The Ancient Castle
Two sets of wings flapped in the clear morning sky-- one furred pair of lilac striped with indigo, and one metallic pair etched with ancient runes.
Laena, a sweet-natured Faerie Kougra, looked down at the patches of forest far beneath her. A thrill shivered through her as she saw the stony ruins of the ancient castle beneath her.
Her companion, a fiery Tyrannian Peophin named Koerine, did not appear to completely share her wild enthusiasm. After all, Koerine had seen this place before. It was she who had found the ruins buried in the uncharted mountainous areas to the west of the Haunted Woods, and it was she who had invited Laena on this expedition.
Koerine was a treasure hunter, seeking ancient relics and valuable trinkets from the old, forgotten corners of the world. Laena, on the other hand, simply wanted to see all the world had to offer, treasure or no.
Of course, she wouldn't mind finding a few valuables... but that wasn't the point, for her at least.
The two had met not long before, and had immediately struck up a friendship. Upon hearing of Laena's interest in exploring, Koerine had offered to take the Kougra along to search some new ruins the Peophin had found recently.
Koerine tilted her mechanical wings, descending as gracefully as though she'd been born to fly. Laena followed a bit more awkwardly-- even after all these months, she still didn't feel entirely used to her faerie wings.
Wordlessly, the pair spiralled down, landing in front of the old castle and standing there for a few solemn moments.
How many years had it been since any Neopet had set foot inside these broken walls of stone?
Koerine was the first to break the silence. "So. We're more likely to find something if we split up... you go search the east wing, and I'll take the west. Holler if you find something interesting or need help."
"Um, okay," Laena replied.
As they walked into the castle, someone watched them from one of the few intact towers.
More guests! How delightful!
I do hope they'll stay for the banquet...
Laena sneezed as dust billowed from the otherwise empty chest. That would teach her to be careful when poking around ancient castles.
Coughing a few times, the Kougra shook the dust out of her fur and moved on down the hallway.
This place was fascinating, yet unsettlingly quiet. The silence was absolute save for the soft padding of Laena's paws on the hard floor.
Light streamed in from a broken stained-glass window. Too little of the glass was left intact to possibly tell what image it had once bourne.
A tattered tapestry hung on the wall. Much of the bottom half of it had rotted away, but Laena could tell that it bore the likenesses of two Neopets-- a Gelert with red fur and striking blue eyes, and a golden-furred, hazel-eyed Zafara.
Former residents of the castle?
The Kougra closed her eyes and imagined what it must have been like back then.
Neopets in extravagant dress made their way through the hall, perhaps with well-trained Petpets in tow. They were on there way to some grand affair-- a banquet, or a ball. Everything was in good repair, there was little if any dust about, and of course the tapestry was whole...
She opened her eyes.
The dust that had gathered in the years of abandonment was gone.
Colored light streamed in through the now-entire stained-glass window, and now the design could be clearly seen-- a silver sword pointing down, with a thorny lavender rose twisted around the blade.
The tapestry now looked as it surely had been shortly after its making, the color fresh and bright, and now she could see the full figures of the Gelert and Zafara, and could tell that the former wielded a sword and the latter held a purple rose.
Motes of light floated overhead, brightly illuminating the passage, and the floor was covered in a thick, soft, blue carpet.
"What is this?" Laena whispered, turning around slowly, taking in all the details of her surroundings. "How did this happen?"
"Oh, have you gotten lost?" came a sweet voice.
It was the Zafara from the tapestry, and she was smiling and holding out her paw. "It's a large castle, I know. Here, let me show you to the banquet hall."
"Who are you?" Laena asked.
The Zafara blinked, looking surprised by the question. "Why, I am the Princess Siranel. I am watching the castle while my father and brother are away."
"Where did they go?"
Siranel pursed her lips. "This is a day of feasting and merrymaking. It is not a day to dwell upon such somber matters. Now, come." The Zafara took Laena's paw in her own, leading her down the hall, Laena feeling much too bewildered by the strange happenings to resist.
It was as though the Kougra had stepped into a storybook world. It didn't seem real...
"We'll just get you into something more suitable," the Zafara said. "There will be dancing later. Don't worry, I have plenty of spare dresses..."
It couldn't be real... but even so, it was a pleasant dream.
Siranel had mentioned a feast, and dancing, and one of her own dresses. How splendid, to wear garments befitting a princess!
Laena could feel herself slipping away, could feel as her incredulous doubts dissipated into nothingness, but she couldn't bring herself to care.
Koerine picked up the flashlight with some displeasure.
"So I'm not the first..." she muttered, absentmindedly flicking the switch. The batteries were dead, and the metal casing of the flashlight was covered in dust-- it had been lying around for quite some time. What had happened to its owner?
Perhaps, having cleaned out the castle of any valuables, they had simply forgotten to take the flashlight. That would explain why Koerine hadn't found anything interesting. But still... something told the Peophin that this wasn't the case. It was just a hunch, but years spent adventuring had taught Koerine to trust her hunches.
The staircase ahead descended into pitch-darkness. Unlike the other traveller who had come before, Koerine had not brought a flashlight. She didn't need one.
"Ilem," she whispered, flicking her metal wings forward. The "feathers" of the wings began to glow with a pale blue light, just enough to see by. Koerine herself had no more than a drop of magical ability, but she had learned that the metal of her wings, by some lost ancient art, had been infused with magic and could be used for some simple spells.
Koerine made her way carefully down the staircase. The air was musty and still, and Koerine's movements stirred up the ever-present dust.
Finally, the Peophin entered a small chamber. The walls were covered with bookshelves laden with old tomes and worn scrolls.
Koerine took the nearest book, flipped it open and squinted to read it.
"Aagh... tae ilem," she said, with another flick of her wings. The glow increased somewhat, and Koerine began to read.
Father said that this room must be kept safe, for it contains all the knowledge of the family Riell. I remember, as a small child, going into the room to read. Many of the books were too dull for a young girl, but I liked to read the diaries kept by my ancestors. Things were different back then, before the war.
And the war has been going on for a long time, since before I was born. The kingdom Tierrin disputes with us over where the dividing line between our two lands should lie. I think the king of Tierrin is greedy, wanting the land that rightfully belongs to Riellan. Just because they're bigger, they think they can push us around, but our warriors are brave. My father was a warrior, and I know that he was braver than any rotten Tierrinian could ever hope to be!
I'm going to write down the things that are happening now, so that the ones who come after me can know what happened. They'll read my diaries and think of me, even when I'm gone.
I guess I can't think of anything else to say right now, so I'll just end now.
--Crown Princess Siranel
These were kingdoms which Koerine had never heard of. They must have fallen many years ago, disappeared with little trace that they had ever been present.
Perhaps the war the princess spoke of in her diary had something to do with it.
The light emanating from Koerine's wings began to dim. "Curses," she murmured. Although the wings enhanced the little magic the Peophin was capable of, there wasn't all that much to enhance in the first place, and while Koerine was capable of maintaining an ordinary light spell for a long time, she could not do the same for the more powerful light she had summoned to read by. She began the climb up, back to the ground floor of the castle, where she could find sunlight to read by.
The banquet was just as beautiful as Laena had imagined.
Beautiful, glittering crystal chandeliers hung from the high ceiling of the banquet hall, and brilliant tapestries emblazoned with scenes from the kingdom's history hung on all the walls.
The long table was laden with all sorts of delicacies, and the sparkling tile floor was populated with dancing Neopets, Laena herself among them.
Her dancing partner was a gallant Lupe, his fur a pearly white. He was dressed as fancily as she was, and something in the way he spoke portrayed a sense of authority, as though he were someone used to giving orders.
"Ah, milady," he said as the music stopped. "Thank you for the lovely dance. Might I have the honor of knowing your name?"
Laena blushed. "My name is..." She stopped midsentence as a pair of beautiful hazel eyes caught her own, filling her attention for a few long moments, blotting all other thought out until Siranel nodded slightly, then turned away.
Feeling mildly puzzled, the Kougra turned back to her partner. Now, what was it that she'd been about to say? Ah, yes.
"I am the Lady Laena," she said, smiling. "I am an ambassador from the kingdom of Valea."
The Lupe nodded. "That's quite a distance from here. How was your journey... oh, forgive me for my rudeness. I am Lord Yvent. I oversee a territory not far from the Castle Riell. Perhaps you will see fit to visit me sometime during your stay in our fair kingdom?"
"Of course," Laena replied, smiling.
The music started up again, and they began to dance once more.
Koerine read for what felt like hours, drawn into Siranel's story.
But the final entry of the princess' diary was the most striking. The handwriting was shaky, as though Siranel had struggled to hold the pen.
It has been a long while since I have written. It has been a long time since I have been able to write.
How long? Years and years. Long enough for all of the Neopets of the castle to depart for lands unblighted by the curse my brother has wrought.
Oh, my brother... why did you betray us? Why did you betray me?
It was he who slipped something into my drink. It was he who dragged me, near unconscious, into the woods.
My memories of what happened that night are foggy. I remember that he spoke to someone... no, three someones. One was a Skeith, I think, another was a Gelert, and the third was a faerie... I can't remember what he said to them. Soon after, everything went black, and the next thing I knew...
I was a ghost. A mere specter, floating in the middle of a clearing in the woods. .
I was afraid, and so I fled back to the castle and cried out for help, but no one could hear me. But some could see me, and they feared me. "The prince is a monster, and the princess a ghost!" they cried. In the weeks that followed, many ran from the castle, fleeing to places unknown. I remained, still in mourning over myself.
But it was not until later that I realized what my brother had truly become, and why my people called him a monster.
The castle was empty when he returned. Much of the treasure had been plundered by those less scrupulous members of the court, the ones who did not fear a helpless ghost, even when she finally learned how to make herself heard.
I did not even think to leave the castle. It had been my home for as long as I could remember, and I would stay there for all eternity. And that is what I had now-- an eternity. A ghost cannot be harmed with any weapon, cannot be taken by any illness... I was as good as immortal.
I was in the throne room when Alzaer entered.
He looked nothing like the brother I knew. His ruby-red fur had darkened into a deep maroon, and his beautiful blue eyes had become as hard and gray as the castle stone. His claws were lengthened into lethal blades, and I could see two sharp fangs poking out of his mouth. Dark, leathery wings were folded at his sides.
He was a monster.
"Sister," he said simply, looking at me.
"Brother," I replied. "What have you done?"
He turned away. "We were losing the war, sister. Our people fought bravely, but they couldn't stop our enemies... but three ancient spirits spoke to me one night, telling me of a way that we could turn the tides. There is a spell, a dangerous spell, that can be used to create an immortal warrior, one who cannot be slain by any ordinary weapon. But to do that... there had to be a sacrifice."
"Me," I whispered, bitterly. "Why? How could you do that to me?"
"It is not only you who suffer, sister. Look at me. All who see me think me to be a monster. I will never be able to live among other Neopets. I will always be feared and hated..."
"But you're still alive," I hissed.
"Yes. I am. And I will live forever. Do you know that I destroyed many of the Tierrinians? I didn't stop at the soldiers, you know-- I ravaged farms and villages. It was as though some dark spirit possessed me... but no. I have no one to blame but myself... and even that did not save Riell. The Neopets have all fled far from our lands, seeking new homes far away from the ruined land of Riell. I have failed, and I will live with that failure for all eternity."
I turned away. "Do you think I care? You destroyed the kingdom, and you destroyed your own sister with it! Get out. This is no longer your home."
He looked stunned for a moment, then bared his teeth at me. "Fine. Rot here, for all I care. Rot away with your precious castle. Watch as it crumbles to dust around you!" He whirled around and stormed off.
That was the last I ever saw of him.
Once I thought to look for him, and to see what had happened to the world in the time since I had dwelled alone in the castle. But when I stood at the gate, I found that I could not step beyond it.
Was this some cruel spell cast by my brother? Or perhaps it was simply a fact of being a ghost-- I simply could not leave the place I haunted. Either way, I was trapped.
So I remained in my castle, and I slowly learned how to do things, even as a ghost.
I learned to flicker between rooms as quick as a thought. I learned how to make things move when I touched them, and I also learned to make things move even when I was far away.
And I learned how to create a marvellous illusion. I do not need to watch my home crumble. As long as I remain here, it will be as it was at the peak of its glory.
Neopets will return here eventually. I am certain of it. And when they do, the crown princess of Riell will be here to greet them, and show them proper imperial hospitality.
They will never want to leave again.
Koerine closed the book, but kept gazing down at the closed cover. There was a tingling feeling running down her mane, as though someone were watching her, and she knew better than to turn around and let them know that she knew.
Keeping her eyes forward, Koerine made her way back to the staircase to return the book.
"Did you enjoy it?"
This time, the Peophin couldn't help but glance back. A Zafara, dressed in royal garb, stood before her. Koerine turned around slowly.
"Siranel..." she whispered.
The Zafara nodded. "Yes."
"I'm sorry, I didn't realize that this place was still inhabited," said Koerine. "I'll just get my friend, and we'll leave you alone."
Siranel smiled sweetly. "Oh, don't worry. I don't mind having guests. In fact, your friend-- Laena, was it?-- is already enjoying herself at my banquet."
The words of Siranel's diary came flashing back through Koerine's mind:
I learned how to create a marvellous illusion... They will never want to leave again.
"No, really, it's very kind of you to offer, I'm sure, but we really must go..." The Peophin twitched her wings anxiously. She was pretty certain that nothing good would come of becoming the ghost's guest.
"No. Stay. I insist." Siranel's voice was no longer sweet, and she glared at Koerine.
"Where's Laena?" Koerine asked, her own voice gone hard. "Let her go, now!"
"She doesn't want to leave. And soon, neither will you!"
Something in the Zafara's eyes changed, and Koerine found that she could not look away. All her thoughts grew fuzzy, and she was having trouble remembering things.
What was her name?
Why was she here?
What was going on?
A voice, soft and soothing, answered directly in the Peophin's mind: Don't worry. I will tell you everything...
Your name is... hm, let me see... ah, yes, your name is... aaaiiii!
A sharp pain, like a static shock, shot into Koerine's back right where her wings were attached. The fog over her mind immediately dissipated.
From Siranel's reaction, she had been hurt far worse by whatever defense the wings had activated. The Zafara grabbed her head and screamed. Her elegant dress turned to tattered rags, and her body went from a healthy golden color to a pale, ghostly translucence.
"I'm no ambassador," Laena whispered suddenly.
The music had come to an abrupt stop, and so had the dancers. The room had grown dim, and all the lights had been extinguished, leaving only sunlight from the high windows to brighten the banquet hall.
Her mind cleared, and she looked around.
All the beautiful decorations were either completely gone or simply tattered as though they were many years old. Her own borrowed dress had disappeared completely.
"The illusion is broken," Laena said softly.
"We are freed," said Yvent, looking around in wonder. "I remember everything now. I was an explorer, and I came across this castle, and then I met her... how long have I been here?"
"I came hunting treasure," said a petite Shadow Krawk. "And Siranel found me... curse her!"
Koerine! Where is she? Laena wondered. I had better go find her...
"You. Hurt. Me."
The ghost Zafara snarled like a feral beast. "You will pay."
The Tyrannian Peophin gave a surprised whinny as she was flung back into an unforgiving stone wall before falling to the ground in a crumpled heap.
She had no defense against the crazed Siranel. Magical shields had never been her strong point, and even if they had, her magic reserve was nearly sucked dry. The wings could enhance her ability to cast, and stretch her small amount of power to greater lengths than she could hope for without them, but the magic that had cast Siranel out of Koerine's mind had still taken nearly all remaining power from the Peophin. She looked up as the Zafara advanced on her, drawing her metal wings around her protectively.
"You hurt me," Siranel repeated, as though it were a mantra. "You hurt me, you hurt me, how could you hurt me!? You're a monster, like my brother, like Alzaer..." She stopped short, and her voice grew incredibly sad. "He left me. And now everyone else will leave too... I don't want to be alone any more. I don't want to be alone..."
"Koerine!" cried a familiar voice.
"Laena, stay back!" Koerine warned as Siranel whirled to face the intruder.
The Faerie Kougra stopped short. "Siranel..."
"Don't go." Siranel reached out her arms. "Please. Don't go. I'll make everything beautiful again..."
Laena closed her eyes and looked away. "No. It's... it's not real! I don't want to live in an illusion, even a beautiful one..."
The Zafara lowered her head. "I see..."
Laena was suddenly taken by pity for the ghost. "But I guess I could, um, visit sometimes."
Siranel looked up. "Really?"
"Yeah, and we can tell other people that you're here. I'm sure there's plenty of Neopets who would want to visit a real haunted castle. You wouldn't even have to make any illusions."
The Zafara smiled. "I think I'd like that."
Koerine got up slowly and went over to Laena, keeping a careful eye on Siranel the entire time. "So we'll just be leaving now. So we can tell people. Okay?"
"Promise you'll come back soon?" Siranel asked.
"We promise," said Laena firmly.
We? Koerine wasn't exactly thrilled at Laena's choice of pronouns-- the Peophin, for one, had had enough of this old castle to last her a lifetime.
Still, she could deal with that later. Now it was time to head home.
A week later, Koerine was preparing for another trip. She'd gotten a tip about an old, sunken ship, possibly laden with treasure. Hopefully this excursion would be a bit more profitable than the last.
For all that she'd been through in the Castle Riell, Koerine had not found a single valuable item. The books and scrolls were of historical interest, of course, but she had rather hoped for something a bit more substantial from a castle.
Wait. I don't remember putting that there.
An envelope sat on her vanity, sealed in the old-fashioned style with melted wax and a stamp. Carefully, she opened it and pulled out the parchment inside.
What you did for my sister was a deed well done. Monster I may be, but never let it be said that a scion of Riell does not repay his debts.
P.S. I am not the only monster in Neopia. There are ancient creatures which dwell about the sunken ship. Do take care.
The envelope held a few coins, worn with great age. These would surely be worth something, but Koerine found little pleasure in the thought.
How did he get into my house? she wondered, looking around her uneasily.
The wind whistled outside her window, and she thought that she could hear a Gelert howling.