The Quest to Thorn Bridge Castle: Part Four
Also by thropp
There is a huge difference, reflected Caitiry, between being a witch and being a sorceress. As she walked through the Haunted Woods, the Aisha could not help but compare the environment in which Edna thrived to her own home in Meridell. The Haunted Woods seemed so very... cold. There was very little moonlight that penetrated through the towering trees, and what did was of small comfort to Caitiry. Instead of making it easier to see, all the silver light did was cast eerie shadows against the tree trunks, causing their low lying branches and foliage to resemble an army of Mutant Scorchios.
After a few minutes of walking through the disorienting woods, Caitiry could no longer tell which way they had come. Dead leaves crackled under the feet of the Aisha and her companions, echoing eerily in the quiet forest. Tree trunks stretched into the sky, gnarled and knotted like the hands of an old witch, and every few steps, Caitiry's shoes got caught in an exposed root that was covered with giant Spyder webs.
Trying to put on a brave face, Caitiry led the way. The trees were beginning to morph before her as her eyes adjusted to the low light that was sprinkled randomly through the woods. Some looked as if they were screaming. She swore she could even see smoke wafting off of some, and slime oozing from under the bark of others.
"I feel like we are being watched," Mazeu whispered behind her, causing Sir Abezil to snort.
"I doubt the trees have eyes," the Mynci mocked. "It is probably just those Ghost Meepits we passed at the Game Graveyard."
Ghost Meepits or not, Mazeu was not afraid to admit he was afraid. At one time, they were regular Meepits. He did not want to end up as a Ghost Kyrii before they made their way to Thorn Bridge Castle.
The group pressed on, deeper and deeper into the woods. It was apparent to anyone who walked through that no light had ever touched this particular stretch of Neopia. Bare branches latched onto Mazeu's cloak, entangled their long, splintery fingers in his hair. These woods are watching, he swore. Something is definitely watching and waiting for me to get close enough... Mazeu wished that they had to go to the Lost Desert instead of the Haunted Woods. He would have gladly crossed an ocean of scalding hot sand to get to the city of Sakhmet, instead of wandering blindly through a dark forest searching for the Brain Tree.
"I have heard stories about the Brain Tree," Mazeu said. Talking made the trip seem shorter. If he heard the sound of his voice, he would no longer hear the winds moaning. "It is said that the Brain Tree sits alone in the Haunted Woods. He is the only tree to have developed intelligence, and he thirsts for knowledge. If you accept his quest, he will ask you a question. Your quest is to find the answer in a limited amount of time."
"What happens if you do not return in time?" asked Caitiry.
"He feeds you to the Esophagor!" Sir Abezil laughed, kicking the trunk of a thick tree. A low rumble thundered from the other side of the tree. Abezil stepped back cautiously and turned to Caitiry and Mazeu. "Maybe you were right, Maz," he said sheepishly. "They might be watching after all."
The three Neopets slowly backed away as the tree Abe kicked shuddered and bucked. Bits of bark splintered off and the roots that poked through the desiccated soil snapped up and began waving, like the flags atop Brightvale Castle in a gust of wind. The trunk of the tree began to crack open, leaving a vast black hole in the middle. Two red lights appeared above it, pulsating slightly. Used to the pitch black darkness, the adventurers shielded their eyes from the sudden brightness.
When their eyes had adjusted enough to lower their hands, the travelers were stunned by what they saw. Before them sat a tree, but this was no ordinary tree for the crown was not made of branches and leaves, but a gigantic, oozing brain. Hues of slimy orange mixed with slippery yellows, and the brain slowly pulsated with each breath the tree took.
"Mortals!" the Brain Tree boomed. "I need your help!"
"We also are in need of your assistance, Brai- ah, er, Mister Brain Tree... Sir," replied Caitiry timorously. "We are searching for Thorn Bridge Castle and we were told you possessed two pieces of the map that showed its location."
The Tree shuddered, juices slicking the surface of its brain. "You must fetch me information!" he screeched.
Caitiry, Mazeu, and Sir Abezil exchanged a glance. What choice did they have?
"We accept," declared Abe.
The gaping maw that served as the Brain Tree's mouth twisted in what could only be described as a grotesque smile. "David von Cybunny died a long time ago, and I need to know where, and when, for my records. You must go and find this information out. Return to me within an hour and a half, and I shall give you a prize."
Mazeu prayed Abezil was lying when he said they would be fed to the Esophagor if they took too long.
The only being in the Haunted Woods more intelligent than the Brain Tree was the Esophagor. Living in the ground under the Haunted Woods, the Esophagor was said to always be hungry. When he rose out of the ground, he would always find something to eat.
The creature was little more than a big blob of teal sludge with a cavernous black hole that functioned as a mouth. It was hard to say where the food he demanded went after the Esophagor swallowed it, and even harder for Caitiry to understand how sludge even got hungry, but it was quite clear to her that she and her friends would be wise to obey his commands.
"II AMMM HUNGGRRYYY....." the beast moaned when the group approached. "Feeed mmeee annndd I wwilll reeewwaardd yoouu.... "
Well, he certainly does not waste any time, Cait thought. Stepping closer to the Esophagor, she replied, "Sure, I will find you food."
The ground shook, as if it was the Esophagor's stomach growling. "Thhhaannkk yoou foorr heellppinggg...I neeedd twwwoooo moorree ffooddsss.. Yooouu haavvve 1 hoooouurrr and 54 mmmmiiinuuutees. Pllleeeaassee hhuurryyy!!!"
To Cait, the Esophagor's intended meal did not sound at all appetizing. He asked for Chilled Eyes with Clam Sauce and a Chocolate Korbat Ice Lolly. Cait was not fooled by the word "chocolate" in the latter; it was probably made with actual bits of Korbat.
"I suppose we ought to find a food shop around here," suggested Sir Abezil.
Mazeu consulted the map he had drafted of the Haunted Woods a few years before, when his trip was much more geared toward touristy things, like visiting the Gypsy Camp and shopping in Neovia, rather than risking his life to feed a hungry beast who lived in the ground. "According to my map, the only place to buy food, if you can even call it that, is the Spooky Food cart in the Deserted Fairground," the Kyrii said.
The Deserted Fairground, it turned out, was aptly named. On one side loomed the Castle Nox; on the other, the creepily crafted Chia clown face that led to the Carnival of Terror game. In between the castle and Carnival of Terror were small stalls manned by shabbily dressed kiosk operators, who whistled and called out to the adventurers as they passed.
"Knock 'em down and win a prize!" a Blue Aisha shouted from the Cork Gun Gallery's wooden deck. "Step right up! I will not bite!"
"For 250 NP you can try your luck!" chanted a Lupe leaning against the Bagatelle stand. "Launch the Mootix ball and see where it lands. The higher the number the better your prize! The current jackpot is 7,314,400 NP!"
"Roll up! Roll up! Test Your Strength!" called a Mynci who carried a large mallet. "I assure you, this game is not rigged!"
A Quiggle in tattered red and white striped trousers stood in front of a rickety game stall at the end of the road. He had his stubby arms crossed at his chest and was yelling at a group of Ghost Grembles who each held a hammer. "Hit those nails in harder, you do not want..." the Quiggle commanded, spit flying from his mouth before he broke off, seeing the travelers. "Oh, er, ah... Sorry, I did not see you there." His smile was short a few teeth, and the ones he did have were yellowed and rotting. Mazeu made a note to brush his teeth again the next opportunity he had.
"Hello, and welcome to the Haunted Woods Fairground Coconut Shy!" he greeted. "Just 100 of your finest Neopoints will get you a throw. Knock down a coconut and win ten thousand Neopoints, plus a very special - and exclusive - prize!"
"Actually," called Mazeu, "we are looking for the Spooky Food cart. Could you point us in that direction, please?"
"Come on!" cackled the Quiggle. "Do not be shy! Leeroy is an honest Neopet. Knock down a coconut and I will take you there myself."
Abezil narrowed his eyes at Leeroy and adjusted the sword at his side, not about to be swindled by this charlatan. "I suggest you just tell us where to go," he said softly.
Leeroy gulped audibly and pointed a wart-covered finger toward the graveyard across from the Haunted Weaponry shop. The knight eyed the cemetery suspiciously and grunted. "I am sure there are no marauders lurking about. If there are, you will be seeing us again, and I assure you this sword will not be sheathed."
The Quiggle's eyes grew three times their normal size and he rapidly changed the direction in which he pointed to show a shadowy alley a few yards away.
"I thought so." Abe smiled. "Thanks for your assistance."
To be continued...