The Mysteries of Mr. Cuddles - Part Two
Katrina yawned in the greyish light of early dawn. She wasn't a morning person by nature, but they had to catch a stagecoach – a stagecoach, of all things – to get into the Haunted Woods, and it left early.
She sighed and took a deep swig of her thermos of coffee as she checked the two backpacks – one grey, one black with rhinestone skulls and a Meepit keychain. They had granola bars, trail mix, and other food that wouldn't go bad, in case they were trapped out in the woods somehow. Two flashlights each, in case one was lost or broken, and backup batteries. Extra wool socks, bottles of water – Katrina had even packed herself fireworks and some matches in case they needed an emergency flare. She wasn't letting Zillie know she had them, though – no use in inviting trouble. And, of course, she had a small bag of coffee grounds. She buttoned up her grey wool coat. "Zillie, are you ready?"
Zillie was wearing her black-and-pink coat and her combat boots – as she came out of her room with an armful of miscellaneous stuff, Mr. Cuddles trotted at her heels. She dumped her load into the main pocket of her backpack. "Now I am!"
Katrina said, "Remember, you'll be carrying all of that a long way."
Zillie shrugged. "We're staying at that inn you mentioned, right? It won't be too long. And it's better to have it if I need it than to not have it and want it."
She was parroting Katrina's justification for the surplus food and light. Katrina sighed. "Okay, then. And no asking Mr. Cuddles to carry it for you."
Zillie smiled wryly. She'd attempted, last evening, to make a backpack for Mr. Cuddles. The Meepit had taken one look at it and shredded it with his teeth. He squeaked, "Meep!" in obvious agreement.
Katrina went over their plan. "We're going to go to Neovia first – we'll be able to stay in an inn there. They've got a stagecoach that runs from south of here right to town. We'll stay there tonight. We'll get to look around Neovia tomorrow morning, but I want to be at Castle Nox by the time the sun sets – being out in the Woods at night is risky, but wandering is worse."
Zillie nodded. "And if we go to some historic sites in Neovia I can write that paper for my teacher and she'll give me extra credit. I want to see where they broke the curse on the town."
Katrina nodded. "And I heard the bakery there is excellent. Don't worry – we'll make this a vacation."
Zillie grinned smugly. "Nikolai wouldn't be quiet about getting to see the Gebmids, but Neovia's cooler. And Castle Nox is way cooler." Before Katrina could correct her, she amended, "But I know I'm not supposed to tell everyone at school that we went to Castle Nox because they think we're crazy enough already because Mr. Cuddles lives with us and if they find out about Castle Nox they'll think we've gone off the deep end."
Katrina took another deep drink of her coffee. "Are you ready to go?"
Zillie opened the Petpet carrier for Mr. Cuddles – they'd all decided that it would be easier on their fellow travelers if he wasn't running loose. They'd packed it with a few fluffy blankets, carrot sticks, and some of Mr. Cuddles' favorite toys, so he wandered into it without any trouble – he looked as sleepy as Katrina felt. Zillie hefted the carrier, and the two sisters and their Meepit headed out the door into the early morning.
It took the rest of the day to get to Neovia on the bumping, rattling stagecoach. They watched out the window as houses grew sparser and the land grew wilder, until they ended the journey by passing through thick tall trees, made ominous by their lack of leaves. She thought she saw things scuttling in the underbrush, but nothing ever stood still long enough for her to make out just what it was.
As they finally disembarked, Katrina flicked her tail, trying to get some feeling back into it. The sun was setting over the dark trees at the fringe of the town, but in Neovia the lamps and streetlights were plentiful, lending a rosy glow to the cold winter air. Zillie looked around. "So which way do we go?"
Katrina's coffee, and the warmth that had accompanied it, were long since gone. "Whichever way the food is. There's a signpost over there."
They ended up at the Crumpetmonger, sampling a variety of scones, cookies, and sweetened coffee drinks. Mr. Cuddles' carrier sat under their table, and Zillie slipped him bits of the food, which, from the munching sounds, he enjoyed tremendously. Katrina tried not to think about the grim, foreboding Haunted Woods, black and skeletal in mid-winter, that she'd seen during the journey. Tomorrow's search for Castle Nox wasn't going to be a picnic, but worrying about it now would only make everything worse.
Zillie was already yawning, so they finished their food, paid for it, and headed onward to the little bed-and-breakfast that Katrina had read about. There was an open room, and Katrina paid and shepherded her sister up the stairs of the quaint old house and into the little bedroom with two twin beds, complete with handmade quilts. Zillie woke up enough to look disapproving. "It looks like Mrs. Gray's guest bedroom."
Katrina retorted, "It looks comfortable. Look at all the pillows!"
The moment they'd entered to room, Zillie had freed Mr. Cuddles, who was now asleep on one of the beds, flopped atop one of said pillows. Zillie picked him up, pillow and all, and set him in an armchair. "It screams old lady."
Katrina sighed. "We'll be in the midst of the Woods tomorrow night, Zillie. That's right up your alley. Will you please give me tonight somewhere cute and quiet?"
Zillie clearly had to bite back a half-dozen snarky rejoinders. But then Mr. Cuddles squeaked softly in his sleep, and she turned to pet him gently. "I can't wait to find out who gave him to us. If it weren't for him on Halloween, that Werelupe would probably have eaten us."
And there were many, many more Werelupes out there in the Haunted Woods, and Mr. Cuddles couldn't possibly attack all of their faces. Not to mention Dark Faeries, and bandits, and other things that would keep Katrina from sleeping at night if she dwelled on them.
But they'd come this far – they might as well see this through, in the hopes that the mysteries of Mr. Cuddles would be unraveled at last.
Oh, ew. Katrina looked at the foul-smelling mud that had plastered her boots in disgust. Some of it had gotten on her pants and her coat as well. Zillie was also muddy, though she didn't seem to have the same bad luck that Katrina had.
The sky was thick with ominous clouds, and the air was cold, but not quite cold enough to harden the ever-present mud or to freeze the wisps of fog that floated among the trees, looking like ghosts or goblins. Mr. Cuddles and Zillie were the only spots of color in the whole dreary land. She held up her map. "Have you found the next signpost yet?"
Zillie shook her head. "We should see it soon, though."
The path toward Castle Nox would take them past some territory marked in black – a clear warning – on their map. Katrina warned, "And you know that if you even try to get a closer look at the Haunted Fairground I'll drag you straight back to Neovia, right?"
Zillie crossed her arms. "Looking wouldn't hurt."
Katrina looked down at their Meepit. "Mr. Cuddles, if she goes near that place, attack her ankles."
Zillie muttered, "I just wanted to look..." but was cut off by wandering straight into another mud puddle. "Yuck! My boots are never going to get clean!"
Katrina smirked. "If you hadn't argued with me, you would have been paying attention... ew!"
There was a fresh coat of mud on her boots now, and it was Zillie's turn to smirk. Katrina decided that it would be best to continue on in silence.
The sky was rapidly getting darker when they finally began the hike up the rise toward Castle Nox. It was bigger than Katrina had expected – Zillie gaped up at the hulking mass of stone.
At the top of the slope, there was a stand of trees with a bit of underbrush – as the last light faded, Katrina led the others into the shelter it provided. They could hear the howling of Werelupes and worse, but it was off in the distance, carried to them by the intermittent gusts of wind. Zillie and Mr. Cuddles both huddled close to Katrina as her watch counted off the minutes, agonizingly slow. Zillie took out her flashlight and a magazine, but Katrina was too tense to try and distract herself from anything but waiting in the dark and the cold for midnight to finally come.
Nine. Ten. Eleven. Zillie and Mr. Cuddles had both fallen asleep. Katrina's eyes were heavy, but she couldn't have slept even if she hadn't thought that someone ought to be keeping watch.
The hands on her watch moved, ever so slowly, to midnight. Katrina whispered, "Wake up! Wake up!"
Zillie blinked. "Whaaaa?"
Mr. Cuddles squeaked, "Meep!"
Katrina told them softly, "It's midnight. Be ready."
A huge flash of lightning shot over the top of Castle Nox. Thunder growled. Katrina winced. "That's not creepy in the slightest..."
Zillie informed her, "We're in the Haunted Woods. Creepy is the point."
And then the castle doors flew open and the darkness flooded out.
Katrina screamed as she stumbled to her feet, trying to get feeling into her cold, numb limbs. She could see claws, teeth... "Wraiths! Wraiths! Run, Zillie, run!"
Next to her, Zillie tucked Mr. Cuddles, who was meeping furiously, under one arm like a football, stumbling as she got to her feet. Katrina grabbed her little sister's hand and pulled her toward the path, to get down the hill and away from whatever horrible thing had lured them here.
And then the tide of darkness washed over them. Zillie's hand was torn from Katrina's as the gold Kyrii tripped over a stone and fell to her knees. The wraiths whirled around her, glowing with a fell light – Zillie screamed, "Katrina! Katrina!"
And then the darkness was removed from her eyes. Katrina turned just in time to see the doors of Castle Nox slam shut again behind the last of the wraiths.
It was midnight in the Haunted Woods, her sister and her pet Meepit had been taken by wraiths, and Katrina was alone.
To be continued...