“Did you know that Mystery Island is haunted?”
It was a common whisper for Mystery Island’s schoolchildren, passed from pet to pet in hushed voices and furtive looks over their shoulders. It was tradition during the endless summer nights to gather on the beaches and sit around campfires, swapping ghost stories and urban legends, scaring themselves stupid. The stories became increasingly more ridiculous as the evening wore on, and made sure that no one would want to look too closely in the dark.
The only trouble was, the hauntings they were referring to wasn’t the Ghost Lupe, also known as Sylva. Ever since Judge Hog had sorted out that bit of trouble, the Ghost Lupe was a common sight on the island, wandering the jungle and generally keeping to himself. No one apart from naïve tourists were particularly afraid of him, and Sylva was known to even help out lost visitors on occasion. But the other ghosts? No one was sure who they were.
Marina was a combination of two things; determined, and very, very bored.
It was the summer holidays, and she had absolutely nothing to do. She had spent her last few breaks working her tail off to afford her Island Paint Brush, and since the Xweetok had bought it, she’d been spending her weekends lounging around the house. She’d long since had her fill of being a tour guide, but sitting around and sunning herself on the beach was only fun for so long.
“Did you know that Mystery Island is haunted?”
She couldn’t stop thinking about it; Mimi, her best friend, had been babbling on about it the other day, and Marina’s first thought had been “Duh.” Sylva wasn’t so much as a story anymore, let alone a legend. So who else could they be talking about? This was an island of sun-dappled shores and crystal clear seas, where the worst you had to worry about was sunburn.
‘So what, exactly, is Mystery Island haunted by?’ Marina asked her living room ceiling. She was dangling over the edge of the sofa, upside down, for no particular reason. Again, she was incredibly bored.
She could ask her friends – that was the easiest option. But when they spouted nonsense about the terrifying natives who lived deep in the jungle (they were actually indigenous Islanders who preferred the shade of the forests, and no, they didn’t live in straw huts), she wasn’t exactly about to put much stock in that. She could go to the library, but who wanted to spend a single day shut up reading musty old books?
‘I think it’s time to investigate for myself,’ Marina murmured, a grin spreading across her face. She flipped herself right ways up and grabbed her shoes. There was a mystery afoot and a summer to be wasted.
She started with the obvious one; Geraptiku. This was the part of the island where the warmth of the sun was blocked out by the thick canopy of trees, the sand giving way to soft, loamy soil, which she supposed was great for farming but did tend to make the city look cold and forbidding. Instead of the staple thatch and bamboo the main island sported, the buildings here were made out of a pale grey stone that leeched any colour from the surrounding trees. Marina shivered. Maybe it hadn’t been the best idea to come here alone.
‘Detectives investigate all kinds of scary places,’ she told herself sternly. ‘You can’t expect to find something interesting where it’s safe and boring.’ She was still avoiding the tomb, though. Not because she was too scared to go in, but because everyone knew the Ghost Hissi who lived in there. His name was Steve and he was really quite agreeable to explorers going in and out so long as they bought him something to eat.
She wandered over to the petpet shop, for lack of any other life around here. There was no one around apart from a sole Fleeper, and she reached out to stroke it absentmindedly.
‘Please leave money in jar?’ she read, frowning at the sign. ‘Wow, that’s counting on people being honest.’
A laugh came from the nearby bushes and Marina whipped round, holding out her fists in a flimsy form of defence. ‘Who’s there?!’ she barked. ‘Show yourself!’
‘Oh, no need to be worried, love.’ An Island Kacheek hopped out into the clearing, dusting herself off. ‘I’m just on my way back from my break; between Steve and me, we keep an eye on the petpet shop. I run the colouring posters shop, see?’ She pointed at the little stand at the edge of the forest border, its lonely banners fluttering in the breeze. ‘Between the two of us, we do okay. Everyone’s too scared of this place to steal anything anyway.’
‘So is it true?’ Marina asked cautiously. ‘The rumours, about the ghosts? Have you seen anything?’
The Kacheek laughed. ‘The scariest thing I see out here is Steve when he’s hungry, but he quietens down enough when I share my lunch with him. Not much else other than the tourists.’ She leaned in conspiratorially. ‘Between you and me, I think the tourism board plays up the whole spooky atmosphere of this place, trying to complete with the Haunted Woods and the like, bring in a different market. Those skulls over there? I don’t think they’re even real. One melted in the storm the other day, I’m pretty such its papier-mache.’
‘Oh.’ Well that hadn’t been what she was expecting. ‘Thank you, I guess.’
‘Want to buy the Fleeper? I’m sure such a cute little guy could use a home with you!’
And that was how Marina wound up 16,000 Neopoints poorer, and with a new petpet perched on her shoulder as she sulked her way back to the main island.
Her next stop was the volcano, because if there was anything that was scary, it was a volcano, right? There were rumours that a long time ago, strangers had been sacrificed to this thing, but again, no one had any concrete proof, just half-remembered stories. To be perfectly honest, there was nothing more chilling (boiling?) than a huge mountain with lava pouring out of it, so Marina set off.
… It was a much longer hike to the top than she’d been expecting.
The sun was starting to set as she finally scrambled up the rocky path – perfect for seeking out ghosts and ghouls and monsters, right? Techo Mountain must have something up here if it was so difficult to climb. Maybe it had something to do with the codestones, you threw them in in a certain order and then something horrible rose from the volcano’s depths…
‘If you’ve got codestones, just chuck ‘em in,’ came a bored voice from her right. Perched behind a desk was a thoroughly bored-looking Blue Kougra with an artistic lei of flowers slung around her neck. ‘Don’t worry about it, the volcano is pleased no matter which ones you have.’
‘And then what happens?’
‘You get a red codestone back, and yes, the order is random and no, I can’t do anything about that – ‘
‘So you get a red codestone and then what? Does it turn into something else? Open up a secret passageway at the bottom of the mountain?’
The Kougra blinked at her. ‘Uh, you can use them at the Training School, if you’re at a high enough level. Or sell them, I suppose.’
‘The Training School – is that a super-secret place that only the best can get into?!’
Marina’s tone was probably a little startling, but come on. She needed something to work with, here.
‘It’s for the Battledome,’ the other pet explained. ‘So you can stronger to take down some of the opponents in there, y’know, the one up at the Space Station? Surely you’ve heard of that?’
‘Yeah… yeah, I guess I have,’ Marina said. ‘So it’s really just a volcano?’
‘Just a volcano,’ the Kougra confirmed. ‘With the ability to turn rocks into different coloured rocks, if that helps?’
‘Not really,’ she sighed, and began the long trudge back down. Sometimes a volcano was just a volcano.
Her feet hurt by the time she got to the ground, and she had nothing to show for it. Mystery Island was clearly only haunted by Sylva and nothing else. That’d teach her to listen to rumours… She grumbled to herself as she hurried home, not wanting to get caught in the dark of the finally encroaching evening. The Kitchen was closing up after a long day of running around after Mumbo Pango, and the volleyball games stopped at six. In fact, the only sign of life was coming from the Tombola stall, a welcoming beacon in an otherwise dreary day.
‘I suppose it couldn’t hurt to stop in,’ Marina reasoned with herself; everyone got a free game once a day and she hadn’t claimed hers yet. ‘Maybe I’ll win some tropical food to have with dinner or something.’ The thought cheering her, she pushed open the door to the Tiki Tack shop, and headed for the Tombola machine.
‘Number 87,’ she read out with disappointment, staring at the ticket in her paw. ‘I guess that’s not a winner then, huh?’
‘Afraid not, little miss,’ the cheerful man said, glancing over his shoulder from where he was arranging bottles of sand on the shop shelves. ‘Better luck next time, come back tomorrow? I’ll give the machine a stern talking to, tell it to give you a better ticket.’
Marina giggled, and she was pretty sure that the Tiki Tack Man was smiling too, even under that mask. Come to think of it, none of the other shopkeepers on the island wore masks like that, and from a quick glance around his shop, he wasn’t selling them either.
She stared at him, unnerved. He wasn’t a pet, that was for certain, and he had smooth skin and arms and legs like the faeries did. But this man had no wings blooming from his broad back, and everyone knew there were no male faeries anyway. Right?
‘Did you grow up here too?’ Marina asked, picking up a bracelet and taking it over to the till, digging the remainder of her Neopoints out of her pocket. ‘I’m doing a school project on family trees and apparently my family have been here as long as they can remember.’
‘Oh, I’ve always been here, just running the shop.’
‘Did you make your mask?’
‘Sure did. Carved it from the trees on the edge of the island.’
‘Isn’t it hot, wearing something so heavy all the time?’ Marina asked, despite herself. ‘Wouldn’t it be much cooler to take it off?’
‘I can’t take it off.’
The man chortled at her startled expression. ‘I’m just teasing. I like my mask and it suits me just fine, don’t worry about it.’
‘Oh, okay. Just one more thing?’
‘What’s your name? I’ve been calling you Mr Tiki Tack Man, but that’s not very polite…’ She laughed nervously, staring at his unblinking mask.
‘Tiki Tack Man is what everyone calls me, I don’t mind a bit. Can’t be giving your name out to everyone you meet, now can you? You never know what’s lurking around.’
‘R – Right. Good point.’ She scooped up her bracelet, slipping it into her bag. ‘I need to get back now, but thank you for everything.’
He bowed his head in a respectful nod. ‘You’re very welcome. Come back again soon and I’ll sort that pesky machine out for you!’
Marina hurried out of the shop, clutching her Fleeper close. It was just starting to get properly dark now, and she felt jumpy for reasons she wasn’t quite sure of. When she got home, she started to relax a little more, and treated herself to a much needed bubble bath, to wash off all the grime and sand. Soon afterwards she settled into bed, making sure to make room for her petpet, and she fell asleep soon enough.
In the middle of the night, something woke her, a dream that she couldn’t quite remember and a sense of dread wrapping around her like a cloak. Without even really knowing why, she pulled the curtain at her window aside, just a crack. Mystery Island got dark at night, the island settling into a peaceful slumber, with all the lanterns snuffing out, one by one.
Apart from, of course, the Tiki Tack Man’s shop. It seemed he had no use for sleep either.