Three Hundred and Fifty Years of Knowledge
He blinked a few times, trying to focus. He had been woken up from his dormant state. It was midnight; he could tell by the echoing sounds of footsteps, eerie ghost moans and occasional Werelupe howls.
Midnight was always one of the busiest times in the Haunted Woods. Explorers and tourists were hardly seen so late, when the little sun that ever illuminated the forest was gone, but it was the favorite time of many of the inhabitants, himself included. It was his time to reflect on the things he had seen all day long, and to learn from them.
The first thought he had that night, however, wasn’t about the day he had left behind. It was about the one that had just started. That day it was his three hundred fiftieth birthday, he realized.
He sighed. Birthdays meant little to him. It wasn’t like he did anything to celebrate. No one did. No one even knew it was his birthday. None of the creatures that roamed Neopia now had been around when his life started. He was the oldest being in Neopia.
And he was the one who knew the most. It was a common misbelief that King Hagan of Brightvale was the most knowledgeable. Hagan obtained his knowledge from books, but there were many secrets on Neopia that books didn’t hold. He knew because he had seen a few of them with his own eyes. He had been the only witness, and he hadn’t written any books. After all, it was hard to write with branches.
He was the Brain Tree.
Strange as it may sound, the only mystery he had never been able to completely unveil had to do with himself. He knew nothing of his own origin. He knew how old he was and the date of his birthday with the help of complicated calculations, but the reason behind his existence and the source of his intelligence were unknown, even to him.
Sometimes, when he racked his brain and tried to force the earliest memory he could remember, he thought he could feel a different wind blow against his branches and trunk. No images accompanied this memory, but it was still strong. It was an air of solitude and wildness, from before the Haunted Woods were populated.
He remembered becoming familiar with his surroundings. By now, the trees around him had grown taller and wider. Some others had dried up, and some had even been born before his eyes, but none of them had developed intelligence like he had. Essentially, his surroundings had never changed.
At times he wished he had the ability to travel Neopia. Deeply rooted as he was, he would never get to see the Lost Desert, or Meridell, or Tyrannia. It was a disadvantage he had to live with, but in a way, it wasn’t so bad. Pets from all over Neopia liked to visit his homeland, and some of them even dared approach him. It was like having Neopia travel to him instead. The Brain Tree had overheard so many conversations about the other worlds, he was sure if he were able to travel, he wouldn’t be surprised by any of the things he saw.
He pondered for a long time.
Sunrise had come too soon that day, the Brain Tree felt. He had too many things on his mind and he wished for more time to think about them.
Already a foreign Neopet, an Island Elephante, was staring at him from afar. Her white markings made her easy to spot; they almost glowed in the middle of the darkness of the woods.
As she came closer, the Tree could see the Elephante had brought her Whinny, also island. The shivering petpet hid behind one of its owner’s legs, and although the Elephante seemed hesitant, her bright green eyes pierced the Brain Tree curiously.
As the Elephante’s eyes shot upwards to see his top, the Tree took the opportunity to speak.
“You must fetch me information,” he boomed.
Both the Whinny and its owner got startled at the sound of his voice. Neither of them were expecting it.
The Brain Tree was pleased; he enjoyed being intimidating. He paused as an idea floated around in his mind. He had sent so many Neopets on quests, most of them fool’s errands. Perhaps it was time for something different.
Finally, he spoke again.
“The Brain Tree was born a long time ago, and Neopia needs to know where, and when, for their records. You must go and find this information out. Return to me within 24 hours, and I shall give you a prize.”
The Island Elephante looked at him, confused. “I’m sorry, but--”
“Does that mean you have the nerve to reject one of my quests?” The Tree glowered at her.
“No, but... I don’t know how to find out,” she explained.
“Well, that’s what makes my quests so interesting, girl. Now go away; you’re wasting my time,” he bellowed.
Orchid the Island Elephante was aghast. She had heard fascinating stories about the Brain Tree and his quests. She knew they were hard, but she thought she knew what to expect. Apparently, she had thought wrong.
She picked up her Whinny. The petpet was still shivering. Maybe it was because it was cold, or maybe it was scared; maybe both. The Elephante admitted to herself she felt a bit of both.
In lower spirits than when she arrived in the Haunted Woods, Orchid thought the best way to start would be to ask the Esophagor. She started off for the monster, petpet in her arms.
The Brain Tree watched her leave, and for once in his quest-giving life, he hoped this one came back.
Twenty three hours had passed since he had sent that Elephante to find out his birthday. Technically, there was an hour left for her to come back, but the Brain Tree didn’t harbor hope any longer. He was convinced now it had been a foolish idea to send someone on such a quest.
Just as he made a mental note not to attempt it again, he caught a glimpse of a white glow in the distance. At first, he thought it was some wandering spirit or ghoul, but it seemed to be approaching him directly. Then he realized it was in fact not glowing, simply white.
Orchid didn’t have her petpet with her this time, but it was unmistakably her. She had returned.
“Well?” the Brain Tree asked impatiently.
The Elephante was looking at her feet. When she finally looked up, her face didn’t reflect triumph or knowledge. Her eyes were red and puffy and she wore a frown of shame, or perhaps of fear.
“I don’t know. I don’t know when you were born,” she said, and there was silence.
“But I did try,” Orchid felt the need to add when the Brain Tree remained quiet. “I went to the Esophagor first. I sat for hours waiting for the Spooky Food stand to restock what I needed, and when it did, I made a high offer so the shopkeeper would have no choice but to accept it."
She wiped the tears away. "It worked. I spent all the money I had saved for souvenirs on food for him, but when I asked him your question, he said he didn’t know.”
The Elephante was looking at her feet again. She was sure the Brain Tree was enraged with her failure; she couldn’t stand to look at him face to face. But the fury didn’t come.
“I went to Edna next. As I didn’t have any more money to fetch ingredients, she made me work stirring her cauldron. She said she would help me prepare a Magic Spell of Elephante Learning, and that it would give me knowledge.”
If the Brain Tree had eyebrows, he would have raised them at that statement.
“I stayed awake all night waiting for the potion to brew. I had to stir every thirty-five minutes exactly. I did as I was told, but... it didn’t work. I’m sorry.”
Tears were falling quietly from Orchid’s eyes. She took a deep sigh and looked up, hoping he wouldn’t be so cruel with her punishment.
To her surprise, the Brain Tree didn’t look angry, but disappointed. It struck the Elephante as strange. In fact, everything about her quest had seemed odd. Why would he ask her such a thing? Surely he knew his own birthday. Why did he want her, and Neopia, to know?
Orchid’s eyes widened as realization swept over her.
“Mr. Brain Tree, could I still try to answer your question?” she said, trembling.
“And how would you do that? You told me you do not know. Knowledge is not about guessing. This is not a game,” he replied seriously.
“But I think I know,” the Island Elephante insisted. “I think your birthday is today."
Surprise shook the Brain Tree, but he did his best not to show it.
“Close, but not quite. My birthday was yesterday," he said matter-of-factly. "You guessed wrong; I have no prize for you. Now leave me.”
“May I say one last thing, Mr. Brain Tree?”
“If you must,” he grunted.
“I just wanted to say... happy belated birthday.”
She walked away. The Brain Tree followed her silhouette until it disappeared among the trees. Then, he smiled.