A Night in the Haunted Woods
Oh no! You knew you shouldn't have fallen asleep in the woods...the Haunted Woods! You stand up and rub your eyes. It is very dark. Night has fallen. Everyone knows the warning not to stay after sunset. Where am I? You look around, nervous and heart thudding. A pair of eyes glow back at you from the distance. Yellow eyes. "Come out!" you say. The eyes blink and you hear a small cackle.
"If you wish", an eerie voice says. A figure steps out from behind the trees. The yellow eyes belong to a cat-like witch, an Acara, in midnight blue robes. She smirks and offers her assistance, introduces herself as Fantor. "You seem lost. I can help."
"How do I find my way out?" you ask.
"Look down. See the thread of red light? Follow it and it will guide you. Beware of what you find along the way!"
You start to ask where the red thread came from, but Fantor disappears before your eyes. Shrugging your shoulders, not surprised anymore at what happens in this place, you take your first step and begin your journey out of the Haunted Woods.
You walk for a while, somehow avoiding danger, so you stop to rest at an old tree. The thread of red light snakes off into the distance. How much further does it go? Suddenly, you hear a loud growl. A beastly blob reaches for you! It’s Esophagor! You run like a scared Meerca, making sure to follow the red thread of light through the trees.
Soon, you come across red lights in the distance. Upon reaching them, you look around and see broken down rides. The game booths are slowly sinking into the ground. You smell candy and other fair foods. After following the delicious scent, feet stepping on the thread, you come upon a small tent. Inside, you find a Bruce in a witch’s hat, surrounded in red light.
"I have been expecting you! My name is Rayne Wonder." Does she know me? "My child, you have been here before!" Can she read my thoughts? "Yes, but I prefer to speak, if you don’t mind."
You laugh nervously and clear your throat. "What do you mean, I've been here before??"
"A spell is fogging your memory. Even so, I always knew that could not keep you from coming back to the Haunted Woods."
"Please, can you uncloud my memory?"
"I will, for a price. I need a few items. Do you accept?"
"Yes, what are the items?"
Rayne smiles. "Mandrake root, salamander tail, a three-eyed toad, blackened mushroom, haunted dirt, and bone dust. Here is a magic bag to place the items in."
You balk. "A few items!? Where can I possibly find them?"
"The items you seek are scattered all around us, my child! You must look through the woods and fairground. Start here. The bone dust you seek is in the circus; the three-eyed toad is also there. With great risk comes a great reward, my child!" The red light in the tent disappears, and with it, Rayne Wonder and the red thread.
After you leave the tent, you realize you forgot to ask who clouded your memory in the first place. You sigh and walk through the midway. The fading lights from the circus are in the distance. Some of the midway booths are falling apart, while others are still left standing. You arrive at the circus. The sign on the tent says The Circus of Dreams. Outside the tent flap there is a seated Lupe in a green and black top hat.
"Who are you?" you ask.
"My name is Barnabus, the circus ringleader. And what, may I ask, are you doing in this part of the woods?" After you tell Barnabus your story, he tilts his head at you. "Well, this circus has been closed for a very long time. When the circus closed, I decided to stay. Since I’m here, might as well do what I can to help you."
"Thank you! Do you know where I could find any of the items Rayne is asking for?"
Barnabus’ eyes twinkle. "Aye, that I do. I know where you can find them- in the big top and in the museum, which is a part of the circus. May I show you around?" You smile and nod your head. Barnabus picks up his cane and tips his hat. "Very well then! Let us begin in the big top! The bone dust is in there." Before stepping inside, he turns to look at you, and whispers. "We have to be on our guard. I’m not sure we are alone in here." You enter the big top and your ears fill with violin music.
Your eyes adjust to the light. In the center of the big top, a skeleton plays the violin. You hold your breath with fright. But it's so dusty in here...you sneeze! The skeleton turns and fixes its eye sockets on you. The sockets begin to glow green as the skeleton dances a spooky jig. With each jump the skeleton moves closer to you. He is upon you! You run and he gives chase. What to do? You turn and look behind you. You stumble and fall! The skeleton fills your vision and you shield yourself with your crossed arms. Dust clouds are everywhere. You sneeze again! The skeleton instantly crumbles under the force of your sneeze. There, on the dirt floor, the skeleton's bones lay in dust. Bone dust! You scoop the white dust up and gingerly place it into the magic bag Rayne Wonder gave you.
Suddenly, you hear a soft voice say thank you. You quickly look up. A Wocky with long red hair stands before you. She introduces herself as Melody. "Thank you! I was trapped in that skeleton after being lost here in the Haunted Woods. Thank you for freeing me!"
"You are very welcome, Melody. Was that you playing the violin and singing?"
"Yes. I was trying to get someone's attention so I could be freed from the skeleton. I can, if I choose, make anyone who listens to my music fall asleep from hearing it."
"I'm glad you didn't make me fall asleep," you chuckle.
"I had a good feeling you would rescue me."
You tell Melody everything you told Barnabus. "Will you join me on my quest for Rayne Wonder’s wanted items? I found the bone dust when I freed you. Now I need mandrake root, haunted dirt, salamander tail, blackened mushroom, and a three-eyed toad. Please help me."
Melody does not waste a moment in deciding. "Of course I will help you! You saved me! Here in my backpack, I actually have mandrake root and salamander tail. I almost donated them to the Money Tree, but something told me to hang on to them. It’s like you and I were meant to cross paths!"
"Thank you, Melody. This helps so much!" You take the items from her and place them in your magic bag. "So Barnabus, you said the other item would be in the museum? Which item?" He doesn’t answer right away and you look and ask again.
Barnabus stares off into the distance, seemingly spooked, haunted, by something. After a while, he whispers, "In the museum, but I’m not going back there."
You reassure him. "It’s okay, Barnabus, Melody will stay here with you." You look at
Melody and she agrees. Waving goodbye until they are out of sight, you head to the museum, alone.
The museum is covered in cobwebs and dust. As you wander through the rooms you spot a painting titled The Haunted Forest. The picture shows Esophagor as a young happy tree. Why is he so different now? The exhibits are from all over Neopia. You come across a room not covered in dust. Rayne is there! She sits in a rocking chair holding the three-eyed toad. A red light surrounds her.
You make eye contact and a force knocks you off your feet! The entire museum quakes and shakes all around you! Suddenly, the room Rayne is in launches backwards into the far distance. A tunnel of darkness connects you. The quaking subsides. Getting up off the floor, you peer into the black. Torches light all at once! Your eyes make out what you are seeing. It’s a maze! You hear Rayne whisper. "Come find me."
You make your first step and fall down a dark Cybunny burrow. Shoot! I should have watched my feet! You get up and dust yourself off. Looking around the burrow, you see a way to climb out. Suddenly, you hear hissing! Orange eyes glow at you! Something fuzzy rubs your ankles. You scream and hightail it for the exit! Clambering out of the burrow, hot breath chasing behind your ears, you swear to watch your step next time.
Glad to make it out alive, you begin to navigate your way through the maze. You don’t know how long you are in there for, but you notice the walls change as you advance. First the walls of the maze look like rooms of the museum, then tunnels of wood and stone, then corridors of ivy, and finally, gnarled and haunted trees! You wonder in amazement. You lose track of time.
You are woken out of your reverie when you suddenly hear demonic screaming all around you! Your heart races. Rayne’s voice fills your mind. "RUN!" Your body instantly obeys. Without thought, you take off, knowing which way to go. Right, left, right, right, left! Behind you, something follows. The feeling of fear intensifies. You freeze! "NO! RUN NOW!" You hear maniacal laughter approaching and you force yourself to fight your fear and obey Rayne. You trust her. Snapping out of your frozen state, you take off! The walls start to change again. From gnarled trees, to corridors, to tunnels, to rooms, and then you are out!
"Ah, so you have found me with the three-eyed toad. Well done, my child! Do you have everything I asked you for?" Catching your breath, too tired to talk, you hand her what you have. "You are still missing some items, tick tock!" The red lights grows brighter. You shut your eyes for a moment against the glow. Once you open them, Rayne is gone! The room is dark again. The three-eyed toad is left on the rocking chair.
You gently pick the frog up and place him inside the magic bag. You wonder why Rayne helped you. Could she get these items all on her own? Maybe she needs someone to do it for her. You feel like something has been watching you from the beginning of this quest. Was it her? You shrug your shoulders and decide to think about it later. Now to find haunted dirt and blackened mushroom. Where to begin?
You step forward and your foot hits something. A book! You pick it up and look at the cover. A Brief History of the Haunted Woods reads the title. Is that the Esophagor on the cover? He keeps popping up everywhere. You flip to the page about the Esophagor and peruse. There is so much you did not know! Or did not remember, if your memory was truly wiped. Apparently, before the Esophagor became a strange beast, he was a happy young tree. This was before the woods became haunted. But something evil soaked into the soil and it turned all the trees. The Esophagor fell victim. It was as if the dirt itself was haunted. "Wait...haunted dirt!" you shout in surprise. Of course! You run like an Ixi for the exit. "Barnabus! Melody! I know where to go!"
You reach the big top. Barnabus and Melody run to you. "Where…!?" says Melody.
"No, I mean, where were you!?"
You look at her, surprised. "I was in the museum. Remember?"
"No, you weren’t. I went back there with Barnabus. We searched and searched. You were not in there!"
Now you are shocked. Where was I if I wasn’t in the museum? You think back to when you were searching through the rooms and maze. Maybe Rayne used magic to guide me. Where was I? Did I travel further into the haunted woods?
You look at Barbabus. He seems shaken. "Barnabus, are you ok?"
"Yes, I’m fine. We searched together. The museum makes me nervous. And I’m not too happy about going to see Esophagor, to tell you the truth."
"We have to help Esphagor. He is the one who can help us!"
Melody touches your shoulder. "I will go with you." She looks at Barnabus. "And what say you, Barnabus? Will you help us?"
Barnabus sighs. "Aye, I reckon I will help ya. Been a while since I had company."
"Come on, then! Let’s go!" You lead the way out of the fairgrounds and back to the Esophagor.
When you arrive back at the Esophagor, he stops growling and starts talking. "I'm Esophagor! Rayne Wonder is a friend of mine. What do you need?" You realize Rayne must have spoken to him after your first close encounter. Barnabus takes a step back. You ask Melody to hold the magic bag.
You walk closer to the Esophagor. "I have read the tale of the haunted dirt. If I remove some, can it help return you to the way you were?"
Esophagor thinks for a few moments before speaking. "I turned a long time ago. There is no telling if removing some earth would help. My now cold heart tells me it would take a stronger magic to turn me back to the way I was. You are welcome to try."
You stoop down and take some haunted dirt in your hand from around where Esophagor sits. Barnabus shouts, "Look at Esaphagor! He is glowing!"
You quickly look up. The Esophagor is indeed glowing! He looks at you and smiles. "Thank you! I feel my heartbeat for the first time in ages. I am not completely restored to the way I used to be, but I feel wonderful. Maybe we are not meant to go back to the way we were."
Melody suddenly pipes up. "Esophagor, this great change of yours may still help the Haunted Woods to return to what it used to be. That might still come to pass."
Esophagor smiles. "You may be right, young one. Take this haunted dirt with you and it will help you on your journey."
You open the magic bag and gently place the haunted dirt inside. "Thank you, Esophagor." You turn to Melody and Barnabus. "Let’s go back to the midway in the fairgrounds and look for Rayne. She may be able to help us find the final item, the blackened mushroom."
You all wave goodbye to Esophagor as you make your way back to the deserted fairgrounds. When you arrive, you make your way to the tent where you first found Rayne Wonder. But, instead of a tent, you find a coffee shop in its place. You look through the glass windows. A golden Eyrie is the only one in there. You cautiously enter the coffee shop.
"Have you seen a Bruce in a witch’s hat?" you ask the golden Eyrie.
He looks at you sideways and sniffs. "Nope, just me. Name’s Arbatros. Want coffee?"
To be continued…