Spotlights And Sunsets
Zari had one dream in life, and that was to star in her own dance performance at the Arena in Tyrannia. She was only a young Kau when she first saw a poster of Jub Zambra and the Cobrall Charmers; she couldn't help but stare at the beautiful Aisha dancer with admiration and awe. So from that moment on Zari knew what she wanted to do with her life and started taking dance lessons. At first it had been hard to find a dance teacher who would take her seriously but eventually she found a kind Elderly Ixi called Luta, an accomplished dancer in her youth, who believed her conviction and took the young Kau as her protégé.
Many years later found Zari waiting in a dressing room with around twenty other dancers; they were holding open auditions to support Yes Boy Ice Cream when they next played at the Arena. Usually there was a choreographed solo or group dance before the main attraction to warm up the crowd and generally the dancers' clothes were designed to fit the style of the band they were supporting. For example with Yes Boy Ice Cream it was likely to be set to electronic music with lots of neon colours and fast movements.
Zari took one last chance to check herself in the mirror. She had chosen a bright yellow flowing shirt and long skirt, topping it off with a red cloak but had to cringe as she felt clashed horribly with her brown colouring. She never normally wore clothes this bright but felt she had to do *something* to help her stand out from everyone else. Behind her she could see Acaras, Kacheeks and Cybunnies practising their routines with confidence, grace and ease. Zari had been coming to these auditions for so long now that no one stared at her anymore, not like when she first started - elegance and poise were not words one usually associated with her species. Luta had spent a long time working with her patiently, encouraging her and helping her to adapt movements so they were easier for her to perform. Zari owed her so much and hoped for the day her mentor could come and watch her perform on a real stage in front of a real audience.
She stood up when her name was called out by a Bori stagehand she knew as Bayani. He was stood at the door to the practise studio; he recognised her and gave her a nod as he held open the door for her, closing it behind her.
"Break a leg," he whispered as she handed over the music CD she was using for her set. Zari gave him a weak smile in response. She always felt so nervous when she performed in front of the audition panel. Two of the judges were always the same, a Starry Lutari and a Pastel Xweetok. The third was usually a representative of the band they were backing up. Zari had performed for this Disco Shoyru on more than a few occasions. He didn't usually say much, leaving it to the other two.
"Ah, Zari! Nice to see you again!" The Xweetok greeted her with a smile; her name was Arla and she looked pleased to see her every time she came. However, her Lutari colleague, Shen, had become less and less welcoming as auditions came and went with Zari never once getting selected, either as a group performer or a soloist.
"Let's get on with it, shall we? Whenever you are ready..." he said in an uninterested tone as he leant back in his chair. Arla gave him a sharp poke with her tail and he sat up straighter. Zari, for her part, swallowed her nerves and nodded to Bayani to start the music.
It started out well; the thumping of the bass helped her keep her rhythm as she performed the moves she had practised endlessly over the last few weeks. But out of the corner of her eye she caught sight of Shen doodling on the paper in front of him – he wasn't even watching! That was enough to put Zari off her stride for a split second and she stood on the hem of her cloak, yanking herself backwards where she completely lost her footing and landed heavily on her tail.
Arla shot up out of her seat to see if she was ok and the red Bori stagehand was at her side in a second to help her up off the floor.
"Oh dear, that was a shame... would you like another go?" Arla asked gently as Zari brushed herself down, not meeting anyone's gaze as her face burned in embarrassment.
"I doubt that will be necessary, Arla." Shen spoke from the desk. "Zari has performed for us countless times and it's always the same. She is heavy footed and clumsy; she lacks the finesse and the polish we look for in our dancers. It would be much better if she just stopped wasting all of our time." Arla whirled around to scold her colleague for being so harsh, but before a word had even left her mouth, Zari turned and fled the room, almost tripping on her cloak again in her rush to escape.
Zari didn't know where she was going; she just felt she had to get away, but no matter how fast she ran, the judge's hurtful words still echoed in her head. She tripped on her cloak for the third time, landing face down in the dirt. Only then did she take in her surroundings and realised she was in the Haunted Woods.
She unclipped the cloak from around her neck and hung it from a tree branch as she sat down on a rock with her head in her hooves.
"What's the point in even trying anymore?" she asked herself dejectedly. "Even with everything Madam Luta taught me, it can't change the fact I am a Kau and Kaus aren't meant to dance." She sighed heavily as she thought seriously about giving up on her dream. But as she watched the rays of light from the orange sunset darting in between the trees, making the shadows shift and change shape almost like they were dancing, an idea occurred to her.
If she couldn't be a dancer because she was a Kau, she would just have to become something else! She had heard rumours of a Scorchio mad scientist who allegedly had a ray that could change a Neopet's species. Zari had not paid too much attention to the gossip before, dismissing it as a myth, but now she made up her mind to find and use it. Seeing as the Haunted Woods was full of dangerous and scary things according to the legends, it seemed like the ideal place to start her search. The Kau stood up sharply from where she was sitting and set off with renewed purpose.
A few hours later and Zari was beginning to question the wisdom of searching for the Secret Laboratory at night in a spooky, creepy wood that may or may not actually be haunted. She didn't even know for certain that the lab was even in the woods. She stopped in a small clearing to catch her breath, leaning against an old dead tree that creaked in protest.
"You'd be calling me reckless right about now, Madam Luta, telling me I need to think before I act." Zari spoke out loud, her voice cracking from not being used for a while. "Well, you are right as always, I don't even know how to get back home." She closed her eyes and sank down to the ground tiredly.
Silence hung around the lost Neopet as she tried not to fall asleep, her head dipping every now and then before she shook herself awake again. Then she heard something, at first she thought it was her mind playing tricks on her but when she stood up she realised what it was. Someone somewhere was playing music, Zari could hear a couple of violins, a tambourine and an accordion playing a lively tune. She remembered being told there was a Gypsy camp in the woods, so she figured that must be where the music was coming from, she began to walk in that direction.
As she got closer she could see the light from the fire casting a warm glow through the trees, the music getting louder and with it the sound of voices and singing. It wasn't long before she found the camp; she hovered near the treeline as she watched a Green Skeith playing the accordion while a Yellow Blumaroo and Techo were on the violins. In the centre dancing around the fire was a Red Wocky with long flowing black hair, keeping the rhythm with a tambourine as she sang.
Zari didn't know how long she watched before the Wocky spotted her, she stopped dancing and her companions stopped playing. Zari felt very self-conscious with all those eyes on her.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt. I was looking for the Secret Laboratory and I got lost..." Zari explained as she walked towards the group cautiously.
"The Laboratory? It's nowhere around here, Miss," the Blumaroo commented politely. Zari's shoulders sank in disappointment - so all that searching had been for nothing.
"I see... then perhaps you could be so kind as to give me directions out the woods?" she asked quietly, trying to hide her dismay. The Skeith took pity on her and gave her the best route out of the Haunted Woods, Zari thanked him and was about to leave when the Wocky, now known as Miresi, called to her.
"Hold on! Those clothes... are you a dancer by any chance?" she asked. Zari visibly brightened up as she nodded enthusiastically.
"Yes, I am!" She paused and her smile shrank a little as she cast her gaze down to the ground. "Well, I want to be at any rate." Miresi nodded to her friends and they immediately started up the music again and Zari found herself pulled into the space around the campfire by the beautiful gypsy.
"W... what are you doing?!" Zari asked in shock. Miresi laughed as she started beating on her tambourine.
"Come on, dance with me!" she encouraged as she began singing once more. Zari considered just walking away but the music was so lively and engaging that she couldn't help but to start dancing. She found that the moves that she was using in the audition earlier fit rather well and those that didn't were easily swapped out for other moves in her repertoire. She gave a silent thank you to Madam Luta once more for her peerless tuition.
After a few minutes Zari really started to enjoy herself and lost herself to the music. She hardly noticed when Miresi dropped out to watch her, still keeping time with her tambourine. The Kau dancer twirled and span with ease, her skirt billowing out at the right moments and not once did she lose her footing, seeming to glide and float her way around the camp.
As the final bars rang out, Zari bowed to the gypsy troupe in front of her but jumped in fright when she heard applause coming from somewhere *behind* her as well. She turned to see Arla and Shen standing there, both smiling and both clapping their hands loudly. They approached the rather stunned Kau.
"Zari! We're so glad that you are ok, we were really worried!" Arla said as she pulled the younger Neopet into a hug. The Lutari hung back, looking a little sheepish.
"Ah yes... and about what I said. You have my sincerest apologies, I shouldn't have been so critical of you, it was uncalled for." Shen rubbed the back of his neck in embarrassment.
"I forgive you, Shen, but how in Neopia did you find me?" Zari asked them. Arla grinned and pulled a familiar cloak from out of her bag.
"Passers-by saw you run into the woods, so we headed here and found this, then it was a case of following your footprints... luckily there aren't many Neopets wandering around at this time of night. Then once we got close enough, we just followed the music," Arla explained as she gave the cloak back to its rightful owner.
"Speaking of which..." Shen said, clearing his throat. "That was the best I've ever seen you dance, and if it's alright with my colleague, I want to invite you to perform it again for the opening of the next Jub Zambra concert." Zari gasped in shock and looked to the Xweetok judge who just nodded with a proud smile. As she was struck dumb for words and almost overwhelmed with emotion, she just nodded in response, hearing the gypsy troupe cheering and whistling behind her.
"I do have one request, though..." she asked when she finally got her voice back. "Can I bring my backing group?"