The Ancient Tree
Tristin, a camouflage Wocky, Aletia, a Royalgirl Cybunny, Selena, a pink Kougra, Jack, a Darigan Lupe, and I, a pirate Draik, sat around a campfire, the eerie firelight illuminating our grim faces. It was a dark Friday night in Neopia, and we sat around the campfire, trading scary stories. We’d rather do this than go play games or spin a wheel like the rest of the neopets who were now bustling through Neopia.
“...And she disappeared,” Tristin finished, smirking cockily. “How was that?”
“Oh, please,” I scoffed. “That barely made my scales crawl.”
“Like I’m so scared,” Selena joked, agreeing with me. She had been my best friend since my first day in Neopia, our comradeship not wavering for the whole of my seven years. We smiled at each other. Selena turned to Aletia. “What did you think?”
She didn’t answer. The small royalgirl Cybunny was scared out of her wits; you could tell plainly from her wide eyes. This was no surprise to us, as she was just a newbie to the Storytelling experience. It had started six years ago when Jack, Tristin, Selena, and I got together to find something better to do on Friday nights. And so our Friday Storytelling came to be.
Jack didn’t speak either, but we all knew he wasn’t scared. He, in fact, was the one who started this. He didn’t comment on any of the stories, he just sat there, deeply in thought.
“Whose turn is it?” I asked, looking at all the members of our circle.
“Mine,” Jack stated. “Ready?”
We all nodded.
“There is a legend,” Jack started, “of a tree so ancient that it has the whole history of Neopia on its bark. It was called the Ancient Tree. Now—”
“Isn’t that what the Neopedia is for?” Tristin asked.
“Or the Brain Tree?” Selena jeered.
“Don’t interrupt!” he growled. “It has things on it that aren’t even known by the Neopedia or the Brain Tree. Now, as I was saying, there was once a Buzz who seemed to know everything. His favorite book was the Neopedia. He was always reading. He read a new book like you eat—”
“Just get on with the story,” I interrupted. “We get the point—he likes to read.”
“Fine, fine,” Jack obliged, beaming. “So his friend told him about the Ancient Tree. The tree was in the Haunted Woods, the woods right next to us. They say that anyone who read it would be all-knowing. But knowledge had its risks. The tree was guarded by an equally ancient dark faerie, Milistyl.
“Despite the danger, the Buzz went in the Haunted Woods to look for the fabled tree. He was never seen again.”
We were silent, not speaking, barely even breathing. We weren’t scared, except for Aletia, who was shaking. What made it so quiet was the realization that knowledge came with a price. No one could be all-knowing.
“So this is what I propose,” Jack said, breaking the silence. “I dare someone to go in the woods to look for the Ancient Tree.
“Go in the Haunted Woods? At night? Are you crazy?” Tristin asked, looking warily at his friend. “And it’s guarded by a dark faerie.” He shook his head, not believing that anyone could make such a proposition.
“And how would we prove it, anyway?” Selena sneered.
“You just break a branch off!” Jack protested, as if it was obvious. “And if you go in there and get a branch, I’ll go do one of J-Jhudora’s q-quests.”
We snickered. Despite how tough he seemed to be, he was scared to death of Jhudora. Even saying her name made his voice quiver. I couldn’t pass this up.
“You’re on,” I challenged. Everyone looked at me like I was insane. Huh. Maybe I was. But seeing Jack go do one of Jhudora’s quests was too good to pass up.
“Great,” Jack accepted, grinning, oblivious to the looks everyone was giving him. “Be back by midnight. Here’s a lantern.” He handed me a black lantern, which glowed eerily.
As I began to enter the Haunted Woods, Selena cried, her voice filled with terror and shaking, “Artimis! You don’t have to do this!” She looked at me, her eyes boring into mine, begging me not to go.
I smiled warmly. “Don’t worry,” I assured her, my voice honey-sweet. “I’ll be fine.”
And with that, I melted into the ink blackness of the Haunted Woods, searching for something that might not even be real.
“Oh, for Fyora’s sake!” I groaned as another wet leaf caught in my scales. I had been hiking in the Haunted Woods for at least an hour and it seemed that I was a magnet for leaves, as I was covered head to toe in them. It would be a pain trying to coax the wet leaves out later.
If there was a later.
I shivered as the freezing wind blew through the woods, its howl ominous and eerie. I should have brought a thicker coat, I thought as I rubbed my hands together in a pitiful attempt to warm myself.
Suddenly, a howl split the air. Normally, this wouldn’t bother me, as I had heard it countless times splitting through the night in an effort to scare me. But this time it was close. Werelupes.
I froze the howling grew louder and ever closer, making my scales crawl. I screamed at my legs to run, but they wouldn’t listen. I stood there, waiting bait.
The howling stopped abruptly. I knew what was happening now. They were prowling through the dark forest, cutting through the underbrush. They were slowly coming forward, silently rejoicing that they found a sucker like me walking through the Haunted Woods at night...
I immediately broke into a run, thanking my legs for finally listening to me. The Werelupes broke the still night air with their pounding footsteps and incoherent barks.
Pushing through the twigs, I ran, twigs breaking underfoot. My lungs burned and my feet ached with every step, but I kept running. Somewhere in between all this, the barks and footsteps stopped, but I didn’t notice, choosing to run from the unseen and the unheard of the fear that lurked in my thoughts.
Must keep going... Must keep going... Keep going... Keep—
My legs gave out beneath me, causing me to fall to the ground amid the wet boadaisies and spiky frail twigs. I have to get up! I thought to myself as I struggled in vain to escape the crushing force that weighted down my legs.
I looked around, feeling blind as I groped for my lantern, pushing my eyepiece up so I could see with two eyes rather than with one. When I finally found it, turning it on, I groaned.
A tree limb had fallen on me, pinning my legs to the ground. How had I not noticed that? Heard the cracking of the branch as it fell down upon me? Well, I thought, at least it didn’t hit me in the head. I groaned again. I was so horrible with optimism; I couldn’t convince anyone with it, not even myself.
As I tried to lift the large tree limb, I looked closer at it. It had something scribbled on it... I lifted it and brought it closer to my face in an attempt to see through the weak light the lantern provided.
The scribbles were words.
I quickly broke off a piece of wood from the branch, jumping up in the same action. I need to get out of here before the dark faeries catch—
“What are you doing, darling?” a high-pitched voice asked from the shadows, its voice alight with curiosity, wonder, and something else... Was it malice?
...me. “Oh, nothing,” I replied merrily, my voice sweet as honey.
“I think you’re doing something,” she accused, stepping out from the gloom of the Haunted Woods trees. The weak light from my lantern illuminated her hair, which shone mauve through the feeble moonlight that filtered though the trees. Her dress and gloves were dark lavender and old-styled, the hem so long that it made a train that disappeared into the darkness of the woods, showing that she was ancient, letting me identify her as Milistyl. Despite the kind smile on her face, her eyes were dark and full of malice. I shuddered, hoping that I wasn’t the object of her malevolence.
“Just put that wood down,” she continued, “and forget... forget... forget...”
That sounds nice, I thought through the sudden haze that clouded my mind, blocking my thoughts and emotions, making me feel only happiness at complying with her demand.
I began to put down the branch slowly.
As I put down the branch, I read the writing inscribed upon it: Remember the...
All my memories came back in a surge. The story, the proposition, my acceptance, the Werelupes... My memories all came back in a burst of intuition.
When I realized what I was doing, I froze for a second. I shouldn’t be putting it down. Isn’t it what I came here for? I shouldn’t give it back. I wouldn’t give it back. No. No! No!
But I couldn’t anger the dark faerie. The consequences... I trembled. How unpleasant. But what if I... I hatched a plan, hoping Milistyl would be too concentrated on her magic to notice.
Continuing in the same dreamy stupor, I subtly broke off a twig and put in my pocket. Putting down the piece of wood, I stepped into the darkness of the Haunted Woods, escaping from the malicious dark faerie.
“Good bye, sweetling!” Milistyl called after me, her cackle echoing into the night.
“Oh, goodness!” Selena exclaimed, giving me a bone-crushing hug, but drawing back slightly when she felt the wet leaves all over me. My reward for stumbling back though the Haunted Woods at night. “I thought you were as good as gone!”
“I’m glad you didn’t get lost,” Aletia murmured shyly, her cheeks blushing a lovely crimson.
“Yeah, Artimis!” Tristin said, clapping me on the back. “I thought you might not make it out of there!”
I smirked. “Did you really think so little of me?”
Tristin grinned. “If any neopet could stick it out in the Haunted Woods at night, it’s you.”
“Yeah, yeah, we’re all happy she’s back, but did she stay true to her word?” Jack questioned smugly, holding out his hand, his Lupe features twisted into a leer.
“See this,” I proposed, grinning conceitedly, putting the tree in his outstretched paw. It was highly satisfying to see his jaw drop in astonishment.
“This... means... I... have to... do... one of... J-Jhudora’s quests!” he moaned, his eyes mirroring the fear he felt.
“That’s right, buddy.” I beamed. “Let’s go.” I pushed him towards the path.
“Noooo,” he groaned again. We all laughed.