"Come on, Katrina! This is so lame!"
Katrina sighed as she looked down at her little sister. "Zillie, we can't go overboard. There are going to be baby pets here. We can't scare them."
The purple Kyrii crossed her arms. "But it's Halloween! If it's not scary, what's the point?"
Glaring at Zillie wouldn't work – it never did. Katrina turned back to their little display by their mailbox. There were a few pumpkins, one or two scarecrow dolls, and a stuffed Werelupe that was rather more cute than frightening. Most of the other houses on their quiet street on the western edge of Neopia Central were decorated the same way.
Zillie ranted, "Skulls! Meepits! Zombies! Mutants! That's what we ought to use!"
Katrina sighed. "Will you please be quiet, Zillie?" But then the gold Kyrii looked at her sister again. It probably wasn't possible for Zillie to be quiet. She wasn't even quiet when she was standing still – her bubblegum-pink hair (tied back for school with a skull-patterned bow) and the pink-and-black plaid dress she wore (complete with a skull belt buckle) assured that. Katrina reminded her, "You're going to be late for school if you keep standing here whining at me."
Zillie slung her backpack (with a skull keychain) over her shoulders and said, "I'll go to school and sit there bored because they don't even let us dress up anymore, and then I'll come home and you'll have put up more pumpkins and scarecrows and stupid
cuddly things and it'll be boring here too!"
Katrina pretended she hadn't heard. "Have a nice day at school."
Zillie muttered as she stomped off, "Yeah, and maybe Meepits will fly."
As Zillie disappeared down the street, Katrina adjusted her ratty blue jumper – it didn't go well with the simple red dress she was wearing, but it was comfortable, and Katrina still needed to go to the Marketplace to get candy for the trick-or-treaters tonight. And she was going to get some sugar skulls for Zillie – she thought that her sister might like those, and having something skull-related might pacify her. And then maybe everything would be peaceful and orderly and quiet, like Katrina much preferred.
So Katrina ran inside – she noticed Zillie's jacket on its peg, she'd forgotten it again, and Katrina had been too occupied with the decorations to notice she was missing it – to grab her shopping basket, and then headed down to the main road that would lead her into the heart of the city.
It was afternoon by the time she returned – Katrina had eaten lunch, but her stomach was growling, so she opened one of the bags of Ghost Marshmallows and started to nibble. As she did, she noticed the large basket at the doorstep. She approached carefully, wondering what it could be – she hadn't been expecting any mail, and it was too large to merely be some cookies from old Mrs. Gray next door.
When she looked in, her heart seemed to skip a beat, and she froze for a second.
Laying there in the basket, chewing peacefully on the corner of a blanket as pink and fuzzy as itself, was a Meepit.
Remembering herself, Katrina squeaked and jumped backward – she'd heard of those things! They were supposed to stay in the Haunted Woods, not turn up in peaceful neighborhoods in Neopia Central! Then she noticed that there was a card tied to the basket with a pink ribbon. Katrina untied it carefully, ready to pull her hand away in case the creature should spring.
There wasn't much to it – it was a plain white greeting card, its message written in a shaky, childish hand.
This is Mr. Cuddles. Please take care of him.
"Katrina, what's that?"
Katrina's stomach sunk as Zillie ran up the sidewalk and looked into the basket. Her sister squealed, "Sweet Fyora, Katrina, you got us a Meepit! This is so awesome! You're the best sister ever!"
Katrina liked being the best sister ever, but there were limits, and Meepits were well over them. "I didn't get it. It was on the doorstep when I got home. And we're not keeping it. If we hurry, we can turn it over to the PPL before the trick-or-treaters start coming."
Zillie snatched the card out of her sister's hand. "But whoever left him here wanted us to take care of him! Right, Mr. Cuddles?"
The Meepit blinked its big, solemn eyes at them and squeaked, "Meep!"
Katrina insisted, "It's a Meepit! It's dangerous! We can't take care of it here!"
"Mr. Cuddles isn't an it – Mr. Cuddles is a he! And I promise I'll take care of him and feed him and take him for walks and wash his bedding and give him baths..."
"And pull him off Mrs. Gray when he tries to bite her face..."
"Mr. Cuddles won't bite anybody! He'll do whatever I tell him to do! Right, Mr. Cuddles?"
"Meep!" Mr. Cuddles sat up and twitched his little bobbed tail.
Then Zillie smiled. "I've got homework to do before I can go trick-or-treating. And you've got to get the candy ready and finish the decorations. Neither of us has time to go to the PPL. Can't we just wait until tomorrow?"
Katrina sighed. Giving in to Zillie's demands was like negotiating with Dr. Sloth – it rarely ended well. But, Fyora blast it, she was right. Katrina really didn't have time to go back down to the League offices tonight, and she didn't trust Zillie to actually take Mr. Cuddles there instead of, say, hiding him in the backyard. She tried one last feeble opposition. "Who's going to watch him while I'm giving out the candy?"
Zillie's ears perked up. "I'll watch him! I can go out trick-or-treating later after all the babies have gotten their candy. It's more fun then, anyway."
Katrina sighed. She had an awful, awful feeling about this, but there was nothing she could do about it – nothing she could put into words. "Okay, then. But I expect you to keep it – I mean, Mr. Cuddles – out of sight of anyone else. If Mrs. Gray saw him, she'd screech Kreludor down from the sky."
Zillie picked up the basket, clearly through with attention to her big sister. "Let's go, Mr. Cuddles – you can come see my room!"
Oh, this wasn't going to end well.
The sun was sinking toward the west and Katrina was making her final preparations when Mrs. Gray tottered over. The elderly Acara's blue eyes were still sharp, even though her legs were unsteady, and she carried a basket in one hand and a pot in the other. "I thought I'd bring my treats over here, if you didn't mind. It'll be nice to have company, and I brought hot chocolate for us to share while we wait for the children."
Delightful. Just delightful. Mrs. Gray would see that Meepit, raise a gigantic fuss, and Katrina would be woken up the next morning by the PPL kicking down their door. But she couldn't tell her old next-door neighbor to go back to her own house without being incredibly rude. She opened their door and called inside, "Zillie! Mrs. Gray brought hot chocolate over – would you get us some cups?"
Zillie ducked out with three cups, filled them, and then took her own back inside. She said as she retreated, "Thanks, Mrs. Gray. I've got some homework to do."
Mrs. Gray shook her head. "Homework on Halloween. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy!"
"Trick or treat!"
Several Neopets barely big enough to toddle, dressed as Fyora, Princess Amira, a pirate, and Count Von Roo, were storming the porch. Katrina gave out her marshmallows, while Mrs. Grey passed around her fresh chocolate-chip cookies, each decorated with a Meowclops made of icing. And as the evening paraded on and they continued to be visited by faeries, princesses, witches, wizards, heroes, and monsters, Katrina didn't even hear so much as the echo of a "Meep!" and she finally began to relax.
During a break, Mrs. Gray asked, "Did you know that I grew up in the Haunted Woods?"
Katrina hadn't, but she believed it – it wasn't far at all from this tame little neighborhood to the wild borderlands which kept the Woods hemmed in. "I bet Halloween was fun there," she said, trying to be polite.
Mrs. Gray chuckled. "No, no, not at all. At least, not if you weren't a ghost, a sorcerer, a Meepit, or a Dark Faerie. The rest of us closed our shutters at sunset, locked our doors, and built the fires up bright. Oh, it's fun for the littlest ones – staying up all night, eating, telling tales – but when you get older and you realize why you're staying awake, it's never quite as nice."
Katrina said wryly, "You ought to tell Zillie that – my crazy sister would love the idea. She keeps complaining to me that our decorations aren't scary enough."
And then, as another group of trick-or-treaters came down the street, Zillie opened the door. Her eyes were wide. "Katrina, could you come in here?"
Oh, sweet Fyora. What had that creature done? "Mrs. Gray, would you give out my marshmallows?"
Mrs. Gray nodded. "Of course, dear." But her sharp eyes followed them as Katrina shut the door. The gold Kyrii hissed, "What happened?"
Zillie said, brow furrowed, "I think something's wrong. Mr. Cuddles is really nervous."
Katrina raised an eyebrow at the purple Kyrii. "He's a Meepit. How is he nervous?"
Zillie merely grabbed Katrina's hand and towed her toward her bedroom.
The walls were cluttered with peeling band posters, the carpet was obscured by both dirty clothes and a pile of clean ones that hadn't been put away, the bed was unmade, and Katrina couldn't tell what color the desk was underneath papers and mugs. She gave Zillie a look.
Zillie merely pointed at the bed.
Mr. Cuddles sat in the pile of blankets, quivering as he nibbled on slices of an apple that Zillie must have given him. His eyes were even bigger than normal, and between bites he made such timid little squeaks and "Meep!" noises that it was hard to view the little creature as anything but absolutely terrified.
Katrina asked, not liking the cold feeling at the pit of her stomach, "What in Neopia would scare a Meepit?"
And that was when they heard the howling outside.
She'd never heard something like it in person before, but everyone knew what made a noise like that. Zillie whispered, "Werelupe."
But Werelupes didn't come here! They roamed the Haunted Wood, or the wild forests of Meridell and Brightvale!
Yet it was as Mrs. Gray said – they weren't all that far from the edge of things, here. And that Werelupe was certainly far closer to them than any of the Defenders of Neopia.
Katrina ran outside – Mrs. Gray was on her feet, gripping the pot of hot chocolate for dear life. There were a half-dozen little trick-or-treaters outside as well, shepherded by two mothers who had gathered them close. Katrina said, trying to hide the quaver in her voice, "It's probably not nearby. But why don't you come inside, just in case?"
But a little boy dressed as King Jazan pointed down the street, toward the corner where their little dead-end lane joined the main road.
There it crouched, dark-furred, red-eyed, lean, savage, and absolutely huge. It bared savage teeth, and began stalking slowly, deliberately, toward them. Katrina looked around frantically – they were the only people on the street. She screamed, no longer trying to be comforting or calm, "Inside, NOW!"
Once they were all in Katrina and Zillie's living room one of the mothers, a Royal Cybunny, panted hysterically, "We need the Defenders! We need the Defenders! We need the Defenders!"
The other, a Spotted Krawk, snapped, "Cecile, the Defenders' alert button is at the entrance to the street – on the other side of that thing!"
A little Earth Faerie and a Shenkuu princess were both sobbing, as was the little boy whose green costume was probably supposed to resemble Meuka. Katrina said to the Krawk, guessing that she was more likely to be helpful than Cecile, "I'm Katrina – this is my house."
The Krawk nodded. "I'm Maureen." She rapidly introduced the children, but Katrina forgot the names again almost as quickly – at least the costumes made them easy to tell apart.
Cecile sat the children down on the couch and the battered armchair, giving them more of Mrs. Gray's cookies and the milk that Katrina had bought this morning that was supposed to have lasted all week, while Katrina stood with Maureen and Mrs. Gray, wondering what in Neopia they were going to do. Maureen said, "Those things aren't too bright. It shouldn't come after us once we're inside."
But Mrs. Gray shook her head. "No. I've heard of more than one family in the Haunted Woods who had a Werelupe try to break down the door."
Maureen asked, face strained, "Well, how do you stop a Werelupe when it tries to break down the Fyora-blasted door?"
Mrs. Gray shrugged. "A broadsword's the best bet, but I doubt dear Katrina owns one."
Maureen said, disgusted, "A broadsword. Thanks ever so much for the help."
Zillie walked in from her bedroom as Mrs. Gray folded her arms. Thankfully, she'd had the common sense to leave Mr. Cuddles behind. She grabbed a handful of marshmallows – Katrina had left the bowl on the table by the door – and Katrina snatched a few from her as Zillie said, "How about scaring them away? What are Werelupes scared of?"
Mrs. Gray sighed. "A big gang of armed men."
Katrina looked over at the children – King Jazan and the knight were dueling with their toy swords, while the Mystery Island explorer and Meuka egged them on. Cecile ran to them. "Boys, not in the house! You'll hurt the nice young lady's furniture!"
And Katrina asked, the glimmer of an idea occurring to her, "What if it looks like we have a gang with weapons? There are four adults..."
Zillie added immediately, "Five!"
Katrina sighed. "Okay, five. Maybe if we make a lot of noise and wave big pointy things at it through the windows it'll run off."
Maureen asked doubtfully, "Will it work if we do it through the windows?"
Zillie asked with a roll of her eyes, "Are you volunteering to go outside with a Werelupe running around?"
Katrina warned, "Zillie..."
Mrs. Gray suggested, "If we're quite done, perhaps we ought to borrow those swords."
Very soon, Katrina gripped a plastic scimitar, while Zillie wielded a tinfoil sword. Mrs. Grey had the kitchen bread knife, Maureen had the tongs, and Cecile held the rolling pin as if she were afraid it would attack her back. They crept up to the front windows, ready to pull open the curtains and start making a racket.
And then they heard the scratching sounds at the door, shortly followed by heavier splintering noises. Katrina could all too easily imagine massive claws gouging furrows in the wood, ripping it into mulch, and she looked at her toy sword doubtfully. Her distraction plan might have worked with windows in between them and the Werelupe, but she wasn't willing to try it without something solid in between them and it. It had moved so fast, it seemed – but then, it knew exactly what it wanted to do. It didn't need to sit around discussing anything.
The children were crying again, except for the little King Jazan, who had picked up a vase from the mantelpiece that had belonged to Katrina's great-grandmother and was gripping it as though he intended to do damage. Cecile ran over even as the Kyrii noticed. "No – that belongs to the nice young lady! Don't touch it!"
Katrina looked around, discarded her plastic sword, and picked up the broom – it wasn't as impressive, but it was heavier. She had no illusions about her ability to fight a Werelupe. She didn't want to fight a Werelupe. But Katrina knew there were certain things that did and didn't happen in the world, and one of the things that didn't happen was anyone or anything breaking into her house or hurting her guests while she had breath to prevent it.
And then she noticed Zillie head down the short hall to her bedroom. Katrina followed, saying, "I'll be back in a minute." She didn't bother to listen for a reply.
Mr. Cuddles was sitting on the floor, still quivering. Zillie knelt down in front of him, and Katrina stood back, watching and wondering what in Neopia her crazy little sister thought this would do.
Zillie said softly, "Mr. Cuddles, there's a Werelupe trying to get into the house. There's no way the Defenders can get here quickly enough. Is there anything you can do to help us?"
The Meepit stopped quivering – he sat still as a statue, looking back into Zillie's eyes. Katrina gripped her broom a little more tightly, ready in case he tried to jump. Zillie continued, "You're from the Haunted Woods. You scare people. Fyora knows you certainly scare my sister. I bet if you helped us now, she wouldn't be scared of you and she'd let you stay."
The Meepit cocked his head to one side, and, as silly as it was, Katrina couldn't shake the feeling that Mr. Cuddles understood every word that they were saying. Tonight was a night for strangeness, it seemed. So when she heard the next howl from outside, she shivered and knelt down beside her sister. "I promise, Mr. Cuddles, that if you do something to help us stop that thing you can stay here as long as you please."
Mr. Cuddles squeaked, "Meep!" And then he began to walk toward the door, crawling over the laundry in his way. Katrina followed – Zillie slipped a hand into hers, and Katrina gripped it tightly. It had been years since her little sister had wanted to hold her hand, she realized – but if there had ever been a night for it, tonight was it.
The ripping, splintering sounds were even louder outside the door – their house was sturdy wood, but not even the sturdiest of boards could have lasted for long under this sort of assault. Mr. Cuddles quickened his pace – he could move surprisingly fast for having such short, stubby legs.
And then Mrs. Gray screamed, "Meepit! Meepit! Get back!"
Katrina ran into the living room, outpacing Mr. Cuddles, to try and reassure her. "It's okay! It's okay... I think."
Cecile said in horror, "You've got a Meepit?"
Katrina said quickly, "Someone left him for us on the porch this afternoon."
Zillie added, with the stubborn set to her face that Katrina had underestimated before and regretted, "His name is Mr. Cuddles."
Mrs. Gray said, enunciating as if to make sure she'd heard, "Mr. Cuddles."
Mr. Cuddles squeaked, "Meep! Meep! Meep!"
And then, with a final crash, the door splintered inward. One of the shards of wood cut Katrina's cheek as it shot by her. But she barely even registered the pain – she was focused on the Werelupe trying to get through the door.
Trying, because it was almost too big to fit. Its reddish eyes were narrowed, and it growled as they focused right on Maureen. The Krawk took several quick steps backward, nearly treading on her own tail, as she held the tongs out in front of her.
It growled again as it twisted to try and get its shoulders through the door – Katrina fancied that she could feel the sound as well as hear it. She shouted, "Get out of here! Get! Get! Go!" She was almost past scared, it seemed – her only thought was to get it away. She lunged toward it to hit it on the nose with her broom handle. It snarled at her and tried to snap.
And then Mr. Cuddles jumped into action.
The Meepit sprang off the floor, straight onto the Werelupe's head. It fell backward, howling, but Mr. Cuddles didn't let go – he kept nipping at the Werelupe's nose and ears. The massive creature howled, and kept pacing backward. The boy dressed as King Jazan shouted, "Go Mr. Cuddles! Go Mr. Cuddles!"
And then they heard the shout outside. "Defenders of Neopia! Stand down!"
The Defenders had arrived!
By the time the Defenders that had been sent tranquilized the Werelupe for transport back to the Wood, Mr. Cuddles had vanished. Katrina thought she had seen a streak of pink go through what remained of her front door, but she didn't mention Mr. Cuddles to the Defenders. No one did. They hadn't discussed it, but they didn't, all the same. As far as the Defenders knew, their noise and the makeshift weapons they were still holding had scared the Werelupe back out the door.
Katrina was grateful. She didn't need a visit from the PPL on top of everything else. Once Maureen, Cecile, and the trick-or-treaters had moved on, she was bone-tired, and it was all she could do to find a blanket to cover her doorway before she collapsed onto the couch. Mrs. Gray followed, and Zillie sat there as well, cradling Mr. Cuddles in her arms. He "Meep!"-ed happily and made a little noise that sounded almost like a purr.
Mrs. Gray merely shook her head. "A Meepit saving the day. Now I've really seen everything."
Zillie stroked Mr. Cuddles's head. "And Katrina promised him that if he helped us he could stay."
Mrs. Gray frowned. "Really, Katrina?"
Katrina nodded. "I did." She was too tired to worry about whether or not it had been a good idea. But if was possible for a Meepit to look smug, Mr. Cuddles did. The elderly Acara said, "I wish I could tell you that I didn't think no good would come of this. But those things are clever. It might just be biding its time."
Zillie scowled. "Mr. Cuddles helped us when he didn't have to. He's on our side. We'll take care of him, and he'll take care of us. Right, Mr. Cuddles?"
Katrina watched Mr. Cuddles, to see if there was anything particularly devilish in his expression. But their new pet merely looked as innocent as a summer sky. She patted his head. "Or maybe he is a good Meepit. They can't all be megalomaniacs who're plotting to take over the world."
Mrs. Gray still appeared doubtful. "Well, I suppose he did do good work tonight." She handed Mr. Cuddles one of the last of the cookies – he mowed through it happily, and the elderly lady smiled a little.
Katrina slouched back into the cushions. "Well, I've decided that I'm going to worry about all of this tomorrow. Who's with me?"
Mrs. Gray sighed. "Oh, yes."
Zillie yawned. "Yes."
And Mr. Cuddles peeped, "Meep!"
Happy Halloween! There may be more about the mysterious Mr. Cuddles to come. :)