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Castle Stories

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The Halidom sits in near silence at night. Of course, many of its eccentric residents are up and about on any number of strange and interesting errands, but not Pia. Exhausted from a day of strenuous vocal rehearsal, she finds herself in a deep, but troubled sleep.

The entire experience seems bleak and faded, and although the dream is centered around her, Pia finds herself as an observer rather than an active participant. She watches herself sing before an enormous crowd, and although the performance starts out mesmerizing and the people applaud and cheer, it soon takes a dark turn. During the final song, the Pia on the stage hits a sour note, and it makes Pia the dreamer cringe. The audience notices it as well, and angry and disappointed voices begin to fill the room.

“I was promised a flawless performance!” shouts one man.

“I expected far better from a former member of the Harmonia Choir!” agrees another.

“Pitiful for her to make such a simple mistake,” scoffs a well-dressed woman. “I guess she didn’t take her practice seriously.”

The Pia on the stage tries her best to keep the performance going, but the growing resentment of the crowd begins to break her down. Tears well in her eyes, and it only seems to feed the darkness in the room.

“How pathetic, can’t she even handle some criticism?”

“What a weak child, she can’t possibly make it as a singer.”

“I certainly won’t be coming to see Pia sing again, and I’ll tell everyone I know to avoid her performances as well!”

Most of the crowd begins to leave their seats and exit the venue in disgust, but some approach the stage instead. They stand just beyond the edge of the spotlight, shouting their disappointment and hatred at the other Pia, who gives in and flees back behind the curtain, tears flowing freely now.

Pia watches as her dream self disappears, feeling numb and afraid as the crowd begins to mount the stage and pursue the crying singer.

Her eyes snap open, and she sees the first light of dawn streaming through the room’s only window. She stays still, letting her heartbeat slow down gradually, performing familiar breathing exercises in an attempt to relax.

It was just a dream, stupid! She tells herself over and over, but she can’t seem to let it out of her mind. She gets up and washes in the nearby basin, hoping that the cold water will shock her back to reality, but the images and voices remain. It isn’t the first time she has been afflicted with nightmares, and maybe that’s why she finds it so unsettling. She finds herself dressing and wandering out of her room, finding some relief in the familiar castle corridors.

“It’s safe here,” she says out loud. “No one would ever say things like that to me here. Everyone is so nice. Even Elias is nice to me since we joined the prince.” Her footsteps, though soft, seem to ring out loudly on the stone floor. “But I guess we can’t stay here forever, can we? Euden is nice enough to let us stay, and we’re doing everything we can to help him fight the Empire, but we’re just kids. I guess eventually I’ll have to leave this place.”

The thought is an uncomfortable one for Pia. She has not lived in the Halidom all that long, but it had become her home. The idea of moving on, leaving behind all the friends she had made there, makes her anxious. Everyone at the Halidom is kind and supportive of her goals as a singer. Even in the middle of their war with the Empire they make time to listen to her and make her feel important. But would their patience with her run out eventually? If she failed to become a great vocalist, would they turn on her like the crowd in her dream? The thought makes her shudder. She imagines Cleo and Ranzal in the venue she saw in the dream, shouting their anger and disappointment at her through the curtain.

“Man, the future is scary,” she laments. “If I don’t know what’s coming, how can I be ready? How can I know if I’m good enough to make my dreams come true?”

Pia stops dead in her tracks. “Wait a second, there’s a way to find out!”

. . .

Verica’s morning routine is a simple one. She likes to rise with the sun and prepare a cup of tea to sip as she meditates, opening herself to the energy that fuels her magic. She mastered the art of divination long ago, and that makes it easy for her to pick through the vague glimpses of the future that flash before her eyes during this daily ritual. None are as specific or vivid as they would be if she were telling the fortune of a single person, but they help to give her a first impression of what the day holds for the people of New Alberia, and it typically gives her comfort and reassurance that joining Prince Euden’s ragtag group was a most excellent decision.

But this morning her routine is interrupted, something that she had not forseen There is a knock at the door, and she sets her cup and saucer down on the small table beside her chair and rises to answer it. Outside is a small, blonde-haired girl wearing a white dress. She recognizes the girl, although they have never had the occasion to speak before.

“Pia. Now this is a surprise. Please, come in.”

Pia, who has begun to lose her nerve, enters the room and freezes up. Verica shuts the door and gently guides her to a second chair near the mantle.

“Would you like some tea? I quite enjoy a cup in the morning.”

Pia stares at her, eyes wide, and then nods stiffly. “I’m sorry to bother you, ma’am. I know we’ve never actually met, but I had a dream…” She trails off, and Verica waits for the girl to regain her train of thought while she pours a second cup of tea. “It… was bad,” Pia finishes, head hanging down as if to examine the rug.

Verica hands her the cup and simply asks, “How so?” It is not uncommon for residents of the castle to come to her with questions about the future or to ask for her take on a dream or vision they had. Such visits were once her livelihood, but now she offered her services free of charge. It is her contribution to the Halidom and its people. Everyone here has something to offer, even if you have to dig a bit to find out what it is. Telling fortunes and being constantly aware of the tides of fate was something only Verica could do, and she took great pride in it. Getting background information from the subject of a reading could often help in the divination process, so she had become skilled at making her customers comfortable enough to open up to her.

“Well, I was singing on a stage, and at first it was going really well,” Pia began.

“Not surprising,” Verica interjects. “You have a lovely voice. I’ve heard you sing around the castle grounds.”

Pia blushes and stutters, “Th-thank you! But… eventually I hit a wrong note, and everything changed. The people started to say that a great singer shouldn’t make a mistake like that, and they got angry. A lot of them left, said they would tell everyone what a bad singer I was. But some of them stayed and chased me off the stage!”

Verica sees tears begin to form in the young girl’s eyes, and she puts a hand on her shoulder. “Shh, child. There iss no need to be afraid. It was only a dream.”

Pia sniffles, “Was it though? It was like what happened before the choir concert, when everyone started to have nightmares at the same time! If those dreams meant something, what if this one does too?”

Verica nods, “You mean when Sabnock invaded the dreams of the children in the choir? I thought he had primarily targeted Elias.”

“Elias had it the worst I think, but he talked to all of us,” Pia begins to shiver, despite the warm sunshine flooding through Verica’s window.

“Likely so he could find the child who was most vulnerable to his influence. Does this dream you had truly remind you of those caused by Sabnock? I can guarantee you that no such fiend can touch your slumber here. Prince Euden and the others would never allow it.”

Pia shrugs, “I guess it isn’t the same, but it makes me wonder if it was some sort of vision or something. Maybe that’s what my future is going to be like, and if it is I might as well give up now.”

This is not going to be so simple as giving her a fortune and moving on. Verica thinks. Luckily, she has no plans today. She stands and extends a hand to Pia. “Come, let us continue this discussion over breakfast. Things never seem so bleak with a stomach full of good food after all.”

The two make their way silently down the winding hallways of the Halidom until they reach the main dining room. Verica thinks that it was renovated when Prince Euden and his company took up residence in the castle because it was unlike any dining room in any castle that she had ever seen. She had offered her services in the residences of nobles and royalty on more than one occasion, and when she had taken meals in those houses, the layout had been much different. The lord of the house, his family, and their honored guests of noble blood ate apart from the rest of the gathered folk, sometimes even on an elevated platform to reinforce their social status. But here, the dining room was a crowded and clumsy collection of small tables and chairs strewn about haphazardly. There were no distinctions or segregation based on class or position in the prince’s favor, and as far as Verica could tell, everyone here was in equal favor with the prince anyway.

The atmosphere of the room lightens Pia’s mood a bit, and she waves at some of her friends, puffing up a bit when they see who she’s with and look impressed. She follows Verica to one of the larger tables laid out with food, and the two of them pile plates with meat, bread, and fruit. After Pia gobbles down a few sausages and half an apple, Verica brings back the topic of her dream.

“So you think that your dream may be a vision of your future? That you may be destined to fail as a singer?”

Pia takes a few more bites before she responds. “I guess so. It seemed so real. Usually my dreams are way crazier, that makes it easy to tell that it’s a dream, you know? But this one could have been real life, and that made it way scarier.”

“Of course. You’re growing up, Pia. That means that you’re undergoing a transition from the more imaginative world of childhood to the more certain and serious world of adulthood.”

Pia stares forlornly at the hunk of potato on her fork and says, “Is adulthood always so depressing and scary?”

Verica laughs, “No, not always. In some ways, adopting a more realistic view of the world around you is a beautiful thing. You come to understand things that you never thought you could understand. As long as you never lose your curiosity, there is no reason for the real world to be a boring or frightening place.”

“Well, it doesn’t sound all bad at least,” Pia replies. “But do you think my dream was a vision of my future?”

“It is very difficult for me to say for sure. I can certainly tell your fortune if that is what you want. It may help answer some of your questions about your future, but I need you to understand that the future is not necessarily set in stone. Even if your dream is an omen, there is a chance that it can be changed. That is what I consider to be the true mission of a seer like myself.”

Pia’s eyes brighten. “You mean you try to help people change the future? That’s so cool!”

“It is no different than what most of the people in this castle are doing, especially Prince Euden,” says Verica. “When you think about it, everything that we do is an attempt to change the future. We try to eat healthy foods so that we will live longer. We try to use our skills to survive or make others happy. We make friends and fall in love so that we will always have joy and companionship. I may have an edge because I have a limited ability to look into the future, but everyone around you has goals and ambitions that they are doing their best to push toward. They are trying to change their future, and the future of the world, little by little.”

Pia sits quietly for a moment, trying to wrap her head around Verica’s lesson. “So take the prince for example. He didn’t like how the Empire is hurting people, so he founded New Alberia to fight against them and make the world a better place. And that’s how he’s trying to change the future?”

Verica smiles, “Exactly. And everyone gathered here believes in his vision of the future, so they are doing everything they can to help. Even you and I.”

“Well, at least you’re doing something to help,” Pia says, sinking down in her chair. “I don’t think I’m doing him much good.”

“Why would you say that?” asks Verica, putting down her fork and focusing her attention on the girl.

Pia squirms a bit before answering. “Well, I came here because the prince was nice enough to help me with a music test and I ended up staying. They let me help fight a little bit, but I don’t think they like putting me in danger because I’m a kid. And if I can’t fight, I don’t think I can do much to be helpful.”

“I think you and all the other children do wonders for this place,” Verica replies. “There is a certain magic in the presence of young people like yourself that keeps everyone’s spirits high. You remind us why we are fighting this war against the Dyrenell Empire. And let us not forget that you bring the gift of music to this place as well. It is plain to see how greatly Prince Euden values it, after all, he assisted you with your test, did he not?”

“I… guess that’s true. But in my dream-”

“Forgive me for my interruption,” says a new voice. Verica and Pia turn to their visitor and see a dark-skinned young woman in the garb of a far-off land. “You discuss dreams, do you not?”

Pia looks to Verica, “Indeed we do, did you wish to join us?”

The woman sits, placing her own plate on the table. “I hope I have not made you uncomfortable. I have great interest in the subject of dreams, and I understand that our young friend is troubled by a most unpleasant one.”

“Indeed,” agrees Verica. “Pia, this is Nefaria. She was once the queen of a desert kingdom far to the south. I have heard some of what your people theorized about dreams in my years as a seer, Nefaria. It is a shame that much of that knowledge was lost when the kingdom fell, but I am pleased that you are willing to share your wisdom with us. Pia, would you mind telling Nefaria what you told me about your dream?”

Pia recounts the dream once again, and Nefaria listens intently, taking only a few small bites of her breakfast. When the young girl finishes her story, Nefaria nods and asks, “In your dream, were you standing on the stage performing and enduring the audience’s ire, or were you an outsider observing another version of yourself?”
“I was watching it happen.”

“That is most interesting to me. My people were of the belief that dreams do not come from inside of us, but instead from another place. I found it strange when I took up residence in this castle that many refer to dreaming as something they do rather than something they experience. My own dreams are akin to yours, in which you observe yourself from an outside perspective. This leads me to the same conclusion that my people reached long ago, that we are merely visitors in dreams, and that they do not truly belong to us. We can but watch as events play out, and can do nothing to change them.”

“What an interesting perspective,” says Verica. “If the dreams are not of our own making, then where do they come from?”

Nefaria shakes her head, “That, I do not know. Perhaps that knowledge was lost when my kingdom fell, or perhaps they never unearthed it to begin with. Perhaps they were merely doing what we are doing today and speculating on one of life’s greatest mysteries. But there is some merit in the theory, yes? Why else would our dreams not happen through our own eyes? Why else would we become part of the audience rather than a player?”

Pia begins to rub her temples, “This is all getting a little confusing. So you’re saying that the dream isn’t something I made up, right? That it came from somewhere else? Isn’t that like what Sabnock did to us?”

“I have heard the story of Sabnock, and though there is some similarity in concept, I do not believe that the fiend’s power over dreams is a common one, nor do I think that he or any other fiend is the source of dreams that my people theorized,” explains Nefaria. “Forgive me, I fear I have made the discussion too abstract and distracted you from your goal.”

“Not at all,” replies Verica. “The perspective is an interesting one, and I think there is a lesson for us all to learn from it. If we accept that dreams come to us from someplace else, or that we are somehow able to enter them from the outside in our sleep, then there is something or someone that guides us to the dreams that we end up in. Otherwise it would be unusual that we tend to experience dreams that involve us as a central character, would it not?”

Pia and Nefaria nod, although Pia still looks as if she’s struggling to follow.

“If we assume that we are somehow guided to the specific dreams that we experience, we can also assume that there is some sort of reason or design behind it. We are meant to view those dreams for one reason or another.”

“But if that’s true, how do we know what the reason is?” asks Pia.

Nefaria drums her fingers on the table. “Perhaps the reason is irrelevant, or perhaps it is something that can only be deciphered in hindsight. And to do so we must simply do our best to glean useful knowledge from the dreams we are allowed to witness.”

“So we just have to figure it out? That’s so hard, and how can you ever be sure that what you do figure out is right?” Pia whines.

“Well,” says Verica, “Maybe we are not meant to know. Or maybe the act of deciding something makes the decision right on its own. Maybe our dreams are merely what we make of them. If we find them pleasant, they give us something to look forward to, something to believe in and give us hope. If we do not like them, they give us the willpower to make changes so that they do not come true. Remember what I told you about the future?”

Pia thinks back on their earlier conversation. “That it isn't set it in stone, right?”

“That is correct! The same may be true of dreams. Your dream has no power over you, but what you decide to do now that you have witnessed it is vital. Are you afraid of failure, Pia? Will that fear keep you from singing?”

“There is no shame in being afraid,” adds Nefaria. “Nor is there shame in avoiding a course of action that seems doomed to failure. The course of action that one chooses is their own, and each of us can only do what we think best.”

Pia considers it all for a long while, and eventually a small bulge works its way up her sleeve. A mouse emerges from the cuff of her shirt and scampers out onto her hand, nuzzling her affectionately.

“What’s that, Mister Mouse? You say that I shouldn’t give up?”

The mouse lets out a quiet squeak before delving back into Pia’s sleeve and out of sight.

“Maybe you’re right,” she finally says. “It’s possible that I won’t ever be a famous singer, and maybe I’m as good now as I’ll ever get. But singing is what makes me happy. It’s what I want to do more than anything in the world!”

Verica and Nefaria exchange a quick smile before returning their attention to the meal before them.

“Thanks so much for your help, I feel so much better now!” Pia exclaims, energy bubbling and spilling from her smile. “I’m going to practice now, but if I have any more dreams I’ll make sure to let you know!”

As Pia rushes down the hallways of the Halidom, she reflects on everything she learned this morning. The future can be scary, and dreams can be too, but that doesn’t mean that they’re bad. Everything is what you make of it, and she decides that she’ll make it the best it can be!