Homecoming: Part Three
"So I guess Geraptiku was out, huh?" Anna laughed.
"Oh, yeah," McCloud laughed. "After that fiasco, I wasn't going back there and I don't think Ru was too keen on the idea, either. But that didn't mean he had run out of ideas of places where Jelly World could be hiding." McCloud jumped up on the couch next to Anna and curled up while she covered him in a blanket.
While McCloud had been telling the story of his adventures with Rushishi, the snow had only kept falling while the sun set. It was dark now, as it was so early in winter. The house was also getting rather cold... Anna leaned up against one of McCloud's huge paws and stared off blankly into the beyond with her blind eyes. Still twirling that chess piece in her hand.
"Of course not," she sighed. She smiled a little, but McCloud knew that thoughts of her old owner were coming back to her. McCloud sighed, too, thinking about how much he'd miss his own owner if she left. Or even Rushishi. Anyone, really. Family was a precious thing...
He hurried on, "Another thing Ru wasn't too great at... was learning lessons. He tends to make the same mistakes over and over."
Anna turned her face up toward his. "What do you mean?"
McCloud just chuckled. "Well, the place he picked next... it was even worse than the last place."
"Yeah. This is loads better," McCloud muttered sarcastically.
"Quit your whining." Rushishi plodded off ahead down the darkened and misty pathways of the Haunted Woods, apparently not paying attention to anything at all. Vampiric Meepits poked their glowing eyes from every dark hole in the trees while zombie-like Kacheeks and Draiks roamed the path around them. McCloud was certain for Rushishi's safety around zombies, but he liked to think that he would have made a delicious and wholesome snack for a brain-eater.
McCloud, unlike Rushishi, flinched at everything. He knew that if they came upon one of the meaner denizens of this wood, he couldn't be assured of a way out. Rushishi on the other hand... well, zombies were no problem for a pet with no brain. Likewise, Jelly pets without blood didn't need to worry about vampires. McCloud, having both, had to worry about both.
And then there were the ghosts.
"Don't you think we've had enough ghosts on this trip?" McCloud demanded.
Rushishi chuckled and said nothing, while McCloud remembered their terrifying encounter with an irate ghost Hissi just a few days ago on Mystery Island. The Hissi had pretty much threatened to devour them whole... but on second thought, McCloud wasn't one-hundred percent certain that ghosts could eat anything. Not that it helped anything.
A ghost Krawk floated down out of a tree and stared at McCloud rather menacingly for a few seconds before moving on.
McCloud bit back a shout and chased after Rushishi, whimpering. "Where are we going? Why are we here? Can we please leave?"
"Stop being such a scaredy-Wocky," Rushishi scolded. "We're just checking. I can't imagine a worse place to hide Jelly World," he added, looking around. "Jelly is bright and delicious. This place is neither. But that also makes it a perfect place to hide it."
McCloud groaned. "And just where do you think it is now?"
"Well, I heard there's this castle that's huge and maze-like and people get lost in it all the time," Rushishi explained.
McCloud stopped walking momentarily before remembering that he preferred to be a moving target. "You're telling me you think all of Jelly World is in a castle?" McCloud asked sarcastically.
Rushishi cast a glance over his shoulder that was either angry or he was thinking. Thinking was apparently very hard work for Rushishi. He looked back ahead and continued stomping on, muttering, "You're right. It's not in a castle."
"So can we go?" McCloud asked.
"No," Rushishi answered easily. "Also in this wood is apparently a tree that knows everything. Or something like that. He has this giant brain," he added, gesturing with his hands to show how big it was. Of course, Rushishi was about half McCloud's height, so the effect wasn't exactly what he'd hoped for. "At least, I think it's a he. Who can tell with trees?"
"With brains," McCloud muttered. He sighed. "Well, let's get on with it."
Going through the Haunted Woods was still scary. Fortune tellers and other gypsies in whirling dresses danced on the side of the road and they might have made McCloud happy for something that at least looked kind of normal, but they also had a bunch of tents lined up in a kind of circus sideshow. Mutant pets glared out from behind the bars of their cages and drooled hungrily. McCloud thought he saw an Aisha nearby swallow a knife. A knife!
"Ru!" McCloud whimpered.
"Stop it!" Rushishi hissed, and kept walking along the cobblestone path deeper into the Haunted Woods. Every pet and place they passed was another vision of horror for McCloud, and he never wished more than now to be back home. Of course, the denizens of the Haunted Wood seemed rather passive compared to the singular denizen of Geraptiku.
Just when McCloud was wondering if Rushishi even knew where this tree-with-a-brain was, Rushishi stopped walking quite abruptly. McCloud ran into him and looked around. "What's the hold up?"
Rushishi pointed down at the path in front of them, covered in tarry, sticky teal goo. "Looks sticky," Rushishi commented, and looked to the side of the road for a way around it. "Come on. This way."
They were about to go around when the tar pit shuddered and rippled. McCloud and Rushishi halted and stared at it, ready to run should it do something... unnatural. On the other hand, McCloud was pretty sure there was nothing natural about a tar pit moving on its own like this, anyway. But he was also pretty sure he could outrun it if it came to it.
Oozing up out of the tar, and yet one with the tar, a face appeared with glowing red eyes in ebony holes. Clawed hands reached out of the mire before reaching out and resting on the pathway, like the tar-creature was sitting at a tea-table or something. Its eyes slid from Rushishi to McCloud and back to Rushishi. It didn't say anything for a long time as its mouth opened slower than... well, tar.
"I think it's the Esophagor," Rushishi offered.
"That's the Esophagor?" McCloud asked.
Rushishi looked at McCloud, incredulous. "Do you ever go anywhere?"
"No! I never did! And I never want to again!"
Before McCloud could say anything else, the Esophagor locked him in his glowing-eye gaze and oozed, "Thaaaaaank youuuuu."
McCloud had only been half-listening. Esophagor was kind of a celebrity in the Haunted Woods, right? And he was quite sure he'd never meet him again. Certainly not if he had anything to do with it. He was never coming here again. "Are you the Esophagor?" he asked.
"Yesssssss," the Esophagor answered. "Thaaaaaank youuuuu."
McCloud was about say what an honor it was to meet him when he realized he had no idea what he was talking about. "Wait a second. Thank you for what?"
"Forrrrr brinnnginnnnng the fooooood."
"What food?" McCloud demanded, backing away. Of course. This creature was called the Esophagor.
He was about to scold Rushishi for being so brainless when the Esophagor looked at Rushishi, a hideous smile cracking across his oozing-goo face as he said, "Lemmmmmon Jellllyyyyyyy."
Rushishi wailed unintelligibly and bolted into the woods, McCloud on his tail. He could just barely hear the Esophagor calling, "Waiiiiit! Cooooommmmee baaaaaaaack!"
"Run, run, run, run!" Rushishi panted with each step he took. McCloud followed, always on the alert for other hungry goo-pits or ghosts or zombies—
"I hate the Haunted Woods!" McCloud wailed.
Just when he was thinking it couldn't possibly get worse, he followed Rushishi right into a fairground. The music was lilting and the grotesque games were going on. A tiny little Bruce was testing his strength on a button on the ground with a huge hammer when the weight of it pulled him over backwards and he fell flat on his back. The Mynci running the game almost fell over laughing at him.
Rushishi looked around for a bit, and then at McCloud. "Carnivals are fun, right?"
"No!" McCloud insisted. "Carnivals in the Haunted Woods are not fun at all!"
Rushishi spun to face him. "All right, smart-guy. How do you know that? You leave home long enough to get a free omelette before coming back. What do you know about the world?"
"I know that ghosts are scary," McCloud hissed. "And so are clowns. And I'm pretty sure a haunted carnival is going to have both." McCloud looked around for a ghost to prove his point when he saw something much scarier. "Look!" he shouted, staring at one of the many scary things that surrounded him. "It's a coconut!"
"With a face..." Rushishi wondered.
"That's on fire!" McCloud added.
"Maybe we should leave. Come on," Rushishi said, making for the edge of the fairground at a brisk pace. "That tree probably doesn't know anything anyway..." He didn't get very far before a scary-looking gypsy-like Aisha snatched him right out of the street.
"Hey, now, handsome, where are you going so fast?" she asked with a smile. A... slimy smile. And her eyes sparkled.
"Out," Rushishi was just answering as McCloud trotted up.
"Come on, don't you want to play a game? You've come all this way," the Aisha crooned, swaying her long antennae. "You're obviously not from around here. Why don't you play my game? Who knows when you'll be back?"
Rushishi looked at McCloud and gulped. McCloud wasn't sure how to say "no" to this Aisha, and apparently Rushishi didn't know, either. So he shrugged and chuckled, "Sure. Um. Why not?"
She handed him a cork-gun and pointed at the board behind her. "It's easy," she offered. "You just shoot the target. If you hit the bullseye, you get a prize. 100 Neopoints a cork," she added.
Rushishi looked down at the cork-gun in his hand and then at her, not looking very happy at all. "What?"
"But, just for you, you can have three for 300. How does that sound?"
McCloud was about to object that her proposition wasn't actually any different from her original when Rushishi shouted, "Fine! Step back, McCloud."
"Ru, you've ever even held a gun before," McCloud reminded.
"And you can't hold one so just be quiet and let me shoot." Rushishi stepped up to the table and held up his cork-gun. McCloud guessed he was aiming, but he wouldn't have been able to tell that when the cork sailed out of the gun and popped into the bullseye frame—nowhere even near hitting the target.
"So close!" the Aisha said.
McCloud looked at her in confusion. "What? No, it wasn't."
"Kid," the Aisha said to McCloud irritably. "Be quiet and let him shoot."
McCloud huffed as he sat down, watching Rushishi line up his shot again and, once again, the cork slammed into the back board without even so much as touching one of the target rings. And then it happened again. "Now can we go?" McCloud asked after the third and final cork had sailed.
"Yes. Thank you for the game," Rushishi said to the Aisha.
"That'll be 300," she said, holding a hand out.
Rushishi finished counting out the payment and McCloud was prancing around waiting to leave when the Aisha called him. "Wait a second. I feel bad. Here, why don't you take these as consolation prizes?" She held out a coconut crème pie to McCloud and then handed Rushishi a platter.
They both looked at it. "What is it?" McCloud asked.
"A steak," the Aisha answered, holding the plate out again. "Fit for a king."
"Yeah," McCloud muttered as Rushishi took it. "What kind?" The Aisha just chuckled in response and loaded her cork-guns.
Rushishi was, meanwhile, staring at his prize. Suddenly his eyes went wide and he looked sick: more the color of lime jelly than lemon jelly. "McCloud, is this—?" he asked, but he didn't finish when he dropped the plate.
McCloud looked down at it and realized, finally, what he was looking at. Blumaroo Tail Steak. Rushishi was bounding away, looking terribly ill and the Aisha was laughing uproariously. McCloud bounded up onto her table and shouted in her face, "You're disgusting!"
She looked shocked that he had done anything, and McCloud was pretty surprised too, but he wasn't sure what more he could do. So he narrowed his eyes at the Aisha before turning and taking off, sailing over the fairgrounds, carrying his coconut crème pie in his paws while looking for Rushishi. Rushishi was running among some red striped tents when McCloud finally caught up with him and swooped down for a landing.
A gust a wind pushed him back up quite suddenly and his pie went flying right out of his paws. McCloud landed and watched the pie sail through the air before finally landing on an old clock-work clown shaped like a Negg. It didn't appear to be working and he didn't think anything of it when the clown's head popped off in a small explosion.
McCloud turned to Rushishi. "No more ghosts."
"Fine," Rushishi muttered.
They both stood there for a few minutes while McCloud thought about where he wanted to go. He had just the perfect idea when he saw something move out of the corner of his eye. He turned and saw a clockwork-clown holding a coconut crème pie.
"McCloud?" Rushishi whispered. "Do you see that?"
McCloud backed away from the one clown only to realize that there was another behind him. And another. And another. "We're surrounded," he whispered back.
"Thanks, genius," Rushishi muttered.
The clowns were just winding up their throwing arms when McCloud wrapped his front paws around Rushishi and jumped straight up into the air.
"Put me down! Put me down!" Rushishi begged.
"We wouldn't have to fly if you didn't get us into these situations in the first place!" McCloud scolded, and a moment later coconut crème pies were flying all over. Two hit Rushishi and about five hit McCloud, one in the face and one in his wing. He tried to keep upright and flying, but he tumbled out of the sky and landed unceremoniously in a pile of rancid-smelling hay next to the scratchcard kiosk, the clowns in close pursuit.
Cream filling flew everywhere: McCloud and Rushishi and everything else within range were covered with it. The scratchcard Nimmo was covered with it. Clockwork clowns were covered with it. It tasted pretty good, McCloud realized as he was licking the edge of his beak.
The Nimmo hissed in laughter. "You'd better run!"
McCloud didn't wait to see why he should run as all the clowns turned their collective heads toward him and Rushishi. Rushishi bounded out of there as fast as his tail could propel him, McCloud following as fast as his padded paws could push him. McCloud thought he'd never run so much in his life as he had in the past few days.
"I get to pick the next place!" McCloud shouted angrily.
To be continued...