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The Pianist's Quandary: Part One


by micrody

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He awoke with a start, cold sweat running down his face and wetting his blue fur. The light of Kreludor, shining brightly in the dark sky, fell in through his windows and draped his room with an eerie grey light. In the distance, he could hear a piano playing. Its song was solemn and without cheer. Everything that Faerieland was believed not to be. It pulled at his heart, causing a single tear to roll from his eyes and blend with the cold sweat that already covered his fur. Reluctantly, the blue Wocky slumped back in bed and closed his eyes, forcing the droning sonata to leave his mind so he could return to his restless sleep.

     The first night in a new Neohome was always the hardest.

     In the morning, when he dragged himself out of bed and away from the restlessness of his dreams, he delighted himself with a mug of Neopia's finest brewed tea and a fresh Faerie cupcake, carefully pulling off the wing-shaped, sugary treat from the top of the cupcake and dropping it into his mug for just the right amount of sweetness for his morning tea.

     Leaving the steaming cup behind, he walked to his door, opened it, and pulled inside the day's issue of the Neopian Times. He flipped through the newspaper, reading the headlines and allowing himself the treat of enjoying a few comics while he finished his breakfast before putting down the paper and preparing for work.

     A short time later, he was entering the Faerieland Employment Agency and walking to a decrepit machine that hung on the wall. It was attached to an old, towering clock that stood in the lobby and filled it with loud bells every hour, on the hour. He scanned through a list of names held in a file beside the machine until he found a card that read "MacKhoury, Nevan" and pulled out his job ticket. Feeding it into the machine, he pulled a lever and waited as the old gears turned, a loud, grinding noise echoing through the Agency's lobby, until the piece of paper was able to be pulled from the machine, a small date and number pressed into the stiff card.

     Though the machine, which some called a "time clock," was loud and bulky, it made the task of signing in each day much simpler for regulars to the Agency and saved on the cost of quills and ink or the more-expensive Faerie pens.

     The day before, he had come to the Faerieland Employment Agency to get acquainted with it and apply for a position. They were so desperately in need of help that he had been hired on the spot and instantly given his job ticket and identification card.

     Now taking his stamped ticket across the lobby, walking around a few Neopets who were simply admiring the building for its superb architectural qualities, Nevan walked up to the front desk where a pink Shoyru greeted him with a bright smile.

     "What would you like to do today, Mr. MacKhoury?" she asked the blue Wocky as she sifted through a pile of paperwork on her desk.

     "What have you got for me to choose from?" he answered with an excited grin.

     "Well," the Shoyru said, scanning through her piles of papers once more, "There's a Jetsam by the name of Jerard who needs two-dozen toothbrushes and half-a-dozen tubes of toothpaste (I think he might be a dentist), and then there's also a Cybunny who needs Slorgs removed form her garden; it's the tenth one this week. So, which will it be?"

     Nevan thought for a moment, considering the possibilities. "I've never been fond of dentists," he said finally, "so I'll go Slorg-hunting today." The Shoyru smiled, dipping a quill into a well of ink, writing something upon yet another note-sized piece of paper, then copying her note to have a copy to file, and then handed the piece of paper to Nevan.

     "She wants her garden Slorg-free within fifty-seven minutes and requests that you do not wear the color red. It seems to aggravate these particular Slorgs, but, considering how you're wearing brown, it should not be a problem. Her address is 17895 Meri Acres, Meridell, and she has provided fare for round-trip service of Uni Taxi." The pink Shoyru paused in her quick-winded speech and handed a small pouch of coins to Nevan. "That is all; have fun and have a nice day." As she waved farewell to her departing employee, she sighed and leaned back in her chair. The protocol at the Agency was an oral job description lasting no more than one minute. Just now, she had consumed fifty-three seconds.

     That night, Nevan returned home covered in slime and exhaustion. By "the tenth one this week," the receptionist hadn't meant that it had been the tenth Slorg in the Cybunny's garden that week, but that it was the tenth garden attacked by the slime-covered, exceedingly disgusting Slorgs that were apparently trying to conquer Meridell, a swarm that was likely the direct byproduct of a series of storms that Meridell had recently experienced.

     Nevan grabbed a quick shower and changed into his nightclothes, relieved and relaxed as he crawled into bed. He rolled over a few times until he got comfortable and closed his eyes. He started humming, unconsciously singing along with the piano as he fell asleep.

     In the morning, Nevan awoke and went to work, tackling yet another Slorg-infested garden (on his trip home, after picking up his payment from the receptionist at the Employment Agency, he considered finding a new job, or at least changing his reputation that said he actually enjoyed getting slimed over doing paperwork). When he finally got home, exhausted and slimy once again, he washed up and ate a plain omelette for dinner.

     That night, as he lay silently in his bed, he heard the piano playing once again. Its melody was haunting and solemn as usual. It seemed particularly loud on this very night, the image of Kreludor hovering somewhere over the other side of Neopia where it could not be seen, and could therefore shed no light upon the cloudy city of Faerieland.

     Instead of merely ignoring the music, as he did on previous nights, Nevan slid out of bed, grabbing his coat and wrapping it around him as he left his bedroom. He could still clearly hear the piano playing in his living room, and even in his kitchen and bathroom.

     He walked to his front door, unlocking it and turning the knob, and stepped outside. The cold night air was somehow soothing to his fur and the sky was lit by thousands and thousands of tiny stars. Somewhere, in the sky, the Space Faerie was flying, watching over all of them during the night.

     Nevan walked down the street, his slippers keeping his feet warm as he walked past each house, drawn towards the piano's music. The music was solemn, yet so beautiful, the melody undeniably the greatest one that he had ever heard in his lifetime. He closed his eyes, imagining a great ball room with hundreds of party-goers dancing to the music, their movements slow and languid, ever encompassing the somber tune.

     When he opened his eyes, though, he only saw the cold, dimly lit streets of Faerieland.

     Nevan made it about a block-and-a-half down the street before he finally stopped. He turned to his right, staring at an old, abandoned house. No one had lived there, the rumors had said, for over a hundred years. And yet, inside, someone was playing the piano...

     He walked up the steps that led to the house's door and knocked loudly, the knock echoing down the street in the darkness of this moonless night in Faerieland.

     Nobody answered.

     Tentatively, Nevan grabbed the doorknob, the metal cold beneath his paw, and turned it. The door came open. The air that he smelled from inside was musty and old; inside, the house was so dark that the Shadow Usul itself would have been terrified by its darkness.

     But the piano was definitely, unmistakably coming from inside this house.

     Nevan took a deep breath and stepped into the house, leaving footprints in the thick dust on the floor as he walked over it. The dust, he decided after a moment, was so thick that it crunched like snow in winter or in Happy Valley, Terror Mountain year-round. He walked through the dark house, little amounts of light falling in through the massive windows. Everything was dusty and covered in old, large, ancient-looking cobwebs.

     The Wocky stepped into another dusty, cobweb-filled hall and walked through it. The piano playing had gotten so much louder, and he could hear it so much more clearly, that he knew it had to have been coming from the next room. He walked up to the door, listening to the song behind it. He felt the doorknob in his hand as he opened the door and entered.

     Nevan gasped at what he saw, the pianist stopping mid-note and spinning around to face him. Horror crossed her face as she stared awe-struck at Nevan. The two Neopets shared a moment of silent wonder at the sight that befell them both.

     "Are you dead?" Nevan asked quietly, unable to keep the words from passing by his lips.

     The Neopet stared at him and blinked, but then she said, "I think I am dead; I mean, how else does one become a ghost?" She was, indeed, a ghost, a ghost Xweetok. She blinked again, waiting for her guest to say something. She continued when he did not. "Do you like my piano playing? I practice every night; I do not think I would be able to play in the daylight."

     Nevan nodded, snapping himself out of his daze. "I," he said slowly, not quite sure what to say. On the one hand, her playing was beautiful. But on the other, it was so dark... and lonely. "I," he said again, "really like your playing..." Nevan took a step forward, quietly asking, "What happened, I mean, how did you die?"

     "Well," she replied, "I do not know." She heaved a long, sullen sigh. "You see, quite a long time ago, I was playing my piano one morning. But then... I heard screaming from outside, but my father told me not to worry about it, to continue playing my piano as I always did. Then... there were these loud sounds, like explosions. My father told me to wait for him, that he would only be a moment. But... he was not just a moment. I got worried and went to the door. I opened it slowly... and peeked outside. I have no idea what I saw that day... the next thing I knew, I was here, playing my piano again."

     There was silence.

     Finally, the Xweetok turned back to her piano and whispered quietly, "I guess, simply, I died that day. But truthfully, I have never known what happened... " She shrugged painfully. "When I saw that I was a ghost, I just lingered here and continued to play my piano. Are not ghosts supposed to haunt abandoned houses, or did I mess that part up?"

     "No," Nevan said, shaking his head. "I suppose ghosts are supposed to haunt abandoned houses." He took a step closer to the Xweetok, tilting his head to see her better in the dim light. It was of no avail, however, for at that very moment, clouds had covered the blank Neopian sky and veiled them from the light of both Kreludor and the stars.

     "Oh, good," she sighed. "Am I doing it all right? I have never haunted anything before..."

     Nevan shrugged. "I suppose you're doing it alright; I mean, I think ghosts are supposed to be scary, but a nice ghost is a welcome change, I suppose." He paused, considering something. "Is it... is it possible that... that you aren't really dead, but just painted?"

     Her eyes were wide, "I never thought about that. But," she looked away, "what happens if I am really dead... how could we ever find out for sure?" Her voice trailed off...

     "I know," Nevan exclaimed, "you can see if you can walk through walls--if you can, you're a ghost and you're dead, but if you can't, you're alive and not a ghost."

     "But I am a ghost," she said, "and even if I am just painted and truthfully alive, I will still be a ghost." She sighed, changing the subject to something more natural and less confusing. "My name is Ellamara, what might yours be?"

     "Oh, I'm Nevan," he answered, surprised that they had forgotten to introduce themselves sooner. "Nevan MacKhoury."

     "Nevan," Ellamara asked quietly, "do you think you could find out if I am dead or alive?"

To be continued...

 
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