Strange things are happening in the land of Driszaw, and it is up to the Special Spirit Squad to investigate.
In the previous chapter the Squad freed an eladrin sorceress from the clutches of the ignorant peasantry. They now turn their attention to the zoo, where there have been sightings of strange lights at night…
The Special Spirit Squad arrived at the zoo some twenty minutes before closing time, around seven in the evening. At daytime, there was usually a line in front of the ticket-booth, but this late you could just cut straight through. There were only a few coaches left in the spacious parking lot; one of them was a rather fancy looking black carriage that was parked right next to the entrance, on a VIP spot.
“Who do you suppose that belongs to?” asked Nathaniel.
“Some rich cat, probably,” shrugged Ko. “Who cares? Let’s go! It’s not every day you get a free ticket to the zoo.”
The ticket booth was manned by a bored halfling. Ko rushed up to her and pressed his badge against the glass.
“Koumi Ko, Special Spirit Squad! Entrance for five, please; four adults and a horse.”
“Alright, that’ll be five gold – wait, did you say horse?”
Haviér neighed angrily in the background. “What, horses can’t visit the zoo?”
The halfling’s eyes sparkled with mischief. Hers had been a long shift, but this was the first nearly interesting thing that had happened all day. “Alright. That’ll be six gold pieces then, please.”
“Wait,” said Maurice, “you just said it was five; one gold per person?”
“Horses are bigger than people,” quipped the beleaguered clerk. “So you’ll have to pay extra.”
“I’m afraid you misunderstand,” said Ko, “we’re here on official business.”
“So am I,” said the halfling, filing her nails and feigning disinterest. “My business being selling tickets.”
Nathaniel butted in. “It’s alright, here’s six gold. Have a pleasant evening.”
“Wait!” called the clerk from her box, “aren’t you going to haggle down? It’s almost closing time! You’re being cheated!”
But the four strangers and their horse were already out of earshot. “I’m so lonely,” admitted the halfling to no one.
The Special Spirit Squad made their way to the lizard pits, where they were told that they could find Jake the zoo attendant. Glurf wanted to make a detour trough the glass houses with the exotic insects, but none of her teammates thought this was a good idea. “Not to eat them!” she assured her comrades, “I just want to look!” They didn’t buy it.
When they arrived at the lizard pits there was no one there except for an exasperated mother with a nagging child. The pits themselves were empty, apart from a tanned zoo attendant with a bucket of bugs.
“But I want to see the chameleons!” whined the child.
“They’re camouflaged, dear,” explained his mother. “That means they’re invisible.”
“Then make them uncamouflage!”
“Honey, we’ve been waiting for almost an hour-“
“I WANT TO SEE THE CHAMELEONS!”
“Don’t worry, ‘lil ankle-biter,” said the zoo attendant with a sparkling grin, “a chameleon’s scales might be able to copy its surrounding colors, rendering it invisible, but its tongue can’t! Let’s see if they’re hungry.”
Jake reached into his bucket and took out a giant mosquito. He tossed it in the air with a flourish; it landed on the ground without so much as a crunch. Nothing happened.
“C’mon Sheila’s, what’s wrong? Bog in!”
The ticket-booth clerk’s voice resounded magically throughout the whole zoo. “Dear visitors. The Zoo is closing in fifteen minutes. Please make your way towards the exit. See you soon.”
“Thank Serenrae!” cried the mother as she pried her struggling toddler’s fingers from the bars.
“But I want to see the chameleons!”
As soon as the nagging stopped the chameleons judged it safe to come out. They shifted into a more neutral green and gorged themselves on jummy bugs. They were far bigger than any chameleon Nathaniel had ever seen; the biggest was almost as big as a cat. Jake laughed and cuddled up with the munching beasts. “Ah, you cobbers were just shy, weren’t you?”
“Or scared,” mumbled Glurf.
“Ah, hello there!” said the attendant to the Squad as he tickled a snug chameleon’s throat-flap, “Enjoying the show? It’s about closing time, so I’m afraid I will have to ask you to leave.”
As expected, Ko darted forth and waved his badge around. “Koumi Ko, Special Spirit Squad, here on official business.”
“Crikey! About time you mates showed up!” Jake left the bucket with the chameleons and nimbly hopped his way from stone to stone, over the fence, landing next to the squad with a somersault. He extended his powerful hand to Ko and shook it with vigor.
“It’s no biggie, really,” Jake continued, “T’is just that spooky lights might scare away the customers, y’know? We’re closing early until we figure out what’s going on.” Jake turned to look at the child leave with its mother. “Poor little ankle-biter – waited for over an hour to see his favorite lizards.”
“Their camouflage is most impressive, I must say,” said Maurice, “though not half as impressive as their size. Where do you get bugs big enough to feed them?”
“Yeah,” added Glurf, “where do you get those?”
“These little buggers are imported from the Swamps of Nope,” explained Jake. “Quite an inhospitable place. Wouldn’t recommend it for a vacation.”
“Good thing we’re not on vacation, then,” said Nathaniel sternly. “Could you direct us towards the glow, please?”
“Oh, I reckon it’ll turn up shortly after dark,” said Jake, peering at the setting sun. “You really can’t miss it once it starts. Just mosey around and enjoy the zoo some more. You’ll know it when you see it.”
When the Squad turned from Jake to ‘mosey on,’ the zoo-keeper had one last thing to say. “Oh, and you should probably know that you’re not the only visitors staying after closing time.”
This ominous announcement didn’t seem to stir the Squad in the slightest, apart from Maurice. “We’re not even going to bother asking him what he meant?” he asked his squadmates, who did not answer. “Alright then.”
And so the Special Spirit Squad enjoyed having a whole zoo to themselves. Glurf got to see the exotic insects after all, showing much restraint by keeping her tongue in her mouth; Ko and Haviér insisted on seeing the pegasi, just to mock them and confirm that Estaban was the more magnificent mount; all while Maurice acted as their guide, pointing out interesting facts about this or that beast, what its diet consisted of, what its natural habitat was, etc.
As soon as the sun had set, a different glow appeared on the horizon to replace it, just as Jake had anticipated. The light had a quality quite distinct from the sun; it was of a thinner, paler hue; one might almost call it eerie. It was coming from the rocky enclosures, where the mountainous creatures were kept.
“So…That’s a ghost, right?” Ko asked Nathaniel, “because it’s about time we face an actual ghost.”
“Could be,” considered Nathaniel, “let’s prepare for that eventuality in either case. Glurf?”
“If there are specters of yonder, you would be able to sense it, yes?”
“…yonder?” Ko asked in disbelief; Glurf did not answer.
“O, for the love of- let’s just go look,” urged Maurice, taking the lead.
As the Squad made their way to the mountainous enclosures, the night got darker and darker, which meant that the glow got stronger and stronger. Before they reached the source, however, they ran into a peculiar group; the other ones staying after closing time: A snooty nobleman and his guards; about a dozen knights in heavy, shining armor, parading towards the exit.
Although the Squad was nowhere near in the way, the aristocrat still curled his upper lip in distaste, raised his hand and called for the party to halt. He whispered something to the guard closest to him. The guard saluted and said: “The most esteemed Lord Serventang requests you please get out of his way.”
Lord Serventang poked the guard with his cane. “Too polite?” he asked. The master nodded. “Alright, rephrase: Lord Serventang requests you filthy plebeians remove yourself from his sight, and depart from this establishment this instant, lest they tempt the wrath of his noble House.” The guard leaned closer to his master, gauging his approval; the lord nodded, satisfied.
Nathaniel took a deep breath, gritted his teeth and forced the most saccharine smile he could muster. “I beg your pardon, my liege, but the zookeeper has personally requested we investigate yonder lights.”
“Again with the yonder,” muttered Ko. He lunged forward and flashed his badge, backing up his buddy. “Special Spirit Squad. Here on official business.”
Lord Serventang whispered something to his closest servant. The knight spoke: “As recent owner of this establishment, Lord Serventang’s authority far outweighs that of a lowly footman. Once again, he politely requests you leave this instant.”
The haughty lord coughed softly into his fist; the knight, keenly attuned to his master’s wishes, immediately picked up on this most subtle of signals. “Correction: ‘Politely’ retracted; Lord Serventang requests you get the ‘hell’ out of here, you ‘filthy peasants’.” And, to his master: “Better?” Serventang nodded
Nathaniel clenched his fist. He was just about done with this ‘lord’ and seemed ready to give him a piece of his mind, when Ko intervened. “I’ve got this,” he assured Nathaniel as he pushed him to the background. “Sir. Sir,” he addressed Serventang, “I can see that you are a connoisseur of fabulous creatures. Why else would you purchase a whole zoo of them? And what a fine zoo it is! But what if I told you that the finest creature to be found in this zoo, walks outside the enclosures? Lord Serventang, sir, I give you: Haviér Estaban Gonzales!”
Ko gestured towards Haviér who, in a trained maneuver, spun around and swung his mane, prancing in the most prissy of hops, cobbling his hoofs on the pavement in a tap-dance rhythm. When the exercise was done, he struck a pose, anticipating applause. One of the knights started clapping, but immediately stopped when his master smacked his helm with his cane. Serventang whispered something to his closest knight. The armored goon nodded.
“Lord Serventang wishes to inform you that he is not interested in normal horses,” said the knight, stressing the word ‘normal’. Haviér neighed with the fury of a nightmare and was ready to charge at the coarse ruffian, but Ko managed to rein him in just in time. “Easy, boy! Easy.” He patted the horse on the mane, brought his mouth to the ears and whispered: “There’s too many of them.” Haviér nodded and disengaged.
Lord Serventang once again whispered something to his plated stooge. “Lord Serventang may, however, be interested in purchasing your giant frog pet. How much would you be willing to sell the creature for?”
Glurf whimpered something incomprehensible and hid behind Maurice. As she was several times wider than the human, this didn’t seem very effective; and although Nathaniel was by now seething with barely repressed fury, Serventang’s last question did give him an idea. He swallowed his wrath and cranked out another barely convincing smile.
“Why, Lord Serventang, you already own this creature,” said Nathaniel, “we are just escorting it towards the pools.” He turned to Maurice and added: “Isn’t that right, Ranger Maurice?”
Maurice, picking up on the subterfuge, grabbed Glurf by the collar and nodded. “Aye,” he said in best Jake impression, “don’t you worry m’lord, she’s completely pacified; I got her under control.”
Serventang’s thin lips now curled up into a wry smile. Once again he whispered something to his plated goon, who said: “Lord Serventang wishes to inform you that he is very pleased by this most recent acquisition, but wonders why it is that a Special Spirit Squad goes around collecting exotic creatures for the zoo?”
“O, we’re not with him,” said Nathaniel quickly, indicating Maurice, “We’re just friends on a visit.”
“Very well then,” said the knight in his master’s stead, “Proceed, and vacate the premises as soon as you have delivered the goods. Lord Serventang looks forward to visiting the creature when it’s safely behind bars, where it belongs. Farewell, insignificant fools.”
Serventang shook his head.
At last, the knight had guessed the right parting insult. Serventang gave him a frugal nod and pointed towards the entrance with his cane, signaling the party to depart. They left with much aplomb, the knight’s armors clanging as they marched, reflecting the eerie glow from the mountainous enclosures with their well-polished steel.
“What an unbelievable asshole,” hissed Nathaniel through gritted teeth once they were gone.
“I know!” agreed Ko. “Normal horse?! How dare he!”
“So I live in the zoo now?” asked Glurf in a quivering voice, her eyes welling up with tears. “I don’t want to live in a zoo. People will stare.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Maurice, “that was an obvious ploy to buy us some time. Good thinking, Sharp. You’ve got some quick wits about you.”
“Y-yeah!” stuttered Glurf, instantly perking up. “Real smart! Just…mind your language.”
“No cussing. Heqet doesn’t like cussing.”
Nathaniel sighed. “Right, sorry. I meant what I said, though, ever word, especially that last one; but we’ll deal with him later. Let’s have a look at what we’re up against here, first.”
“It seems that Serventang came from the direction of the glowing,” said Maurice. “Jake said that it only started recently, and this ‘lord’ is apparently the recent owner of this zoo, so…-”
“You’re right, of course,” agreed Nathaniel, “but I don’t think it’s much use speculating until we know what we’re dealing with.”
“Right,” agreed Maurice, “let’s go.”
By the time the Special Spirit Squad had reached the mountainous enclosures, the night had become completely dark; and, since the zoo was officially closed, the only light came from the mysterious glow, which emanated from the top of the zoo’s highest hill.
“Alright, everyone,” Nathaniel cautioned his comrades, “I don’t know what we’re about to face, but be ready for anything.”
Glurf clutched her mace and raised her shield; Nathaniel took out his scimitar; Ko unsheathed his swords; Maurice notched an arrow and Haviér clopped his hoofs together. They all took a deep breath and advanced up the hill.
On the hill’s summit they stared into the regal appearance of a radiant mountain goat. The magnificent creature posed majestically, but not haughtily; like a lion overlooking his kingdom, there was no pride in its eyes, only wisdom. Its slack jaws slowly munched on some grass, mulling it with care, as if pondering some great philosophical question. It swallowed its meal with grace and hopped down from its throne, calmly descending towards the edge of the enclosure where this enlightened hollow-horned sage bestowed the following insight upon its awestruck visitors:
The Special Spirit Squad lowered their weapons and stared at the glowing goat, finding themselves without anything to say. Although the radiance was extremely powerful, it did not hurt or blind the eyes; it felt soothing, warm, safe, like a child’s bed-light.
Glurf reached towards the creature with a trembling hand, wanting to touch it, but withdrew at the last second. Maurice circled around the enclosure, inspecting the goat from every angle; Ko held Haviér’s mane as the two stared at the buck in dumb awe.
Nathaniel nudged Glurf. “Do you sense anything?” he whispered in a reverent hush, unsure as to why he had lowered his voice, but positive that he was supposed to.
“Uhm. I’m not sure,” Glurf whispered back. “It’s…something.”
“Yes…something…” agreed Nathaniel. “Are you…- are you- can you understand us?” he asked the goat.
“Is that a yes?”
“…Once for yes, twice for no?”
“Are you seriously talking to a goat right now?” Said Maurice. He was speaking at normal volume; he did not share the others’ reverence for this radiant ram.
“I…I think it can understand speech,” Nathaniel whispered. “You can, can’t you?”
“Meh,” said Glurf, echoing the goat.
“Meh,” the goat replied.
“Meh,” said Glurf again, trying, but failing to understand
“It’s…beautiful,” Ko admitted begrudgingly. Haviér wanted to protest – he would only allow his master to worship one creature, namely him – but even the haughty steed could not argue the goat’s majesty.
“His name’s Richard,” said Maurice, reading from the plaque. “A mountain goat.”
“Richard,” Nathaniel whispered in awe, “the mountain goat.”
Ko let go of Haviér’s mane and rushed towards the enclosure, clutching the bars and looking Richard straight in the eye. “What are you?!” he demanded.
“What if we’re the exhibits in the zoo,” said Nathaniel, “and Richard is visiting us?”
“Alright you three,” said Maurice, “this is getting ridiculous; it’s a glowing goat. Sure, it’s weird, but not that weird.”
“What are you?” Ko asked again, this time in a hoarse whisper, only to get the same answer:
Back at the Mad Musketeers, Glurf, Nathaniel and Ko barely touched their food. Once Maurice had calmly explained to Jake what they had seen, the zoo-keeper laughed and agreed that it would make for a great evening exhibit; the zoo would extend its openings hours so all could visit the majestic goat.
“I think I’m going to bed,” said Glurf “I need to ask Heqet some things. Many things.”
“Same,” said Nathaniel, also rising.
“O come on,” said Maurice, “what’s wrong with you? It’s like you’ve seen a ghost!”
No one thought this was funny. “If only it had been a ghost,” whined Ko, “ghosts don’t scare me. Or Haviér. I’m sleeping in the stables tonight.” Ko, too, got up.
“We’re not done, though,” said Maurice, “we have no idea why the goat was glowing. Serventang must have done something to it. Nathaniel, any ideas?”
“Why, indeed?” said Nathaniel in the same reverent whisper he had used with Richard. “Some things are not for us mortals to know. Praise Serenrae.”
“Heqet bless,” murmured Glurf.
“Yeah. What they said,” agreed Ko.
All three left, leaving Maurice alone with their food. “If they’re this shaken up by a glowing goat, I can’t imagine they’ll be much use when we face an actual ghost,” said Maurice to himself. “Good thing they don’t exist.”
Maurice at his fill, and slept like a baby.
Join the Special Spirit Squad next week as they join Galligher Burke, Gnomish freelance ghost hunter, on his pursuit of a fearsome specter!