Ghostfighters: Part One
Author’s Note: If this happens to be the first Ghostchasers story you’ve ever read, I have to warn you that some things you’ll encounter here may not make sense. This is the sequel to the six-part series “Ghostchasers”... I very strongly suggest reading it first in Issues 213-218. Thanks.
They were on their way.
It had taken a while, but they were finally on their way.
“I can’t believe you took us all the way into Neopia Central first,” complained Jeri, his huge, red paws folded across his chest. “I mean, c’mon, do you realize how much time we coulda saved by going straight over to Meridell from the Haunted Woods?”
“Well, I guess we did need the clothes,” said Kiyoshi, pulling at the sleeve of the warm hooded jacket that covered his blue-coloured arm.
“And food, and other nonessential items,” Tyra said brightly, knowing fully well that she was right.
Kiyoshi glanced back over his shoulder at the split Aisha behind him then smiled to himself -- you could only blink at the grainy image displayed on a piece of rewired Virtupets junk for so long before you needed to see the real thing, as much for proof that it still existed as anything else. It was good to have Tyra back again.
“And that’s another thing. It’s blinking hot with all these clothes on. All we’re doing is walking out here in the open. If I melt, I’m gonna remember this.” When Jeri the Bori was frustrated, he didn’t yell, and he didn’t so much complain, as comment on all the things that bothered him -- anything from falling down a hole to only winning 46 neopoints on the Wheel of Excitement. And the cheery look on his face as he said it all suggested that he was only doing it because he was bored.
“If it would make you feel any better, we could leave you behind,” suggested Tyra.
“Maybe,” said Jeri thoughtfully. “Meridell. Why Meridell? All they have there is farmers.”
And a farmer indeed was the reason behind their trek from the Haunted Woods to the sunny fields of Meridell. Only two weeks ago, Jeri and Kiyoshi had been in the Woods, where they had kept themselves occupied by chasing off snowbeasts and fouling a vicious Eyrie’s schemes, in between touring the wonders of the Woods with a pair of junior high students -- the now infamous Trick McFinn and Aley.
After that experience, they had been transported over to Crystal Valley at the northernmost point of the Woods to drop off Trick and Aley, and then back down to Neopia Central, where even Kiyoshi couldn’t convince himself that he was in any shape for a quick skip over to Meridell. Kiyoshi and Jeri had met up with their longtime friend Tyra Magena, and spent the next two weeks preparing for their next journey, which took them to where they were now -- one hour away from Meridell.
Kiyoshi repositioned his heavy backpack on his shoulder, looking down the dusty road that twisted away in front of them and disappeared into a sudden forest. The last three days had been uneventful, and the path had taken them this far....
“Where exactly did you say this greens-grower’d meet us, Tyra?” Jeri asked, voicing Kiyoshi’s thoughts. It had taken him awhile to get used to Jeri’s strange habits of speech, but being a Shoyru, who was he to tell? Maybe all Bori talked like that.
Tyra pointed. “Somewhere in that forest, I guess. He said, ‘Walk the road through the trees; you can’t miss us’. Rather cryptic.” Tyra was the kind of person who would memorize words as they came out of your mouth and be able to bring them up years later, a skill which greatly aided her in her duty as the unofficial ‘organizer’ of their team.
“It is,” murmured Kiyoshi distractedly.
“And what’d he say again? Something about a --”
“Ghost-thief,” Tyra supplied, a glint in her eye. “He wanted Kiyoshi Paco to see about his ghost-thief.”
“Now here’s what I’m not sure about,” Jeri said. “When he says ‘ghost-thief’, does he mean a ghost running around stealing things, or somebody running around stealing all the ghosts? ‘Cuz he wasn’t very clear about that, was he...”
But Kiyoshi wasn’t really listening. A ghost-thief, Tyra had said. He was anxious to get his hands on this one -- as long as they wouldn’t have to battle any Eyries along the way.
“Right, well, here’s the forest,” Tyra said, but she didn’t have to, as it was hard to miss the new woodland sensations as they poured over the travellers. It was like walking from a hot summer day to a cool spring one, and even Jeri must have been thankful for his grey hoodie.
“It’s a pretty thick and tangled forest here, on the Meridell outskirts,” the Aisha said. Of the three, she had been to the region most often, and the other two still looked to her for explanations. “Nowhere near as bad as the Haunted Woods, but still tricky. Keep your eyes open.”
But with every step farther into the forest Kiyoshi took, it seemed to feel, if anything, less tricky. In all truth, he was soon enjoying it. No sense of dread hung in the fresh atmosphere, no feeling of eyes on your back. Just the smell of earth and pitch and the sounds of Weewoos and other birds chirping away happily. The grassy forest floor was dappled with bright sunlight, illuminating the dew on the leaves of delicate wildflowers in too many colours to count. It was like walking into a faerie tale.
After about half an hour of peaceful travelling, Tyra threw her pack down at the base of a seemingly unremarkable old tree at the side of their meandering path. “Perfect place to set camp,” she said.
It seemed he had hardly closed his eyes to sleep when Kiyoshi was suddenly awake again. The forest was still inky with darkness, and it took him a couple of seconds to decide what had awakened him. Then he realized that someone was shaking his shoulder.
“Kiyoshi,” came the whisper. It was Tyra. “Listen.”
Still groggy with sleep, Kiyoshi pushed himself up and dragged the blanket off of himself, straining to hear anything out of the ordinary. But try as he might, the only sound he heard was that of a Weewoo warbling softly nearby. “What?”
“Can’t you hear it?”
The two pets waited in silence. A sound from behind them made him jump, but it was only a snore from the still form of Jeri sprawled on the ground.
“What?” the Shoyru hissed. He still couldn’t hear anything but the Weewoo....
“Kiyoshi, Weewoos don’t sing at night.”
She hadn’t needed to say it; he had already sprung to his feet to wake Jeri.
“What do you reckon it is?” whispered Jeri as Tyra poured sandy earth onto the flames that still flickered faintly in their fire pit.
“Not a Weewoo, so it’s got to be something imitating a Weewoo,” Kiyoshi murmured in reply, stuffing random things into his backpack. “Probably a someone.” He actually hesitated for a moment as he snatched up his bundle of blankets. He was still tired, and it was too early in the morning for bandits.
“Hunting call?” questioned Tyra quietly, shouldering her loaded pack.
“At night?” said Jeri.
“Probably some kind of call.” Kiyoshi managed to cram his makeshift bedding into the bag. He hastily buttoned it shut. “I don’t really want to stick around and find out what it’s for.”
“Words of wisdom,” breathed Jeri appraisingly.
“We’d better stay off the road. Let’s go,” said Tyra, startling Kiyoshi by taking the lead into the darkness of the forest. He was used to it being him in the lead. Feeling somewhat out of place, he instead brought up the rear after Jeri.
Trying to make as little noise as possible, the three pets threaded their way through the Meridell forest. It was horribly overgrown -- thorns and bramble scratched and caught at their feet; countless branches tangled about their arms and necks. Kiyoshi found himself having to disentangle himself from hanging vines every few steps. If they came across any crackly dried leaves, they nimbly sidestepped them, and whenever they came to a particularly tangled bunch of trees, they would weave through, with extra care not to jostle the branches.
After a few minutes of this, Kiyoshi could make out Tyra signaling to them from ahead. When he and the Bori had caught up, she said in a slightly easier tone than before, “You figure that did it?”
Kiyoshi nodded. “I don’t think they knew we were there, and we did a good job of getting away.”
“And the forest did a good job on us,” Jeri mumbled, wincing as he bent over to clutch a much-scratched Bori footpaw. But then his ears twitched and he stiffened.
“Don’t tell me...” Tyra said warily.
Ignoring her, Jeri whispered, “You hear that?”
“Wait... yeah,” Tyra said in a very low voice.
“It sounded like a...”
They stared at each other. “Run,” suggested Kiyoshi, and the three friends took off into the dark woods again.
It was a lot harder to run through the tortuous forest while being absolutely silent than it was to walk. Twigs snapped, and leaves crunched. They were giving some fairly helpful updates on their position every few steps, so they ran even faster.
By now, everyone’s paws were scraped up fairly badly. Kiyoshi for one was beginning to feel a sharp pain along the bottom of his right foot. Every time it hit the ground he flinched. It was definitely an open cut. And, favouring this foot, he unexpectedly hooked his other one under a tree root and went flying into the dirt. Stale-smelling dust clouded his vision, and his nostrils burned with the effort of keeping from sneezing. He started to push himself up, but stopped suddenly, and his problems seemed to melt away. Time itself seemed to have been paused.
Directly in front of him, and not a meter from his face, was the severed trunk of an ancient tree, probably downed by lightning from the looks of the charred edges. But what was so interesting about it was what lay on its surface -- a small, flat, rectangular chunk of sandstone.
Kiyoshi was intrigued -- so intrigued he forgot completely about running. Instead of straightening up, Kiyoshi dropped to his knees in front of it. The stone fascinated him in a way he couldn’t explain. He stared at it quizzically. It looked completely out of place. Now that he looked at it, he could see that it had a sort of curved ‘K’-shaped crack running through it -- no, it was carved. Engraved in the center of the little triangle formed by the ‘K’ was a small dot. It looked as if someone had left the stone there... just left it. Kiyoshi picked it up.
As soon as his hand closed over it, he shook his head and gave a wry smile. No one had left it there. Maybe a bird had dropped it after it realized it wasn’t food. It probably wasn’t even ‘engraved’. Kiyoshi’s sense of adventure was getting away on him again. But still he placed the stone in his pack.
A branch snapped from somewhere close nearby -- very close nearby, and reality washed over the Shoyru with a buzz of panic. He had to move. He backed up a few steps, then spun around and carried himself into a run.
He hadn’t been going for too long before a wave of relief broke over him. The shapes of Tyra and Jeri had become visible in the shadows ahead of him.
“What happened?” Tyra whispered anxiously when Kiyoshi stood beside her. “We have to keep going!”
“I know, they were right behind me. But I found something really weird. I’ll tell you later.” With that, he started into a run again, but lurched to an ungraceful stop as something leapt out in front of him.
Heart pounding, Kiyoshi realized that this yellow Zafara, brandishing a long wooden spear in front of her in a manner that was anything but friendly, was the pursuer they’d been striving to outrun.
In unison, the three friends turned to escape in the opposite direction, but to no avail -- their way was blocked by a second pet. And no sooner had that one appeared than their last exit was blocked by a silver Lupe, his paws firmly gripping a gleaming sword, leaving them completely surrounded.
Kiyoshi exchanged a dread-filled glance with Jeri. It wasn’t Eyrie-battling, but it was close.
“Who are you, and what do you want, wandering around this part of Meridell?” the Zafara demanded.
“We -- um --” Kiyoshi started hesitantly. He wasn’t sure how these armed neopets would take to the explanation that they were wandering around this part Meridell in search of a ghost-thief and a farmer they’d never met.
But he didn’t have to finish, as the Lupe interrupted him. “Wait a second,” he said with narrowed eyes, and for a moment Kiyoshi thought he was going to run the Shoyru through with his sword right then and there -- but instead, the other pet’s face broke out in an expression of near delight. “You’re Kiyoshi Paco, aren’t you?”
Kiyoshi found no logical reason to argue this point, and even if he had, he was too baffled to give it much consideration. “Er, yeah --”
“Yes, that is him.” The second pet, who had been mainly hidden in shadows before, stepped forward to look them over, and he saw that she was a beautiful, perhaps hauntingly beautiful white Uni, who, unlike her companions in their earth-toned tunics and breeches, was garbed in a flowing satin dress. There was something very strange about her.
The Zafara eyed Kiyoshi suspiciously. “He could be an impostor come to steal our secrets, for all we know.” She frowned. “How can you be so sure?”
“I’m never sure,” the Uni replied smoothly.
Far from convinced, the Zafara did not lower her spear.
However, the Lupe had already sheathed his weapon. He strode toward Kiyoshi with a grin on his face and his hand outstretched. Warily, Kiyoshi shook it. “My name’s Alesandran. I’ve been looking forward to meeting you.”
“Um, thanks,” Kiyoshi said, rather lamely, in reply.
“I didn’t know Mr. Ghostchaser was so famous,” said Jeri, perhaps a little put-out that they hadn’t recognized him at first glance too.
“Not really, but I heard a story from my sister.” His ears perked up. “Hey, you probably remember her, Mr. Paco...”
“Kiyoshi,” he mumbled. Feeling a sense of foreboding almost as powerful as when they had first been surrounded, Kiyoshi asked, “What was her name?” as if he didn’t already know the answer.
“Aley,” the Lupe said. “I think her full name is Alesandrea or Alesandrali or something like that -- figure Mother must’ve wanted us to match -- anyway, she did some kind of school project about the Ghostchasers -- it was great -- that’s where I heard about you. So you must be Jeri,” he said, shaking the Bori’s paw, who positively beamed.
“And you must be Alesandran. Brilliant how we know so much about each other already,” Jeri replied.
Alesandran turned to Tyra last. “But you are something of a mystery to us, Miss. What name do you go by?”
“Tyra,” she said, a little too boldly.
“Lady Tyra,” he said, giving a chivalrous bow. “Welcome to our neck of the woods.”
Not looking altogether pleased by this, Tyra managed a small smile. “Glad to be here,” she said.
Alesandran backed up and gestured to the other members of his group. “This is Chessori,” he said, indicating the Zafara, who still hadn’t completely lowered her weapon, “and this is the Lady Chalin Icewind.” The Uni nodded once. Her eyes were like pieces of fire and ice all mixed together. “We like to call ourselves the Three Travellers.”
Chessori dumped a pile of bandaging rags and a small satchel on the grassy bank of a slow-flowing river where Kiyoshi was sitting. “Here,” she said, and she stalked off without a backward glance.
With eyebrows raised, Kiyoshi opened the pouch to find some kind of medicinal herb, all mashed up and dampened. As he finished treating the cut on his foot by wrapping a strip of cloth around it, he thought that he was rather glad she had left the bandaging to him. He wasn’t exactly comfortable with the idea of her as the ‘healing’ type.
He leaned back, looking at his surroundings. The band’s territory didn’t seem to spread over a very large amount of the forest, so it was actually quite remarkable that they had stumbled upon the Three Travellers at all.
Kiyoshi stifled a yawn. The sun was shining, and the better part of the morning had already passed. He stood up, grabbing the healers’ equipment. They would thank the Travellers for their help, and be on their way.
When Kiyoshi came across the band’s camp, he found Alesandran and Chessori fiercely debating in hushed tones. He wasn’t able to make out anything that they were saying before Chessori made a pointed glance at him over the shoulder of the Lupe, who stopped talking and turned as if surprised to see Kiyoshi standing there.
“Where’s Chalin?” Kiyoshi asked. He had only seen her once since the band’s appearance that morning.
“Oh, um, in her tent,” Alesandran replied.
“Oh.” Kiyoshi handed Alesandran the satchel and bandages. “We’ve really got to be going,” he said.
“Really? Oh,” the Lupe said, and Kiyoshi found it hard to miss the tone of uneasiness in his voice.
Jeri and Tyra had been having a bowl of cold porridge on the other side of camp, but now they both walked over. Tyra nodded, saying, “You’ve been really helpful. We’d like to thank you. Is there anything we can do in return?”
“Well, umm...” Alesandran started, looking anywhere but their faces. “Now that you mention it... since you got here... we kind of figured you would, of course...”
“Oh, for Skarl’s sake, just spill already,” the Zafara snapped. “Do you honestly think they don’t have any idea already?”
Kiyoshi looked from Alesandran to Chessori, then back again. “Hold it,” he said. “Any idea about what?”
Chessori didn’t reply, just rolled her eyes and snorted, arms crossed.
“We just... thought that you might be able to... after all, you do deal with ghosts all the time... knew you would be... knew you were already coming...” Alesandran muttered miserably.
Tyra looked at him with dawning comprehension. “Of course you knew we were already coming --” she said.
“You were the one who sent for us,” Kiyoshi finished as it all fit together.
To be continued...