I would like to preface this story with a little briefing about what my life is all about. My name is Zisk Dramf, a Meridell expatriate to Neopia Central. I am a Red Draik, twenty-three years of age, born in the Month of Running, leading a largely unexceptional life. I am twice divorced, no children, and I make a living for the Neopian Bank by finding individuals who need and can pay a loan; with interest, of course, even the bankers have to make a living.

I have been to the Lost Desert, Terror Mountain, the Virtupets Space Station, and even the Lost City of Geraptiku of all places looking for moneylending ventures. I have, indeed, paid for the zeal with which I am forced to work - anything less than zeal, and I would never be able to meet the grotesquely mountainous quotas set upon me. However, I have never, in my nine years working for the bank, been called personally to arrange a loan. The woman had a rather pleasant voice over the Neophone, but I made the mistake of cracking one of the poor jokes that management insists we use to 'build a foundation of friendly rapport' with the clientele. The edge to the woman's laughter caused me to jump away from the receiver, and it sounded as if she had trouble stopping. When we got finished and I was given her address to copy, it took a good five minutes for me to realize the implications of the actual destination lying in my scaly palm.

"1347, Amity Street, Pumpumpkin Town," I mused. There was a substantial ball of dread building up in the pit of my gut. I managed around my drying mouth, "Ah. Well, I suppose...Yes, I suppose it's about time I made my rounds there." I pressed the intercom to my superior's office. "Sir," I said, "I am going to need a map to this residence." I read off the address, massaging the bridge of my snout. Normally, the Skeith who lorded over me would roar in indignation that I had dared ask him to do his job and give me personal directions, but I could audibly hear him ingesting the repercussions of this address. "Yes, sir, I'm sure. No, sir, I don't like it either. Yes, sir, I will do my job to the fullest of my ability." He gave some distracted 'Exactly what I expect from my best employee,' and told me he would send an assistant with a map. That left me a few more minutes to stew in my own consternation.

Before long, a skittish Kacheek ran through a small hatch at the bottom of the door, passed me the map with her shaking paws, and darted out again like a shot from a gun. I was now all alone in this endeavor. Thus, I decided to get up, get moving, and not wait any longer to psyche myself out of the job. I packed everything I would need into a travel pack, made my way out of what was suddenly an ominously quiet, lonely office, and stepped into the street. It was midday, and the sundrenched pavement felt pleasantly warm beneath my feet. This was a small comfort that I knew well to cherish. I swallowed my fears, and spread my wings. With two mighty flaps and the leathery cracking sounds they gave, I was in the air. It took a moment to crest the treetops; then, I comfortably glided over to the street.

The warming pavement gave off strong updrafts of heated air, which I was able to use for easily maintaining altitude and conserving energy. I always loved to fly. When I was a child in Meridell, my parents couldn't get me to stop flying over the countryside and watching the world below me. Well, occasionally a flying Petpet would evacuate on me, and then I would really be done with flying for the day. Would you believe that in my adolescence, I was a messenger between King Skrarl and King Hagan? I flew faster than anyone else my age! Ah, but that is a tangent. The matter is, getting to the section of Neopia I was summoned to would be a formality; I had no doubt that I could cover the distance, unaided, before the sun even set. Before sunset was what mattered. Thus, I refrained from dawdling any longer, and began to pick up speed.

Beating my wings upon an updraft, I rocketed a few meters higher. Then, I folded my wings close to my body, and dived, dived, dived in a blur. I had to be mindful to not give into the euphoria from adrenaline, and beat my wings into the next updraft to continue my course. It is a singular experience to fly under your own power. You feel in control, you feel like you have no bearing, you feel brave, you feel scared, you feel so, so happy. And then, somewhere in there, for even a few moments at a time, like my father always told me from his flying days, "You hit that one moment where all those feelings are playin' the same song together, and then, life don't hurt no more." This joyful gift I was given as a flying Neopet was enough to give me strength. Yes, the strength to not panic and turn back when I saw the tops of those twisted, knotted, sickly trees. Their limbs looked like dessicated claws, clamoring to snatch me out of the air. I skimmed the top of the forest, as if daring them to test a Draik's burning breath, before beating my wings to stop over one area.

Narrowing the profile of my wings, I fluttered down to the forest floor. The grass was dead and withered, and little eyes peeked out from every cranny and recess. Rank brush squatted between most of the trees, and was attempting to reclaim the path I now stood on. I think what I found most abhorrent were the faces on the trees. They were uncanny and twisted, yet the more terrible fact was that they extended as far as my eye could see in every direction. I would not be evading their listless stare for a long, long time. I made haste to preoccupy myself with my map, while making sure that my pistol was drawn. With certainty, I knew that something went rustling away with recognition of the safety clicking off.

The map showed numerous landmarks of the area, and the main paths to be used. On a hunch, I looked off towards the closest landmark to this 'Pumpumpkin town.' That happened to be the Brain Tree. My eye tracked along to a path which went past the Brain Tree, towards Pumpumpkin Town. I looked off to my right. "Mother," I breathed. That fleshy bark, its mammoth size, that horrid mass of a brain cradled by its gnarled limbs...I had to wrench my gaze away from its terrible features, and focus directly ahead. By my reading of the map, if I had flown just a ways farther, I would have found myself directly above Pumpumpkin town. I did not wish to spend any time longer than I had to alone in this forest, so I began to trot along the path towards what I hoped to be a civilized town.

When I saw the low, crumbled masonry, wrapped in thorny vines, I tucked my gun away whilst I hurried through the ruins of a wall and gate. It was already growing dark, and cold, and foggy. The town was haphazardly built, with a hodge podge of architectures and building sizes. I could see little faces peeking out of the misshapen windows in a tower from the Darigan Citadel, while a decrepit Jetsam sat on a rocking chair in front of a Mystery Island hut. Yet in front of each house, on a little stone plaque, was their number. 1343, 1344, and yes, I found a sign that I had initially bypassed: "Amity Street," I mumured. I gulped, and walked down the street. I was very soon right in front of the house I had been sent to.

It was a little two-story affair, tightly fit between two much larger buildings, with a tall spiked fence around the lawn. The lawn itself had a narrow path, a small mailbox with a skeletal face poised to, perhaps, consume the hand of a courier, and a number of custom mutant 'Pet lawn gnomes. Beside the stairs were a pair of thorny black rose bushes, and beneath a pair of narrow, barred windows were flower boxes, filled with twisted gray and purple flowers. I made my way up the path, cautiously ascended the stone stairs, and extended my claw. I gently pressed the doorbell.

The result was a calamitous ringing of bells that made me jump halfway out of my scales. I was afraid, now, to come face-to-face with the Neopet I had talked to over the phone. Yet I had to do this job, do it bravely, and do it well. I had no more time to dither over my options, as the door handle - an onyx claw holding a fist-sized amethyst, carved into an eye - was being turned. As I stood there, ready to take the nuclear option and draw my gun, I was greeted by...Well, the red-clothed abdomen of a tall 'Pet. I looked up. Correction: a very, very tall pet. I had always been short for a Draik my age, but this was downright silly.

Gazing down at me with her vibrant, violet eyes was a lavender purple Zafara. She had long, straight, dark indigo hair, with a stark streak of magenta-pink in the left of her bangs. She wore an elegant, red and black dress, and as I am sure does not require reiteration, she was a towering Neopet. Beneath her sleeves, I could see that her arms were lean and fit; I did not begin to delude myself into believing I had any clue as to why this was so. She smiled down at me, then held her hands before herself. She slowly interwove her fingers, leaving her index digits to tap together idly. I had a creeping suspicion that my unease amused her.

I resisted the urge to snap. One, my parents had certainly taught me better than to scowl and snarl at a lady. Secondly, nine times out of ten, my assignments hinged upon my genial treatment of the client. I said calmly, "Ma'am, I am Zisk, the representative of the Neopian Bank you spoke to. I believe you wished for a loan, Ms...?" Oh, bother. In a stunning recall of my own absent-mindedness, I realized: I had never asked for her name. I must have still been either stunned by the fact that someone had called me personally for a loan, or, frazzled by the laughing fit my stagnant joke had elicited. I was about to speak, when a pair of narrow, but strong fingers gently closed my mouth.

"My name is Delphine," she said calmly. "Yes, I am the one who called you. Yes, I require a loan. No, that is not nearly the beginning of why I called you, just in case you were wondering." She grabbed me by the hand, and tugged me into the door. "Come in, come in! I will not abide by a gentleman like you staying in the cold a moment longer! We can talk over dinner!"

And then when she slung me inside and closed the door, darkness was all I saw.