The Tree of Everlasting Meeples
Art by ssjelitegirl
That day was like all the previous days: sunny, warm, cloudless and very, very boring. A small pirate ship ploughed the waves somewhere near Lost Desert, being the only vessel in sight. Everything was quiet on the deck; plain sailing doesn't take much effort. The pirates had escaped to the cooler depths of the ship, and so a bunch of stowaways had used the chance to escape to the deck from the same cooler depths, which, as it was a pirate ship, could get incredibly smelly.
They were Meepits, a relatively small, peaceful, leaderless gang of about two dozen little petpets, having formed the group for different reasons – one of the main reasons being, as it so often happens with petpets, the fact that it’s easier to find food as a group – but at that moment all being in a similar mood: incredibly grumpy.
"Why us?" complained Bob “Squeaky”, a short and chubby little Meepit, glaring at the universe in general. "Why always us? I mean, t’was going so nicely. One’d think that curling up in a crate of cloth for one single doggone night wouldn’t turn into a problem, would it? And then they decide to load it on a ship that’s apparently steered by someone who wouldn’t know an astrolabe if it fell on his head.”
"Luckily they also don’t know how to guard their food," said Joe the Chef, dragging a steaming pot over the deck. The Meepits trotted closer and dove in. The stew made them feel a little better, but they were still grumpy. The air was thick with tension; it was one of those moments when all it took was someone smashing a bottle against the counter to start a fight. Or, as they were Meepits, looking at someone else a funny way.
Well, excluding one of them.
"Justice!" barked Bob. The little female looked up from the shade of the mast, where she was reading a book almost as big as she was. "Why d'you always read that junk?"
Anyone else in the gang would've turned into a flurry of fangs over that provocation, but Justice simply half-grunted, half-grinned. "Because it's interesting. Did you know that somewhere in the depths of the Haunted Woods, there's a tree that grows everlasting apples?"
The Meepits blinked.
"Those things cost a fortune," said Bloody Mary, sidling closer. The Meepits didn’t have a leader, per se, but when it came to formalities – like the need for someone to yell “Charge!” or “Run!” – then this little petpet filled in the spot. "If something like that grew openly in the woods, all Neopians would be rich by now. You know them; you could set a whole forest of Savage Sycamore trees around something valuable, and they’d be mobbed and turned into toothpicks before you can say “ouch”.”
"Not simple everlasting apples," said Justice, getting up. "They're the Everlasting Meeples."
The Meepits blinked again.
"Never heard," said Joe.
The female grunted. "Have you guys been living in a sack? Meeples are Meepit apples. Only visible to Meepits. And Everlasting Meeples, well, we'd never run out of apples ever again."
The gang gazed at her with hazy eyes. Meepits like apples. A lot. Asking a Meepit “Give me your apple” is considered the worst possible insult, next to “Your apple stew stinks”.
"I say we go find that tree," stated Bob.
"Doesn't say where it grows." Justice squinted into the book. "Only something about "the realm of unknown and unimaginable horrors" but you know how writers like to exaggerate."
The Meepits looked at each other.
"Sloth’s underwear drawer?" Bloody Mary's brow furrowed. "I don't think anything grows there."
Bob opened his mouth, then closed it again.
Justice shut the book. "Well, the coast of the Haunted Woods is coming up in an hour or so, so I say we go and have a look around. Floating to the shore on a plank or something shouldn’t be hard, and when all else fails, we can always ask that Sophie witch. She’s a local, she should know.”
Getting to the shore was easy enough as the gang had become pretty good at creating makeshift boats and paddles over the time, and a somewhat eventless journey later there was loud knocking to be heard right past the outskirts of Neovia, in the looming shadow of Sophie’s shack.
"Excuuuuse me!" bellowed Bloody Mary, slamming against the door. "Miss witch person, you in there?"
The door squeaked in protest when it was flung open in righteous fury of the green Ixi, who glared at the empty woods in a moment of vague confusion, then turned to look down.
"What?" she grunted.
"Sorry to interrupt and such," said Bloody Mary, climbing out of a nearby bush and strolling closer, his pace somewhat wonky, "but could either of you tell us where to find the tree of Everlasting Meeples?"
The witch scowled. "The what?"
Sophie’s scowl showed no signs of mellowing. "And I'm supposed to know where that tree is?"
"Well, you are the witch of these woods."
"And a green Ixi," said the witch. "Not, and I'd like to emphasize this part, a Meepit. In other words, I haven't seen that tree." She scratched her forehead. "Though if it's supposed to be in a place of unspeakable and unimaginable horrors..."
"We don't think it's the underwear drawer," said Justice.
The Ixi stopped, looking confused. "In that case I have no clue. Unless you wish to investigate the path on the other side of the town, past the asylum. It’s pretty much unused these days, but there used to be large colonies of Meepits back there when I was a kid, so you might have a chance there."
A short while later the small gang was marching down the path that led to, well, pretty much complete darkness. The trees were thicker and more ominous-looking here, something rattled in the bushes every once in a while, shadows were darker and deeper, there was barely any sunshine as the treetops got thicker, and the whole place radiated a sort of grim, sulky, hopeless, deserted feeling of times long gone and souls who would never return to this forgotten pathway.
"Aaaand it’s a happy-happy world, a happy-happy-happy world, the happy-happy-happy world of a meeee-pit...”
The Meepits glared at Santa.
"I was just trying to lighten the mood," explained the little female.
"Not exactly the best choice of music," grunted Bloody Mary, tactfully skipping the fact that Santa's singing voice brought to mind the words “room for improvement, preferably with a heavy object”.
"How 'bout “Ten Shiny Little Apples” then?”
"”Squeakin’ on a Rainbow”?" Meepit music repertoire is bigger than people think.
"”Where the Twisted Roses Grow”, then?"
Bloody Mary, whose brain couldn't fit the words “Santa” and “punkrock” in the same thought, said nothing.
"It's getting real dark there," said Justice, peering at the path that disappeared into the shadows a few hundred yards ahead. "Do we have any light?"
"We could set Santa on fire," suggested Bob. The idea was, somewhat grudgingly, rejected.
"Or we could break a stick from one of those trees and set that on fire," said Joe.
They peered at the trees, which seemed to peer back. That idea was rejected as well.
"Or we could follow our noses and hope that the tree radiates a sort of magical light," Santa said cheerily.
They pondered that.
"With a mystical-choir-kinda music and stuff?" asked Bob. Santa nodded.
They pondered that. It was probable. Very probable. It was practically the compulsory addition to magical items.
"Fine then," said Bloody Mary, starting off again. "But if it doesn't radiate any light, then I'm sending a complaint to the local leader of the Meepits."
"Why him?" The Meepits were relying more on their noses and less on their eyes now. The shadows were really dark.
"Because the Meepits rule the Haunted Woods. If I were the big boss of the Meepits who rule the Haunted Woods, I'd make sure that all my magical meeple trees are well-pruned and constantly surrounded by a magical glow and that choir thingy had better not get a throat disease either."
They marched on, digesting that statement for a while.
"If I were the local boss of the Woods," Bob said thoughtfully, "I probably wouldn't give a darn what a gang of foreign Meepits tells me to do."
"Then you wouldn't be smart enough to be the local leader," remarked Justice. The others nodded. “And what’s the deal about Meepits ruling the Woods anyway? Never heard of that.”
“You haven’t?” Bloody Mary’s voice was dripping with cynicism. “Lucky. If I had an apple for every time I’ve heard ‘eep, an evil little Meepit, don’t eat me!’, I’d have... many apples. And they don’t even give you food so that you’d leave ‘em alone, I mean, if they did, I wouldn’t complain, but they either run away or attempt to catch you and sell you on the Trading Post for, how much are we worth again?”
“Couple o’ millions,” Justice said absently.
The gang digested that.
“That’s a lot of apples,” muttered Santa.
They peered at each other.
“Why are we worth that much again?” asked Bloody Mary.
“’Cos we’re rare,” said Joe.
“Funny, I’ve been seeing way too many Meepits around me lately,” grumbled the more-or-less-leader.
“So we’re not rare?” asked Santa.
“For each other, no. Unfortunately.”
“So we can’t sell ourselves for millions?”
Bloody Mary scowled. Santa’s approach to economics could make a merciless plushie tycoon cry like a little Usul. “Technically, no.”
“Oh. Too bad.”
They marched on.
It was completely dark now, and the Meepits' other senses instantly sharpened. There were sounds, rattles and whispers and laughter and whimpers, emerging from the very dawn of the Haunted Woods that had stayed the same over the years. There were smells, faint touches of Meepit dung mixed with feathers, dried blood and rotten bones, occasional single socks (which can be found anywhere in the universe, like Lawyerbots) and a lot of moss.
"I don't see any magical glowing," muttered Bob in the darkness.
“Maybe they switch it off for the night to save magic?” Joe muttered back.
“It ain’t nighttime right now.”
”Down here, it is.”
They were huddled more closely now, trotting through the darkness, smelling their way and straining their eyes to pick up “a stupid little glowy bush of some stupid buncha rotten apples” as Bloody Mary had come to call it.
“Now can I sing?” Santa’s voice echoed through the dark.
“Not even a little?”
“I can see a glow.”
“Something’s glowing over there,” Santa repeated, hurrying forward. “Hello? Meeple tree? Hey, don’t run away!”
A bluish glow moved somewhere behind the trees, seemingly away from the little gang, which had regained its energy at once and dashed off through the bushes to pursue the light.
“I don’t smell anything,” snorted Bob as he ran. “No apples.”
“Maybe they fell off as it ran?” Bloody Mary grumbled. “No wonder they’re so rare. Respectable trees should really spend their time standing quietly and growing apples instead of running through the woods. Guys, surround it.”
The team, having practiced such occasions more often than not, spread out and in the matter of seconds the glow was surrounded. It stopped, stared around with two bright red orbs that definitely weren’t apples, and squeaked.
“A Meepit,” Joe said sharply, taking a step closer. “A doggone ghost Meepit.”
“Maybe it’s a meeple tree with the shape of a Meepit?” Santa asked, sidling closer as well.
The gang glared at her.
“Come on, it’s a possibility. It’s a magical meeple tree after all.”
Bloody Mary stepped up to the ghost Meepit, who turned to gaze at him. “Hey, you. Are you an apple tree, perchance?”
The ghost Meepit squeaked.
“Was that a yes or no?” muttered Bob.
“I think it was a squeak,” grumbled Justice, her voice somewhat surprised. Meepits didn’t squeak, at least to each other. They talked. To Neopets, it may have sounded like squeaking, but those didn’t count.
“Have you seen any magical apple trees nearby?” Bloody Mary carried on.
“Glowy ones,” Santa added helpfully. “With mystical music and all.”
The ghost Meepit looked from one beady-eyed face from another, then squeaked.
“Can you lead us to it?” Justice asked for good measure. The ghost looked at her, then squeaked and turned around, starting off through the woods. The gang followed it, feeling a bit uneasy.
“Come to think of it, we just chased you through the woods and surrounded you, you don’t have much of a reason to help us,” Bloody Mary said grimly.
The ghost Meepit squeaked.
“Would it help if I said that we mean no harm?”
The ghost squeaked again.
“Yeah, we just want all your apples,” grunted Bob, earning a glare from the technically-boss. The ghost Meepit stopped, turned around to give Bob an intense stare, then squeaked and stepped aside, revealing a small clearing.
The group gazed at it.
“Wow, it does glow,” muttered Justice.
“I don’t hear anything, though,” said Bloody Mary. The ghost Meepit shot a glance at him and then helpfully gave a long ‘squeeeeeaaak’.
The gang advanced. It was a small tree, roughly the size of a rose bush, and very thick, with small reddish apples growing on every single branch. The ground around it was covered with- bones?
Meepit bones. Meepits instantly make the difference.
Bloody Mary turned around to look at the ghost Meepit, who somehow managed to look regretful and squeaked again.
“Well, getting directions from a ghost Meepit sure was a good idea,” muttered Bob “Squeaky”.
“There has to be a way,” Justice said firmly. “Otherwise there wouldn’t be any meeples circulating Neopia.”
“This might be something,” Joe said, pointing at a tiny wooden sign slammed into the ground next to the tree. It had a small scribble, actually just scratches on it. The number 1, and something lopsided.
Justice scowled, looking at the sign. “That explains it. If I get this right...” She turned to look at the glowing tree and the apple nearest to her. Then she reached out her paw and picked it.
The ground didn’t tremble. The tree didn’t radiate a sudden burst of bright light. Nothing leaped out of the darkness to devour the small female.
“Well, that was slightly disappointing,” said Bob, looking at the tranquil tree.
“Let’s go,” said Justice, turning her back to the tree.
The gang stared at her. “But this tree is ridden with apples!”
“We got one, and we’re only allowed one,” she said, jerking her paw at the sign. “And this one is everlasting, so we don’t need more. Let’s go.”
There was general tension and uneasiness in the air.
“Let’s go,” Justice repeated sharply.
Heads turned to look at Bloody Mary, who was staring at the dozens of apples in the tree with hazy eyes. Then he shook himself, snorted, and turned around.
“As much as I wouldn’t mind a humorous chase scene through these woods and whatnot,” he said, “I’ll have to hand it to common sense this time.” He turned to look at the ghost Meepit, who was watching them in slight awe.
“You took more than one, didn’t you?”
The ghost squeaked, pointing at the bones. The reply ‘I wasn’t the only one’ was more than clear.
“What happens when you do?”
The ghost rolled its eyes and squeaked, somehow managing to point out that it’s funny how the living always ask stupid questions when it comes to afterlife.
“We should just leave now, shouldn’t we?” asked Bob. The ghost squeaked.
Bloody Mary had already turned to leave when something seemed to dawn on him. “Say... do you want to join us?”
The ghost stared at him. As did the rest of the gang.
“No, really.” The Meepit waved his paws. “It’s fun. Funner than these woods, at least. You get to see the world. The lower, dirtier part of it, at least, but still. And you get more food when in a gang. And now we have an everlasting meeple. And we could use someone who can go through walls.” The last part was meant for the rest of the group.
The ghost gazed at him, then at the others, then at the meeple in Justice’s paws, then it squeaked.
Bloody Mary grinned. “I’ll take that as a yes.”
A short while later the gang was marching through the woods, which were at this point slightly lighter.
“You know, you need a name.”
“We could call you Squeaky,” said Joe.
“That’s my name,” snarled Bob “Squeaky”.
“You don’t even like that name.”
“So? It’s my name.”
“We could call you Wheaty. That’s almost like Squeaky.”
“Squeak,” said the ghost, as the rest of the procession glared at Santa.
“How come you don’t speak anyway?” asked Bloody Mary.
The ghost shrugged. “Squeak.”
“Can you actually go through walls?”
“You might come in handy once we reach the Spooky Food shop.”
“I think he’ll fit in without a problem.” Bloody Mary grinned.
The gang turned south, aiming for the Deserted Fairground. Meeples or not, they needed decent food every once in a while, and despite popular belief, attacking innocent Neopets wasn’t their way to go. Besides, everyone likes spooky doughnuts.
And due to lack of better suggestions, they did end up calling the ghost Meepit Wheaty.