mark of a Werelupe's claws on his cheek— but something else was missing. There was no love, no affection in those dark eyes. All I could see was a deep blackness, like the clouds before a storm.
Tensing for a moment, he leapt over Ladorna's head and was gone, disappearing into the thicket.
"V-V-" I gulped hard, snatching my satchel from the ground.
Come on, Ellanova. "It's him, Ladorna! C'mon!"
"I can't," she said, looking at me in panic. "He hurt my footpaw when he attacked us. I can walk for sure, Bootsie, but I can't run."
I stood for a moment, staring at the broken thicket where Voltare had disappeared and at Ladorna's bleeding paw. "What is there that way?" I asked.
"Nothing much that I'd be thinking..." She shrugged. "A few abandoned caves, some wild Petpets as may be. Nothing he'd be setting off in such a tearing hurry to find."
"Come on, then, walk," I managed, against my will. "As fast as you can, Ladorna. We'll find him."
The bushes scratched at our ankles as we walked. Rachel, riding on my head now, watched silently as I picked my way through thorns and creepers. At least there was no problem in tracing Voltare's pawsteps now: it was impossible not to see the crushed branches and ragged bark where he had cut a path.
Ladorna's limp was worsening, but she carried on along the improvised track, keeping a lookout for any unexpected dangers. Suddenly, she tensed.
"Bootsie. Get down."
I turned to see what she had spotted. A small glow of purple light was hovering towards us, looking rather like an oddly-coloured Lightmite.
I looked at it curiously. "What's that, Ladorna?"
"I don't know. But stay still."
The little point of light seemed uninterested in me, however, as it floated past our heads and towards a large cliff-face a short distance away. As we watched, it was followed by more, all travelling in the same direction. They weren't insects, it seemed, but they moved like them, drifting in small clouds along the track.
"Whoa," Ladorna breathed, reaching out a paw. At once, she pulled it back again in alarm. "That hurt!"
Another purple light earthed itself on my ear, sending a cold shock through my body. More and more were joining it, as if they were being pulled towards the cliff face. Ladorna, taller than me and more in their path, winced as more stung her, but I was only half aware of the discomfort. In the distance, faint but unmistakable, I heard something I had not expected: a fierce, full roar.
The roar of a fully-grown Kougra, angry and in pain.
I don't remember ever consciously thinking about what to do. I began to run, closing my eyes against the stinging of the moving lights that surrounded me now, a cloud of bright dots swarming like insects, paying no attention to me as they flew towards their destination. Rachel clung to my ears, screaming in terror.
Looking back for a moment, I saw Ladorna struggling to keep up with me. "Is it... is it him?" she gasped, trying to bat away the lights with her paw. I nodded, and she managed to crawl forward a few steps, on her paws and knees.
I had to keep going. I knew I did. But she was getting hurt, and I was responsible. For a moment, I hesitated. Then, I heard a voice from somewhere above us.
"There they are! Left, you daft Lenny, left!"
Minette and Tam swooped out of the seemingly empty sky, dropping to Ladorna's side. "We'll take care of her, Bootsie," the Halloween Ixi yelled. "Thought you might be in trouble soon as we saw those lights going the same way you were, so we ran to get Edna. That looks like some nasty dark magic, but she says it won't kill you. Now move it and go find your brother!"
With one frantic look back at Ladorna and Minette, I bolted in the direction of the cliffs.
Voltare, don't give in! I'm coming!
To be continued...