Before the Tale: Part Two
“Do you even know where Sophie lives?” Jaycee hissed at Sebastian as she glared darkly at their surroundings. Despite her protests, here they were, in the lower grounds of the Haunted Woods, being drizzled on by cold rain and with mud sloshing up their legs as they walked.
Jaycee had never been madder at her best friend.
“Yes, she has a shack.”
“And do you know where, exactly, the shack is?”
“Sebastian!” She roared at him, looking around for a stray tree branch to whack him with.
“It’s okay, it’s okay, I’ll find out!” He backed away hastily, holding the Meowclops in front of his face for protection.
“How? You’re going to march up to Meuka and ask, ‘Excuse me, Snotty, do you happen to know where Sophie the Swamp Witch lives? Ta.’ Really, Sebastian, come on. We leapt into this without even thinking it through, and now we’re lost. Lost!”
“You have a problem with rage, did you know?”
The pink Xweetok glared at him, her eyes narrowing to tiny slits.
He laughed boyishly and bounced cleanly over the mud patch and gave her a quick hug.
“We’ll be fine, Pinky. Stop stressing. And we’re not lost, see?” He pointed down towards a thicket of trees, from which a dim light was straining to get through the gnarled branches. “I’ll bet that’s Edna’s Tower or something. Come on,” he grabbed her hand and shuffled the Meowclops more comfortably under his other arm.
“We need to name him something. We can’t just keep calling him ‘it’.” Jaycee looked a little more cheerful and Sebastian seized the opportunity.
“He looks like a Davy to me.”
“Pooky? That’s a terrible name for a Meowclops. I think Socks will do, don’t you? I mean, just for now.”
Not really bothered by the name, but wanting to keep Jaycee happy, Sebastian agreed to naming the petpet Socks.
True to Jaycees’ original point about mud, the trio did end up trudging knee-deep through it on their way to higher ground. A couple of hours, many harsh words and three whacks from a tree branch later, they had reached the entrance to the Haunted Woods.
They stood looking up at the ghostly glowing arch which held the old iron gates that opened into the lower grounds of the Woods.
“Last chance, Seb. We can leave Socks at the gate and get out of here,” Jaycee whispered, nervously peering into the incredibly dimly lit Woods.
“We’ve come this far, Jayc. It’ll be fine.” He drew himself to his full height (not very high at all, really) and bravely pushed on the gate. It creaked in that old creaky gate sort of way, alerting anyone nearby of their presence. Sebastian threw a furtive glance over his shoulder before stepping cautiously through.
They held their breaths in anticipation until their faces started to go blue, then quickly exhaled.
Nothing happened. Nothing moved, no one jumped out and yelled ‘Boo!’. Nothing happened at all.
“How... odd,” Jaycee muttered, straining her eyes in the dull light.
“There’s Edna’s Tower over there, I think, that green glow. It is quite hard to see though, it is so dark in here. So I think that must be the direction of the Esophagor and the Brain Tree and such. Hey, he’ll know! Let’s go ask the Brain Tree where Sophie lives.”
“Oh, he’ll make us go feed the Esophagor to get the answer. Twice!”
“No harm in trying.”
“I have questions for you to answer, mere mortals. Complete my quest and I will aid you in yours,” the Brain Tree boomed regally, towering above them.
“Told you,” Jaycee groaned.
“Can you answer me this, Tree? We are curious to know where everyone is. This place is so dead...” Sebastian looked at the pulsating thing standing high above him. “What happened here?”
“It was a terrible thing... gone is the Moon... and the Stars... and all the Trees whisper of it...”
“Of what?” Jaycee gasped, her eyes popping.
“The Darkness. It has stolen the wind, and the light, and the day. Look at the sky. What can you see?” The Tree gestured up with one of his branches.
The trio looked up into the night sky and saw...
“Well... nothing. There’s nothing there, what are we supposed to be seeing?” Sebastian looked at the Tree, confused.
“Exactly, weaklings. There is nothing. No stars, no moon. From here, if you look North-West you can see the glowing lights of the moon, Kreludor. But I ask you, where are those glowing lights? And where is the sun? It will be morning in nine hours, and the sun will not rise. It has not for three days. There’s been nothing but darkness. Edna has vanished, as has Meuka, and the Esophagor won’t eat. Tell me, mortals, is this happening in your world, in Neopia?”
Jaycee looked horrified.
“No... everything is fine in Neopia. I don’t understand... what could be causing all of this?”
“Is it Sloth?” Sebastian asked furiously. If ever anything went wrong, he would blame Sloth, guaranteed.
He hated him.
“He has not enough power to do something like this. None of the ‘villains’ do, and most of them reside here! I know everything, mortals, for I am the Brain Tree, I know of everything from every corner of the worlds. But this... I fear this. Something terrible, something awful is happening. It’s coming, riding on the Darkness. Leave this place, mortals! LEAVE, GET OUT NOW!” he suddenly roared, throwing his branches all over the place, knocking Sebastian over and sending Socks sprawling.
The Brain Tree screamed and thrashed around, yelling at them to LEAVE LEAVE LEAVE LEAVE LEAVE!
“Come on, Jaycee!” Sebastian yelled over the Tree’s screams, grabbing her hand and hoisting Socks under his arm, they turned and ran as far away from the Brain Tree as their legs could take them.
They stopped when they were a safe distance away and his screams had faded over the distance. Sebastian doubled over, gasping in misty air, while Jaycee collapsed onto the soft dirt, coughing from overexertion.
“What... was... that... about...?” Sebastian tried to get his words out past the gasps and ended up giving himself the hiccups. He groaned, coughed and hiccupped, and repeated the sequence in order.
“Maybe he was just trying to... to scare... us.” Jaycee lay flat on her back, panting.
“I don’t think so, Jayc. He look... he looked awful.” Sebastian shuddered and pulled his friend into a tight hug. “Sorry for getting us into this... let’s go home.”
“But we can’t, not now. Something dreadful is happening here. We have to find out what’s going on. If the Tree’s right, something disastrous is happening here, and we have to do something to help! We’ll find Sophie first, then we’ll see if we can suss out what’s going on here.” Jaycee clumsily got to her feet and pulled the shaking Blumaroo to his. She gently picked up Socks and held the quivering petpet in her arms.
“Where do we start, Seb? We don’t know where she is, and if the Tree was being serious, all of the Wood’s residents have gone missing. Who can we go to?”
“He did say they have all gone... except the Esophagor!” He snapped his fingers excitedly. “We can talk to him.”
“Didn’t he say he’s gone, too?”
“No, he’s still here; he’s just not eating. Even better for us.” Sebastian wrinkled his nose in distaste. “Where is he, do you think?”
“I’m pretty sure we passed him on our mad dash away from the Tree. He’s back that way.” Jaycee pointed back in the direction they had just run hysterically from.
“Great,” Sebastian groaned, at the same time that Socks let out a sigh.
“So you don’t know what’s going on in the Haunted Woods?”
“I knoooowwww maaannnnyyyy thhhiiinngggsssss.”
“So you do know?”
“I’m not theee oneee youuuu seeeeek.”
“Can’t you help us? We need directions to Sophie’s shack. You know, the Swamp Witch. Please, it’s incredibly important! We have to do something, something’s happening here...”
“It isss not I thaaaaat caaaaan guuuiiddeeeee youuuuu.”
“This is pointless! He’s not giving us anything useful, we might as well just leave!” Jaycee threw up her arms in frustration.
“Is there anything you can tell us that will help us?” Sebastian asked, enunciating his words as clearly as he could. Surely the Esophagor could tell them something!
The great mass paused, considering this.
“Thereeee issss oneeeeeee whoooo caaaaannnn. Theee caaaamppppp. Thereeee isss oneeee whooo youuuu seeeek.”
“What camp? Where?”
“Go, nowwww. Hurrryyyyyyy!”
“C’mon, let’s get out of here before he stops being on a diet.”
They left the Esophagor to moan quietly to himself, tracing back the path that had run before.
“What camp?” Sebastian repeated.
“I think the Gypsy Camp, you know the one.”
“You know, the Gypsy Camp!”
“I really don’t.”
“You have to pass through it to get to Neovia, that dead place that’s sort of connected to the Woods. They tell stories around the camp fire, marshmallows and all. You must have heard of it, I thought everyone had.” Jaycee laughed and smoothed Sock’s ruffled fur.
“Must have missed it. So where is it, All-Knowing-Jaycee?” He smirked at her before dodging the whack he knew was coming his way.
Rolling her eyes at him, she pointed a fair distance away, where, sure enough, Sebastian could see the faint flickering of a campfire.
To be continued...