Stachetastic: the Hair-Raising Origin - Part Eight
The storage room of the Grooming Parlour was messier, if not just as messy, as the last time Norman had entered it. Boxes full of beauty supplies and grooming items were stacked, but more were carelessly lying half-open on the floor, and even more were empty but were tossed aside like a particular Blue Grundo Plushie. The lone lightbulb was dangling from the ceiling by a mere thread of wire, holding on for dear life as though it would fall into the cardboard jaws of the boxes below.
Ms. Wyndham seemed to be the only thing in the room with any sense of order. Her business suit was crisp and well-pressed, and her deep magenta fur was sleek and shiny. Even the wrinkles on her face seemed to have an orderly quality to them as she concentrated on slipping just the right amount of shampoo into her experimental wooden cauldron.
Norman let out the barest hint of a sigh and tried to smooth down the matted hair on top of his head. Ms. Wyndham's ear twitched, a sign she sensed his presence.
"Finally ready to come back in, aren't you, Norman?" the Kougra purred without turning around. "Good. We've been a little short-staffed these days." She tossed a blue jelly sword into the large wooden bucket as if she was merely sweeping the floor. The Lupe watched the sword fall with a gloopy splash as his ears detected the semi-concealed iron in her tone.
"No, Ms. Wyndham. I'm here for a different reason," said Norman sheepishly, watching the contents in the bucket change color with every item she added to it. It took away from having to face her steely grey eyes. Norman watched the brew glow bright pink, then pale blue, then a deep purple.
"You can't quit." Ms. Wyndham continued her work and said this as indifferently as if she was merely going to shop for groceries.
"But—I have a perfectly good reason—"
"As do I." She tipped the contents of a bottle of Supersize! into the bucket, whose contents turned a vivid green. "Nobody but a select few understands the delicate art of grooming. As such, our sales have been plummeting, and other shop owners like Kauvara have been profiting beyond their, and our wildest dreams. I've mentioned before that you were one of the best we have." The Kougra did not change her facial expression but Norman could hear the barest hints of a growl rising from her throat, almost as if he was imagining it.
The Kougra raised the pitch of her growl ever so slightly. The doors to the storage room shut themselves and locked, apparently at her rumbling command. Norman gulped. "But I have to quit. I don't think I can... what are you doing?" he asked, tension rising in his stomach and muzzle with every passing second.
"I've tried to take off pressure, Norman, but you need to come back to the job and accept responsibility for your actions." The Kougra rummaged through the a few boxes in the storage room and fetched a thin wooden spoon, stirring the viscous contents of the bucket. "You were the one who tampered with my experiment, and I struggled to apprehend you, but you disappeared or helped a customer every chance you got. That brew would have created the softest conditioner that would have boosted our sales through. The. Roof." Ms. Wyndham twitched her tail and stepped over a box to approach the bucket. "Oh, I tried to replicate it, I tried over the course of many sleepless nights and mugs of Azzle coffee, but it was a once-in-a-lifetime brew. And you destroyed it."
"My brew did something to you, didn't it?" she hissed, her growl increasing in volume.
"It wasn't my fault!" Norman blurted, stepping back towards a box. "I tripped! It's just really messy in here." His first instinct was to slip his tail between his legs and whimper, but he had had enough of being submissive, especially to his boss—she'd just shoved him around, grunted, gave him encouragements only rarely—
Remembering this, Norman growled without realizing it, feeling power rise in his muzzle.
Ms. Wyndham waved him off with one paw. "Excuses, excuses. You alone have doomed the fate of the Grooming Parlour, and you alone must pay."
Norman ducked behind a stack of boxes as Ms. Wyndham picked up the bucket and upturned it onto her head. He watched in horror as her muscles bulged, her spine stretched, her features elongated, and her fur turned to jelly as her tail turned into a jelly-like sword.
The new Ms. Wyndham stared down at herself with interest. She was at least twice as tall as she had been before. "Ah, so my research has paid off after all!" she crowed, extending her claws. "Now," she crowed in an unnaturally deep voice. "Face me!"
Norman felt a familiar tingling sensation in his muzzle as his moustache grew to its full length, coiling around a stray box or two.
Feeling empowered, the Lupe leaped to the top of a stack of wooden crates, all klutziness lost. Ms. Wyndham burst out laughing. It was not a pleasant laugh at all, vaguely reminiscent of Cobralls and the Snow Beast. "A moustache?!" She guffawed. "You were given a moustache?!" She wiped away a pink jelly tear. "O-of all the powers to get, you got a really long moustache. That's truly pathetic." She paused. "Still," she mused, stomping closer and stroking the moustache. "Fur as soft as this would certainly fetch a high price. And who says it has to stop at just the moustache?" Her voice became dangerously low. "Anything to revive the Grooming Parlour."
The Lupe pulled his moustache tendrils towards him, a shock of fear running through him at her meaning.
The Kougra roared and lunged towards him, turning round at the last second and slashing her tail at his moustache. It sliced through both halves of the moustache cleanly, and the tendrils collapsed, defeated, into neat heaps on the floor.
"Now you're just plain Norman, the clumsy Lupe who can barely get a word in edgewise." Ms. Wyndham shoved her quivering jelly face dangerously close to Norman's. "And you will be punished for what you've done, and boy will I get my money's worth for that moustache of yours. It'll take forever to grow back, now!"
At this, Norman started. Fifteen minutes, and the moustache would be at its full length again!
Fifteen minutes, though, and he would be a goner.
Norman's heart pounded against his chest as though it wanted to break out of his rib cage. Come on, moustache. Norman took a deep breath, backing away from the rabid Jelly Kougra. She roared again and slashed at his cheek, which cried out in hot pain. Norman ducked under a ladder and shoved it towards her.
Ms. Wyndham lifted the ladder and tossed it aside as if it were a toothpick. "And once we're done here, you can go back to work if your employment hasn't been terminated by the time I'm done with you." She grinned a devilish grin as she pushed away the ladder and leaped over a stack of boxes and cleaning supplies to try and get to him.
Norman touched his sticky cheek, wincing at the warm pain surging in response to the touch of his paw.
Moustache, you don't have to grow right now if you don't want to. But it would really help right now. Norman tried to rein in his swirling mind and tried to ignore the crazy Kougra trying to attack him.
"Let's end this!" The Kougra roared again, making Norman's ears ring with the sheer volume of her voice. She lunged towards him, springing from her crouch into a graceful jelly arc.
Norman's moustache sprouted to its full length and shoved itself at her, effectively stopping her jump. With adrenaline and confidence coursing through him, Norman sprang across the room and landed delicately on the boxes where Ms. Wyndham had just been. "I'm not just a Lupe. I'm a Lupe that cares." Before Ms. Wyndham could react, Norman sent his moustache tendrils around her legs several times over, causing her to trip with a mighty thud that sent nearly all of the boxes in the storage room into the air.
The force from the impact rippled through her body and she shook and seemed to flash in a flurry of silver, yellow, and pink. Ms. Wyndham groaned and tried to struggle to her forefeet. "No..." she moaned. Her mouth wavered and seemed slack, as though it was about to slide right off her face. "Not the Krawkite and Faerium..." her voice shook as she curled into a tight ball. "The most powerful combin... ation..."
Norman just barely had enough time to take cover between several shelves of shampoo before pink jelly blasted itself all over the walls, ceiling, floor and boxes of the storage room. The Lupe looked sadly at the mess, and was even more saddened by the flecks of silver and yellow in the jelly. "Is unstable," he finished.
"All she'd wanted was her business to thrive..." he found himself saying, and startled himself at the thought. Wasn't that the Kougra who had been watching him since the day of the incident? Who had just tried to seriously injure the Lupe? Who had wanted his moustache, and more?
And yet... she had been a rightfully strict boss, in a way. Her rules and regulations kept the Grooming Parlour in order, and she did not tolerate any questioning or insubordination, just as any boss should have.
The Lupe's ears pricked up, registering a groan so faint it seemed like it was coming from inside his head. He picked his way around the room, trying desperately not to step on the blobs of jelly. There lay his boss, still covered in pink jelly, but with her old fur back on her body. Her business suit was also slick with jelly and was in complete disarray. He poked at her with one tendril of his moustache, and she groaned again, louder this time. The Lupe took a deep breath and looked around uneasily. He couldn't just leave her here, as crazy and greedy as she was.
Norman set her gently on his shoulder as easily as he would a bubble mote, and left the storage room of the Grooming Parlour via the emergency exit. This was, after all, an emergency. Even so, the Lupe snipped off his moustache before leaving the building. He would attract enough attention already.
Ms Wyndham opened her eyes a crack. The Kougra saw the sign of the NeoHospital, saw who was carrying her without moving her head, registered nothing but blinding pain, and closed her eyes.
The doctors of the Neohospital all raised an eyebrow when they saw an unconscious magenta Kougra, covered in jelly, being carried by a Lupe. "It's kind of a long story, but my boss attacked me and dumped an unstable potion on herself. It had Faerium, Krawkite, and a jelly sword, but I don't know what else she put in there." He noticed her tail was only in the shape of a sword, but it didn't appear to have any cutting properties anymore. Norman wiped some jelly off of his shoulder and his neck. "She fell and suddenly exploded. Maybe it was the instability of both compounds?" Norman suggested, feeling a tiny rush of pride through him at being able to use what he'd learned in Sophie's house.
"She will be okay." A green Gelert stroked the slippery hide. "Give her a few days, and most of the Faerium and Krawkite will disintegrate over time, unless they fully fused themselves to some part of her body." Norman brought a paw to his moustache, grateful that the same hadn't happened to him.
"From what you told me, most of the compounds exploded right off of her in the jelly," the Gelert continued, patting the Lupe on the head. "Even so, she needs to be watched carefully for any of several possible side effects. You did the right thing in taking her here right away."
As Norman watched his boss being wheeled away on a stretcher, the Gelert waved to him before disappearing around a corner. "You're a lifesaver, you know that?"
Norman looked down at his paws, grinning childishly and growing warm with the Gelert's words. "I know," he whispered to himself, feeling his moustache tingle at the truth.
Like a true Defender. Norman thought to himself before reeling back and looking at himself. The Defender Dance was to take place in just a few hours, and there was Norman in the NeoHospital with his moustache a fraction of its former length, drenched in jelly, and in his Grooming Parlour uniform besides! The Lupe scurried out the door and back home, convincing his moustache to grow just a little slower at least until he got a proper opportunity to display the moustache in its full length glory.
Soft waves of brilliant moonlight flooded the moor just outside Neopia Central's Marketplace.
The multitude of Neopians under the light of the moon disregarded it with the use of several tall lamps, torches, and stage lights as they bustled together, conversing over punch about their costumes and their lives. Sticks n Stones was playing onstage, and several Neopets were dancing to their music by themselves as well as with each other.
One Aisha in a Fyora dress and a feathered lavender mask felt alone, but not so alone she couldn't enjoy herself with socialization and a red plastic cup of fruit punch. "No, it's not my first time here, and yes, Gerald, I adore Kadoaties." She beamed, petting the elated yellow Kadoatie on her shoulder. She took a delicate sip of punch, as delicate as she imagined the Faerie Queen herself would. "The first time I have had the opportunity to mingle with you lovely folk was when the Jelly Chia ran rampant 'round these parts." Lenora grinned to herself. She sounded so much like a queen—as much as she could force herself to sound like one, anyhow.
"That's a darned shame, madam." The Grarrl on her left, decked in armor, thumped Lenora on the back. "Usually these parties are the highlight of the season, and sometimes we get more than one per season, if we're lucky. A Defender comes by almost every time, and someone is always out there with new dance moves." The Grarrl smiled with all of his teeth and punched the air to demonstrate.
Lenora laughed, but carefully. The laugh had to seem genuine, graceful, and not as though she was laughing at him (which, in truth, she was). When she had the decency to recover, the Aisha asked, "Do you often get to dance with the Defenders yourself?" A tiny smile formed on the corner of her lip, for she knew the answer—regarding herself, at least. Amaryllis purred smugly after taking a sip from Lenora's cup, as though she knew the answer, too.
"Rarely. I did get to dance with Aisheena once. Boy, can that Aisha spin." The Grarrl chortled, displaying his teeth once more.
A wind blew by, nearly extinguishing half of the torches.
For the first few seconds, nobody noticed anything, but a baby Acara in a masquerade mask had the intuition to look up and see a faint shadow of a figure with something long, perhaps tentacles, swinging from the high lamps and torches.
"It's that Lupe from last time! I'd recognize that moustache anywhere!" the Acara squeaked, pointing up at him with one paw. "Is he... a Defender?"
The Acara's shrill voice carried quickly, and silence whooshed through the crowd like a candle's flame being blown out.
The Lupe whizzed through the air, his moustache trailing behind him along with his silver cape for a mere second before they reached out in front of him to grab the next lamp. He arced elegantly through the air, somersaulted twice, and landed neatly on the stage in the middle of Sticks n Stones. The band moved away from him, feigning surprise at his sudden and dramatic entrance. One band member winked at the Lupe, and, if one looked closely enough, he would see that he winked back at him.
Whispers of "New Defender," echoed through the crowd as Norman waved a paw, addressing the scores of Neopians at last. "Uh... hi," the Lupe said awkwardly, not sure how to carry himself. His eyes and Lenora's eyes met through their respective masks, and he felt marginally more confident.
At that precise moment, the Jelly Chia burst into the clearing (sans the roar) taking great care not to step on anyone. He bowed and waved, rumbling in greeting.
"Ah--! Ladies and gentlemen, don't worry one bit!" Norman waved his long moustache tendrils to regain their attention. "He's learned to dance, and will not squash any one of you." Stachetastic held out a paw. "Observe."
Norman was doubly grateful for the Jelly Chia's distraction: for one thing, he was not sure what to say, and for another, he was able to reflect on his ability to follow the Chia's bread map to his home, and on teaching the Jelly Chia what he knew about dancing.
As if on cue, the Jelly Chia wobbled, twirling as he did so, shaking like the jelly he was meant to be. "Looking good, Jelly Chia!" Stachetastic called from the stage.
The crowd was somewhat reassured and did not keep as much distance from the Chia.
"But wait!" the Baby Acara who spotted him shouted in his shrill voice. "We know who he is, but who are you?"
Norman grinned widely. It had been the first time in a long time since he could fully answer that question.
"That's easy. I'm Stachetastic."