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Family Gatherings: Joy, Terror and Chocolate Cake? - Part Two


by miriel

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I woke with a start, completely disorientated. For a moment I thought someone had kidnapped me while I was sleeping and put me in a strange room, until I remembered that I was in the Haunted Woods, visiting my family. I breathed out a sigh of relief just as someone hammered on my door.

     I grumbled as I rolled out of bed and headed for the door. I opened it a crack and found Zee standing on the other side, vibrating with excitement.

     "Get ready! We have so much to do today!" she squealed, Mimi chirped in agreement from her perch on Zee's shoulder.

     I refrained from rolling my eyes (just about), and stepped back to let them in. "I'll be ten minutes," I told them, heading towards my bathroom. I heard Jellybean squeak as Mimi pounced on him, just before I closed the door.

     True to my word, ten minutes later I emerged from the bathroom, clean, brushed and ready to face the mayhem. "Okay," I said. "What's first?"

     "Birthday breakfast!" Zee exclaimed, almost bouncing on the spot before spinning around and rushing out the door.

     I suppressed a sigh and followed her, just watching her was making me feel exhausted. How did one Zafara have that much energy?!

     We headed down to the kitchen to find Nix already there, looking panicky. Zee giggled at him. "We're here," she told him. "You can relax now."

     Nix tried to glare at her, but the effect was ruined by the way his shoulders slumped in relief. I suppressed my own snicker and moved to help Zee assemble ingredients.

     "You guys know I can't cook," Nix said with a sigh.

     "It's fine," Zee assured him as she threw flour and sugar into a bowl. "Can you set the table?"

     Nix nodded and started rummaging through cupboards and drawers. I went to the fridge and took out eggs and milk for the pancakes Zee was making, along with a bottle of orange juice.

     In what seemed like no time, we had breakfast assembled. There were stacks of pancakes with a dish of strawberries and a large jug of syrup, two jugs of orange juice and a pot of coffee, although I personally thought there were only two, maybe three people in the family that should drink coffee. Everyone else was hyper enough without a caffeine rush.

     Zee lifted the dishes with the pancakes and strawberries, I grabbed the syrup and coffee, leaving Nix to bring the orange juice, and we all marched into the dining room. The door was slightly ajar when we got there and we could hear high-pitched giggling from within.

     I pushed the door wider and stepped inside, quickly making room for Zee and Nix as I took in the scene. Alice was sitting at the table next to Jojo, as Hop and Leggi wrestled with each other on the rug. Lex was seated at the head of the table, smiling indulgently, and Zook was fidgeting in his seat, looking like he wished he could join them.

     Just as Zee deposited the pancake platter in the middle of the table, Dex and Bex bounded into the room. "We're here! We're here!" Dex exclaimed, between gasps.

     Alice grinned at them as Lex rolled her eyes. "So you are," Zee said dryly. "Well done, you were almost on time!"

     Jojo giggled as they scrambled into their seats. "We lost track of time," Bex mumbled as dishes were passed around and Hop and Leggi scuttled out of the room with a regretful look back at the table.

     Once our plates were loaded, Lex raised her glass. "Happy Birthday Alice, may this next year be even better than the last," she said. "Enjoy your day."

     We all raised our glasses and chorused "Happy Birthday, Alice!"

     Alice grinned as she dug into her breakfast and we all followed suit. After the last of the strawberries had been argued over and snarfed up by Zook, Lex stood up.

     "Okay," she started, looking around the table. "Alice? What would you like to do this morning?"

     "Ummm..." Alice started, clearly not used to being the centre of attention. "I thought I could show Molly around the Woods?"

     Zook, and Dex both immediately began gesturing to themselves desperately, but Lex ignored them and simply nodded.

     "You don't have to do that," I said earnestly. "It's your birthday; surely there's something else you'd rather be doing?"

     Alice shook her head. "Nope, I want to spend some time with my sister," she said sweetly.

     "Okay then," Lex cut in. "So you and Molly can go explore around town, maybe take Zee with you?" She was pointedly ignoring Zook and Dex's antics.

     "I could stay here, if you need help," Zee offered.

     Lex shook her head. "No, I think I've got all the help I can handle," she said dryly, looking at Zook and Dex, both now slumped in their seats, resigned. "Nix and Bex can set up in the living room, Jojo and Zook are on cleaning detail and Dex can help me in the kitchen."

     Zook and Dex simultaneously groaned and Jojo cackled evilly at them. I raised an eyebrow and Zee snickered and shrugged.

     Lex trotted off towards the den as we all piled out into the hallway. Dex, Jojo and Zook all headed towards the kitchen, as Nix dragged Bex towards the stairs.

     "We should probably leave the petpets here," Zee mused. "They can stay in my room."

     I looked at her, confused.

     "If they scamper off, we may never find them," Alice explained. "With the mist and dark and everything."

     I nodded as Jellybean nuzzled against my side and followed Hop and Mimi up the stairs. Lex returned a minute later with three bags of Neopoints. She handed one to each of us before trailing after us to the front door.

     "Have fun, you guys," she said as we stepped out into the murk. "Don't worry about a thing; we'll get everything set up for this afternoon."

     We ambled down the path and I felt a twinge of anticipation. I'd never seen this part of Neopia before and I was excited to get to explore it with my sisters.

     "So, what's first?" I asked, looking at Alice as we wandered down the street towards the centre of town.

     "I don't know, I was thinking I could show you around the main town, maybe introduce you to Bill and then we could go to the Fairground?" She sounded so unsure it ended up sounding like a question.

     "That sounds great!" I replied enthusiastically. "Who's Bill?"

     Zee giggled and Alice shot her an exasperated look before answering me. "Bill's a friend of ours; he lives in the centre of town," Alice said. I got the impression she was leaving something out, something huge.

     I glanced sideways at Zee, who was still snickering. "What am I missing?" I asked her.

     She shook her head. "Oh, no! I want to see the look on your face!" she gasped between giggles.

     I rolled my eyes and settled for being surprised and probably embarrassed. I'd learned whenever Zee wouldn't tell me about something, my reaction when I finally found out what was usually loud and attention-grabbing.

     We continued to amble towards town as Alice told me about some of the guests that would be arriving for her party this afternoon. Some of them Lex had known almost as long as she'd been visiting Neopia; others she'd befriended relatively recently; and some were Alice's friends (owners and Neopets alike) that she'd met in her travels.

     As I listened to her explain how she'd met four identical Yurble brothers whilst visiting Terror Mountain last winter, I wondered to myself whether I'd eventually have my own list of friends and acquaintances that I'd met on my own adventures.

     I mentally shrugged off my musings as a large, crooked stone tower came into view through the trees and mist. It gave off a faint green glow and I paused for a moment to examine it, thinking that a structure that unsound must be held up with some sort of magic. I was right.

     Zee leaned over to me, not taking her own eyes off the building. "That's Edna's Tower," she explained in a whisper.

     Even I'd heard of Edna the Witch. I shuddered slightly and averted my gaze.

     Alice smiled at me. "She's not so bad if you catch her in a good mood," she said quietly. "She gets grouchy with everyone constantly badgering her for quests."

     I looked at her sceptically.

     She shrugged. "If you'd lived here as long as I have, you wouldn't find a lot of this stuff scary either," she said. "Once the tourists have gone home for the day, most people drop the act."

     Even Zee snorted at that, clearly not buying it any more than I had, Alice simply shrugged again and continued to walk... slither... and continued down the street.

     I followed her as unobtrusively as possible, trying not to draw attention to myself. Zee trotted after me, seemingly only slightly more at ease than me.

     "Okay," Alice started cheerfully as we reached a bustling crossroads. "We can go play Eliv Thade if you want? Then maybe go look in the petpet shop, visit Bill and head off towards the Fairground. If we have time I could show you Neovia as well."

     "Sounds good," I said, trying to matched her cheeriness despite the prevailing gloom. Zee nodded in agreement.

     Alice nodded and led the way towards a gothic mansion. If it had been better looked after I'd have been tempted to call it stunning. As it was, it was definitely grand and imposing.

     Predictably the door creaked ominously when Alice pushed it open. Ginny, our guide, smiled timidly as she led us off down a corridor. Alice had had a lot more practice at this than Zee or I, although I did manage a few of the harder anagrams.

     Eventually Thade handed over a bag of Neopoints to us with a petulant expression on his face and we were more or less thrown out of the house. He was grumbling unintelligibly as he slammed the door, but Ginny seemed slightly brighter.

     "So, petpets?" I said as we headed back towards the town centre. Alice nodded and turned down a dirt path.

     We spent fifteen minutes or so oohing and aahing over the many critters that had been stashed all over the store. None of us had the nerve to approach one crate sitting on its own in the corner that bounced and shook uncontrollably whilst a vicious snarling emanated from it.

     We stumbled out of the petpet shop when a swarm of hyperactive JubJubs invaded it, all talking excitably and squealing at the caged petpets.

     "I think I'll be sticking with Mimi," Zee said dryly, as we walked away. "Far too many teeth in there."

     I snickered as Alice led us to our next goal – visiting Bill. We walked past quite possibly the ugliest tree in existence; I tried not to stare as we scampered past.

     Just as I was going to ask whether we were almost there, a low moan cut through the gloom. I instantly froze and Zee, who'd been walking behind Alice and I ploughed into me, almost knocking me over.

     Once we found our footing again, I stared in the direction the sound had come from. "What was that?" I asked nervously.

     Alice smiled reassuringly at me as Zee sniggered. "That's just Bill," she said, turning back to continue down the path.

     I didn't find that at all reassuring. In fact it worried me more. We rounded the final bend in the track and I felt my jaw drop.

     Zee cackled at my expression as my eyes bulged in their sockets at the sight before me. A blue Lupe cowered behind his owner as the boy threw some sort of sandwich into the gaping maw in the mound of sludge and rock that rose from the ground. Above the mouth two glowing red eyes glared at the boy and his pet as the sandwich was devoured and the monster wailed something at the pair.

     When silence finally fell the boy and his Lupe fled the clearing leaving the three of us alone with the Esophagor.

     Alice slithered forward. "Hey, Bill," she said and the eyes swivelled to look at her. "How are you doing?"

     'Bill' heaved a sigh. "Not too bad, Alice," he replied, his tone was quite mild and nothing at all like the wailing of moments ago. "The rush hasn't really started yet though. Is that Zee?" His eyes moved past Alice to settle on Zee and me, still loitering on the edge of the clearing.

     "Yeah, hi, Bill!" Zee said, grabbing my paw and bouncing forward – dragging me with her. "This is our new sister, Molly."

     "Good to see you again, Zee," Bill said, and I'm going to assumed he smiled at her. His mouth certainly stretched out and he sounded happy. "Molly, is it?"

     I finally managed to pick my jaw up from the floor to answer. "Yes... um... hi?" I said hesitantly.

     Bill looked between me and the others, before chuckling quietly. "You didn't tell her who I was, did you?" he asked, mock-severity in his tone.

     Zee giggled. "Where's the fun in that?" she asked, grinning cheekily.

     The mound shifted, almost like he was shaking his 'head'. "Well, it's very nice to meet you, Molly," he said, doing the mouth-stretching smiley thing again.

     "You too," I said, slowly gaining confidence. "I'd like to say I've heard a lot about you, but these two seem to enjoy startling me." I gestured to my darling sisters.

     Alice shrugged and smiled while Zee snickered. I rolled my eyes and Bill chuckled at our antics.

     "So, what brings you to the Haunted Woods?" Bill asked me, apparently deciding change the subject and spare me any more embarrassment.

     I raised an eyebrow. "We're here for Alice's birthday party," I said bluntly, enjoying the sight of Alice blushing.

     Bill's eyes swivelled back to Alice. "Of course," he said. "Happy Birthday, Alice."

     "Thanks, Bill," she said, smiling sweetly at him. "Are you sure I can't convince you to come this afternoon?"

     Bill sighed again. "As much as I'd love to, I'd never hear the end of it from Tim if I took the afternoon off without telling him," he replied, sounding genuinely regretful.

     "Tim?" I couldn't stop myself from asking.

     "The Brain Tree," Bill supplied. "Just don't tell anyone I told you that; he can get a little touchy about it. And you two really need to tell the girl these things."

     "You know how Zee gets," Alice said with a sigh of her own. Zee just rolled her eyes. "Anyway, if you can't make it this afternoon, maybe we could come back tomorrow and bring a picnic?" she suggested, looking around at us.

     Zee and I nodded enthusiastically; I found that despite appearances I liked Bill.

     "That would be great!" Bill said, matching our enthusiasm. Alice beamed at him.

     Just then a small girl with a Shoyru hovering at her shoulder wandered into view on the path.

     "And that's our cue to leave," Alice said. "We'll see you tomorrow evening. Bye, Bill!"

     Alice ushered us back down the path. Just as we passed the girl and her Shoyru, Bill started wailing again and I had to smother a grin.

     We wandered back into town and Alice took another meandering path through the trees. We were chattering happily, planning what to take for our picnic with Bill the next day and seemingly minutes later we came to a pair of rust gates that had been propped open. I looked past the gates and saw rows of stalls, most sporting various games.

     Beside me, Zee started vibrating with anticipation. "What should we do first?" she asked excitedly.

     "I think maybe we should ask Alice what she wants to do," I said dryly, trying to rein her in slightly. "You know, seeing as it's her birthday and all."

     Alice grinned at us. "I've always been partial to the Bagatelle game," she said, moving forward through the gates.

     Zee and I followed her; Zee was still bouncing in her enthusiasm. Alice made her way confidently through the crowds, obviously knowing where she was going.

     "Do you come here often?" I asked her, scampering to keep up and having to concentrate on not bumping into anyone as I tried to look at everything at once.

     Alice looked back at me and grinned. "Yeah," she replied easily. "I like the games and the atmosphere; it always feels like a sort of festival here. You know, with the lights and little stalls and the crowds of people?"

     I nodded at her. It did indeed feel like a kind of festival despite the gloom that lurked beyond the bright lights and I felt myself relax in the lighter surroundings.

     Alice actually managed to win 3000 Neopoints at the Bagatelle game, although Zee and I lost miserably. We moved onto the Coconut Shy and then the Cork Gun Gallery. Zee managed to wobble one of the coconuts at the Coconut Shy –the Quiggle stall-owner wasn't pleased! And I managed to win two boxes of Chocolate Gum Drops from the Cork Gun Gallery, much to Zee's surprise and chagrin.

     We wandered through the Fairground, munching on the gumdrops. "Why don't we have a look around the Spooky Furniture shop and then maybe get a scratchcard?" Alice suggested, reaching for another gumdrop.

     I nodded enthusiastically, seeing as my mouth was full of yumminess. Zee mirrored me and Alice giggled at us.

     The furniture shop was... interesting. There was a serious bone motif throughout the store, although I couldn't help smiling at all the Bill-themed items on offer.

     "See anything you want?" Alice asked me as I examined the range of candles they had.

     I shook my head. "I'm not lugging a load of furniture around when I'm supposed to be playing tourist," I replied jokingly. "Although I may have to acquire a Bill bean bag at some point."

     Alice snickered. "If you ask nicely, he may even sign it!" she teased.

     I rolled my eyes and decided to change the topic. "So, scratchcards?" I asked, heading towards the door. Alice stifled the rest of her giggles and followed me.

     We didn't win anything from our scratchcards. "It looks like our luck has officially run out," Alice said, leading us out of the Scratchcard Shop. "Maybe we should head over to Neovia."

     "Sounds like a plan," Zee said enthusiastically. I raised an eyebrow at her and she shrugged. "I'd like to go to the Crumpetmonger before we head home."

     I snorted – I should have known her excitement was sugar-related. Alice laughed at us before heading into the woods.

     "Erm..." I started hesitantly. "Shouldn't we take the path?"

     Alice looked back at me. "This is a short cut," she explained, waiting for Zee and I to follow her. "Don't worry, guys, I know where I'm going."

     I didn't exactly like the idea of wandering around in the woods with no trail to follow, but I trusted Alice. I took a deep breath and moved to follow her. Zee sighed and stepped after me, clearly not much more at ease than I was.

     After five minutes of tramping through the trees and jumping at every little noise, I could make out flickering lights in the distance. I breathed a sigh of relief.

     Alice laughed at me. "Oh ye of little faith!" she teased.

     I blushed. "Sorry, Alice," I mumbled. And I was, I should have trusted my sister enough to know she wouldn't have led us in here if she didn't know where she was going.

     "Don't worry about it," she replied with a shrug. "I was just as nervous when Lex did that with me the first time. If you're not used to the spook, then you can't really help being nervous."

     Zee nodded vigorously, wholeheartedly agreeing. "If you don't mind, I'll be taking the path back home, to spare myself the heart-attack I almost had back there!" she said, glancing back the way we'd come.

     Alice snorted. "I wouldn't take you through the woods anyway," she said seriously. "It's much further and even I get a little freaked going that way."

     I resisted the urge to shudder and focused on the little town in front of me. There seemed to be patches of fog drifting around all over the place and just beyond the towns' perimeter fence there was a myriad of gravestones.

     The town consisted of a collection of tall buildings, which were very well kept, and the whole area was brightly lit by elegant lampposts that were dotted around the streets.

     "What do you think?" Alice asked, looking at me curiously.

     "It's quaint," I replied, unable to keep the surprise from my voice. Everything up to now had had overtones of spook attached to it, even the Fairground.

     Alice beamed at me. "I think so too," she said. "Shall we have a browse around Chesterdrawers Antiques before we get totally sidetrack by all things sweet?"

     "That's probably a good idea," Zee conceded with a grin.

     We piled into the shop and spread out looking around at the wares. I came to a stop in front of a photo and grinned when I read the item name.

     The others found me standing there a minute later. Both took one look at the name and laughed.

     "It doesn't look anything like you," Zee teased, pointing to the Framed Alice Photo sitting on the shelf.

     Alice rolled her eyes and tugged me towards the door. Zee trailed after us, still sniggering. We headed across the square and stepped into the Crumpetmongers' shop. Zee instantly stopped laughing and sighed reverently as she looked at the display cases.

     Alice and I both had to stifle giggles at her reaction. We followed her as she basically levitated over to the counter.

     "What are you guys having?" she asked, without taking her gaze off the confectionary laid out before her.

     "I'll have a Vanilla Ice Cream Cream Puff," Alice said, without even glancing at the selection. I smiled; she obviously came here often.

     I eyed the pastry case. "And I'll have a Lemon Tart," I said after a moment. "Do you think we should get something to take back for the party?"

     "Good idea," Zee agreed instantly. I got the impression she'd been thinking that herself.

     After a brief argument we ordered a Negg Pie and Blueberry Tart to take home with us and Zee, rather predictably ordered a Fudge-Smothered Éclair (the chocolatiest thing in the shop) for herself.

     We snarfed down our pastries, before heading out of the town's gates and through the graveyard field. We chattered happily as we walked home through the murk.

     I barely paid attention until Alice turned off the pavement and onto our garden path. I looked around, surprised.

     "That was quick," I said, startled.

     Alice grinned back at me as she reached the front door. We walked in on a scene of barely-controlled mayhem. Again. Lex was staggering around with Bex on her shoulders as the Lutari attempted to pin one side of a banner over the living room doorway. Nix was hovering on the other side, holding the other end in place with difficulty. Jojo was rolling around on the rug in the foyer with just about every petpet the family owned. Zook seemed to be having problems blowing up the balloons, judging by the way several zipped through the air as he lost his grip on them.

     For once Dex was the only one not involved in the chaos. Unless you counted being slumped against a wall, breathless with laughter, involved.

     Alice, Zee and I immediately started snickering along with him as we went to help our beleaguered family. Zee and I took over the balloon blowing as Alice swooped up to take the banner from Bex and help Nix pin it in place.

     "Things are going well then?" Alice asked dryly, once she'd landed gracefully and plucked Jojo from the heap of petpets.

     Lex blew some hair out of her eyes as Bex hopped down gratefully. "It's actually going better then it usually does," she replied, with a grin. "Not that that's a particularly high standard."

     Alice chuckled as she bounced Jojo in her arms. "Can I do anything?" she offered, taking a peek into the living room.

     Lex moved to block her view. "Nope," she said hastily. "Everything's as under control as it's going to get."

     I snickered. That was an expression that was used a lot in my family.

     "Why don't you go up stairs and get ready?" Lex suggested, holding her arms out so Alice could deposit Jojo in them.

     Alice nodded and headed towards the stairs. Zee and I looked at each other and back at Lex questioningly.

     Lex seemed to understand what we wanted to ask. "You guys can go up too," she said with a smile.

     We downed tools (balloons) and I picked up the pie boxes from the side table where Zee had left them. "You go up, I'll just put these in the kitchen," I told her, hoping she would take the hint. She looked at me suspiciously for a moment before nodding and following Alice upstairs.

     I motioned for Lex to follow me as I headed back through the house. When I reached the kitchen I put the pie boxes on the counter and turned to look at her. She was, thankfully, Jojo-less and looking at me expectantly.

     "I was just wondering if you'd heard anything else?" I asked keeping my voice low and my question purposely vague, hoping she'd catch on. It had been less than a day and already I was sick of the secret.

     Lex frowned slightly and shook her head. "I've been on pins and needles all morning, expecting a knock at the door," she said in an equally hushed tone.

     "Maybe it would have been better if there had been," I mused. "You could have gotten rid of her by now and everything could have gone back to normal."

     Lex agreed with a nod. "We'll just have to deal with it as best we can," she said, still sounding concerned. "I'm still kind of hoping it doesn't happen."

     I smiled at her sympathetically. "I know the feeling," I said as I headed towards the door. "I'd better get up there before they come looking for me."

     I climbed the stairs feeling more trepidation with every step. I could only hope that when the dust settled Alice would still be talking to us.

     I knocked lightly on the door before stepping into Alice's room to find a different kind of chaos than what prevailed downstairs. There were clothes and shoes and jewellery everywhere .

     Piles of dresses and skirts and shirts were draped over every available surface. Shoes were strewn all over the floor, covering the carpet so completely that I wasn't sure I could even make it across the room without treading on something. Heaps of bracelets and necklaces took up the rest of the available space.

     I pulled out my fallback expression of gaping like a guppy as I took in the scene. Zee snickered at me as she examined two practically identical hats.

     Alice, on the other hand, smiled sheepishly. "We aren't sure what to wear," she said, gesturing to the fashion flood.

     I bit back the many sarcastic retorts that were dancing on the tip of my tongue and settled for simply raising an eyebrow before stepping carefully through the shoe obstacle course and plopping down on the edge of the bed. Zee frowned at me for an instant for wrinkling whatever I was sitting on but she refrained from commenting.

     "Have you narrowed it down at all?" I asked, hoping we'd actually be ready before the party was over.

     "We both have our favourites," Zee started. "But we don't want to end up looking too similar."

     "So just pick something that doesn't look the same," I said, rolling my eyes in exasperation. "It's not like you'll never be able to wear any of it again."

     They looked at me with identical surprised expressions.

     I shrugged. "And while you're at it, you might want to pick something out to wear for tomorrow's picnic," I added, still marvelling at the utter girly-ness of the conversation. I mean, Zee may like anything that was vaguely pink but she'd never seemed so interested in preening.

     "Good point," Alice conceded with a nod, looking back over her options. Zee stepped over to the bed and slumped down beside me, watching as Alice picked through the clothing.

     We watched as Alice picked out two dresses (one red and one green) and then went in search of accessories. Once she'd set everything aside Zee hauled herself to her feet, pulling me with her.

     "Alrighty," she started, sounding a lot more cheerful than I felt. I watched as she skipped over to a heap of clothes sitting by a chest of drawers and reached into it. As if by magic, she extracted a blue dress without actually looking and laid it over a nearby chair. She quickly gathered up shoes and a necklace before looking back at me expectantly.

     "What about tomorrow?" I asked, already dreading having to wade through the clothes.

     Zee shrugged. "I've got something in my closet for tomorrow," she said. I raised an eyebrow. "Something Zafara-specific."

     I nodded and slowly turned to survey the room. I wandered over to a pile and started picking through it, having no clue what I was doing. After a few moments both Alice and Zee started doing the same, offering suggestions now and then. I found I was truly grateful for their help and eventually we managed to pick out two outfits for me.

     I was thankful when the ordeal was over and we were slipping into our dresses. Once we were dressed and had passed Zee's inspection we headed back downstairs. I was just glad no one had suggested we clear up the remaining clothes scattered around the room.

     When we got to the living room everything had been finished and Lex, Jojo, Nix and Zook were slumped in various chairs, changed and clearly waiting. They looked up when we walked in and Lex smiled.

     "Very nice," she complimented. "And you're actually early."

     Zook snickered as Zee rolled her eyes at the mock surprise in Lex's tone. I sidled over to a sofa and perched on the edge, too nervous to relax properly. Alice sank down next to me as Zee started vibrating with impatience where she stood next to the door.

     Nix and Zook easily resumed their discussion about Battledome weapons, with Lex and even Jojo chipping in every so often. I saw Zee roll her eyes at the topic and had to suppress a snicker – Zee usually faked a yawn whenever anything Battledome related came up.

     Dex and Bex eventually bounded into the room, only seconds before the doorbell rang for the first time. They did an exuberant victory dance at being on time, as Lex swept past them to go let the first guests in.

     Soon the house was filled with owners and pets, all chattering and laughing happily. A pile of gifts has amassed on a table in the living room and Alice grinned sheepishly as everyone wished her a Happy Birthday as they passed her.

     Zee was standing beside me, watching. "We always say there's no need to bring gifts and everyone always ignores us," she said, sounding slightly exasperated.

     I looked at her, surprised. "That's not exactly gracious," I said to her quietly.

     Zee shrugged. "We have everything we need. Personally I'd rather they made a donation to the Pound or the Money Tree in our name or something, so it goes to someone who actually needs it," she replied, keeping her tone hushed throughout her mini-rant.

     I shrugged but didn't reply. I could see her point, but still thought it was a little rude after these people had thought to bring a gift.

     Over the next hour or so Alice and Zee introduced me to more family friends than I could possibly remember. Luckily my sisters explained all sorts of 'in jokes' that were referred to and I found myself relaxing in spite of myself.

     Lex eventually began herding people towards the dining room, where the dining table had been pushed up against one wall and laid with dish after dish of deliciousness.

     Once everyone was crammed into the room, Lex cleared her throat before addressing the crowd. "I just wanted to say, thank you all for coming to share in the celebrations for Alice's birthday. It means a lot to all of us to have our friends with us on occasions like this. So if you'd raise your glasses with me in a toast; to Alice," she said, raising her own glass in Alice's direction. I followed suit along with everyone else and suppressed a chuckle, as Alice blushed crimson.

     "To Alice," we chorused, making her blush deeper as she smiled shyly and thanked us.

     As everyone started talking again and moving towards the buffet I heard the doorbell ring and I instantly felt on edge. My eyes met Lex's for a moment before she left the room, and I saw my own concern echoed in them.

     It was a few moments before I could slip into the hallway unnoticed. Just as I closed the door behind me Lex appeared, leading another young girl down the hall towards the library.

     "Molly? Could you ask Alice to join us in the library please?" Lex murmured as she passed me. The other girl looked at me haughtily as she continued to follow Lex.

     I swallowed heavily as I stepped back into the dining room. I looked around for Alice, but I found Zee first. She took one look at my face and her expression clouded, she looked worried and furious all at once as she made her way over to me and took my paw.

     Zee led me through the crowd directly to Alice, who was standing talking to two Meercas, one striped and one spotted. I nodded politely to them as Alice introduced them before turning to Alice.

     "Um... Lex said could you meet her in the library," I said quietly, trying to keep my rising panic out of my voice.

     Alice looked at me strangely before nodding and heading towards the door. Zee and I followed her, unsure what to do.

     We stood quietly in the hallway as Alice pushed the library door open and went in. There was a moment or two of silence before I heard Alice's shocked gasp.

     "What should we do?" I whispered to Zee, not knowing whether it would be best to go in or let Lex deal with it.

     Zee was saved from having to answer me as Alice screamed "NO!" and came barrelling through the door and down the hallway. She blindly shoved Zee out of her way as she passed and I didn't stop to help her up as I sprinted after Alice.

     Unfortunately Alice is a lot bigger than me, and therefore a lot faster. She was already disappearing into the trees as I made it out of the back door. Without thinking, I followed her, desperately calling her name as I staggered through the woods, ignoring the shouts behind me.

     After what seemed like an age I stumbled to a stop, having lost sight of my sister. I paused and listened, hoping to hear her moving through the undergrowth. Nothing. Fear finally trickled through me as I glanced around, it occurred to me that I wasn't sure which way I'd come and my breathing hitched.

     I was lost.

To be continued...

 
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