Beneath a Pumpkin Moon: Part Four
They'd had to tip-toe around the Esophagor; it seemed that a quester had failed in their mission, leaving the Haunted Wood's most infamous gourmand hungry, jilted, and terribly out of sorts. In fact, the Esophagor was throwing a temper tantrum, childishly bellowing on about Brains and Dumplings.
"Brains and Dumplings," Grim whispered, his salivary glands working overtime at the thought of the tasty dish. "Do ya think, after we find Dusty, we could go out to eat? I'm sure our dinner back home has gone cold by now."
"Maybe. After we find Dusty," CoalDust conceded.
They skirted the rusted iron fence enclosing Eliv Thade's castle; the last thing they needed was to be delayed solving anagrams for Thade's restless spirit. To the west lay more graveyards, their broken gates yawning open like hungry skeletal monsters from some earlier age, and further beyond the barrows lurked the Forbidden Forest. The moon, though, had not yet set, and its orange-tinged beams softened the trees' otherwise threatening silhouettes, and blanketed the entire Woods in a warm glow.
"There he is," Glop said softly. "The Brain Tree." Tears formed at the edges of his eerily green eyes. "If Dusty's not there with him... What am I gonna do? It really is all my fault; I never should've gotten cross with him."
"Oh, Glop." CoalDust leaned against the Goople's side and purred reassuringly. "It will be okay. I'm sure Dusty's up there; and if by some teeny, tiny chance he isn't, well..." She shook her head, out right dismissing the thought. "Dusty's a Meepit. Nothing in its right mind would take on a Meepit — let alone a zombie Meepit."
Grim whined low in his throat, having come up on the other side of Glop. "And what if something isn't in its right mind?"
"Then it will get along famously with Dusty!" CoalDust refused to buy into her friends' doubts. "After all, Glop, you're Dusty's best friend, and you're the craziest Petpet I know!"
Glop gave a startled laugh. "That's probably true. Okay then!" He gathered his courage, and began making his way up to the Brain Tree, using that peculiar crawl/ooze motion adopted by most Petpets that could neither walk, swim, nor fly. It took a while, for it wasn't the fastest means of locomotion, but Glop was determined, and eventually he made his way into hailing distance. He swallowed, hoping to ease the tightness in his throat, then called out in the most authoritative voice he could muster...
"Erm... Mister Brain Tree, sir? Um, excuse me! Down here!"
The Brain Tree, who'd been busily diagramming something highly complex in the fallen leaves surrounding him, briefly glanced at the Goople before returning to his work.
Nonplussed, Glop turned to CoalDust for reassurance, then tried again. "Mister Brain Tree? By any chance have you seen—"
"Tell me," the Brain Tree rumbled, twisting a gnarled branch into a fist and resting it slightly below his gaping maw, "are you familiar with contraptions that utilize a modified block and tackle pulley system, and can you build and operate said system?"
"Then, having used such a system to relocate me to a more desirable location — preferably near a library with a current Neopedia subscription — do you have the fortitude and wherewithal to temporarily fill my position as guardian of the Haunted Woods, by battling the Beast that lurks behind me — to the death if need be?"
At the word death Glop had collapsed into a quivering puddle of goo. Grim stood over him protectively, his miniscule fangs bared in a snarl, and CoalDust was wracking her brain, trying to remember if she'd ever studied block and tackle pulley systems.
"Well?" The Brain Tree tapped twiggy faux-fingers impatiently. "Speak up now... Oh." Pausing in his tirade, the ancient tree had finally focused his complete attention on his visitors. "My, you're rather small Petpets, aren't you? Indeed. Ahm. Yes." Usually, it was hard for a tree to show embarrassment of any sort, but the Brain Tree was managing it admirably. "Okay then; this isn't at all awkward..."
CoalDust wanted to disagree, but she knew better than to upset the venerable genius. "We actually aren't that good at battling, sir. I mean, I can put a ball of yarn in its place after a bit of a tussle, and Grim can wreak havoc on Squishy Brain Wraps — but an actual confrontation against an evil that you yourself have only fought to a draw? It's a bit beyond our league."
"But if you're having trouble with Squishy Brain Wraps," Grim added helpfully, his snarl morphing into rampant jowl licking, "I'd be more than happy to take care of them for you!"
"Indeed," the Brain Tree agreed drolly. "Because undead uprisings of Squishy Brain Wraps are such a pain to deal with." He shifted slightly upon his roots, ancient wood creaking alarmingly under the stress. "Oh well. If you're here neither to battle the Beast, nor to help me with relocation, I suppose you were hoping to prove yourselves worthy of a quest?"
"No..." CoalDust replied, uncertainty casting a dim shadow over the golden glow of her eyes. "We came looking for a zombie Meepit — but I don't see Dusty here." She bowed her head, and gave a heartbroken meow. "I was so sure he'd be here, but he isn't. Oh, sir, where could he possibly be? We can't go home without our friend; we just can't!"
"A zombie Meepit, hmm?" The Brain Tree's bark crinkled into deep fissures as his mouth pursed thoughtfully. "I'm afraid that I can't tell you where he is. I can, however," his blood red eyes twinkled with well-buried mirth, "tell you that you're getting warmer."
"Warmer?" CoalDust echoed him doubtfully. "But the night's rather chilly for this time of year."
"Warmer?!" Glop pulled himself from his slump, and crept further into the clearing. He had an idea of what was going on, and it filled him with hope. "What about now?"
The Brain Tree rattled his branches apologetically. "Colder."
"Oh!" Grim barked, catching on to the game. "Try the other direction, Glop. That way! That way!"
Glop followed his friend's advice, spurred on by his growing conviction and the Brain Tree's affirmation.
Towards the clearing's far edge, a scraggly bush shook hectically, though there wasn't enough of a breeze blowing to stir its withered leaves. Struggling across the desiccated grass as quickly as he could, Glop approached the tangled bramble, then took a deep breath. "Hey, Dusty! Is that you?"
Dust to Dustpan jumped out from the bush, thorny twigs caught up in his bandages and yellowed leaves stuck behind his ears. "You found me!" he cried, catching the Goople up in an ecstatic hug. "Glop found me!" Wearing a smile brighter than the gold of CoalDust's collar, the Meepit sat his wheezing friend down. "Play again?"
"All this time, Dusty was playing Hide n' Seek?" CoalDust hurried over to the Meepit and daintily licked him across his nose, all the while purring loud enough to rattle her ribcage. "Do you know how much you worried us?" she asked him, but didn't pause for an answer. "We thought you ran away! Oh, Dusty! We spent the whole night looking for you."
"Yeah, Dusty!" Grim panted, and bounced around his gathered friends, flinging drool in every direction. "We thought you were out looking for brains! And here you are, right next to the biggest brain in Neopia — and you were hiding in a bush. Aroorooroo!"
"Brains!" Dusty agreed, hugging Glop once more.
"Although..." CoalDust had managed to work most of the thorns out of the Meepit's wrappings, but the dirt-encrusted marshmallow remnants were proving to be more of a problem. "...if you weren't looking for brains..."
"I believe I can explain," the Brain Tree said. "Your Meepit friend wasn't literally searching for brains. Rather, he was looking for someone with brains, to help him find the perfect hiding place. Of course, I was only able to deduce his plan because of my incredible intellect, so it's possible that other 'pets might have mistaken his request as something — else. It's nothing to fret over, however; you're together once more, safe and sound."
"Yeah..." Glop returned Dusty's hug, snuffling into the Meepit's shoulder. "We're all safe, but... I'm sorry, Dusty! I never should've made fun of you. It was mean — and I was wrong: You can totally find the most awesome places to hide!" He ducked his head, then raised his eyes shyly. "We still friends?"
"Friends!" Tightening his hug to bone-crushing strength — had the Goople had any bones to crush — Dusty shuffled against the trailing edge of Grim's tattered cloak and lightly patted CoalDust's cheek. "Home now?"
"Wait!" Bounding into the clearing, Magax the blue Wocky raised his arm, blocking their path. "You're four friends, out wandering the Haunted Woods late at night. What kind of adventure ends without an epic battle between good and evil? What fearsome foe have you vanquished? How can you think of leaving before an apocalyptic showdown of cosmic proportions—"
"Erm..." The Grim Spectre of Lint freed his cloak from underneath Dusty's feet, and cocked his head to the side in confusion. "We're just Petpets."
The Brain Tree chuckled. "Indeed. Somewhat small Petpets."
Magax squatted down, and examined the tired group of friends. "Oh," he said, his expression softening, although the scar running across his right eye kept his look from being entirely comforting. "So you are. I suppose you'd rather not join me in tracking down rogue Swamp Ghouls, then?"
Three of the Petpets shook their heads in denial, and Glop just shook. "No," Grim added, just so there were no misunderstandings. "But we'll be happy to pitch in if you're ever invaded by unruly Squishy Brain Wraps. Or an Army of Undead Cupcakes. ...But if you're up against a Cannibalistic Pumpkin, you'd be better off asking Apple Bobbing Bart for help; he knows all about misbehaving produce."
"I'll keep that in mind," Magax said, his tone wry. "I suppose I should walk you home, then. The Haunted Woods can be a dangerous place after dark, even for such brave Petpets as yourselves."
The last orange gleam of the Jolly Pumpkin moon had slipped under the horizon by the time Magax got the four weary Petpets home. They had stopped by Spooky Food on the way back, and the Bruce shopkeeper had treated them to an overflowing plate of Mummy Spaghetti. With bellies full, they walked to the front porch of their house, then turned around to wave goodbye to the Wocky warrior.
"Thank you, Magax," CoalDust called out, waving her paw. "Thank you for bringing us home!"
"My pleasure," he replied, offering a gallant bow. "Take care — and next time you feel up to adventuring, wait until daylight!" He gave them a jaunty wink, then floated silently away.
CoalDust herded her friends inside, then gave a great yawn. "My goodness, it's so late, it's early." Knowing she'd be unable to rest until she was clean, she groomed her fur until it once again gleamed darkly, then she spread her wings wide so they'd dry properly. Finished, she went to join her friends in the large Petpet bed nestled beside the Apple Lantern Chair, their huddled forms bathed in the gentle glow cast by the nightlight.
Dusty was curled up into a tight ball, looking very much like the dust bunnies he tried so hard to emulate. Glop was draped over him like a gelatinous orange blanket; the Goople's snoring was a welcome, familiar sound. Grim had taken off his cloak, and was using it as a pillow. The Spardel was dreaming, his legs running after phantom prey — most likely Gummy Rats, or some other treat that had escaped him during the day.
Adding her own, rumbling purr to the mix, CoalDust snuggled up to her friends — and fell asleep.