There was a startled squeak, and a scuffling sound. Some small, fluffy Neopian sprinted away before I could see what manner of creature it was. I sank bank onto the ground, letting my appearance lapse back into normal, and listened intently. Scuffle scuffle. Scream. That would be the arrows. Scuffle. Scuffle. Silence, then, a few seconds later, the thump of old stone slamming onto even older stone. Trapdoor. That was one Neopian that wasn’t going to come back in a hurry. Good thing, too. The tomb wasn’t structurally sound. I suspected that the builders had skimped on materials. Not to say that my motivations were good, exactly. I pride myself on being true neutral, unaligned. It simplifies things a bit.
My name is Ghost, and I’m a ghost. I’m the kind of person who doesn’t believe in complicating matters needlessly. I’m also the kind of person who likes to skulk around in old (and structurally unsound) buildings, giving myself the appearance of a monster (with feathers, I like feathers) and giving newcomers to the Deserted Tomb a good scaring. Hey, when you’ve been dead as long as I have, you learn to take your laughs where you can. Precious few things in life (sorry, death) are things that you can laugh at. That is to say, things you can laugh at without going nutters. Being a ghost is irritating. Being an insane ghost would just be undignified. So I don’t laugh at Jelly World. (It exists, but I’m not going to insist so. Undignified, remember?) And I don’t laugh at wars. And I don’t laugh at death. And I don’t laugh at small, fluffy Neopians getting scared out of their skins.
Not unless they’re really asking for it.
There was a sharp grating noise, like rock grinding against metal. It echoed around me and in me, thrummed like a heartbeat did once, and set my (hypothetical) nerves on edge. I yelped and performed a quick, rather dainty jump of surprise that was spoiled by me letting my concentration slip as I landed. I slipped through a couple of floors before I caught myself.
That’s the problem with having senses you can enhance. I’m always forgetting to turn them back to normal after I’ve been listening or looking at something that’s quiet, or small, or a distance away. Nasty surprises like that weren’t very dignified at all. Luckily for me, not many living creatures ventured into the tomb, not other than small buzzing insects and sharp-toothed petpets. What petpets see, they keep to themselves. They tell no tales. Not to me, at least. Not anymore.
The grinding must have been the tomb door opening, and I didn’t feel like hanging around for a few days to scare some other small, fluffy Neopian. I had better things to do with my time.
Actually I didn’t. (It’s remarkable how much time eating, and sleeping, and all those other needs take. When they’re eliminated, days seem to stretch for eternities. And an eternity of ghostly existence, which is where I’m headed so long as I’m not dispersed by some mage for sticking my snout where it shouldn’t be, promises to be very long and very, very boring. When I’ve lingered around for an eternity, I’ll think of a suitable term for how much longer it seems. A thousand eternities, if that’s even possible.) But it’s better not to stay in one place for too long. That leads too getting settled, becoming a nice local campfire story, and before you know it, some rookie ghost-hunter’s come after you with a disperser held together by sticky tape and a prayer. And that’s not pleasant. Trust me. It really, really isn’t.
I spread my wings. They’re a bit on the small side. I’m a fairly normal looking Hissi, once you get past the whole transparency and red eyes thing. I’m not sure what colour I was before I died. Not sure about anything much, really. That’s one of the more infuriating things. I spread my wings a bit wider, then relented to my sense of the dramatic and made them bigger. I don’t alter my appearance all that often (it gives me a headache), but I make exceptions some times. Like when I want to make a nice dramatic entrance.
I wrapped myself in my wings, and disappeared without so much as a puff of smoke.
I appeared in a small, dingy room. It was square and box-like, and as dark and spartan as a newbie’s bank account. It looked like a cell. Probably because it was a cell.
The bundle of bones and scales and wings in the corner stirred, and looked at me with bloodshot eyes. Valrigard gave a tired smile.
“Ghost. How wonderful to see you.” He tugged on a chain. It held his wrist firm to the rock behind him. “I don’t suppose you’d be willing to improve my situation?” he said, without much hope. Hope doesn’t just die in the dungeons of Meridell Castle, it’s dragged down to a well and drowned, then stabbed repeatedly, then hung outside in the blazing sun for a few months. It’s not a very nice place, all things considered.
I gave a fanged grin, realizing that I still had a couple of bright-red feathers decorating my head. I quietly let them melt back into my skull, feeling a little ashamed. “No.” Valrigard was someone I considered almost a friend, one of the few I had (hence the preening. I don’t like looking like a fool in front of one of the handful of Neopians that actually respect me), but... true neutral. I stick by my rules, even when I’d like to break them. They’re all I have. Friends will come and go, as the long years drag on. My rules will stay, and my sanity, hopefully.
“Didn’t think so.” Valrigard closed his eyes and slumped further down. His chains stopped him from lying down, or standing up, or even sitting up properly; he was held firmly into one of the most uncomfortable positions I’ve seen. He always seems pretty miserable. Poor guy.
“How’s life?” I lay on the ground (more or less. It looked like I was lying on the ground, at any rate. I wasn’t physically touching it, but this was the closest I was going to get) and spiked my wings up. And yes, I realized the slightly mocking phrasing of the question. If you were a ghost, you’d want to be self-mocking, too.
Valrigard sighed out a small puff of flame, and didn’t answer. I looked at him balefully.
“Why yes, Ghost, things are just fine here. I absolutely adore being charged of a crime I didn’t commit by the people I swore my loyalty to, and being looked down on...” He glanced up at the ceiling. A few floors above, a guard pounded up and down on patrol. “Literally... by people who have clods of dirt in place of brains and who have never lifted a weapon except in bullying. Life is just wonderful, thanks for asking.”
He wasn’t usually quite this miserable. “Something up?” I inquired, and then winced. Valrigard gave a wry grin, and I knew he was thinking of all the levels of stone and spikes and guards that separated him from the blue sky and the green grass. We’re more similar than you’d first think. Both of us wish for those things we can no longer have: the feel of the wind, the smell of the sea, warmth. Him more than me. I can’t remember those things, any more than I can remember what kind of person I was, or my real name.
“The 350th issue of the Neopian Times ought to come out today.” He answered my questioning look without seeming to see it. “The night guard whistles. It’s how I keep track of time. I have to listen pretty hard, but it’s worth it.” He shrugged, his wings flapping a little at the movement. “Last time I tried to escape, they changed my cell. I used to get a copy of the Times, sometimes, if the guard remembered. It was nice. A way to pass the time.” I understood his desire to pass the time all too well. Anything is better than sinking into circular thoughts, thoughts of darkness and hate, thoughts of despair. Anything. “Guess I got a little too fond of the privilege. I’d... like to read this issue. Quite a lot. It’s special.” He sighed again, blowing out a stream of smoke from his nose, and sank further into the chains. His eyes fluttered shut again. “I know better than to ask for your help,” he said, so quietly I thought I might have imagined. “I appreciate your company, really I do, but I’d rather be alone, right now.”
I looked at him, and then left, feeling a little offended. What did I care? If he wanted to mope around in his dark cell alone, that was no concern of mine. I had other things to do. Lots of other things. I’m a busy person.
I was busy trying to bang my head against a brick wall when a thought occurred to me. I could visit another friend. Maybe this visit would go better than the last one.
I guess I’m a real glutton for punishment.
“Hello.” I flapped a little to keep up with my friend. I could have just glided, but the other people in Neopia Central were giving me odd looks as it was.
He looked at me, and growled something. I grinned.
“You know I can’t understand you, Carpenter.”
Carpenter is a white gallion, smaller than the average one, and smarter, too. Most petpets are as stupid as a rotting log, and can’t frame a coherent thought beyond basic instincts. Carpenter’s different, though. He can talk, in a fashion. There’s an art to understanding a petpet’s speech. It’s something in the way they move, the myriad of sounds they make. I used to be able to do it.
That’s the thing about Carpenter that really frustrates me. I know I could understand him, once. I know his name. I know who he is, more or less. I remember a mocking, surly voice, remember it saying words, actual words I could understand. I don’t remember what it said. I don’t remember where he’s from, or how I knew him when I was alive. I don’t remember anything much. Not anything that I can use, not anything that can tell me who I am, barely even a wisp of long-forgotten dreams.
I’m not entirely sure that I want to understand Carpenter sometimes. Being called unintelligent is insulting; when the insult comes from a small fluffy animal it’s a thousand times worse. And I have no doubt of what he thinks of me from the contempt that sometimes shines in his eyes.
“So. What’re you doing here?”
Carpenter was carrying a small cloth bag. A bit of a scroll poked out, like a skeletal finger pointing accusingly to the sky. (At least, that’s what it looked like to me. Morbid? Very definitely.) He shook it in his mouth and glared at me over the top of it.
“Running errands? Good little messenger dragon.”
He looked like he’d quite like to bite me, but couldn’t really see the point. (Fair enough, too. Even live Hissis have hard scales. In some ways he’d be better off trying to bite me – better that his fangs pass right through than that they bite off more than they can chew, so to speak.)
He was walking rather faster than I suspect he normally would. In a hurry to get rid of me, I suppose. I passed right through someone, and shivered. That always gives me the creeps. There’s a reason why Neopians are covered in fur or feathers or scales. There’s quite a lot of nasty gory stuff inside. It’s rather too pink and wobbly for my liking.
I passed a newspaper stall, and paused. Carpenter kept on walking. I glared at him, but he didn’t turn back. Stupid little gallion. No sense of loyalty at all.
The white weewoo tending the stall looked at me. If most petpets are about as intelligent as a rotting log, white weewoos are as intelligent as a beautiful glade in an emerald forest, with glittering waterfalls and sweeping lawns and dramatic skylines and all that. Why they choose to be the icon of some newspaper is beyond me.
So this one looked at me, and gave a beaky smile. I read the poster tacked on to the back of the stall. Some junk about it being the special 350th Issue.
I really didn’t get the point of that. What stops it from being just a normal issue? Ooh, it has a 50 in it. Big whoop.
But judging by the amount of people that stopped by the stall, oohing and aahing and grinning gormlessly, it was pretty important to them. I thought of Valrigard, and felt, for some reason, guilty.
I’m true neutral. It makes things easier. I try not to do anything that could be classified as evil, or anything that could be classified as evil. Helping someone convicted of treason would probably fall under the latter category. Helping an innocent friend to be happy, though... that was good. Definitely good. I like to stay neutral. Who knows what could tip the balance?
Oh, why ever not. I could do something evil later, to make up for it. The whole Geraptiku tomb thing probably counted as that, come to think of it.
I transported myself over to the dungeons, again. It’s very wet in there, and dark. Like the screams of a thousand tortured souls paint it dark with their suffering. (Or maybe it was just normal mould and lack of light, and my morbid side was going overboard again. Either way, it isn’t a nice place to be, believe me.)
The guard that patrolled the corridor above Valrigard’s cell was reading a copy of the Times that proclaimed in big bold letters that it was the 350th Issue. Good. That made things a whole lot easier.
I made a whispering sound, like a fragment of forgotten dream, like a wisp of scent on the faintest breeze. The guard looked around sharply, and headed towards me. I skulked ahead of him, letting him catch a glimpse of movement occasionally, leading him on.
When I judged that we were in the right place, I dived into the light (what there was of it) and changed my appearance quickly. Now I had broad wings and was bedecked in gaudy jewelry and bright-red feathers. (What? I like feathers.) I opened my mouth wider. And wider. And wider. A hinged jaw is pretty handy.
The guard let out a terrified yell, and the newspaper dropped from his hand. It fell through a grille in the floor, down through to Valrigard’s cell. I gave a self-satisfied smirk, and melted through the floor myself.
Valrigard was staring at the newspaper. I grinned at him, feeling rather pleased with myself. He gave a disbelieving grin in response and then quirked an eyebrow as something occurred to him. He tugged on the chains that held him to the wall.
“Nice work, and I appreciate this and all, but how exactly am I supposed to read that?”