The Mysteries of Mr. Cuddles - Part Three
Zillie held on to Mr. Cuddles as tightly as she could. That was the only thing that the Purple Kyrii could do, lost and alone in the howling storm of wraiths.
She hadn't expected a trap. She'd expected to find out the truth! And she'd been ready for a Spyder or three – that would have sent Katrina into fits – but attacked by wraiths, and pulled into the haunted castle? That wasn't something she'd even considered. She was scared, and not in the fun sort of way. She didn't know where she was, or where Katrina was, or what these wraiths wanted from her. She didn't even know if the letter that had brought them here had been real.
She hit the ground hard, and had the wind knocked out of her, and she didn't have the energy to focus on anything else as she struggled to breathe. Finally, she began to gasp in air, and as she did she realized that she was lying on some sort of thin carpet, clutching a trembling Mr. Cuddles. She could feel that her backpack was gone – she had no idea when she'd lost it. And she'd had some of her favorite stuff in there! She pushed herself into a sitting position as she opened her eyes.
She was in a room somewhere in the castle – there was no window, so she guessed that she was closer to the middle. It was fairly small, with only a table and a few chairs, the threadbare rug she sat on, and a fireplace burning brightly. The door was shut, and she was certain it would be locked. Zillie tried to push herself to her feet – going over to the fire would at least help her to warm up. Even if the door wasn't locked, she couldn't make a daring escape if she could barely move her fingers.
But then an invisible force pushed her right onto her back again. Mr. Cuddles shrilled, "Meep!"
The shadows in a corner shifted, and a Darigan Shoyru in a black cape and cowl appeared. He gave her a grin that didn't reach any other part of his face. "Little girl ought to wait until the lord gets here."
Mr. Cuddles squeaked, still shivering, "Meep! Meep! Meep!"
The Shoyru scowled. "And little Meepits ought to mind their mouths, unless they want to play with the wraiths again."
Mr. Cuddles immediately went silent. Zillie shuddered. She had a few Darigan friends at school, and she didn't think they were creepy, but there was something empty in the Shoyru's eyes that repelled her, and the shadows around him seemed a good deal darker than they ought to have been. She asked, "Where's my sister?"
The Shoyru's creepy grin only got wider. "How should I know?"
Dread coiled tight in Zillie's stomach. "Did you hurt Katrina? If you hurt Katrina I'll... I'll... I'll..." She couldn't think of something horrible enough to do to someone who would hurt Katrina. Katrina hadn't really wanted to do this, and it was Zillie who'd talked her into it. It was Zillie's fault if anything had happened to her.
The Shoyru didn't stop grinning, and then Zillie didn't want to say anymore – she had the feeling that she was only amusing him. She hated adults who treated her like that.
And that was when the door opened.
Zillie twisted as best she could to look up. Three more people had entered the room. The first was every bit as creepy as the Shoyru – a zombie Grundo with a mop of hair braided with feathers, beads, and pieces of wood. She also sported a necklace that looked like it was made of pointed teeth, and her raggedy, multi-colored dress was belted by a sash weighed down by the numerous pouches and vials hooked on to it.
The two behind her...
They were just as creepy, but in a different way. The tallest was a royal Lupe in a high-collared robe, with a gold circlet on his head and a golden staff in his hands. The next was a fine-featured Halloween Ixi in an elaborate black-and-gold dress, cape, and gloves, with her red-gold hair swept up into an elaborate hairstyle. They were wonderful to look at, like a king and queen – too wonderful for this haunted place. The sheer wrongness of them made Zillie's fur stand on end.
The Lupe shook his head. "Asander, Asander, Asander. There's no need to imprison them like that."
Mr. Cuddles squeaked indignantly, "Meep! Meep!" Zillie was glad that he at least could find the heart to protest their treatment – she kept having to discard witty replies that would only get her into worse trouble.
She wasn't sure how she could get in worse trouble, but she had a feeling that her mouth might be able to manage it. Katrina had always said so.
As she thought that, the pressure on her subsided, and she was able to sit up. Mr. Cuddles burrowed into the cradle of her arms, and she held him close as she asked, "What do you want?"
The zombie Grundo hissed, "Unnatural!"
Zillie snapped, "My hair is naturally pink, I'll have you know!"
The Ixi turned up her nose. "She isn't talking about your hair, child. She's talking about that thing."
The Lupe's deep voice was comforting – Zillie had to struggle to remind herself that he'd kidnapped her and Mr. Cuddles and he might have even hurt Katrina. "Thank you very much for bringing it to us. The Overlord has been dismayed by its absence."
Mr. Cuddles' shivering abruptly stopped – whoever the Overlord was, he terrified him, and Katrina wasn't about to let these people threaten the Petpet who'd saved her from a Werelupe. "Mr. Cuddles isn't an it. Mr. Cuddles is a he. And you can stop talking about him like that!" But then she realized what he'd said. "You mean you people were the ones who left Mr. Cuddles with us?"
The Ixi said, "Of course not. It was stolen from the Overlord. But I was able to catch sight of a basket and a note. Faking the handwriting was child's play."
Zillie's heart sank. But it did sound like these scary people knew something about what Mr. Cuddles was or where he'd come from, or who might have brought him to them. And while it didn't seem that they thought much of Mr. Cuddles, Zillie didn't really think much of them, so she thought it evened out. She was too frustrated by all of the mysterious talk and the condescending behavior to even attempt tact any longer, so she snapped, "Well, tell me what you want so I can go ahead and tell you to take a long walk off a short pier, and we can stop wasting all of our time!"
Something hit Zillie in the back so hard that she stumbled forward, ending up on her knees at the feet of the Lupe with the crown. She whirled around – it was a wraith, lurking above the head of the Shoyru.
She knew people like that at school – they were bullies. They wouldn't fight fair. And Zillie wasn't sure if she'd be able to fight back.
But then Mr. Cuddles started squeaking at them, and it didn't take much for Zillie to understand that he was scolding the four other Neopians for their behavior – and their bizarre fashion sense, too, if Zillie had taught him anything at all. At least he was with her – she knew she could rely on him to bite faces if necessary.
But then the zombie woman hissed, "Silence! You know nothing of your kindred, nothing of your nature – you are a freak, and you will know your place!"
The Ixi woman asked, "Lord Joraskan, what will we do with these two?"
The Lupe – Joraskan, since Zillie refused to give such a jerk the respect of calling him 'lord' – said, "We have dungeons, do we not, Lirai? Take them both there. The Overlord may wish the child to answer for what has become of it."
Zillie looked down at Mr. Cuddles. She didn't think anything had become of him, The PPL veterinarian – the only one who'd been willing to even see a Meepit – had said he was perfectly healthy. But then something grabbed her by the shoulders and lifted her into the air – another wraith. She was really starting to hate both wraiths and that smug Shoyru sorcerer who commanded them. Asander. That was his name. She was going to remember that.
Sadly, she didn't have as much luck remembering the way to the dungeons – the wraith carrying her spun and dived and whipped around corners far too quickly for Zillie to remember the route. She wasn't even sure if she remembered which way was up anymore. Mr. Cuddles buried his face in her shirt.
Finally, they were unceremoniously dumped onto a cold stone floor, and a wooden door slammed shut. They were in a dark stone room, alone except for a pile of straw, lit only by a torch which flickered through the window in the door. Mr. Cuddles' eyes reflected the light oddly, looking reddish in the dimness. She sat him down. "Well, do you have any ideas?"
He shrugged his shoulders, and she sighed. "I know. We're locked down here and we don't even know how to get out of this stupid castle. I wish we'd never come here."
It was dark, and cold, and Zillie was dirty and hungry. She doubted she'd be able to ask the people in the castle for a change of clothes or a sandwich.
But then an idea occurred to her. What were those four doing in Castle Nox? And who was the Overlord? She said slowly, "I think those four upstairs might be up to something bad, Mr. Cuddles. Do you think we ought to stop them?"
Of course. If they were concocting some sort of plot to take over Neopia, and people like that always were, Zillie and Mr. Cuddles had to at least try to stop them. And maybe it would make up for getting her family into this mess.
She sat down beside the Meepit. "Well, Mr. Cuddles, we don't have any ideas yet, so let's start thinking of some."
To be continued...