Marketplace of Memories: Part One
Darkness can fall suddenly.
It sweeps across the sky, dancing in all its dim glory. The moon replaces the sun, a softly glowing white ball instead of a raging yellow circle of fury. This is night, when most citizens of Neopia sleep soundly in their beds, dreaming of mythical worlds and fictional creatures. They can be in the most dangerous of situations in their minds, yet they always wake safe in bed. No matter how real a dream may seem, it is nothing but a false reality to most pets; for me, it’s all too real.
It was seventeen years ago, on the night of Halloween--traditionally a time when youngsters go trick-or-treating, but (as I learned on that night) also a time when the barriers between the worlds are at their thinnest. It is at that moment, when those eldritch gateways creep open ever so slightly, that strange and amazing things are most likely to happen...
The air was crisp with cold, the atmosphere heavy with excitement. Halloween was here at last, and this year, for the first time in my short life, I was taking part. Flexing my silver Shoyru wings, I donned my handmade hat and took up my broomstick—little more than a branch with a bushel of dried grass tied onto it. It was simple, but it worked.
At that moment, Katia’s voice drifted up from downstairs.
“Leara, are you ready yet?”
“Almost,” I called back, breathless with anticipation.
“Come on! Our guests will be here any minute!” The words had barely escaped her mouth when a trio of Kougras tumbled through the door, landing in a heap on the mat. “Speak of the devil,” Katia muttered, sighing heavily. Taking wing, I swept down the stairs and helped my friends back to their feet. Each one wore an intricately painted wooden mask.
“We’re going as a totem pole this year,” chirped the blue sibling, Bibrolex—or Bib for short.
“That’s great! You’re so lucky, being triplets.” As one, the Kougra brothers grinned from ear to ear.
“Thanks, Leara. Say, you’re coming with us this time, right?” Marfas questioned. His thick maroon fur stuck up in places where the carpet had disturbed its silky surface.
“Sure am,” I replied proudly, straightening my hat. “I can taste the candy already!”
“Me too! It’s gonna be so great!” exclaimed the hyperactive green fur ball (usually known as Cattail).
“It’s getting pretty late already,” Katia worried. “Come back in less than an hour!”
“Of course,” I promised, with no intention of keeping my word. “See you soon!”
The triplets pulled their masks back on and reformed the precarious totem pole. With great care, they tottered back out through the door and I followed, giggling like mad.
Three feet out of the door, Marfas stumbled on a stone and all three triplets tumbled to the ground again.
“This just isn’t working out,” he snarled. “We should walk like this, and only make the totem pole when we knock on a door.”
“Good idea,” Cattail said, cheerful as ever. Bib looked sorely disappointed, but said nothing.
For several hours we traversed the local streets, reaping a good harvest of candy along the way from kind old neopets who were obviously impressed with the totem pole idea. For my part, I smirked and flew circles around Bib, cackling like the evil witch I was pretending to be. Everything was going perfectly. I felt so safe in my happiness, and despite having more candy than I could possibly eat in the next fortnight, I could hardly wait for Halloween to roll around again.
At last, the moon shone resplendent in the sky above. The other children had long since gone home and most of the residents would be fast asleep... besides which, we were drawing close to the edge of the Haunted Woods, and we all knew what happened to young pets who dared venture into the forest at night. I peered into the shadowy trees, which quivered in the gentle breeze.
“Er,” Cattail quavered, breaking the silence that had fallen upon us. “Maybe we should turn back now.”
“Our owner might be worried,” Bibrolex agreed, turning to follow his brother.
“And my sister,” I added nervously. “I hope she’s not mad at us.” I turned back and looked down the path to home, to where my bed was waiting. I couldn’t deny that I was exhausted.
“Don’t be stupid,” Marfas called after us. We stopped in our tracks and turned to face him. His mask had been discarded. “The night is still young! Can’t you feel it?”
“Feel what?” I asked, fearful of the answer.
“Life, energy,” he breathed. “It’s all around us. It’s calling us.” His eyes were wide, almost feverish with a strange blend of terror and excitement. He struggled to make us understand. ”I’m going into the forest. Follow me if you want... unless you’re afraid,” he added with a cruel smirk.
It worked like a charm. Marfas bolted into the tangled undergrowth and his brothers went after him, dropping their masks as they went, determined not to be labelled as cowards. They weren’t going to be afraid of some stupid forest! As if anything in there could really hurt anyone! As far as they were concerned, the legends and the stories were nothing but lies made to entertain children and fools.
My stomach dropped like a stone. How could they, how could anyone, be so unbelievably stupid? So what if those stories were nothing but legends. Bad things could still happen in a place like the Haunted Woods. Even if someone heard you scream, it was too dark to attempt a rescue. Even if they found you it would probably be too late.
It just wasn’t worth the risk.
“Cattail!” I cried desperately. “Bibrolex! Come back!”
I teetered at the edge of the trail, facing an impossible decision: abandon my friends to preserve my own safety, or risk life and limb to rescue them.
In the end, it wasn’t really a choice at all. It just took a lot of courage. Leaving behind the safety and familiarity of my hometown, I ventured into the darkness at the edge of the forest.
It must have been hours—how many I cannot say. The forest played tricks on my mind. Each and every moment stretched itself out until it seemed like an eternity. I moved forward by feeling my way from one tree to the next, always listening for any sign of danger lurking in the impenetrable darkness. Over and over again I called their names, but no reply came. More than once, the panic and the hopelessness of the situation threatened to engulf me, but I kept moving--inch by inch, minute by minute.
A twig snapped nearby.
I instantly froze, knowing that any sound or movement might give me away. Seconds slipped by in the silence. I began to believe that I had imagined the sound. I even allowed myself to relax slightly.
It was just my mind playing tricks on me, after all.
Something huge shifted to my left, and I leapt away from the movement, reacting instinctively. The creature snarled, its huge paws padding circles around me. It was toying with me. I was trapped. Flying was too much of a risk: the branches would surely tear my wings and leave them useless. The creature could strike at any moment. I had to do something... anything...
Something seized my wrist and pulled me backwards with incredible force. The sound of my heart beating drowned out every other noise. Thorny weeds and nettles tore at me. I barely registered the pain. I should have been terrified, maybe even fighting for my life at that very moment, but a strange inertia had taken me over. A soft, motherly voice drifted around me like ripples on the surface of a calm lake.
“You are a long way from home, my child...”
All of the terror and the worry I had felt not an hour ago had dissipated completely. Shock and exhaustion had taken their place, and before long I found myself drifting into a deep and dreamless slumber...
I awoke to a flare of brilliant light.
A myriad of colours and indistinct shapes swam before me. Somewhere, a song was playing—a soft, inspiring tune that seemed to my ears like the essence of nostalgia, of lost things half forgotten. I reached forward instinctively and my paws fell upon a rough and vaguely dusty surface: the bark of a tree.
Oh, I realised with a sick jolt of fear. I’m still in the forest!
I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, opened them again. The world came into focus. I was at the edge of a small village built in the heart of the woodland. I was no longer trapped--and here, at least, I might hope to find some vestige of civilisation. Taking comfort in this hope, I wandered down the dusty path to the entrance of the tiny hamlet.
Before me sprawled a wide, cobbled street lined with antique tables. On each of these tables stood an enormous variety of things: old torn plushies, empty petpet cages, sprightly faeries dancing in their jars, a rusting machine which was producing that haunting music. The houses lining the street leaned inwards, and clothes hung from lines which criss-crossed overhead from window to window. Here and there a dusty figure drifted, each of them carrying a ghostly, flickering lantern.
“What is this place?” I wondered quietly, unaware I had spoken aloud until a raspy voice replied.
“This is the Marketplace of Memories. Can’t ye read?” An elderly Wocky pointed out a decaying wooden sign. Surely enough, the carved letters read ‘Marketplace of Memories.’
“Oh,” I muttered, feeling stupid although I was certain the sign had not been there moments earlier. “Thanks.”
I wandered around for a while, examining the objects on the tables but never touching anything. I wondered if the triplets had found their way here, too. For some reason, I hoped that they had not. There was something very strange about this place and I didn’t like it. A smell of ancient dust hung in the air.
I whipped around, suddenly alert. A figure in a red velvet cloak stood before me. Something in her voice seemed familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it.
“Have we met before?”
“It was I who saved you from the beast in the woods.”
“...thanks,” I muttered, embarrassed at my initial lack of recognition.
“I apologize for not introducing myself. You may call me Elva.”
“How did you know my name?”
As if in answer to my question, Elva promptly turned and marched down the street, her velvet cloak billowing out behind her. I wished for more time to explore this place, this wasteland of memories, and yet I longed to be home, where my sister would no doubt be worried sick about me.
I took wing and followed from above. She led me down a winding stone road to a round bungalow that was little more than a mud-hut. Here she stopped, and I landed beside her.
“I need answers,” I pressed urgently. “My sister will be worried about me...”
“Come inside,” was her whispered response. I did as she asked, and found myself in a circular room dominated by an aging cauldron. She shrugged off her cloak and laid it on the back of a wooden chair, revealing pointed Kyrii ears and a mane of thick white fur.
“Please take a seat,” the Kyrii said briskly, before doing so herself. I lowered myself onto a carved wooden chair.
“I will answer your questions honestly, child, but please be aware... that you may not like the answer.” A sliver of regret shone in her eyes. ”I can do nothing to change events that have already taken place.”
Panic rose in my chest and I struggled to stay calm. That could mean any number of things, and none of them were good.
“Well... first of all,” I said at last, “How do I get home from here?”
“The way you came.” Well, that wasn’t too bad. During the daylight hours, it might be easier to make a return journey.
“How far is it?”
“Further than you can imagine.” My heart sank like a stone. “This place is not a part of your world. I used magic to bring you here.”
“Then... then how am I going to get back home?” Hot tears welled up in my eyes and trickled down my face. I could be here forever; a loner, a stranger, an outsider--forgotten by all who had once known me.
“Though it pains me to admit it... I do not know.” The Kyrii closed her eyes, as if in silent prayer.
“If you’re really a witch... I mean, uh, if you can do magic... why bring me here, and not to someplace in our world?”
“It is not that simple,” she whispered fiercely, without opening her eyes. “That thing that was chasing us was a supernatural being... perhaps a demon of some kind, perhaps merely an unsettled spirit... nonetheless, no place in the ordinary world is safe from such a beast. Coming here was the only chance we had...”
Silence fell upon us. I took the opportunity to think. It felt as if a piece of the puzzle was missing... as if the Kyrii was keeping something from me. Finally I realised—surely if Elva had been in my world once and returned here, she could get back there again. So what was holding her back?
“Elva,” I began, wondering how to phrase the question. “If you got to my world by magic... and back here again... surely there’s some way to get home?”
“Even if... no, the risk is too great,” said the Kyrii, her voice strained with a note of urgency.
“A being of darkness,” she explained, “will stalk its prey relentlessly. During daylight hours they are confined to the forest and similar places. However, as soon as night falls...”
“Now you know why I brought you here. I’m sorry.”
Everything around me seemed unreal, like a dream reality I had walked into by mistake, and would wake from at any moment. I waited, growing ever more desperate as the moments ticked by, and Elva looked on with regretful sympathy.
“But,” I blurted out, “there must be something...”
“Well...” Elva started hesitantly. “I don’t think you... no,” she said at last. “You’re too young... much too young...”
“For what?” I questioned suspiciously. “Whatever it is, I can do it. I know I can. Katia says I’m strong for my age.”
Elva shot me an agonized look. I could almost hear the gears working in her brain, struggling to reach the right conclusion.
“I’m sorry,” she said at last. “It is much too dangerous... besides which, you need to rest. You have endured much tonight.”
I felt too drained to argue. Taking the rough blanket she gave me, I laid my head down and drifted into light and troubled sleep.
To be continued...