Misadventures of a Neopian Times Reporter XVIII
Happy Birthday, Fluffle.
This story references events from previous Misadventures and Flufflepuff's Innocent Bystander series of short stories.
From the moment I woke up, something told me that it was going to be one dung heap in the summer sun of Tyrannia of a day. I don't know how I knew it. Maybe it was the fact that I woke half an hour before my alarm was set to go off for no reason whatsoever. Maybe there was some dark magic lingering in the air from when some random dark faerie decided to randomly curse me for the laughs. Maybe it was just that after having lived with myself for such a long time I had a sixth sense about these things. What it was, I will never know.
The morning started out innocently enough. Chloe went off to work, Princess locked herself in her bedroom, and since it was beautiful day, Anita and Elise took the four youngest out to a new amusement park that had opened nearby. I had to work.
Buzz had assigned me to seek out Gorunda the Wise, an ancient Nimmo who reportedly lived somewhere in the Haunted Woods. She supposedly knew many secrets from ancient times, when the world was young and Fyora was probably still dealing with pimples. I didn't know how much of that was true, or if Gorunda even existed, but I had my assignment.
I was puttering around the house when the doorbell rang. I hurried to the door, wondering who it could be. I wasn't expecting anyone. I opened the door to find my friend Cassie and her Robot Ogrin, Protector, standing there.
"Hi, Cassie!" I cried, I was always happy to see my friends.
I hadn't actually seen her since I dragged her off to visit Kastraliss last month. I wondered if she was annoyed with me about that, but it had been for her own good. Besides, it had worked out in the end. She got over her fears a little, I got a nice article, and Protector got marshmallows.
"Hi, Kristy!" Cassie's cheerfulness struck me as almost artificial. "I've got a favor to ask. I've got somewhere to be, so could you watch Protector?"
"Uh, what?" I asked, unsure if I'd heard her right. I didn't think she went anywhere without Protector.
"Protector, look at the way those flowers are coming in. Doesn't Elise do a great job with the gardens?" Cassie said to her pet. Once he was distracted looking at the flowers, she grabbed me by the arm and pulled me in close, leaning down to whisper in my ear. "We've got a bit of Shock-A-Lots going around at my house. We've already got the cure, and they are going to get better. Protector is wonderful and all, but keeping him from offering to help them discharge is getting on everyone's nerves. Could you please keep him for a couple of hours?"
"Sure thing, Cass," I said with a knowing laugh. "He can come protect me for the day. I'm off to hunt someone down for work."
"Great! Thank you!" Cassie cried. She hurried down the path, stopping to say goodbye to Protector before leaving. The Ogrin came back up the path to me.
"So, I guess it's just you and me today, Protector," I said. "That'll be fun, right?"
"Cassie does not want me to perform my duties to her today," he said, sounding sad.
"Cassie wants you to have a bit of fun. You get to be my assistant today. We're going to the Haunted Woods to seek out someone who may not even exist!" I said, trying to make it sound exciting. "Come on in, I've got a new bag of marshmallows you can help yourself to while I finish preparations."
Protector followed me in and I left him in the family room with the bag of marshmallows. I had just finished my packing when the doorbell rang again. Once again, I hurried back to the front door to see who it was, half wondering if Cassie had come back for some reason. I opened the door and my heart stopped.
The person standing in my doorway was a familiar sight from only a few weeks ago. The black pants and gloves, and grey coat and hat, coupled with the Smiling Spinacles Mask gave me flashbacks of the most uncomfortable kind. After a second of paralysis, a scream broke from me.
"Get in, get in, get in!" I shouted, pulling him in by the arm and slamming the door behind us.
Dr. Frank Sloth removed the mask, looking grim.
"What are you doing here?" I demanded, glad Bluejay was out of the house, and desperately hoping none of my neighbors had seen him.
Protector appeared at the top of the stairs leading into the parlor. "Kristy, I heard you scream. Do you require assistance?"
"No, not yet," I told him.
"Doesn't that one belong to the girl you ran into the last time we met?" Sloth asked, looking up at Protector.
"Yes, he does. He's helping me out today. Which, actually, we've got to be going. So, please, whatever it is, tell me quickly," I said, wondering if another bag of marshmallows would sufficiently buy Protector's silence on this unexpected visitor.
"Long story short, I lost a bet. According to the terms of the bet, I must spend the day assisting you in some manner."
"Who would make you do that? Who have I ticked off this time?" I demanded.
"It was Garoo actually. I didn't even know you had met," Sloth told me.
"What the borovan! I did that Slorg slime of a Blumaroo a favor last time we met!" I shouted, furious.
"I don't think Cassie would approve of my hearing such things," Protector informed me.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I'll watch my mouth," I said, feeling a little embarrassed. My life was like some weird Neovision dramedy suddenly. "Frank, really, I've already got one assistant, I don't need two. You're free from whatever, okay?"
"I'm afraid not. According to the terms of the deal, I have to do it. I will have to come back some other day," Sloth informed me.
"No! Sweet Fyora, I lucked out today in that Bluejay is out of the house. Come on, you're Frank Sloth and Garoo is your underling. Do you really have to honor some stupid bet with him?" I asked.
"Yes, because it was part of a Godori tournament. Everyone makes a bet that they will have to hold to on losing, the terms of the bet being chosen by the winner of the match. It came down to Garoo and myself in the final round. I inflicted more than a few embarrassing tasks on the competitors I defeated. Weaseling out on it will be known and I'll be branded an honor-less thug and banned from tournaments in the future," Sloth explained.
"Aren't most villains known for their lack of honor?" I asked.
"Outside of such important social events, backstabbing is perfectly acceptable," Sloth said. "Really, one would think you would do more research on such things."
"I don't want to know anything more about the Society of Villains than I have to!" I shouted in frustration.
"Come now, Kristy, not in front of the child," Sloth said, his smile telling me he knew what he was doing.
I tried really hard to think of something to say to him that was appropriate to say in front of Protector and failed. I flailed, trying so hard to come up with some way out of my predicament, but failed at that also.
"All right," I groaned. "You can come along too. It'll be as much fun as being captured by the Feepits."
"Yes, I'm sure it will be," Sloth said as he put back on his mask.
I pulled on my coat and then grabbed my backpack and slung it over my shoulders. I was wearing my hiking boots and everything I thought I might need was in my backpack. I pulled my scarf and hat off the coat rack and put them on. I opened the door and the three of us walked out, the most unlikely adventure party since the Faerie's Ruin.
We got an Eyrie Taxi from the stop and asked them to take us to the Haunted Woods. The three of us settled in for the ride. I sat there, feeling vaguely creeped out by the unceasing smile on the face of Sloth's mask. Whatever Sloth was feeling was hidden by his mask. Protector snacked on the marshmallows I had given him.
When we finally got off in the Haunted Woods, it was a relief to be moving. The forced stillness of the travel by air had made us all antsy, or at least it had made me that way and I fancied the others must be feeling the same way. I led the way to the Brain Tree. He knew everything in the forest, so hopefully he would know where to start looking if this Nimmo truly existed.
"You dare disturb the tree?" he boomed in his customary greeting when we walked up.
"Hello, Brain Tree. How is your day going?" I asked.
"Quite well, Miss Kimmy. Come to ask me questions I will not answer? It's not your customary day," the Tree replied.
"No, I was hoping you might actually answer this one. Do you know where to find Gorunda the Wise?" I asked.
"I do, actually," he said, a smile splitting his bark. "Tell me where Zoris Wrexthane met his end and I will tell you."
"Virtupets Space Station, level three, living quarters. On the 3rd day of the month of Sleeping, Year 1," Sloth promptly answered. "Turned to sludge for assisting the Resistance."
I looked over my shoulder at Sloth, flabbergasted.
The Brain Tree actually pouted. "I'd have given you a harder one if I knew you were traveling with an expert on Space Station history."
"Good thing you didn't," I said. "Borovan to be you, now tell me what you promised."
"Fine," the Brain Tree snapped sullenly. "Go out towards Sophie's hut and travel due west from there. You'll find her after an hour or two of walking, if you're lucky."
"And if we don't, we're coming back showing you exactly what it felt like to be Zoris Wrexthane," Sloth warned.
The Brain Tree grumbled something as we walked away.
"Wow, this is actually working out. Thank you," I said, surprised.
"It is part of the deal," he said. "Shall we be on our way to Neovia then?"
"We should. Protector, there will likely be a lot of swampy ground where are going. Make sure to pick your footing carefully," I told the Ogrin.
"I shall. I would not like to short-circuit," he informed me.
"Here's hoping we find Gorunda!" I said, more sarcastically than anything else.
At least I knew she existed now, but finding her was going to be the other half of the challenge. Mostly, my article was to confirm her existence. Even if she wouldn't talk to me, telling the tale of how I found her, vaguely so she didn't get swarmed by tourists and come out of the Haunted Woods to put a curse on me for it, was what I was there to do.
We got to Neovia fairly uneventfully. There, we stopped to examine my map, which thankfully listed the location of Sophie's hut on it. A group of Neovian children approached us while were were standing by the canal. A Moehog walked up to us, somewhat reluctantly.
"Can we help you?" Protector asked kindly.
"Uh, Mister," the boy said, addressing Sloth. "Why are you wearing that mask?"
"I have bad face days," Sloth said in a deprecatory tone.
The children just stared at us with blank faces for a minute before informing Sloth he was 'an odd one' and then dispersing. Sloth turned to me, even with the mask I could tell the face he was making.
"I'm sorry, all right! I'm not always quick on the draw. I honestly blurted the first thing that came to mind. I'm sorry," I cried.
"On this day, I will accept your apology," he told me.
"You will?" I asked, a little incredulous.
"Yes," he said, clearly meaning for me to leave it at that.
I allowed Protector to take point on the journey to Sophie's Hut. When we arrived there, we stopped to dig my compass out of my backpack. Sophie came running out, waving a wand around and screaming at us not to take pictures. I jumped, expecting her to turn us into Mortogs before we could explain.
"Relax, Sophie. We have no interest in you," Sloth informed her in a bored tone.
That seemed to deflate her. Protector pulled my compass out at that moment and held it out to me, humming with pleasure.
"Well, get off then!" Sophie snapped, heading back to her porch.
"Lay off the Menacing Brew, Sophie. It makes you irritable," Sloth shot back.
"How dare you!" she shrieked, raising her wand.
He pulled his blaster from its holster inside his coat and pointed it at her. She lowered her wand, it would take less time for a blaster to fire than a spell to be cast.
"Fine then, just get out of here," she said as she slammed her door behind her.
"Did you really have to antagonize her?" I asked as he put his blaster away.
"We were a significant distance from her hut. She didn't need to be harassing us," Sloth said with a shrug.
I looked down at Protector. He was busy feeding one of his marshmallows to Sophie's Meowclops. The petpet was ecstatically cuddling the Ogrin while munching on the offered sweet.
"I have made a friend," Protector informed me.
"He's sweet," I said with a smile. "But, we need to head off now."
"I will miss you," he said to the petpet, laying a second marshmallow on the ground for it to eat after we left.
Compass to guide us, we set out westward. It was often slow going, climbing over roots and jumping giant puddles. Sloth was incredibly gentlemanly, helping me over roots and across puddles. His height came in handy, he must have been a good two feet taller than I was. Protector had no trouble, Ogrins are already champion jumpers, and being a robot he did not tire easily. When the going was easy, he would pull out a new marshmallow and put it in his mouth to chew on as we made our way along.
"Okay," I said, checking my watch. "We've been heading due west for about two hours now. We should be approaching Gorunda's home by now. Keep an eye out for- aahh!"
My words were cut off by someone grabbing me around the waist and lifting me off my feet. I glanced over my shoulder at Sloth, annoyed about the abrupt way he had grabbed me. He set me down next to him, a foot or so back from where I had been.
"What was that all about?" I demanded.
"Look carefully," he said pointing at the ground, and I did.
At first glance, there was nothing out of place, but as I looked closer, I noticed the ground looked wrong.
"What is that?" I asked.
Sloth reached down and grabbed a large rock. He tossed it onto the strange patch, and suddenly two giant logs swung down from the trees above, colliding with each other right where I would have been standing had I kept going.
"What in Fyora's magical name? Who would do that? That could kill someone!" I cried.
"That might be the point of a trap, wouldn't you say?" Sloth asked somewhat sarcastically.
"It would seem to be the within the parameters of such a device," Protector chimed in.
I dropped my backpack to the ground and rummaged through it, finding the dossier on Gorunda. There, scribbled in the margins in a near impossible to make out hand, was a warning that there were rumors Gorunda set up traps around her home to keep people away.
"I'm going to feed Leonard to Turmaculus when I get back, and I'll make sure that this time Turmy doesn't spit him back out," I swore.
"What a charming plan," Sloth told me approvingly.
"We need to be careful, there are going to be more where that came from," I said, waving my hand at the spent trap as I put my backpack back on.
"I will protect you," Protector offered.
"While I appreciate that, only protect me if you can do it without getting hurt yourself. Cassie will kill me if anything happens to you," I told him.
He nodded and then took point, leading us deeper into the Haunted Woods. There were a lot of traps. We all discovered a few, and Sloth disarmed them, something I guess he would be good at considering his company builds the most advanced traps on the market. Finally, disgruntled, fatigued, and ready to give up, we stumbled on a hut. Outside of it stood an elderly Nimmo woman stirring something in a pot. She looked up at us, seeming surprised. I suppose that wasn't surprising, given all the traps she had lying around.
"Visitors! Why, I haven't had those in at least forty years!" she cried, seeming excited.
We were all forced to sit, given bowls of some strange soup, and regaled with a tale of the time when a young Altador and his dark faerie friend visited her while on a quest to find some artifact that would help bring the kingdom Altador hoped to found great prosperity. The glimpse into a younger, idealistic, and kind Betrayer was both interesting and almost unbelievable. Sloth sat there, holding his soup and occasionally raising the spoon to smile on his mask in a ridiculous mimicry of eating. Protector wolfed it right down and asked for seconds. I traded bowls with him before Gorunda noticed.
Many notes later, we were off on our way out of the Woods, glad that at least this time, our path was already cleared of traps.
"So, Frank," I said as he helped me over a large root. "Why exactly did Garoo choose to make you spend a day with me as your losing bet?"
"Because he hates me," Sloth said.
"No, really. He's kept working for you all these years. If he hated you, I'm sure he could have picked something worse," I said.
"Honestly, I think Buzz adds some hyperbole to the stories he tells about you," Sloth said in a wry voice.
"No, he probably just tells the choice stories. You've probably never heard about the M*YNCI incident. That was fun. By which, I mean I still routinely have nightmares about it," I said.
"You need someone to protect you better," Protector told me. "I could train one of your pets to become your protector."
"That's okay, Protector. I actually made my bodyguard go get the job she wanted instead of chasing me around. If I need a protector, I know I can call on her," I said.
"I still think you should have someone to protect you at all times. This job is dangerous," Protector told me.
"You're sweet. I have my own strange brand of luck. No matter what I've gotten into, I've always come out alive," I said.
"You lucked out that one time that that call came in when it did," Sloth told me.
"Yes, but you have also benefited from my not becoming sludge that day. I've more than made up for what Bluejay said," I pointed out.
"I suppose there is truth in that," Sloth admitted.
And so, we made our way out of the Woods.
The day was technically over for Sloth, so when we arrived back at Neopia Central, he bid us a good day and made his way to the shuttles while we made our way back to my house.
"How much of this are you going to tell Cassie?" I asked.
"She would believe me. There is very little not to believe when it comes to you. You keep weird friends," he told me.
"Another bag of marshmallows?"
"My silence is assured," he promised.
When my pets got home in the chilly April twilight, they found an exhausted mother dozing on the sofa while a Robot Ogrin munched on marshmallows next to her. Princess had somehow managed to remain totally unaware of both Cassie and Sloth's visit, so she had been just as surprised to find Protector over when she came down to generously offer to make dinner for a mother she was sure must be tired after a long hunt for whoever her boss had assigned her to find this time.
Cassie showed up around eight-thirty in the evening to take Protector home.
"You've had far too many marshmallows, haven't you?" she scolded.
"Kristy was very generous," he said with bashful smile.
"He was an angel," I called from where I was slumped on the couch. "He deserves all the marshmallows."
"Thanks for watching him, Kristy," Cassie said. "Come on, Protector, let's go home. Bye everyone!"
Inna toddled up and patted my face as I lay there, asking to be held. I picked her up and cuddled her close. Bluejay walked up, book in hand and sat in a nearby chair.
"How was your day, Kristy?" he asked.
"You wouldn't believe me if I told you, Blue. You really wouldn't."