A Sister's Business:Part Three
Aaron panted heavily as he sprinted through the slowly thinning line of trees. The Weewoo in his pocket trembled as he flew across the landscape, leaping over logs and boulders, tearing up the mud beneath his feet. Nothing was more important to him than being there for his pups. There was a time, not so long ago, when he had not feared letting anyone down. He trusted in his own strength and speed, and as a result, made promises he only thought he could keep. Then came the first time he was not fast enough. To this day, a faint, thin scar hidden beneath the fur of Dalia’s back left leg served as a constant reminder of the penalty for arrogance. Had he been a moment later, she would have lost her whole leg. As it was, the experience was enough to give him a deep-rooted fear of letting down the ones he cared for.
At last, after what seemed like an eternity, the fog began to clear. Light began to seep in from between the tangled branches. Finally, he burst through the last line of trees into blinding sunlight, skidding to a sudden halt as he felt the wild ground turn into a smooth path beneath his paws.
All was silent. The road was empty.
"...Oh," he said quietly, though there was no one to hear him besides the drowsy Petpet in his pocket. Still breathing heavily, he sat down on his haunches and let his head droop, his tongue lolling out of his mouth. Bitter pangs of disappointment assaulted him as he sat there, trying to recover his strength. Deep down, he knew it was not his fault. He knew that nothing horrible had happened to his pups. But still, he had promised himself he would be there for them, and then he was not. If he could not arrive in time for the small things, how could he expect to be fast enough when the situation was dire?
A gentle breeze picked up and ruffled his fur soothingly. He took a deep breath and got to his paws again. There was not much else he could do. He had tried, and he had failed. The wind picked up again, a little faster and colder, but this time, it carried with it a scent that caused his nose to twitch. It was a familiar scent, and he turned towards the direction it was coming from, letting his nose guide him to a ditch at the side of the road. That was where he found Casey’s backpack, and a trail of faint paw prints leading, not towards home as he thought they would, but into the woods from whence he had come.
If he had felt bad before, it was nothing compared to the heart-stopping terror that gripped him now. Casey would never leave her backpack behind. He had given it to her on her fifth birthday, and it was her most cherished possession. She kept everything she needed to survive in there; first aid kit, Lupe Treats, a spare T-shirt. Something must have happened to make her leave it behind like this. His stomach turned as he looked back towards the foreboding trees that continued to sway even though the wind had died down a little while ago. His pups were in there, unarmed and unprotected, because he had not been fast enough.
Without a word, Aaron bolted back into the undergrowth, following Casey’s trail as fast as he possibly could.
"Norman!" Casey called breathlessly. "Norman!" It was like she was speaking to a mirage. He did not acknowledge her or even slow down. Casey growled in frustration as she picked her way through a gorse bush, straining her eyes to catch even a glimpse of his telltale glow in the darkness. In spite of it being midafternoon, the Haunted Woods were as dark as midnight, and just as silent. Mud clung to her paws as she tried to run, only to get caught in the undergrowth again.
If anything happened to him, it would be all her fault. Granted, she was not sure how anything would happen to him, but she could not shake the sense of impending danger from her head. Something had gotten hold of Norman. She did not know what, but it was making him act this way. Her brother had never stormed off in the middle of a fight, and he certainly never ignored her. For all the things she did not like about him, this just was not her brother. It was something else.
Casey shuddered as she pulled free, only to land in a deep mud puddle. Her paws sunk in and stuck, and it took every ounce of her strength to pull them up again. Oh, how could she have been so stupid! She never should have said all those things to him. Why had she said them in the first place? To protect her image? Well, now she was losing both her image and her brother because she had been too self-centered to even think that maybe he was hurting. She could go home the laughingstock of all Neopia and she would not care now. All she wanted was to get Norman out of here.
For a brief moment, she lost sight of him amidst the twisted, gnarled grey maze around them. With one final burst of speed, she tore through the undergrowth, her paws stinging from the thorns that scraped them. Then, a peculiar thing happened.
Although the trees were admittedly thick and difficult to navigate, she had certainly not seen any sign of a break ahead of her. Yet all of a sudden, she found herself skidding to a surprised stop as the trunks around her drew back like a curtain, and a dark, empty field lay in front of her. It was hemmed in on all sides by the woods, but such a sizable lapse of trees should, presumably, have been visible from further away. Without knowing why, Casey felt her fur stand up on end. A thick cloud of fog was swirling around the middle of the field, but as she approached, it melted away swiftly, to reveal a large, dark, and thoroughly disquieting shape: an old, towering abandoned manor. Among all the terrors that lurk in the Haunted Woods, that was probably the last one she would ever want to encounter.
She had no time to hesitate, though. As the wind picked up and shifted the fog again, she caught sight of Norman’s luminescent tail sliding through the broken-down door on the front porch. Everything in her that had been screaming at her to get away suddenly fell silent as she began to pursue him again. It is a well-known fact, after all, that nothing, not even a ghostly house in the middle of the Haunted Woods, can stay between a Lupe and her brother. With a low growl, she charged at the door, which, though the hinges had rusted off long ago, seemed to be stuck fast in the frame. She was fully prepared to ram her way through it on her own, but the house seemed to have other plans.
To her surprise (and slight horror) the door suddenly fell over inside the doorway, before she had a chance to so much as touch it. It gave a loud, wooden groan before slamming against the floor inside with a resounding bang. The noise echoed throughout the glen like a trumpet blast. Casey paused for only a minute, trying to shake off the icy shiver that traveled down her spine as she gazed into the darkness within. Then, as silently as a Kougra on the prowl, she slunk inside.
"...Norman?" she called softly. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the darkness. She was in a sort of foyer, with a grand staircase that branched off in two directions. The wind whistled through a broken windowpane behind her. Leave now, it seemed to say. While you have the chance. You won’t get him back now...
It was with great terror that Casey realized it was not the wind, but a low, whispering voice close to her ear that was urging her to leave. She swallowed hard before she answered it, even though she was pretty sure it did not care what she had to say either way.
"I’m not leaving without my brother," she said as calmly as she could. It sounded more like a breathless plea than she would have liked. There was a low hiss in her ear, then all fell still again. She took a few steps forward, breathing heavily, the sound echoing off the cold grey walls as though she were in a deep cavern. As she approached the staircase, she heard a soft thump coming from upstairs to her left. "Norman!" she called loudly, racing forward...
...Only to be greeted by a horrible groan from the floor beneath her. She froze and stiffened, forcing herself to look down. The floorboards were bending beneath her weight. She had to get out of here now, before--
Casey let out a desperate yelp as the ground fell away and she was engulfed in blackness.
Norman was terrified.
His ghostly body was taking him through long corridors, up winding flights of stairs, past ancient paintings of stern-looking aristocrats who seemed to be cataloguing his every move. A part of him was quite certain that he could have stopped himself if he wanted. But it felt as though an invisible lasso had been thrown around his heart and pulled tight, and now it was drawing him deeper into the old house. He felt a rush of longing pour over him like none he had ever experienced before.
That was what scared him; not the dark, not the gloom, not the strange, other-worldly statues that lined the halls, but that sick, empty feeling of desperate desire. It had started gnawing at the pit of his stomach the moment he and Casey left their house in Neopia Central, and it had intensified with every step closer to the woods until he could no longer stand it. But what exactly was he longing for, anyways? At first, he thought it was answers; answers as to who he was before he found himself like this, answers as to where he was meant to go now, and who he was meant to be. But he soon realized, with a sick feeling rising to his throat, that he did not know what he was so earnestly aching for. Answers seemed unimportant now. All he could think was Follow, follow, follow...follow the pull. It was like his mind had been taken from him.
After a long, silent trek through the ancient building, he arrived at what seemed to be the attic. The ceiling slanted almost all the way to the floor. The only light in the room came from a large, dirty, circular window in the wall, through which moonlight was weakly shining in through the grime. Norman swallowed. It could not be anywhere close to nighttime outside. His fear had doubled, but so had his desire. It pulled him deeper into the room, where he stopped and stood in the moonlight, wringing his paws nervously. All was as silent as the grave. After a while, he spoke up, in a tremorous, meek voice:
"H-hello?" His voice bounced back at him from all sides of the room, growing louder and louder with each echo until he had to cover his ears with his paws. It gradually faded, and all was quiet once more. He cautiously lowered his paws from his ears and looked around, unsure of what--or whom--he might see.
Suddenly, there was a great rushing sound behind him, like a dozen waterfalls crashing over a cliffside. He whirled around to see, not the window, but a dark, swirling tunnel of thick, purple fog. Dozens of Neopets floated listlessly to and fro, from side to side, until they gradually faded from view deeper in the tunnel. A knot formed in his throat. They were all like him, with gleaming red eyes and mysterious, unearthly auras surrounding them.
He wanted to join them so badly it physically hurt. He gasped and clutched at where his heart would have been if he had a body. He could not remember ever feeling such pain before. He took a step back, then found himself moving two steps further. This was what had been calling him.
"Who...are you?" he whispered to the countless phantoms gliding through the darkness.
We are the ones whose journeys have ended, a voice like the wind itself whispered in his ear. We are like you.
"But, my....journeyhasn’t ended," Norman fumbled. "I haven’t even graduated Neoschool, for Fyora’s sake!"
You belong with us, in the land of eternal dreams, it whispered again, as sweet and gentle as a budding flower. You’ve been awake for so long...Come rest your weary spirit.
"I..." Norman gasped for air, even though he knew he no longer needed it. The pull was so strong now it was practically suffocating him. This was where he was meant to be, in the land of rest with his ancestors. The place where Ghost Neopets went to escape the tires of the physical world. It was no wonder he never fit in anywhere else in Neopia. This was where he was supposed to be the entire time. Except...
"We’re your family. Me, Mum, and Dad, we love you, Norman. Just the way you are."
"...I can’t leave them," he whispered, feeling ghostly tears well up in his crimson eyes. "They’re my family, too."
You will never belong, the voice hissed, though it did not sound unkind.
This doorway will not open again for many moons. This will be your only chance for a long, long time.
"I don’t care." That was a lie. He did care, very much. But he cared about his family even more. "I have to stay with them."
The voice said nothing more, and with a quiet sound, like that of a silk curtain being drawn shut, the portal disappeared, leaving only the window behind. This time, dreary sunlight was shining through it, coloring the floor at his feet a sickly greyish-yellow. Norman heaved a shuddering sigh. It was all over.
At least, that was what he thought until he heard Casey’s scream.
To Be Continued...