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A Hero's Journey: Masquerade


by precious_katuch14

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Part 1: No Good Deed

     The town hall of Nevermore Village in Neovia was a large but simple wooden building with a single floor, frequented by Crokabeks more often than Neovians. Elder Terrivin’s office was at the very back, indicated by a closed door with her name engraved on a brass plaque. And outside this door was a long bench completely occupied by four travellers.

     “I really hope Elder Terrivin can help us,” said a red Techo with a sigh. He let his staff, which was etched with old Lost Desert hieroglyphics, lean against the bench. “We’re out of money.”

     “Not quite,” a green Eyrie answered him, looking into a small pouch that jangled with a few Neopoints. “We have enough for a stay at the inn down the road, but not much else.” She replaced the pouch onto a loop at her belt.

     “And we need that inn because Mipsy fried our tents. And most of our supplies.”

     The blue Acara wearing green and yellow robes glared at the Techo. “It wasn’t my fault Hubrid Nox’s minions went for our stuff! I was trying to drive them off!” She folded her arms sullenly and sank into the bench. “I said I was sorry.”

     “We know,” the Eyrie reassured her. “But we still don’t know how to pay for food, potions and arrows. Maybe Nevermore has a monster problem we can solve for them?”

     Seated at one end of the bench was a white Blumaroo, who had remained in deep thought until now. “It seems peaceful enough. The monsters stay away from the outskirts, so the villagers aren’t in any real danger.”

     “As long as they stay here,” Mipsy observed.

     All conversation outside the office ground to a halt at the sound of two raised female voices.

     “…but you found nothing!”

     “I know you have that deed, Meredith!”

     “…won’t stand here and be insulted! I’m leaving!”

     Everyone on the bench fell silent and watched as the door was flung open by an imperious pink Ixi dressed in a dark purple suit coat and a neat black skirt. Perched perfectly on her head was a black pillbox hat with a veil and an overlarge rhinestone brooch shaped like a rose. She turned and exclaimed, “You’ve already had my property searched for that deed. Just admit that you’ve been careless with public documents!”

     “I know you had something to do with that missing deed!” a middle-aged ghost Aisha retorted, pointing to the Ixi named Meredith.

     “But where’s your proof?” Before Terrivin could answer, Meredith said, “You’ve got nothing!” With a huff, she strode away, paying no heed to the four travellers seated on the bench and leaving Terrivin to sigh and slump against her doorway. It took her a second to notice that she had guests, and she immediately straightened up.

     “Oh!” she exclaimed. “You’re the adventurers trying to figure out why the Haunted Woods has been constantly sunny, right? What brings you here?” Then she paused and gestured toward her office. “I’m Terrivin, Chief Elder of Nevermore. Please, come in, make yourselves comfortable.”

     As they shuffled inside, the Blumaroo was the first to speak. “I’m Rohane, and these are Mipsy, Talinia and Velm, my travelling companions.” As he mentioned each name, he gestured to the Acara, the Eyrie and the Techo, respectively. “We just came from Nox’s Mountains when we were suddenly ambushed by his minions. Unfortunately, we…lost a lot of our supplies, and we were hoping to replenish them here.”

     “We have a number of shops that would be more than willing to accommodate you,” said Terrivin, adjusting a painting depicting her with a Crokabek on the wall.

     “That’s another thing,” said Talinia tentatively. “We’re sorry to bother you, but we’re also looking for a job. We don’t have a lot of money left.”

     “I wonder if Terrivin can just pass through her desk,” Mipsy whispered to Velm, who shushed her.

     “I see,” said the Aisha as she sat back down at her desk, which was bare except for a few papers, a nameplate and a covered inkwell. Noticing that Terrivin simply went around to take her seat, Mipsy frowned briefly in disappointment. “Hmm, I can’t turn you away after everything you’re doing for the Haunted Woods, let’s see if I can think of something.”

     Rohane cleared his throat. “If it’s all right, did something happen between you and that Ixi?”

     “You mean Meredith?” Terrivin scowled and flapped a hand dismissively. “Meredith wants to build a hotel in the middle of Nevermore, and she’s been eyeing the village square and park as her location. I’ve told her many times that that property is not for sale; it’s for children to enjoy, and it’s where we hold festivals and markets. One day, the deed for that property went missing from the register of deeds, and the only evidence we found was a few clumps of dirt that likely came from Meredith’s mansion grounds.”

     “How did you know it was from her property?” Talinia inquired. “Also, couldn’t anyone else from the city hall have taken it?”

     “When we had her mansion searched, one of the elders took a sample of soil from her garden. It matches what we found from the register.” The ghost Aisha rested her elbows on her desk and steepled her fingers together. “Meredith denies having anything to do with the theft, and we didn’t find the deed when we searched her home. But she’s the only one I can think of with a motive to take the deed, which has a handwritten and ratified note stipulating that the land is only to be used as Nevermore’s village square. We also had everyone in the city hall investigated; all trails turned up cold, on that front.”

     Mipsy glanced at Terrivin’s elbows, which rested squarely on her table. “This Meredith sounds like a real rich jerk.”

     “Can you tell us more about her?” Rohane asked.

     “She’ll stop at nothing to expand her business here in Neovia,” Terrivin answered grimly. “Some taverns have been absorbed and merged into a huge hotel that she owns in the northern villages. She also throws extravagant parties for herself and her friends, like her annual New Year masquerade this week.”

     “Oh, right,” whispered Mipsy. “The year’s almost over, isn’t it?”

     “It’s easy to lose track of time when you’re travelling,” Rohane remarked.

     “Especially in the Lost Desert,” Velm added, groaning softly. “So much sand…”

     Terrivin nodded, then abruptly sat up straight in her chair. “Wait, I just thought of something you can do. All of Nevermore will be in your debt, and we’ll supply you with anything you need.”

     * * *

     Meredith’s mansion and garden were tucked within the heart of Nevermore, surrounded by stone walls and imposing steel gates. Today, it was festooned with streamers and multicoloured lights which twinkled even though the sun was still shining brightly over the Haunted Woods. Bare, gnarled trees were decorated with lanterns, and wreaths hung over almost every door and window. A light dusting of snow covered everything like frosting – a phenomenon that was somehow possible despite the sun never setting.

     Several Neopians were already showing up at the front doors, waiting patiently as a Halloween Lupe wearing a red and white jacket, a fake white beard and a mask of snowflake cutouts pored over the guest list.

     None of them noticed four new additions to the catering crew, whose entrance was the back door into the kitchens and who toted huge boxes with labels such as “Gingerbread Houses” and “Extra Masks”. Neither did they, or anyone else for that matter, notice the uninvited guests hide themselves in the ample pantry and change from their work clothes into outfits more appropriate for a masquerade party.

     “Look at this!” Mipsy exclaimed softly, admiring her reflection in a polished pan hanging from a hook. She patted her red wig in place and smiled before smoothing out her emerald-green gown. Her crystal-topped wand was clipped to the sash. “I wish Elder Terrivin could’ve given me some matching earrings.”

     “Well, she just rented these clothes for us. I don’t think they come with jewellery,” said Talinia as she strapped a leather case against her thigh. Her flowing dress was reminiscent of a gentle snowfall and had voluminous sleeves. “Don’t forget your mask, Mipsy. The last thing we need is someone recognizing us from the Neopian Times.”

     “Dibs on the earth faerie-style one!” the Acara proclaimed before clapping a hand to her mouth. “Right, should be quiet, sorry.”

     “Well? What do you think?”

     The girls looked up to see Velm wearing a long black wig and a ruffly red dress with a long skirt and a bodice. He twirled around, watching his skirt ripple, and fixed the long sleeves. He flashed what he hoped was his most winning grin under a delicate silver mask and struck a pose.

     Mipsy and Talinia clapped appreciatively.

     “You look gorgeous!” said Mipsy, as she put on her mask. “Super fabulous.”

     “And almost unrecognizable,” the Eyrie added approvingly.

     “And you guys were worried when Elder Terrivin could only rent one suit and three dresses for us,” said Velm, clucking his tongue. He picked up his staff from the crate that held all of their work disguises and looked around. His smile faded. “Ugh, I can’t bring my staff along, and I’m positive I’m going to need it.”

     “Maybe if we can find the deed quickly, you won’t have to cast a single spell.” Mipsy gave him an optimistic grin as he forlornly stashed the staff back into the crate. “Besides, Talinia and I are armed, Rohane is still dangerous without a sword…” Her voice trailed off and she glanced toward the back of the pantry. “Speaking of which, hey, Rohane, are you done dressing up yet? We’re all set!”

     The response was a somewhat frustrated, “Give me a minute!” punctuated with a grunt.

     “What’s wrong?” asked Talinia as she and the others strode toward where the white Blumaroo was wrestling with the cravat that would complete his ensemble. So far, it was looking more like a bunched-up knot of cloth over his black jacket, high collar, and waistcoat with gold brocade.

     “Nothing’s wrong, I’m just…tying my cravat!”

     “Do you even know how to tie a cravat?” Mipsy asked innocently.

     Rohane nodded, frowning as he stared down at his cravat and disentangled it again. “I do! It’s just…I haven’t worn one in years, that’s all.”

     His friends watched him for a few more seconds before the green Eyrie approached him and said, “Here, I’ll lend you a hand. I do this for my dad and brothers all the time.”

     “No, it’s okay, it’s…” Finally, he let go of his cravat, which seemed to be in much worse shape than before. “All right. I need help.”

     “You really should’ve just gotten a dress just like the rest of us,” Velm pointed out shrewdly.

     Rohane immediately shot down that idea while standing still for Talinia to tie his cravat properly. “I don’t think I’d look good in a dress.”

     “You never know until you try it!”

     “No.”

     “There, that should do the trick.” Talinia stepped back once she was done and breathed a sigh of relief. “We have to be careful, even a wrongly tied cravat could give us away.”

     “It’s not my fault I never needed to wear a cravat much,” said Rohane mulishly. He glanced at the others, dithering.

     “Are you trying to ask us how you look?” asked Mipsy. “’Cause you look pretty dashing!” Talinia nodded and smiled in agreement.

     “No, no…but thanks.” He blushed as he adjusted his collar. “I was wondering if I should bring my sword. I’d feel better if it were nearby. Just in case.”

     Velm combed out the bangs on his wig. “It’ll be really hard to hide that thing, though. You’ll be drawing way too much attention if you just wear it on your hip or your back.”

     “I know. It’s not like Mipsy’s wand or Talinia’s foldable bow and arrows…” Rohane paced the floor before staring straight at Velm and snapping his fingers. “Wait, I got it. I know a good hiding place.”

     “You do?” The Techo blinked. “But why are you looking at me?”

     To be continued…

 
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