Little Red With a Rhubarb Pie
Written in collaboration with dark_angel_ds
NOT SO LONG AGO, there was a sweet little Usul named Gilly who always wore her favorite cape of red velvet. She was much liked by everybody -- or, perhaps, it was more accurate to say that she liked everyone, no matter what dubious background or dangerous appearance they might possess. But nobody quite knew what to make of her disastrous sense of direction. A curious girl by nature, she could always be found on some adventure or another, and yet she seemed to forever be finding herself lost in the overgrown trails of the Haunted Woods.
One day, she decided spontaneously to visit with her friend Sophie the Swamp Witch and take her a rhubarb pie. Sophie loved Gilly's rhubarb pie (or so she had been told), and they hadn't chatted in a while. Gilly thought it would do them both good to catch up over a fat slice of delicious pie, so without delay Gilly donned her cape and grabbed her basket and set out before it got dark. Well... dark-er.
Now Sophie lived deep in the Haunted Wood, nearby a boggy marsh -- at least half an hour's walk for Gilly. She didn't mind too terribly, however, for the lantern she held cast a cheerful glow on the ground ahead, and the fog that had been choking the looming trees since early that morning had finally dispersed.
She had spent much time wandering the Haunted Woods and seen all manner of things, both beautiful and frightening. What she was not used to seeing, however, was the sight of another wanderer in the wood -- which, as it happened, was exactly what she found.
The traveler was a Chia -- blue, but oddly pale. Gilly guessed that it might be the dim light of the wood that made it appear so, and instead noted with interest that he wore a dark blue turban wrapped neatly around his head -- one decorated with gold beads, a bright yellow feather, and a green and gold negg attached at the front like a clasp. The cloak around his shoulders was of a deep, rich violet, and his shirt underneath a pastel magenta. He had a carefully groomed beard that was black and unmoving, and a thin mustache that Gilly noticed was heavily waxed.
As the rest of his kind, he never appeared to open his eyes, instead having the trademark squint that made it appear that he was always smiling. This put Gilly completely at ease, certain that he was friendly, and she naturally dashed up to say hello.
He turned to her, pleasantly surprised, and said, "Why, hello there! What brings a young lady such as yourself into the dreaded Wood this late at night?"
His voice was a deep bass note, pompous and slightly hoarse. It also carried a hint of an echo -- but again Gilly shrugged this off as one of the Haunted Wood's tricks, and replied, "I'm off to visit my dear friend Sophie. She doesn't often see company, so I decided to drop by and bring her some rhubarb pie."
"Ah," he laughed -- a mysteriously frightening and cadaverous chuckle, "Truly you must be a good friend to this Sophie to risk a midnight trip to her home. Is it terribly far, child?"
"Not too far, actually," Gilly paused to consider her position -- which, naturally, was both hopelessly optimistic and yet also absurdly inaccurate. "It should only be about ten minutes that-a-way."
She pointed. Then paused. Then pointed a different direction. "Or, is it that way..?"
Confused, she started to mutter to herself distractedly.
Tapping her gently on the shoulder with a gloved hand, the blue Chia gestured in a third direction, toward a small clearing in the trees. "If I'm not mistaken, I believe I saw a house down that way -- and on the way I also found Ghostberry trees just starting to bloom. I hear the flower clusters glow a lovely blue, even when cut, that would rival the light of a lantern. Perhaps a few of them might also cheer your friend?"
Gilly had to admit, Sophie's house did indeed seem dark and dreary. Some flowers would bring a bit of light and cheer into her hut, if not into her mood -- which could use a little brightening, too, thought Gilly. Even though the stranger had mentioned it was midnight (and who was Gilly to argue -- she was almost as bad with time as she was with directions) she decided that this was a marvelous idea, and that she had plenty of time to run about the Wood looking for flowers.
Thanking the mysterious stranger for the advice before dashing off, Gilly soon found herself at the trees he mentioned, wasting no time in grabbing a fistful of blossoms. As soon as she picked one cluster, she would see a prettier one a little farther off, and so she went, on and on collecting a gloriously bright bunch of glowing flowers, which now outshone her lamp by a great deal.
This, of course, was all without her marking which direction she had come from, nor which direction she was headed, and so after having spent several minutes gathering flowers, she was now hopelessly lost.
This unfortunate circumstance had befallen her on several previous occasions. In fact, it was so many previous occasions that Gilly had run out of fingers on which to count them with. And toes.
She was fairly certain that everything would work out though -- somehow it always did -- so she continued her trek through the Woods, carrying her basket of rhubarb pie and her pretty bunch of blossoms piled on top.
Hubrid Nox swept the turban off his head, chuckling darkly at the brilliance of his plan coming to fruition. He reached up to peel the false beard away from his chin -- quite remarkable the new advancements in cosmetics -- they now had makeup that would even stick to ghosts.
Which, as it happened, was exactly what Nox was. A brief run in with a regrettably insane Xweetok had fixed this for him. And while he could admit that being a ghost had many fine advantages, he missed some of the simple quirks of being alive.
Things like eating, scratching the itch on the back of his neck which, once you were a ghost was impossible (the nerves in his neck froze in time, meaning he would itch there forever), sleeping, being able to write his master plans down on paper without the pen falling right through his hand -- ordinary things.
But mostly, it was the itch on his neck. It was driving him absolutely mad.
So Sophie the Swamp Witch was keeping friends now? Hubrid failed to contain his glee.
Surely Sophie would want her precious friend to be safe? Surely she would pay a ransom for her friend's return? Brilliant though he was, even Hubrid had to admit to himself that for potions to change form or status, Sophie was only second to Dr. Sloth -- and he wasn't about to drink a potion made by that lunatic, certainly.
With Edna being unskilled at morphing magic, and the Faeries naturally disinclined to aid him -- Gilly's gullibility and her friendship with Sophie made a dreary evening turn suddenly into Christmas morning. He had his solution at last.
Little Gilly was now lost in a section of the woods that he had long since enchanted. It was designed to lead anyone ensnared in it astray forever, unless one knew the specific set of directions to take to break the spell. He had gotten the idea for it from a popular game, to be honest.
Well, of course he had told a few of his henchmen the solution back in the day. He couldn't be expected to handle all of the trapping, now could he? He was a busy Evil Mastermind, after all. And a trapped henchman was just one more henchman he couldn't use in world conquest. Magax had picked up on the trick quicker than any of the others, back when he was still serving as one of Nox's servants, but that was a lifetime and a betrayal ago.
With the taste of an imaginary mortality potion on his lips, Hubrid Nox marched confidently in the direction of Sophie's hut.
He found his mind wandering as he walked. What WAS Magax up to lately, anyway?
In another part of the Woods. . .
Gilly, who had been running at top speed for several minutes, stopped to catch her breath and looked once again at the mark she had made on the ground.
She was once again in the thicket of Ghostberry trees -- for the ninth time.
Unable to take it any longer, she called out, "Where in the Haunted Woods is this place, anyway?"
A husky, slightly sarcastic voice answered from behind her, "Somewhere near the center, not that it matters much."
Gilly spun on her heel sharply. She was met with the sight of a blue Wocky with a dark scar over his right eye, sitting placidly on the stump of a dead tree. A glowing green axe rested, blade against the grey grass of the forest floor, next to him.
"Oh, it's just you. Hello, Magax," Gilly panted.
"... 'Just' me?" Magax raised a thick eyebrow in mock concern. "You've only passed me about six times or so. How did you find your way in here, anyway?"
"A strange blue Chia told me about the ghostberry trees being in bloom."
Rising from his seat on the stump, Magax gestured around him. "This is one of Hubrid Nox's old traps -- an endless maze created by magic. You're lucky I check by here every few days for the occasional trapped fool."
Gilly shrugged. "I was just here to gather some flowers for Sophie."
"You glossed over the 'fool' comment, didn't you?"
Gilly was silent, and made no indication that she had heard him. With a sudden strike of inspiration, she remarked, "If you check here once every few days, then you must know the way out!"
The twitch at the corner of Magax's mouth may or may not have been a smile. Or it might have been a muscle spasm before his expression returned to its normal frown. "As a matter of fact, I do. The spell Nox cast made it so that exiting the forest in any direction will cause you to simply appear back at the same spot. The only way to clear the forest is to follow a specific pattern."
She shot a sly look at him. "You're being unusually helpful."
"I haven't told you the pattern -- yet."
Gilly crossed her arms, difficult to do with her over-crowded basket, and tapped a foot. "Well?"
Magax crossed his arms likewise and raised an inquiring eyebrow.
"Please?" Gilly relented.
"I just want you to tell everyone else so that I don't have to come back so often," he remarked, rolling his eyes. "Now, pay attention."
He pointed toward the stump he had been sitting on. "That stump marks north." He used the blade of his axe to scratch a rough X onto the forest floor at the center of the glade. "To escape the forest, you will need to walk north until you reach this mark again-- then west, then south, then west again."
"You know, this reminds me of this one game..." Gilly started.
"...No one ever accused Hubrid Nox of being original," Magax interrupted, grinning unexpectedly.
After completing the four circuits in the glade, Gilly and Magax then found themselves at the edge of a clearing -- and just a few yards away was Sophie's house.
"Oh thank you, thank you!" Gilly danced cheerfully around Magax (who was as still as a gargoyle and twice as grim) before dashing off toward her friend's house.
Magax, on the other hand, had spotted a little blue figure by Sophie's doorstep -- and found it awfully convenient that Gilly had found her way into a maze guided by the advice of anyone, much less a blue Chia.
Only one way to find out.
At the same time --
Hubrid Nox, meanwhile, had walked straight to Sophie's house and knocked on the door sharply.
"Who is it, now?" Sophie called from somewhere within her hut.
"It's your dear friend, Gilly," Hubrid answered, using Gilly's voice. "I've brought you some rhubarb pie."
Now Sophie was most certainly not stupid, and, as naive as Gilly was, she wouldn't have expected her to make a trip to her hut at midnight, much less with the intention of giving her rhubarb pie, which Sophie's meowclops had long since considered tasting worse than most of her potion ingredients.
And her meowclops would eat ANYTHING.
Sophie also knew the sound of a voice being faked through magic, and also recognized the slight echo of a ghost in the mimic's tone, and so she knew at once it was not truly Gilly. And a quick look through a crack in the boards told her that her uninvited guest was a Chia.
Unless Gilly had unwittingly taken a morphing potion. Sophie wasn't quite ready to rule that one out yet.
And so Sophie, in her own way, played along.
"Go away, silly girl," grumbled Sophie. "I'm busy and don't have time for pie right now."
"Please open the door," Gilly's voice pleaded. "I've been traveling so long, I'm practically dead on my feet... Might you spare some hospitality for a less-than-lively friend?"
"Why ever not?" muttered Sophie darkly.
Hubrid positioned himself for Sophie to open the door. What he didn't expect was for her to lift the latch, the door to scrape open the tiniest bit, and something big, blue and slimy be shoved into his mouth. Without a word, the door banged shut.
"Gilly with rhubarb pie!" Sophie huffed. She looked down at her meowclops, shaking her head. "If a word of it was true, I'd give you three of those blue fish for dinner."
Hubrid gagged on whatever Sophie had fed him. He took a minute to recover his wits.
"That ought to make you feel a little more 'lively'," Sophie smirked cruelly. Nox cringed as he felt magic from the strange object he swallowed take effect, but had no time to determine what it had done.
It was at this point that Nox had moved away from the front door, and also the moment that Gilly had arrived at the steps. Nox stared silently at her, both outraged and insanely curious as to how she had escaped the maze.
"My, sir -- what big eyes you have," Gilly said. "And what big ears!"
Nox's thoughts crashed to a halt. Chia didn't have big ears.
"And what big teeth! And... a fluffy tail?" Gilly remarked. Clapping her hands together as if she had solved an anagram on the first go, she laughed, "Oh, I didn't realize you were a Lupe -- were you trying to get Sophie to make you taller?"
At the sound of the word 'Lupe', and on natural, defensive Chia instincts, Nox bolted in terror toward the forest.
Shrugging, Gilly walked up to the door and knocked.
This time, Sophie opened the door fully with her wand tapping idly on her shoulder. She looked furious, but her jaw went slack when she saw Gilly -- holding something that smelled suspiciously like pie.
She looked down at her meowclops, sitting obediently by her left heel. "What on Neopia did you eat to make you so impossibly lucky? I'll bottle it and make a fortune!"
Seeing the ghostberry blossoms glowing in Gilly's arms, Sophie said, "Perhaps something good has come of this evening after all."
In a completely unexpected decision, Sophie moved aside and held the door open for Gilly. As she sighed in resignation and shut the door, she turned to her slightly-less-than-welcome guest and said, "Once you set that on the table, give my meowclops three of those blue fish in that bowl, would you?"
Gilly did as she was instructed, setting the pie and the ghostberry flowers on the table. Recognizing the smell of inevitability -- which smelled remarkably like rhubarb -- Sophie stated drily, "Something tells me it's going to be a very long night."
But wait, what of Nox then?
Well, he continued to run like a small creature chased by a hungry larger one, and somehow found himself running into a glade of Ghostberry trees. Leaning on one to catch his breath, then remembering he was a ghost and didn't have to, he felt at his head to see if the Lupe ears were still there. He also noted with dread that he did indeed have a VERY fluffy tail.
The itch on the back of his neck was worse than ever.
"Ugh! Look at me! I'm hideous!" he moaned.
He heard a chuckle from behind him. "Actually, you were like that to begin with."
There in the middle of the glade stood Magax, on the X he had drawn earlier. His perpetual frown was now broken by a wide, unsettling grin that showed far too many teeth for Nox's comfort. The Darklight axe was resting lazily over his shoulder.
"Your personality is pretty hideous too, come to think of it."
As Nox barreled away from Magax, he realized no matter which direction he took he would be running headlong into his nemesis. Without knowing it, he found himself agreeing with Sophie's sentiment.
It was going to be a very, VERY long night indeed.