Out of the Shadows: Part One
In the deep shadows beneath the trees of the Haunted Woods, no light from the moon reached the forest floor. Creatures big and small could hide in these shadows, and never alert others to their presence. Trees tended to be very large, capable of sheltering many in their branches and around their roots. Lying under one of these large trees, his back propped against one of the huge, gnarled roots with his Ona, Meseni, curled up between his forelegs, Maijitesa dozed. Sleeping in the open in the Haunted Woods was always a risky affair, therefore he kept his senses more alert here than he would have in any other Neopian land (perhaps save for Krawk Island), though he was comfortable here. Every once in a while his sensitive ears would twitch in response to some sound from the forest, or his nostrils would flare as a new scent passed by. For the most part, however, the night was peaceful, and Maijitesa could rest.
Suddenly the stillness of the night was broken by a loud thrashing from the underbrush nearby. Maijitesa awoke instantly, head coming up, ears perking forward. The thrashing was followed by a loud, throaty squawking. Maijitesa shot to his feet. He knew that voice; it was that birdbrain, Ticherai. Dislodged, and woken from his nap, Meseni let out an indignant croaking squeal. He scrambled up Maijitesa's foreleg and over his shoulder, digging his claws in for retaliation. Maijitesa scarcely noticed.
The huge bird crashed out of the trees, half-running, half-flying, and shrieking like a hungry Screal. "Maijitesa! Maijitesa, run!" he screeched as he passed. "It's after me!"
Ticherai and Maijitesa had started off on a bad hoof, when the big bird threatened to eat Meseni.They had become friends after Maijitesa, with Meseni's help, had saved Ticherai's life by freeing him from some vines that had trapped him. Maijitesa and Meseni were two of the only creatures in Neopia that Ticherai trusted---the other being Mephaira, the old Zafara who had healed Ticherai's injuries after his ordeal.
"What's after you?" Maijitesa asked calmly. From his back, Meseni hissed.
"I don't know! Just run!" He spun around, grabbed hold of Maijitesa's tail in his beak and pulled, though not too hard.
Maijitesa looked out into the shadowy underbrush from which Ticherai had come. He could hear the rustling of the leaves; something was out there, but he was never one to run away, especially not when he didn't know what he was running from. Still, Ticherai was not easily scared either, and if something had scared him this badly...
"Maifitefa!" Ticherai squawked urgently, voice muffled by the tail in his beak. He tugged again.
Something growled in the bushes. Something quite close. Meseni cringed, digging his claws into Maijitesa's neck again as his little body tensed. A pair of eyes appeared in the shadows, glowing blue like two chips of moonlight. Maijitesa blinked. Ticherai shrieked again and hopped backwards, dropping Maijitesa's tail and half spreading his wings, but he was clearly reluctant to leave his friends.
Suddenly the creature in the bushes charged out into the open. Maijitesa spun out of the way, but not before he got a good look at it. He'd never seen a creature of its like before, not in all his travels. It was small, much smaller than himself and Ticherai, but he could tell most of its weight was hard muscle. Its hide was sleek and brown, with paler underparts. Huge dull claws graced all four paws, and two huge horns sprouted from either side of its head and curled toward its back. Scaly protrusions ran up the fronts of its forelegs. From its forehead, a series of scaly spikes ran along its spine toward its back end. Its ears were large and pointed and its nose small, reminiscent of an Acara, but it was unlike any Acara Maijitesa had ever seen.
The thing snarled at them and charged again, lowering its head to use its horns and head spikes. It was a feint, though, and Maijitesa was again able to dance out of the way.
"Mine!" the thing hissed. Its voice was high, raspy---a bit like Ticherai's voice, though much higher pitched. This, Maijitesa realized, was a female. "Mine, mine!" she squealed again, and charged him a third time. She leaped at him from a few steps away and Maijitesa half-reared, defending with his front hooves. The fire that danced around them singed her fur and she let out an unearthly scream. Maijitesa spun to meet her again, but she was backing away, hissing. Maijitesa just stood where he was, though with his horn lowered slightly in case she decided to charge again. When she was satisfied he wasn't following, the strange creature turned and fled back into the underbrush.
Maijitesa stood still for another few moments, ears pricked, listening to the creature get farther and farther away. Finally, he relaxed, and turned his head a little. "Are you all right, Meseni?" he asked. At the Ona's croaked affirmative, Maijitesa turned to look for Ticherai.
The bird was standing several feet away, wings still poised for flight, beak gaping slightly. He calmed as Maijitesa approached him, refolding his wings.
"Ticherai," Maijitesa said slowly, calmly. "What happened? What was that thing?"
Ticherai looked away. His feathers rustled as he shifted. "I don't know what it was," he said.
"Why was it chasing you and saying 'mine'?"
Ticherai shifted again.
"Ticherai," Maijitesa said, a note of warning in his voice. He knew Ticherai's body language well enough to know that the Lenny was hiding something important.
He shifted from foot to foot, clearly uncomfortable, and mumbled something.
Maijitesa leaned forward, ears flicking. "What was that, Ticherai?"
"I tried to steal its food!" he snapped, then cringed as if expecting a blow.
Maijitesa sighed. "Why would you do a thing like that? You can find your own food. And if you can't, you can come find me or Mephaira, and we'll help you." According to Mephaira, Ticherai had once been a pretty Lenny, but his insatiable curiosity had caused him to fall into a poisoned pond that disfigured anything that touched or even went near it. The experience had, as Mephaira put it, "driven him a little funny in the head". Sometimes he could sound almost sane, his speech mature and articulate. Other times, he regressed into an almost childlike naiveté, and it fell to Maijitesa and Mephaira to care for him during these times.
Animals with beaks couldn't pout, but Ticherai managed to seem as if he was. Maijitesa sighed again. "If you encounter that creature again, don't bother it," he said. "Next time I might not be around to rescue you." Ticherai could easily hold his own in a fight... when he remembered how. Maijitesa did not want to risk the Acara catching him on a day when he forgot he had sharp talons and a sharp beak. "Now come, let's go see Mephaira. She's probably baking something delicious."
The pout disappeared and Ticherai visibly perked. "Yes, let's go see Mephaira," he agreed.
Maijitesa chuckled and led the way across the Woods to Mephaira's shack. Its weathered boards, rusty gate and overgrown garden had become familiar to them now, almost like home.
Mephaira always seemed to be expecting them, and this time was no different. The door was open before they reached it, and the Zafara herself stood in the shadowy doorway, smiling her familiar pointy, yellow smile. "Hello, my friends," she greeted them warmly, stepping aside so they could enter the house. The inside was dusty and musty, the carpets threadbare and the upholstery worn, but it was comfortable, and large enough to fit all three of them (four, including Meseni, but he didn't take up much room). They both bowed as they passed her. Maijitesa could smell something baking, the scent wafting from behind the curtain that served as her kitchen door. He could tell Ticherai smelled it too, from the way the bird's beak lifted as they passed.
"Make yourselves at home, I'll check on the cakes," she said as she closed the door. She immediately turned and ducked behind the curtain. Once in the living room, Ticherai lowered himself to the floor by Mephaira's favorite chair. Maijitesa waited until he was settled, then laid down beside him. Mephaira had couches and chairs, all comfortably worn just like the rest of her furniture, but the two of them had always preferred the floor. Meseni slid down Maijitesa's shoulder to plop between his knees and lean up against one leg.
After a few minutes, Mephaira came back with a large tray, which she set down on the floor. She distributed cups of tea and plates with Pyramicakes and fresh blueberry scones. There was even a tiny plate for Meseni, with smaller versions of each pastry, and a tiny cup of tea. She took a cup of tea and a plate for herself back to her old, worn chair, and sat down with a sigh.
"Thank you, Mephaira," Maijitesa said. Between his legs, Meseni bowed and made a little chittering noise, his way of saying thanks as well.
Ticherai paused with his beak open, head halfway toward the plate. He closed it with a snap and bowed. "Thank you, Mephaira," he repeated. At her smile and nod, he lowered his head again and swallowed a scone whole, then started in on a Pyramicake. This he ate slower, to savor the Golden Juppie filling.
Maijitesa smirked and nibbled his own Pyramicake, far more politely than Ticherai.
"It does this old heart good to see you boys eat," Mephaira said. "I can't keep an eye on you all the time, so when you're here I have to feed you well." Maijitesa knew this was meant mostly for Ticherai. He had to admit, if only to himself, sometimes he worried about the big bird as well. "How are you doing?" She directed this last at Maijitesa.
"Quite well, thank you," Maijitesa replied. "I wanted to ask you about something, though."
She sipped her tea, raising her eyebrows at him over the rim of her cup.
"Just before we came here, we encountered a... creature," Maijitesa went on. Beside him, he felt Ticherai go still, swallowing what he had in his mouth but not taking another bite.
"Oh?" Mephaira prompted.
"It looked like an Acara, but it was not like any Acara I'd ever seen." He described the creature in detail, as well as its behavior. "She seemed very aggressive and territorial, and more than a little feral, though she could speak," he concluded. "She was yelling 'mine'."
He nodded. "I'm fairly sure it's a female. She began chasing Ticherai after he tried to steal her food." He glanced at Ticherai as he said this, in time to see the bird dip his beak toward his chest in embarrassment.
"Had you ever seen her before, Ticherai?" Mephaira asked.
"Never, Mephaira," Ticherai replied. "I came upon her by accident."
"Hm." She sipped her tea again and took a bite of scone. "I have heard rumors," she said when she had swallowed, "Of a mysterious creature that has been seen in the Woods recently. It has glowing blue eyes, but most pets turn tail and run before they can get much more than a glimpse. You, Maijitesa, are the first pet I've heard of who has actually fought this creature... at least the first that has lived to tell of it."
He grunted thoughtfully. "Perhaps she was mutated by the same pool that afflicted Meseni and Ticherai?" Maijitesa suggested.
"Hm, perhaps, though I generally know of most pets that fall victim to that pool. Petpets I can't keep track of, but pets..." She trailed off, gesturing with the paw not holding the teacup.
"Regardless, my advice would be to stay away from that area of the woods altogether, and just leave her be. If she is disfigured, she is likely a recluse, just as our Ticherai tends to be." Shamed by his appearance, Ticherai kept mostly to himself, and never left the Haunted Woods.
Maijitesa nodded. "That sounds like a very good idea. Ticherai?" He looked at the bird again.
Ticherai busied himself with the last of his Pyramicake, not looking at them. "Okay," he agreed. "I'll stay away from there."
"And no stealing food," Mephaira cautioned. "If you need food, come to me, or find Maijitesa."
He nodded. "I will, Mephaira."
"Good boy." She nodded, and sipped her tea again.
To be continued...