Senhal's Spooky NeoQuest Story
SPOILER ALERT: This story discusses plot details from NeoQuest and NeoQuest II.
Pystry the Mutant Hissi stoked the campfire. With a loud pop and a crack the flames leapt up, briefly illuminating the happy faces of the shivering young campers. The Month of Collecting marked the end of summer, and the chilly night air promised beautiful clear skies above the outskirts of Neopia Central. Many of these young Neopets had never traveled outside the big city, or seen the stars away from city lights, let alone had the chance to view a meteor shower. Pystry and his oldest friend, a Plushie Kyrii named Senhal, had been only too glad to agree to chaperone.
A stray spark arced outside the circle of stones surrounding the fire. Senhal knelt down to blow out the dying ember. "C'mon, kids, we've got to stay awake a little longer. You don't want to miss the meteors, do you?" cajoled the Kyrii, swishing his mane with a casual toss of his head.
"We can always make s'mores," suggested Pystry. "I'll just have to fly down to base camp to fetch the chocolate. Can you handle the kids in the meantime?" Pystry loved Senhal dearly; the Kyrii had a quick mind and a flair for improvisation, but could also be a little flighty and random at times. Sometimes it seemed like Senhal had a thousand fragmented personalities, each fighting to get out.
"You had chocolate and you didn't tell me?" gasped Senhal with a look of shock. Pystry gave a double smirk at his friend's histrionics. "Well, go on, hurry up," continued the Kyrii. "We'll find something to do." Senhal looked around the circle of campers, watching the firelight flicker across their faces. "I know! Let's tell some ghost stories to get us in the mood for s'mores."
"There's nothing scary about s'mores!" complained a precocious young Usul.
"Yes, there is!" piped a Mallow Grundo. "I think they're creepy!"
"There's lots of creepy food around here," whispered Senhal. "They say the Space Faerie likes to drop all sorts of gross foods in these meadows." Several of the young ones looked up, half expecting Asparagus Yogurts to land on their heads. "Truth is, it's not the Space Faerie at all. I'm not supposed to tell you this..."
The children immediately leaned in, some eyes widening, some skeptical. "What?" they cried.
"Oh, I really shouldn't say. You may not be old enough to handle the terrible, terrible truth."
"No!" "We are so!"
"Well... all right. But this is a deep, dark secret." Senhal's voice dropped, and the air seemed to grow ever chillier. The children huddled closer to the ebbing fire.
"You've all played NeoQuest, right?" The children nodded in assent. "Adults will try to tell you that it's just a game. Well, it's a game, all right, but not just a game. It really happened. Neopia City? That eventually became Neopia Central. Count Von Roo's castle was built on the ruins of the ancient Temple of Roo. And there really was a Dank Cave just outside Swamp Edge City... right over there." Senhal gestured quietly towards the glaciers west of the city that separated Neopia Central from Shenkuu. "Back in the day, the glaciers hadn't frozen, and that whole area was a marsh. But I'm getting off-track."
Senhal's golden button eyes seemed to stare through the fire, through the children, through time itself, as he recounted the ancient tale.
Remember in the first part of NeoQuest, how you meet Rikti the Korbat just inside the Dank Cave? Rikti was real. Rikti had a tough childhood, full of stress. His father wasn't around much, and his mother expected Rikti to take his dad's place on the farm. It was a lot of responsibility for a young Korbat to shoulder, and he never felt as though he'd filled his father's shoes, or made his mother proud.
Monsters arose in the land. Even regular critters grew aggressive and belligerent, and threatened the townsfolk. Rikti took up arms, what feeble weapons he had available, and defended his home. Over and over, in a seemingly endless series of battles, he journeyed further into the countryside. At each turn he had to decide whether the monsters' loot was worth having, whether it was wiser to flee and permit the monster to pass, or to attack and dispense with the foul beast. As dangerous as it was, he had never felt more truly himself than when adventuring, away from his burdensome home environment. Being an adventurer, vanquishing danger, and collecting gold gave him a deep sense of pride and of purpose. Sometimes he felt the reassuring cycle of battles was the only thing keeping him sane.
But adventuring couldn't make Rikti truly free from all his cares. Beyond his duty to himself and to his family, he was a loyal citizen of Neopia City. The good people of the city understandably looked to Town Hall in their time of trouble, and while the city government did help alleviate the monster problem by hiring more sentinels, they had to increase taxes to pay for them. Rikti had accumulated a small amount of wealth from his adventures, but not enough to keep up with the new state taxes. Once again taking on the burden of being the man of the house, he clenched his jaw and resolved to venture forth into the wildlands in search of stronger foes with greater treasures.
Eventually he found the cave entrance, its ominous maw gaping as though the earth itself were screaming in pain. Rikti struggled valiantly against the fierce monsters that guarded the cave, who stopped at nothing to prevent him from proceeding. His temples throbbed, and the closer he got, the more the fur stood up on the back of his neck. He tried, unsuccessfully, to shake off the dull buzzing inside his head, the same fuzzy ache he felt when lightning struck too near. But the monsters outside had worn him down too much for him to fight his way back to town. He had to risk the cave, and hope for a refreshing sip of water or at least a safe place to rest.
The inside of the cave was dark, much darker than he had predicted. The air was cool and humid, filled with a thousand slow, tiny drips as mineral-laden condensation pooled on the cave roof and fell, one droplet at a time, to form stalactites and stalagmites. The electric buzzing in his head interfered with his natural echolocation, leaving him doubly blind. Carefully he felt his way forward, one step at a time, the wet floor soaking his little Korbat feet. As he breathed in the dank air, he feared he might catch pneumonia if he didn't find a way to warm himself soon.
Something was wrong, terribly wrong. Rikti could feel it. This cave wasn't just cold and wet. Somehow, with each step, Rikti felt his energy being sapped away, and his mood plummeted from content all the way down to depressed. His feet dragged, weighed down as though trudging through wet clay, until he stopped dead in his tracks, unable to move. The static in his head pulsed, sounding almost like – laughter?
"Am I going insane?" wondered the Korbat.
If only you were, boomed a hollow voice that seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at once. Insanity will set me free. But your fear will do for a start.
"Why can't I see you?" chirped the Korbat, trying to keep his voice steady.
I am far below. I have frozen you where you stand, because you must not proceed. You must not know my face. Even a glimpse would snap your frail spirit. And I need you alive, little Neopet, for I am so terribly hungry.
Despite his paralysis, Rikti trembled. "Who are you?"
The voice inside his head exploded with the angry heat of a thousand suns. For one excruciating moment, Rikti felt the simultaneous, impossible anguish of being simultaneously frozen and burnt.
Who am I? Who am I? Look at me; who am I?
Suddenly a myriad of images flashed before Rikti's mind's eye, like pictures from role-playing cards: a power-hungry Elephante Mage, a lavender Faerie Queen, his own shivering body huddled in a blue cave, a tall green goblin with a sinister black robe, a gentle Usul child offering an apple to a monstrous feral Korbat, a Speckled Xweetok grinning evilly as a flaming castle crashed from the sky behind her... Rikti's mind reeled within his trapped body, unable to move, unable to look away, unable to process the bizarre scenes before him.
"Stop! Stop!" he sobbed. Mercifully, the visual assault subsided. "Let me go!"
Already you are overwhelmed, although you were strong enough to enter the cave, and young enough to be resilient, mocked the voice. I lured the monsters outside the cave to ensure that only a warrior with indomitable courage would enter. You have enough spirit that I may feast on your fear without consuming you entirely. You may be my only sustenance for some time, so I'll simply have to make you last.
Senhal looked around the campfire, relishing children's looks of delighted fear. But the young Usul girl would not be convinced.
"That's Xantan, you're talking about Xantan – "
"Shh!" rasped Senhal with alarm. "Don't say that name! He'll hear you!"
The Usul raised an eyebrow, and went on. "I've played NeoQuest plenty. You defeat Xantan in the very first part of the game. He's not even all that tough!"
"Oh, isn't he?" whispered Senhal. He held his paws to his face, covering his eyes, and shook his head. "Don't you remember that he comes back at the end of the game, stronger than ever? But I haven't yet told you the worst part, the deepest secret." Senhal blinked him eyes open, revealing his Kaleidoscopic Contacts. The children (even the Usul) gasped in appreciation.
"How was it that the Evil One was able to control poor Rikti?"
"Magic!" cried a tiny Woodland Aisha, clutching his pale blue blanket close.
Senhal smiled. "No, not magic, Xylo. Technology. You've forgotten about NeoQuest II."
"I know!" interrupted the Usul. "It turns out the whole adventure is just a computer simulation, and Rohane and the others have to wake up before their spaceship flies into the sun."
"Dungsticks!" swore the Mallow Grundo. "Spoiler alert much? Not all of us have played both games!"
"Here's a real spoiler for you," hissed Senhal. "NeoQuest II? It's real too."
"So what if it were?" scoffed the Usul.
"Who do you think trapped Rohane in the simulation?"
"Xant... The Evil One?" squeaked a Speckled Kougra lad.
"That's right. Why couldn't Rikti move? Because the cave itself was a simulation."
The children's eyes widened.
"The hero of NeoQuest really did vanquish Xantan Reborn," continued Senhal.
"I thought you said not to say his name!" complained the Usul.
"Hush, girl! The hero really did vanquish the Evil One, but made a fundamental error. No one could truly destroy him, not with swords or spells, anyway. Instead, he was trapped again, this time under the great glacier." Senhal glanced meaningfully towards the ice-covered mountains to the west. "But with his alien technology, he still exerts a powerful control over us all."
The Usul lifted her paws, palms forward. "Wait a minute," she said. "Since when is Xantan an alien?"
"How else did he have such advanced technology?"
The Usul frowned. "You're just making this up."
"Am not. Anyway, here's the deepest, darkest secret. It's not just NeoQuest that's a game. All of Neopia is just a giant game, filled with lots of smaller games to distract you from the horrible, horrible truth."
The Mallow Grundo let out a tiny squeak.
"Your whole lives are nothing but a computer simulation. You think you're pets, belonging to kind owners who feed you and play with you. But that's not what you really are. Each one of you is a role adopted by a being from a faraway planet. Your true self is sitting in front of a screen somewhere, willingly choosing to forget their true identity for a while."
The Usul shook her head. "Even if that were possible – "
"Doesn't it explain a lot? Where do new Neopets come from?" The children looked at one another, hoping someone had the answer. "Your bodies – which are in reality just collections of tiny pixels – get assembled at the Evil One's secret moon base, the Kreludan Mining Corp. That's why it's guarded by the S750 Defender bot. Have you ever visited the Meteor Site on Kreludor? Meteor Crash Site 725-XZ?"
The children nodded.
"Didn't you ever wonder why meteors would carry food, like Space Tots and Tenta Biscuits? They're for the newly created Neopets."
"You get plants from the meteor, too," challenged the Usul.
"Terraforming, of course," replied Senhal with conviction. "Even if it never works on Kreludor because there's no air or water. But you're ignoring the most obvious part. Look at the meteor. Doesn't it look like it's got a face? And how is it that meteors can just disappear like they do at the crash site? That's where newly created Neopets actually come from. Each meteor is actually a Neopet essence, converted by the Evil One's technology into a meteor to survive the voyage through space from your real body's home planet. If there's any food left over, Neopets like you grab it daily, but one way or another, the meteor vanishes."
"Oh, get real," said the Usul. "What does Xantan have to do with any of this?"
"What do you think the 'X' in 725-XZ stands for?"
The Usul sighed, exasperated. "Why don't we remember any of this?"
"Do you remember your very first memories?" Senhal retorted. The Usul glared, but remained silent. "The meteor is spirited away to the Mining Corp., where it's given a new electronic body and your old memories are erased. The whole experience is so traumatic you probably would bury the memory anyway."
"This is just... insane!" sputtered the Usul as the other children quavered, imagining the mephitic machinations lurking beneath the lunar surface. "If all of Neopia was an illusion Xantan created, how could he be trapped himself!"
"Insane, is it? Or is it the most sane thing you've ever heard?" smiled Senhal. "The Evil One is trapped because he fell victim to his own illusion. It was so convincing he eventually came to believe in it himself. Why are you so afraid to admit the truth, little Usul? Are you afraid you'll wake up, slumped over a computer keyboard, and see the whole world of Neopia on a computer screen in front of you? Maybe your real self has been goofing around playing instead of doing your homework?" Senhal stared her down.
The Usul crossed her arms, and looked away, unable to stare back into Senhal's dizzying kaleidoscopic pupils.
"You want evidence? It's all around you. Sometimes the new Neopet body doesn't get formed completely. That's where Sketch and 8-bit pets come from."
The children swiveled, turning to stare at the one Sketch pet at the campfire, a shy Uni named Floof, who suddenly wished she were Pink, or Invisible, or both.
"Sketch pets come from magic paintbrushes, and 8-bit comes from the Lab Ray," the Usul protested.
Senhal's velveteen ears pricked up as he heard a rustling in the bushes behind him. "And Mutant Hissis? Sometimes two meteors land at once. But the robots at the Mining Corp. aren't that bright, and they shove two beings into a single body. Sometimes, one of those conjoined beings is so desperate to be free, it will latch on to an unsuspecting pet... and eat their soul just to get its own body. But first, it feeds them sweets laced with a potion to knock them out."
Just then, Pystry burst into view, laden with snacks. "I've got chocolate! Who's up for s'mores?"
The campsite erupted with the sounds of children laughing and screaming. Pystry was puzzled, but even without understanding what had happened, was confident he knew the cause. With two wry smiles, he looked pointedly at the Kyrii, who was innocently grooming his mane. "I can't leave you anywhere without you causing an incident, can I?"
Senhal took a bow as the children swarmed Pystry for chocolate. "Seems like a win-win situation to me!" grinned the Kyrii.
High above, a lone meteor flared across the sky.