Cycle of the Moon: Part Ten
The tall metal gates were unguarded in the dark night, and Ganduo slipped through them quietly. The fog was thick around the palace as he walked along the path; the Lupe could only see clearly for a few feet, beyond which the circle of light cast by his paper lantern faded into the hazy gloom. With Shiru’s curved staff still clutched in his other hand, Ganduo moved carefully across the palace grounds, his feet padding silently on the dusty trail.
He had been hearing whispers ever since leaving the Lunar Temple. Now that the sun had set, Ganduo knew that the spirits were free to roam the hills of Shenkuu. Only his concern for his grandmother and his friends kept him from seeking shelter beneath the curved roof of a nearby building.
The distant murmurs were all he could hear in the still night. Two yellow orbs guided his way—the full moon above and the lone flame in his lantern were all that he could see, and both had been reduced to blurry glows.
As Ganduo was trying to remember how to get to the guest house, he heard an eerie sigh drift past him on one side. He shivered, and a breath of wind tickled his arm.
With a flicker, the candle in the lantern went out.
Ganduo stopped in his tracks, plunged into darkness. Now the only landmark he could identify in the mists was the moon, which looked down indifferently as the Lupe’s chest rose and fell.
He dropped the paper lantern and clutched Shiru’s staff with both hands.
Before the fear could worm further into his mind, another light flickered on in front of him. It was too far to distinguish, but Ganduo knew that it came from the direction of the palace.
He watched as the yellow glow began to move, bobbing up and down in the same way his own light had done as he’d walked through the deserted streets of the city.
Someone was out.
The Lupe followed, keeping the glimmer in sight as he tread across the palace lawn. There was another Neopet outside, unprotected from the spirits. If someone had abducted his grandmother, here was an undeniable suspect.
They entered a narrow lane, with the large wall on one side and a thick hedge on the other. When he emerged, Ganduo could see the lantern light shine on the red face of a wide building before disappearing inside.
He was at the guest house.
Ganduo hurried toward the main door, remembering how Huanyi had ordered Xinshi, Yalan, and Danye to meet her there before the Lunar Festival. The pink Kougra might be just around the corner.
Ganduo slipped into the empty common room and made his way into the hall. The place was as silent as a cemetery.
His heart pounded, but Ganduo knew that even if he were to stop and take a few breaths, he wouldn’t be able to shake away the nerves. Instead, he crept down the corridor, toward the only doorway where a flickering yellow glow could be seen.
The door was almost closed, but it remained slightly ajar. Ganduo pressed his hands against the wall and leaned as close to the open crack as he dared. The voices which he had heard dimly moments ago were now clear, and the Lupe listened to the hushed words that were being spoken.
“I don’t care,” hissed a voice that he recognized as Huanyi’s. “Anyan and I have seen far worse than that. You should never have left.”
“I can’t go back now,” whined a voice that Ganduo couldn’t identify. “The curse that Weiru put on it will kill me.”
“The best thing to do is just stay here.” Anyan’s voice was low. “Rubo is right, he can’t go back now. Weiru has laid the enchantment. There’s nothing more to do.”
“You two may think that no one will find them in the gardens,” said Huanyi. “But you forget, Anyan, how we came to be involved with this in the first place.”
“What do you mean?” asked Rubo.
“When Princess Lunara’s sister was born, Anyan was on guard duty in the palace. I was celebrating the Lunar Festival like everyone else down at the pavilion, but I’d promised to go trade places with Anyan halfway through the night so he could sneak down and have some fun.”
“Weiru didn’t keep any guards tonight. He told me it was just the royal family and one or two personal attendants in the palace.”
“Weiru learned his lesson. After I braved the spirits wearing one of these curved hats—” Huanyi’s voice paused, and Ganduo heard someone move— “I got inside and found Anyan. He was going to head down to the pavilion, but we heard someone wailing upstairs. It turned out to be the Empress. Weiru was treating her with his medicines and instruments. It was terrible.”
There was silence, and Ganduo held his breath.
“But the princess was born before sunrise, and the plan was a success. When Weiru found out that Anyan and I knew what he’d done, he swore us to secrecy. He told us everything—about the five soulless Neopets, the good spirits of the five senses blessing the child, everything.”
“And now that we know,” said Anyan, “we’re a part of this forever. It’s a blessing and a curse.”
“Blessing because we’re the only Neopets in the world besides the royal family, Weiru, and you, Rubo, who know the truth. Curse because that’s what Weiru laid on us when he made us vow to be silent.”
“You... we’re cursed?”
“Weiru didn’t tell you?” Ganduo could almost see the smirk on Anyan’s face. “I guess he forgot.”
“So, on that night when Lunara was born, what happened to them?”
“The five Neopets? The ones with... without souls.”
Ganduo remembered what they had read with Shiru in the Lunar Temple about the ancient belief that to be deficient in one’s birth sense was to be without a soul. Suddenly, he thought of Xinshi, Yalan, Danye, and Vinta—and like a thunderclap Huanyi’s description struck him in the chest.
“It doesn’t matter,” said the pink Kougra, but Ganduo could think of nothing in the world that mattered more.
“You should be ashamed,” came a new voice, and Ganduo recognized the old Gnorbu instantly. Shiru was in the room with them. His hunch had been right—Huanyi had known that the Lunar Temple master had helped them, and that he’d known where his friends would be meeting her. So she had seized a risk before it could become a threat. “This is terrible, terrible.”
“Look who’s awake, now,” said Anyan. “Sorry that we had to nab you like this, Shiru.”
“We couldn’t take the chance,” said Huanyi.
“I didn’t just wake up,” said Shiru. “I’ve heard everything. And now... now I understand.”
“Understand what?” asked Rubo.
“What Weiru has done. What you all have done, to five innocent Neopets. I don’t know how I never saw it before.”
“Just forget about it,” said Huanyi. “It’s over.”
Ganduo’s fingers tightened over the curved edge of Shiru’s staff. He didn’t see everything clearly, not yet, but he knew that his friends and grandmother were in grave danger. Five Neopets had been taken to the garden when the princess was born. Now, it was happening again.
Ganduo took a shaky breath.
Even if he didn’t understand, there was someone else who did. Shiru was there, and if Ganduo could rescue him, there was a chance that they could save the others—from what, he still wasn’t certain. But as the distant whispers of the spirits drifted to his ears, he had a guess.
“It’s not over until the sun rises,” said Shiru from inside the candlelit room, and Ganduo set his jaw.
* * * * *
Huafen didn’t believe in spirits—not really. None had stricken her blind as a child when she’d seen the Empress standing beneath the cherry blossom tree, nor last night when she’d laid eyes on her for the second time. She felt no indication that one of her senses was heightened above the others from birth, and she felt no unnatural chills on her fur as she walked through the misty streets of Shenkuu.
Sayder had promised to spend the night of the Lunar Festival with her, but he hadn’t shown up. Huafen had looked for him and discovered that not only was the Gelert missing from the party, but so were his young friends—their front row seats at the stage were empty. It was unheard of to stay home from the festival. Huafen was worried.
Her eyes drifted up toward the higher hills, but in the fog she could scarcely make them out. Only when the clouds parted to reveal patches of starlight was she able to see the shadowy crest where the palace and guest house stood.
The slender faerie Xweetok walked quickly, stepping across the rope bridges and weaving through the curving pathways as she climbed higher and higher. Below, the colorful lights of the pavilion seemed to illuminate a tiny area; the rest of Shenkuu was completely dark. The sounds of the distant celebration reached her ears faintly. As she ascended the hills, they faded entirely into silence.
Deep chasms filled with swirling white mists opened up eerily below her as Huafen crossed the shaky bridges. When she finally arrived at the palace gates, the fog was so thick that she could barely see.
“Sayder?” she called, knowing that she had spoken far too softly to be heard from any distance. Even if she wasn’t afraid of spirits, Huafen was still worried about her friend. The cloud that had wrapped her in its moist embrace wasn’t making the Xweetok any more comfortable. “Sayder!”
She followed the high wall until she saw the hedge rise up on her left side. The air remained silent, and Huafen wondered what she would do if she found the guest house empty.
Just as she was opening her mouth to call his name again, she heard a voice.
It was more of a moan, reaching her ears through the dense leaves. Huafen stopped and listened.
There was another groan, hollow and ghostly. The sounds were coming from the royal gardens. Huafen stared up at the hedge. Why was there someone in there, at this hour?
Thinking of the other times she had followed a voice from the gardens, Huafen backed away from the leaves and stood with her back to the stone wall. She wasn’t going to brave that journey again unless she needed to.
The Xweetok filled her lungs with damp air and called out as loud as she dared: “Sayder!”
She waited, without breathing, as one second after another dragged by.
His voice was unmistakable, and it was nearby. Huafen looked up at the tall hedge, her clear, turquoise eyes drifting until they reached the top.
It seemed to rise up, tower above her, warning of the unknown dangers that lay hidden on the other side.
Huafen stretched her wings, which trembled slightly as she straightened her back.
This time was different, she told herself, flapping the membranes with increasing speed. This time, she knew who awaited her on the other side.
Huafen felt her feet leave the ground. The hedge seemed to stretch even higher, but she beat the air back and pushed upward. Anxiety was no match for her determination; Sayder’s voice echoed in her ears and gave her strength. The Xweetok felt the prickly hedge brush against her legs, and then she descended—a little too quickly, landing on all fours.
She stood up slowly, blinking away the moisture that her anxious mind had squeezed out of her eyes.
There, in front of her, was a cherry blossom tree.
But there was no one beneath it, only a few pink petals that had fallen to the ground.
The tree was all she could see in the fog. “Sayder, where are you?”
She followed the voice, passing beneath the low, blooming branches. Weaving her way between rows of plants and flowers, Huafen glimpsed a structure rising up in front of her. It looked like a tyrant’s wicked crown—sharp edges circled its base, and several tall pillars loomed around a pointed obelisk. She could make out five figures slumped at each of the columns, one of which was a shadow Gelert.
She ran toward them. “Sayder, what’s happening?” She saw the ropes that wrapped his hands behind him. “Who did this to you?”
“Stay back!” he warned, and Huafen slowed her stride. “Don’t touch the stone, or the ropes. They’re cursed.”
It didn’t cross the Xweetok’s mind to translate her disbelief in spirits to a disbelief in curses. Her friend’s voice left no doubt. “What’s going on here?” She recognized the three young Neopets to whom she had been introduced just yesterday.
The fifth, a grey Lupe she had never seen before, opened her mouth and moaned.
“I don’t have time to explain. The spirits are around us. We’re all in grave danger.”
Spirits... she had never bothered to ask if Sayder believed in them. Nearly every Shenkese citizen did—or at least followed the traditions, especially on this night. Huafen grew aware that the structure before her was composed entirely of straight lines. She shivered.
“Weiru, the Emperor’s chief minister, has captured us to use as bait for evil spirits. He wants to draw them away from the palace, where he’s making sure that the Empress will deliver her child before sunrise. You have to find him, Huafen. He laid a curse that can be broken only by his own blood.”
Huafen felt as if she had been swept up in a whirlwind. She had chosen to spread her wings and fly for the first time in years, and now a tempest had taken hold of her and carried her far away from her expectations.
“You want me to... find a scholar and take his blood?”
“He’s in the palace,” said Sayder as the old Lupe groaned again. Huafen was conscious of the eyes of the three younger Neopets on her, but she tried to concentrate on Sayder’s words. “It’s probably empty because everyone’s at the pavilion. Just find the room where Weiru and the Empress are, and...”
He trailed off, and she knew that he had no plan.
“What does he look like?”
“A Gnorbu, pure white. He’ll be with the Empress. If you can just find a way to get him outside, or even to get a trace of his blood, I think—”
“Hurry!” cried the striped Zafara who was tied to the column next to Sayder. She began to shudder. “I can feel them coming for me. I’m next. I’m next. They’re done with her.”
All eyes turned to the Lupe, whose mouth was open but silent. Her eyes were closed, and her head swung back and forth.
She looked at Sayder, and the fear in his eyes made her wonder if she should be more worried herself. She could feel the air grow colder, and her fur prickled as if touched by a gust of wind, but the air was still.
Huafen took a shallow breath. She glanced in the direction of the palace, but the building was obscured by the mists.
“Go,” he breathed, and she forced herself into motion.
There were only two doors in the palace that opened into the gardens, and when the wide structure came into sight, Huafen made for the nearest one. As soon as she stepped inside, the chills that had been brushing against her vanished. The air was still, neither warm nor cold.
Huafen had been in the palace a few times, and she knew that the second floor was the one reserved for the royal family. She found a set of stairs and climbed up, emerging in a corridor that had closed doors on each side.
Subtle, ornate patterns were painted on the walls, and the floor was covered with a thin carpet. The silence was nearly as heavy as the fog outside, but as she strained her ears, Huafen could hear voices nearby.
She paced forward carefully, wondering why the hall was so dark. No light came from the cracks of any of the doors, but one of them surely held a Neopet, for the words were becoming clearer as the Xweetok moved closer. “Relax, very nice. There, there we are. Very good.”
It was a purring voice that made the fur on Huafen’s face bristle. She approached the door that the sound was coming from.
“Lay your head back, my lady.”
The Empress was there, and it could be none other than Weiru whose attempts to sooth her only made Huafen’s heart beat faster.
The Empress took in a sharp breath, and Weiru whispered, “It’s all right, all is well. We are surrounded by good spirits. They are waiting, we are waiting. Shenkuu is waiting, just a little longer, my lady...”
She was now standing directly in front of the closed door. Huafen tried to hold her breath, but her pounding heart demanded air. She inhaled slowly.
As she hesitated, Huafen thought of the conversation she had heard between the Empress and her servant last night. The Empress had been afraid, had been dreading this night. Now, Huafen knew why. Weiru was making sure her child would be born during the Lunar Festival. The Xweetok closed her eyes. It was so unnatural, so wrong.
Huafen had never known what to believe, and it had all been because of the Empress. Stepping through that doorway, she knew, would thrust her face to face with the cause of all the doubt in her life. But to save someone from the tools of a twisted physician was more important; to save her friends from the clutches of whatever lurked outside was more important. More important than her own fear. Too important to wait any longer.
She pushed open the door and strode into the room.
A white Gnorbu was sitting on a stool, leaning through a gap in the curtains of a four poster bed, next to an open window. His head turned quickly to face her, and she saw that he was wearing a black cloth over his face. Even as he violated the most personal of events, his devotion to tradition kept his eyes from seeing the Empress. “Who’s there? Get out, I told you all to stay in the north end.”
Huafen’s gaze drifted to the space between the silky pink curtains, which she noticed vaguely were patterned with flower petals. There, lying sweaty on the bed, was the Empress of Shenkuu.
The two Neopets locked eyes for the second time.
An instant later, Weiru ripped off his blindfold and took a step toward Huafen. “I thought I said—” Upon seeing her and not recognizing her face, the white Gnorbu paused, ever so briefly.
Huafen’s eyes turned from the Empress to her torturer. She advanced on him, wings folded at her back.
“What are you doing here?” he growled, his voice sharpening like a dagger. “Get out!”
He was standing in front of the window now, his shaggy white fur melting in with the fog outside.
She gave his words no response, so he tossed them aside and clenched his teeth as he raised his hands toward her.
With one fluid motion and an unnatural strength that could only have come from deep within her soul, Huafen took a forward stride, reached out, and shoved Weiru out the open window.
* * * * *
Ganduo noticed how tightly he was clutching Shiru’s staff, and he gently relaxed his grip. The curved wood slipped, and it slid through his hands and collided with the carpeted floor of the guest house corridor. There was a muffled thud.
The voices in the room went silent, and Ganduo held his breath.
“Did you close the door all the way?” Huanyi asked after a pause.
“No,” said Rubo slowly, and Ganduo realized he needed to move quickly. The only place to hide was the room on the opposite side of the hall. In two long strides, he approached it, opened the door silently, and stepped inside. Ganduo shut the door just as the other one opened.
He leaned against the wood, not daring to breathe.
“Yeah, I think it was just the door moving,” said Rubo, and Ganduo heard him close it tightly as he retreated back into the room.
The voices started again, but now they were too faint to understand.
Ganduo felt a breath of wind on his back, and he turned around. The window in this room had been left open, and a draft was coming in. Outside, the layers of mist only reminded him of the urgency of his situation. Danye, Xinshi, Yalan, and his grandmother were all out there in the gardens, so close and yet so far. He was tempted to rush out and find them immediately, but he knew that Shiru understood the situation while he did not.
But the Lunar Temple master was just out of reach, held captive by two Kougra siblings and a palace servant in the candlelit room across the hall.
Ganduo looked back toward the window. He could hear the whispers outside again, drawing closer and then further as the spirits moved through the haze. Spirits of all senses, good and evil, roaming Shenkuu for the few hours between the years...
As the draft touched his cheek, Ganduo remembered where he was: in the guest house, beneath a wide, curving roof. Evil spirits would be turned away. At this moment, he could only be surrounded by the good.
But across the hall, he knew that Huanyi and Anyan would have kept their window closed and covered, to block even the slightest chance of a wayward spirit slipping into their chamber. The only light that shone upon the four faces at this moment was provided by flickering candles.
The breeze brushed against his fur again, instilling confidence.
The good spirits were on this side of the hall. The open window summoned them in; he could hear them, whispering wordless encouragement as he straightened up and touched the wood of the closed door.
There was no time to waste. Shiru needed to be rescued, so the others could be saved.
Ganduo opened the door silently.
He would have only one chance, just a few seconds of surprise to work with before Huanyi or Anyan would pounce on him. “Help me,” he breathed, and the breath of the spirits nudged at his back, urging him onward.
He crossed the carpeted hall and touched the opposite door.
Then, he thrust it wide open.
Ganduo stood in the doorway and took in the room at a glance. Huanyi and Anyan were sitting on chairs in front of a closed window with the curtains drawn. Rubo was sitting on the floor, leaning against the wall. Shiru was sitting with his hands in his lap on a bed to the side of the room, a bit more than arm’s length from Ganduo. On a low table, there were three candlesticks that cast a yellow glow over the faces of the Neopets.
Without thinking, Ganduo thrust the curved end of the staff toward Shiru and said, “Grab this.” The Gnorbu reached for it, just as a gust of wind pressed against the Lupe’s back.
The three flames wavered for an instant and went out, plunging the room into darkness.
Ganduo pulled with all his might, feeling the Lunar Temple master lurch toward him. Shiru tumbled into the hallway, and Ganduo released his grip on the staff. In the shadows, he heard Huanyi and Anyan leap to their feet just as he gripped the door with both hands and slammed it shut.
To be continued...