The Mysteries of Mr. Cuddles: Part Four
Katrina didn't know how long she knelt there in the cold, the foul mud of the Haunted Woods soaking through the legs of her pants. She didn't want to get up. She didn't want to have to decide what to do next. She wanted this night to not have happened. She wanted to have said no when that horrible letter came to their door.
She didn't know what she could do. How could she help Zillie and Mr. Cuddles? It didn't escape Katrina that Zillie would have had ideas had the situation been reversed. They might not have been good ideas, but Zillie wouldn't have knelt here paralyzed by fear. She would have done something. And all Katrina – the older one, the one who was supposed to have the answers – could do was get cold and damp from the mud.
Finally, she pushed herself to her feet and switched on her flashlight. She had to find shelter, at the very least. She'd do her sister and their Petpet no good at all if something else nasty found her while she stood in the middle of a path like a fool.
So she started slowly, on trembling legs, back down the path. She wasn't sure if she wanted to go back to Neovia – that felt like it would be admitting defeat. But where else could she go? She'd quit the Wilderness Explorers in school an hour into the first camping trip when a big Petpetpet crawled on her leg. She didn't know what to do out in the Haunted Woods on her own, especially on a freezing winter's night.
And that was when she was tackled and landed face-first on the muddy ground. Katrina shrieked and tried to pull herself away, getting even more mud all over herself in the process. A low voice asked, "What do you think you're doing, shining a light 'round like that? You think all the monsters 'round here don't know a flashlight when they see one?"
Katrina was able to twist around, and she saw that she was pinned by a Tyrannian Kougra with fangs as long as her fingers. She cried out, so frightened she could barely even choke out the words, "Please, don't hurt me, I didn't mean any harm, just leave me alone!"
Someone else said, "Oh, Tamm, you barbarian, give the poor Kyrii some room to breathe!"
The Kougra – Tamm – growled, "Liable to get us all killed..."
The light that shone from beyond him was gentler than the harsh beam of the flashlight – more like candlelight. "Get up, Tamm, or I'll tell the boss."
He did, and Katrina got to her feet shakily.
The other person was a skunk Ixi with bright green eyes. She and Tamm both wore rough-looking clothing that was clearly meant to be functional, but her short-cropped black hair had a few stylish streaks of white and burgundy-red. She smiled as she held up her lantern. "I'm Jonquil, and the moron is Tamm."
Tamm crossed his arms – while Jonquil was about Katrina's size, Tamm was a good deal taller, all lean muscle. "I'm Tamm, and the soft-hearted ninny is Jonquil. And what in Ilere's name is someone like you doing wandering around the Wood in the dead of night?"
Jonquil added, "In places like this, 'dead of night' isn't just a figure of speech."
Katrina looked down at her filthy boots. "My sister Zillie and I got a letter, promising us answers about our Petpet Mr. Cuddles if we waited outside Castle Nox at midnight. He's... strange. We're not sure who left him on our doorstep, but he's saved our lives before. But it was a trap. I should have known it would be a trap. Wraiths came out of Castle Nox and took Zillie and Mr. Cuddles, but they left me."
Jonquil's eyes widened. "Wraiths. In Castle Nox. It's supposed to be deserted!"
Tamm sighed. "Oh, the boss isn't going to like this one bit."
Jonquil extended a hand. "You'd better come with us, before you freeze out here. Oh – what's your name?"
"Katrina." She wasn't sure whether or not she was foolish to trust these two – after all, Tamm had attacked her. But she also knew that she was very short on other options.
Jonquil looked her over critically. "I've got some spare clothes that should fit you. Yours wouldn't be fit for dishrags after this."
And Katrina had liked this coat. But the Ixi was probably right.
They set a pace though the Haunted Woods that Katrina was hard-pressed to keep up with. She wasn't sure whether there were paths that she didn't recognize, or whether they were following other markers that she hadn't noticed, but either way, they seemed sure of their path while Katrina was completely lost.
Finally, after climbing a hill, Katrina could see the warm glow of firelight nestled in a sheltered little valley. There were shadows around it – tents?
Yes, there were tents, and there were two people sitting in front of the fire. There was a rough-looking wooden shed as well – these people had clearly been in this place for some time. As they got closer yet, Katrina could see clothes spread out to dry on logs around the fire, and that the tents, as well as most of the clothes were patched and worn. The two awaiting them were a Xweetok in a striped stocking cap – Halloween by the look of the slit-pupiled yellow eyes that turned toward them – and a blue Wocky that gave no sign of noticing their approach. Katrina began to feel unsure. She knew that she didn't have many other options, but what if she'd walked straight into a bandit camp?
The Xweetok got up. "Who's that with you, Tamm?" For the first time, the Wocky looked up at them – he had yellow eyes as well.
Tamm grumbled, "Jonquil's idea. All Jonquil's idea."
Jonquil said, "This is Katrina. She and her sister and their Petpet were ambushed by wraiths that came out of Castle Nox. Katrina, this is Bones and this is our boss, Magax."
The Wocky, Magax, got to his feet at once. He was different than the others. They all wore plain, functional, woodman's clothing, but Magax donned a stylized broad-shouldered green vest belted about the waist, with matching trousers and boots, and a leather collar around his neck with a skull in the center, which Zillie would have loved. He had an earring in one ear, a scar over one eye, and while he was broad-shouldered, he was really rather short – Katrina probably had a few inches on him.
He asked, "Wraiths? In Castle Nox? Are you certain?"
Katrina nodded. "I saw them come right out the front door."
She realized that Magax's irises were red, and she tried not to wince. She thought the others seemed fairly normal – Jonquil at least was nice – but Magax looked far more like a villain than she would have liked. He frowned. "And what in the name of the Faerie Queen were you doing at Castle Nox?"
Katrina felt like the detail was necessary, especially so she could keep from sounding like a total idiot, and also because she was finally warming up as she stood by the fire. She shared the whole story about how Mr. Cuddles had been left on their doorstep on Halloween night and then saved her, her sister, and a group of trick-or-treaters from a Werelupe which had somehow roamed into their neighborhood. She then explained how a letter in the same handwriting had told them to come for Castle Nox, and she'd agreed to go in the hopes that the mysteries of Mr. Cuddles would finally be solved. She described how she'd done everything she could to try and make this journey as safe as possible, but the wraiths still managed to take Mr. Cuddles and Zillie back into Castle Nox with them. She finished, "And I don't know what to do – I don't know anything about any of this – all I want is to get them back!"
Bones, the Xweetok, looked into the fire. "That's trouble and no mistake. Wraiths don't think well. They don't lay traps. They've got orders."
Magax's eyes narrowed. "Orders from someone who has taken up residence in Castle Nox. You have helped me to keep watch on that cursed place since its master was slain, but someone must have gotten through."
Jonquil sighed. "And there's no one good that would summon wraiths... or, for that matter, move into that creepy old place.
Bones asked, "Didn't that sorceress who knocked Nox have a flair for wraiths?"
Tamm said, "Couldn't be her. She's in Faerieland doing time as a lawn ornament. Even we'd have heard if she was loose."
Magax said, "Whoever it is, we can't possibly leave them in there unfettered. We don't know what Nox may have hidden there – what dark plots another could take up and fulfill."
Tamm held up his hands. "Hey. You're the boss, and if you say we'll go in I'll follow you. But I'd like to point out that we don't know what's going on or what might be waiting for us, and we only number four."
Katrina said, "I'll help however I can." She was terrified to offer that help, but she wouldn't stand by while her sister or their Meepit was in danger.
The Kougra merely shrugged. "Four and a quarter. Still not odds I'd bet on."
Jonquil said, "Over there's my tent, Katrina. Do you have spare clothes?"
Katrina nodded. She went over to the tent and ducked inside, switching her flashlight back on for light. She took her time as she put on dry clothes and tried to keep her muddy ones from getting Jonquil's things dirty, and did all she could to not listen to the discussion going on outside.
Finally, she got up enough courage to go back outside. Magax said, "The hour is late, and we must all sleep. But tomorrow we shall scout Castle Nox. Whatever villain has taken up residence there must be purged."
Katrina said, "Thank you." And she added, "I'll come, too."
Tamm opened his mouth, but Bones shook his head. "Can't hurt. Her sister probably wouldn't trust us."
Tamm muttered, "Still a bad idea."
Magax crossed his arms. "She will come, as I said."
Clearly, when the Wocky made a decision, the case was closed. Katrina wondered why that was.
But she decided that it didn't really matter. All that did matter was that he and his companions were going to help her get Zillie and Mr. Cuddles back.
To be continued...