A Sister's Business:Part Four
Casey coughed breathlessly as she shakily got to her paws. It took a moment for the dust to settle, but once it did, she found that she had fallen quite a ways down, much further than if she had fallen into a regular basement. It was too dark to see where the room ended. There was no floor, only loose, moist dirt, such as one found in a recently tilled garden bed. She stayed rooted to the spot, panting heavily, listening to the sound of her wildly beating heart. It was deathly silent.
" Norman!" she called into the blackness. " Norman, are you down here?" She was answered by a soft scraping noise, as though a spade were being drug through the soil. " Norman...?" she spoke tentatively. The scraping continued, but this time, it sounded as though dozens of claws were scrabbling in the dirt. The sound made her hackles rise. A foul stench rose in her face, and she choked on rancid air. Heavy breathing began to accompany the noise of her wildly beating heart from somewhere in the darkness. Then, there came a high, raspy moan.
Casey stood frozen in terror, unable to bring herself to step outside of the faint puddle of grey light that was drifting through the ceiling above her. Lifeless eyes gawked at her from the blackness. A chorus of gurgles and curious growls rose up from all around her.
" What isss it?" rasped a voice to her right.
" Sssmellsss like fleshhhh..." remarked another from behind her.
" Isss it tasssty? Isss it sssoft?"
" Itsss bones mussst be crrrunchy..."
To her great discomfort, Casey realized that they were talking about her. They were sizing her up, like she was an order on a menu. This was so much worse than the judgmental glances her peers threw at her at school. A crusty paw reached out from the gloom, trying to grasp her ear. Instinctively, she snapped at it, and closed her jaws tightly around it with a nasty squishing sound. It was like biting into a mouthful of sawdust. The Zombie yelped and pulled its paw back.
" It’sss sharrrp!" it howled. Casey could not see it through the darkness, but she suspected it was gently cradling its paw to its chest.
" Back off!" she snarled through her teeth.
" It’sss feisssty," said the first voice. " Ssshould we eat it?"
" Ssso hungry..." chorused several others. Casey could hear their dry lips smacking as they eyed her eagerly. She heard them begin to shuffle forward. They were closing in from all sides. Crumbling paws reached into the light, blindly groping for her. She could not bite all of them, and even if she did, that would probably do very little to deter them. So, she did the only thing she could think to do. She screamed.
Casey had never been a very loud Neopet. She commanded the attention of others through her presence and bearing alone. When she spoke, her voice was typically soft and low. She could only remember a couple of times when she had outright yelled, and certainly could not remember screaming before. She had always suspected she would never be very good at it if she tried. Fortunately, she was wrong. The ear-splitting shriek she let out in fear for her life was so impressive, it carried all the way from the basement up to the attic, where Norman was just recovering from his brush with another world. It reverberated throughout the entire house and echoed across the clearing, where Aaron had just burst through the treeline and was frantically searching for even a glimpse of his lost pups. The Zombies around her immediately drew their paws back and slammed them over their ears, hissing in pain. A moment later, just as she was taking in a breath to let out another one, Norman came tearing down through the ceiling, yelling at the top of his ghostly lungs,
" STAY AWAY FROM MY SISTER!" He landed beside her, fists clenched, tail swinging, and crimson eyes glowing. The mob of the undead immediately drew back with a collective gasp of surprise.
It is a little-known fact that Zombies absolutely detest Ghosts. Though a few have managed to look past the difference and work cooperatively with their bodiless counterparts in the past, most Zombie Neopets retain a deep-seated fear and hatred of spirits and phantoms. Norman and Casey, however, did not know this, and both were quite surprised to find the hoard shrinking back in terror at the sight of the Ghost Blumaroo.
" Ssspirit!" they rasped. " Bodilesss!" They backed up further, hissing and growling, tearing at the ground with their claws. Enraged roars and snarls filled the room. Norman gulped.
" I...I think I may have upset them," he squeaked, moving closer to Casey.
" You think?!" Casey yelped. A claw shot out from the gloom, glinting in the light and swiped half-heartedly at the two of them. Dozens of pairs of lifeless eyes began to shine with hatred around them. " Norman, get out of here!" she barked, baring her teeth in what she hoped would be a convincing show of intimidation.
" What? I came down here to save you!" he argued.
" What are you doing to do?" Casey asked bluntly as she snapped at another outreaching paw. " Besides, you’re the only one who can get out. I can’t fly like you can."
" I can’t just leave you!"
" Norman, go NOW!"
" NORMAN!" Casey shrieked as a Zombie burst from the gloom and dove towards them, gnashing its yellow teeth hungrily. Norman’s paws flew around his sister’s neck in terror, a last-ditch effort to protect her. Even if his ghostly body could not shield her from harm, they would still have to go through him to get to her.
Fortunately, the attacking Zombie did not get close enough to get to either of them.
The ceiling above their heads suddenly tore open, and strong, familiar paws shredded through the boards like paper, before being followed by the rest of the body.
" Dad!" Casey and Norman exclaimed in relief. There was a flood of dim grey light as Aaron broke through the floor above and landed right on top of his pups. He was quite a bit bigger than either of them, so there was plenty of room for both of them to take shelter between his enormous paws. The hoard around them seemed much smaller now that they were no longer concealed in darkness, and were trying in vain to shield their lifeless eyes from the sudden light. Aaron’s yellow eyes gleamed dangerously as he let out a warning growl from deep in his throat.
" Monssster hunter!" one of the Zombies wailed. The whole crowd of them all began scuttling backwards again. Up until that point, Casey would have said that a hoard of ravenous undead creatures was the most terrifying thing she had ever seen. But looking up at Aaron as he stared those things down with a vengeful fire in his eyes completely changed her mind in that moment. She was profoundly thankful she was the one hiding beneath him, and not the object of his current fury.
" Get back to your graves!" Aaron roared. " Or I’ll send you there in pieces!" His paw moved to unsheath his sword, but already several of the Zombies had begun frantically clawing their way back underground, hissing furiously. Aaron’s paw scraped feverishly at the dirt below him. He wanted so badly to tear these creatures limb from limb for what they almost did to his pups. His own rage might have frightened him a little if he was not so preoccupied with defending them. He managed to hold himself back though, and after sending off the last retreating Zombie with a triumphant snarl, he let himself breathe easy again.
" Are you both alright?" he panted, looking down at his wide-eyed offspring.
" Y-yes..." Casey stuttered, crawling out from underneath him. She shook the dust from her fur as Aaron nosed around her, searching for injuries. Still trembling, she rubbed her head against his neck in a typical Lupe gesture of affection and gratitude, as Norman put his shaking arms around Aaron’s left leg, causing a shiver to go down his spine. The family stayed like that for a moment, panting heavily and waiting for the residual fear to trickle away. Just as Aaron was about to demand to know what in Fyora’s name they were doing out here, Casey pulled back and faced Norman with tears of shame welling up in her eyes.
" I’m so sorry, Norman," she whimpered. " I never should have said all those things to you. This was all my fault."
" But you were right," Norman answered, his ears falling back against his head. " All those things you said are true. I am different, and I do make others feel uncomfortable. I don’t fit in at all."
" No," Casey said firmly. " Norman, you will always fit in, even if the other Neopets don’t realize it. You’re just as important and special as anybody else is, and I had no right to treat you like you were a broken Plushie in the Toy Store." She sniffed and rubbed her nose with the back of her paw. " Can you forgive me?"
" If you can forgive me for embarrassing you," he offered with a tremulous smile.
" Deal." Casey held out her paw for him to shake. He took it hesitantly, a little surprised that she had offered it to him, and then let out a startled yelp as she yanked him towards her and embraced him as best she could. She did not even shiver when he tentatively put his freezing arms around her neck. " So, did you find anything out?" she asked after he pulled away.
" About what?"
" About yourself; your past life."
" Oh. Nope," Norman answered with a cheerful smile. " But....I think that’s okay. It doesn’t really matter anymore. I know where I belong now, and that’s all I need."
" And....where do you belong?" Casey inquired, suddenly afraid of the answer. Norman, however, just smiled wider, and patted the top of her head with his paw.
" Right where I’ve been all along." Casey’s face broke into a relieved grin, and she pulled him in for another hug.
" I have no idea what’s going on," Aaron spoke up after a moment, digging around in his pack for his grappling hook to get them out of the basement. " But you two had better have a darn good explanation for being out here, or else you’re grounded for a month."
Strangely enough, Casey and Norman were too relieved that it was all over to do anything but laugh. It took them a few minutes to recover and explain everything.
" How did you find us, anyways?" Norman asked as he helped Casey climb out of basement. " We thought you weren’t coming."
" This little guy got lost, so I didn’t get your letter until this morning," Aaron explained, patting his pocket as the Weewoo inside stuck its head out with an amiable chirp. " I realized something was wrong when I found this by the side of the road." He held up Casey’s beloved backpack, covered in mud and damp from his trek through the Haunted Woods.
" I didn’t even realize I’d forgotten it," Casey laughed breathlessly, taking it back and slinging it over her shoulders.
" Anyways, from there, it was just a matter of following your trail. You were lucky she followed you, Norman. You don’t leave a scent to follow, and I never would have found you otherwise." Casey felt her fur fluff up with pride as Norman rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly.
" I’m sorry I put you in danger," he said as they emerged from the house to find themselves suddenly surrounded by trees. Looking back, they saw no trace of the doorway or porch, or even the clearing that had surrounded the manor. There was nothing but trees on all sides. Fortunately, Casey’s trail had remained, and it was easy to follow it all the way back to the South road. By the time they reached Neopia Central, the sun was just beginning to dip below the horizon, painting the sky a brilliant rainbow of pink, purple, and orange. They walked through the front door of their house at exactly seven-thirty.
Dalia was relieved to see them all in one piece, if somewhat mystified by how dirty they all were. She touched noses with Aaron and gently nuzzled both of her pups in typical Lupe fashion.
" Did you finish your report?" she asked Norman. He and Casey looked first at each other, and then at their dad, who gave them a very unhelpful shrug of his shoulders.
" We....sort of got distracted," Norman mumbled.
" But we did learn a lot!" Casey piped up.
In spite of all they had discovered, Norman still got a D- on his report. But neither he nor Casey were too upset about it after all. They still had each other, and after everything they’d been through, that seemed enough to them.