Nightmare Masquerade: Part One
Tears of despair welled up in empty sockets before her consciousness had shuddered back into reality. The memories of her dream still danced upon her heart with the grace of a Tyrannian Skeith, and the all too vivid images of merriment, sunlight, and joy wrought her from a most unwelcome slumber. Lies, she thought sharply to herself. “LIES!” she shouted aloud, and sent a nearby flock of Crokabeks to flight.
She slowly extended each of her aching limbs to rise from the cold graveyard ground she had made her bed upon, nestled tightly between the protruding roots of a decaying Savage Sycamore tree. The glow of the moon illuminated her translucent skin and reflected softly off her bones as she picked her way around the delicate tapestry of web an ambitious Spyder had been weaving about her.
It may seem an inhospitable location for a nap, and indeed it was, but alas, that was the whole point. Fate had been cruel to the Aisha, and she had lost everything she had ever held dear in her heart, but the cruelty had no end, for her dreams continued to haunt her. They were not dreams of sadness and loss that infiltrated her sleep. Far worse, she dreamt of happiness and love so real that the pain of waking served only to intensify the emptiness of her existence. If only she could conjure up nightmares far worse than the bleak life in which she existed. Then, perhaps, the prospect of reality might become so much less… heartbreaking.
Failing once again in her attempt to entice a good nightmare, Alas shuffled along the lines of headstones feeling defeated, lost, and alone.
“Rumor…” a voice whispered quietly, “I know a Rumor that can help you.”
Alas whirled around to face the crumbling countenance of an Ominous Sentient Stone. It glared at her as if it had not spoken a word, but it studied her intently for a full minute.
“An apple a day keeps the sweet dreams at bay!” it pronounced, and with a bloodcurdling shriek, the face vanished back into the smooth surface of a nondescript grave marker.
Sentient Stones often spoke in riddles and possessed a distinct inability to offer a straight answer to any question, so generally none were asked of them. Both bemused and annoyed by the Stone’s characteristically cryptic outburst, Alas continued on her way but rolled the message around in her thoughts. Rumors. Apples. An apple a day. It occurred to her that the Stone must be referring to old Bart’s Apple Bobbing Cart, but she wasn’t thrilled by her revelation. The old Gnorbu wore an air of menace like a shroud and always seemed to have one too many secrets hidden under his hat. Feeling that she had nothing to lose though, Alas headed down the dirt path out of the graveyard and down into town, where she knew she would find the cart. Perhaps she could learn something useful from Bart, as long as she remembered to keep a close eye on her Neopoints.
It was not yet dawn, and the air was damp and heavy, which suited her mood just fine. Normally when she found herself awake during the small hours, she would wander the forest bordering Neovia singing softly and sadly to comfort herself. The ghostly glow of her transparent hide, often obscured by fog or rain, produced the suspicion that she was a maiden not of this world and should be avoided at all cost, lest you wished to join her sad patrol of the night. She welcomed the privacy.
It was not long before she smelled the burning wood of Vandebart Biggsby’s campfire and saw the familiar tattered red and white striped canvas of his apple cart. It was past midnight, and some night-dwelling Neopians were already lining up for their renewed chance at a valuable prize from the barrel.
“Silly fools,” she muttered. “Don’t they know everything is rigged here in the Haunted Woods? Hope and luck have no place here, and those who live here are as trustworthy as the Neovian grass is green.” (Note: for those who have never been to Neovia, what grass they have is actually quite grey.)
Feeling rather foolish herself, Alas walked delicately along the now cobbled path and took a place at the end of the line. She was paid no mind by the others, for she was a well-known sight in the area to most, and they avoided looking her in the eye socket or otherwise acknowledging her presence. She caught Bart giving her a curious look from the corner of his eye, but the cart proprietor went about his business entertaining and scamming his adoring customers with the utmost skill of his profession. Before long, Alas had worked her way to the front of the line and realized that she didn’t know what she planned to do when she had gotten there. Bart looked at her expectantly, and so she did the first thing that came to her mind. She approached the apple barrel, her reflection gazing back at her from the murky depths, and she drew in a sharp breath –
“Not so fast there, mah dear,” Bart objected as he stopped her forward motion with a firm hand on her shoulder. “I’ve not seen ye grace my humble apple bobbing cart before, and I think maybe ye don’t quite have the hang of it yet.” His eye glinted, and the corner of his mouth turned up into a charming half-smile.
Annoyed and mildly affronted by his presumptuous behavior, Alas backed up and glared at him.
“Look, I don’t even know what I’m doing here really. I came on a whim – the obscure ramblings of an Ominous Sentient Stone, and I’m probably wasting my time, except that, in fact I have nothing better to do anyway,” she blurted out.
At the mention of a Sentient Stone, Bart’s eyes quickly rounded and then narrowed, and he glanced around him.
“A Stone sent you, ye say? Well then that changes things a bit,” he said, his demeanor suddenly solemn. “The Stones know things, things I’ve no business to question, mind ye, and if you’re here on a Stone’s bidding, then say yer wish, hold yer breath, and come what may.” Bart backed up a half step from the barrel and gave Alas her space.
Once again, Alas approached the rim of the apple barrel and peered in at her rippling image in the water. With a quick glance at Bart (and a tightening grip on her Neopoints!), she plunged her head into the barrel and searched blindly for something to sink her teeth into. Her delicate feline jaw made contact, and she quickly whipped back her head to reveal a…. Green Tentacle Eraser.
“What a joke,” Alas sputtered as she spat the slimy eraser from her mouth. “I should have known better in the first place,” she grumbled loudly as she spun around to leave, brushing past the amused Gnorbu.
“Ye know, ye shouldn’t give up quite so easily,” he called to her as she marched back up the path, stirring up a cloud of dust in her wake. “A Stone’s words always ring true, but they may take their time to reveal their meaning to ye. Away with ye, then, until tomorrow.” Bart turned around to restock his barrel for the busy morning ahead and gave not another thought to the Aisha.
As it turned out, Alas did return the next day, exactly 24 hours later and exhausted from lack of sleep. Irritable and jaded, Alas waited in line once again, and the smug smile on Bart’s face only aggravated her mood further. The air was still, but the surface of the water stirred uneasily. This time when she reached the barrel, she clenched her teeth together, took a long deep breath, and plunged her head into the barrel determined to come out with an apple this time.
One second... Three seconds... Five seconds...
With a splash, Alas flipped her head back again, with an imposter apple clenched in a wicked grin and flames dancing in the sockets that should have held eyes.
“Success!” Bart shouted gleefully, as he did love for his customers to win something they truly wanted.
Feeling rather pleased with herself, Alas took a most unladylike bite out of the apple, and without warning, collapsed in a heap on the ground. His joy replaced quickly with frantic dismay (how must this look to his other customers?!), Bart was only mildly comforted to hear the loud snoring purr of an Aisha overcome by a sudden and deep slumber.
Unaware of Bart’s predicament, Alas found herself transported and in immediate danger. No longer at the Apple Bobbing Cart, Alas sprinted down a cold, dark corridor as a skeleton shot arrows at her. She was indoors, but it was drafty and in great disrepair, and she was almost as afraid of the walls falling down upon her head as she was of the skeleton behind her. The arrows stopped flying, and Alas took a moment to catch her breath. A moment was all she had, though, before a hungry zombie appeared to give chase. She took off again, adrenaline pumping through her veins, but before she had gotten far, she slipped on a glob of glowing ghostly residue. Unable to keep her balance, Alas crashed to the stone floor and scrambled through the doorway of a nearby room.
The unexpected scent of cinnamon rolls wafted towards her, and Alas ventured deeper into the cavernous room she found herself in. Soon she heard laughter and saw candles flickering from around the corner. She crept closer with her heart in her throat, and when she rounded the corner, she discovered that she had stumbled upon a cultist tea party. The participants were the stuff of nightmares – mutants, zombies, monsters, and mummies, and their terrible eyes were fixed upon Alas in a single ghoulish gaze. One particularly decrepit figure turned to face her, and with a chilling cackle, it stripped the flesh from its face to reveal – it looked just like Alas! She turned and fled from her doppelganger, even as invitations to become their mascot followed her back out into the corridor.
(Note: If you have not yet guessed where it is that Alas has ended up, you are not alone. Neither has she.)
Alas’ nightmare continued in this way for what seemed like hours, as she navigated through endless corridors that wound into an indecipherable maze. There seemed to be no exit nor window to the outside world, and each room Alas explored held a more terrifying discovery than the last. It also did not escape her attention that these rooms, dark and uncared for as they seemed, were lavishly decorated and must have been quite the sight to behold in their day. Expensive furniture, the remnants of imported fabrics and silks, priceless trinkets and artwork – all were the telltale signs of a rich and glorious past.
Amid all the strange happenings in this place, however, there was something particularly unsettling that happened each time Alas walked past a mirror. She never saw her own reflection. She wasn’t certain, but it seemed to be the shadowy figure of a Draik that peered back at her. It was never visible for long enough to be sure.
As Alas was beginning to wonder how she would ever return to Neovia, an unexplainable thing occurred (as they often do when one is dreaming), and the next mirror she gazed upon seemed to be no mirror at all, but a window into a large, extravagant ballroom where the most gloriously decadent masquerade ball she could imagine was underway. Overwhelmed by the brilliant sights and sounds before her, Alas dashed into the adjacent room to join the revelry, and –
She opened her eyes to the pale and worried expression etched across the face of Vandebart Biggsby...
To be continued…