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The Mask of Calendroh: Part Two


by laurelinden

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The winged lady who opened the door was more stunning now, standing before her, than Kelley had seen even in her vision. Some strange part of her wanted to bow down, as if insisting that a figure of such flawless beauty should not go unworshipped.

    Smiling with a perfect arc of her lips, the lady said, "Come in, child. What a lovely costume." The words tumbled out in a low, harmonious melody of sound, with all of the richness required to match her exquisite appearance.

    The Acara's heart swelled with pride as she allowed the beautiful faerie to guide her inside. They would be friends; she knew it. Just like in her vision.

    * * * * *

     "Well, this way looks promising," Joren muttered from behind his ghost sheet. The three had followed the winding paths of the town out to where the houses, once closely-packed, began to dwindle. Now they hadn't seen a house for miles. "If we ever do end up finding a house, it's got to be hers," he said.

    Ruben didn't look as confident. "You're sure the story says she lives on the outskirts of the city?" he asked. "And what about the other route out of town, the main road?"

     "The main road stays broad and open until it reaches the next city," replied Claire briskly. "If the story is true, then this is the only way we have a chance of finding her. Make sure you keep your eyes open, though - a few centuries of forest growth is enough to make some pretty good camouflage."

    Ruben continued behind them without further reply, pausing only to cast a worried glance at the ever-darkening sky.

    * * * * *

    The house was like a palace. Kelley gazed in wonder at the beautiful engravings carefully etched along the walls, and the way the orange of the sunset seemed to intensify as it passed through the glass of the windows, filling the inside of the house with fiery light. There seemed to be almost a tangible magic in the air, covering everything with a mystical aura. Maybe she could see it even more clearly if she took off the mask.

     "Please leave it, my friend," said the lady in her rich tones as the Acara lifted her paws. "It looks so nice on you. Perhaps at midnight, when Halloween is over, you should take it off."

     "Yes, mistress," replied the Acara faintly, dropping her paws to her lap. She smiled - leaving the mask on was such a little thing, an easy thing, to do, if it made the lady happy. She should do all she could for her, to repay her for the kindness of bringing her into this dream.

    The Acara sighed with joy, staring around her as if she could never hope to see enough. Strange that the room never seemed to stay the same - little delightful objects kept appearing where she swore they hadn't been before... the walls kept changing their shades... but perhaps it was only the sunlight as it faded to a deeper orange gold.

    * * * * *

    The three walked in silence, now, and even Claire couldn't hide the fact that she was beginning to grow nervous. The sky was bruising purple, and the shadows of the forest's crooked trees were long across the path before them.

    Ruben gave a little shiver. "Shouldn't we be close?" he asked, rubbing his arms vigorously against the evening chill.

     "We should be," Claire admitted. "The story said only that she lived on the city outskirts, not hours into the woods."

    Wrapping his ghost costume tightly against him, Joren peered into the trees. "I hope we didn't pass it."

    Ruben let out a mournful wail. "If we passed it, there's no chance of saving her! We'll never find the house once the sun sets!"

     "Come on," said Claire, smiling encouragingly, "you're the lucky one! Use some of that good fortune of yours to point us in the right direction."

    The Blumaroo looked as if he'd swallowed a Kookith. "Good fortune is what caused this," he muttered. "It was my luck that made Kelley jealous of me in the first place - my luck that made her cling so tightly to that accursed mask!" He withdrew his trusty Dice-a-Roo dice from his pocket, glaring at them with disgust. "Here's what I think of luck!" he cried, throwing the dice into the woods with all of his might.

    Rather than falling to the ground with the soft plop!they expected, the three heard another noise entirely: plink!.

    Ruben looked at the other two uncertainly, as if not trusting his own hope. "Was that..."

    Beaming, Claire finished the sentence for him. "...the sound of dice hitting glass? I think it was! Come on, this way! The house must be right behind those trees!"

    * * * * *

    The scent was intoxicating. Kelley stared longingly at the golden chalice before her, and at the clear liquid gently bubbling inside. She took another deep, blissful breath of the misty wisps rising from the goblet, wanting nothing more than to put the liquid to her lips and taste its sweetness. Though she hadn't felt need of food or drink before, the mere sight of the chalice made her throat dry with thirst.

    Only the lady's smile matched the beauty of the chalice and the loveliness of its scent. She lifted her hand kindly, fixing Kelley with the gaze of ageless eyes. "Perhaps we need not wait until midnight," she said softly. "Darkness is here. You may try a sip, if you'd like. I'd be pleased to know your opinion."

    Kelley's paws all but shook with eagerness as she reached toward the chalice. The lady wished her to drink it! Part of her had been convinced that a beverage of such perfection could never be intended for her.

    She raised the goblet to her lips, glad that she could taste the drink without having to remove the mask - it covered only the top of her face. Now the lady would be even more pleased with her. Trembling, she felt the liquid brush her lips...

    Plink!

    Kelley jumped, sloshing some of the beverage down her front. The faerie lady rose abruptly, and the expression that flashed across her face sent chills down the Acara's spine; it had not been one of beauty.

    The lady, however, seemed to regain her composure, and gave Kelley her loveliest smile. "Be so kind as to wait a moment, my friend," she asked in melodious tones. "I believe we may have company."

    * * * * *

     "Someone really lives here?" asked Joren in wonder. The shambles of ancient wood were almost completely covered by moss, giving the eerie appearance of being half-swallowed by the forest.

    Ruben picked up his dice from the forest floor. The space they had struck was one of very few visible from behind the tangle of vines. "Better keep these," he muttered. "They seem to be luckier than even I gave them credit for."

    Claire began to circle the house. "How should we get in?" she asked. "Some sort of sneak entrance? I don't think we can very well walk in the front door."

    A voice behind them caused all three to jump. "Welcome, friends. I am sure all of you would like to come in."

    Claire paled as she gazed at the figure standing before them. "Or maybe we can," she whispered.

    * * * * *

     "I demand you release my sister at once!" cried Ruben, struggling against the witch's power.

    She smirked coolly. "I don't believe you are in the position to make demands." With only one upraised hand she constricted the mobility of all three, pinning their arms to their sides and forcing their legs to carry them to the door. A flick of her finger opened it, and her magic pushed them inside.

    The sight of the place was enough to distract Ruben from answering. Mold spread across the dank, rotting wood, which was so old that the walls seemed to cave inward upon themselves. The only light that permeated the dimness of the inside came from a few sputtering candles lying amid a pool of their own wax. The Blumaroo's lip curled in disgust. "Where's my sister?"

    A subtle hand gesture changed the ebb of the magic to a new direction. "Your sister is this way," replied the witch. "You may see her, if you'd like - if only to say goodbye. I think you will find her quite happy here."

    * * * * *

    Kelley looked up from the vision of the glass before her as she heard the light footsteps of the lady returning. But with the graceful footfalls were the careless heavy tromping of several other feet, most distasteful to her ear.

    She wrinkled her nose in disgust as she surveyed them; they looked even worse than they sounded. There were three of them - three intruding strangers - slack-faced and dull-eyed, with matted, filthy fur. Their clothes were a tattered mess of mud and frayed strings - their very presence were a disgrace to the perfection and beauty of the lady's house.

    The lady was smiling at her. "My friend, shall I invite our guests to sit with you?"

     "Can't you send them away?" Kelley asked, waving vaguely at them with a paw. The golden goblet before her seemed to call to her mind, as if growing impatient. She didn't want to be distracted by the unkempt lot standing before her.

    The lady shook her head. "No, they have traveled far to get here. I am afraid they can never go home. They can sit with you, or they can wait below in the dungeons until they are useful." Her eyes sparkled as she spoke, as if she were amused.

     "I don't care what happens to them," muttered Kelley, eyeing the goblet thirstily.

    The lady smiled wider. "But you must decide, my friend. You can choose for them whatever you like." She looked near to laughing, though Kelley couldn't see what was so funny.

     "The dungeons sound fine," the Acara said shortly. "Can I drink this now?"

    With a sudden movement, one of the three strangers threw something at her - two somethings. They landed noisily right in her golden chalice, spilling precious drops of the liquid inside onto the lacy tablecloth.

    Kelley glared as she leaned forward to scoop the foreign objects out. She knew she would drink the liquid regardless, but she hoped that whatever had been thrown in wasn't too dirty. It would be a shame to spoil the clarity of the beverage.

    As the Acara reached a paw in, she blinked. Something prodded at the back of her mind... it stirred, as if calling up a memory long forgotten. She withdrew the two items - they were dice.

    The lady's eyes turned sharp. "What are those?" she asked, and a little bit of the melody was gone from her voice - her tone sounded demanding. "Give those here."

    Kelley frowned. Something wasn't right. The liquid was a pale brown... the dice had been dirty after all. But the goblet didn't seem so shiny anymore. She dropped the dice, and reached a paw up to her face.

     "Leave the mask on, my friend," commanded the lady. Her lips pressed together in a white line, and the strangers bent double, shoved by some unseen force. Kelley's hand stopped halfway for a moment, unsure... but then both flew up and she pulled the mask from her face.

    Her mind reeled at what she saw. The house was a wreck. The room she'd been in was almost completely dark, covered in layers of cobweb and stinking of mold. All of the delicate engravings she'd seen were gone, replaced by pale fungus-like growths inching up the walls. The table that had been set out before her was really no more than a stool covered by a rotting cloth, and her golden goblet was a wooden cup. The mud-colored concoction inside boiled thickly, emitting a dark steam.

    Repulsed, Kelley looked up to the lady. Or who had been the lady.

    The winged creature was bent with age, her hair stringy and white. Clawed fingers clutched a walking stick, but her eyes had the same ageless quality. Rather than looking beautiful, though, they looked distorted. They didn't belong.

     "Foolish brat!" the faerie sorceress spat in a voice like rusty tin. She lifted her hand, and Kelley felt the constraint around her throat, cutting off her air. She put her paws to her neck, but there was nothing to pull away.

     "Leave her alone!" cried a voice, and the hold loosened. Kelley bent double, gasping for air, and looked up. It was her brother! He had knocked the faerie on the head with an ancient candelabra - she was dazed.

     A dark Draik robed in white extended a claw. "Come on," he said in a gentle voice.

    Kelley hesitated. After all the things she'd seen tonight, she wasn't sure who to trust or what to believe.

    But then she caught her brother's eye. "It's all right, Kelley," he said. "You're safe now."

    She took the Draik's claw.

    * * * * *

    It felt good to be inside, with warm candlelight before them and hot chocolate in their bellies. Outside the wind could moan and the trees could shake, but none of it could reach them here.

    The four Neopets sat along the couch, relaxed at last. Joren chuckled. "Forget candy," he said. "Now this is what Halloween is all about."

    Claire shot him a quizzical look. "What, almost being drained of our youths by a crackpot old sorceress?"

    Laughing, Joren shook his head. "I was talking about the hot chocolate."

    Kelley alone seemed troubled. She studied her paws, folded in her lap, and had scarcely said a word all the long walk back.

     "Kel, are you doing okay?" Ruben asked, for what must have been the dozenth time.

    Finally, she nodded. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "I risked all of your lives. I should never have put you through that. I just... I thought the mask would make me happy."

    Claire put an arm around her shoulder. "It was a spell, sweetie. It was designed to make you feel that way. Otherwise how do you think Calendroh would have lured Neopets to her home?"

     "We won't be seeing more of her, I hope, by the way?" interrupted Joren, reaching for another mug of chocolate.

     Claire shook her head. "I don't think so. The story says she must steal the youth of a pet every fifty years. We stopped her this year, and she won't live another natural fifty."

     After a few moments, Kelley spoke again. "Sorry for losing your lucky dice, Ruben," she said. "I think I left them back at the old witch's house."

    Ruben smiled, and squeezed her shoulder. "That's all right; I've had my fill of them. I think they must have used their luck up by now anyway. It was a lucky shot when I threw them - none of us could move or speak except for that little motion of my wrist. Just enough to distract you, and her."

    Sniffing, Kelley wiped her eyes. "Ruben?"

     "What?"

     "I'll buy you some new dice, okay? And maybe we can visit Roo Island again - together."

     Ruben grinned, and handed her a mug of hot chocolate. "It's a deal."

The End

 
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