A Measure of Trust: Part Two
Meseni led him past the old house that everyone claimed was haunted (Maijitesa was more than a little skeptical) and Edna's Tower (they held their breath and ignored her raucous cackling). It was slow going, as the Ona's legs were much shorter than his, but finally they arrived at a copse of trees by the Gypsy camp.
Curious, Maijitesa looked around as Meseni led him down a narrow track deeper into the trees. He could smell the cookfires of the gypsy camp, and hear their music and conversation, but the trees screened the camp itself from view.
The first thing he saw was a crooked, rusted iron gate, hanging askew on its hinges. Beyond that was a yard so overgrown with weeds and stunted, twisted trees that he could barely see the rundown shack at the end of the path.
Meseni scrambled up Maijitesa's tail and onto his back. He gave the Uni a nudge. Go, he seemed to say. Still curious, Maijitesa started forward. He nudged the gate aside with one knee, wincing when it opened with a screech. He carefully picked his way up the path through the yard, mindful of the plants on either side---in the Haunted Woods, one should never underestimate the plant life; the most innocuous-looking leaf could shoot poison barbs into your skin.
He reached the shack and climbed the rotted steps to the front door. He flicked one ear back at Meseni. "Are you sure you want to be here?" he asked quietly. What could the Ona possibly have to show him at a dilapidated shack in the middle of the Woods? He wasn't even sure if it was inhabited.
Meseni sniffed. He made a raspy little scolding chirp, and nudged Maijitesa again.
"Okay, okay." He considered the door for a moment, wondering how best to alert whoever was inside to his presence. He thought he saw the dirty, tattered curtains hanging in the front windows twitch a bit, but he wasn't sure. After a moment, he raised a hoof and pawed at the scratched, grey wood, making sure to keep the fire flickering around his legs from scorching it. If this place went up, the ensuing conflagration could take out the entire forest.
"I don't think anyone's home, Meseni," he said when no one answered after several long moments. He kept his ears pricked forward, ready to catch any sound.
Meseni answered with a low growl. Stay put, it said.
Finally, he heard a slow, methodical thumping coming from behind the door: heavy feet crossing a floor. The door opened a crack and a short, round muzzle appeared, the nostrils twitching as it caught his scent. "Who be ye?" the mouth asked in a high, thin voice.
"My apologies for disturbing you," Maijitesa replied in his most polite voice. "My petpet led me here and seems most adamant that I speak with you, though for what reason, I am not sure."
The door opened a bit wider to reveal a Zafara---bent with age, leaning heavily on a wooden cane, she peered up at him through eyes hazy with cataracts. She had thinning red fur and a pair of sharp but yellowed fangs protruded from her lips, while a set of tattered red and black wings rested against her back. The dress she wore hung like a sack around her thin frame. Ultra-fashionable, Maijitesa thought dryly. Like a potato sack.
Meseni scuttled up Maijitesa's neck to perch on his head, making the shrrrp shrrrrp noise he made when excited or agitated.
The Zafara looked up, squinting to try and make out the tiny figure. Then she smiled, revealing more of her broken, pitted yellow teeth. "The silent one!" she exclaimed. "So this is what's become of you. I had wondered!"
"You know each other?" Maijitesa asked in surprise.
"After a fashion," the Zafara said. "Come in." She stepped slowly back from the door and Maijitesa went inside with a nod of thanks.
Her front room was dimly lit, with only a few covered lanterns to chase away the gloom. Even in such low light, Maijitesa had no trouble discerning the shabby state of her dwelling, as run down inside as it had been outside. The room smelled of mildew and old dust, most of the mismatched furniture covered in white sheets.
The Zafara thumped across the floor and lowered herself into a rocking chair, the seat so threadbare it was a wonder she didn't just fall right through it. She set her cane nearby. Meseni jumped right off Maijitesa's head, little wings churning the air to slow his descent. He scrambled across the worn carpet to the Zafara's chair, ran up her leg and curled up in her lap.
Maijitesa blinked. He had never seen his petpet show such open affection with anyone---even him. He ignored the little pang of jealousy that caused, and moved closer to the Zafara's chair.
"Now," the Zafara said, stroking Meseni's head slowly. "First things first, we introduce ourselves. I am Mephaira."
"Maijitesa," the Uni replied, with a little bow. "I call him Meseni." He nodded at the Ona, contentedly grooming his fur while Mephaira stroked his head.
"Silence, eh? That's a good name for him. How did you find him?"
"I came across a pool," Maijitesa told her. "And all around the pool were petpets that had been horribly disfigured. Meseni was one of them, and he---well, he followed me home."
She chuckled, a low, reedy sound. "Yes, I know that pool. It was once quite a pleasant place, many years ago. Something---happened there. Some say Sloth used it to dump industrial waste from his manufacture of Chia Clowns, some say it was polluted by sludge runoff from the Wheel of Misfortune, some even say it was a spell of Edna's gone awry. I can't say for sure. But now any Neopet or petpet who spends any amount of time there becomes likewise twisted and deformed."
Maijitesa thought of the strange bird he had seen. Perhaps it too had visited the pool. "Luckily I was not there very long," he said.
"Neither was your Meseni," she said. "He still only has two eyes, and one head to put them in. Now, why do you suppose he led you here?"
Curious as to how Mephaira knew so much about Meseni, Maijitesa paused before answering. "We encountered a bird," he began. "I've never known Meseni to be afraid of anything, but he was terrified of this bird. He hid under my wing when the bird threatened to eat him. The bird told me I was trespassing, but when I tried to leave it attacked us, or at least made overtures to that end. It fled when I let the fire on my hooves singe its feathers."
"Quite handy, that fire, is it not?"
"It can be."
She smiled, but faintly. "This bird," she prompted. "Tell me about it."
"It was quite large," Maijitesa remembered. "Larger than me. Its feathers were all in shades of brown or gray, and its chest was bare. It had a long grayish beak, hooked at the end, and long talons. A long neck. Broad wings, a short tail. Deep-set, bloodshot, yellow eyes."
Mephaira nodded knowingly. "That sounds like Ticherai," she said.
Ticherai. The word meant "dead," and in Maijitesa's opinion was quite fitting.
"He was not always known as such," Mephaira went on. "He was once a pretty Lenny. Rather vain, truth be known, but a decent enough sort, and curious as a Kadoatie. He wandered too close to the polluted pool and fell in, and emerged as the creature you encountered earlier. He was deeply shamed by his folly and ashamed of his appearance. He fled deep into the Woods, and only emerges occasionally."
"To eat petpets," Maijitesa supplied.
Mephaira smirked. "Among other things. The experience has driven him a little ...funny in the head. Exiles---whether self-imposed or not---take what they can get. That does not excuse his actions, mind you, only helps to explain them. An unprovoked attack, especially to a rather fearsome creature such as yourself...well, perhaps he is desperate."
Maijitesa nodded. "How do you know so much about him? And about Meseni, for that matter?" he wanted to know.
Mephaira sighed. "I have lived in these woods all my life," she replied. "More years than I care to remember. Neopets come to me for healing sometimes, or to take shelter and rest when they need it, so I encounter many creatures that a casual visitor would not see, even one comfortable in the confines of these old trees. "
That wasn't a very good explanation, but Maijitesa decided to leave it be. "Perhaps Meseni knows him too," he suggested. "I said I wished he could tell me what had scared him, and he led me directly here."
"Hm. If they have encountered each other before, I don't know of it," the old Zafara said. "But Meseni would know that if anyone needs information in the Haunted Woods, it is to me that they should come. Perhaps it was that Meseni sensed the taint of the pool on him, and it brought back memories of the time before he met you. I would not want to relive those memories. An awful place, that pool."
"Perhaps. That would be logical. I thank you for the information, Mephaira," Maijitesa said. "I plan to stay away from that area of the Woods from now on."
"Likely a good idea," she agreed.
"Time to go, Meseni," Maijitesa said, though a part of him wasn't sure the Ona would listen, as he seemed so at home in the Zafara's lap. Meseni raised his head and yawned, showing his sharp little teeth. He stood up and stretched, then trundled down off the Zafara's lap. Feeling generous, Maijitesa actually bent one knee to the old carpet so his petpet could more easily clamber up onto his back.
"He likes you," the Zafara said, laboring to her feet. "I can tell."
"I have come to feel a great affection for him as well," Maijitesa admitted.
Mephaira smiled. "You are good for each other," she proclaimed. "Come, I will walk you out."
To be continued...