Grundos in the Woods
Night in the Haunted Woods – of course, it is always night in the Haunted Woods, but tonight the moon is bright and there is light enough to see the two unlikely visitors, stumbling along the path. Or, to be more accurate, only one is stumbling: the blue Grundo in the space jumpsuit. The other one, Grundo as well but green of color, and wearing much more reasonable clothes for the place and season, walks with ease on the twisty, misty pathway. No doubt he's been here before.
"I tell you," says the blue Grundo, "this is nonsense of the highest order! Total insanity! Absolute madness! You can't expect me to believe such a story, Mr. Gorax."
"Look," says Gorax (the green one), "I understand. You've just come down from the Virtupets Space Station, you've spent your whole life in this nice, closed little city in the stars, where you know everyone and everything and where nothing strange ever happens, except I suppose for the occasional alien invasion. But this is Neopia, Mrs. Talix. Strange things happen all the time in Neopia. We've got Faeries living next door, we've got a city underground and a whole desert that stayed hidden for thousands of years. I've been living down there for a few years, and if I tell you something, you can believe me."
"Still. A mutant thief?"
"A mutant thief, yes."
"In the Haunted Woods? Wouldn't a thief find more work in a big city?"
"Well, there are some who say he's working for someone else, but no one has ever seen this mysterious master of his. Still. The mutant Blumaroo exists, ma'am, and he's got a nasty habit of grabbing everything he can find. If the item you're looking for fell in the Woods, most probably we'll find it in the mutant's paws."
Talix shakes her head. Neopia. Awful place. She would never have come down here if it wasn't for the mission, and even then, she wouldn't have accepted it if it wasn't for the Book. But really, what kind of bumbling idiot drops such a precious thing from the Virtupets Space Station and lets it fall on Neopia? And in the Haunted Woods of all places?
She thought it might be an easy assignment at first, when the commander told her about Gorax, a Virtupets born Grundo who had lived on the planet for a long time, but Gorax hardly acts like a Grundo.
He stops walking, so suddenly that Talix bumps into him.
"What are you..."
"Shhhh. Listen." Gorax is gently pushing her against the nearest tree and away from the too well lit path, eyes darting to and fro, his voice down to a whisper. "Do you hear it?"
Talix strains her antennae, listening. And, yes, she thinks she can hear it. She has been hearing it for some time, in fact, but she thought it was the wind (there is such a thing as wind on the planet, she's heard). A comes moaning across the woods, a cry of pain or loneliness that makes her shudder, suddenly. Surely, no Neopet is big enough to make such a sound? And... is it coming closer?
Talix grabs her ray gun but Gorax grabs her sleeve and tugs.
"This way, quick!"
She follows him deeper amongst the trees, away from the path. No time to argue. The moaning is moving fast along the path behind them, and she can hear another sound as well, now, like the chattering of a thousand tiny voices.
The two Grundos stumble among the trees, away from the path and the moonlight, Gorax leading, Talix with her ray gun held tight in her hand. Branches grab at their clothes and slap across their faces but Gorax is not slowing down. Behind them the sound becomes louder and louder, moaning like a strong wind, chatter like a thousand petpets, fast as a spaceship coming in for docking. Talix can't help it: she has to look back.
When it passes closest to them, Talix can feel it: a strong gust of wind, deathly cold. She can barely see it between the trees, too. Glowing grey and moving fast, very long but not as high as she would have thought, a thousand little feet beating the ground, a thousand pairs of round red eyes like lanterns in the night. But the thing hasn't seen the Grundos. It doesn't waver from its path and the horrible sound begins to fade. Talix stops running and breathes hard. Her heart is beating too fast but she tries not to show it.
"What... What was that?"
Gorax, to her satisfaction, is breathing just as hard, leaning against a tree.
"Ghost Meepits. Awful little creatures. Best not to be seen. Oh, and no point in shooting them, either."
"Yes. There's quite a lot of them in these parts. Thankfully they aren't that bright."
"This is absurd."
"Is it? I never realized. Now come, we better find this book of yours before they come back this way. We're not very far from the maze, now."
The maze they find without major incidents, though Talix has begun to suspect there is something in the mist that alters her senses, because surely that big pulsating thing she sees at bit further down the path can't be... "Is that a brain on this tree?"
"It is. The Brain Tree knows a lot of things but we don't need his help today. Look, there is the maze where the mutant Blumaroo roams. With a bit of luck we'll find him before he goes back to his master."
Why there is a perfectly awful maze that deep in the Woods, Talix can't even begin to guess, but no matter. Mazes, she knows about. Mazes are logical things you can solve with a good brain, or a bit of Virtupets technology. Luckily, she has brought her plasma compass.
"Thank you, Mr. Gorax. I'll take the lead now."
Down twisty pathways where no one ever goes the Grundos walk, Talix with her eyes on her plasma compass, Gorax looking all around for any trace of life or movement.
"Can you tell me what is so important about that book you're looking for, anyway?"
"Oh, Virtupets couldn't possibly function without it! It's..."
Gorax is looking left when the path turns right and doesn't see what comes running towards them. They collide (again) and fall down in a heap of limbs and squeals.
Talix struggle to get back to her feet, quickly. Her ray gun is in the holster and she can't get it to open, why... Back to her feet, she sees what bumped into her and relaxes a bit. It's only a Blumaroo. A very ugly Blumaroo, with greenish-grey scales instead of fur and eyes too large for its head, but a Blumaroo nonetheless. And he's looking mightily scared, at that.
"I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. Please don't tell Master. I'm sorry."
"Calm down," says Gorax, standing up as well. "We won't tell anyone. We were looking for you."
The mutant Blumaroo struggles to get up and Talix, now reassured, holds a hand to help him. He looks at her with surprise in his eyes (she thinks), and accepts.
"I'm sorry. I won't disturb you. I'm going now. Master is waiting."
"But wait! I wanted to ask you something. Did you happen to see..." She doesn't need to finish her phrase. The Blumaroo is holding something in his paws and she recognizes it immediately. The Book! Looking dusty and the cover a bit bent, but that's the Book all right.
"Yes! You did find it! Sir, please, could you give me that book you're holding? I have come all the way from the Space Station to fetch it, you see."
"The book?" The Blumaroo looks down, sees that, indeed, he his holding a book, looks up again with his eyes even larger. "No, no, not the book. The book is for Master. Please, I'm sorry, I have to go."
And away he hops. Talix doesn't wait for him to disappear. She jumps on him, closes her arms around his tail.
"Oh no, you won't leave like that! This Book doesn't belong to you or your master!"
The Blumaroo squeaks plaintively.
"Look here," says Gorax, "there's no need to be scared. We're not thieves. Maybe we can buy it from you. Is there anything we can give you in exchange for the book?"
Talix looks around, then at herself. She didn't bring much. She can't give away the ray gun, but maybe...
"Here. You come into this maze often, don't you? Here's my plasma compass. Guaranteed to help you find the way out. Surely you can use it. It's yours, just give me the Book."
"Compass?" The Blumaroo leans over to look at it. He touches it tentatively. On the round screen, a map of the immediate surroundings in drawn, with the position of the compass a blinking green light. The exit is clearly indicated, not too close but not too far either. With such a thing in your possession, you might find the exit to any maze as quickly as any master could desire.
The Blumaroo grabs the compass, quickly, turns around and hops away. Two jumps and a turn and he is gone. On the dusty path, he has let the Book fall. Talix bends down and picks it up. It is the Book. What a relief!
"I suppose that went quite well," says Gorax. "Are you going to tell me what's so special about this book, now?" He leans to look at it. "Is that... Is that a cook book?"
"Not a cook book, Mr. Gorax. The Cook Book. Chef Gargarox's own. He accidentally let it fall down the garbage chute the other day."
"You came all this way... made me guide you through the Haunted Woods... for a cook book?"
Talix looks at him with disbelief. "How long has it been since you left Virtupets, Mr. Gorax? Do you have any idea what it's like, up there, without the food from Grundos Cafe? We were reduced to eating space rations! Can you imagine waking up one morning and not having your toroidoughnut for breakfast? A much more frightening prospect than anything these Woods contain, I can assure you."
Gorax looks at her with his mouth open, but doesn't say anything. After a while, he closes his mouth again and turns around. Time to go.
"Never mind. Your mission is over, so let's head out of here and get you back to your spaceship. Where was the exit again?"
Talix looks down at her compass and sees only the Book. Oh, right. The compass she just gave that Blumaroo. The Blumaroo who left minutes ago. Where was he headed again? She can't remember.
"The exit? Well..."
Both Grundos look around at high hedges and twisty pathways.
"I suppose we better start looking for it."
Somewhere in the Haunted Woods, they can hear the moaning of the ghost Meepits.