Beneath the City
It was nearly midnight in Neopia Central, and it was pouring. The thick raindrops pattered heavily against the cobblestone road, causing an uprising mist that made it nearly impossible to see. The streets were silent and empty, aside from the sound of the violent wind and splashing drops.
All the shops were closed for the night, and it appeared not a single Neopian was out in the late night storm. That is, aside from a solitary cloaked figure that slowly made its way down the empty road. The neopet walked upright, the dark grey cloak hiding her thin Xweetok frame. She blended in quite well with the scenery, and if an eye were to spot her, she would appear large and threatening with her bulky cloak and scowling blue eyes lurking beneath the dark hood.
In reality, however, the cloak was simply too large for her, and beneath it her tiny body was shivering and she had to force herself not to cover her face to shield herself from the ice cold rain. The Xweetok wanted nothing more than to find some sort of shelter.
She preferred to travel at night; as she was uncomfortable while surrounded by the large colorful crowd of Neopians that populated the city in the daytime. The rain had come out of nowhere, and if she had known about it, she would have waited for it to stop before continuing her journey.
She sneezed, sputtering rain water, and trudged on, desperately trying to spot some shelter from the storm. Normally she would have enjoyed the weather, and would have liked to watch the rain fall from the inside of a warm neohome; but travelling outside with nothing but a bulky cloak and the thin dress she wore underneath was not something she enjoyed.
The Xweetok silently cursed her nature; if she weren't so uncomfortable around others, then she wouldn't have this problem. The dark creature did not like being around large numbers of pets, and shied away from them as much as possible. She did not enjoy daylight in general, preferring the tranquility of the nighttime. The simple darkened sky and quiet air brought the girl feelings of serenity, and she spent most of her waking hours during the night and slept most of the day.
But now she found herself desperately wishing for warmth. Although a simple log fire would be preferred, she decided even sunlight would be better than this weather.
If only she weren't so different. She had a deep love for all things dark and strange, making her somewhat of an outcast from those around her. While she did not truly wish to change, she did, at times, wish to be more accepted amongst her family and neighbors.
Finally, after what had felt like hours in the storm, she spotted through the mist what appeared to be a large cave on the outskirts of the city, and she scurried into it. Once inside, the shadow Xweetok pulled her hood down and shook herself off. She let out a sigh, and shivered. It was still cold, of course, but at least it was dry.
She closed her eyes. Normally she would have felt at ease, but now all she felt was afraid. It wasn't a common emotion for her, but she couldn't shove it away. It was wet and cold, impossible to see, and she was alone. She had no idea how long the rain would last. Should she allow herself to sleep? She didn't have any food, what if she couldn't leave in the morning to find some? She should have never left home.
Home; the word lingered in her mind. Terror Mountain, miles away, at the top of the world; her family was probably sound asleep in the warm, safe neohome that rested just outside Happy Valley. It had only been a few weeks since she'd left, but it had felt like so much longer...
Her ears perked up at the sound of quiet footsteps, and she whipped around, frightened.
"Is someone there?" her voice called out to the darkness of the cave.
At first, there was no answer, and she was about to call out again when a low, masculine voice jumped out of the dark.
"What's a young girl like you doing out in this storm?" He didn't sound threatening, but she back away instinctively.
"Who are you?" she asked.
Her eyes searched for the person the voice belonged to, and her heart leapt as she spotted a shadow-like creature move in front of the cave entrance, allowing her to see him fully. She didn't let her fear show; though she had a feeling he'd sensed it. He appeared to be a Zafara, with empty pink glowing eyes. The rest of his form was a mix of swirling black, purple and pink that danced like fog.
"Around here, I go by Toro. And who might you be?" he asked.
"Marallai," she said quietly.
"Hm, quite a nice name, it suits you. Unique, interesting, mysterious," he replied with a wide, pink grin.
Marallai was silent again, fear turning to insecurity. She was never good at responding to compliments; and certainly not complex, poetic words from enticing wraiths.
"Well, thank you, I suppose..." she stumbled, fumbling with her paws awkwardly.
"You're not from around here, are you?" he asked.
She shook her head, not wanting to speak anymore. She knew she sounded awkward; she never was good at talking to strangers. And on top of it, she didn't like the way the cave's walls echoed her voice, it emphasized it so much. She'd always thought it sounded too feminine and strong for her personality, and she that felt it too easily grabbed the attention of others.
"Did you run away from home?" he asked, seriously this time.
Looking up at him, she shook her head.
"N-no, I just... needed to get away for a while," she admitted.
"So, more like a vacation, then?" he guessed.
She smiled slightly, despite her attempts not to.
"Well, maybe you could call it that; but it's... just complicated," she replied.
Although Marallai rarely opened up to anyone, she found herself willing to be honest with this strange Zafara. She was starting to feel relaxed with him here.
"As you can probably tell, I'm... kind of quiet and withdrawn. I'm different, especially back at home, Terror Mountain. I'm going to the Haunted Woods. One of my sisters made a comment to me a few weeks back, and I decided that maybe I could find a place where I fit in more, and make a life there. My family knows that I'm here, though, and they supported my decision." she explained.
It was only partially true. They knew where she was going, however none of them had by any means wanted to see her leave. She had promised to write, but it had already been quite a while since she'd left and she was still so far from her destination...
"I see; tell me: why do you feel you will fit in better in the Haunted Woods?" he asked.
"Well, the pets there are darker, I would assume, and since I'm... well, dark and creepy, I figured they would accept me more." She shrugged, then added: "I mean, I don't really care what others think of me, that is, but I guess it can be lonely when you don't fit in anywhere."
It felt strange for her to reveal so much of herself to someone. But Toro's calm, quiet voice somehow helped ease her insecurities.
He nodded understandingly.
"You left home in attempt to find a place to belong," he stated, and she could only nod in response.
The Zafara smiled gently, though his color caused it to appear more menacing than intended.
"I understand that feeling," he added solemnly.
Marallai shrugged insecurely, wondering where this conversation was leading to. Why did he find her so fascinating? What did he care for her problems?
"People are judgmental. They're afraid of that which is different from them. Pets like us. I've dealt with this, too, believe it or not. My color invokes fear. I simply enjoy the way the wraith color looks on me; it's the only color I enjoyed seeing in the mirror. Others think it means I'm weird or creepy."
Marallai nodded again, and formed another small smile.
"That's exactly how I always feel... nobody understands me. They judge me because of my clothes, my makeup, my hair..." She motioned to her shoulder-length black hair, streaked with purple and blue highlights.
At this, Toro took in everything about the young Xweetok that made her an outcast; that made her different. From the several studs that lined her ears, to the skull necklace that dangled from her neck, to the lacy violet dress beneath her large cloak, and he grinned.
"You mean the things that express who you are?"
"Well, yes... They also, unfortunately, make me an outcast. The only one on Terror Mountain." She sighed.
"I'm really hoping it's easier to live in the Haunted Woods. I don't want all of this to have been for nothing," she added.
"What makes you so sure the Haunted Woods will have more pets like you? Just because it's, you know, haunted, that doesn't mean its citizens are much different."
Marallai turned and stared out at the violently pouring rain.
"I don't know, I suppose I can only hope. It seemed like the best place to go. I needed to leave my family for a while, though. I do love them, but I just don't fit in anymore. It's too hard being there."
They were both silent for a moment, until Toro finally spoke again.
"You're not alone," he said.
She looked back at him, but he was watching the rain.
"I- I know that... I know my family will always be there for me, even though-" He cut her off.
"No. I mean, you're not the only one in Neopia who feels like an outcast, like you're different and don't belong anywhere. There are hundreds, thousands, of others out there who have felt the same before. They are out there, feeling this way right now," he explained.
"Maybe," she said.
"It's true. I'm one of them, and there are more of us. Do you know where this cave leads to, Marallai?" Toro asked, turning to her.
She shook her head, and he smiled.
"Let me show you," he said, and stood.
Curious, Marallai stood as well, and followed the wraith Zafara deeper into the cave. At first she was nervous, until she spotted a dim light approaching, and she wondered how she never noticed it before.
They approached the light, which brought them to a set of stone stairs leading downwards. Marallai hesitated, but Toro motioned for her to follow, and she obeyed. When they reached the bottom, her eyes widened.
They had entered a large stone cavern, with torches lining the walls, and several stone structures crowding the area. What really caught her attention was the vast number of neopets that were simply sitting around, some talking, some reading or writing or drawing, all of them were simply doing whatever they wished; yet in the company of others just like them. Just like her.
"When the artists and writers of Neopia Central relocated to Roo Island, we took up the Deep Catacombs as a place for us to be ourselves, or do what pleases us, in the serene caves beneath the city, where nobody can judge us. No one comes down here much anymore, and we've made it our place to be together," he explained.
"Who are you? Some kind of guild, or faction?" she asked, astonished.
"We're simply Neopians who needed a place to belong. Pets that needed companions that accepted and admired them for who they were, just neopets; different, perhaps, or unusual, but we're all just people, really. Everyone comes and goes as they please, and you may do the same. You can stay here until the rain stops and continue your journey to the Haunted Woods, or you may stay here with us. Even if you don't enjoy the company of others, the Catacombs are quite large, and you can disappear if you so wish. But here, you're never truly alone. You're never judged. You have a place where you know you are not the only one."
When Toro finished speaking, he and Marallai walked around a bit, and she took it all in. All kinds of misfits took up the space of the large caverns. All kinds of pets, all ages, scattered throughout the Catacombs. Some smiled at her welcomingly, others ignored her, but nobody glared, nobody appeared to disapprove of her simply because of her attire.
"How do you decide who's allowed to stay?" she finally asked, looking up at Toro.
"Like I said, it's not a club or anything. It's like our own little sub-society here. As long as you feel like an outcast in any way, you will belong."
"Wow... Well, thank you, Toro, for bringing me here. This is like nothing I ever imagined. I... think I might stay here, for a little while, at least. Maybe I don't have to keep travelling."
"Whatever you want to do; we're always here, and most likely always will be. Before this place cleared out, none of this existed, but I doubt any of us will be willing to lose it any time soon." he replied.
"Toro, why didn't you bring me here right away?" she asked out of curiosity.
"I wanted to make sure you would want to come with me. If you didn't trust me, you probably wouldn't have followed. But now that we're friends, it's okay, right?" he asked.
Friends. The word echoed through her head, it was so unfamiliar to her, but it felt nice. She had a friend. She'd never had many, due to her lack of social skills or tendency to have difficulty finding things in common with others.
She smiled, a real, true smile; it was rare for her to smile so broadly, but it didn't bother her. She had a friend, and perhaps she could make more. Even if she kept to herself while she wrote her poetry or stories, maybe she would find someone who would read her writing, or talk with her about others things she enjoyed. She didn't have to worry about being different here.
All the feelings that were settling inside her were unfamiliar and almost felt unnatural, but she didn't force them to fade. Perhaps her journey hadn't been in vain; perhaps this choice truly had been right for her.
Marallai and Toro sat down around a fire with only a few others; a small enough crowd as to not make Marallai uncomfortable. Grateful, the Xweetok warmed her paws, taking off her still soaking wet cloak.
"Who's this?" the pet beside her asked. She was a skunk Kyrii with vine-like purple streaks painted around her eyes and her mane dyed a dark red. Marallai immediately liked her.
"This is Marallai. I found her in the cave above, seeking shelter from the rain; and she also happened to be searching for a place to belong," Toro explained.
"Well, you came to the right place, Marallai," the Kyrii replied, shaking her paw.
I certainly did, the Xweetok thought as she turned back to the fire, watching the orange flames dance brilliantly in the darkness.