A small shack laid upon the very edge of the forest, lit up only by a weak orange light from within. While not entirely behind the mansion, it did lie near the edge of a cliffway, the tall frozen mountains of the Shiver Region far away in the distance. A slight chill came from them, but not enough to offset the general bone-chilling feel of Forever Forest.
"Looks homely!" said Koopin positively.
"Yeah, if you're a gravedigger."
"Well let's go knock!"
"Let's not immediately ask him about the black-cloaked guys, or paranormal stuff okay?"
"...maybe he had a visit from them, we don't want him thinking we're the same either and giving him a scare."
"I...I guess you're right but...let's just feel this out alright? Why ELSE would we visit him other than ask him about the paranormal, and long as we're nice, he'll be nice too right?"
"Ah huh...wait, paranormal stuff?"
"...I could ask him stuff I need to know."
"Koopin, my studies! The reason why I'm here! He might be able to help me with this stuff! I gotta ask him now, this is the perfect chance!"
"Okay okay but like you said, let's not be hasty. Just...be cool."
James shrugged and gently knocked on the wooden door. When close up, the shack was larger than they expected, spanning to the size of a small cottage with maybe two rooms at least. Upon knocking, the sounds of some shuffling metal was heard within, making the two look at each other nervously before a whimsical old voice came from within.
"Come in come in, don't mind the mess just a little clean-up!"
The two looked at each other before opening the apparently-unlocked door. The inside was a mess of scrap metal and strange machines lying all over the place, tucked away in the corners of the two-room shack. Tables and a bed were in another room, but other than that it seemed to be an incredibly spartan place to live. Clearly the home of a mind far more concerned with technology and creation, instead of comfort and health.
The owner of the house was a rather short human, robed in a white lab coat with wispy grey hair curled upwards like a grey candle flame. He was currently fixing up what appeared to be some sort of cauldron-shaped machine, with a small porthole in the middle of it as pipes sprouted up, right and downwards from it. He soon turned upon the door closing behind them, his eyes hidden behind a thick pair of glasses.
"AH, hello there good sirs, to what do I owe the pleasure of such a visit to my humble abode?"
"Uhhhh evening professor," said Koopin with uncertainty, "we just came from the Boo Mansion and we wanted to ask you something. Or rather, my friend here wants to ask you something."
"Hmmm I see I see, and who might you two be?"
"OH, gosh I'm sorry, Koopin Kennidon, member of the TGA."
"Ahhh...Professor Elvin Gadd, spectrologist and inventor."
The two shook hands as the raptor introduced himself after.
"James Campbell, good to meet you too professor. So you're the big expert on ghosts right?"
"Quite right my boy, indeed!"
"Well...how are you with...paranormal stuff in general?"
"Well I admit ghosts are my strong suit, but I have dabbled in other fields of interest concerning parapsychology I will admit. You must be quite fascinated yourself."
"Actually yeah, see I'm a student from far away and I'm doing some studying myself about paranormal stuff and all. And well, I heard about you from the boos up there."
"Ho ho ho, my reputation precedes me, good to know!"
"So I wondered if...you had time to talk about any of this with me?"
"Oh indeed I do! It's always a pleasure to speak with fellow-minded individuals about what lies beyond the veil of our world. But...oh blast, I need a book with me for this, one moment please, do sit down while I go fetch it."
The professor headed into the back room, checking around with a clutter for some mysterious book that would never be found. James sat down at the table along with Koopin, the raptor noticing various scribbles of notes left lying around. A tingle of familiarity came to him at the writing and the dates mentioned within. Returning a few minutes later, the professor shrugged disdainfully.
"Oh bother, I must have let one of the boos borrow it for reading."
"What book is it?" asked Koopin.
"The Silver Veil: A Study of Spectres. I'd hate to leave you while I went to fetch it back from them...that and I have a what I call 'strained' relationship with them at best. Could one of you possibly go fetch it for me?"
"Uhhh...sure, I could go."
"Really? It would be most helpful. James and I can have a good old chinwag while we wait for you to return."
"Oh yeah yeah, I mean you an' James can talk some stuff out while I go get it."
"Will you be alright out there?" asked James.
"I'll be fine, it's not that far. Don't go anywhere alrighty?"
"Adieu good sir!" said Gadd with a wave.
The moment Koopin left however, his demeanour would take on a more informative tone. As he watched the koopa fade away into the darkened night, he nodded before turning his glossy gaze back towards James.
"You're not from around here...are you?"
James literally flinched at hearing such a thing, panicking slightly as he asked:
"Well I AM from another island."
"Oh yes, I presume you are...but not an island of THIS world am I right?"
Seeing the professor had easily clued him out, he nervously grinned before trying one last attempt at defence.
"Wh-what are you talking about? You mean like another world?!"
"Now now, don't play humble with me. My machines never lie."
"Well, my ET-ometer was going off the charts when you walked in, so it was not entirely a guess, fwahaha..."
Gadd pointed towards the side of the door, where a strange device had been hooked up alongside it. It appeared to be some sort of scanner, silently gauging all who came through the doorway with a light of red or green. The raptor was impressed by the simplistic look of such a complex machine as he decided to admit it at last.
"Heh...so you figured me out then. Alright, yeah, I'm from another world. I ended up here by accident and I'm just trying to scope out the land for a way to get me back home, back to MY world specifically."
"I see...does your friend know?"
"No, he thinks I'm from a far away island. I mean TECHNICALLY I haven't lied to him about WHERE, just kept myself vague."
"Well I'm glad to see you had the sense to do so! The populace here are not entirely willing to accept such concepts as other worlds or what lies beyond the veil."
"...despite the fact there are ghosts and fire flowers and shit?"
"Well the boos are another matter entirely, and ghosts are a known but not entirely accepted concept, the stuff of myth and hearsay. Boos are an entire species unto their own which I will digress upon to save you time. The magic of this world is something we've known all our lives however! You have your own concepts you are familiar with that I or Koopin would find strange, correct?"
James pondered this softly, realising that a lot of ideas in his world such as the nanos would be quite absurd to the Mushroom Kingdom, shrugging in agreement.
"I guess. So uh...all this ghost tech is...pretty impressive I have to say."
"Why thank you good sir, nice to see someone appreciate my work!"
"Heh yeah...say, you know anything about portals at all? Since you kinda guessed I'm not from here."
The professor pondered this for some time, tapping his chin thoughtfully as he made a small circular step around his chair, before sitting on it once more.
"Nope. Nothing that would be useful to you unfortunately."
"Agh, god...hhhhh...I feel like I'm never gonna get back home. I'm so tired sometimes and..."
"...well...you ever...like a place so much, because of something or...someone...that you...kinda wanna stay?"
"Not exactly no. Why?"
"Eh, just curious."
"Though there is one thing I DO wish for right now."
"A few weeks ago, I went on an expedition to obtain more research upon the spiritual veil and the nature of ghosts. During my trip I developed a rather fascinating idea for a weapon to deter ghosts with, a camera. But unfortunately I...misplaced it."
"...this wouldn't happen to be this thing now, would it?"
James smirked as he slowly brought out the strange purple pad-like device from the Himuro Mansion, the length of his hand from wrist to fingertip but with a height up to his thumb as he held it firmly. He almost thought he gave E. Gadd a heart attack when he saw it.
"AHHHH! My camera! My Shuttergeist! You FOUND it!"
"W-w-wait wha...wait a minute."
"How did you EVER find this thing?!"
"...it was you."
"I thought I recognised your handwriting all over this place!"
The raptor then also brought out a series of paper notes, all of which were scribbled and slightly tattered from being in his satchel. Spreading them out before E. Gadd, yet another gasp of surprise came from him.
"Wh-wh-whaaaaaa?!?! ...good BLAZES you even found my research notes!"
"So YOU were the one travelling through that mansion!"
"Mansion!? Wait a minute, YOU came from the Himuro Mansion?! However did you arrive there?!"
"Uh...I was on the lead of something, and I kinda ended up there. These ghosts gave me your camera and I found your notes all over the place."
"W-w-wait wait wait...do these ghosts have no form, and come in colours of red, blue, pink and orange?"
"But...WHY did they give you my camera?!"
"They...they told me I was destined to be there. To help them fight against this ancient evil they had."
The professor's eyes widened beneath his glasses, which James could tell from the absurdly high eyebrow-raise.
"...you...are the youth they spoke of?"
"Iiiii guess so."
"...this is simply extraordinary! And to think you were the first one to truly use my camera, it even has film inside it, how PERFECT!"
"Hehehe, yeaaaah it's uh...damn this is so weird, I've never met ANYONE who's been to another dimension before other than me, this is awesome! How did you get out of THIS world and into that...mansion?"
"AH yes, allow me to explain."
Professor Gadd gently put his notes away, as well as the prototype camera before pressing his hands together, thumbs tapping each other as he compiled his thoughts.
"The boos occasionally take a youngster out on a little...expedition as it were, some sort of hazing ritual to see how scary they can make him. I followed them through one of their otherworldly portals which only they can use, and only with a certain number of them together. Sadly it can only allow spirits through it, but I was able to slip through using my experimental Spectroflage Cloak, for a field test that is."
"Spectroflage, a sort of camouflage I made to blend into more spectral environments. It registers me as a dearly departed soul, at least from a distance, and it worked perfectly so to allow me through the portal they made. I am so very sorry to say that your home is probably not behind one of them."
"I do so wish I could help you somehow, at the very least for bringing back my Shuttergeist and research notes. ...tell me...what happened to them?"
"What happened to the spirits in my notes?"
James tried his best to remember, looking through all that E. Gadd had written down as he pointed at each one.
"The lantern guy? He got eaten by a...another demon, one you didn't find out about."
"Eaten?! A GHOST eater?!"
"Yep. The boos, they got out all fine. The mask guy? Banished him out of the place with a li'l help."
"You BANISHED that monstrous being?! ...my word, you must be quite the powerful sorcerer."
"Hehehe, not so much that but I got some help from the other side. The four ghosts, I think they're still there. The mother..."
As he tried to remember what became of her, James' heart sank with pity. He felt as if she was the only one left unresolved, never to find her children again.
"...she left without seeing her children."
"She...left?" asked Professor E. Gadd.
"She said something like...she was cursed forever in never being able to see her kids again. Like, the trauma they suffered as a family in death forced them apart so much, that they can't find each other again. ...I tried to help her."
The professor gently placed a hand upon James' scaled claws, empathic to the lament of an unrested spirit that he carried.
"I am sorry to hear that. People do not understand sometimes the terrible curses that spirits may suffer. Traumatic events can cause quite a horrifying rift within one spectral individual."
"But tell me more, what DID the four spirits want with you?! I mean, from what I can tell, as strange as you may appear and even as a traveller from another dimension, you don't...seem particularly powerful in terms of exorcism."
"Well that was because of your camera really, they just thought I had the reflexes and the...willpower I guess to use it best."
The raptor explained as best as he could about his trial, the demon of the Pact that had tried to devour his soul. He spoke of how the camera was invaluable in helping him defeat it, destroying the dreaded monster by rending its spirit apart, the power of the camera and its film being a most powerful exorcismal tool when focused. All this Professor E. Gadd took in with rapt attention, before ending with:
"And that was all they wanted? Someone to come and defeat this spirit with my camera?"
"...but...why not ask me?!"
"I dunno! They just said they'd been waiting for me and told me I was destined or some shit, I don't even know why I'm here, all I wanna do is go home!"
The voice of Koopin came from behind James, who nearly jumped with fright out of his chair at seeing his friend return in the doorway. James quickly constructed his excuses as Koopin blurted out:
"Why you wanna go home?!"
"Y-yeah, I just wanna find all the research I want and then go home because I'm tired of searching for weeks to find nothing!"
Koopin felt a little shame in not being able to help, as well as feeling fearful of the idea of his friend leaving anytime soon. But he was quickly soothed by James noticing this.
"Hey hey hey, not your fault man, it's okay. Just...sometimes it builds up in you, the stress and such you know?"
"Yeah, I...understand...um, here's that book you wanted professor."
"Ahhh thank you Koopin!"
Taking the book, the professor turned the pages as he explained as best as he could about the nature of spirits and the paranormal, which James wrote down using a notepad he was allowed to take. A parting gift, said E. Gadd, for taking such an interest in his work. Even if it was to just keep up a lie, James did actually grow fascinated with E. Gadd, seeing he was clearly deep into his work. That and the fact he had seen into his inner workings somewhat through the notes he had recovered only endeared him to the professor more.
An hour and a half of non-stop talking would pass, the three debating about the paranormal, as well as explaining about the black cloaked beings in the area. The professor had encountered them, but had managed to scare them off with some of his spectral weaponry, which he politely declined to show off for sake of not wanting to overexert their limits.
Unfortunately he had little other info to tell them apart from such. Soon their capacity for knowledge had been exhausted, and all three of them decided to go to sleep. James and Koopin made their way back towards the Boo's Mansion, hoping to get a good night's sleep undisturbed amongst the haunting locals. Professor E. Gadd merely winked at FG, knowing that his secret was safe with him.
Yet the raptor was still disconsolate about not finding any further way forwards to reaching his own home. But despite his mood, he did not feel as alone as he usually was when in such a state of mind, when Koopin asked softly:
"Are you...really gonna go home soon?"
"Who knows? I can't go back unless I learn what I need to know."
"About the paranormal and stuff?"
"Right...you seem to get along real well with the professor though, I'm surprised!"
"Well, I didn't think you could connect well with older people."
"Trust me...I connect well with PLENTY of older men...just not in the way you'd think."
Koopin blushed with an embarrassed snort, giggling to himself as he replied:
"But seriously, I hope E. Gadd was able to help SOMEWHAT."
"Oh he did, totally! I got some stuff I needed to learn anyway, all written down here."
He patted his satchel, which Koopin became curious of. He wondered what strange instruments of research laid within, if any, but he was too tired to ask as they reached the Boo Mansion. A bed had been arranged for them to sleep in, an abandoned king-size bed for two. They couldn't really complain, sliding underneath the recently-dusted-down sheets and soon dropping off to sleep. Both of them stared at opposite ends of the room away from each other.
Koopin's thoughts churned with desperation for what he felt for James, wanting to be with him closer, but knowing that the stranger had a strange broken past that he was still recovering from.
James however was torn desperately between two choices. One of which he had been obsessing over as his main objective for the past six years, four of which he was aware of. The other choice however had only appeared to him since a week ago, wanting to turn over towards Koopin and gaze upon his smaller form. He soon did so after half an hour of staring at the wall, turning over to stare at the koopa straight into his open eyes. The raptor spoke first, softly.
James smiled at him, as did Koopin in turn.
"Trying to...I'm sorry about before, I-"
"No no it's fine," said Koopin. "I...I'm sorry, my head's a li'l mixed up right now."
"Heh, same here. ...you...wanna cuddle up at leas-"
The answer came quick, quicker than James expected who nevertheless did so. Slowly moving forwards, he embraced his bare chest against the shelled koopa body, his arm wrapping around the smooth-formed back. He could see Koopin start to nod off within minutes, his head resting against his brown scaly chest, hearing the soft breathing rhythm until it soothed his mind.
James soon fell asleep in turn, allowing his mind to forget its thoughts within the presence of Koopin's warmth. He simply ignored all of his troubles for once and just let things be, holding him tight to his body. To them, it would only feel like an hour had passed when they saw morning come.
The day greeted them with a surprising light from outside, the glaring rays of the sun somehow able to penetrate through, as they both departed from the stately home of the boos. Boohoven bade them farewell, as did Boona and his friends for all that James had done. Boona reported also that the mailtoad had returned safely back to Toad Town last night with his guidance. With little else left, the raptor and the koopa headed back through the forest the same way, relieved to be away from the impenetrable wood.
Their first task according to themselves was to inform Kolorado of his mishandled package, heading back towards Koopa Village in order to pass through to Koopamuir. Unfortunately Kolorado was out on a research trip to Sarasaland, presumably to cover his details about the expedition. Instead they left a message with his wife to explain what had happened, and that the crime had been reported already. With little else left, Koopin returned home, with James following in turn out of familiarity. For the next three days, little else would happen between them, the raptor conflicted between his own familiar feelings of wanting to stay or go, while the koopa's heart was being torn in two.
Eventually, Koopin decided to make an attempt to distract his own emotions with someplace more uplifting. A familiar place that he wanted to treat FG to showing, but was never able to while travelling the land. It was something to do in the few days before he went back to work, as the tour guide showed James an intriguing little place somewhere deeper within Toad Town.
The first indication that it was unique to Koopin's interests was the wooden sign above the front wall of an old-looking pub, swinging back and forth cutely. A pink shell had been painted lovingly beneath a large oaken banner, that simply said in darker pink "ROY'S PLACE".
"...this is a gay bar isn't it?"
"...well it's a bar YEAH but it's not just for gay people, I mean anyone can come in."
"Soooo why the pink shell?"
"Oh you noticed THAT one?"
"Oh come on, that club was at night, there was a huge bouncer built like a brick shithou-"
"House, god, and...yeah!"
"Hehehe, well, least there's that. Lemme buy you a drink anyway."
"Aw no come on dude I can pay myself for once."
"Alright, just offering."
The two stepped inside, immediately finding themselves being greeted by an open wooden space of tables, with various denizens of the Mushroom Kingdom sitting around with each other. Simple but comfy wooden chairs, sizeable tables small enough to reach over but not to the point of uncomfortably close. A few pool tables sat at one end of the bar's wooden walls with a jukebox cutely nestled in a corner. To James, this was the perfect place to hang out, even having the thick stained criss-crossed windows all old pubs seemed to have.
Most of the customers were male, though there were a few females here and there sticking together in couples. Mostly toads and koopas, but there were also goombas, one or two boos, bob-ombs, yoshis, shy guys, and even surprisingly one pirahna plant sitting in its own pot in place of a chair. The raptor was surprised that even the plants were alive and friendly in this world, which only made him feel all the more strange about being here. Koopin walked up towards the bar counter, greeting the dark-blue yoshi bartender.
A plethora of bottles and glasses spread behind the yoshi, his one or two toad helpers waddling back and forth to serve everyone. James noticed even moreso the height differences around him, the yoshi being certainly taller than the toads. And a lot older judging by the crow's feet around his clear-blue eyes.
"Hey Yonny," said the koopa.
"Heeeey Koopin," said Yonny the yoshi. "Not seen you in weeks, I thought you'd come here earlier since you been on vacation."
"I was planning to, but I had some problems to deal with first, that and OH yeah, I got to go on Kolorado's expedition!"
"You did?! Wow that's awesome, heck of an honour to be with that guy, watcha find?!"
"Ohhhhhh just...hehehe, nice try, I'm supposed to keep it under my hat or else Kolorado'll knock the shell out of me."
"Heh, worth a shot. Who's yer friend?"
"Oh this is James, he's from an island far away, I brought him here for a drink."
Koopin's blunt reply was given an edge of uncertainty that both James and Yonny noticed, the raptor introducing himself before sitting down at the bar.
"James Campbell, pleased to meetcha. So uhhhh what drinks are popular here?"
"Ohhhh there's always Rainbow Rum for the night crowd," said Yonny, "mainly cuz it kicks their brains out right onto the sidewalk."
"Heh, trust me, I know. Actually I worked in a bar for eight years."
"Really? Huh, cool, what stuff didya stock?"
"Oh the usual we had around my parts, Jaegermeister, McEwan's, Kopparberg."
"Never heard of 'em, they any good?"
"The first two are pretty strong, Kopparberg's a cider. What about the rest of your stock?"
"Well Smash Bros. Brau is real popular if you wanna think you can handle the edge, Superstar Cider for the softer crowd who just wanna relax, you know, the usual around these parts."
"Buuuut the reason this place is very popular iiiis this."
Yonny pulled out a bottle from the cupboards beneath the bar, presenting it to James proudly so. The logo was a fierce one, a strong scaly arm pumping its muscle with white claws stretched out at the end, its title read out by the bartender.
"Koopa Klaw Sake. Personally made by the owner and founder of this bar chain. Twenty percent volume."
"Oooooooooh...not bad, when I feel braver I might try it sometime."
"You should, it's a very special brand only we have the license to distribute, can't even buy it in stores."
"Really? That doesn't sound good for business for this guy."
"He owns the bar, he doesn't NEED to. He's already branching out towards Rogueport and beyond, business is good!"
Koopin was interrupted by Yonny who shook his head surreptitiously before clearing his throat, turning towards James.
"Now what can I get you?"
"I'll have something strong, gimme the Smash Bros. Brau."
James took a drink of the strong beer, something he was used to in his older days and finding the taste quite refreshing. Bitter like defeat, but strong in body like victory in the last minute while offset by a very slight fruity aftertaste to clear the palate. He spoke with Koopin and Yonny about various things, the yoshi moreso on how he ran the bar as he grew more and more interested in the place. He even shared his own small stories of his bartending days, to which Yonny understood with a hearty chuckle.
At some point during the late afternoon, the door swung open behind them, as the bar turned a deathly quiet. Standing in the shadow of the doorway, illuminated by the light outside, were four koopa-shaped silhouettes, making the bartender sigh inwardly.
"Aw jeez...not them."
"Huh?" replied James who barely turned with a murmur.
"I thought they were coming tomorrow for stars' sake."
"Who the hell are they?"
"...the Black Scars."