Flowlight: Sun - Echoes of Pride: Part Two
The trees creaked and groaned in some wind, or perhaps the effects of the day's heat. The Shoyru's enchantment had not entirely worn off yet, and the clouds were much thinner than usual.
“So, where are you going now?” Truth be told, Daniel was the one following; normally he was at least able to pretend that he was boldly leading the way.
“I've someone to meet,” said the Xweetok, “and if you will insist on coming with us, at least try not to act so... conspicuously. It makes things hungry. They might take notice of you.”
“This is what I always wear! What do you mean?”
“That wasn't what I was referring to. I meant the way you seem to have more in common with a lost Babaa than a self-aware Neopet. If you were alone, you would almost certainly have fallen prey to any of the dangers which you seem completely and blissfully unaware of. If, for example, you were to take one more step forward, you would probably fall into the gaping mouth that happens to be awaiting your foot.”
Daniel looked down. There was nothing.
“Merely illustrating a point,” said the Xweetok.
“So, what exactly are you doing to... investigate these events? Just asking around?”
“But there has been a marked increase in the number of supernatural abductions, and there is only one person likely to be able to guess at the reason.”
Daniel noted this down. “Supernatural?”
“Name thieves. Ghosts who take people who stray outside the towns. They should stay away from the towns themselves, as marked and bounded by the lanterns. It's forbidden.”
“Forbidden by what?”
“By the treaty. The century-old treaty. Without it, the Woods would be a warzone; and it may be that it will become exactly that.”
“And who is this who knows so much about paranormal politics?” That makes a good alliteration, a part of Daniel thought absently.
“You'll find out. Quite frankly, this is a momentous event. It would serve you well to make a record of these events, since you're interested – though I doubt you'll publish it.”
“So that's why you're suddenly telling me this?”
“Yes. By the way, how fast a learner are you?”
“Oh, very,” said Daniel emphatically.
“Then you may make it out of here alive.”
They continued on in silence, as behind them a living pit opened in the overgrown ground, gulping hungrily at the air.
The settlements of the Woods were clustered together for the most part in the north-eastern corner, as if seeking mutual protection from the tangled, crawling roots of the twisted trees. Nevertheless, it took – in as much as time could be measured here – nearly until noon to reach Neovia.
Daniel was not particularly impressed. Still, there was no time to argue, not in the crush of tourists – and the rare local resident – milling about. It was a large town, by the Haunted Woods' standards, with a gaudy, ostentatious palace in its centre, and noticeably poorer regions around the edges. Daniel was forced to weave his way through the crowds, barely managing not to buy anything. He was practised at it, but this was considerably thicker an assembly than he was used to. Neovia was heavily trafficked for being part of the Haunted Woods, to the point where the majority of this street was lined with tourist shops. The path they had emerged from seemed to have disappeared, covered by roots and blocked by branches as it was, giving way to the wide cobbles and general friendly bustle.
Not even he noticed the way that the trees seemed newly-grown, or that the fay-lanterns that should have lined the edge of the town had been swallowed up by the darkness of the woods; for so it had been since before he had arrived.
At one point, when the jostling stopped, he managed to catch up with the Xweetok – who seemed to walk straight through the bustle as if it were not real – and said, “This isn't the way to the mayor's palace!”
The Xweetok turned and looked at him, almost pityingly. “The mayor knows nothing except what he's told by other people who know nothing. Very few people ever go to see the mayor. Those who come here will always be rather hungry, and there is one place above all others in this town that they know of and visit: the Crumpetmonger. She knows more folk and folklore than anyone else you'll find here, and the only person who might match her is someone you'd not like to meet.”
“She makes good pastry too,” commented the Shoyru from behind Daniel, who barely noticed, being caught up in moving as quickly as he could after the Xweetok.
When he finally reached the shop in question, the Xweetok was already there. The Shoyru was beside her, in the middle of purchasing some bagels. Obviously, he'd picked up a trick or two. Daniel stepped quickly up to the counter, and then realised he had; but what happened directly after was even stranger. He felt his mouth moving, and knew that he was moving it. He was even vaguely aware that he was pushing, prodding, nudging, doing his job as he had never done it before, but only after he had stopped speaking did his hearing seem to begin working properly again.
“Oh, yes, I remember that one,” the Crumpetmonger was just beginning to say, “he used to come here every day, that youngster. He was barely up to the counter, but he'd bring a few coins every day and I'd give him a little extra, because he was poor, you know. People always used to stay away from him, almost as if they were scared or something – even the local fellows who knew him. Maybe he was just shy, or it could've been because he had these really big teeth, his mam used to be really proud of them, he wasn't funny in the head. I thought that, then one day – that was twenty years ago, mind you – I saw him leaving the town and that's the last there was of him. No-one else really noticed he was gone – he didn't have many friends, you see – so he might've decided to go away and never come back, or he might've just been curious. Same thing in the end, you know – I knew this Gabbie –“
Sensing that this might go on for some time, Daniel backed away slowly, scribbling in his notepad. He didn't see how the information was important, but once they were outside the shop he turned and demanded of the Xweetok, “What was that?”
“What was what?” she replied innocently. “You gave a stunning account of yourself just then. I applaud you – but we must be going now.”
“Going where?” It seemed to Daniel that she was mystifying him almost on purpose. She could at least bother to explain some of the things that were happening.
“To see the child she was talking about.”
“Child? Didn't she say that that was twenty years ago?”
“He is remembered as a child, so it becomes his identity. Such is the fate of the nameless ones. And I know where I will find him.”
As they went further away from the palace, the houses became shabbier, and all of a sudden stopped being two-storey; the pets were fewer, their clothes more ragged, their faces less contented; the ground went from cobbles and brick to mud, compressed by hundreds of errant feet. And there was the ever-growing smell, quite indescribable, but extremely irritative to the keener nose. Perhaps the simplest and most polite way to describe it to a person who has never had the chance to smell it for himself would be 'a concentrated essence of dung, uncorked and locked up in a small windowless room for a week'. The only flaw in such an analogy would be how close it was to the truth.
Bear in mind that while that is probably the worst thing any respectable Neopian will ever encounter, the real thing is a lot worse. These were the slums proper. The shock of the smell increasing tenfold and crashing against his delicate senses like a tidal wave was enough to bring him to the present, and he realised the Xweetok was saying, “ – make a living of doing things that involve entering the woods. There are a surprising number. The Lord Mayor doesn't know, and I doubt he would mind if he did.” She smiled oddly. “He would say it kept the population down.”
“What? You're absolutely sure – like pests?” demanded Daniel.
“To him, pests is all they are; unwanted, unneeded, fouling the image of his town.”
“Right.” Daniel noted that down. “In any case, are you looking for one of these people? Trying to meet a ghost, are you?”
“Not a ghost,” the Xweetok replied calmly. “Not just a ghost.”
“Hey! You be lookin' for a guide?”
It could have been any of a hundred such calls. It just happened to be the one that fit into the pause in the conversation. And it belonged to a young Wocky, by the look of it hardly older than the Shoyru was, with fur much too grimy to tell the colour of.
The Xweetok looked thoughtful. “Yes, I think we are.”
“Where you wan' to go?”
“I dropped something in the woods. Only about an hour's way out, I think, in that direction.” She pointed to the forest, which Daniel realised they had been walking past for some time. “I'd like to pick it up again.”
A strange choice of words, thought the small part of Daniel's brain which wasn't screaming silently about child labour and being quite exceeded in volume by the fundamentally ingrained fear of going into the Woods.
“Sure I can take you there. It's a hundred thirty.” The child held out his hand.
The Wocky danced nimbly around the trees, as if stooping and jumping and climbing around the hissing trunks and their crooked offshoots were an ordinary, everyday matter. To him, it probably was. He seemed to know not only where he was but where he was going, always barely in sight.
The Shoyru had been having more trouble keeping up than Daniel did, so he was now riding on his shoulders. Daniel was faring better than he had, though in fact he felt that he was hardly doing better than a Slorg might; A Slorg half-dead from dehydration and a chronic lack of cabbage, said his innate editor. His legs were aching terribly from the strain of the journey, making it less frightening than downright miserable, though in fact they hadn't gone all that far when the Xweetok stopped and announced, “We are here.”
“Great,” said Daniel. “I thought we were somewhere else.”
“Nope, definitely here,” said the Wocky. Then he grinned.
And his mouth stretched unnaturally, as if his face was being distorted by a convex mirror, like the smile of a jack-o'-lantern, showing no actual expression at all; and when he opened his mouth, the rest of his head collapsed baggily in on itself, while his teeth lengthened and sharpened in a ring – and what was left in the end was nothing but a mouth, like the mouth of some sort of deformed worm.
The Xweetok seemed completely unperturbed. Daniel was shaking. He prided himself very much on his self-control, but even that was telling him to run. “What–?” he just managed.
“That,” said the Xweetok to him, as the creature stalked closer to them, drool running down its shapeless chin, “is the person I have been aiming to meet. He is the soul who was once the child Trevor, and not only that, but the Wraith Lord of the Nameless of the Woods, he of the Misted Throne, the King of the Ghosts.”
To be continued...