Ghostfighters: Part Seven
Behind the River
Kiyoshi could not remember ever being so cold. It was unimaginable that anything that lay under the summer sun for hours on end could still possess all the chill of winter in each drop. Trying to put the numbing coldness out of his mind, he concentrated on how best to make his arms and legs work underwater.
The river was trying to pull him along with the current and up to the surface at the same time. He pushed against it, and did his best to swim downward. The water, as clear as it was, was forcing him to squint, and he was finding it hard to make out anything but mud and rock along the steeply sloping side of the river. He wasn’t sure what he was looking for -- an underwater cavern, a marking in the bank, a rotting trapdoor on the river bottom -- anything that stood out and gave a clue as to Tarandya’s elusive whereabouts.
Already feeling exhausted by the river’s drain on him, he used his wings to unceremoniously swoop through the heavy water and latch onto a sad-looking root jutting through the bank. He couldn’t hold his breath forever. Soon he would have to return to the surface. Curiously he noted that he didn’t seem to be feeling the water’s freezing temperature anymore; he wondered if that was a bad thing.
He struggled to focus on the bank in front of him. Where would be the best place to look? Although the river was fairly deep in comparison to its width, the place where the bank leveled out into the river bottom was just below his feet. He needed to concentrate on this side of the river only -- the side the willow grew on. Whatever he found would be located directly below the black pool in the shadow of the tree. That narrowed down his search to a fairly small area, so where was Tarandya’s lair?
He had just decided that he would have to surface for a gulp of air when a flash of something bright caught his eye. Using another tangle of roots to guide his way, he approached a small crack in the sandstone bank near the river’s floor. The bank here actually appeared to be shimmering, although no surface light was reaching it. Hesitantly, Kiyoshi reached out with the intent to touch the scintillating surface, but abruptly stopped to reconsider. The last thing he laid hand on had presented him with nothing more than a nasty burn. But there’s no other way, he told himself. He put his hand on the stone... and felt his entire arm fall through the solid rock.
He could almost have laughed with relief, had he not been underwater and already finding it hard to think for lack of oxygen. The shining surface was some sort of magical hologram. And it was covering the entrance to Tarandya’s lair.
Tyra and Jeri had only just come crashing through the trees with the intent of hearing what Kiyoshi had found, when they saw the blue pet dive headfirst into the river.
“D’you think he fancies a swim?” Jeri remarked in puzzlement.
“Why he always has to do these stupid things without telling us first is beyond me,” his Aisha companion mumbled. She tore off her cloak and tossed it aside.
“Are we going to go after him?” Jeri asked, removing his own heavy toolbelt. He hesitated, then stuffed a particularly large hammer into his pants pocket before dropping the rest of his tools on the bank beside him.
“Someone’s got to make sure he doesn’t kill himself,” Tyra muttered irritably, and leapt into the river where Kiyoshi had disappeared.
Still clinging to the tangle of roots, Kiyoshi needed air badly, but he wasn’t ready to leave this spot and be unable to find it again. He was beginning to feel lightheaded, and the shining hologram seemed to spin before his eyes. He certainly didn’t want to drown just because he’d been too stubborn to take a break. He needed to go through the hologram right away, and hope that there was air on the other side.
At that moment, a rippling shadow danced across the slope, and Kiyoshi turned anxiously to see what had caused it. His heart filled with relief at the sight of Tyra, swimming strongly down with the air of one who has had a great deal of practice. Jeri was right behind her, a little more ungainly as his huge paws propelled him forward in short bursts.
Kiyoshi thrust his hand through the rippling surface of the wall, struggling to hold onto his last bit of air. He hoped that as long as he held his arm inside the hologram, the other two pets would be able to pass through.
Tyra screwed up her eyes to look at the place the Shoyru was gesturing to. She caught his eye and nodded, seeming to understand. She kicked once and passed through the hologram. With only a moment’s hesitation, Jeri did the same. Hoping desperately that they were okay, Kiyoshi shoved himself through the opening.
On the other side, he tumbled out onto a hard, dusty surface, and promptly fell over the edge of something. He landed hard on his back, and, choking and spluttering, he sat up, his lungs straining to drink in the life-giving oxygen. Still coughing up river water, he realized groggily that he was seated on the floor of a sandstone cave. Two twisting corridors seemed to stretch endlessly before him, lit by ancient-looking torches that cast a ghostly light on the dull walls. Behind him, a few layers of stone ledges led up to the portal they’d come from. On this side, there was no artificial image camouflaging it, and the gap seemed like nothing more than a window through which the river was visible.
Limbs shaking, Kiyoshi climbed up the ledges to where Jeri and Tyra were also recovering.
“These paws are made for snow,” Jeri was choking as he shook his head vigorously. “Something had better come of this little dip, Mr. Ghostchaser.”
Kiyoshi didn’t answer. Instead, he focused on getting air into his lungs as steadily as he could. He felt almost ready to black out.
“I can’t believe you almost drowned yourself over that,” Tyra growled, wringing the water from her hair. “Just because you didn’t feel like going up for air. There’s nothing brave about dying when you still have the chance to live.”
“I didn’t want to lose the spot,” said Kiyoshi weakly.
“We were right behind you!” she protested angrily. “We would have stayed beside it while you went up for air and tried not to die for a change!”
“I didn’t know if you were coming.”
Tyra looked like she was about to yell something else, but then her expression softened. “Kiyoshi,” she said patiently, “no matter how stupid the things you do are, we’ll always be behind you. That’s what friends are for. Just... use your better judgment every now and then.”
Kiyoshi gave her a small smile. “I’ll try.”
“Great,” Jeri said, evidently pleased at the understanding they had reached. “Now how about that ghosty?”
Kiyoshi took a few deep breaths, beginning to recover. He pointed in the direction of the two dark tunnels. “There’s torches along both of those halls. We could go down either one of them, but either one of them could get us completely lost.”
“Let’s just pick one to start with, and if we don’t find anything, we’ll try the other one,” suggested Tyra.
“No getting lost in mazes though,” Jeri said, a hint of nervousness in his voice. “I don’t intend to wander halls of stone for the rest of my life, even if it’s for a good cause and all that.”
Kiyoshi nodded. “Let’s try this one.” He indicated the tunnel that wound off to the left. He glanced at Tyra, who was regarding him with something between a smirk and a frown. “What?”
“It’s just that I remember something from Tarandya.” The Aisha smiled ruefully. “To get to her underwater lair here, she teleports so she doesn’t get wet.”
Kiyoshi looked at her in stunned silence for a moment, then shrugged. “Where’s the fun in that?”
“If this tunnel slopes down any farther, we’re going to crash into the planet core and melt and die.”
“We’ve only been walking for five minutes,” murmured Kiyoshi, holding his torch so that its light illuminated a steady trickle of water seeping through the corridor wall and dripping to the floor, where it pooled up against the corner and formed a small stream running down the tunnel.
“That’s five minutes of my life I’ll never get back again,” Jeri retorted sulkily. “And it’s been a very dark and boring five minutes.”
“It’s probably going to get even darker and more boring if we don’t find anything soon,” Tyra muttered; even she was getting frustrated.
Shortly after they had started moving down the passageway, the torchlight had run out, and they had been forced to continue on, guided by the weak light of a single carried torch. And all the while, Kiyoshi felt sure that there were indeed four pets in the group. He knew that Tarandya would be watching their every move. He hadn’t yet brought up the message she had relayed to him before he had entered the river; the longer the three of them thought they were alone and could formulate a plan, the better.
Jeri approached Kiyoshi to look at the rivulet of water in the torchlight. “Wet along that wall,” Jeri observed.
“We’re right up against the river,” Kiyoshi said, holding out his hand to touch the damp wall. “This entire passage runs alongside it.”
“Great, if we get thirsty, we can lick the wall.”
Kiyoshi glanced at Jeri. “You do realize that your jokes get more and more horrible the closer to impending doom we get, right?”
“’Fraid so, mate.” Jeri grinned and continued down the dim hall.
They kept walking in mostly unbroken silence for a while. As time went on, Kiyoshi began to feel the same numbness from the river creeping from his soaked clothes into his skin. He shuddered. The underground air was making it very, very cold.
To his surprise, Tyra confirmed that it wasn’t just his imagination. “It suddenly just got a lot colder,” the split pet said, biting her lip.
“I knew it. We’ve walked past the center of Neopia, and now we’re about to come out on the other side and fall into space,” Jeri declared.
“Don’t count on it,” Kiyoshi mumbled from around the next corner. “Come take a look at this.”
The other two pets obeyed, and came to stand next to Kiyoshi as they marveled at what lay ahead of them. Reaching from wall to wall and ceiling to floor and completely blocking their path was what seemed to be an undisturbed sheet of red light.
“It’s a stretch shield,” Tyra whispered. “It stops solid objects and spells from passing to the other side.” She shivered. “And draws in heat from its surroundings to keep working. Don’t touch it, you’ll only get burned.” Kiyoshi noted that she might have been useful to have around when he had taken it to mind to climb the magic willow tree.
“I’m guessing that makes us the solid objects,” Jeri said to Tyra.
“So how do we go about getting through?”
“Not a clue. Kiyoshi, any suggestions?” She received no reply. “Kiyoshi?” she repeated with a hint of impatience.
“Huh?” the Shoyru stammered, turning away from the shield. He couldn’t make out much of the blocked-off area through the vivid red glare, but the room looked large, and looked like it was at least partially lit up. However, the most curious part was that it was hauntingly familiar to him.
“Oh... right,” he said. He slipped Tarandya’s stone from his pocket. For all he knew, the Korbat had them all in her sight at that moment, but Kiyoshi figured now was as good a time as any for what he needed to do.
“Tyra,” he said quickly. “This is Tarandya’s stone. The one that I found in the forest. Half of her magical consciousness is stored inside it.”
She studied him. “Why are you carrying it around with you?”
“I don’t know,” he mumbled. “Just in case, I guess.”
The truth was that he honestly couldn’t tell her why he felt he needed to hold onto it at all times. He felt strangely attached to it, and didn’t want to lose it. But the only thing it was good for was granting him access to some of Tarandya’s magic; that certainly wasn’t anything he could do without. Was it?
“She can’t get those powers back,” he said desperately, not wanting to explain.
The Aisha looked hard at him for a moment. “Alright,” she said finally. “I understand.” She took the stone from him and placed it in her own pocket.
“Thanks,” he said, relieved. Now that he had taken care of that, he could work on the stretch shield dilemma. “Now how --”
“Hey, lookit this,” Jeri piped up, and the other two pets spun around to face him. He was scraping gently at the tunnel wall farthest from the river. As his claws scratched the surface, they dislodged chunks of muddy sandstone, knocking them to the floor. “Wall’s soft,” he explained, a mischievous glint in his eye.
“Think you can give us a detour?” Kiyoshi asked, grinning.
“Give me two minutes,” the Bori said happily, rolling up his sleeves. With that, he leapt at the wall, forepaws churning, already a pile of loose earth forming behind him as he tore through the bank.
“Jeri the Amazing Bori,” Tyra said with a smile.
In the few minutes it took the Bori to carve a passageway through the muddy rock, Kiyoshi’s breath became plainly visible on the chilled air. The day was slowly creeping away, and yet Tarandya had still not made her presence known. He would have thought that if anything were to provoke a reaction, outsmarting her enchanted barrier would be fairly high on the list.
“I’m through,” came a muffled call, and Jeri popped our on the other side of the reddish haze, waving at them. Apprehensively, the two pets stepped over the mound of packed mud in turn and squeezed into the tunnel. The Bori had managed to cut a narrow swath through the bank that arced around the shield quickly, and soon Kiyoshi and Tyra had slipped out on the opposite side. Immediately, he recognized the gloomy corridor looming before them. It was the dungeon-like hall he had visited during his contact with Tarandya.
The walls here were lined with torches, so, suppressing a shiver, he deposited his own in an empty bracket nearby. He then turned to look at his surroundings. More torches were lit now than there had been the last time he was here, and their wan light splashed puddles of colour on the otherwise shadowed floor, revealing a room that was much larger than it had seemed previously. Although it stretched far enough for each long wall to hold a dozen torch sconces, the hall appeared completely empty.
“Not the most cheerful person, is this Tarandya character?” Jeri remarked.
Tyra, on the other hand, seemed more frustrated. “And I thought we were making some progress too. There’s nothing here, not even another door. I guess we’ll have to keep moving...”
By this point, however, Kiyoshi wasn’t listening. While the Bori and Aisha had been speaking, he could have sworn a small, dark spot had just appeared at eye level on the far wall. As he hesitantly approached, a feeling of deep foreboding building in his chest, the spot gained definite shape and became a polished black rock embedded in the wall.
‘Kiyoshi,’ a voice whispered in his head, ’you came.’ And for a split second, Tarandya’s jubilant visage leapt into his vision, eyes crinkled in delight. The stone sparked.
He bolted, feet pounding the rough, stone floor and heart beating a rhythm to the same time. “TYRA! JERI! GET DOWN!”
At the same moment as Jeri instinctively dove away, Kiyoshi grabbed Tyra’s damp sleeve and hurled them both to the floor. The cold, hard rock knocked their breath away as a ray of unthinkably bright light pulsed just inches above their ears, scorching its path through the air. When he could twist around, he saw the beam shoot back into the onyx stone. The black rock crackled once, and was still.
Kiyoshi coughed as he helped Tyra to her feet. “That was not necessary and not good for the head,” she growled. “It was bad enough you did it when I was being possessed by an immortal megalomaniac.”
Before he could reply, Jeri uttered an abrupt warning. Sure enough, as if to prove the display was not over, the stone was beginning to expel a veil of dark mist that swirled and solidified from the ground up. Kiyoshi bit his lip and prepared himself as the Korbat mage appeared amid the black fog. She was shaking her head slowly, a small, amused smile on her features.
“Silly Ghostchasers. That little spot of sunshine wasn’t supposed to finish you off.”
It was a tribute to Jeri and Tyra’s courage that they stood their ground, unflinching from Tarandya’s presence, even though they themselves had no magic to combat hers. As the mage spoke, she did not move either, although her hands remained hidden inside her flowing sleeves. Kiyoshi eyed her warily, prepared for a sudden attack.
“You might be interested to know, Paco, that only three other adventurers ever made it this far, in all the years I’ve spent here.” She rolled her eyes at the Shoyru’s expression. “Yes, and of course you would have thought you were the only one special enough to have blue eyes, wouldn’t you. No, there were other names too. Good famous names... if only I could remember them...” She shrugged. “No matter. As with the other three cases, your journey ends here.”
She snapped her fingers once, and showed her sharp teeth in a triumphant smile. “Farewell, Ghostchasers.”
It seemed the same moment in time that Kiyoshi decided what he was going to do as a colossal wave of molten ruby erupted from the ground before the Korbat and rushed toward the three pets, hissing and sparking dangerously.
“The shield,” he mumbled, trying to tear his eyes away from the advancing surge of magic. Finally, he shook himself. “The shield! Tyra, give me the stone!”
Kiyoshi grabbed the tablet as it was tossed to him. He scarcely had time to brace himself and make sure the stone was covered by his hands before he willed the mage shield to weave itself before him, seemingly from thin air.
Seconds later, Tarandya’s fiery wave broke against a shimmering wall that was bluer than the sky. The ruby swell gave a slight crackle of resentment, then disappeared into the hall’s floor.
Kiyoshi breathed deeply, grateful that he was still alive. When he could see the mage again, she was standing rigidly, gazing at the slowly dissolving blue shield. As her eyes clouded with memory, for a moment the Shoyru thought there was fondness in her eyes -- fondness for her old magic, he realized with a start. He shifted his fingers over the stone, hoping the Korbat wouldn’t recognize her creation.
“That isn’t the only thing we know how to do now.” Kiyoshi’s voice echoed off the damp walls.
Tarandya seemed to snap out of her reverie. “Don’t fool yourself, Shoyru,” she snarled. “You’re about as magical as a teacup. You always have been, and it’s not about to change now.”
He swallowed uncomfortably, unsure whether he was feeling relief or dismay. He didn’t need magic; there had always been other options. Not once before meeting the Travellers had he ever wondered or cared whether or not he had magical ability. But it occurred to him now that their only chance of escape had lain with his use of magic.
“Jeri,” he mumbled, keeping his eyes firmly on Tarandya. “If we...” he paused. Something wasn’t right. The Bori wasn’t even acknowledging him. “Jeri.” He chanced a glance over his shoulder, and it took several moments for his brain to register what he was seeing.
The hall behind him was completely empty. Neither Jeri nor Tyra were anywhere to be seen. As he scanned the darkened corners in vain for his two friends, the blood seemed to boil in his veins. He whirled to face the Korbat mage.
“What’ve you done!” he snapped venomously.
Tarandya giggled with pleasure. “There are some spells that can get through even a stretch shield. Don’t worry about those two; I imagine they’ve turned up a few leagues from here and are presently getting themselves lost in mazes.” She flicked her hand dismissively. “It’s just you and me now, Ghostchaser.”
Kiyoshi stared helplessly ahead of him. Any anger or hatred that had been rising inside of him was slowly dissipating, like air released from a balloon. He was tired of playing the escape artist. Tired of being dogged by this Korbat. Tired of dragging his friends from one danger to another. He just wanted to go home.
“So let’s get this straight,” Tarandya drawled. “You found my tablet when no one else could, played around with it until you figured out how to access some of my magic, and have kept it on your person ever since, even when you entered the lair of the one pet on Neopia who would kill to have it back.” She looked at Kiyoshi, then sighed exasperatedly. “Of course I know you found it. I should be able to recognize my own magic.” She frowned slightly. “Although its colour was always red for me.”
Somewhere in Kiyoshi’s mind, a spark of hope flickered. He had been foolish to compare the two pets to one another before; their existences were about as opposite as the colours of their magic. And if Tarandya was puzzled in this area, maybe there were other things she did not know. Maybe he wasn’t out of surprises after all.
“So it makes you wonder, doesn’t it?” Tarandya continued, smirking. “Why train oneself to use said magic unless one’s most fervent desire is to wield the power of a mage?”
“I don’t need magic,” he replied shortly. “I can manage fine without it.”
“Really?” She closed her almond eyes. “Then please, do show me.”
Kiyoshi didn’t even have time to think before the bolt of magic left her uncovered hand.
To be continued...