We open upon a typical summer scene: a family is winding down the evening at a remote campsite, roasting marshmallows and trying to scare each other with their spookiest tales. Just as the sparks from their campfire twirl like Lightmites as they twist ever upward into the Neopian skies, so too do their words; carefully practised, tired old stories, trotted out for the next generation of summer campers; words twisting into the cooling night air, ever upward toward the familiar constellations now pulsing into life.
“And so,” concluded Cavillace the mutant Draik, in her best storytelling monotone, “they say the ghost of that pirate Aisha still haunts these woods, searching for the one who stole his hand. The one who forced him to wear a terrible hook for the rest of his days.” As she finished, Cavillace whipped out her hand, in which she had hidden a spoon bent into a hook, and took a mock swipe at her siblings who sat on the log across from her.
YourFlyness, the darigan Buzz, jumped and hid her face in the collar on the jacket of her brother GitchiManitou, the ghost Krawk. Cavillace began to laugh as she stood and approached her sister. Putting a hand on the Buzz’s shoulder, the Draik said soothingly, “You see, YF, it’s just a spoon. I’m sorry if I really scared you, but that’s the oldest trick in the book.”
The Buzz slowly turned her head, and pulling a zombie-like face she laughed and said, “I know it is. Maybe acting scared at these silly stories is the second oldest trick in the book.” Turning to her brother, she added, “What do you think, Gitch? Are there really any scary stories left to be told?”
The ghost Krawk sat in meditative silence and poked a stick into the embers of the dying fire. As he stirred, the flames came back to life and illuminated his face; the effect was surreal, like an inside-out jack-o-lantern, and GitchiManitou swivelled his gaze from the flames to his sisters, nodded slowly and said, “When I was a sailor, many, many years ago, I heard tales that would chill the blood of those without the salt of the sea in their veins. Tales that few repeated for fear of giving them life outside the confines of our ship, a breath of life that would make them hard to dismiss as mere ‘tales’. Being here in Neovian area of the Haunted Woods reminds me of one such tale, and if you think you can bear to take part in its resurrection, I’ll share it with you.”
Cavillace and YourFlyness looked at each other and nodded their eagerness to hear their brother’s story. They walked to the log across from the ghost Krawk, snuggled up together under a warm green blanket, and waited for him to begin.
“It was many years ago,” Gitch began, “that I heard this tale from a salty old pirate Gelert who swore to me that he witnessed these events himself, many years before that. According to him, there was once an orange Grundo who worked in the Space Station Café. This Grundo was a hard-working dishwasher who lived a monotonous but honest life. He was untouched by the evil that is known to inhabit the Space Station beyond the walls of his workplace, and was known simply by his employee number, A-765. Right up there is where he worked, tirelessly, day after day after endless day, washing the dishes and cutlery used by the patrons of the Grundo Café.” As he said this, GitchiManitou pointed his stick up into the sky where the blinking lights of the Space Station were clearly visible on this cloudless eve, and as he pointed, his sisters’ gazes followed. The Krawk continued.
“That sort of monotony can take its toll on the strong of body and mind, but A-765 was not a strong fellow. Time spent in isolated repetition can sometimes lead to internal monologues, fevered soliloquies, fantasies; and this was the case with one lonely young Grundo. And so it happened that one evening, a Grundo waiter approached A-765 with a dirty fork that a patron had complained about. The waiter lectured the dishwasher on the importance of being meticulous in his chores, and as he waved the fork in A-765’s face, the young fellow’s mind snapped and he imagined that he was a Knight of Brightvale involved in a sword fight. Acting quickly, A-765 picked up a fork of his own, as well as a pot lid for a shield, and charged at the other, ready to do battle. Several other employees were in the kitchen at the time, and soon there was a great melee of Grundos, tumbling and wrestling on the floor. A-765 was ultimately disarmed, but no one was able to convince him that he was not a Knight of Brightvale. After being sent for fruitless counselling, A-765 was committed to the care of the Meepit Oaks Sanatorium, an asylum that was decrepit even at that time.
“A-765 was a model patient and was soon permitted to work in the facility’s kitchen, as a dishwasher. As it was the only useful skill the Grundo knew, his doctors believed that allowing him to practise dishwashing might be his only hope for rehabilitation. What the doctors didn’t know was that A-765’s fantasy life was much, much stronger than their reality. He now believed that he was Dr. Sloth himself and that the other patients were his Grundo slaves. Every shift that A-765 worked in the kitchen, he would surreptitiously slip a fork into the pocket of his pyjama pants and bring it back to his cell. When he had collected enough for each of his minions, the Grundo armed them and lead them in an attack on the solitary night nurse. She locked herself in a utility closet and A-765 marched his army out the front doors, marching and chanting of revenge and remorse at the lost years. He was so committed to his own fantasy that he believed he had escaped from the Brig of the Space Station. He did not see the trees and boulders that he passed as he marched through the forest, imagining in their place hydraulic doors and blinking control panels, and he ended up marching his entire entourage into the raging rapids of the Neovian White River.
“All thirty-two were lost that night, never to be seen again.”
GitchiManitou paused in his tale here, drawing the wavy lines of the river in the dirt with his stick, and YourFlyness prompted, “That’s a very sad story, Gitch, but I don’t know if it’s really all that scary.”
The ghost Krawk levelled a sombre eye at his sister and replied, “We are now getting to the part that my old friend the pirate Gelert witnessed for himself. One summer evening he was lost, disoriented in this same section of the Haunted Woods where we now find ourselves. Being a sailor, he looked to the stars for guidance and stumbled over tree roots and stones as he tried to follow the constellations he knew. Some force drew his gaze back down, mere moments before he, too, stumbled into the White River. Briefly panicked, he sat down on a stump and watched the river, listening to its surge, whoosh... whoosh... whooooosh. As he listened, the noise became louder, WHOOSH... WHOOSH... WHOOOOOSH! And as he watched, the swirling foam began to form into phantoms, into undead figures. The surging water started to overflow its banks, lapping at the base of his stump, forcing him to his feet and a jump backwards. The figures appeared to notice his sudden movement, and they moved, ever so slowly in his direction. With no other course to follow, the Gelert began to run back along the path from which he had come, the phantoms in slow pursuit, the water now roaring in his ears WHOOSH... WHOOSH... WHOOOOOSH! And as he ran, the Gelert noticed a path that he had missed earlier while watching the stars. He forked off to the left, climbing a muddy berm, followed by the insistent figures, overwhelmed by the raging sound of the river’s rush. The path ended at a rusty gate, hanging from loosened hinges, and the Gelert pushed through and... silence. The water’s rage was no more, and the phantoms chasing him appeared as nothing more than mist swirling amid the trees beyond the protective stone wall. He turned toward the building looming on the hill behind him and could make out the name ‘Meepit Oaks Sanatorium’.
“He spent the night in its long deserted halls, and was awoken the next morning by the building’s onetime caretaker, a gruff and ancient blue Lenny. Upon hearing my friend’s tale of the night before, the Lenny nodded as though its telling was expected. He told the Gelert the tale of the Grundo, A-765, and his fellow escaped inmates from beginning to tragic end. He also told my friend that every now and then, a traveller unfamiliar with these woods will awaken the thirty-two restless souls from their watery resting place, awaken them to their fantasies of revenge and remorse.” The ghost Krawk threw the stick he had been using to punctuate his story into the barely glowing embers that remained of their fire, and with that, signalled the end of his tale.
Cavillace and YourFlyness scrutinized their brother’s face for a signal that the tale was a gag, waited for the “Gotcha!”, and when none came, they huddled closer together under their warm green blanket. Whether it could be blamed on the now cold fire and the damp chill in the air, or on a real fright that neither would like to admit, the sisters began to shiver visibly. GitchiManitou advised that it was time to go to their tent and curl up in their Symol Sleeping Bags, an idea the girls accepted gratefully.
And now our tale is also ended: if we could ride the last sparks sent from their campfire, twirling like Lightmites as they twist ever upward into the Neopian skies, we could look down upon this corner of the Haunted Woods. We would see a forking forest path. In one direction it leads to a long disused building on a lonely escarpment, surrounded by a high stone wall with a rusty gate hanging from loosened hinges. In the other direction, the path twists through the forest until it stops abruptly at a raging river; a river upon whose surface the mist swirls and twists, marching in mad, random patterns.
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