I finally stop being so dumbstruck and command my body to move. I force myself to float to my right, just barely avoiding the plant monster. But I’m too slow up here. I need to get out of here! I never expected to find an abomination here! Everything, even Death, has seemed so innocuous, despite their abilities. I’ve never been so scared in my life.

He sends several more vines at me. I focus as hard as I can and dodge this new wave of attacks. Three snap on different sides of me. The last few barely miss my legs. I grab the last one before he pulls it back. This was a bad idea. It starts to shake back and forth, trying to get me loose. I can’t really focus as he sends some new vines at me. Then, I get an idea. I remember the lesson Puck taught me and let go of my emotions. I surrender to the empty feeling and lose my touch on the vine I was holding. The new wave all pass through me. Time to get out of here.

I try to fly away, but I hear him strike again. There’s no way to avoid it this time. I feel the vines snap around my leg. The jerk shakes my whole body. I try to become intangible again, but my heart is racing, and my emotions too ingrained to let go. I can’t slip out of this. His whips retract and pull me toward the frightening visage that was his face. I see the vines move and squirm as it opens the gaping jaw he’s made. He’s gonna eat me!

The forest monster was drawing me closer to his mouth, my mind racing to find a way out of this. My emotions were to worked up to turn intangible again. I had no weapons within reach. The creature’s grasp was too strong for me to break free. And I… I had an oddly long stretch of time in which to think about all of this.

I look down, the creature’s vines were not really pulling on me.

“Um, weren’t you going to eat me about two seconds ago?”

The vines release me and retract back into the forest man.

“No, I was expecting you to break free and fly away. Now I’ll never get rid of you.”

“…But… b-but….” He was just trying to scare me?! “I-I… but that…. BUT YOU TRANSFORMED INTO A GIANT MONSTER WITH AN INSATIABLE APPETITE FOR MY FLESH!!!”

“I changed into my guardian form.” As he talks, the vines shift and shrink, disappearing to God knows where. “I don’t really hurt people unless they hurt my trees. You were bugging me, so I wanted to scare you off, but you proved too weak and stupid for your own good. So look, I let you go. Can ya please leave? Go away?”

Out of all the insanity to have happened to me, I must admit, this hit me the most. I felt every bit of confusion throughout every fiber of my being. And everything said the same thing.

“Wha…?”

The spirit was finished shifting back to his small, wooden man form. He crossed his arms as he spoke.

“Leave me alone. Go run your little errand for Goodfellow. Get your reward and have fun bragging.”

That’s an odd thing to say.

“My reward? Now what are you talking about?”

The little man sighed and rolled his eyes.

“Happens all the time. Some spirit hears about the legendary challenges and pranks of ‘The Master of the Forest’ and thinks they can best them. After being led on a wild goose chase, he congratulates them on doing nothing, using his fancy word play and rhymes, making them think they actually did something of worth and let’s them wander off.”

…What?

He continues. “It’s actually one of his funnier pranks. It’s only once enough spirits are successful that they realize it was all a joke. I’m more curious to what they will try to do to him after-”

“WHAT?!!!?? He’s playing a prank on me!? I swear to whatever god you all worship I will wring his neck until he can’t-”

“Now calm down, ya idiot. He’s the master of pranks. Didn’t you think when you decided to come here and accept these challenges there might be something else going on?”

He thinks I’m just some afterlife thrill seeker.

“I’m not here for some faux-challenge given by an almighty jester! I’m trying to find my way home and your master promised me a key to the magic door if I solved his challenges!”

“Oh. Then you’re stupider than I thought. No way is Goodfellow giving you his key. Might as well go back to where you came from.” And the spirit turns to walk away.

“But that’s what I was trying to do…” I slowly descend to the branch. My prospects bleak. This was just a sick game, played by the master of sick games. What do I do now? How much time have I lost? Is Death getting closer? Did he trick me and this tangled mess my punishment for not choosing to pass on?

What do I do now?

“Ugh, dammit. Look kid, I don’t know what’s going on here, but everyone finds their way home.” The small man walks over to me, trying to be comforting. “Puck is more trustworthy than you might assume. Of course, that’s if you assume everything he’s doing is untrustworthy.”

“Thank you. That’s very helpful… I just- So, I apparently died not too long ago. Death came for me, but I couldn’t accept it. I ran away from him and have been trying to find my way back to my family. I thought if I just kept collecting keys from these spirits, one would maybe get me back home.”

“Fine. Let’s go get you that feather.”