Fate of a Kingdom: Part One
Melyn heaved a sigh. The Spotted Uni shifted restlessly. Her legs were cramped, her wings ached from being idle for so long. She longed to fly. She longed to run free. Most of all, she thirsted for adventure.
“Hush,” her owner had scolded her. “Don’t run off now. I can’t keep running after you if I need to keep our place in the line.”
The line, sadly, extended across the length of the hall, and through every corridor of Brightvale Castle. It was ever crawling, and ever full of waiting Neopets and owners. Every learned scholar in the land queued here. A few commoners also joined the line, hoping to try their luck. They all coveted the same prize – to share their humble knowledge with the all-knowing, wise King Hagan, and gain his approval. Or in Bree’s case, the Hagan avatar. But Melyn thought it silly. What wisdom could they offer the Wise King that he didn’t have already? Melyn was losing patience with her owner’s strange habits.
“Mum...” she whined, “can I go for a walk? I won’t leave the castle.” Her owner was too absorbed in her books to listen.
“Teehee.” A merry, tinkling laugh broke the silence. It was the Neopet behind them, a small lithe Blue Ixi. Melyn glared down at the boy.
“What are you laughing at?” she snorted.
“Our stupid owners,” he said. “Dragging us here in the name of ‘wisdom’.”
Melyn nodded in agreement. She soon took a liking to the strange little Ixi, and they talked. The Ixi name was Llewyn. He also came here with his owner, who was sure his knowledge was enough to please the king. They both shook their heads at their owners’ mad antics.
An hour or so passed in this fashion, until suddenly Llewyn jerked up. A shadow stretched over them. Its owner swept past them, turning their head every which way as though making sure they weren’t followed. Then they stole into the next corridor. Llewyn eyed them suspiciously.
“Say,” he said, “there’s a funny-looking fellow. What’s he up to?” Llewyn dashed off after the stranger, and Melyn followed... She decided anywhere they might end up was better than that never-ending line.
In fact, she should have given it much, much more thought. They now saw that the stranger was a Draik, a hideous Mutant Draik. Melyn almost drew back in repulsion. But they continued to follow, swiftly trailing the Draik as it wove through a maze of corridors.
Finally the Draik stole into a room. It was little more than a closet, really. It appeared to be a library of sorts, cluttered with various books and parchment scrolls. In the centre was a globe of Neopia. The Draik swiped the globe with its claw. The globe spun, and then stopped at a spot labelled “Elspeth Castle”.
Then the room began to spin as well, whirling into a blur of colours. Llewyn and Melyn felt at first a spinning sensation, then a sudden, nauseating lurch. Beneath their hoofs, the floor seemed to drop. They were inside but a phantom wind swept the Neopets out of balance, toying recklessly with them.
Eventually this became just a gentle swaying, and they found themselves in a spacious hall of a castle or mansion. They weren’t alone – the Draik was there too, and a Mutant Lenny reclined on a sofa. The youngsters ducked behind it. Melyn looked around her. Elspeth Castle, like Brightvale Castle, was very grand. Yet it had a certain air of austere solemness about it. Everything from the furniture to the walls was bare and grey. The walls were mostly covered by huge maps. Curious they should be there. Melyn wondered why someone would need maps of Meridell and Brightvale, and some more obscure kingdoms.
“You have dealt with her?” asked the Mutant Lenny, expectantly.
“I have put her somewhere no-one will hear her scream,” said the Draik, “if she had a voice to scream with.”
“I knew I could count on you, Lilith.”
“Yes, my lord.”
Then Lilith began to tremor and distort like a reflection in rippling water. Her wings retreated rapidly and her gnarled claws began to smooth. Her dull scales turned a radiant gold and her eyes a buttercup yellow. Finally chocolate tresses cascaded from her head. It was as if the Mutant Draik never existed. In her place stood, slightly dazed, a beautiful Royal Zafara. But even more frightening was this – she was the exact image of Princess Araluen. A clone. A shapeshifter.
Gingerly choking back a gasp, Melyn struggled not to betray her presence. Sheer terror penetrated her like icy water. Yet fascination kept her rooted, trancelike, to the ground.
To her surprise the Lord chuckled, “Lilith, your talent is astounding. More than a match for those spineless Brightvaleans.”
“No question, Father,” said the girl. “My guise is infallible.”
“Down to the last hair...” her father marvelled.
“The fool Hagan grows sicker each day. It is only a matter of time.”
“And the princess—?” he prompted.
“As I said. Imprisoned.”
The Lenny’s wizened face creased into a smirk. He sauntered across to the largest map on the wall – the one of Brightvale – and with a sweep of his wing he opened a gaping hole in it. It must have been magic. The hole whirled like the funnel of a hurricane.
This time Melyn did gasp. It must be a portal that would take them back to Brightvale!
“Then that leaves us no reason,” continued the Duke, “to linger.”
Melyn hardly waited for him and Lilith to disappear through the portal. She bolted across the room, ready to fling herself into it. But something pulled her back. She started, only to realise it was Llewyn.
“Don’t go anywhere.”
“Llewyn, don’t you see?” she said franticly, “That impostor is pretending to be the princess so she can take over Brightvale! We have to stop them! Were you even listening?”
“Yes. But I was actually thinking too!”
“Are you mad?” Melyn screamed, while the portal hole closed up like a healing wound, and disappeared altogether. “You’re just going to let them go?”
Taking a deep breath, Llewyn said, “We will expose them. But think – who would believe two kids with these wild claims, and no evidence to speak of? Our only hope of being taken seriously is the proof: the true princess. And she is held captive someplace, and for certain it is not Brightvale, in plain sight of her subjects. We must begin our search here, in Elspeth.”
Melyn was incredulous. “The place is probably teeming with the Duke’s henchmen!”
But she eventually admitted the sense in Llewyn’s plan. Still, she longed to leave the horrible castle. The silence, the emptiness, made her uneasy. Llewyn and Melyn split up to search the castle. To Melyn, everything was a hint of a captive princess. The icy draught coming through a window was the wailing of a tortured girl. Melyn shook herself. She tried to focus on her task: finding the princess. She had no idea where Araluen might be, actually. She traipsed from room to room, until...
“And where do you think you’re going, miss?”
Heart pounding, Melyn almost bumped into the speaker – a snarling Lupe in guard’s uniform. She was cornered! A million excuses tore through her mind, each more hopeless than the last. Not a moment to hesitate. Drawing herself to her full height, Melyn looked the guard firmly, venomously in the eye.
“Around my castle, fool!” she hissed. “Why shouldn’t I? I am Lady Lilith!”
That was her best Lilith impression. She hoped he didn’t detect her slight tone of unease. He seemed rather taken aback. But to her astonishment, every hint of suspicion drained from his face. He bowed to her.
“My lady! I beg pardon!” he stammered. Then he paused. “But... why are you disguised as a Uni?”
Melyn hoped she wasn’t digging deeper into her predicament, “Every shapeshifter has reason,” she ventured, “to change form. It is never your place to question my motives. Now go!”
The guard backed out of the room, fervently bowing and apologising. When she was sure he was out of earshot, Melyn breathed a sigh of relief. Now she was free to wander, to rescue the princess. None of the halls, guestrooms or kitchens seemed particularly prison-like to her, and she was terrified enough already without daring to explore the dungeons. Just as Melyn thought she might have no choice but to do that, she heard the delicate tapa-tapa-tapa of approaching hoofs. Llewyn was trotting towards her.
“I found her! I found it!”
Gingerly the Ixi placed a small wooden box on the floor. He looked flushed with excitement. But his triumphant grin faltered when he saw Melyn’s puzzled expression.
“It’s just... a little box,” she said.
She bent down to examine it more closely, then gasped. At first glance it was an ordinary box. But the wood was rich mahogany; and every inch of it had such intricate patterns, carved with such precision it could only have been made by the most skilled hand. Melyn could imagine the finest, smallest tools dancing over it. As she lifted the lid a wooden butterfly flitted away, and she was sure the box was magic. But what was inside the box made her heart sink. It was not the tinkling music, nor the painted flowers. It was a miniature Zafara. She was small, but very alive and real. Her toes pointed, arms gracefully aloft, she leaped, glided and pirouetted inside the music-box. But for all her leaping, she couldn’t jump out the box – something was keeping her in. Her eyes, glistening with tears, gazed up at them beseechingly. Melyn reached inside, trying to grab the Zafara, but it was no use. Something repelled her. She could not use force on magic.
“If you ask me,” Llewyn interrupted, “Whoever made the thing would know how to unlock it. If only we could find them. It’s probably a faerie or something...” He trailed off sadly.
“We could ask at an antique store,” said Melyn, “or there could be a signature somewhere on the box.” She turned it over, scrutinizing. Something tiny caught her eye. A name was ever so lightly etched onto the wood – Owen & Son.
“Owen & Son!” she exclaimed, “Look! Maybe there’s...”
“There’s a store called that in Brightvale!”
“My owner used to work there, I know where to go... We might not have much time, though. If King Hagan is horribly ill like they say, what are the chances he...” the Blue Ixi gulped, as if pushing down an unwelcome thought, “won’t survive? Then, then...”
He faltered again, and shook his head dismally. The consequences were too grim to say aloud, but they both knew what would happen then. Then Lilith would fool Brightvale into thinking she was Araluen, the rightful queen. Then the people would be powerless to stop Lilith and her father. Then the two of them would have the kingdom at their feet.
What if time was already running out? What if, even then, they were too late? The Neopets blurred into gold and blue comets as they shot towards the map room.
To be continued...