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Nothing To Sneeze At: Part One


by drifbilim

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      She knew they were getting close when the tangle of trees became too much to fly through.

      According to one of the now lost books in Faerieland’s enormous library, the forest that contained the Haunted Woods was too dense for anyone--even Queen Fyora the book claimed, although Misquote doubted that—to spot it while flying.

      It was odd when she thought about it, as the trees were nothing if skeletal, thin as bones and likely just as dead. She had seen not one that had even a single leaf on it (although perhaps that was the season, as there were plenty dead ones afoot), all of them withered and gnarled, and they snapped off with faintest of breezes. Even the twitch of her antennae or the light flutter of her dainty faerie wings seemed to cause wreckage in this wooden graveyard.

      …Perhaps the worst offender was the hot air coming out of her companion’s mouth though.

      “Dear oh me the mud of this place! My dear Misquote I daresay--”

      He hadn’t shut up from the moment they’d left behind the crumbling ruin of Faerie City, and perhaps if she’d left the devastated city earlier, she might’ve been able to lose him in the chaos. There was no chance of that now though. Cas must’ve had Zytch genes in him because he had leeched onto her the day her parents had presented him to her and hadn’t let go since.

      He did have a point about the mud though. She frowned as the mud squelched and sucked at her once pristine Xweetok fur, now matted and damp, and likely full of fleas. She shook off a paw in disgust, grinning wide when Cas squawked as splotches of mud hit his head crest.

      “Misquote!” He scolded as he awkwardly folded his body in half to wipe at the mud with his grubby little claws, “I am dirty enough as it is, so I do not need your help in making this--this worse!” He wailed despairingly, especially when his claws simply dragged the mud further down his scaly body.

      She shrugged, letting her paws sink deep into the mud, hiding a small smile when Cas bemoaned the state of her fur, the state of them both.

      “They say the heart of Haunted Woods is swamp-like,” she said evenly once Cas finished wailing, hopefully now sulking, which would make him easier to sway, “mud and slime everywhere, Esophagor lives there you know. The Brain Tree too. If you’re already fed up with the mud—“ She made a low whistling noise and grimaced for effect, “—well it’s only going to get worse from here. Best quit while you’re ahead. I wouldn’t hold it against you.” She said, hoping against hope that this—this would be the one. The one that finally convinced Cas to head back to his precious Faerieland. He talked about it often enough that she hadn’t the faintest clue why he was doing this to himself.

      She has to fight back the scowl when Cas merely scoffs at her. “My dear Misquote, you know very well that that is not an option! To run back now would be, would be the very definition of a knave!”

      Maybe next time, she thought as she tuned out his nervous ranting, ears perked for the sounds of anything that Cas’ ramblings would bring near. Not even Queen Fyora could say for sure was lurking in these woods, all sorts of nasties she imagined. Something that was likely to gobble Cas up if she wasn’t there to fight it off for him.

      Eventually Cas huffed and fell silent, or as silent as he could be considering he was still muttering under his breath, and they walked on. Despite the filth, she was pleased that she was on foot rather than wing. She was excited at the prospect of overcoming whatever Haunted Woods had to throw at her, of becoming independant, someone who could be depended on. She would prove herself here, that she did not shy away from a challenge or inconvenience. She wanted to get to the Haunted Woods now, before the feeling passed.

      But night fell before long, sooner than Misquote would’ve liked. There was no light except for the faint glow of her wings and Cas’ brilliant blue tail, and she frowned as she realized that they would be forced to traverse the woods by touch alone. She was hoping, counting on even, her eyes being able to see in the dark. But as the sun set and the last rays of light fled, she could see no better than if she’d stuck her head face first into the mud. Even waiting for her eyes to adjust did nothing, nor did squinting. Not that she looked forward to spending the next few hours squinting, but if they covered more ground she was willing to put up with it.

      Cas hovered nervously, and he didn’t have to say anything for her to know that he was terribly frightened of the dark—why else would he be not running his mouth? He opened his mouth several times, to say what Misquote was not sure, but he closed it without comment, letting his gaze flick about the spidery trees uneasily.

      She acquiesced to his silent suggestion, and sauntered over to the nearest trunk, scaling it with ease. She couldn’t see really, just vague shapes and shadows, but enough that she found a sturdy branch that held her weight, curling up into a tight circle as she pawed through her supply bag, nibbling on an Earth Faerie Apple.

      Earth Faerie food was capable of slow, slow slow regeneration, but if she nibbled on it and supplemented with the rest of her foodstuffs, she could likely make it last for a couple of weeks.

      A heavy silence fell between them as Cas settled into the ruff of her collar, listening to the loud snap of branches being broken underfoot. She curled up tighter, trying to make herself as inconspicuous as possible. It would be a long night.

      Cas shifted slightly and she closed her eyes, prepared to make the most out of this night. She would need all the sleep she could get. “My dear, what happened...You are blameless. I do not think that leaving...” He said nervously, and she squeezed her eyes tight, willing herself to block out his words.

      Perhaps it had been the rotten sleep they’d both gotten the night before, but progress through the marsh-like conditions was slow. The mud that Misquote had so gladly stepped in yesterday was damp and stiff on her skin, and no amount of grooming (not that she was particular towards it, but she had her pride) would wipe the mud away.

      At least Cas was suffering alongside her. He seemed to have finally given into the idea of being covered in mud sometime after she’d fallen asleep, but his disdainful expression meant that he didn’t have to like it. There was simply no way around it in a place like this. She wanted to assure him that it wouldn’t always be like this—she was fairly certain her stay in the Haunted Woods would be brief—but she felt he was begrudgingly putting up with the state of things because he assumed that she would be returning to Faerieland once she felt herself redeemed. There was no telling how he’d react if she admitted that she had no intention of ever returning to Faerieland—even with the state it was in now.

      Especially with the state it was in now. But she could hardly be blamed for wanting to flee after every single faerie turned to stone, and then the entire city had fallen and crashed into Neopia’s crust. It was a miracle that the city hadn’t fallen into the ocean and turned into the next Maraquan city.

      A thick fog fell upon them, and Cas wound himself into her ruff as the temperature dropped and the woods became unexpectedly silent. Her breath came out as a thin mist, and while Faerieland hadn’t had the warmest of climates, she was unused to such a chill. It seemed bone deep, unnatural.

      Perhaps it was.

      After an hour of eerie silence, there was a quiet murmur that perked Misquote’s ears. Could it be…?

      Misquote nearly cheered aloud when a sullen dreary looking stone gateway emerged from the fog, pronouncing the entry into the Haunted Woods. The fog thinned out the closer she came to the gateway, curling around the edges of the town proper, but seemingly unable to enter it.

      Town wasn’t quite the word to describe the Haunted Woods. It seemed to be some sort of cluster of like-minded Neopians, and some of the trees had been cleared away so that the whole area was more open. Clumps of Neopians dressed in odd costumes sauntered down well-traveled roads, sharing a mischievous look with one another as they passed.

      She could see the bright shiny brain of the Brain Tree in the distance, and Esophagor moaned at her as she took dainty steps forward, keeping her steps in case of a need for flight.

      Homes seemed to be housed within the hollowed out trunks of trees. Several shopkeeps crooned at her as she passed, inviting her to browse their wares, smiling sinisterly. Perhaps that was just the way.

      Cas was stubbornly silent, if any of the commodities and goods held any interest for him then he was doing a good job of hiding it. But she knew he’d cave before long. He loved talking entirely too much. Sure enough, “…And just what is it that you intend to accomplish here?” He mock whispered, although he needn’t have bothered. They were very much alone as she wandered near Edna’s Tower after a pleasant hour or so of blissful silence.

      She would need to visit if she wanted any sort of information, Edna was likely the most harmless resident who actually knew anything useful about the Haunted Woods. It would require a bit of bargaining, but nothing Misquote wasn’t already prepared to do.

      “You know why.” She replied simply as her antennae twitched, someone was unseen in the shadows. She narrowed her eyes, scanning her surroundings.

      “This is absolutely no place for that!” Cas hissed vehemently, tugging at her fur to get her attention. “The Haunted Woods are haunted for a reason! It is no place to be taken lightly! Oh ho, very much the opposite! Very much indeed!”

      Whoever was watching them was very quiet, and very good at concealing themselves. Misquote sniffed for a trace of magic, none of that. She strained her ears for a noise, easily tuning out Cas’ senseless babbling, but whoever had been watching her was long gone now. She let out a huff of frustration. “Go big or go home, no?” She said solely because she knew it would send Cas into a frenzy.

      “Faeries above! Why not, ‘better safe than sorry’!? My dear, I very much think you underestimate these woods! There are horrors upon horrors that these woods hold, and they are not to be trifled with!” Cas snapped, uncoiling from his perch on her shoulders to float irritatingly in her face. He was scowling at her now as she jerked her head away from him, moving towards Edna’s Tower.

      The eccentric Zafara would have answers, Misquote hoped, and if she completed her so called ‘quest’ quickly, she would likely warn Misquote away from something that was truly dangerous. So she hoped.

      The Zafara cackled as Misquote handed over the last of the items, an Eye Candy (which she dearly hoped that it was not an actual eye) and a Mummified Ice Cream. “Very good, dearie!” Edna chirped as she inspected the items for quality, before tossing them carelessly over her shoulder into a bubbling cauldron, snickering when the resulting splash landed on one curious Meowclops’ paw. “Yes these items should do nicely,” the Zafara said, pulling out a paddle to stir the monstrous pot of the insidious looking green liquid.

      Misquote let the witch work in silence, as she herself was fascinated by the process. Edna had mumbled out a name for the brewing spell once she spelled out the necessary ingredients, but Misquote hadn’t really been interested in what exactly it was that the Zafara was making. From what she picked up on rumors, Edna was little more than a specialist merchant for those more ‘unconventional’ than most.

      Edna grinned triumphantly as the potion changed into a violent shade of red, hissing and popping as she ladled and corked the potion, tucking it into her robes. “Now,” she said with her work done for the moment, “what is it that you wanted to know, dearie?”

      Misquote considered that for a moment. Claiming to be a thrill seeker wasn’t the best of ideas here. “…What’s past the Deserted Fairground?” What she’d seen of the Haunted Woods so far was really just a bunch of abandoned buildings and some oddly dressed Neopians. There had been that hideous and unnerving looking amusement ride, but the sight of it seemed to give Cas some sort of pseudo aneurysm so she stayed away from it.

      The Zafara’s perpetually amused and mischievous expression turned unexpectedly stony and harsh. “You shouldn’t ask such things,” she hissed as her paw clutched her ladle, drawing away from her. “The Haunted Woods are safe but there is much beyond them that even the faeries themselves dare not anger, my dear. Have you not heard? Hubrid Nox is dead. Even he, a powerful warlock, fell to the terrors of the Deep Wood, dearie! Do you think a little fledgling such as yourself stands a chance?!” Edna scowled at her as she said nothing, and they locked gazes for a long, long long moment, before Edna looked away and waved a dismissive hand. “Tch. Those of the Gypsy Camp know more, if you insist on throwing your life away. Don’t say I didn’t warn you, dearie!”

      Those in the Gypsy Camp did know more, but what she learned from them was not in what they said, but rather what they chose to leave out. She didn’t mind. She was more interested in the hopefully dormant Castle Nox. Perhaps it had been plundered already, but there was no harm in looking, right?

      Cas did not agree, but Misquote didn’t really expect him to. But he went along with her, for one reason or another. She still couldn’t fathom it. Perhaps he simply liked reason to complain.

      She felt eyes on her as they walked through the winding path leading to the looming castle, lighted only by the wane moon and sporadic flashes of lightning as they drew near. She suspected whoever was watching her was the same Neopet from the other night, but she could not spot them. Her ears twitched in annoyance, and she vowed to find the perpetrator, eventually. She did not like being followed by some sort of enigma.

      The woods fell silent as she stood in the destroyed gateway of the notorious Castle Nox, wrinkling her nose at the foreboding weight settling in her gut. This was no time to get painted Baby.

      Cas settled into her collar once again and became mercifully quiet as she took light steps through the eerie courtyard that had been oddly swept clean of debris, all of it pushed off the tiled pathway. Some sort of film covered some of it, a clear and vaguely translucent thick liquid, but she was not inclined to investigate.

      Alert and wary, Misquote let her magic seep into her bones, ready to unleash a torrent of flames at a moment’s notice. Despite what others thought, Misquote had no intention of giving up her life today, not ever.

      She pressed her gossamer wings tight to her body, she crouched low and slithered through the courtyard, moving quickly but cautiously. Her Xweetok senses would serve her well here, she was made for this sort of thing.

      The front door was kicked down and aside, Misquote wasted no time slipping through the opening and making a beeline for the nearest concealed space.

      Castle Nox’s foyer was so open, that the only place to hide was beneath the long centre staircase that led to a balconied second floor. The castle was barren, the second floor led to nowhere and there were only two doors that she could see. The castle seemed so much bigger from the outside, four stories at least. But she didn’t see any other doors. Was the large castle only for show…? No that couldn’t be it. Hubrid was a notorious puzzle lover—rivaling that of Eliv Thade if the rumours were true—and with the enemies that he had, it was likely that this foyer was simply a front.

      “A-are we perhaps done with this fool’s errand?” Cas stammered, misinterpreting her inaction and silence.

      Misquote shook her head, but said nothing more. She needed to focus. Cas would put it together sooner rather than later anyway. She peered out from her spot and stalked forward, examining the cracked stone tiles, and the one tile that held a detailed carving of Hubrid’s face.

      Its stone eye looked as if they could be pushed in, although she was wary to do so. Perhaps pushing them would reveal a passageway…but it could also spell out her doom. There was no way of knowing. She just had to guess and hope for the best.

      She frowned and delicately pawed the right eye, muscles tensed, ready to leap back if necessary. The eye depressed slowly with a squeal, it clicked into place with a resounding click.

      Yet nothing was forthcoming. Caste Nox was yet ominously silent and still.

      “My dear this is very much too much for my poor n-nerves—”

      Castle Nox started to rumble, a heavy sound that she was sure could be heard back in the heart of the Haunted Woods. She had ducked under the staircase before she was even aware she’d moved in the first place.

      Masonry rained down from the ceiling, and Misquote covered her mouth and nose with her paws, squeezing her eyes shut. A trap. A trap she should’ve known—

      There was a lower rumble and scraping noise as the Hubrid title depressed downward and then slowly dragged itself away to reveal a cramped looking stairwell, leading into the dark.

      It was filled with Spyder cobwebs, and a foul smell rang out from it, clogging Misquote’s delicate nose. She scrunched up her face in disgust, ignoring Cas’ exclamation of, “My word! It is most foul—” as she crept and slipped into it.

      She waited a moment to see if the trapdoor would slam shut behind her, but she was in luck. Perhaps this was just one of Hubrid’s many secret tunnels that made up the castle, and fell into disrepair after he had perished.

      She did not relax with that realization. Hubrid Nox was a cunning Chia, his tunnels weren’t likely to be free of traps. She kept her steps light and quick, stopping only to let her eyes adjust to the inky darkness.

      The tunnel was thankfully unlike the Haunted Woods, there was more to see than just the dark. The tunnel was dark, but there was an odd green glow to it—likely the after effects of the spell that had created it. She had to hold back a snort at the idea of Hubrid Nox using any other method to dig through the Haunted Woods muck.

      Her antennae twitched, but she couldn’t identify the magic source. It didn’t seem harmful, perhaps it was simply an old lighting spell.

      She did not like the effect that cautious optimism had on her body, already she had relaxed—marginally but that was beside the point—and while she was not daintily walking along, she was not on her best guard either.

      But the tunnel was long. And her patience for such things was not. She scowled as the tunnel winded on and on, no charms in place looping her back to the beginning. What need was there for such lengths? Misquote was half-convinced that the tunnel would go all the way down to the Lost Desert and then back up again. Even Cas, who was a Flightning Bug trapped in the body of a Kazeriu, was beginning to relax and talk openly. She opened to get another hour of precious silence. It was not to be it seemed.

      “Now my dear I understand that perhaps—”

      Luckily his prattle was easily ignored. She could never decide if he spoke for the sake of hearing his own voice, or if to cover up his nervousness. Likely both.

      The tunnel began to slope upwards, first unnoticeably and then unbearably so. Misquote was by no means out of shape, but the tunnel was steep enough that she was panting and sweating by the time she had reached the end of the tunnel—a dead end.

      “What?!” Cas cried out, snaking out from her collar to examine the wall with dismay. “What kind of—what kind of ridiculous nonsense is this?!”

      One with a hidden door, Misquote wanted to say, but there was hardly any point.

      While Cas fretted, “What kind of mongrel would even think—” Misquote wandered closer to the wall, eyes flitting about. There had to be some sort switch somewhere…

      A small emblem of Hubrid himself, no bigger than a Neopoint, lay hidden on the tunnel’s floor. She grasped it and flipped it idly along her claws, before squinting at this so-called ‘dead end’.

      Hubrid must’ve not had a very high opinion of his fellow Neopians, she thought as she pressed the emblem into a fitted alcove, watching in satisfaction as the emblem shined with an eerie blue glow before the tunnel wall dissolved.

      Now this, was what she was expecting when she thought of Hubrid’s hideout. Its splendor was no less than what she imagined despite its secrecy.

      Every wall towered over her, and every single of them was stacked to the ceiling with books. It was nearly as impressive a library as Faerieland’s.

      Cas disentangled himself from her collar, flitting about the library with awe. “Goodness gracious! What a ferocious reader that Hubrid must have been!”

      “Well it was certainly one of his more admirable qualities,” a new voice said, and Misquote spun around so fast she nearly gave herself whiplash. Her paws burned with the force of the spell she’d been holding down ever since they’d stepped foot into Castle Nox.

      The newcomer was a Hissi, and an odd one at that. His lower half seemed robotically enhanced, where scales were replaced with metal plates and wiring. He had a cowl that hung unused around his neck, and there was a long jagged shiny scar running from the corner of his jaw to his shoulder joint. Judging from his colouring, he likely hailed from Krawk Island. Or what was left of it before it’d been torn apart by gigantic sea squids at least.

      There was a knife as long as Cas at his approximation of a hip. Misquote let her eyes rest on it, before she flicked her gaze back to his. He was frowning at her and her antennae twitched, he was readying magic too.

      She let her fire curl around her forepaws, the flames licking at her underbelly. Nobody moved for a long second, before the Hissi snorted, and let his magic die. She stared at him as she let her flames die, unseen but undoubtedly present.

      Nobody said anything, not even Cas. Cautiously, she said, “Agree to leave each other be, yeah?” The corner of the Hissi’s mouth curled upward, and he gave an incline of his head.

      He glided away, somehow silent despite the clunky metal attached to his body. She watched as he perused the shelves before leaving him be.

      She seemed to have found Hubrid’s personal library. It seemed to be a single tower with three internal balconies, and there was one elaborate looking desk in the very centre of the room.

      It seemed more like a place that Xandra would hole up rather than Hubrid. If Queen Fyora hadn’t confirmed that the prodigious librarian had not survived the fall of Faerieland, Misquote might’ve thought that this was Xandra’s personal library rather than the notorious Chia’s.

      “So,” the Hissi’s voice rang out in the silence, “thought all Faeries would be swarming back to their hive. What’s a worker bee like yourself doing out in the Haunted Woods?”

      Misquote bristled. While Faerieland was a paradise, it could not be denied that the non-nobility were at the Faeries’ beck and call, performing all the undesired tasks, and running quests. Misquote wasn’t one of the many ‘worker bees’--a derogatory term that raised her hackles before she even realized it.

      She was a mage warrior, and while she didn’t have many friends back in Faerieland…such a term wasn’t acceptable. “Watch your tongue,” she hissed threateningly, glaring at the Hissi’s unimpressed look before she huffed. “And it isn’t any of your business. Didn’t we agree to leave each other be?”

      “I said nothing of the sort. And besides! What’s wrong with a little bit of camaraderie between two thieves? I’ve always said that it’s always appropriate to chat when not at each other’s throats. Besides…there’s very little here of value, if that’s what you’re looking for. The Thieves’ Guild have long lifted everything of value here. And I suppose as soon as Faerieland is stable, Queen Fyora will be here to seal the place up, eh?” The Hissi said, seemingly well-spoken, and well-informed. Misquote had forgotten that Queen Fyora would be along—probably very shortly—she had to hope that the Queen would be tied up a little while longer.

      She hummed to that, because she already had one very annoying prattler, she did not need another.

      He was right about the place being stripped of any valuables though. There were books upon books yes, but any magical artifact was long gone. There was likely a rare or forbidden tome hidden somewhere among the volumes, but it wouldn’t be anything that Misquote would spend hours upon hours searching for. Regardless, the Hissi was here and it would not be worth it to fight him over a few measly Neopoints.

      Either way, most of the volumes seemed to be crusted with…something. Some sort of fluid. Perhaps it was a solution that made their shelf life longer? Plenty of books were so old that even a Pteri feather could turn them to dust if one wasn’t careful. Misquote had heard Xandra grumbling to herself plenty of times about how the books needed something to keep them held together. That Hubrid might’ve held that solution would not have surprised her. Still…

      “My dear this place is filthy! It is so very unfit for one such as yourself, and I personally—”

      “You should start getting used to being filthy. While I’m sure the sky is dirt-free, Neopia is less so.”

      “The very nerve!”

      “Wait until you see the Lost Desert.”

      “The Lost Desert is—was perfectly visible from the highest clouds of Faerieland!”

      “Good save.”

      Misquote scowled to herself as the two of them traded barbs, and dragged a claw over one of the volumes, watching as whatever had coated the books came off in flakes. What was this stuff? The more she looked at it, the more she felt that she recognized it somehow…

      “Very curious.” The Hissi said, appearing at her shoulder with hardly a sound. She drew back and hissed, but the Hissi was unperturbed. “...Do you often blow your nose in volumes worth millions?” He asked, sounding irrate.

      She furrowed her brow as she opened her mouth to retort, before what he said caught up with her. “Are you...are you saying that’s snot?”

      “Unless your nostrils expel some sort of other vile fluid? Although Faeries are such outrageous creatures, that you might not have snot wouldn’t be terribly surprising.”

      The bad smell. The odd magic. The muck. The fact that everything was covered in--

      “--Are you listening, worker bee? Because really--”

      Something sloshed. And hissed. The world fell deathly still as the floorboards seemed to--to gurgle--and thick voluminous slime bubbled up, pulling itself upward.

      It seemed like something out of a dream. Something unreal, imaginary because there was just no way--

      --The slime ball hissed, drawing itself to its full height as globs of--of snot fell to the floor, splattering the shelves and ground as it bounced itself on its tail, cackling, and Misquote was suddenly facing down the very horror that her childhood stories had warned against.

      Meuka.

      To be continued…

 
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