Puffy reached out a tentative hand towards the trembling Gaa. Of all the Nightmaren Minions, the Gaa were the most ferocious. With their sabre-like fangs and cruel claws, there was little that could put fear into them. Yet this one was trembling like a frightened kitten, and as she stroked its thick white mane it let out a quiet whimper and snuggled up to her touch.
She picked it up, gently continuing to sooth it. It looked up at her with terrified eyes and let out a soft mew.
‘What in the dream world could possibly spook a Gaa like this?’
A Hollow tore past as fast as its wings would allow.
“Kageboshi Shinde! Kageboshi Shinde!” It cried in its high, parrot-like voice.
Cradling the Gaa closely to her, she bounced gently towards the window. Outside, Minions were in a flutter. Recently returned from their patrols of Nightopia, they were terrified, one and all. From the Crewle Pole to the Verol, not a one remained unaffected.
‘I must find out what Kageboshi Shinde means.’ She mused as she bounced gently off towards the castle’s library.
Jackle shrieked as a flock of Shleep almost trampled him, no easy task for creatures without feet. He swerved quickly to avoid them, but several still got caught in his voluminous cape, threatening to pull it from his shoulders. He flicked it about himself in a desperate attempt to free the Minions and save his most valued possession.
“What in Nightmare is going on here?!” He demanded, screaming and ducking as a school of Party flittered by overhead, Clawz at their heals. Jackle grabbed the Maren cat by the scruff of the neck. “Are you responsible for all this you overgrown furball?” He growled, indicating the pandemonium around him.
Clawz jerked free of Jackle’s grasp, glaring at him with angry red and yellow eyes. The cat may not have Jackle’s gift of speech, but he knew, of the two, he was of a far superior intellect. He despised the way the others treated him like an animal, but Gillwing and Gulpo faired no better. Why was it that those without speech were always considered to be likewise without brains?
He dug his claws into Jackle’s shoulder, not hard enough to actually cause any damage, or even draw blood, just enough to cause momentary pain. Jackle hissed in protest, as Clawz redirected him, shoving him towards the window. The Maren cat gestured outside, indicating that just about all the Minions were swarming about in a terrified frenzy.
“What the blazes got into them?”
“Kageboshi Shinde.” Puffy informed them as she bounced towards them down the corridor. The Gaa was still snuggled up in her arms.
“Cage bushy shin what?”
“Kageboshi Shinde.” Puffy corrected. “As near as I can figure it means ‘Shadow Death’.”
“Shadow Death?” Jackle didn’t like the sound of that at all. “So that’s what’s got the Minions all riled up?”
“I guess…” she sighed, looking down at the Gaa in her arms. “I just wish they could talk…tell us what’s going on…”
Clawz rolled his eyes, and held out his hands to Puffy. She frowned, not understanding what he was getting at. He pointed at the Gaa, and made a ‘hand him over’ type motion with his long clawed fingers.
Shrugging, she placed the Gaa in Clawz’ hands. It mewled at him pitifully. Clawz mewled back. A quick conversation of meows, growls, mewls and roars swiftly ensued. Puffy and Jackle exchanged a curious glance. Clawz patted the Gaa’s mane, placed it gently on the floor and watched as it bounded away.
“So what was that all about?” Jackle demanded of the Maren cat.
Clawz only reply was to amble towards the library. With nothing better to do, Puffy and Jackle followed in his wake.
Jackle watched as Clawz began refilling through books, obviously looking for something in particular. The cat would discard one book and take up with another, only to move on to a third. Finally, he let out a delighted yelp and began pointing to a picture.
Puffy and Jackle drifted over to see what he was so excited about.
“Yume.” Puffy sneered as she saw the intricate painting of the former ruler of Nightopia. “She has something to do with this?”
Clawz nodded quickly, and began turning pages again. He stopped on a page depicting a group of beings not unlike themselves, but that looked somehow more wholesome, more pure.
“First Level Nightopian?” Jackle would have quirked an eyebrow if he’d possessed one.
Clawz pointed outside to where they could still hear the Minions scuttling about.
“Are you saying we’ve got a First Level Nightopian on our hands?” Jackle asked.
Clawz shook his head and pointed outside again.
After centuries of dealing with the speechless creature, Puffy was used to interpreting his meaning. “He’s saying that that is what the Minions think it is.” Clawz nodded at her interpretation.
“But it’s only one.” Jackle protested. “How could one being cause them such worry?”
“If it has allied itself with NiGHTS…that would be a cause for concern…”
“Should we tell the boss about this?” Jackle asked a little nervously.
The trio exchanged a glance. Wizeman did not take bad news well, and none of them wished to bare such a finding to their master.
“Perhaps we should ascertain this creature’s existence before we inform the Master.” Puffy suggested.
“Good idea.” Jackle agreed. He and Puffy both looked at Clawz.
The Maren cat glared at them, letting a quick, loud breath hiss out through his sharp clenched teeth.
Clawz spent several long minutes finding the Gaa which had told him about the creature. If he were to hunt this creature, he wanted to know more about it. He found it finally, curled up in a dark corner of the castle’s dungeon. It answered all his questions, but begged he leave the creature alone. It certainly had no love for Maren.
He was padding his way silently towards the main gates, preparing to make his way into Nightopia, when he heard Wizeman’s bellowed order.
“My Maren! To me! NOW!”
Clawz grumbled under his breath. Despite the Gaa’s warnings, he was actually looking forward to meeting this creature. Things had been tediously boring around Nightmare of late, even the rebellious NiGHTS hadn’t been causing any trouble. Jackle took this as a good sign. Clawz knew it meant that NiGHTS was planning something, something big.
But he knew better than to defy his Master…
Gillwing landed gracefully for such a massive creature, and curled his long spiked tail about his heavy head, focusing his eyes on his dreaded Master. Gulpo poked his head up out of the large basin that was his home whenever he visited the castle. Puffy lounged luxuriously on her over-sized settee. Clawz took his place at his Master’s feet.
Jackle was eyeing the impressive seat on Wizeman’s right. Intended for his most valued Maren, it had, until recently, been Reala’s. But the chalky-faced Maren still had not resurfaced, and Wizeman seemed loath to appoint a successor.
Clawz sat up as Jackle drifted closer to Reala’s absent seat. Of all the other Maren, Reala was the only one that Clawz truly respected, save Wizeman himself. He growled softly at the caped Maren.
Wizeman cast a palm eye on Jackle. “Take your seat.” He said, gesturing towards Jackle’s usual perch. Clawz smiled smugly at him as he drifted past. Jackle pointedly ignored him.
When Jackle was seated Wizeman stated simply, but coldly…
“The girl has escaped.”
“From the limbo realm?” Puffy gasped. “But that’s impossible! She doesn’t possess the ability to fly the gauntlet.”
“Then she must have had help.” Wizeman nodded his agreement.
“That must be where that cage bushy thing came from.” Jackle blurted. Puffy and Clawz each shot him a quick, scathing glance.
“‘Cage bushy thing’?” Wizeman repeated in a soft growl, his tone demanding clarification.
“Uh…” Jackle looked left and right, but it was obvious he was on his own here. But if he was going down, he wasn’t going alone. “Puffy told me about it.”
Wizeman’s palm eyes turned to the operatic rabbit. She cast a sideward glance at Jackle, who returned her gaze with a nasty smirk.
“The Minions call it Kageboshi Shinde…” she said softly, putting as much calmness into her voice as she could muster. “It’s what has them all so frightened.”
“Bet it’s killed a few too.” Jackle added.
“There is a creature flying around Nightopia with the strength and the gall to slaughter my Minions and you didn’t see the necessity to TELL ME ABOUT IT?!”
“It’s unsubstantiated.” Jackle said quickly, trying to sooth his Master’s wrath. “I mean…we can’t take the word of a few Minions, right? Now if one of us…” he gestured to the gathered First Level Maren. “If one of us were to see it…”
Jackle stopped as he saw the cruel smile curl Wizeman’s lips. He knew he’d all but dug his own grave.
“Thank you so much for volunteering.” Wizeman said.
“But…” Jackle protested. “This thing’s most likely a killer…and it obviously has no love for Nightmaren…”
“Which do you fear more?” Wizeman asked. “This…Kageboshi Shinde…or me…”
Jackle tried to smile, but only appeared to look sick. “I’ll have a full report for you be dreamfall.”
“I can’t believe he made me do this.” Jackle mumbled to himself. “Me! I should be delegating the troops, not traipsing about in the Forest looking for something that probably doesn’t exist….” He sighed. “It’s all just so…menial…”
He looked up as he drifted out of Mystic Forest and into the sculptured gardens of Soft Museum. He’d been searching Nightopia for hours it seemed and he hadn’t even stumbled across a single Pian, let alone this mysterious…Kagebushy…Kageboshie…whatever it was!
His face brightened as he spotted a group of Pian, giggling as they bounced off the spongy architecture.
“Boss didn’t say I couldn’t have a little fun.” He said to himself as he glided silently towards the unsuspecting angel-like creatures. He pulled out one of his razor edge cards and prepared to hurl it…
“Leave them be.” A soft, but threatening voice spoke from behind him.
Jackle stiffened. It wasn’t a voice he recognised. And it was far too deep and threatening to belong to a Pian. The caped Maren turned slowly, card held at the ready, to face the creature.
It wasn’t particularly large, he noted, but the black armour and glowing red eyes gave it a menacing appearance. It studied him, but made no move against him.
“Shadow Death…” He mumbled, taking in its midnight attire and the way it seemed to all but vanish in the shadows of the trees behind it. Jackle didn’t know what it was, but he wasn’t taking any chances. With a shriek he hurled the card in his hand. Two more quickly followed.
The creature easily evaded the first two, and slapped its hands together to stop the third mere millimetres before its face. In one graceful movement it flipped the card and hurled it back towards its owner.
Jackle shrieked again and dove to avoid his own weapon. It flew over his head, neatly slicing off the roof of a small pagoda before embedding itself in a thick tree.
The Nightopians that were to be his prey, scattered, fleeing for the safety of the trees of the nearby Mystic Forest. Jackle noticed them stop to watch.
“Well, well, well.” A voice taunted. “If it ain’t Jack-ass.”
Jackle turned to find Napp hovering just beyond his reach. Napp, of course, had absolutely no love for this particular Maren, after all, it was Jackle who made him what he was today. A Mepian. A freak. A creature of both Nightopia and Nightmare, and yet truly welcome in neither. It was against his Pian half to hate, Pian knew nothing but love. But his Maren side despised him.
“I see you’ve met Kuraido.” Napp said, gesturing with his chin towards the black clad creature.
“Kuraido?” Jackle repeated, turning his attention back to the creature.
“The pleasure is all yours.” The creature named Kuraido said.
“Make him bleed.” Napp growled with uncharacteristic cruelness.
“That…” Jackle could almost feel Kuraido smile beneath his ebon faceplate. “Would be my pleasure.”
“NiGHTS!” Snuze streaked towards the purple clad Maren. “We got trouble.” Several other Pian flew in his wake.
NiGHTS turned at his approach. He had spent most of the morning training Pian for battle as per the schedule he had worked out with Kuraido. It was proving to be no easy task. The Pian weren’t designed for war, and were easily distracted, often flittering off to follow the erratic path of a butterfly in the middle of their combat training.
“What kind of trouble?” He asked, slightly relieved for a break in the monotony.
“Nightmaren.” Snuze informed him. “Or, more specifically, Jackle.”
NiGHTS raised a sceptical brow. “You fear Jackle?” He asked.
“Why wouldn’t we?” Snuze countered. “He’s big, he’s mean, and he’s got those wicked playing cards.”
“True enough.” NiGHTS admitted. “Where is he?”
NiGHTS laughed. “Then he is sure to be surprised.”
“Why?” Snuze frowned.
“Soft Museum is right next to Mystic Forest.” NiGHTS smiled. “And Kuraido just loves the trees.”
Jackle cursed his decision to retreat into the trees. He had more places to hide in order to evade the pursuing Kuraido, but he had no room to accurately throw his cards.
He felt something heavy strike his back and then his mouth was full of mud. Jackle looked up to see Kuraido twist quickly, low to the ground, deliberately allowing his long braid to trail in the muddy water. Pulling himself upright, Jackle wondered at this until Kuraido spun quickly on one foot, the heavy braid slapping Jackle painfully across the face.
Jackle squinted, desperately scratching at the mud in his eyes. But before he could clear his vision, he felt Kuraido’s weight, heavy on his chest, as he fell backwards into the mud.
Kuraido’s strong hands curled around Jackle’s invisible neck. “They say revenge is sweet.” Kuraido said softly as he began to tighten his grip.
“Kuraido!” NiGHTS’ voice rang out, loud and clear. “NO!”
Jackle felt the weight lifted from his chest, the hands torn from his throat. He gulped in air, finding the sensation rather unpleasant. He wondered, morosely, if Nightmaren could die from asphyxiation.
NiGHTS’ arms were beginning to ache from the effort of carrying Kuraido. He was already larger and heavier than the slight Maren, and the armour only added to the weight. But he wasn’t about to let go. And Kuraido was beginning to struggle now, having overcome the initial shock of NiGHTS dragging him from the all but defeated Jackle.
They were high over Splash Gardens now, and NiGHTS smiled.
“Now cool off.” He said, releasing the black clad warrior only feet above the waves.
With the weight of his armour, Kuraido sunk quickly beneath the waves. NiGHTS was beginning to worry when he didn’t surface immediately. But Kuraido blasted from the water, drenching the unprepared NiGHTS with salty spray.
“What are you playing at!?” Kuraido demanded, hovering in front of him. “I had him defeated! I would have rid us of his threat forever!”
“Maybe you did.” NiGHTS admitted. “But that is their way, not ours. If we were to stoop to their tactics, then we are no better than they are.”
Kuraido lowered his head. “Perhaps I am no better than they are.” He said softly.
“It is not always easy to fly with the angels, Kuraido.” NiGHTS admitted. “But we have to stand for something better. That is what it means to be a hero.”
“I am no hero, NiGHTS.” Kuraido said. “I merely seek justice.” He shook out his braid and headed for shore. He landed heavily, his boots sinking slightly in the soft sand.
Jackle limped into Wizeman’s audience chamber. He was dirty and dishevelled, his tattered cape dragged on the floor, leaving a trail of mud behind him.
“I take it that this Kageboshi Shinde is a real entity then.” Wizeman smiled.
“He’s called Kuraido.” Jackle said, his voice a little hoarse from his near strangling. “He had ever intent of killing me…and probably would have, if NiGHTS hadn’t stopped him.”
“Rescued by the renegade?” Wizeman chuckled. “That must have hurt.”
Jackle said nothing, he just looked away.
“What was it?” Puffy asked a little nervously.
“Can’t say for sure.” Jackle admitted. “But the Minions might have been right when they said it was a First Level Nightopian.”
This comment caught Wizeman’s attention. “Impossible.” He said. “I destroyed them all personally.”
“Besides,” Puffy said as she examined the damage done to Jackle’s transparent body. “A Pian would never be so…brutal…”
“Are you suggesting it was one of us?” Jackle asked, swatting her hand away as she reached for his injured neck.
“One of us…” Wizeman mussed quietly, his palm eyes narrowing. “Describe him!” He demanded of Jackle.
“Uh.” Jackle was a little taken aback. “He wasn’t all that big,” he admitted. “But he was well made…had to be to move in all that armour…”
“Armour?” Puffy queried.
“What wasn’t plate was chain mail.” Jackle said. “All black…had a kick like a mule too.” He rubbed his invisible jaw.
“But what did he look like?” Wizeman asked softly.
“Didn’t see his face.” Jackle admitted. “That was covered in armour too. But he had glowing red eyes…”
“Really.” Wizeman stroked his chin thoughtfully with one of his many hands. “I would be very interested to meet this…Kuraido…” A wicked smile curled his lips.
“Very interested indeed.”