2016 update: Slowly making some fixes and general cleaning, but hopefully this will return to regular updates in summer.
Chapter 1: Whistle of the Old Train
There was a funeral in a grassy field. A white cloth hung by some poles over the open grave, in case of rain. Around that shelter, the mourners in black clothes were all talking softly, some crying and some silent. Flower arrangements ruffled in the wind, a mix of roses, tulips, cosmos, and pansies, all in white. It had been a lovely funeral and many people expressed their love and sadness. Somewhere in the distance, a train blew its lonely whistle.
There was just one thing wrong with the scene. One thing that bothered me greatly. It was my funeral that I was watching.
You don't expect to be there watching your own burial, but here I was, looking down at my own coffin. I was there, dressed in a nice lacy white blouse that I liked, my hair neat and clean. But there was no life in that body. And when I looked over myself that was aware, I was faint, with an odd white glow. I didn't know what to make of it.
In the coffin beside me was a second smaller coffin. That, I thought dismally, was the remains of my dear pet cat, who had died in the same manner as me. What was it? I can't be sure. My mind's a muddle and I haven't been able to hear it from my friends and family here.
And beside me looking at the coffins was my pet cat's spirit. Monique was clinging to me, afraid and confused. I was afraid and confused as well, but I held her and tried to comfort us. She was a dear friend of mine, even though she was just a cat.
"She was a nice little cog in the system," one of my co-workers said, having separated a bit from the group. My hearing is odd now, and I don't always hear who I'm focused on. I turn to look at him.
"That she was," another coworker said. "Always got the job done on time, if not early, never complained, always had a smile and a cheery greeting. I think the board will learn how important she was in keeping things running smooth soon."
"We'll just have to pick up the pace, then? He shook his head. "Although, she was too eager to please in that. I had a feeling I never really knew who she was, or that she even knew that."
As the other guy smiled, I wondered about that. People didn't really know me, aside from as a nice 'cog in the system'? And maybe I didn't know myself? I was dedicated to my job a bit much. Maybe. I loved my work… even though I can't quite remember what I did. But I had loved it and came to work nearly every day. Then again, sometimes I felt like I never got a chance to enjoy the fruits of my labor.
But, that wasn't something to complain about. Be hard working and you will be rewarded someday. But now I was dead and… what was going to happen to me? Spatters of rain started to fall, encouraging the mourners to leave.
Monique pawed my face. I gripped her in the way she liked, arm under back feet, front paws on my shoulder, then got up and started following people out of the graveyard. But something happened as we walked down the path. The air grew hazier and hazier. It got to the point where the folks right in front of me were nothing but blurs of black. Then even that vanished.
"We were good people," I told Monique softly. "We'll be okay."
Then the haze vanished. However, we were not on the graveyard walkway. We were in front of a polished gray stone. It had my name, my birthday, my death day, Monique's name and species, her dates, and a script saying, 'Friendship crosses all boundaries, even death. Love thy neighbor.' Our gravestone, carved with a human angel and a kitty angel.
I set Monique down. Cats were known to have sixth senses, especially about spooky things. Would that apply here? "Monique, what's going on? Can you find the way out?"
"Mew?" She waved her tail, then sniffed the gravestone. Her fur bristled out and she backed up in fear. Looking around, she didn't seem to spot anything of safety aside from me. So she ran back to me.
I got down on the ground and sat by her, ignoring the gentle rain. "What happened? I know we died, but… are we just lost souls now? Are we going to be here forever?" I shuddered. "I wouldn't have thought this would be the afterlife."
The cat nuzzled against me, then crept into my lap. She was just an animal, but did she understand death? Sometimes, I think they're intelligent enough to know that. Maybe once she's calmed down and is reassured that I would be here, she might be able to find our way.
To help her, I hummed a bit of nonsense. It helped me some, but it also made me notice how silent it had gotten. There were no sounds of birds or bugs around us, just eerie silence of that strange haze. As I looked around, I wondered if it was going back and forth, like tides of the ocean. Maybe I should pray.
"Love thy neighbor," a strange voice said, causing us both to tense. "That is what they put on your tombstone? The two of you must be such good little souls." Then the voice laughed at its own biting sarcasm.
Even though the both of us were spirits, I could feel Monique's claws dig into my skin. Maybe it was just the memory of her tiny but sharp claws. Afraid but wanting to know who was taunting us, I looked up and saw a strange being. Was he human? No and yes. His skin was a pale pastel green, but his upper body was formed like that of a muscular man wearing no clothes. He had metallic blond hair that went to his waist, staying in one neat but flexible solid. His ears were long, pointed and curled forward at the tips, then pierced with black hoop earrings. His lower half reminded me of a mantis, long and round with six thin legs and folded up high. And on his fingers were claws. Not dainty little claws like Monique, but long steel claws, curved and sharp.
The mantis man scuttled around to face us. "So you were a nice little pet, a nice little cog in the system? I don't like some complacency. But then again…" he put a hand to his face, somehow not mauling himself, and looked thoughtful.
"Who are you?" I asked, trying to get a defensive hold on my cat. "And what do you want with us?"
"I am Loki," he said, then erupted in laughter. "Do I not look like my normal mythological self? I don't stick to stories, m'am. I stick to chaos; I am chaos. Not good, but then, not evil either. And you… oh-ho-ho, you could insert quite a bit of chaos if a little mistake gets made… hah, why should I think about it?" He snapped his claws, making a sharp metallic shriek that hurt Monique's ears. "There, it's done!"
"Fffft!" Monique then leapt out of my lap, hissing. She bristled her fur up again, partly out of fear, but partly to look larger and more intimidating. Somehow, she recognized his threat and she wasn't going to let him get away with it.
"Sorry little feline," Loki said without meaning it. "Don't mess with powers far beyond you. Don't believe me? Hah!"
Loki then leapt over us, landing right behind me. I tried to get away from him, but he grabbed hold of my white gown (where had that come from?) and jerked me up. Making a strange gold object appear, he clamped it onto my neck. A choker necklace then materialized, latching onto me and not letting go. Then he roughly dropped me; Monique had to scramble to get away from me.
"There, the deed is done," he said, sounding proud of himself. "You will enter a realm humans were not meant to be in, thus introducing chaos into that realm. I have tried so long to break into that place. Now, you are my key." He grinned, showing off shining white teeth. "As for what will happen… we shall see. This shall be most entertaining."
Then Loki leapt away and was gone.
Monique still looked unsettled, but she started stalking around, to see if he would return. I got myself back up and tugged at the choker. It felt like firm elastic, a wide band of material that went all the way around my neck. Although firmly in place, it wasn't so tight that it affected my breathing, or nervous swallowing. There seemed to be no latch to it. However, there was something at the front center. It was formed… I'm not sure. A tree? It has a rounded front and a flat back, starting with a 'trunk' that goes up to a rough textured 'canopy'. I definitely couldn't pull it off or find some hidden connection to it, nor could I really see it.
On the other hand, I could see the strange white dress that was on me. I had no shoes or socks, just this old-fashioned white dress that went down close to my ankles. It wasn't like a wedding dress, though. There was no decoration and the texture of it was like cheap linen. Running my hand over it, I found myself thinking it was made from a burial shroud. While mourners wore black, the deceased wore white…
The cat soon came back to my side, turning her attention to smoothing down her fur. Even though she was just a spirit, she was still fastidious. I gave her a gentle pet, helping to smooth down her coat. "I don't want to cause chaos," I said softly. "Never rock the boat; never disturb the peace. That's how you get along with people. Just keep quiet and do your work. That's always how I lived. But, a cog in the system? Never knew myself?" I shook my head. "You can't be selfish. That's wrong."
But then why was I so uncertain about it? Had the words of my coworkers been right? I wasn't sure. My mind was muddled. But I had always been good, so why was I left here in the rain and haze with just Monique for company? Sure, I'm glad she's here. But what was going on?
Then there was a hiss from Monique. Something had riled her up again. However, her warning came too late. I was grabbed by… something, it seemed like some drooling mad hag dressed in a ragged cloak. She… it? It tried to chomp on my shoulder, but I managed to knock its aim off by jerking my arm at it and screaming. Grabbing hold of its spindly arms, I managed to yank it off me and push it away. Monique was fighting her own thing, something like a weasel with a scythe for a tail. But then other creatures joined in, ready to tear us apart. Although I tried my hardest, I had never really fought before and they soon overwhelmed me.
Then there was a spirited yell that caused all the creatures to pause. What came next was also peculiar. A cat that was shaped like a human rushed out from the haze, accompanied by a train's whistle. The cat-man stood up to my shoulders in height, was covered in short dark blue fur, and had pointed ears and long whiskers just like Monique. However, the cat-man was also wearing a red and brown sweater vest over a white shirt, dark brown pants with a black belt, and brown suede shoes. Using a scythe that would have fit the Grim Reaper, the blue cat-man slashed through the weasel monster, vanquishing it into white dust.
The cloaked hag tried to attack him, but met a similar swift end. Seeing that, the other strange monsters fled. I collapsed to the ground, feeling dizzy and nauseous. But if I was a spirit, how could I feel nausea?
"That was a close shave, you two," the blue cat-man said. "But don't worry, dear souls, you're safe in my paws. Now let's see." He came over, flipping his scythe around. He then tapped Monique with the handle. "Another feline, mya. You're been a loyal pet with a big heart, and now you shall receive a fine reward."
"Huh?" a dainty female voice said. It seemed like it came from Monique. But she was just a cat; she couldn't talk.
"I'll explain in good time. Don't worry, I'm not a psycho. I'm a servant of death, a reaper if you will." Then he chuckled. "But I don't like being called a Grim Reaper, no! I'm more of a dandy reaper, you see?" He laughed at his joke, then came over to me. "And you now…" he tapped me with the handle of his scythe.
At that, I felt my sickness even sharper. I gasped, trying not to cry out. It was like having a serious case of the flu. What was wrong with me?
The blue cat-man's eyes went wide. "Wha-what? A human? Bu-but, what's going on?"
"What happened to her?" the female voice said, as Monique came over. "There was a strange thing around before the monsters came."
He put a paw to his forehead. "Man, I'm not supposed to deal with humans! Aw, what do I do…?"
The train whistled again.
Sighing, he took my hand. "As it is, it's too dangerous to leave you out here, especially alone. Come with me, both of you. You'll be safe aboard the Animal Crossing Train. As I said, I am a reaper, the reaper of loving animals. But you can just call me Rover."
At that point, everything turned white. Had the burial shroud been pulled over my eyes?
When I next came alert, I still felt weak. Not nauseous, which was an improvement. I was lying down on a plush bench with a slightly rough texture and a firm back. In the background were steady click-clack-click-clack sounds, while the bench swayed slightly. An old-fashioned train? That's what it seemed like.
Around me, I heard quite a bit of chatter: "Is it really a human?" "What's she doing here?" "Is there going to be trouble?" and "I'm not comfortable with this."
"Be more considerate, pffffft," the female voice from before said. "She isn't well for some reason. And she's a good human, I know."
"Eerm?" I grumbled, rubbing my eyes before opening them. It seemed I was right: I was in an old-fashioned train carriage. Just past the green curtains, a thick growth of trees sped by, coated in that strange white haze.
And across from me, there was another cat person. This one was female with a rather peculiar feature. While she had short white fur over most of her body, a grown of short (but longer than the fur) blond hair covered her head. She seemed quite elegant, with make-up that could have come from a Hollywood fashionista, a pretty gold necklace with a pink cat charm, and a reddish-pink dress that came down to her knees. Her white tail was curled up near her lap.
"Oh, you're finally awake," she said, then gave me a slow blink that triggered something in my memory.
She purred. "Yes, it's me, pffffft. And I can speak like you now! I'm not entirely sure what's going on, but that Rover guy went off to go call someone."
"You mean that slacker didn't get around to telling you two what kind of place this is?" a grouchy voice said from the other side of the aisle. I couldn't quite see who it was.
"Oh, they're new souls, buh-kay, so be nice to them," a kinder male voice said. "They're probably confused and that human is still weakened from the predators' attack."
Monique lowered her ears some, looking uncomfortable. "Yeah, I don't know what happened. It's been weird since last night. We saw a funeral, but it couldn't have been us, right?"
"Told you so, buh-kay" the second male said. "I hate to be the one to break it to you, but yes, you are both dead. Everyone on this train was in the real world at some point. We were all loving animals, creatures who were good, faithful, and kind in life. Most souls, when their body dies, go back into the real world to live again, in a life dictated by how well they lived their last. But we, I guess it includes the human with you, were good enough that we're allowed to break out of that cycle and move on to something better."
"Like heaven?" Monique asked, puzzled.
"No, harrumph," the grouchy one said. "None of us are saints either."
"Right, you can tell easier with some souls," the other male retorted. "We were good enough to get out of the troubles of the real world, but we're not yet ready for the ultimate reward. So we enter a different kind of cycle, buh-kay. We live a different kind of life and are continually tested and taught so that we may eventually become deserving of the greatest reward in access to Heaven."
"But this cycle is only supposed to be for animals," the grouchy one said. "Not humans. We get to live the lives that humans do, but remain in animal form. That's why the train is called Animal Crossing, harrumph; this is the crossing path that goes between reality, the realm of the dead, and the testing realm. We're supposed to become good independent of humans."
"Well there may have been some mistake, how now," a female voice chimed in. "Besides, Rover's a good guy. He couldn't just leave an innocent soul, even a human, to be torn apart by the predatorial demons."
"But…" Monique stalled, then looked at me. "Sorry, pffffft, but Rover told me not to say your name. I don't know why. This place is weird. But, are we going to be safe from those demons now?"
"Of course," the friendly male said. "They can't touch the train. And they can't touch the towns either."
"Not normally," the grouchy one said. "They can and will attack towns without warning."
"But that's why all towns have cops in them, buh-kay. They patrol the borders and drive away demons that do manage to get in. It'll be fine, Monique. This new life takes some getting used to, but once you get into it, it's a lot of fun! And so long as you are good, things will go good for you in return."
"I see. Will it be like that for her too?"
"We don't really know," he replied. "There's no humans in the towns and we never hear what happens to them after death. You do miss them, of course. I still miss my human friends."
The other guy snorted.
"But, you'll find lots of friends among the animals too! Maybe even romance."
Then a door opened just behind my bench. "Okay folks, listen up!" Rover called, causing the train car to silence. "We're going to make a detour in a short bit to deal with our human friend here. This means that we're going off the usual tracks. Things will get frightening for a bit, but don't you worry. While me, Porter, and Buddy are on board, you have nothing to fear from what may appear outside the train.
"When we get to where we're going, I'm going to let a fellow on board. He's rather spooky and grim, but he's kin to me. Treat him with respect and you'll be fine." Rover stepped by the bench to where I could see him. He noticed and gave me a smile, then sat down beside Monique as the train blew its whistle. "Here we go, folks!"
The whole train shivered harder than its normal rhythm, causing a few startled sounds around the carriage. The window turned dark; then scattered lights dashed by. When the train next whistled, it echoed like it was going through a tunnel. The windows lightened again, showing the thick white haze once more. But lights came through that fog. Buildings, like in a city?
The train slowed, causing Rover to get back up. "Remember, respect," he said, then went over to open up the door. "Howdy Grim. It's been a while since I've seen your skeletal self." Despite his own advice, Rover laughed.
"It has," a deep serious tone replied. I looked up into the aisle in time to see Rover come back with a tall man in a thick black cloak. It obscured much of his body. But when he stopped by me, I got a momentary sight of a bone chin and a skeletal grin.
"Here she is," Rover said. "I got notice that I was picking up two innocent souls at the location. But I only found these two, Monique and this human. I even made a secondary search, but nothing came up. And she had no trouble getting on this train. Well, no trouble besides the usual for recently lost souls."
The Grim Reaper, the one I heard of in legends, knelt down by me and put his hand on my neck. It was bone; he was all bone, as I could see from his empty eye sockets. However, I did not feel frightened in his presence. I understood on some level that he would be gentle with me, for the same reason that Rover had claimed Monique's soul.
"How did she get this?" Grim asked, holding the choker.
"Some strange creature calling himself Loki put it on her," Monique said. "He said he wanted to introduce chaos into something, pffffft. Into Animal Crossing? She's a good person, so she doesn't mean trouble."
Hearing that, Grim took his hand off me and took hold of something at his side. "Loki. Now, do not panic, any of you." He then took his scythe and gingerly placed the tip of the blade between my neck and the choker. The feeling of cold metal caused me fright, although I did my best not to shiver and get nicked by that blade. On the other side, Monique's eyes went wide and her whiskers went back. However, even the power of a Reaper's weapon was not enough to remove Loki's choker.
"Ouch, that's some serious heebee-jeebees going on," Rover commented. "Could it have really been Loki?"
"It seems so. That is one of the few forces of chaos strong enough to do this." He pulled the weapon away from me and attached it to his side again. Then he put his hand on my forehead. "Hmm… Rover, you try." He backed up to the window.
"All right…" the cat reaper then put his paw on my forehead… and promptly freaked out. "What? She… she's an anchor."
That caused quite a few gasps and puzzled questions around the train car. However, when Grim spoke again, all chatter vanished. "So it seems Loki's method is to put a human into Animal Crossing. I'm not sure what this forebodes. However, I cannot claim her soul. She's under your care now. I will ask around and see if we can find out what Loki means to do with this."
"Right. Well thanks for confirming this for me, Grim. Don't be a stranger, you hear?"
As they walked back to the exit, Grim replied, "We should meet up again, Rover. Even we can get too busy." Then he left for his realm. Moments later, the train whistled, heading back to Animal Crossing.
Rover came back over to our seat. He had a goofy looking grin on his face. "Huh huh huh, so it looks like you'll be sticking around us for now! This should certainly be interesting; I can't wait to see what you'll do. And, I hope you don't mind animals, because we're going to be your neighbors and friends from now on, mya!"
A/N: Wanna play Guess the Neighbor? Hint: there are two OCs that speak on the train, not including Grim but including the human.