The wheels of the wagon creaked as Chris and his Neopets rode deeper into the Haunted Woods. A month after the teaching incident, Chris figured it wise to entertain other moneymaking ventures. Something other than hoping the Stock Market was sturdy. Void, a Wraith Chris discovered during the War of Faerie's Ruin, was left home alone. While Starry and Whisper wondered about the decision, Chris said she would be a lot safer home, than if she came with them.
Next to him, against the wall of the wagon, was Whisper. The two talked, switching topics frequently. It went from jelly to Tyrannia. They discussed who would win if Brightvale or the Lost Desert warred. Starry, meanwhile, let a little baby Draik ride on her back. That was one of the few times Chris saw Starry smile.
Violet, the Shadow Pteri, caught his attention the most. She sat alone in a corner, reading a book. Violet wasn't with anyone else, and while she wasn't terribly young, he wasn't sure how she could go alone to the Haunted Woods.
"Hey, Violet," Chris called during a dialogue dry spell between him and Whisper. "What are you doing, coming to the Haunted Woods alone?"
Violet smiled and said, "My babysitter's going to be there. She rode alone."
Chris squinted. Two months now she kept claiming she was with a babysitter, but he never heard news of her parents. All he knew was her mother was painted Island, and her father was Lost Desert.
"Can you introduce me to your babysitter?"
"No, she doesn't like talking to others. She's more focused on other things. Sorry."
He always got a response like that whenever he asked.
Whisper asked Chris, "Man, when do you think we're gonna get there anyway? We've been here for several days."
"The Haunted Woods is a fair distance away," Chris said. "Three days from Neopia Central, and that's on wagon. With how bad weather conditions are during the late Summer, we could be here a while."
Starry said, with half-lidded eyes, "And why do you guys keep complaining about the wait anyway? You're getting paid, like, 20,000NP to clean the Haunted Woods."
Chris snorted. It wasn't even his idea, it was something Whisper brought up, saying it might help out in case Chris ever wanted a job again. "Exactly, we're getting paid money to clean the place up. We're not getting paid by the hour just for being in the woods." He opened up another can of Neocola. Raspberry-flavored. A few seconds later, he chugged it down.
Then the front end of the wagon collapsed to the ground.
Everyone assumed they must have hit a hole. Chris and Whisper went out to investigate, only to find a lack of Neopets pulling the wagon, or the director. Whisper inspected the wagon while Chris ran up a dirt hill. A dozen dirt hills over the end of one wagon disappeared over the horizon.
"Front tires are gone," Whisper said as he entered the wagon again.
"Worse, the other wagons are nearly a mile away," Chris said, shaking his head. "Weirder, the conductor disappeared along with the wagon carriers. It's like they all vanished into thin air."
The baby Draik whimpered and clutched Starry's leg while Violet stood up. "I guess we'll just have to do this on foot."
"You want to walk on foot all the way through the Haunted Woods?" Chris chuckled. "Yeah, it's best we wait for help to arrive. The others will know we didn't come. We need shelter, and we need to hide in case something comes for us as well. It's cold out there too, but it's warmer in the wagon."
Violet said, "I've been here before and lived in this place. I know exactly where to go should we want to not get killed and should we want shelter."
Whisper grimaced. "And if the thing behind the disappearances comes for us, we need to leave."
"Violet, you better know the way," Chris warned. "We're putting all of our lives into your wings."
"I know," she said before taking flight. "My babysitter lives here most of the time until she goes to Neopia Central as a vacation spot."
Whisper smiled. "Alright everybody, better watch your step."
Violet took flight and led them. Chris, Whisper, and Starry followed her, with the Baby Draik sitting on Starry's back.
The blue soil of the Haunted Woods was bumpy. Starry and Whisper had rarely gone hiking before, and were unused to having to trailblaze so many hills. Back in Faerie's Ruin, Chris wandered harsh terrain, but that was several years ago. Chilling winds complemented the macabre atmosphere, along with the rotting stench stretching throughout the area. Mysterious squawks and squeaks behind every hill made everyone wary. To Chris, flashbacks of the War of Faerie's Ruin came back to him. Wasn't this where the battle against that one Wraith happened? No hero stopped it, but he did, and he saved a Pteri named Lanius, but he was no hero.
Violet didn't talk much, and her eyes were glazed over. Chris and Whisper kept the mood light by telling jokes, stories, even singing. Then Chris would get out cans of Necola, the spare few he had left, and shared them amongst the group.
When Violet landed in front of the cottage, everyone had second doubts. Moss grew along the stone walls. The wooden door had many chips lost due to time. It wasn't more than two-stories, and might've looked normal in Neopia Central. Here, it looked abandoned.
Violet opened the front door with her talons and went in. The other four followed. Chris looked at the ancient stone walls as he entered. This had to have been around for hundreds of years. Cobwebs swayed in the breeze, and the wooden floors moaned underneath their footsteps. Echoes amplified every sound. He noticed, however, a lack of dust and the smell of something burning.
In the living room, a lit fire crackled. Chris raised his eyebrows, but Starry went over to the heat and curled up beside it. The Draik shifted his position so his back was against her belly. "Thank goodness, I was freezing my butt off back there!"
Violet went into the kitchen, and Chris followed her in there. He was used to sliding glass doors, but the kitchen didn't have one. Instead it had a wide, double-paned window showing off the outside world. The full moon brightened up the room, revealing a fridge and a cabinet door.
"Help yourselves to anything in the fridge."
Chris would've raised protest, but Whisper opened the door already. It sounded like the fridge worked. Maybe it was solar-powered, or even moon-powered? Whisper took out a pre-made sandwich. "Hey, is this still good?"
Violet smiled. "Of course."
Chris' suspicions kept rising, but Whisper opened up the bag containing the sandwich and stuffed it in his mouth.
The next place Violet led him was upstairs. Wooden steps squeaked until they reached the second story. Two doors for different bedrooms.
"The one of the left is mine," she said with a smile.
"Uh-huh," Chris said, not caring what she had said. He knew something was up. Why would a fire be lit, and why would a fridge be powered, and why would the food not be absolutely rotten? Was everyone else just too happy to see it? No, of course not. Obviously, Violet knew the person who lived here.
"This place is perfect," Chris said.
"Yup! It's a pretty good place. Gets powered by the water wheel in Mutant Bog."
"So we're in Mutant Bog, huh?"
Chris knew perfectly well who lived in Mutant Bog. And he knew perfectly well she was not an ally of his. It dawned on him who Violet's "babysitter" must have been, and why the legend said she would always say "THEY" were going to come. How could he be "THEY"? He bit his lower lip with a couple teeth. If she was occupying the house though... He had to make plans.
He figured the tricks out during bedtime. The joke was on her though - Void wasn't with him at this time. Chris slept on the floor as per usual. Whisper took one bed, while Starry and the Draik took another. Hopefully, the kid would probably be reunited with his parents soon.
The bedroom had cabinets, and Chris opened the bottom shelf. He found a scroll with teleportation properties which must have been the scroll that took the conductor and the wagon-carriers who knew where else. Must have also been what took the wheels.
He mused Whisper must have told his Neoschool friend, Violet, that they were going to the Haunted Woods. Chris prepared for that adventure though. He took a long sword from his bag, before he snuck outside, then he went as quietly down the steps as he could.
When he reached the kitchen, the whispering became audible. He peeked over into the doorway before walking through, clutching his sword. Chris steadied himself with a few more breaths and went over to the window.
"We can attack Chris in his sleep," Violet said as she perched on a branch. "Hey." She waved a wing at the silhouetted bird steps from her.
"THEY are here now." And Chris watched as the other bird turned, and with glowing red eyes looked at him.
Author's Notes: Part 2 of 3 of the "prologue" before the big things happen. Cafeteria Food is a slice-of-life adventure with slight hints of malice to come. This is more horror-themed, with the hints slapping you in the face.