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Whispers: Part Two


by betazoid_telepath

--------

Disappearing Act

Aidne's breath came out in hoarse gasps, her footfalls gradually becoming slower and slower. She had no idea why she was running, and to what end. All she knew was that she had to find something, but what? Wet leaves slapped her face, slowing her desperate race through the forest until she was forced to halt.

      "Where is everyone?" she called into the distance. "Lani? Aurora?"

      Rather than echoing back to her, her words hung in the humid air. No one answered. She was alone.

      Gradually, the sound of voices reached her ears. They were speaking, though not to her. She listened eagerly to the voices, though she could not make out any definite words. The voices rose and fell, smoothly as rolling waves on the ocean, and she suddenly longed to find them, to ask them why she was here, running through the jungle at nighttime. It sounded crazy even to her. Was she going mad?

      She walked now, pushing branches out of her way as she continued her journey to the somewhere she now sensed was nearby. The voices were growing louder now, though she still couldn't tell what they were saying. When she finally emerged from the trees, however, the voices stopped entirely. In front of her was a humble village, its houses all built from bracken and palm fronds, but in the distance a massive stone ziggurat towered above the treetops, casting its shadow over the tiny village.

      Aidne recognized this place, and suddenly it all made sense. The utter silence that greeted her as she entered, all the tools and baskets lying neatly on the ground, as if their owners had just set them down and vanished from Neopia, and the supplies left to rot. Whatever had happened here took place long ago, but the Zafara could still almost convince herself the sweet, cloying scent of biodegrading matter still hung in the air.

      This was Geraptiku.

     ***

      The Zafara awoke with rivulets of cold sweat pouring down her face. It was as warm here as it had been in Geraptiku, but this was a dry heat, not the moist heat of the jungle. She sighed with relief and sunk back down onto the pillows. It was all a dream, then. Just a stupid dream brought on by a day of traveling during which she had consumed nothing but water from a canteen and roasted Cheops Plant.

      "You up?" The door to Aidne's room opened a crack and Aurora's head poked through. Her light brown hair was frizzy and uncombed, and she was wearing a yellow sweater, khaki shorts, one brown sock and one red. She was obviously not fully awake yet.

      "Just," Aidne replied as she sat up. Since she was awake anyways, she may as well get up, never mind how early it probably was. "Has Lani come?"

      Aurora yawned. "She won't be here for an hour yet. I would still be sleeping if I hadn't heard you tossing in here like your tail was on fire. What's going on?"

      "Bad dream," Aidne muttered as she pulled on yesterday's cutoffs and a new lime green tank top. She wasn't in the mood to talk about it for some reason, so she hoped Aurora would just leave it at that.

      Aurora, however, was persistent. "What was it about? You aren't nervous about today's little adventure, are you?"

      Aidne snorted. For some reason, Aurora was really starting to get on her nerves. "Of course not. It was just a stupid old dream about Geraptiku and stuff."

      The Kacheek shrugged. "That's not so unusual, y'know. Loads of pets are affected like that when they come to the Lost Desert. It's just one of those weird things. Being here makes you think of very... mysterious things. It's only natural you'd think about Geraptiku, since it's considered one of Neopia's greatest mysteries. No one actually knows how those pets all vanished, or why, though I think most experts have agreed it was probably a plague of some sort."

      "Whatever you say," Aidne said doubtfully. She wished that Aurora's explanation could make perfect sense to her. But she felt sure that whatever brought that dream on had to be trying to tell her something, something important. Or she was just going crazy. Heat stroke was obviously a possibility, but she wasn't likely to tell Aurora that.

      "I'm getting breakfast," the Zafara announced.

      "Take a jacket. It'll be cold in the tomb," Aurora reminded as Aidne walked towards the door.

      "Fine, then," Aidne replied with forced sincerity, then instantly regretted her behavior. Why was she so off this morning? An image of Geraptiku painted itself in her mind, as if to say 'Whatever you do, don't forget about me.' The Zafara forced the thought to the back of her mind. Food was what she needed now. Maybe she'd feel better later on in the day.

     ***

      Aidne was munching listlessly on a slice of dry toast when there came a knock on the door.

      "I'll get it; it's probably Lani," Aidne said as she leapt off her chair and trotted over to the door. She was hugely curious about what Lani's cousin would be like.

      She opened the door and, as she had suspected, came face-to-face with Lani. The blue Ixi was looking thoroughly exasperated and holding another pet, presumably her cousin, by the scruff of his neck.

      These two were related?

      Lani's cousin was most definitely not the calm, book-loving pet she had imagined. He was a vibrant green Shoyru, probably several years younger than Lani or Aidne herself, with a head of thick black hair and a pair of dancing green eyes. Unlike any sane pet, this Shoyru had not dressed for the weather, and strangely, didn't seem to care. His overcoat looked to be a good weight for your average Month of Celebrating in Neopia Central, as did his slightly over-large grey cargos.

      Never one for uncomfortable silences, Lani said, "Well, this is my cousin. Before you even ask, I do not know his real name. He always just goes by the name of-"

      "Trick McFinn at your service! Pleased to meetcha and all that stuff." The Shoyru shook Aidne's paw enthusiastically. "I'm sure that these introductions aren't really needed, since you've probably heard so much about me from cousin Ashy..."

      Aidne could barely stifle a snort at the expression on Lani's face at being referred to as 'Ashy'.

      The Shoyru was chattering away, oblivious, all the while inspecting the dining room. "I like the desert, I wonder why I've never been here before. It's a really nice temperature, not too cold or anything. The old relic at the front desk is really scary, though. He just about spoiled this entire trip for us, and he was going to kick Lani out, so-"

      "You said you'd set his guest list on fire!" Lani exclaimed.

      "So?"

      "Threats are not the sort of thing you say in polite society."

      "Pfft. He wasn't being polite, so what rule says I have to?"

      "Stop splitting hairs, you know exactly what I mean!"

      Trick grinned. "Now you're catching on."

      "Arrgh!"

      Trick stuck his hand into his pocket. "Oops, almost forgot." He pulled out something brightly-coloured and moving. He placed it on his shoulder, and Aidne could now tell it was a disco Feepit, complete with the characteristic orange and green fur and sparkly purple sunglasses.

      "This is Tipeef," he said, tickling the petpet under the chin. "Bet you'll never guess how I came up with that name. She's really well trained an--Hey!"

      The Feepit looked to be as interested in being in the Lost Desert as her owner was, if not more so. The small petpet leapt off Trick's shoulder and clambered up onto the windowsill.

      "Tipeef, no! Get back here right now!" the Shoyru called, but it was too late. The Feepit got too close to the edge and overbalanced, toppling out the window.

      "For Nuria's sake, you can't be serious," Trick said under his breath before leaping out the window after his pet.

      Aidne, Lani, and Aurora were all silent, waiting to hear a 'splat' come from the streets below. They heard none, so Aidne assumed that Trick had succeeded in rescuing the Feepit.

      "What was that all about?" Aurora asked.

      Lani sighed and sat down on a chair at the table. "Trick's from the northern edge of the Haunted Woods, is an amateur fire mage, has next to no sense, and just doesn't know when to quit. Does that answer your question?"

      "Uh, yeah," the blue Kacheek replied.

      Lani looked Aidne straight in the eye. "Are you still glad you let me bring him?"

      Aidne couldn't really answer that.

     ***

      About an hour later Aidne, Lani, and Trick sat in the inn's lounge listening to Aurora's action plan. Aidne frowned to herself. It hadn't bothered her quite so much at first, but now the Zafara felt that she was being pushed to the side a lot. She wasn't used to having anyone boss her around; when it was just her and Lani, no one led and no one followed. They just had different jobs. On a regular treasure hunting trip, Aidne cracked codes, explored, evaded traps, and dug up buried treasure. Lani analyzed geography, sketched, and kept track of their adventures in her notebooks. Basically, they each did what they were good at.

      Aidne didn't like following anyone's orders but her own.

      And now she had to sit through an entire boring meeting where she didn't even understand what the presenter was talking about.

      One small consolation was that everyone else looked at least as bored as she felt. Aidne's friend Khaj the fire Zafara was there now, and he looked far more interested in folding his napkin into an origami sculpture than participating in the meeting. Lani was tapping one hoof against the floor to the rhythm of some popular Meridellian flute music, and Trick was flicking bright orange flames from his fingertips. He grinned and winked when he saw the Zafara looking at him. Aidne smiled inwardly. Maybe it wasn't such a bad thing that Trick was here. If Aurora's 'adventure' was to consist of nothing but hours upon hours of planning, their little team could definitely use a bit of cheering up, and Aidne had a feeling that Trick would be only too happy to oblige. It would be awfully dull with a well-behaved Shoyru in tow.

      Just as these thoughts drifted across her mind, she felt her mind sink lazily into sleep. She was so tired she decided not to fight it, to just let it come. The moment her eyes closed she began to dream.

     ***

     Aidne's feet met warm, damp earth, and a now familiar scent of new growth and rotting plants reached her nose. Mystery Island again. More specifically, she was on the outskirts of Geraptiku, exactly where she had been before she awoke this morning, but with one difference. She was seeing the village as it would have looked hundreds of years ago. A few worn, exhausted-looking pets milled about listlessly, going about their everyday business without any enthusiasm. This could be nearing the decline of Geraptiku, Aidne thought. Maybe it was plague that finished them all off; they sure look sick. I'm amazed they're still on their feet.

      Aidne heard someone sigh behind her. She spun quickly, ready to fight if they proved hostile, but she overbalanced and tripped on a stump, falling flat on her face. She froze with terror and sat as still as possible for many long moments, until a glance in the direction of where the sight came from proved that he had not heard her. Gaining confidence, she pulled herself up and walked over to where two pets were talking. One was an Island Yurble, bedecked in bright feathers and painted clay beads, and the other was a younger-looking Island Techo. They looked like they were having a heated discussion over something, and Aidne wanted to know what.

      "Look at our people," the Yurble sighed, anguish very much apparent in his voice. "Just two months ago they were so strong and proud, but now they just hang their heads and go about their tasks like they have no reason to live. Something is amiss."

      The Techo nodded. "The crops have failed us, many have taken ill, and little Kihalo went missing looking for herbs last week. She knew the forest better than anyone. Pango Pango must be punishing us."

      "That was a tragic time for us all. She was so young, but the others... I'm not certain."

      "What do you mean?"

      "The crops have failed because of the sand that hangs high in the air and blocks out the sun. It burns our lungs and dries the water from the wells. And we do not get sick... we just fall asleep and don't wake up. There is a curse on this land, I know this for I have sensed his presence time and time again these past few months."

      "His?"

      "Yes, his."

      The Techo was silent for a moment. "Strange omens indeed. For now we must pray to Jhuidah for guidance. We cannot do anything else for now."

      Aidne just had time to see the Yurble nod before she woke up to chaos.

     ***

      "Khaj!" Aurora cried as the room began refocusing itself in Aidne's eyes. "Get some water on that fire before the whole room goes up in flames!"

      Aidne blinked her eyes as they gradually adjusted to the light. Fire? What had gone on while she had been asleep?

      The team of explorers (and some panicked guests of the hotel) raced around the room in a frenzy. No one seemed sure of what exactly they were supposed to be doing, but all seemed to feel that they should at least do something. The blaze had already succeeded in consuming the linen cloth draped over the table, leaving behind a sad mass of ashes. With relish, Lani beat the flame, which had spread to a pile of ornate cushions. She paused only to shoot venomous glances at Trick before going back to the fire. The Shoyru pointedly ignored her. Aidne half-wondered if he hadn't set the fire on purpose.

      Khaj, probably the only one who was thinking clearly at the moment, leaped over a sofa and grabbed an earthenware jug from the paws of the same Aisha hotel worker that Aidne had seen and been freaked out by earlier. She scowled at him but made no move to take back the jug. The Fire Zafara raced back to the table and dumped its entire contents onto the table. Aidne breathed a sigh of relief to see that it was just water, not some rare and exotic beverage. The flames died down immediately, but everyone winced at the damage that had been done to the table and cushions, which were scattered like carnage across the floor.

      The Kougra hotel manager stormed into the lounge; he had undoubtedly either heard the commotion from the desk or had been tipped off by someone. Some people were just like that.

      "What in Coltzan's name is going on here?" he shouted, eying Aurora's party accusingly. His eyes bulged when he saw Trick. "Look what you've done to my hotel, y-you... you beast of dark places! You demon!"

      "I'll give you demon, creepy robot!" Trick snarled, displaying none of his usual cheeriness. A ball of flames formed in his right hand. "I'll fry you for that!"

      Aidne decided it was high time to intervene. She smoothly maneuvered herself between the hotel manger and the furious Shoyru and began to speak to them both in the most calming tones as she could muster.

      "Trick, you've caused enough damage already. Don't get yourself into any more trouble than you're already in." The fire in Trick's eyes didn't waver, though he did extinguish the ball of flames. In turn she spoke to the manager, "This is hardly a way you should treat any of your guests, never mind what they do-"

      "Aidne-"

      "Lani, I'm trying to solve a... disagreement here. Please do not interrupt. Anyways, we'll pay for the damage and you'll kindly restrain yourself fro-"

      "Aidne, you brainless idiot, look!" Lani yelled in exasperation.

      Aidne sighed and turned to see her Ixi friend pointing at the table that had been damaged the most by the flames, and her jaw dropped. Judging by the silence, the manager experienced the same reaction.

      That table and the cushions around it had been charbroiled; Aidne had seen it with her own eyes. The tablecloth had been reduced to cinders.

      Now, however, the furniture had inexplicably been returned to the exact state it had been in before its encounter with Trick McFinn's flame-flicking act. Even the tablecloth had been restored to gleaming whiteness, and it looked newly ironed.

      "But I just... just saw... it was burnt a moment ago!" the manager exclaimed, studying Aidne's features suspiciously. He spun to face Aurora.

      "Well, Miss Bluepaw, some desert spirit apparently likes you, which is more than could be said for me, but be warned: I'll not be so forgiving next time. Any more funny business, and I'll be sure that no hotel in the Lost Desert will ever accommodate you again. And as for you," he pointed his finger angrily at Trick, who stuck out his tongue in reply, "If I even see you using that accursed fire while you're here, things might get very, very messy." He made for the doorway, but Aidne intercepted him. She disliked the Kougra immensely, but was feeling oddly charitable.

      "We, um, put out the fire with a jug of water we grabbed from one of your employees," she confessed, reaching into her pocket for the few Neopoints she carried on her person at all times. The manager's face had a blank look to it. Odd. "She was an Aisha -- a Desert Aisha, and so I'd like to pay for-"

      "Keep your money," he said in a dismissive tone. "No Desert Aisha works here. No Desert Aisha guests are staying here either."

      Aidne was stunned. The incredibly beautiful flute player with the piercing, cold eyes had just been there. She'd sat by the fountain when Aidne first came to the Desert Sands, and had been serving water to the guests just then. She was in plain eyesight at that very moment.

      "There must be some mistake. She's right there-"

      A quick glance over her shoulder caused Aidne to blanch in shock.

      The Aisha was gone.

To be continued...

 
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» Whispers: Part One
» Whispers: Part Three



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