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Warm Welcomes


by thephantasma

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She woke up in a daze, without any idea where she was. She had gone to bed: she knew that much, as she recalled having her usual weird, senseless dreams. It had something to do with pink, buck-toothed rodents with wide, staring eyes.

      But she was almost certain her bed was not a pine tree.

      With a yelp, she slipped and was suddenly tumbling through the prickly boughs, the bitter needles slapping at her face in anger. She couldn’t blame them. She would have probably done the same thing to an intruder, were she a pine tree.

      By the time she hit the snow-covered ground with a thump, she was covered in scratches and bruises.

      Maybe not the greatest wake-up call, she thought numbly.

      For a moment she simply lay there, too perplexed to do much else. She was clearly not at home, had not just fallen out of her bed, and was wearing pajamas. They were comfortable, at that; if she opened her eye just a sliver, she could see they were made of blue cotton, with strange white creatures serving as a pattern.

      Nice pajamas.

      “Hello, there!”

      A loud voice caused her to bolt upright, and she found herself staring at a rather peculiar critter. She looked around, searching for the speaker, but he was nowhere to be found.

      “Ah, I see you are wearing pajamas,” the critter- the speaker- said. “You must be new here. Allow me to introduce myself.”

      It bowed low, its ear-like antennae scraping the snow.

      “I am a Recruiter, though I am but a rookie. If you wish to know what kind of creature I am, it is quite simply answered: I am- as well as every other sentient creature in this world- a neopet. More specifically, an Aisha.”

      She blinked, staring at the critter... the Aisha.

      “I... see,” she said stupidly, reaching the conclusion that she had lost whatever was left of her mind.

      “If you could please follow me,” said the Aisha, and she hurriedly scrambled to her feet. He began to lead her through the pine forest that surrounded them, and she was glad he was not a chatterbox: the sights around them deserved even more attention than he. Strange critters bounced along the branches, whose size and rather blank expressions lead her to assume they were not sentient. They were rather cute, as well. She was just thinking about how she could catch one when the Aisha cleared its throat loudly, gesturing ahead.

      “A Recruitment Hall,” the Aisha said simply. “As I have said before, you are new here. Thus, it is my duty- as a Recruiter- to bring you to the Recruitment Hall. Shall we begin?”

      Without waiting for a response, he grabbed her arm and led her through the golden double-doors and into the noisy atmosphere inside. The sound of typewriters overpowered the voices of the vast hall, and all kinds of... neopets, had he called them? All kinds of neopets were bouncing to and fro. Here and there, she even found many people like herself, most of which were wearing pajamas.

      “This way, please.”

      She followed the Aisha’s voice, which was the most familiar thing in the place. He had seated himself behind a desk and was shuffling some papers. The smile he gave her was not very reassuring.

      “Have a seat,” he said, and she obeyed. “For starters, welcome to Neopia. This is a world some people wake up in one morning, though anything before that is quite a mystery. Name?”

      “What?” She stared.

      “Your name. What is your name?”

      “I... have no idea.” She really had lost it.

      “No...? Oh! of course. Silly me. You will not be able to remember anything, much less your name.”

      “I see.”

      “What we do here, after all, is register people’s names. So, you’ll need to find a name for yourself. Remember that it is your name...”

      “A name, eh?” She leaned back, thinking for a moment. “How about... hm... ThePhantasma?”

      “Excellent.” He rummaged through the papers on his desk. “ThePhantasma is not taken. You are free to go, then!”

      “Pardon?”

      “You may go. You are now an official Neopian owner, proudly named ThePhantasma.”

      “Wait... you mean for me to just go?”

      “Yes.”

      “But I have no idea where I am, or what’s going on!”

      The Aisha shrugged, and before she knew it, Phantasma was being pushed out the doors by a pair of rather burly neopets. She found herself standing in the snow, just before the stone steps that led to the hall. The snow was just beginning to drift down from the cloudy sky, and despite her warm pajamas, Phantasma was feeling the chill in her bones. She crossed her arms in front of her, casting her green eyes across the forested, frosty distance, and pushed her bewilderment aside. She was here, now. She had to find put what to do.

      Phantasma set to walking. The paths -formed by the heavy footprints of hundreds of neopets- were being coated once more by a thick layer of snow, falling more and more heavily as time went on. It was still morning by the time she found herself standing atop a tall cliff, the lights and bustle of a village apparent below. Above, a crown of rock loomed, its pinnacle concealed by clouds of snow.

      “A mountain,” Phantasma said aloud. She peered at the village below, trying to make out the specks that wandered in the streets. She saw neopets... and people that looked like her.

      “Neopian owner, eh?” She silently thanked her keen eyesight, smiling the crooked smile she felt she was renowned for. “Does that mean I can find a neopet to travel with, too?”

      The cold was biting her, pushing her to keep moving, and her eyes scanned the valley before her. There was a slope to her right that appeared to be well-traveled, though she still took great care as she walked down its icy path. As the shops and homes of the village came into view, she suddenly realized that she had no money... and judging by the beggar at the side of the street, this world probably did have an economy that required it.

      “Npz plz!” the beggar shouted to her, and Phantasma stopped. “Can I plz have npz? I’m poor. My pets are hungy!”

      “I... what?” Phantasma stared at him, but she could not understand his heavy accent. “You want ‘NP’?”

      “Plz!”

      “I don’t have any, I don’t think... What’s ‘NP’, anyway?”

      “Noob!” the beggar hollered, causing Phantasma to jump. “You dunno wut NPz is? Noob! Noob!

      Without the faintest clue as to what “NP” or “noobs” were, Phantasma hurriedly made her way down the street and away from the frightening beggar. There were more of them, but she realized they were rather frowned upon in this place. People with elegantly dressed pets turned their noses up at them, walking briskly away, while some would either yell at them incredibly rudely or give them unwanted advice. For a long time Phantasma wandered through the town, observing these people before she realized that the sun was setting.

      Her thoughts of wonder were replaced with concern as she found herself in a neighborhood with warmly lit homes: she didn’t have a house or any money. She was conscious of her hunger, and conscious that however warm her pajamas had kept her, she would not be able to survive the night. Phantasma ran as quickly as she dared, hoping to both warm herself up and find some kind of shelter. She took great care not to slip on the ice, and after a while she found herself resting in front of a large plot of land.

      Breathing hard, and clearly out of shape, Phantasma stared at the lone block that stood in the far corner of the land. Its back was shielded by tall evergreens that draped shadows across it, though when she peered closely enough, she realized it was some kind of shack... made of ice.

      It was better than nothing.

      She stepped cautiously onto the plot of land, wincing as the deep snow rose above her thin slippers. She was thankful her past-self had gone to bed with them, though she could not remember why. Despite the ominous aura of the shack, the cold motivated her to skip lightly across the snow, and when she reached the step leading inside, she stopped to nurse her numbing feet.

      When she was warm again, she stood to face the dark entryway, but hesitated before entering.

      It was dark inside. Very dark.

      Phantasma glanced back, uncertain, but the snow was falling more heavily, now. She had to go inside.

      “There’s not such thing as ghosts,” she muttered. Reassured, she stepped through the entryway, shivering against the cold. It was surprisingly warmer in the icy shack; however, the darkness spooked enough to make her consider going back outside. She crept along the wall to her left, searching for the comfort of a corner, before a chilling voice stopped her in her tracks.

      “Greetings.” It echoed.

      “H-hi!” Phantasma squeaked, summoning her courage. “Um... pardon the intrusion. Is this your house? I couldn’t find a place to stay, see...”

      “House?” The voice howled like the northern wind. “This is not... my house. It is a crypt, and I rest here.”

      “What... what?”

      A pale, transparent figure leaned out of the shadows, its solemn, crimson eyes staring blankly at her.

      “Eep,” was all Phantasma could say.

      “On the contrary to what you said earlier, Miss,” he held out a think, clawed paw, “ghosts do exist in Neopia.”

      Phantasma hesitated for a moment, unsure of what to do, but quickly realized the ghost was introducing himself. She grasped- or pretended to grasp- his paw, and moved her hand up and down with his. It was strange to shake hands with something she could walk right through, but the ghost only grinned a toothy grin.

      “Whitewinder, at your service.” The long length of armour-like bone on his back rattled as it turned, gesturing to the crypt, “and this is where I rest.”

      “Are you... friendly?” said Phantasma, unable to look away. Whitewinder shrugged, then nodded.

      “Oh! sorry.” Phantasma’s face turned a brilliant red, and she doubted the ghost couldn’t see it. “My name’s ThePhantasma, or just Phantasma. And I’m new here, I guess.”

      Whitewinder nodded. “Naturally,” he said. “You’re wearing pajamas. They tossed you out of Recruitment Hall without so much as a ‘good luck’, correct? Most unfortunate. When I was alive, things weren’t much different. Then I died, and here I am. Rest is rather boring, shall we say...”

      “Oh... oh, really? I can’t imagine.” The silence that followed was deafening. “Well... what is Neopia, if you don’t mind me asking?”

      “Why, it is this very planet!” The ghost’s laughter was shrill. “This planet that you are on right now. There are neopets like myself, living and dead. There are owners like you, and little critters called petpets.”

      “Owners?” Phantasma echoed, and then she remembered the people she had seen walking on the street. “Oh! You mean those people that travel with neopets?”

      The ghost nodded. “Naturally. I do not have one, per se, but I used to.” His smile was suddenly grim. “Let us just say there are good owners, and there are bad owners. My last one was the latter, perhaps.”

      “I’m sorry to hear that...” Phantasma started, but Whitewinder shook his head.

      “No need, no need!” he said. “We must all learn from our experiences. Now I know the true meaning of contentment. Although...” he sighed, “I am rather bored. I was never the patient type: never liked staying in one place, waiting for something exciting to happen. I liked to look for it.”

      “You were the adventurous type?”

      “Yes, yes! That is exactly it.”

      “Well... maybe you don’t need to rest here anymore. I’m supposed to be an owner, right? But I don’t have a neopet. Not yet.”

      “What are you suggesting?”

      “Would you like to travel with me?”

      Whitewinder watched her for a long while, and slowly a grin spread over his muzzle.

      “You lucky owner!” he burst out laughing. “What can I do but accept? Most of you newbies get such common pets... red, yellow, green, and blue colours. Here, you find a ghost!”

      “Are they rare?” Phantasma asked uncertainly.

      “Relatively. But you seem like a nice person, Miss. Very well! I will join you. I will also teach you all that I know about Neopia.”

      “Thank you!” Phantasma exclaimed.

      “No need. It is an honour, truly. Let us start with the basics... I am a ghost Bori, a native to this world. A world is different from a planet, remember... pardon!”

      Phantasma failed to stifle a yawn. The Bori pushed a musty blanket toward her.

      “I forgot that non-ghosts need sleep. We may continue in the morning.”

      With that, she curled up in the corner with the blanket, no longer struggling to figure out how she came into Neopia. She liked it here. With Whitewinder helping her, spooky as he was, she felt a newly-found confidence. She would figure out how things worked, and do it well. After all, she was a very persistent and ambitious person.

* * *

      Phantasma was spooked awake the next morning, though she supposed she would have to get used to that. Whitewinder’s red eyes were staring at her from the darkness, and the moment Phantasma sat up, her lessons began.

      He first handed a yellow bag to her, the front of which was marked “NP”. She remembered the beggar’s words and looked inside, finding hundreds of gold coins within.

      “Neopoints,” said Whitewinder. “This world’s currency. Count them.”

      There were 1,250 points worth of coins inside.

      The day proceeded in a similar manner: Whitewinder would show her what things meant, and Phantasma would have to decide how important or valuable they were. Food, for example, came cheap, providing you didn’t crave gourmet food. With this in mind, Phantasma was able to buy enough food to satisfy her, and some simple yet warm clothing to replace her pajamas.

      Whitewinder showed her the jobs that gave money to Neopians, depending on how well they did. Phantasma was particularly good at petpet sitting, and it was in that moment that Whitewinder decided to show her the petpet store.

      A bell rang softly as they walked through the door of the shop. All at once, brays, mews, grumbles, and squeaks filled the air in greeting. Dozens of cages lined the walls, and each one contained an interesting critter. Phantasma and Whitewinder edged away from the squealing group of neopets swooning over a spotted feline, stopping in front of a cage that contained a critter labeled “raindorf”.

      It snored loudly.

      “As a ghost,” said Whitewinder, watching it sadly, “I am uncertain about owning a petpet. They like hugs, you know. And they are mortal, while I am not.”

      “Are there ghost petpets?” Phantasma asked.

      “Yes, but they are incredibly emotional. They always seem so gloomy, which ironically does not match my own nature.”

      “Oh, I see.” She stared at the raindorf for a long while before she was distracted by the neighboring petpet, whose squeaks demanded attention.

      “This guy’s a raindorf, too!” she said suddenly. “But he’s green...”

      “He is painted,” said Whitewinder, grinning. “A paint brush is extremely valuable. Even more so, depending on the colour. There are ordinary colours, such as pink and orange. There are also more unique colours, such as Halloween, royal, faerie... and ghost, of course.”

      “Wow,” was all Phantasma said.

      The next few days were spent in much the same way, with Whitewinder guiding Phantasma around what she now knew as Terror Mountain. He would tell stories, explain peculiarities, and even taught her how to avoid “noobs”, the most frightening of Neopians. Often, they spent a lot of their time doing leisure activities and small jobs. Whitewinder noticed, however, that Phantasma was often nowhere to be found in the morning.

      It was when she returned to the crypt as late as noon that Whitewinder showed suspicion.

      “Where do you go in the mornings?” His voice was stern. “Neopia is not always a safe place, you know.”

      “Nowhere,” said Phantasma, grinning broadly.

      He didn’t buy it. “You are a poor liar.”

      “Really!” she insisted. “Just earning some extra points, is all.”

      With that, she was off again.

      Phantasma was nowhere to be found the next day, and Whitewinder was still waiting in the crypt by the time evening came. The moment he heard her boots crunching the snow, he burst from the icy wall in fury. He stopped just before her, fuming, his glowering red eyes failing to frighten her the way they used to.

      Without a word, she pushed a cardboard box into his paws. Whitewinder stared at her in surprise, then looked at the box he now held.

      “Open it!” said Phantasma, grinning broadly.

      The Bori obeyed, pulling back the lid of cardboard. His eyes widened in surprise at the thing that lay inside and slowly a smile spread across his muzzle.

      “Like it?” said Phantasma. She reached toward the thing, tapped it gently, and the robot bika whirred to life. Its eyes flashed blue as it scanned the Bori in front of it, and it chirped in content. Slowly, it began to walk around the box, searching for a way out.

      Whitewinder placed the box in the snow, and the bika stepped outside only to sink into the piles of cold, white fluff.

      “Snow-proof, of course,” Phantasma said proudly, and the robot’s feet widened into plates so it could walk nimbly across the snow. It circled Whitewinder, chirping excitedly.

      “You have the potential to be a good owner,” the Bori said with a smile. “Saving so much money in so little time... not bad for a newbie. A good idea, as well! A robot does not feel, and lives as long as you take care of it.”

      “Give it a name.” Phantasma was beaming, watching the bika walk around.

      “A name, hm?” Whitewinder thought for a moment. “Let us see... it is a robot, to begin with. Made of metal... elements.”

      He closed his eyes for a moment.

      “Silicon,” He said at last, looking at the bika with pride. “Silicon Unit 26.”

      It chirped in delight.

      “Thank you, Miss Phantasma.” His voice brimmed with happiness. “This truly is a wonderful gift.”

      “I should be thanking you,” Phantasma insisted. “You’ve helped me find my way around this world, and gave me more confidence, yeah? I owe you this bika.”

      “Very well.” The Bori grinned. “Then I am proud to be your neopet. You could become a good owner.”

      “I sure hope so.”

      “What will you do next?”

      She thought for a moment, then glanced around. “This is your land, right?”

      “Yes.”

      “Seems a bit empty. How about a neohome?”

      Whitewinder nodded with approval, and he drew some paper from the crypt. His memories of the bad owner faded as he began to construct the blueprints for his new home, and as Phantasma scribbled down notes, she realized it didn’t matter if she woke up in a prickly situation. As long as there was soft snow or a good friend nearby, there was always a solution for a problem.

      Silicon chirped excitedly.

The End

 
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