Tribulations of a Quest Sceptic: Part Two
The rest of that afternoon was a bit hazy to Saba. She vaguely recalled assuring Vodi that it would be fine, and arranging to meet him at four by the Money Tree. She somewhat recalled telling her mother that she was heading off to study, and found that in her shock she had even managed to pack a small bag of snacks and supplies. But ultimately, she had no clue why she, the original quest-sceptic, was heading off to Neopia’s most eerie realm in the dead of night, in order to do the bidding of a temperamental Zafara.
I should have said no. Taken back the promise. Geez. Neopets go into those woods and never come back.
She didn’t stop to think about why they never returned. The images she knew would permeate the thin veil of bravery she concealed her fear beneath would be all too much. And ultimately, she knew why she hadn’t said no. Vodi had seemed so sad. So aware of the joke he was to the others. A well-intended joke, perhaps, but none the less, a joke. Someone never to be taken seriously. To mock. Of course clumsy, clumping Vodi wasn’t going to brave the Haunted Woods at midnight. Tomorrow would just be another day of scoffing at his efforts and giggling about the story his cowardice had provided everyone.
She couldn’t let it happen.
As she considered her own ironic situation, Vodi appeared, his big, clumsy feet wheeling wildly as he jogged over. Or, that is, appeared to jog. With a Plushie Jubjub, one was never sure if they were running or falling, or both.
“You’re here!” Vodi sounded genuinely delighted, and, Saba noted, somewhat startled to find her waiting.
“Of course I am. It’s four on the dot, so I was even a little early. Why wouldn’t I be here?”
Vodi looked at her with an expression that clearly displayed what they both knew. There were a million reasons for her not to be here. It wasn’t her quest. She didn’t have any interest in quests. She would have rather been playing with Usuki dolls. It was going to be late and cold. Their parents didn’t know where they were going. The Haunted Woods were eerie at best, dangerous at worst. Saba cleared her throat.
“What matters is that I’m here. Let’s go, the bus leaves soon.
The two friends scampered to the nearby signpost, where a merry, bright yellow bus awaited. The driver, a jovial looking Kacheek, looked them over with some surprise.
“You kids know this is the ride to the Haunted Woods… right?”
Saba nodded, trying to appear casual, as if she was always popping off to enjoy a night of terror and fear.
The driver shrugged, holding out his paw. “Ten Neopoints each, then.”
Saba instantly realized that in the daze and confusion of her preparations, she didn’t even know what she had packed. Dropping to her knees, she quickly sorted through the back she had somehow shoved together.
A hairbrush. Oh, that was going to be helpful.
A jacket. Well, at least she might die of fright, but would do so being warm.
A sandwich. Good. Who wanted to fight evil on an empty stomach?
Four Usukis. Usukis? Was she mad? Sure. They would do the horrible quest in the terrifying location then settle down and play Usukis. Geez!
Still, she couldn’t help reaching down to smooth the hair of the Fair Maiden Usuki Doll, and straighten the askew hat worn by the Captain Rourke one. Maybe they were for little kids, but at least they were fun.
Usuki Dolls never ask you to run off into the woods at night for a quest.
Finally, from the bottom of the bag, she found her purse, dragging it out and handing the fare to the driver, then following Vodi to take her seat. The Jubjub looked at her, puzzled.
“You brought your Usuki Dolls?”
Saba felt her face grow warm with embarrassment. “No! I mean, they were in my bag from something else. You know. Hadn’t taken them out before I left.”
The excuse was feeble at best, but Vodi was too kind to say so. The bus uttered a soft, wheezing sound as it started off, chugging along the road merrily. It ambled over the sprawling, emerald meadows on the outskirts of Neopia Central, past quaint cottages, each decorated with colorful window boxes overflowing with an assortment of summer blooms, jade vines creeping up around the windows, sunlight dappling the painted, shiny doors.
Why did it have to be the Haunted Woods? Couldn’t he have had to do a quest somewhere pleasant?
Vodi seemed lost in deep contemplation, gazing out the window and watching the scenery pass by. Gradually, the welcoming and cozy lights of Neopia central’s little homes gave way to larger and larger expanses of emptiness. The shimmering, azure waters of Kiko Lake flashed by on one side, the afternoon sunlight turning the eternal, flowing waters from cobalt to dappled, ever-changing gold. A little further, another change of scenery; the turrets of Brightvale, tall and proud, sentinels of the regal realm, their banners billowing in the evening breeze.
Saba turned to her friend. Vodi was fixated on the scene outside, watching Brightvale’s castle in awe.
“So it’s just the one quest, right?”
Vodi snapped back to attention, meeting his friend’s gaze with sincere eyes.
“Just the one. But we have to be there at midnight.”
Saba considered this, slowly widening her eyes. A thought dawned upon her.
“How will they know?”
Vodi looked baffled. “Huh?”
Saba spoke slowly, smiling. “How will Kensi and Charlie know what time we went? They won’t be there… As long as you went to Edna…”
Vodi looked shocked, gasping. “Saba! That would be cheating!”
She rolled her eyes. Sometimes there really was such a thing as being too virtuous.
“Vodi. It’s the difference between creeping around the place in the dead of night… Or living. I know which one I prefer.”
Vodi nodded. He looked uneasy, but Saba also noted the slight shimmer of relief filling his eyes. They could see Edna, do one of the silly quests, and get back home. Maybe even in time for a late supper. This wouldn’t be so bad.
To her left, the passing, ivory clouds of Faerieland gave way to a darker, grey haze. Something sinister seemed to drift within the shadows that stretched forth from the reaching, grabbing boughs of emaciated trees. How had it gotten so dark, so quickly?
The bus screeched to a halt, chugging on the spot as the two pets disembarked. Saba lifted her head to thank the driver, but the bus screeched away at a rather alarming speed. He certainly wasn’t eager to linger around the Haunted Woods, was he?
Together, the two friends gazed upon the eerie realm before them. Everywhere, shadows seemed to entwine and dance, mysterious breezes casting the darkness forth, as it might snatch one of them at any time, dragging them away to the cavernous gaps of nothingness between the skeletal branches. A wrought-iron archway, twisting and rusted, decorated the cobbled pathway into the woods. One side leant heavily to the right, almost toppling into the obsidian tangle of bushes and trees. The angle was unnerving, an almost lunatic-slant to the uneven skew it took. Saba swallowed hard. She had known it would be bad… But this… this was horrible.
“You ready?” She had thought this would come out normally; but her voice was clearly up several octaves, her tone trembling a little. Even squinting, she wasn’t able to see more than a few feet ahead of her down that winding, twisted pathway, jutting and turning at odd angles. The darkness beneath the archway made the entire woods seem like the ebony, hopeless depths beyond the maw of some horrible beast.
Vodi looked horrified, and the nod he gave was anything but confident.
“Yeah… Er. So ready. Like… really ready.”
Slowly they advanced, crossing the path under the archway and beginning down the path. Everywhere, small noises made Saba jump. Something scuttling in the undergrowth, rattling and nearing, however nothing ever appeared. Voices whispering and murmuring, speaking in low, strange hissing sounds, but never materializing. Odd, glowing shapes flickering to life in the darkness, miles away, but ever watchful. Glowing orbs, sets of eyes, gazing hungrily through the mist. Worse, sometimes it was just one eye. Sometimes, three. Beside her, the most unnerving sound of all was the terrified chattering of Vodi’s teeth. Desperately, she tried to think of a distraction.
“So… The Air Faerie Usuki comes out tomorrow…”
Really? Was she TRYING to be a social outcast? Honestly!
Vodi looked at her blankly, struggling to form a weak smile. “Oh, hey. That’s great. You must have the biggest collection at school by now…” His voice faltered.
Saba nodded, giving up on conversation. What was the point? Clearly everyone had grown up except for her. She sighed, squinting into the shadowy darkness ahead, trying to find something to focus on. The night seemed to have grown infinitely colder, the wicked wind snatching at their faces, tugging them in this direction or that, as if trying to lead them astray.
“I think it’s left.” Vodi had paused, and was contemplating a fork in the road. “I looked on the map. You know, the one on the wall, in the classroom?”
Saba nodded. She never bothered much with the map, but if Vodi said it was that way, she was willing to go along with it. She certainly had no intention of asking anyone for directions in this place.
“Okay, so we’ll head le….FFFFFFFFFTTTTTTTTT!”
The statement was cut short as her simple comment transitioned into a scream of fright. Perhaps because they had been talking, or perhaps because they were so focused on the fork in the road, neither of them had noticed the thing emerging slowly from the sodden ground behind them. Growing, engorged by hunger, rage and wickedness, it rose until it towered over them, a shapeless, terrifying mass that lurched and swayed, its mouth a gaping, stretching portal to eternal horror as it gaped and groaned in rage.
“FEEEEEEEEEEED MEEEEEEEEEEE NOWWWWWWWWWW JUBBBBBJUBBBBB!”
Saba screamed, scrambling back. Vodi tripped over his oversized feet in panic.
“Did he just say to feed him Jubjub?”
Saba didn’t wait around to discuss the attributes of the Esophagor’s grammatical ability. She pushed Vodi forward, one thought on her mind.
They dove into the darkness of the woods, tripping over roots that seemed to explode from the moist dirt, tangling with old, fallen branches and goodness knew what else. More than once, Saba felt the spiteful slap of a spindly branch in her face as the two of them weaved and dodged past trees and boulders that seemed to materialize from nothing. Vodi hardly managed to keep up, occasionally falling forward on his own, franticly pumping feet and passing Saba in a hysterical, wild tumble.
Can that thing just burst out of the ground anywhere? Is this pointless? Are we going to be eaten? I don’t want it to end like this!
They ran and ran, ignoring what seemed to be hissing laughter, and howling, taunting tempests of wind. They ran until they finally found a clearing, obscured by darkness, but at least not filled with the snatching, snarling tree boughs that so tormented them. Panting and exhausted, both pets dropped to their knees, gasping for air and trembling in fright. Saba couldn’t see an inch in front of her face, but perhaps this was for the best. There was nothing to say that what she might observe would be something that wouldn’t consume her in one ravenous gulp.
Slowly, she caught her breath and stumbled to her feet, shivering. The wind didn’t seem to be blowing here. Rather, everything was still. Vaguely, as her vision adjusted, she was able to make out rocks here and there, or the slight outline of old, rusted fences, but nothing out of the ordinary. She sighed softly, exhaling in relief. In front of her, Vodi was also managing to get to his feet. At least they were alive. Relieved to the point of hysteria, she actually grinned.
“Hey! How was that? We’re still al…” A sound cut the sentence, brutal and sharp. Metal on metal. The ominous finality of a latch clicking into place.
In synchronized terror, the two friends spun around. They must have run through the towering, wrought iron fence and gates without even realizing, blinded by the desire to escape the hungry beast. Clearly, there was no way but forward. Nobody was going to be scaling the cold, steel bars. Saba tried to ignore the persistent fingers of dread that were slowly clutching at her heart.
“Guess we just head over through those rocks, huh? Maybe this is a shortcut.”
Vodi nodded, seemingly relaxing. It was at that moment that everything went so terribly wrong. The breeze returned, tossing the obsidian cloud cover into chaos, shifting the shadow back into the woods from where it crept and casting pallid, sickly light over the scene before them. The rocks that Saba had been able to make out earlier were far more visible now, the nearest one slanting at an odd angle. It had a rounded top, and words etched onto it.
Without wanting to, the Draik leant in, trying to make out the dirt encrusted words. Slowly, as if her tongue had a mind of it’s own, she found herself reading out loud.
“Warning friend, should you pass by,
I bid you, flee in fear.
For Kiko Match, the fallen fun,
Doth find no rest in here.
Slowly, the two friends cast their gazes over the stones.
No. Not stones. Those weren’t stones at all.
This… Was the Game Graveyard.
To be continued…