A Measure of Trust: Part One
Maijitesa was a far-traveled Uni. He had explored all the lands in Neopia, and despite his fearsome appearance, was well-liked in all of them (even Faerieland, though he couldn't stand being in its pastel-hued splendor for long). Maijitesa was also a polite Uni, soft-spoken and intelligent enough to get along with all walks of life. His favorite place, however, was the Haunted Woods.
Personable though he could be when pressed, Maijitesa was still a creature of the night and the perpetually dark atmosphere of the Woods suited him better than any other land. He could walk its twisted paths, unmindful of the shrieks and screams and growls of its citizens, and not receive the same stares and sometimes outright fear that he might get from strangers elsewhere. He felt comfortable beneath the gnarled branches of the ghostly trees, under the leaden sky.
Maijitesa knew a lot of people in the Haunted Woods, but he did not know everyone. Some denizens of the Haunted Woods did not play well with others; some just preferred to keep to themselves.
He knew that walking in the Haunted Woods could be dangerous. Unintentionally wandering into someone's private territory, or interrupting someone's meal, could quickly and easily lead to trouble. Still, he was confident in his skills as a talker, and as a fighter, if it came to that.
He was exploring a narrow, twisted track deep in the trees. Meseni, his petpet Ona, sat comfortably between his shoulders. The only place Meseni liked better than between his shoulders was on top of his head, where he could survey his surroundings from above, a position of superiority even higher than Maijitesa himself!
Suddenly, Maijitesa scented something unfamiliar. The Woods were full of different and often strange scents---some of them more offensive to the nose than others---but Maijitesa could identify most of them. This one, however, was completely unknown. He froze where he was, ears pricking forward, nostrils flaring. A split second later, he felt Meseni stiffen on his back. The Ona chittered softly and scrambled up his mane to perch between his ears. The Ona pressed his chest against Maijitesa's horn, and he could feel the tiny heartbeat, rapid with anxiety. Meseni was even more comfortable in the Woods than his owner---Maijitesa was fairly sure the Ona had been born here---what could have caused him such distress?
As he gazed into the gloom on the path ahead, a pair of eyes swam out of the fog. Yellow as a Kookith, bloodshot and filled with malevolence, they glared blearily in Maijitesa's direction.
"Leave this place," a voice said, a raspy sound like the year's last fallen leaves skittering against a gravestone. "This is my domain. You... trespass." It sounded as though the creature attached to that voice did not quite have the knack of speaking aloud.
Maijitesa bowed his head slightly. "My apologies," he said. "I was not aware." He turned to head back the way he'd come. He kept his wits about him, ears twitched back to catch the smallest sound, in case the creature hiding in the darkness decided it didn't want to wait for him to leave.
"Wait," came the voice again.
Maijitesa paused, and turned to glance back over his shoulder. Braced against his horn, Meseni hissed.
"What is that? On your head?"
"My petpet," Maijitesa replied shortly. "An Ona."
"Ahhh," the voice breathed. There was a rustling, like the whisper of long-dead grass, and a faint clicking like the sound of bones rattling in a rotted coffin. "Not edible, then."
Annoyed, Maijitesa switched his tail back and forth once. "Not edible," he confirmed.
"And what if I were to disagree?" The rustling sound came again, and Maijitesa sensed movement at his back. He pivoted slowly, staying alert. Meseni clung to him, claws digging into his skin. For once, Maijitesa didn't mind.
"Then we would have a problem," he replied. As he spoke, a shape detached itself from the shadows. It was a bird, he saw. A very large bird. Taller than Maijitesa himself, it had a wickedly curved beak and long, sharp talons. Its long neck was bare of feathers, but it had a brown and tan crest extending back from its head. The chest and belly were devoid of feathers, and peppered with warts and sores. It shifted its weight and clicked its beak, and now Maijitesa understood the sounds he had heard earlier.
"It looks very tasty," the bird went on. Out in the open, its voice sounded more sibilant: a snake slithering through old leaves.
"Regardless, he is not food," Maijitesa insisted. He sized the bird up, debating between fight or flight. He was no coward, but preferred to avoid bloodshed when he could---especially if the blood being shed might be his own. He could run fast, he could fly fast, but would this bird be faster?
Finally, Meseni gave way under that baleful yellow stare. With one parting hiss, he scrambled down off Maijitesa's head and down his neck, wedging himself in the space where one of Maijitesa's wings met his body. With luck he would be safe there; if it came to a fight, Maijitesa could use his horn and front hooves as his weapons, and he knew from experience that Meseni clinging there would not hamper the movement of his wings should he need them. Maijitesa waited until Meseni had settled himself before speaking again. "We have no quarrel with you," he said. "Let us leave in peace."
Instead of answering, the bird took a slow step toward him. Maijitesa stood his ground, lowering his head slightly to let the strange bird know that he was not afraid to use his horn.
The bird began to circle him slowly. Maijitesa kept pace with him, always keeping the bird in his sight. He could feel Meseni against his side, trembling as he clung to the short hair beneath his wing.
Suddenly the bird lunged, half-opening his wings as he launched himself across the clearing toward where Maijitesa stood. Maijitesa reared up on his hind legs, striking out with his forefeet, but both moves were feints, another way to size up the opponent's abilities. Still, Maijitesa caught the scent of burning feathers as the flames on his hooves singed the bird's wingtip as it passed. He had the ability to raise or lower the actual temperature of those perpetual fires at will, and right now he let them burn to their maximum extent. The bird landed on Maijitesa's other side, and the Uni pivoted sharply to keep the bird in front of him at all times.
The bird opened his beak and hissed at him, then held his wing out to survey the damage. The feathers were barely blackened, and he didn't think it would hamper his fight. Maijitesa's own feathers were tattered, bones protruding, and he could fly just fine.
The bird refolded his wing and stared at Maijitesa for a moment, rheumy eyes wide as if surprised that Maijitesa had actually been able to cause him damage. He then leaped into the air and flapped hard, up over Maijitesa's head, pulling his long legs up as he headed toward the canopy. Maijitesa watched, disinterested. He had no intention of following---he had not wanted a fight in the first place, he only wanted to protect his petpet. Meseni, while a scrappy fighter, would have been no match for that wicked beak.
He headed back down the path at a brisk walk, still keeping his ears open for the telltale rustling of feathers in case the bird decided on an attack from above, but he managed to emerge from the trees unharmed. He glanced back at the entrance to the bird's self-proclaimed domain and flicked his tail at it.
He turned his head as much as his neck would allow and lifted his wing slightly, meeting the eyes of the terrified Ona huddled beneath. "You can come out," he said. "He's gone."
Meseni stared at him for a moment, then slowly crept out from beneath his wing. He sat in his accustomed place on Maijitesa's back, but the Uni could feel how tense he still was.
"I wish you could tell me why he scared you so," Maijitesa lamented as he began walking again. "I suppose he did threaten to eat you, but I've never known you to be scared of anything." He had long ago realized that Meseni was mostly mute. He could not even make the little chirpings that normal Onas could, but was limited to tiny, raspy chitters, hisses and growls—and perhaps the occasional purr. Though generally Meseni could make himself understood, when specifics were needed, his methods of communication fell short.
Meseni was still for a moment, then he made a low, croaky whistle. Standing up, he jumped off Maijitesa's back and fluttered to the ground. He couldn't fly very well, though he could use his wings to slow his descent---that was important when your closest companion was three times your height. Meseni stood in front of the Uni, gazing up at him, then turned and dropped to all fours. Walking a few steps forward, he turned and looked at Maijitesa again, and the Uni knew this was a request to follow.
To be continued...