Hear Us, Save Us
Pascal never wanted to be a page boy. He would rather be a squire who trained with a knight and had a chance to even become one, to fight for the glory of Meridell. But there was no way that his family could have afforded it. Instead he was forced to take on this job and provide enough food to help keep the family alive. Nobody ever asked him what he wanted.
News from home was that his mother had given birth to another child, which meant one more mouth to work for. Pascal hated his siblings for making him sit in the enveloping dark on a cold stone in front of the dungeons, keeping watch for... well, anything. He saw very little point of being there, yet it was a tradition as old as the castle walls. This was small comfort to an orange Ixi boy of eleven, bored and alone in the dark with only a few pebbles and a target he drew on the wall to entertain himself. He was getting pretty good at hitting it even in the faint light coming from the barred window.
Sleep was always lurking in the shadows, waiting to pounce on Pascal. More than once he took a small nap as he surrendered to the silky feeling of closing his eyes, but each time he woke up with a jolt, for fear of the King. If there was one thing Pascal wanted more than sleep, it was avoiding the King’s wrath. Sighing and watching his breath turn to translucent steam, the Ixi wrapped his thin cloak tighter around himself. His tunic felt like it was a sieve for the cold.
A soft sound like the whisper of pale moonlight echoed up from the dungeons. Pascal shivered, but this time it was not the cold. The sound could not have been created by anything that he was familiar with. Of course, there were always rumours flying around that ghosts haunted the depths of Meridell Castle. To a page boy on night duty, the only comfort was that they were just rumours. However, the sound had cast a shadow of doubt in his mind. Holding himself to stop the shivers that were creeping up his body, Pascal closed his eyes and thought of the warm meal and rest that would be waiting for him at the end of his shift.
He wasn’t sure if he fell asleep. A soft tap on the shoulder made him look up in fear at the thought of somebody catching him unawares. In front of him was a regal female Grarrl. She stood there with a dignity unmatched by anyone in the royal court Pascal met before. Her pale dress flowed across her body to the floor like liquid emerald. Upon her head hung a veil that seemed to be made of Spyder silk and moonlight. It led to her ornate crown that contained all varieties of jewels that were found under the earth; the gems nested gracefully in the intricate gold-work. Yet, despite the rich gown and jewellery, her expression barely masked sadness.
Immediately he hopped off his seat, bowing deeply to show the respect a proper lady of the court deserved from her servants.
“My lady, is there a problem?” he asked rather tentatively. The Grarrl looked down at him and smiled a little.
“No, child, there is no problem at all,” she said quietly as if her voice could not rise over a whisper. Confusion spread across Pascal. If there was no problem, why would a lady be in the dungeons at night? He looked up and almost gasped. The Grarrl seemed to be made up of mist right up to the curling locks of her hair. As the icy damp wind blew from the dungeons, her dress did not move, as if frozen in time.
She was a ghost.
Pascal opened his mouth to scream, but the Grarrl swept a cold hand across his muzzle. Frost formed on his fur where she touched him. The sudden chill forced the Ixi into silence.
“Hush, child, I mean you no harm,” she murmured, but this time her voice possessed the sense of desperation as if she didn’t want her presence to be discovered here. Pascal shivered but nodded slowly, too scared to say another word. The Grarrl did not seem discouraged by this. She moved towards the stairs that lead towards the dark mouth of the dungeon. As she reached the entrance, she turned around and gestured with her hand for Pascal to follow. At first, he smiled a little as the sense of adventure, found in every boy his age, awoke. Yet as he took a few steps, it was quickly suppressed by the fear of the punishment that all page boys caught off duty faced.
“Nobody will discover you are missing, child. Besides, there is no youngster who would not break the rules for the sake of adventure,” she called to him, smiling a little. Pascal slowly got off the cold stone perch and trotted over to the Grarrl lady, his hooves clattering noisily on the flagstones. The Ixi hoped that she was right.
As they went farther down, the ghost’s unearthly glow became more pronounced. Pascal was thankful for it, as he did not want to lose the Grarrl in the ravenous darkness and overpowering moisture of the dungeons. Many times he needed to canter to keep up with the ghost as she hovered over obstacles that blocked the corridors. Yet she always waited for him, glowing like a candle in the abysmal darkness of the dungeon.
Pascal did not know how far he had gone or how much rubble he had climbed over when the Grarrl finally stopped. She suddenly let out a cry that hung on the edge of Pascal’s hearing. It still made him shiver involuntarily. Slowly, more royal ghosts materialised out of the walls, including a male royal Draik and a female royal Krawk. They all looked tired and saddened as if they had kept ageing all this time. The Grarrl looked around before turning to him.
“Do you know who we are, my boy?” she asked.
“I suspect... you are the old kings and queens of Meridell. But I thought there would be more...” Pascal managed to mutter.
“The ‘mages’ of Skarl’s have been feeding on our power. The only one who even dares to venture out of the dungeon is the first queen, Tsana,” the Draik said and pointed to the Grarrl.
“But... why would the mages need you? Surely they have power of their own!” Pascal exclaimed. Here Tsana looked up at him, her glare harsh.
“Child, they have no power. They use the ghosts of those who have power and drain them until there is nothing left. We are almost gone, but they continue to do so without any foresight and despite the fact that without us they are nothing,” she said bitterly. Pascal lowered his eyes and cursed himself for striking such a sensitive chord. He wished there was something he could do to help.
“There is a way you can save us, young one.” Tsana spoke again, her voice gentler than before. “There is a glass orblet in the King's throne. It looks small and unimportant, but it holds the magic that binds our souls to the castle. If we free ourselves from the castle, we shall be free of the mages too. If you wish to save us, you must get to the King’s throne and break this orblet.”
Pascal sat down as he was faced with the enormity of the task. Tsana made it sound so very easy, but he felt the stone of doubt weighing on his heart. He could never get close to the King long enough and surely those mages would not stand by and do nothing while their way of life disappeared in a shimmer of broken glass. Another king, a Lupe, appeared out of the wall and whispered to Tsana before dissolving with only a gust of wind. Tsana floated over to Pascal and gripped his hoof. The Ixi shuddered at her cold touch, again.
A glow came from between Tsana's palms. Her whispering voice echoed like wind through the cold dungeon, but Pascal did not understand what she said. Suddenly her hands became warm. The heat overpowered his senses and for the first time since entering the dungeon, he felt safe. All the while his hoof blazed like he was holding a sun.
The light waned as quickly as it appeared. Pascal once again felt the cold biting him. Tsana was still standing in front of him, her face expressionless.
“Look at your hoof, young one,” she said quietly. Pascal looked down and gasped. On his hoof there was a crown with a sword, a stalk and an arrow through it. It was only a vague outline, but it shimmered like quicksilver. He was spellbound by it.
“The Blessing of the First Queen will protect you from danger. If you find yourself in trouble, shout for me. Go now, for all our sakes,” Tsana whispered. Pascal bowed deeply to her.
“I will not fail you,” the Ixi promised. He certainly hoped that it was true.
“Good,” Tsana said quietly. A whisper spread through the dungeon, growing louder and louder with every passing second. It went through Pascal and then blew away the ghosts. The last things he saw was Tsana's smile.
Cold gripped him again. Pascal snapped his eyes open to be greeted by bright sunshine pouring through the barred window of the dungeon. His back felt stiff from slumping in an uncomfortable position. Looking around, the Ixi saw no trace of what went on the night before. It was all a dream, he thought.
By chance his gaze landed on his hoof. On it, glowing like an ember, was the Blessing. Pascal jerked up and looked down again. It was still there. The kings and queens were no dream and neither was the task that was imposed on him.
A fat Quiggle came into the dungeon, barely managing to squeeze into the narrow door. He was breathing heavily and his breath stank of onions. Pascal bit his lip hard in an attempt not to gag.
“Boy, you are relieved of duty! Go help out in the kitchen where you are needed!” the Quiggle shouted at him. Without any further encouragement, Pascal hopped off the stone seat, bowed deeply to the Quiggle, and squeezed past his master to get to the stairs. He wondered when he would have the opportunity to get into the king’s throne room.
The page boy was lucky. There was a grand feast being given that evening in Skarl’s throne room and Pascal was one of the several pages who were ordered to serve the guests. All day he made plans for getting to the throne and breaking the jewel, not thinking of what would happen after.
Distracted by these dreams, he was constantly making mistakes and blunders during the course of the day. A message that desperately needed to be taken to one of the courtesans was misplaced by him and a clay bowl was broken in the kitchen when he unwarily tripped over a petpet. In either case, Pascal was severely scolded and threatened with a beating if it ever happened again. The threat of punishment made his throat clench with tears. He managed to comfort himself with the happy thoughts that despite these misfortunes, he was about to become a storybook hero, who rescued oppressed pets from cruel rulers.
The feast finally came and Pascal was sent into the throne room. He never ceased to be amazed by how grand it was. Embroidered tapestries of finest silk and wool adorned the walls that boasted magnificently done stained-glass windows. Carved columns of seemingly unbreakable stone held up a high ceiling that looked down upon a tiled and carpeted floor. Pascal brushed past a candlestick that, like so many in the room, was covered in gold foil. He couldn’t help but wonder at such grandeur.
The sight of the guests, however, brought him down to Neopia. There, among the king and the nobles, were the corrupt mages who so irresponsibly and short-sightedly used the powers of the dead kings and queens. By sight you could never tell that they harboured such evil: they looked well-groomed, polite and easy-going. Yet Pascal saw there were cracks in their façade - their laughs and their smiles were fake and patronising.
The feast dragged by agonisingly slowly. Despite trying to come close to the throne, he was always asked to serve the guests at the far end of the table. All the while the mages kept talking and laughing, casting spells to amuse the king, using power that came from Skarl’s own ancestors. Pascal simply gritted his teeth and continued to wait for a chance.
It came when Skarl rose off his throne to make a speech. Pascal saw the jewels among the velvet and carvings on the throne glittering, but the one in the centre seemed to shimmer with an inner light. He guessed that this was the orblet that bound the kings and queens of old. There was no time to lose; he must break it before the king sat down again.
Immediately, he dropped the plate he was carrying and ran towards the throne, his hooves sparking off the flagstones. Waves of panic rippled through the guests. Pascal heard their outraged cries but kept moving. The mages were on their feet. One of them flung a fireball at Pascal. He shouted with anticipated pain as he blocked it with his arm but did not feel the burning impact: the fireball flattened, as if encountering a wall, and then dissolved. For the first time he felt the Blessing of the First Queen like channels of molten lead in his hoof. It protected him from the magic! Without any further fear, Pascal crossed the final distance to the throne.
Guards were now in the room and Pascal knew he only had one chance to break the jewel. He swung at the orblet with as much strength as he could muster. A crack resonated throughout the room. But, instead of falling out in a shower of shards like he had expected it to, the orblet stayed in one piece save for a tiny crack in the middle. He tried to hit it again but a strong firm hand gripped his arm and pulled him back. Other hands had grabbed his tunic and restrained him, so he could barely wriggle.
The mages and the king all had their eyes firmly focused on him now. All bore the look of hate, but also fear. One of the mages, a golden Meerca, stepped forward. Noting the mark on Pascal’s hoof, she sneered.
“So they thought they could send a page boy to do their dirty work. Inventive,but they should never have trusted one so young. Guards, put him into the tower dungeon to await trial,” she sneered with venom in her voice. Pascal cursed himself. He should have thought out his plan more carefully, instead of dreaming that everything would turn out just like in heroic adventures and idyllic stories.
He then suddenly remembered what Tsana said when she gave him the Blessing. If the worst comes to worst, shout for me. The Ixi had nothing to lose, so he drew a deep breath and screamed.
“Tsana!!” The call rang through the great hall just as the guards started to drag him away. Immediately, the mark lifted itself off his hoof like a Hissi’s skin and flew towards the orblet. From the crack a small tendril of light reached out and touched the mark. The tendril grew as if feeding off the Blessing’s energy until it could no longer be contained by its glass prison.
In a shower of glass the orblet exploded. Spirits clothed in royal garb stepped out of the walls, spiralling in the air above the distressed guests. By that time the mages had gone pale and the King stared at his ancestors in a mixture of shock and awe. Pascal, however, was grinning from ear to ear. Against all odds, he had fulfilled his promise to the old rulers of Meridell.
“Do you want to stay here?” the ghosts murmured at Pascal all at once. He shook his head. There was no life for him here, just more cold, abuse and misery.
Out of the swirl of ghosts came Tsana who snatched Pascal out of the hands of the guards and carried him away. To his surprise the Ixi felt no fear, just an inexplicable calm. He noticed that the ghosts were fading away into the air and that Tsana was fading with them. Fear gripped his throat as he thought of what would happen if she faded and let him drop. However, he then noticed how he was fading, too, finally disappearing into nothing.
Blinking as if woken from a dream, all the guests finished the meal in silence, not daring to discuss what they had just witnessed.
Legend has it that Pascal went into the spirit realm and stayed there with the ghosts. His family received a substantial sum after his disappearance and managed to open a farm shop to keep them going without Pascal sending any money from the castle. The mages could no longer use ghost magic to earn their keep, and eventually the King got fed up with their trickery and threw them out. However, even with the mages gone, nobody in the court could ever forget what happened that night.
No page boy ever stood the night watch at the dungeon entrance again. The few knights who dared to go down there, though, sometimes saw a ghost Ixi boy in a page tunic and cloak, sitting on the lonely stone ledge. When disturbed, he would rise and dissolve in the darkness of the dungeon. Rarely the boy acknowledged them, and never stopped to talk. However, all stories firmly agreed on one detail: the little page boy was always smiling.