Also by dan4884
Art by nut862
“Bah.” The lean brown Krawk leaned against a gnarled tree, looking disdainfully down at his palm. In his claws rested a few small coins. “This is all that’s left. All that’s left after you spent more than your share, Grafus,” he hissed through gritted teeth.
The blue Skeith that was lounging on the bare ground beside the tree looked up from the Ghost Marshmallows he was chewing on. “But Kallen, that is what we get the money for, isn’t it? We’ve got to eat!” He popped a marshmallow into his mouth.
Kallen shook his head and turned away, looking disgusted. He scanned the darkened, crooked trees all around them. Shadows fell across the ground, hiding the sparse withered blades of grass there were. “I have things I want to buy, too, you know. To do that I’ll need money. And to get money...” A gleam came into his yellow eyes as he scanned the dark woods.
“Do I have to help?” Grafus mumbled through a mouth of sticky marshmallow. He had a feeling he knew the answer.
“Yes,” Kallen snapped. “You know I can’t do this alone, Grafus. If I could, I’d have ditched you long before now.”
“All right,” sighed the Skeith. He couldn’t help adding, in a slightly whining tone, “But we just pulled a job this morning.”
“Yes, and you spent what we got from it. Let’s head back to the Deserted Fairground.” The game stalls there were always full of fools with money to lose. The abandoned fair was Kallen’s favorite hunting ground, so to speak.
“I thought we were hiding in these woods until this morning’s target stops looking for us,” muttered Grafus.
“A good point.” Kallen suddenly pointed with a scaly claw, and Grafus followed it to see a small green Ixi walking down the dirt path through the woods, looking not in the least scared. She wore a brown dress too long for her, and she held it up to keep it from catching on brambles, though it seemed to do that anyway. But what caught the Krawk’s eye was the long staff she held, with a glowing green gem at its tip that lit her way through the woods. Judging from the glow, it was magic, and magical artifacts were always profitable gains, so long as you weren’t stupid enough to try to use them without the proper knowledge.
“We may have found the best catch here after all,” Kallen whispered.
"Pfft," Grafus muttered. "It's just a glowing branch. What's so special about that?"
Kallen sighed. "I'm not even going to try to explain it to you. You seem to be missing your common sense gland or whatever it's called. Let's go."
The duo moved forward hastily, Kallen slipping through the trees stealthily and Grafus lumbering behind him as quietly as possible. Nevertheless, as quietly as possible wasn't quiet enough, and the Ixi child froze when she heard a branch break underneath the Skeith's foot.
"Who's there?" she said, swinging the wand around while increasing its glow. Kallen and Grafus paused, but quickly Kallen leapt forward onto the path about a yard ahead of the Ixi.
"Just us, my dear," he said, thinking quickly. "We've been looking all over for you."
"You have?" the girl asked, clearly confused. Kallen reasoned she couldn't be a day over ten.
"Why, yes!" he said while Grafus shifted silently behind him. "Your parents have been worried sick!"
At this the girl teared up, beginning to cry. Kallen frowned and stepped forward. Was it something he'd said?
He knelt down to her level and set his scaly snout close to her face. “Don’t be sad,” he said soothingly, his sharp teeth set in a false smile. “Just follow us out of these awful woods, and you’ll soon see your family again.”
“No,” stammered the little Ixi, making no effort to contain the tears rolling down her cheeks. “I’ll never see them again. They’re cursed, and I... I don’t know how to cure them.” She leaned on the staff for support as her tiny body began to shake with sobs.
“Marshmallow?” offered Grafus, hoping to cheer up the little girl.
Kallen resisted the urge to roll his eyes. It was considered bad form to steal from weeping orphans, but the Krawk certainly wasn’t above it. And hearing this Ixi’s talk of curses, he was inclined to believe that the girl was either desperately seeking attention or was very superstitious. Those who were superstitious were generally gullible... a perfect target.
“You’re not the only one trying to cure your family,” said Kallen, smiling. “We’ve nearly hit on a solution. We only need one more thing to save your parents from their curse...” He looked into the girl’s wide eyes and then let his gaze travel to the glowing jewel atop the branch she held. “Your staff.”
The Ixi instinctively grasped the branch tighter. "No way," she muttered. "This is my wand! I'm not giving it you."
Kallen frowned. "But how will we ever save your family? I told you before; they've been worried sick."
Her eyes widened. "So you've really talked to them?"
Kallen nodded. This was too easy. "Yes, m'dear. They miss you so much."
She hesitated. "What will you do with my staff?"
"You see, if we touch them with the staff, they will become de-cursed," Kallen said. This was getting rather complicated; he hoped he didn't confuse his stories too much.
"Uncursed, you mean," Grafus muttered. Kallen rolled his eyes once more.
"Yes, whatever," Kallen snapped. "So whaddya say, little one?"
She still looked unsure. "But... you can only see my parents on Halloween," she said.
"Oh, but we found a way to do it sooner, you see," Kallen replied quickly.
Her eyes brightened. "Really? Can you show me?"
Kallen shook his head slowly. "I'm afraid not, my dear," he said. "You see, only my friend and I can manage to find them. Anyone else clouds the um... auras surrounding your parents."
The girl nodded. "Yes, that makes sense. There's a lot of strange stuff in Neovia."
Kallen smiled. "Exactly. Neovia is quite strange indeed."
She hesitated again, but this time, she shook her head. "Very well, you can have it. But can I have it back by the end of the day?"
Kallen grinned. "But of course, my dear. Why don't we meet up in the Deserted Fairground later on today? Then we can lead you to your parents."
She smiled and handed over the staff to the Krawk. "Oh, thank you so much, you guys!"
"You're welcome, my girl," Kallen said. "Now what was your name again?"
"Sophie," she replied, grinning.
Sophie leaned against a tombstone, fidgeting excitedly. She paid no mind to the various ghost pets floating up around her, nor did she care that she was all alone. The nice Krawk and Skeith had agreed to meet her here soon, and when they did, at last, she would see her parents again! It was almost unbelievable, after all the time she’d lived alone, pouring her soul into studying potions and magic, clinging to the thought that one day her efforts would bring her family back from their curse. And even though her efforts had failed, they were all worth it to know that someone else had succeeded.
That Krawk and Skeith were a ray of sunlight straight from Faerieland. Sophie didn’t know how she could thank them. Maybe after she was reunited with her family, she would bring them all back to her home in the woods and mix up an extra special potion just for them.
With Sophie’s thoughts occupied with wondering about her family and planning gifts for the two benevolent pets she had been so fortunate to stumble into in the woods, time flew by. She barely felt she was waiting, until she noticed that some distance from her, the Scorchio at Haunted Weaponry was closing up shop.
Strange. The Krawk and Skeith should have come long ago.
A flicker of fear dashed the hopes that had built up in Sophie all day. What if her wand hadn’t worked? What if something had gone wrong with the spell? She had worked with magic long enough to know that a new spell often had unexpected, and many times unwanted, results.
It was clear, at least, that Sophie couldn’t wait here anymore. Night was coming, and the woods would be dangerous, especially for her without her wand. She hurried away from the ghosts, feeling sad and fearful.
She would have gone straight home, but a familiar voice made her turn around. It was the same smooth, serpentine tone that had informed her of the wonderful magic that would de-curse (or was that uncurse?) her parents. Sophie’s heart leaped as she spotted the Krawk emerging from the shadows and slinking over to the Haunted Weaponry shopkeeper. He was wearing a cloak, making it a little hard to recognize him, but the voice couldn’t be mistaken. He had come after all!
“We’re closed,” the Scorchio said. “Come back tomorrow.”
“I don’t think you’ll want to wait until tomorrow to hear the deal I’m going to offer you,” the Krawk said slyly. He reached into his cloak and drew out a long wooden staff with a large gem glowing conspicuously at its tip. “This is a one-of-a-kind weapon. Magical; you can tell just looking at it shine. Its raw earth power will blast wimpy Leaf Shields into oblivion. Nobody else has one, so I get to price it. I’ll sell it for a mere seven hundred grand. Then it’s yours, and then you get to price it. What do you say?”
The Scorchio looked at him through slitted eyes. “I don’t trust dealers who come after business hours,” he growled. “Come back tomorrow and we’ll talk about it.”
Sophie didn’t wait to hear any more, much less meet with the Krawk. She turned and ran, picking up the hem of her long dress, wanting nothing more than to be back in her safe shack in the woods. Tears of betrayal ran down her cheeks. How could he be so cruel?
Sophie knew one thing: she’d be mixing up a very special potion just for him.
The Scorchio looked over the wand carefully, scrutinizing every inch of the staff. After a good five minutes of inspection, he set it down and regarded its sellers just as carefully before coming to a conclusion.
"Your price is too high," he stated. "I'll offer three hundred thousand for it, no more."
Grafus was staring at the food cart longingly, but he knew not to interrupt Kallen during a sale. The Krawk, meanwhile, was haggling with the stubborn Scorchio.
"This is worth at least a million, but I'm selling it to you for much less! I'm practically giving it away!" he retorted.
"You want to bargain, go to the Trading Post. This is a shop. Take it or leave it."
"Five hundred grand."
The Scorchio sighed. "Very well then." He grudgingly handed over the correct amount of Neopoints and stored the wand underneath the desk. "Pleasure doing business with you. Now get out of my shop."
The two con men left the shop and Grafus instantly began whining for food. "We haven't had any all day, and we have all that cash now! Please, Kal? Just a snack?"
Kallen agreed reluctantly, and the two sauntered over to the cart. The Bruce stiffened when he saw the two approach his shop, and he smiled awkwardly.
"What can I get you guys?"
"Two servings of Ghost Marshmallows, please!" Grafus said happily.
The Bruce nodded and immediately grabbed a couple of boxes of Ghost Marshmallows that had been lying ready on the counter, almost as if he had been expecting the Skeith’s request. “Here you go. Five hundred Neopoints.”
Grafus grinned and turned to Kallen. He reached into his cloak and took out the smallest coin the Scorchio had given him, worth twenty-five thousand Neopoints. “Can you give me change for this?”
The Bruce counted out change for the coin. His eyes flickered curiously across his customers’ faces as he handed it over, along with the marshmallows.
Once the two had gone on their way, the Bruce leaned down and spoke to the small Ixi crouched out of sight behind his stall. “Seems a strange way to give someone a present. Sticking it in their food is certainly an original way of packaging it, but...”
“Are they gone?” The little girl stood up, clutching an empty vial in her hand. Even drawn up to full height, she had to look around the side of the stall rather than over its counter to see past it. She watched the backs of the two figures, one cloaked and one large and lumbering, as they made their way past the iron gates to the Deserted Fairground. A satisfied smile spread over her face.
The Bruce’s eyes glimmered with curiosity. “What do you have to do with them?”
The Ixi turned her melting smile on the Bruce, her wide green eyes giving her childish heartfelt thanks. “They... gave me hope one day, when I almost thought it was lost.”
“I wish you could have waited on the marshmallows just a little longer,” Kallen growled. “We’ve just seeded a money trail that that Scorchio could use to trace us.”
“What makes you think he’ll want to trace us?” Grafus asked languidly. “We sold him a legitimate weapon, for a fair price. It’s true that it’s unique.”
“It’s also true that it’s magic, and you know who he’ll come after if something goes wrong with it.” Kallen cast a suspicious glance at the withered trees around him in this secluded corner of the Haunted Woods. “I’m jittery. Give me a marshmallow, Grafus.”
“You have your own box.”
“I ate mine already.”
Grafus lifted his nose into the air. “Well, no more for you, then. Greedy old worrywart.”
Kallen rolled his eyes and flung an arm out, reaching for Grafus’s box of marshmallows.
“I said no!” Carrying his box protectively, the Skeith went lurching across the bare ground, away from his partner in crime.
Kallen shook his head in annoyance. He usually wasn’t a fan of marshmallows, but these had tasted especially good. That Bruce at the food stall must’ve used a secret ingredient.
And in fact, he was feeling a bit different. His stomach was rumbling and there was an odd sensation in his toes. Worse, his head had begun to throb painfully. He glanced at Grafus. The Skeith didn't look very good either.
"What's happening?" Grafus asked with a groan. "I don't feel so good."
"Ditto," Kallen muttered. The rumbling in his stomach had transformed into a churning, and there were shooting pains along his spine. Suddenly, Grafus yelled.
"What's happening to you?" he shouted, staring at Kallen's feet. "You're... you're exploding!"
Kallen glanced down and yelped, surprised. His feet were twisting into what looked like thick ropes, spreading out along the barren ground. As they grew, they dug into the ground and popped back out again a few feet further.
"Are you... are you taking root?" Grafus asked.
And indeed he was. His feet looked like gnarled roots. As soon as Kallen realized this, a huge throb in his head caused him to scream out in pain. And worse yet, he could feel something growing out of his head.
"What's happening?" he asked, worriedly touching the growth on his scalp. Whatever was up there was soft and mushy, almost like--
"Brains!" the Skeith said. "Orange brains!"
Grafus hadn't escaped unscathed. He was undergoing changes as well; his body was growing exponentially and his face was enlarging rapidly. Soon, his legs and arms had melted in with the rest of his body.
"Soooooo... hungrrrrrry..." Grafus moaned.
"The marshmallows!" Kallen hissed with realization. "Those marshmallows were cursed! How did I not notice this before?"
"Because you're smarter as a tree than as a Krawk!" a voice shouted. The two... things turned to see who spoke and found the small Ixi they had conned before watching them.
"You two should never have double-crossed me," Sophie said smugly. She stepped forward and grabbed the bag of Neopoints, which lay between the two. "Tough luck for you!"
"I have this quest from the Brain Tree," the yellow Tonu said to his companion, a plushie Gnorbu. "Problem is, I can't figure out the answer! Do you know where I can find out when Albert Kacheek died?"
"Everyone knows the only place to find the answer to the Brain Tree's questions is by feeding the Esophagor. They make you complete two quests to solve a different one. It's a bit of a con, really."
The emerald Ixi buying potion ingredients from the stall behind them smiled. Guess old habits die hard.