Ghostfighters: Part Two
“I think it’s time our ‘old farmer’ cleared things up,” Jeri said indignantly.
Alesandran looked up at Chessori, who was scowling and making a point of not meeting his eyes. He turned to Kiyoshi, Tyra and Jeri in resignation. “You’re right. Come with me.”
He led them to the largest tent at the back of the camp. Lifting its flap, he politely moved off to one side to let them through. Inside, Chalin the Uni’s eyes snapped open at their sudden entry. Calm and composed, she was kneeling on the ground, over which had been spread a purple carpet, embroidered in gold with suns, moons, birds, and too many other patterns to count. On top of this had been placed what looked like a small rock and a stick. Kiyoshi couldn’t decide what exactly was significant about these two objects.
They entered the dark shelter. “Sorry, Chalin, but, um, we have to talk...” mumbled Alesandran, his eyes darting around the odd furnishings of the tent, as if he wasn’t comfortable in their presence. “You know, to them.”
The white Uni looked at each of them in turn. “Oh,” she said, not seeming surprised in the slightest.
As if reading his mind, Alesandran murmured to Kiyoshi, “Chalin’s a seer. She can see glimpses of the future.”
Kiyoshi stared at the Uni as she lowered her gaze to gather up the objects on the carpet. So that was what it was. Why her eyes were like chips of ice and tongues of fire at the same time. Why when she looked at him, it was as if she were looking right through him, examining the contents of his very soul. There hadn’t been any pets in Neopia Central who possessed magical talent, but he had heard from many the traveller that something about the air in Meridell brought out the magic in some of its people.
Chalin set the branch and stone atop a wooden shelf beside her. “Please,” she said quietly. “Sit down.”
Kiyoshi, Tyra and Jeri, as well as the two Travellers, settled themselves uneasily on the carpet. It was a good thing the tent was so large, or they might not all have fit. Kiyoshi glanced around. Chalin’s tent seemed to double as the supply room, and several crates were stacked against one side, loaded with blankets, foods that Kiyoshi had never seen and certainly not eaten before, and other supplies one might need when living out in the Meridell forest alone. Kiyoshi noticed that several smooth wooden poles crisscrossed across the tent’s ceiling. From these were hung a variety of dried leaves, feathers and glass beads. A few scrolls as well as a dusty-looking book with tattered covers were piled in one corner.
“So,” said Chalin, staring fixedly at the carpet in front of her. “You know that it was we who summoned you, and that the farmer was actually Alesandran.”
“That about sums it up,” muttered Jeri.
“What we want to know,” Kiyoshi said firmly, “is why you lied in the first place.”
“Because you might understand that we’re not as eager to help you, now that we know you’ve already misled us once,” added Tyra.
The Zafara, Chessori, had sunk into a kind of moody withdrawal from the other pets who now sat in a semicircle, but now she spoke up. “Can you honestly say you would have come if you’d known you were about to help out a band of roaming warriors?” she demanded.
“Well --” Tyra began hesitantly.
Chessori grunted and rolled her eyes, satisfied.
“Wait,” said Kiyoshi. “What kind of warriors are we talking about here?”
Alesandran sighed. “You already know we are trained to carry our weapons. But we’re not exactly warriors. Don’t get me wrong; both Chessori and I have seen our fair share of battles, and Chalin... well, Chalin’s beyond even our league. But it’s not all we do with our lives -- I, for one, am a messenger for the nobles of Meridell.” He smiled slightly. “The best of the best.”
“What he means to say is,” Chalin continued in her soft voice, “we are not warriors, nor travellers, by choice, but rather by destiny. It’s our duty.”
“What is?” urged Kiyoshi.
This time all three Travellers exchanged glances. Finally Alesandran shook his head slowly. “It’s a long story,” he said, “but this time you’ll get nothing but the truth.”
There was no reply. They were all prepared to hear Alesandran’s story. With a shrug from Chessori and an affirming nod from Chalin, the Lupe started.
“When I was finishing off school in Crystal Valley a couple years ago, these rumours started flying around. They said something about a ghost -- yes, a ghost -- and the general idea was that this sort of shapeshifting ghost was pillaging the homes on the southern edge of Meridell, and that he was striving to recover an ancient weapon that could defeat him.
“Of course, if you’ve had any experience with garlic and JubJubs, you’ll know that anything can mutate at a hideous rate if you let it -- rumours included. That was exactly what happened to this rumour once I got hold of it. Being the knowledgeable adult Lupe I had become, I was set on disproving most things I didn’t understand. By the time I was done with it, I think the rumour got passed on to the next unfortunate pet as some kind of new game they were developing in Faerieland, but that’s beside the point.
“Anyway, the rumours stopped, but my imagination didn’t. With no one whispering about it all the time anymore, I had more time to start thinking about it myself. I thought more and more every day, until one day my curiosity took hold of me and steered me from my home up north all the way to the forests of Meridell.
“Strangely enough, I met very few others who shared my sudden interest. To my knowledge, it remains only the three of us,” he said, nodding towards Chessori and Chalin, “who believed that story.”
There was silence as he let this sink in. Then he continued, “The three of us banded together. We wanted to find this supposed weapon first, and rid Meridell of its ghost problem. I suppose some of it was a desire for the fame of heroism, and some of it was a sense of loyalty to Neopia. But whatever we were aiming for, we soon had our first taste of the ghost ourselves.
“At first, it was only small things that started disappearing -- a piece of fruit, a loaf of bread, a coin or two. But then someone started stealing our weapons, and we knew this was no starving pickpocket; someone was trying to weaken us. But the thief wasn’t perfect -- one night, when Chessori was extinguishing the fire, she caught a glimpse of him running -- no, floating -- into the forest.”
“We were dealing with the ghost,” concluded Chalin, “and we knew we had to find and protect this weapon.”
“So --” said Kiyoshi, struggling to understand. “You’ve sworn yourselves to protect this thing, and you don’t even know where it is?”
“Bonkers,” Jeri said from behind a cough.
“It’s quite small,” Alesandran tried to explain.
“It’s hard to find,” cut in Chessori.
“It’s --” Alesandran tilted his head. “Do you have any idea what it is?”
The Aisha, Bori and Shoyru all shook their heads blankly.
“But Kiyoshi does,” said Chalin suddenly, and everyone turned to her in surprise.
Kiyoshi stared. “I don’t know anything about a weapon.”
“You do,” Chalin stated simply. “In fact, it’s sitting in your backpack right now.”
Kiyoshi reached deep into his backpack and pulled it out.
Sure enough, there it was, small and odd-looking. He turned it over in his hands. The stone was kind of attractive, in a mysterious sort of way. The sandstone was worn and golden-coloured, the etchings deep and rough. It looked entirely harmless. Could this thing really be a weapon?
He jumped at a sudden noise behind him. Tyra had left the tent and was now striding over to where he was kneeling in the grass.
“What weapon?” she blurted the moment she was within yelling distance. “You’re carrying some kind of secret weapon and you didn’t even tell us?”
“I found it,” he explained. “When we were running from Alesandran last night.”
“You FOUND some kind of secret weapon and you didn’t even tell us?”
“I was going to; I just couldn’t at the time... I mean, I just... forgot,” he said as he realized that he had.
“How can you FORGET about a secret weapon?” came the shout of an angry Bori. Jeri was storming over to join Tyra in berating Kiyoshi.
“I don’t know, but I did!” Kiyoshi protested futilely.
“Kiyoshi, that’s not like you and you know it,” Tyra said concernedly, looking him straight in the eye. Suddenly, she drew back in shock.
“I just thought I... never mind,” she mumbled, looking away.
Jeri seized the Shoyru’s shoulders and looked at him seriously. “We’ve been friends a long time, mate. You can tell me the truth.” He glanced around, then whispered, “Were you going to pass it off as a Hieroglyph Fragment and sell it?”
“I FORGOT!” Kiyoshi yelled, yanking away from Jeri. “Why is this so hard to believe?” He turned and stormed off into the woods.
He had overreacted and he knew it; the words still burned in his mouth. But he had told them the truth, and they had refused to believe it. He couldn’t have done anything differently.
Kiyoshi paused when he realized he had reached the river. A willow tree hung over the quietly rolling water on the opposite bank, where the river bent away. He hesitated, then lowered himself onto lush green ferns amid the other grasses on its bank. In no time at all, the sight of the clear, sparkling water, lazily meandering along its deep-cut course, helped his anger ebb away until all that remained was a dull throb.
Soon, he felt a surge of regret. He closed his eyes. He had let his friends down badly. And over what? A hunk of rock with brag rights. He buried his head in his arms.
“They’re right, you know,” commented Chalin.
Kiyoshi looked up sharply. When had she gotten here?
“It isn’t like you. You’ve always shared everything with Jeri and Tyra.”
Normally, the Shoyru would have found it disturbing that a Uni he hadn’t even known two days ago had materialized in front of him and started telling him about his past, but in his current state, he felt he needed nothing more than to have his head examined.
“I don’t understand it,” Kiyoshi murmured in frustration. “I just... forgot.”
Chalin was silent beside him, gazing over the water. “That is one of its... side effects.”
“What do you mean?”
“Kiyoshi, how do you suppose a weapon like this should work?”
More curious than anything else, he imagined for a moment that it was the ancient weapon it was believed to be, and thought. He very much doubted that one simply picked it up and hurled it at their enemy.
“The ghost is magical, and so is the stone. I believe that he was once the wielder of the stone you now hold yourself.”
Kiyoshi realized that he was indeed still clutching the tablet, and he quickly placed it on the grass as if it were something repulsive. “But... if your powers let you see things no one else can, shouldn’t you know for sure?”
The Uni stared into the river. She shook her head slowly. “It is another of the stone’s abilities to block a seer’s interpretation. I cannot.”
Kiyoshi thought about this. “How would this ghost use it?”
“I cannot be sure,” she warned, “but I believe that this ghost had great magical powers -- so great that even his physical existence was not enough to contain them. He created a second memory, an archive for his diverse knowledge.”
“A backup,” Kiyoshi mused. He blinked and looked up at Chalin. “So basically, this guy stored all of his worldly wisdom in a rock, then -- lost it?”
“In essence, yes.”
“If he’s got so much magical knowledge, why can’t he remember where he left the other half of his existence?”
At length, Chalin replied, “A ghost is never perfect. He will always have a weakness. I think this ghost was greatly flawed when he filled this stone.”
“How?” he asked, intrigued.
“You’ll remember me saying that he made sure the stone would be impenetrable to a seer’s elucidation. What he forgot was that he himself relied on seers’ magic to control his powers.”
“So... he wouldn’t be able to find it.”
“Yes. There is another problem with his creation. Can you see it?”
This was over his head. “I don’t think --”
“No, Kiyoshi, think.”
Suddenly, it came to him. “If half his magic is in the stone --”
“Then he walks Neopia with only half of his potential power. Exactly. And that is why he wants it back.”
Kiyoshi could feel his wingtip give an involuntary shudder. “That doesn’t sound like it can bode well.”
Chalin said nothing, just kept her eyes on the river, as if it were the only thing in the world of any importance.
“But how do we know this ghost has to be defeated? How do we know he’s even bad?”
Chalin laughed softly, darkly. “I can guarantee you that he has more than lived up to that assumption.” She paused. “Perhaps there is something I have overlooked. I will have to investigate this more closely.”
Kiyoshi turned, intending to ask what exactly the ghost had done to ‘live up to that assumption’. But Chalin was gone.
The Shoyru stood, alone and dumbfounded, not knowing what to think. What had just happened? The Uni had been beside him just a few seconds ago... hadn’t she? Of course she had, he had seen her with his own two eyes. Now that he thought about it, it didn’t seem so odd for her to go around appearing and disappearing whenever she pleased, not if she was capable of the kinds of magic she seemed to have.
He decided he’d best run back to camp and see if she had somehow managed to pop up over there. He stood, and had almost left when he glimpsed the stone out of the corner of his eye, still lying on the riverbank. He stooped to pick it up.
If this is another one of your tricks, you’ll be sorry, he thought, and then smiled to himself for attempting to warn a rock.
Again, he let his hands run over the stone, its rough grain, its deep carvings. If what Chalin said was true, this ‘innocent’ little rock had a whole ton of dark magic stored in it. It probably wasn’t even the kind of thing he wanted to be holding.
He lowered the hand that held it, as if to place it in his pocket, but it never made it there. He brought it back up sharply. The carvings were curious indeed. The sort of wonky ‘K’ shape seemed to have been made so that all the gouges were of equal depth. But that dot in the center... he could see the river through it. It was a hole that went all the way through the center of the tablet.
His interest caught now, the Shoyru marvelled at the fact that this symbol might mean something after all. Maybe a way of accessing the magic inside it. Overcome by a reckless urge, Kiyoshi put his eye up against the hole and squinted at the river through it. Hello... he thought impulsively. All I see is a hole -- where’s this special magic I keep hearing --
He could think nothing more, for the world had fallen away from underneath him.
The sky was beneath him. It, the grass, the river -- all mingled together now, swirling nauseatingly, entwining him -- directions such as “up” or “down” no longer had any meaning. Trees leapt out at him from all angles; colours whipped across his face as he fell through chaos.
Desperately, Kiyoshi scrabbled in midair, trying frantically to catch hold of a vine, a branch, anything that could stop his mad plunge. But his hand swept right through anything he reached for. Nothing was real anymore.
His mind seemed to be useless; all that mattered was breaking the magically-enhanced fall. Against his will, he became aware of faces swimming across his vision. By some odd instinct, he was able to calm down enough to realize that he wasn’t truly falling, and started looking more closely at each face as it drifted past. Ghostly imprints of young and old pets alike -- pets of every species -- and yet none of these faces were even vaguely familiar to the Shoyru. Who was that ancient Kyrii? Or that grey Wocky in the silver gown? The images swam past, encircling him in a panoramic display of thought and light.
In some dark corner of his mind, it occurred to him that while he wasn’t really falling, he was being suspended in a sort of dream-state. A vortex. Nothing was real; nothing was truly happening. Maybe he wasn’t even here himself.
He felt himself shiver despite himself. How long was this going to last? His pulse quickened as he realized that he was trapped.
Just when he had decided he would be stuck there forever, it all stopped as suddenly as it had begun. With a gasping surge, every molecule in his body dissolved into water.
To be continued...