Ghostfighters: Part Six
A rustle in the undergrowth made Kiyoshi turn away from the river, which had turned blue and gold in the dappled light of the setting sun. He squinted into the woods. Somehow, he thought it likely that he was about to be attacked by a Werelupe or the Swamp Ghoul, but he felt no fear, only an unfamiliarly dull sense of indifference. Nothing would amaze him right now.
Instead, he was indeed surprised to behold a glimpse of lilac and orange through the branches, and seconds later he was staring up at a somewhat tense-looking Tyra. She quietly approached and lowered herself onto the riverbank a short distance from him.
“Hi,” she said after a moment.
“Yeah,” he replied, and, for lack of anything better to say, added, “You alright?”
“Mm,” she murmured, looking at the opposite bank. “Chalin gave me a potion when I woke up, and now I feel good as new.” She chuckled without meeting his eyes. “Like none of this ever happened.”
Another silence ensued, filled only by small splashes as the Aisha flicked pebbles into the river.
“I’m sorry I tackled you,” Kiyoshi said finally, and he meant it.
Tyra gave a small smile. “I’m sorry I tried to kill you,” she said. Then she frowned. “Listen, Kiyoshi --”
“No, it’s not okay. I’m not okay. None of this is. I keep wanting to just go sit in the tent, get someone to watch over me so I don’t go berserk and start trying to kill everyone again. I shouldn’t be allowed to be by myself.” She looked away quickly, but not before he caught a glimpse of unnaturally shiny eyes. “I’m dangerous.”
“Tyra,” Kiyoshi said softly. He felt strange attempting to comfort her -- her, Tyra Magena; she’d never needed anyone’s help or anyone’s comfort. Yet she’d been in tears twice that day... there was almost something indecent about watching, but he continued to speak anyway. “If you shouldn’t be allowed to be alone, what about me? I mean, I’m the one who keeps going comatose all over the place.”
Tyra coughed to clear her throat. “That’s true,” she whispered gratefully. Kiyoshi placed a friendly hand on her shoulder. “If you think about it, everyone’s dangerous in a way,” he commented hesitantly. “Everyone’s got a dark side, and everyone’s got the power to hurt. It’s the easiest thing we can do. But we’ve also got the power to heal, and that’s why the decent pets are the strongest ones.”
Tyra glanced up at him, amusement written on her features. “That doesn’t sound like you. Where’d that come from?”
“Dunno.” Kiyoshi looked away, embarrassed. “I just thought of it.”
“I like it.” She looked across the river. “You were linked to her at some point too, right?”
The question startled him, but he quickly reminded himself that Tyra’s experience with Tarandya had probably left her with a wealth of knowledge, including various tidbits about Kiyoshi’s use of the stone. He nodded. “All I had to do was look through the stone at the river, and I seemed to get some of her powers.” Weird powers. He didn’t want to go into depth about it, especially about Chessori’s little misadventure.
“At the river,” Tyra mused to herself. She stared hard at the running water before her. “Lapis lazuli...”
Lapis lazuli? Kiyoshi cast his gaze over the water. Indeed, the water had turned a rather magnificent shade of deep blue in the twilight sun, but what was she on about?
Before the Shoyru could even do so much as open his mouth to question her, Tyra twisted around to face him. Her gaze was uncomfortably penetrating. “Your eyes,” she said curiously, as Kiyoshi regarded her with a perplexed look. “Lapis lazuli is the word. For your eyes. The river. Lapis lazuli.”
“They’re the same colour,” she tried to explain. “Lapis lazuli. It means something.”
Kiyoshi suspected she already had an idea of what it meant. “What are you thinking?”
“It’s... well... I’m not sure.” She paused, then her brow, furrowed in thought, relaxed. She looked at Kiyoshi, her gaze riddled with disorientation. “What were we talking about?”
“I... I don’t remember.” She stared at the air in front of her. “I lost it. Again. Chalin was right.”
“What?” Kiyoshi repeated.
Tyra shrugged. “Apparently, as long as Tarandya still runs amok, I’ll still be catching the tail ends of random thoughts and memories of hers, before forgetting it all the next moment.”
Kiyoshi’s blood ran cold. “She’s not gone?”
Tyra looked at him strangely. “A simple light charm can’t destroy a fully-trained mage, especially one as powerful as our ghosty friend. Any random wizard, merchant or even soldier in Meridell could tell you that.”
“I’m not a wizard,” Kiyoshi mumbled. And I’m certainly not a soldier, he added silently.
Tyra caught the expression on his face and was about to say something, no doubt laced with the old Tyra’s bold straightforwardness, when another swish of foliage in the surrounding bush interrupted her.
“Oh,” Jeri said upon appearance, his face the very picture of remorse. He lowered himself heavily onto the grassy bank. “You weren’t fishing, were you? Did I scare all the fish away, then?”
“Come on, Jeri.” Tyra nudged him cheekily. “What do you know about fishing? You barely managed to get your Level Nine.”
“I don’t recall you faring any better,” the Bori retorted, a grin on his face. “Who comes up with these ideas, giving you levels for your fishing skill...”
“Probably some portly old Mynci executive in a Neopia Central skyrise who’s never set foot outside his office,” Kiyoshi replied in a chipper tone, and for a moment, he was back in Neopia Central, laughing and joking with his friends, not a single misplaced worry on his shoulders. He could have entirely forgotten the more serious matters at hand, had Tyra not cleared her throat to restore the sober atmosphere.
“So what’s up, Jeri? Why the sudden arrival?”
“Can’t a Bori check up on his best mates in the whole world every now and again?” Jeri said indignantly.
“Jeri...” Kiyoshi muttered quietly.
“Alright, Alesandran asked me to bring you lot back to camp. He figures he’d like to give you some more background info on this Tarandya character before we go in. Him and Chalin, that is.”
“What else can he possibly have to tell us?” said Kiyoshi disbelievingly. At the looks of shock he was receiving from his friends, he continued, “Look at it. They’ve loaded us full to the brim with details of their own purpose, of Tarandya’s power and wickedness, of her evil little artifacts. But it’s all been in riddles. Skirting around our questions. Either Chalin doesn’t know the answers to them, or she’d rather not tell.”
“She’s only trying to help, Kiyoshi!” exclaimed Tyra, incredulous. “Her, Alesandran, Chessori, maybe it’s all they can give us! We should be grateful they’ve told us what they have. If it were any other mission, we’d be on our own, and probably dead by now.”
Kiyoshi didn’t answer. He was fuming -- anger not directed at Tyra, but rather at himself. He wasn’t sure what to think, and he didn’t want to do anything until he knew it was the right thing. Right now, he knew that he would waste no time trying to bring the Korbat down if he were presented with the chance. She was ruthless and selfish; she had hurt countless pets. That much was certain. But, if by some miracle she were to suddenly appear out of thin air, ready to fight, would he be able to justify attacking her? Or would it be his own sense of revenge spurring him on?
“But how can we just attack her?” Kiyoshi mumbled. “We don’t know what she’s capable of.”
“She would have killed me,” Tyra said simply. “And it was only a matter of time before she found me not quite up to her standards. She would have killed you too, and all of us. There’s no room for remorse in her mind; I know it.”
Jeri spoke up. “I don’t know about you, mate, but I find that a pretty compelling motive,” he said softly.
It was like a wildfire being extinguished by a sudden deluge. Kiyoshi blinked once, and got to his feet. He noticed vaguely that his two friends had already done the same. Any doubts surrounding his own intents had vanished at the Bori’s words. Someone had to stop Tarandya before it was too late, and that was all there was to it. Now, in the fire’s place, lay only the fresh sprouts of a plan. A plan that started with Tyra.
“Tyra,” Kiyoshi said, and not pausing long enough to let her answer, he stated, “Lapis lazuli.”
At once, a glazed look came over the Aisha’s face. “Lapis lazuli,” she breathed, and suddenly her expression cleared. “I remember now,” she said calmly, although a slight tremor in her voice betrayed her excitement. “Lapis lazuli is a colour. The most obvious thing I know that has this colour is Kiyoshi’s eyes,” she said, with a quick glance at the Shoyru. “Today, I learned more about Tarandya.” This time she did not falter. “Those red eyes aren’t her own. It wasn’t uncommon, back in the days of the Kauvara Syndicate.”
“The wha’?” Jeri asked.
“The Kauvara Syndicate,” Tyra explained, unconsciously rubbing her forehead. “Many years ago, some of the best mages in Neopia banded together and formed the Kauvara Syndicate. Kauvara herself had nothing to do with it, of course, but it was through their meeting that they strived to refine everything the world knew about magic. It lasted for several years, and many people joined them. Together they discovered many new levels of magical abilities. The red eyes were noticed whenever someone was in the act of using particularly advanced magic, and it became a signature of the whole Kauvara Syndicate. Tarandya was part of that. She was dismissed after three years of membership because of her blatant disregard for the Syndicate’s Code of Honour.”
I wonder how that happened, Kiyoshi thought ruefully.
“She may have lost her place in the Syndicate, but by then she had already learned all she needed to know. We’ve seen her red eyes on more than one occasion...” She paused, and Kiyoshi nodded, encouraging her on. “When she’s not using her most advanced magic, her eyes too are, well, lapis lazuli.”
Kiyoshi couldn’t explain it, but his heart suddenly seemed to plummet a few inches. It was too ominous. Too terrible for words. Tyra didn’t seem to register his concern, for she continued.
“A few minutes ago, I was looking at the river. It’s still the same. The Travellers knew what they were doing when they set camp here. This is where all of her conquests have originated from. The river is how we’ll find Tarandya.”
“...Why are our eyes the same colour?” Kiyoshi demanded.
Tyra looked exasperated. “Kiyoshi, it doesn’t matter why. Yes, it’s a fairly unusual shade of blue, even for a blue pet, but that doesn’t mean you’re the only one in the world who has it. It doesn’t mean she’s your long-lost twin or something. Can you please get back into the picture here? The river?”
“Right,” he muttered, but his mind still lingered on an image of Tarandya sneering at him, blue eyes stabbing right through him.
“The river will lead us to her, because it’s an old mage trick,” Tyra continued. “A security fence of sorts. At a certain time of day, the river will be the same colour as her eyes, and her eyes alone.”
“But actually Kiyoshi’s as well, right?” Jeri asked, running a huge Bori paw through his hair.
“Right,” the Aisha confirmed. “Only someone who shares this trait with Tarandya can get past the mage shield around her... home,” Tyra finished uncertainly, as if she couldn’t find a better word. “Tarandya probably assumed that no one but her would be able to get through. It is sort of odd... vivid blue eyes like that usually symbolize some sort of magical reservoir inside a pet...” she trailed off, before looking up sharply at Kiyoshi. “You’re never practised magic before, have you?”
“No,” Kiyoshi replied, relieved that Tyra at least wouldn’t be expecting him to suddenly solve all their problems with a burst of ancient magic.
“That is odd...” she murmured. She shook herself. “But that’s what it is. You two miraculously share this trait. And since wherever Tarandya happens to be hiding -- which has got to be around this river somewhere -- will probably only be accessible by using that trait; you hold the key,” she said excitedly. Kiyoshi suddenly realized that his mouth was very dry. “The only problem is, it’s a river,” Tyra continued. “It’s long. Whatever we’re trying to find, we’ll find it along the river. I just know it. But I’m not sure where we should start.”
“I guess there’s only one way to find out,” the Shoyru said. He had been fiddling with the Korbat’s stone tablet, and now he flicked it up into the air and caught it. He felt a little bit more like the old Kiyoshi everyone seemed to be lamenting about -- confident and spontaneous. And he began to feel the prickle of a hunch that he knew where he might find something.
“Tyra, you go farther downstream, past the Travellers’ camp. Jeri, go with her, but stay and look around the river where it flows closest to camp. I’ll try further up the river.” He looked around, and Tyra nodded.
“One question, Tyra,” Jeri commented. “How in flippin’ Neopia’d you figure all this out?”
The Aisha shot him a roguish grin and started off towards her length of river.
The Bori stared after her. “I think our friend Tarandya may have underestimated a pretty pelt.”
As Kiyoshi reminded himself that Tyra’s mind had actually been linked to the Korbat’s thoughts, memories and ambitions for a good deal of time, he couldn’t help but agree with Jeri’s suspicions. He smiled to himself.
The willow tree’s trailing branches, caught in the hint of a breeze, caused ripples to appear in the river as they parted the smooth water. When Kiyoshi was close enough to tell, he realized that this was, without a doubt, the bend in the river where he had first learned how to use the stone tablet’s magic. It seemed to be a good place to work with Tarandya’s form of magic.
The river. Whatever we’re trying to find, we’ll find it here. Those had been Tyra’s words. But where should he start his search...?
Kiyoshi looked away from the river, to the woods behind him. There was nothing significant whatsoever about the trees growing there. They were all young, wild-looking things, hardly tall enough to provide any sort of cover for a shelter. Nothing looked odd about the carpet of undergrowth on the forest floor either.
He sighed. This was getting him nowhere. Tarandya’s hideout would not be in plain sight, which meant it could be anywhere.
Without thinking, his hand clenched around the stone in his pocket. There’s always this, he thought to himself. It was the only clue he had right now.
He was still trying to talk himself into using the stone’s uncontrollable magic again when he happened to glance across the river. Of course, the willow tree on the other bank! What else along this stretch of river gave more of a mystical impression than the sighing leaves of this old tree?
But Kiyoshi’s excitement soon gave way to dismay as he stared at the stretch of river before him. Shoyrus were not built for swimming. They were light and did not possess the right muscles for movement in water. The thin membrane of their wings soaked up water like a sponge, and after a while, the sodden wings became so heavy they would interfere with staying afloat. But he needed to cross that river. It was times like this that made him regret not ever learning how to fly decently.
Looking overhead, Kiyoshi was both relieved and intimidated to find that the ancient willow on the opposite bank had several thick branches tangled in a gnarled crisscross spreading almost all the way across the river. There was his way across -- but he wasn’t going to like it.
The closest branch was only slightly above his head, but it was several feet away from him. In order to even think of reaching it, he would have to use a bit of whatever wing power he could summon. The Shoyru made sure that the stone was safely nestled in his pocket, then took a run at the river before he could talk himself out of it. He leapt at the branch at the same time as beating his wings a few times. He was sure he had missed, but at the last moment, his hands closed on the rough bark of the branch.
Kiyoshi recoiled as the limb sagged menacingly, dipping his toes into the water below. The running water was ice cold, and its chill seeped through his veins and prickled at his skin. Kiyoshi shook his feet uncomfortably, trying to keep them out of the water. From above, the river looked unthinkably deep, its dark blue hue darkening to black in the center. He would need to hurry if Tyra was right and Tarandya’s refuge would only be accessible while the water remained that colour. Besides, the less time he spent over the unforgiving water of the river, the better. Kiyoshi adjusted his grip on the bark and shifted onto the next, a branch that looked sturdier than his current hold.
When the Shoyru finally dropped down on the other side, the sun had moved even lower in the sky. The river would not be lapis lazuli for much longer. He wasted no time in rushing over to the mysterious willow.
It was certainly an ancient tree. Its trunk was split from carrying the weight of countless branches, and thick moss coated much of its bark. He wondered if there was anything hidden up in the leaf-obscured heights. There were many footholds; he wouldn’t have any trouble climbing it.
No sooner had Kiyoshi placed his hand on the trunk than he jerked it away in pain and shock. “Ow,” he mumbled, staring in alarm. The bark of the tree was hot enough to burn! Glaring at the aged willow, he half-expected it to burst into flames.
“Jeri! Tyra!” he called, as loudly as he could. “I think you should see this!”
He gazed at the spot on his palm where the bark had scalded him. Even the trees are on her side, he mused wryly.
It was then that he noticed the water. Kiyoshi approached hesitantly. While the rest of the river flowed by smoothly on its way, a pool of dark water in the shadow of the willow tree seemed to be wrinkled in a tiny whirlpool. The liquid here was black, a darker colour than Kiyoshi could ever remember seeing. It was like gazing at a warped patch of space, devoid of any stars. As the overhanging tree’s leaves strayed through the pool, they seemed to be pulled down into its depths for a moment before trailing away from it again.
“Jeri, Tyra!” he yelled again, a little more anxiously. There was something very strange about this place, and Kiyoshi knew they were about to come face-to-face with the worst of it. What was taking them so long?
‘Kiyoshi...’ a voice whispered, caught in the breeze. The Shoyru’s wings twitched uneasily. ‘Why don’t we end this? Surely you can find your way by yourself...’
There was only one thing left. No time for thought. Kiyoshi prepared himself for what was about to come, and sprang.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Tyra and Jeri emerge from the undergrowth on the opposite bank, before the river engulfed him completely.
To be continued...