Beneath a Pumpkin Moon: Part Three
"O-o-o-kay," Glop stuttered, huddled behind Grim's back. "I don't see Dusty, and it's r-r-really scary here!" In the distance a Hoot gave a haunting cry, and Glop shrieked in return, slithering underneath the Spardel's black cloak to hide. "I don't like it here, CoalDust. Why can't we go home?"
"If you're scared, Glop, just think of how Dusty must feel!" CoalDust herself was nervous, standing in the shadows cast by the tombstones of dearly departed games, but her friends were depending on her, both the ones that were with her, and the one that was not. "We'll all head home once we find him."
"If we find him." Glop's pessimism was muffled by the thick material of Grim's cloak; shakily, he lifted up the hemmed edge and peered out. "The Haunted Woods are filled with dangers! Swamp Ghouls! Werelupes! M-m-meepits!"
"What?" Grim ducked his head between his paws to see what the Goople was panicking over. Of course, Grim wasn't the most coordinated of creatures, and ended up tripping over his cloak. Somersaulting several times, he came to a rest on his back, with Glop sprawled across his stomach and his over-sized ears covering his eyes. "Oooo, I'm blind, I'm blind!"
"Hardly." Her own furry belly brushing against the dead grass covering the ground, CoalDust slunk over to her companions. "Stop fussing, Grim, and lift your ears. Your eyes might be covered, but I don't know how you missed hearing them."
"Them? What them?" Grim haltingly raised one ear, then the other. There was a noise — barely discernable, pitched at the edge of his keen hearing — repeating itself over and over. It sounded suspiciously like meep. "Oh, wow!" His bulging, red eyes rolled, fixing on the glowing swarm that had surrounded them. "Meepits! Ghost Meepits! Hiya!" His tongue flicked out, faster than thought, and licked the closest Meepit across her face, leaving behind a glistening trail of drool. "How ya doin'?"
"Ew!" The unlucky Meepit backed up, wiping furiously at her face, and doing her best to ignore the mocking laughter of her posse. "Ick! I need a towel. Or a napkin. Where's the hand sanitizer? For the love of Deviled Eggs, somebody get me a Bar of Soap!"
Glop struggled into a more or less upright position, and stared at the frantic Petpet. "Geeze, Grim. You managed to gross out a Meepit. I didn't think it was possible — and there might be a trophy involved..."
The slobbered-upon Meepit gave a moue of disgust, and glared at the world in general. "Trophy? Why, I ought to..." She flicked her paw, flinging Spardel drool against the towering tombstones. "Feh. So," she stalked back towards the three friends, her Meepit posse spread out behind her. "What brings you to our neck of the Woods?"
"Juice," was the unanimous reply from the ghost Meepits that filled the graveyard, chanted in a chaotic cacophony of squeals and appeals.
"Not you, you ninnies!" the lead Meepit snarled at her following, while lightly rubbing at her temples in a futile attempt to stave off a headache. "Them!" With a plop she sat down on the ground, and hid her face behind her paws. "Every single night, it's juice, juice, juice with them," she complained. "I've tried telling them that no one makes Ghost Meepit Juice any more, but do they listen? Noooo..." She lowered her paws, and shared a look of commiseration with CoalDust. "We could be ruling Neopia right now if they didn't get side-tracked by every single shiny thing that captures their attention. Oh well." She stood, and briskly brushed grave dirt from her backside. "Now that we've entirely failed to intimidate you: What brings you to the Graveyard?"
CoalDust shook her fur back into place, though her tail still wanted to bristle. "We're looking for our friend, Dust to Dustpan. The shopkeeper at Spooky Petpets thought he might have come here to visit, since he's a zombie Meepit." Nudging Glop off of Grim's chest, she helped the sprawled Spardel to his feet. "Is he with you? We know he used to play in the Graveyard."
"Dusty?" The ghost Meepit gave an odd little hop, clearly startled. "Why, it's been ages since we've seen him. Not since he was a little, pink puffball. You say he's a zombie, now? Lucky kid!" She nodded, and the Meepit swarm nodded along with her, their eldritch glow brightening. "But then, we heard he went to a real swanky home. Couldn't have happened to a nicer guy."
"Such a nice guy!"
"Juice! ...Err, meep!" The ghost Meepit at the furthest edge of the group ducked his head as he caught the leader's icy scowl.
"Right," she drawled, her look promising Meepit-y Doom upon the next underling that tried her patience. "Like I said, Dusty's swell! So, how exactly did you lose tabs on him? He was never one for wandering off."
Glop paled to an odd, pastel peach color. "Not. My. Fault!" he insisted, lurching from side to side in agitation. "We were just playing. I didn't mean it!"
The Meepit leader huffed, crossing her paws across her chest.
"In his defense," CoalDust stood between them, allowing the Goople to hide underneath her outspread wing, "Glop rarely ever thinks about what he's saying; it just sort of spills out beyond his control."
"...What did he say to Dusty?"
"He said," the Mauket winced as Glop pulled down harder on the delicate joints of her wing, "that if Dusty had half a brain—"
"Half a brain?" the ghost Meepit squawked, an angry blush overtaking her natural pallor. "He told a zombie that he needed brains? What was he think... ing... Right. Gooples," she sniffed derisively. "So, let me get this straight: You figure Dusty's out wandering the Haunted Woods looking for brains, and you're here in the Graveyard, why?"
"Umm..." Grim gave a hearty shake to clear his meandering thoughts. "Because we were told to check here? By the Cybunny at Spooky Petpets? Yeah, that's why we're here!" His tongue came out, and the entire crowd of Meepits gasped, stumbling back in alarm. "Uh-huh," he panted, licking his lips at the remembered taste of cookies. "Spooky shopkeepers are the greatest!"
"Right... Spardels. What I meant," the Meepit appealed to CoalDust, her arms flung wide, "is why are you goofing off here, when you should have gone immediately to the Brain Tree?"
"The Brain Tree?" CoalDust repeated, twitching her wing out of Glop's panicky grasp. "Of course! Oh, why didn't we think of that? The Brain Tree has the largest brain around; why, he must get zombies from across Neopia visiting him at all hours, day and night. If Dusty's really out searching for brains..."
"That's where he'd end up." The ghost Meepit nodded, then offered a shy, buck-toothed smile. "Now, I'm not entirely sure that Dusty would know what to do with brains if he had 'em, but that's a problem for another day, huh? Look, I'm Patricia," she introduced herself, passing over a torn business card. "If by some chance Dusty's not hanging with the big BT, come back here and I'll send my guys out looking for him. Okay?"
"Sounds good." Returning Patricia's smile, CoalDust nudged Glop to get him moving. "Thank you so much. I — I was about to lose hope, but I know we'll find Dusty at the Brain Tree. I just know it!"
"Yeah, thank you!" Grim bounded towards Patricia, and she narrowly avoided being licked again by adroitly twisting to the side at the last moment. "And once we've got Dusty, we'll bring him by for a visit." With a last, vibrant howl the Grim Spectre of Lint ran out of the Graveyard, CoalDust and Glop following behind him at a slightly less frantic pace.
Slapping her paws together, Patricia turned her attention back to her posse. "Okay, boys. Now, our objective is taking over Neopia. So, what haven't we tried?" A few of the ghost Meepits put on Santa hats, and she felt the first pounding pulse of the headache trying to return.
"I said: What haven't we tried!"
He'd followed the warm, welcoming moon through the Woods, past swamps and marshes and the inky black entrances of echoing caverns. It beckoned to him, always just out of reach, but rarely out of sight. He knew it wouldn't lead him astray, not a moon as delicious looking as the one hanging low in the night sky. He continued to follow the Jolly Pumpkin moon faithfully, and it led him to a clearing where a large, cranky tree was busily reading out loud from a book clutched in one gnarled, twiggy hand.
Dust to Dustpan wandered around the tree's massive trunk, then spotted his goal. With a burbling laugh, he made his way to the far edge of the clearing, where a scraggly bush cast a meager shadow. Dropping to his knees, Dusty crawled underneath the bush — and waited.
"I say, do you happen to know when and where Barry de Kiko died?" a deep voice boomed, loud enough to rattle the small rocks scattered about the clearing.
Dusty peeked out of his hiding spot, and offered a flummoxed shrug. "...Brains?"
"...I'll take that as a no." The voice sighed, knocking dying leaves off of the surrounding trees. "Sometimes it's such a bother, being planted; always depending on perfect strangers for help. One of these days I must start working on a solution to my mobility issues..."
With another shrug, Dusty worked his way back underneath the bramble.
To be continued...