The Mysteries of Mr. Cuddles: Part Five
What Zillie had never realized was that sitting in a dungeon was boring. Since there were no windows, she didn't have any idea how long she'd been sitting here – she'd slept a little, she thought, but she had no way to tell how long that had been, and she was absolutely ravenous, which didn't make things any easier. Mr. Cuddles lay curled up in one corner of the cell – he at least could sleep.
They'd tried coming up with ideas to escape, but the bottom line was that they were locked in a cell, they were fighting at least one sorcerer, and Zillie couldn't even have found her way out of Castle Nox.
And then she heard the footsteps. She shook Mr. Cuddles awake, and then heard Joraskan say, "I'm sorry, Overlord. If you wanted both the girls, you should have said so. Asander believed that only the abomination was necessary, and if the girl with the obnoxious hair hadn't held onto it, we wouldn't even have her."
Abomination? Obnoxious? That Lupe needed to get his nose out of his thesaurus. And then he needed to come in here and insult her to her face. She glanced at Mr. Cuddles – he looked as disgruntled as she felt, even in the presence of the Overlord, whoever he was.
If she got half a chance, she wanted to see all four of those stuck-up maniacs, plus this Overlord dude, taking a face-plant in the dirt.
But she didn't even have that half-chance. She and Mr. Cuddles didn't even have a quarter-chance from the inside of this stupid, boring cell.
There was a pause. Joraskan said, "We need to wait for night to fall. We're all more powerful in the darkness."
Another pause. "Our deal is simple. You tell us where Hubrid hid the odial sphere, the noxious blade, the Book of Death, and the puzzle box before his demise, and we will give you the abomination and the girl. Once we have them in our hands. And no sooner."
Zillie did not like the sound of that. And why couldn't she hear the other person's voice? She whispered to Mr. Cuddles, not wanting to be overheard, "First things first, we need to start figuring out why they call you an abomination. Because I think you rock."
He looked at her with a lonely expression, and she thought she knew what he was trying to say. "You're not like the others, are you? You aren't plotting to take over the world like the other Meepits – or, at least, like everyone says they are. And I'm starting to think that everyone's right about that bit. But, because you're different, the other Meepits don't like you."
The thoughts seemed to keep unspooling. She continued, "I bet you've been like that since you were really little. That's why someone took you away from the other Meepits and gave you to us. If only we knew who that person was? Are you sure you don't remember?"
Mr. Cuddles nodded. But his eyes were bright, and Zillie could tell that he agreed with what she was saying. She kept thinking out loud – she couldn't hear any more conversation from outside, but she still kept it low. "I think you're kind of like those creeps who've moved into the castle. No – don't give me that look! Most people are basically good, but those four turned out bad. But Meepits think that 'good' means 'plotting to take over the world,' so if you'd rather help people, they think you're the one who's gone crazy. Even though you're awesome."
Mr. Cuddles snuggled up to her, and she put an arm around him. She said, "You're basically a Meepit superhero. Which might make me the sidekick, but that's okay. Think we ought to make ourselves a uniform?"
He shot her a dirty look. She sighed. "Okay. No uniform."
And then she heard Joraskan's voice again. "I don't like delays, Overlord. This doesn't need to be half as complicated as you seem to think it is. You show us where the objects are, we give you the prisoners, and we part ways before midnight."
Another short pause. "You said nothing about magical locks. Nothing at all. A smaller man might consider that treacherous. How do we bypass those locks?"
Yet another pause. Zillie fervently hoped that whatever magical lock was would turn all of the stupid sorcerers into Slymooks when they tried to break it.
"A smaller man might also find your reticence irritating."
This time, in the pause, Zillie heard faint squeaky laughter. Joraskan laughed as well. "Of course I don't trust them! Asander and Theer – especially Theer – are as mad as mutant Meepits, if you'll pardon the popular phrase..."
Theer. That had to be the zombie Grundo, because Lirai was the beautiful Ixi and Asander was the Shoyru bully with the wraiths. Zillie knew all four names now, and knowledge was power – even if she didn't yet know how to use it.
"... And Lirai, while considerably saner, only sees one throne in the hall of this place. Why else do you think we'd meet in this miserable hole? I'll have to deal with her at some point... As you wish. The day is wasting, and I must make sure that Theer's not preparing to do something foolish. At full dark, the great hall?"
Silence, and departing footsteps – with an accompanying faint scrabble of little feet that Zillie hadn't noticed before.
She had a feeling that they were little evil Meepit feet. She asked, "Is the Overlord a Meepit?"
Mr. Cuddles nodded. She mused, "They don't seem to trust each other. We can use that. Though I think we may need to make a lot of this up on the fly. When in doubt, bite their faces while they're trying to cast evil spells. You're the Meepit superhero, after all."
He nuzzled her fondly, she put an arm around him, and they sat amid the cold and the darkness, waiting for the night to come.
Katrina followed Magax, Tamm, Bones, and Jonquil through the Woods, once more getting hopelessly lost. She had no idea how the four fighters managed to keep their heads in this muddle besides sheer experience.
Because they were fighters. They'd explained that to her before they went to sleep last night. There were other bands like them that lived rough in the Haunted Woods, hunting the things that would prey on the week, helping lost travelers, and all in all helping to make the place a little less deadly. They were going in armed. Very armed. They all carried knives, slings, and pouches of stones. In addition, Tamm had two swords, Jonquil had a thin spear, and Bones had a bag full of things that would all explode in various spectacular fashions.
Magax had only checked his compass when she asked what he carried. And with one look at those red eyes, Katrina decided that he could keep all the secrets he wanted.
She sort of wished that she had a weapon – all she had was her flashlight. Admittedly, it was long and heavy, but there was still not a whole lot that she was going to be able to do with it. But Tamm had said that the only person she was going to hurt was herself, and everyone else had agreed with the sour Kougra.
Magax said sharply, "Reconnaissance first. Daylight will be the safest time to do that. Most of those who would inhabit that foul place are active at night. Look for any evidence that would point to the numbers or the manner of the castle's inhabitants."
Tamm had been scouting ahead. He called, sounding worried, "Boss, you'd better take a look at these."
He was standing in front of a set of tracks. Katrina recognized the shape of them, from having to clean off her front porch after last Halloween. "Werelupe."
Jonquil looked closer and winced. "Werelupes, plural. And big ones." She ran a hand through her short hair. "We're in for a real party tonight, aren't we?"
Bones said fervently, "Fyora prevent it. Hopefully we'll cause enough of a ruckus that they'll run the other way."
Tamm said, adjusting his wide-brimmed hat, "Or they'll come straight toward us hoping for dinner and dessert."
Magax said firmly, "Our business is with Castle Nox tonight, not foraging Werelupes. If it shows its snout, we'll scare it off. Nothing more needs to be said."
Katrina was tired and cold and the state of her hair didn't even bear thinking about – she just kept following as the four fighters kept walking, occasionally commenting on tracks or other signs that they found. But before too long, they were back on the main road to Castle Nox, with the fairground sprawled tawdrily on one side and the castle looming above.
Katrina sat with Jonquil in another stand of trees, further away than the one that she, Mr. Cuddles, and Zillie had picked out. Jonquil explained as the three men fanned out, "I'm the weakest tracker. I'm better when it comes to fighting things. Tactics. But even those I'm not as good with, compared to Magax. Especially not here. He spent a few centuries fighting Nox, until that crazy wraith sorceress got the old sorcerer."
Katrina couldn't believe her long Kyrii ears. "Centuries?"
Jonquil nodded. "I'm not sure why Magax is the way he is – I could count all I know of his past on one hand – but I do know he's not quite mortal. Whatever he is, I'd rather be alongside him than facing him, and that's a fact. What's your sister like – the one we're trying to rescue?"
Katrina started telling Jonquil about Zillie, and the simplicity of their life in Neopia Central – it was an almost childish simplicity, compared to the way Jonquil lived, but Katrina missed it wholeheartedly. And before too long, Tamm, Bones, and Magax were all returning.
Bones said, "We found garbage. Whatever's in there is alive, and eats."
Tamm added, "I'd guess more than one person, but not more than six or seven, based on the amount we found. Of course, wraiths don't eat. There's no telling how many of them we might need to deal with."
Magax said, "There were also Meepit tracks. Several sets. I don't know much about the Meepit cabal in the Haunted Woods, but it's mixed up in this somehow."
Katrina said, "Well, we knew it had something to do with Mr. Cuddles."
Tamm sighed. "But the place itself is shut down, tight as could be."
Bones hefted his bag of explosives cheerfully. "Just give the word."
Magax shook his head. "We'll set up a perimeter. One to see each side of the fortress – Katrina, stay with Jonquil." He passed around small flat discs. "Communicators. When you're holding them, we'll all be able to hear you. If you see anything, tell us. But I don't expect there to be a move until darkness."
Katrina and Jonquil ended up on the far side of the castle – she was glad not to be looking at the candy-colored creepiness of the Deserted Fairground. She asked Jonquil as they settled into the best concealment they could find, "So what do we do next?"
Jonquil shrugged as she said, "Wait."
And Katrina sat amid the cold and her own fear, waiting for the night to come.
To be continued...