Cycle of the Moon: Part Seven
The sun hung low in the sky, obscured by layers of thick fog that filled the streets of Shenkuu. Ganduo pushed through them like spyderwebs, occasionally wiping beads of moisture from his face. The green Lupe had long since parted from the others, and his journey through the dim paths had been slow. Now that he was on his own for the evening, he wasn’t in any hurry to get down to the pavilion.
Anyway, he had to go home first to check on his grandmother. Vinta had insisted on staying at the small house despite the arguments of Ganduo’s parents, and he had been entrusted to visit her before sundown and, if not persuade her to follow him to the pavilion, at least make sure that she would be safe. Vinta was deaf and frail, an easy target for any potential thieves who planned to brave the spirit-filled night.
As Ganduo walked, he was aware that there was little need to worry. No Neopets were foolish enough to be caught outside in the middle of the Lunar Festival. He passed fewer and fewer travelers as he made his way through the streets, all of them heading toward the colorful celebration at the base of the hills.
The Lupe’s small home came into view around a bend in the road, the mists parting to reveal its curved roof and curtained windows.
The front door was ajar.
Worried that his grandmother had ventured into the night—but why would she?—Ganduo hurried inside. He pushed past the door and fumbled with a match; after lighting a candle, he lifted the holder up and peered around. “Grandma Vinta?”
She wasn’t in the front room or the living room. He pressed further, looking into each of the bedrooms, holding the weak light at arm’s length. “Grandma?” But all was dark and silent.
Ganduo’s mind raced. Where could she be? He looked into the bathroom, but was greeted only by a drip! from the faucet.
He pulled apart the drapes of each window and looked into the narrow yard. The mists had condensed on the glass, leaving drops of water that obscured his view. The world outside looked abstract, dim, and empty.
Hurrying back toward the front door, Ganduo couldn’t help but remember what had happened earlier that day. Huanyi had overheard him tell the others that Vinta was deaf and born in a year of Hearing. And then, Xinshi, Yalan, and Danye had each revealed that they were deficient in their birth senses as well.
The fog must have lifted for a moment, or the sun had flared as it was pulled toward the horizon, or perhaps it was just his candle that flickered as if blown by an invisible breath—but something caught Ganduo’s eye. On the floor in the living room, aligned perfectly with the two curved bands at the bottom of his grandmother’s rocking chair, were long, twin scrapes.
Ganduo approached the spot and bent down. The grooves were gouged into the wooden floor behind the chair; it must have been dragged forward. Perhaps, Ganduo thought as he stood up, resisted by two feet pressed desperately against the ground.
His heart began to beat faster. Vinta was gone, and possibly in danger. His friends would be at the pavilion by now... at least, they should be.
His eyes kept drifting back to the two scrapes on the floor. Ganduo blew out his candle and stepped outside.
The haze still gripped the city in its cold, clammy grasp. All was silent.
Who could help him? What could he do? Questions swirled in his mind like the white mists that surrounded him. Every single Neopet in Shenkuu was celebrating the Lunar Festival beneath the great curved roof. The sun would set long before Ganduo could return with any help, and then the spirits would be released to roam the land, with the power to enter the body of any who were foolish enough to wander in the open air.
Ganduo cast his eyes to the sky, and it was there that he glimpsed a hope. Against a canvas of obscured stars he saw the Lunar Temple, where the Lupe knew that Shiru was planning to spend the night inside.
* * * * *
Danye felt numb.
Her hands were wrapped behind her around a slender column, tied together at the wrists. She stood with her back against the cold stone, blindfolded, her head hanging down as her heart pounded in her chest.
She should have known.
If only they had stayed a little longer in the Lunar Temple. If only they had thought a little more about Huanyi’s sudden interest in Ganduo’s grandmother. If only they had turned back when they saw that the guest house was dark and deserted, except for two Kougras standing in the shadowy doorway.
Huanyi and her brother Anyan had overpowered them in silence. Now she, Xinshi, and Yalan were bound to pillars in an unknown location, their fate as uncertain as the white mists that smothered the city.
The tendrils of cold fog seemed to creep into Danye’s mouth, chilling and strangling her as she fought to slow her panicked breathing. She couldn’t give in to fear... not yet.
“Remove their blindfolds, Rubo. They’re not needed anymore.”
Danye swallowed her heart back into her chest and stiffened. The voice was nearby. It had a purring strength to it, a quiet confidence.
“Yes, Master Weiru.”
This voice was short and tense, as if the speaker were nervously walking on an unsteady bridge.
Footsteps padded across the stone, and Danye could hear a Neopet pause twice as he tended to Xinshi and Yalan. When he pulled off the red Ogrin’s blindfold, she saw that he was a brown Kyrii wearing the robes of a royal servant. Perched on his head was a rather wide hat with a square brim. The fabric of each side curved upward to a low peak in the center, bearing remarkable resemblance to a traditional Shenkese roof.
The Kyrii hurried away from her, and Danye glanced at her surroundings.
She was standing on a stone platform in the shape of a pentagon. A column stood at each of its five points; to Danye’s left, Xinshi was tied, and to his left was Yalan. On Danye’s right was an elderly grey Lupe that could only be Ganduo’s grandmother, Vinta. The fifth pillar was bare.
In the center of the pentagon was an obelisk, narrowing to a sharp point higher up than the tops of the columns. Five grey ropes hung down from a stone rung at its peak, which was framed against the cloudy, starry sky. Danye could see the last orange rays of the sun penetrating through the fog, and, in the opposite direction, the pale full moon.
But nothing else was visible through the mists. The platform was raised slightly off the ground, and the Ogrin saw grass and bushes, but they quickly faded into the swirling darkness of the night.
She had never felt more alone.
Just as a fresh wave of panic threatened to wash over her, Danye was distracted by the sight of a Neopet ascending the stone steps opposite her. The servant stood with his hands clasped, bowing his head slightly but not enough to set his curved hat off balance.
The shaggy head of a Gnorbu emerged from the fog. He was so white that he seemed almost to glow; even his fine robes bore no trace of color. He was old, and he walked with a short staff, but he exuded poise and authority.
He stood next to the Kyrii and looked around at the captives, and Danye saw a flash of icy blue as his eyes passed over her. She glanced down at her feet but couldn’t prevent the chill that ran through her veins.
“The sun will set soon, Rubo.” Danye looked up again and saw the Gnorbu lift his staff to gesture into the west. The straight wooden cane had a tiny, round red feather attached to the bottom by a single hair. It dangled below the shaft like the dot of an eerie exclamation mark.
“Yes, Master Weiru.”
“Where is Anyan with the final vessel?”
“As soon as he brought these three, he left to gather the fifth. Huanyi went to secure the only other citizen not down at the pavilion.” Rubo’s eyes flickered toward the Gnorbu. “Your—”
“Yes.” Weiru nodded slowly. “All is ready. When Anyan returns, I will lay the enchantment and go to the palace.”
The Kyrii looked like he was about to say something, but remained silent.
Weiru turned and stepped off of the platform. Rubo glanced at the four captives, and then into the sky, reaching up to adjust his hat as he followed the Gnorbu into the fog.
For a few moments, all Danye could hear was the muffled pounding of her heart.
“Yalan, are you all right?” Xinshi’s whisper was shaky.
The striped Zafara had been tied with her arms behind her around a pillar like the others, but Huanyi had dragged her out of her wheeled chair and pushed it off the platform to the grass below. Yalan’s legs were crumpled beneath her as if they were made of paper, barely supporting her weight; most of it was held by her bound and stretched arms.
“My shoulders hurt,” she said softly, not looking up. “Xinshi... why did they do this?”
“I don’t know.”
The sunlight was fading fast; soon night would fall and the spirits of all senses, good and evil, would be released upon the hills of Shenkuu.
Danye looked to her right. “Are you Ganduo’s grandma?” she asked the grey Lupe. She, like Yalan, seemed to be held up by her arms.
The Neopet was silent, her eyes closed.
She turned to look at the Lutari to her left.
He stared toward her with his large blue eyes. “I’ve heard of those two Neopets before.”
Danye took a quick breath of the cold, moist air. “You have? When?”
“Last night.” He licked his lips. “I didn’t tell you, but... I heard the Empress. She was singing in the gardens, and I walked outside and stood at the hedge. She was just on the other side.”
Questions filled Danye’s mind like a fog, but she fanned them away and focused on her friend’s words.
“The servant—Rubo—he was there too. I recognize his voice. He asked her to come inside, and she said that she wanted to let her child feel the night air.”
“She said something about Weiru... about him saying he was helping her bear the child of the Emperor. But she didn’t like it. She said she had been dreading the night—tonight.”
Danye’s thoughts were clouded, and she fought to understand. “This doesn’t make sense. Why is all of this happening?”
The Ogrin closed her eyes.
“It doesn’t make sense to me either,” Xinshi whispered, and the two joined Yalan and Vinta in silence.
Weiru’s white face emerged from the mists. His staff knocked dully on the stone platform as he walked and stood by the grey obelisk. Rubo, his eyes downcast, joined him quietly.
Danye watched as a familiar orange Kougra ascended the steps, wearing a curved hat—to protect against the evil spirits, the Ogrin suddenly realized. With a rush of fear, she imagined the invisible specters rising from their sleep as soon as the last rays of the sun vanished into darkness.
Anyan was dragging someone behind him. When she saw the Neopet’s face, Danye felt as if her heart had grown too heavy for the platform to bear, and the stone would crack and she would be plunged into a chasm of black anguish.
“Sayder,” she breathed.
Beside her, Xinshi stiffened.
When he spoke, she knew that he had come to a realization.
“Negg noodles,” the Lutari whispered, and Danye tasted true despair.
To be continued...