Flowlight: Moon - Eternal Stranger: Part Two
The Shoyru leapt into the air, but got himself tangled up in a tarpaulin. It was raining, he realised belatedly, before falling to the ground with a crash of overbalancing poles. When he untangled himself, he found the ghost, a white Xweetok with eyes as black as obsidian – but kinder – looking down at him and covering him with her umbrella. She had none of the gruesome disfiguring traits that marked a ghost; on the contrary, she was extremely beautiful. He couldn't see through her, either – it seemed that around her, it was the menacing, jagged shapes of the trees that were not real, but a sort of bad dream...
Ghosts did this, too.
“Stay away from me!” he yelled, backing away.
“You think I'm a ghost?” The Xweetok's voice was soft, musical, and not unfriendly. “That's rather rude of you, isn't it?”
“Nothing harmless lives within a hundred kilometres of here,” he shot back, his voice shaking.
“I never said I was harmless. But if I meant harm to you specifically, there are about a hundred quick and easy ways I could have killed or enchanted you in your sleep. You could have been calling me 'Mother' by now.”
“Are you a witch?”
“Magician in general. I don't use alchemy that much, so I don't suppose I qualify.” She extended a hand, making him look rather silly cowering behind a tree trunk. “You may call me Solana.”
Another rule was never to give out one's real name. City dwellers thought this meant: Never give out your name because then people can find out where you live and pretend they know you. But names – the real names that pets of the city never find out, let alone speak aloud – have power, and if you know a thing's name, with the right methods it's easy to find out all of its secrets. You can control it. The same goes for people. All Haunted Woods families choose a second name for their children at birth, a safety name; sometimes more than one. 'Solana' was one of these, the Shoyru could tell, with the talent of anyone who has heard both kinds.
So this Xweetok had a name. He relaxed enough to take her hand. “Alexander Miller,” he said. Not his true name either, of course. You never, ever say that aloud if you can help it.
But the name that she spoke was not a safety name. It sent chills down his spine and a hot tingling over his skin. “It's a beautiful name,” she said, smiling. “You are talented.”
He pulled back as if he had been bitten by a Cobrall. “Wha- What did you do? You knew-”
“That's an enchanter's trick,” the Xweetok said soothingly. “The subject must be in contact with the caster, and the two must each give names of their making. But it's a mutual exchange, so now you know my name as well.”
Alexander did. There was something compelling about her voice, and he found himself trying to call the strange word to mind, but he couldn't hold it in his head properly. There was a great darkness there, the abrasive smell of ozone and the whistling of a gale, and then it slipped away.
“The spell is not something the ones who have lost their names can use,” the Xweetok continued. “Thus, I am not a ghost. I wouldn't have had to go to such lengths if you hadn't forgotten so quickly.”
Alex frowned. “I never knew you.”
“Of course you wouldn't. But I was referring to Neopia in general. The last time I came here nobody knew me either. They settled on a new name, the Walker.”
“That's an old story!” The rain had abated, and the Shoyru realised to some mild shock that he had stopped paying attention to his more-than-potentially dangerous surroundings.
“See? You have forgotten. I halted the Wraith uprising. I created the compromise that allowed people to live here in peace and relative safety. What do they tell you?”
“Isn't it the faelanterns that keep them out?”
The Xweetok shook her head, flicking off a few raindrops. “Whoever heard of faeriefires acting as barriers? They're guiding lights and border markers, nothing more. And speaking of lights, you had better show me the way out of here before daybreak, that is, if you don't want to be trapped here for all of time and become a ghost yourself.”
Not entirely understanding something makes believing it much easier, and this trait of the sentient mind enabled Alex to put aside the fact that Solana was asking him to believe what he had thought to be creative lies over what he had learned in school.
“This way,” he said, setting off.
He noted the way the Xweetok bore herself – one of the things that tells you the most about a person. Not the fluid motion of a predator and warrior, nor the regal steps of a queen, and certainly not the clumsy stomps of someone unpractised at moving through the woods. She didn't hover above the ground like some magicians he had seen, afraid of getting their shoes dirty. But she had an easy stride which suggested she had longer legs than anyone else – particularly true in the young Shoyru's case – or that she wore seven-league boots on low power. She was graceful, even on two legs – many quadrupeds noticeably prefer all fours – and more importantly, she was the first person who had ever managed to walk through the trees of the Woods barefoot, at least for more than two seconds without screaming.
Finally, not without a little relief, they broke through the treeline, the last wall of thorny branches and humped, deformed roots that tried in vain to trip Solana, though Alex's clothes were torn and ragged.
“Interesting,” noted the Xweetok. “You haven't visited that part of the woods before, have you?”
“How did you know the way back?”
“By the... the...” Alex blinked in confusion. “The... smell?”
“We were more than twenty kilometres out. That's some nose you've got.”
If the Shoyru had looked down, he would have seen his hands fading from a golden glow.
His house was a chronically brightly painted one. Most of the houses were in gaudy colours, in fact, defiant of the gloomy surroundings, but their paint was faded and flaking, while this one's was fresh. Some parts were still wet. The owners were making an effort. The toxic-substance-yellow gate squeaked as Solana pushed it open. Alex ran past her and knocked on the door. It was opened by a timid-looking female Tonu with skin of an unfortunate shade of yellow similar to that of the gate.
Alex seemed to have perked up, but there was a slight brittleness to it. Solana, who was practised in reading people, recognised disappointment.
The Tonu, obviously Mrs. Miller, gasped. “You're back!” For a moment Solana thought she was shocked, but her expression resolved itself into one of delight. “My darling son!” she cried, and hugged Alex, who all but disappeared into the expansive folds of her dress. After a few minutes in which Solana, who had quite sharp hearing, failed to detect his breathing, Alex's tentative and rather hoarse voice emerged. “Mother, we have a guest. She's a friend of mine.”
“Oh, of course.” She reluctantly released him. He had gone a peculiar shade of blue-green. “Do come in. I'll fix up something hot.”
“There's no need for that,” Solana replied, stepping inside. “I won't intrude long. I found your son in an infrequently travelled part of the woods. I believe he had an unfortunate run-in with a dark faerie I know of, but he'll be alright.”
Mrs. Miller was not stupid, but there was iron over the door and Babaa's blood smeared on the frame, and neither seemed to have bothered her, nor the strong scent of onion. And she had passed the faelanterns, something that sentient ghosts never did, because the treaty of old decreed it, though Mrs. Miller didn't know that. So, rather than interrogating her, she settled for, “Who are you, anyway?”
“You may call me Solana. As for my business, which is what you no doubt want to find out, I would normally say it would be better for you not to know. But in this case, you would be better served knowing that there is some truth in the legend of the Walker.”
The Tonu snorted. “I knew that. It always struck me as the wrong sort for a fairy tale. What I want to know is how much of it is true, and if you're standing here not having aged or died then a good part of it isn't.”
Around this point, Alex fainted. Solana caught him and brought him inside as the Tonu shut the door. “Just put him on the sofa, the little Kadoatie,” she said.
Once she had laid him down and ascertained he was breathing easily, Solana examined the house's small interior.
They really, really had gone overboard with the cheery look. Someone had, at least. The ceiling was surgical appliance pink, the walls were mental asylum white, and the floor was vomit green, upon which the furniture, quite cleverly shaped like various interesting foods, rested.
So morbidly fascinating were her surroundings that she only noticed the second time the voice called her. She turned to see a short Electric Kougra, who had been hiding behind a newspaper on a lounging chair. “Hi!” he said. “Sorry I didn't greet you earlier! I'm James Miller! Nice to meet you!!” He was vibrating with so much energy that Solana did not doubt he was the architect of the whole horrific design.
“Hello,” she said neutrally, managing not to lean away, as most pets would do for fear of being deafened.
“Do you like the paint job?! It's my best work!!” James continued, his words jarring Solana's eardrum with their speed and ferocity, and her brain with their content. Only Solana's well-enforced instincts of courtesy kept her from grabbing him by the scruff of his neck and shaking him while yelling that white did not go with bright colours, pink did not go with yellow unless you wanted something to look like a boiled sweet, and that shade of green should not even exist. Admittedly a bit overboard, but everyone has thoughts like that more than once in a while; courtesy governs more of our behaviour than we realise. And then again, most people wouldn't be so quick to judge after, say, having slept the night in a house where if you woke up facing upwards, your first thought would be that you were halfway through having your kidney removed; if sideways, that you had been declared insane; or if staring at the floor, that you had broken the world record for greatest amount chucked up in one's sleep.
All this flashed through the Xweetok's head in less time than it took her to say, “It's not a very common design” in diplomatic tones, before excusing herself to tend to the awakening Alex.
To be continued...