The Shadow of Takeryuu
The time is thousands of years before Neopia’s present day. The Circle of Twelve, with the wizard Jahbal at its head, rules the Great Empire in the area of what is now Neopia Central. But the Circle has overstepped its bounds and begun misusing its power, succumbing to greed and anger. Even now, the southern city of Kal Panning plans for a revolt, but it will not end well for them.
Meanwhile, far to the west, on the other side of the Mountains at the End of the World, lies Shenkuu.
Life at the Lotus Mountain Temple was bliss for Eunji. The faerie Vandagyre could feel the harmonious energies of the area flow and meld with the rocky crags, the ancient pines, the mists that twined through the valleys below, and the merrily painted pillars and roofs of the temple. Bright colours attracted positive energies, Master Cheol always said. That was why Eunji and the other geomancers kept the temple well-painted.
Eunji’s pink wings flittered as she bounded up the narrow wooden steps to the waterfall where the acolytes obtained their daily water. Chores were a joy at Lotus Mountain Temple. Everyone’s work helped keep the place running, and through their joint efforts, harmony was maintained and energy flowed as bounteous as a river.
A pole stretched across her shoulders with large pails on both ends, and Eunji deftly kept her balance on aged steps that wound up the cliff, hugging the sheer rock. Even had she not possessed wings, the distance to the valley below would not bother her. Master Cheol had taught them the importance of being stout-hearted, as immovable as these great mountains.
As she neared the waterfall, a twinge tugged at the back of Eunji’s mind like a tree branch snagging her robes. The sensation was familiar—it meant that energy was being blocked somewhere close. Eunji found it with her inner eye before her outer senses perceived it. Sure enough, up ahead, a small rockslide had crashed into the waterfall, impeding the flow of water and energy.
Eunji carefully set the pails down on the steps and moved to the platform next to the waterfall, reaching out with her own energy. Taking a deep breath, she closed her eyes and pushed out with her paws, her faerie antennae buzzing with power. Claws enmeshed in the energy of the mountain, she carefully traced a pattern with her paws, working with the energy of the rocks, convincing them to relinquish their unharmonious position in the cosmos.
The rocks moved. Far above her, they pushed themselves aside, up onto the cliff like a curtain being parted, and there they stayed. The water gushed down from the spring with new vigour. Eunji smiled. The energy here was flowing correctly again.
Few of the other geomancers could sense energy flow, and manipulate it, as well as Eunji, although she would never admit to that. She seemed to have had a certain talent for it ever since she could remember, and although she was young, there were older Neopets at the temple who still struggled with arranging furniture correctly while Eunji could already commune with the energy that flowed through Neopia itself.
It was a great responsibility, Master Cheol would often remind her. As in all things, there was a duality to it. Eunji could free the flow of energy and restore harmony—but she could also, if she chose, use her abilities to block energy with detrimental effects. It was something that should only be used in self-defence or defence of others, Master Cheol warned, and Eunji should always be careful to restore the flow again when the danger had passed.
These thoughts made her frown as she filled a pail with cold, clear water. She hoped she would never have to use her abilities to fight. Lotus Mountain Temple was such a peaceful place, far away from the political intrigues and military exploits of the Empire of Shenkuu. Eunji did not want anything to break that peace.
“Good morning,” a crackly voice said from above her. Perched on a small outcrop, next to a twisted pine, was an old, yet spry white Usul.
“Master Cheol!” Eunji said. She bowed in respect.
Master Cheol returned the bow. “I am sorry to see you frowning, Eunji,” he said. “I hope you have not been having nightmares like mine.”
“No, Master,” Eunji said. “I was just thinking… ah, you have had nightmares? I’m sorry.”
“So am I,” Master Cheol said as he leaped from the cliff. With a wave of his paws, rocks rose up to meet his footsteps until he stood on the opposite side of the waterfall from his pupil. “For the past three nights, I have had the same dream. A darkness festers in the Imperial City. It gains power from a greater darkness lurking far to the east. Then…” Shaking his head, he spread his paws. “The shadows of the Imperial City grow to consume all of Shenkuu.”
Eunji’s feathers ruffled as shivers ran down her spine. “What do you think it means, Master?” she asked.
Master Cheol stroked his beard. “I have heard ill tidings from our sister temples,” he said. “Shenkuu’s current emperor is cruel and greedy. Surely he is the cause of this vision.”
“But the emperor has ruled for thirty years,” Eunji said. “What’s different now that gives you nightmares?”
“That, I do not know,” Master Cheol said. “And I fear that a Naleap sent to another temple may not give me the answers I seek in time. They have been very slow in corresponding lately, no doubt due to restrictions placed by the emperor.” He paused and gave Eunji a long, piercing look with his red eyes. “When you are done fetching the water,” he said, “please meet me in the south gardens.”
“Of course, Master,” Eunji said with a bow.
Master Cheol bowed in return, and then left, stepping down the mountain with his graceful dance of stone-moving.
Thoughts swirled in Eunji’s mind like whirlpools as she filled the pails, unable to fully concentrate on her chore. Sometimes, things that happened in the rest of Shenkuu seemed more like fanciful stories the temples would send to one another, not actual events that could ever affect them. Emperor Takeryuu had ruled since before Eunji was born, and while she had not heard good things about his reign, it had not yet seemed to touch the secluded peace of the mountains. But if Master Cheol was having dreams, this was clearly serious.
There was no more spring in her step as she wound her way back down the mountain, to the temple she had called home ever since she could remember. Lotus Mountain Temple was built directly on the cliff side, and it looked out over a sprawling vista of peaks and forests. Eunji paused for a moment to regard the view. Somewhere past all of this, the land smoothed out into farms and villages, and closer to the coast, in another, smaller mountain range, sat the Imperial City. It was odd how something so far away could cause such unrest here.
“Master?” Eunji called as she stepped into the south gardens. Here, a profusion of flowers blossomed, as the land was deep in the throes of spring. Cherry petals lazily drifted onto the dark glassy surface of ponds where lotuses floated. Wisteria trees shaded patches of ground where the geomancers could meditate. A Gikerot launched itself off a nearby wall and glided to the top of a stone lantern.
“Over here, Eunji,” Master Cheol called. He sat on a rock overlooking the lotus pond, his brow furrowed as he watched the sun flash off the scales of the resident Goldies.
“What have you called me for?” the Vandagyre asked.
He looked up at her as she approached, and for another long dreadful moment said nothing. Then he sat back, put his paws on his knees, and sighed. “I have a special assignment for you, Eunji,” he said. “You must leave the temple and discover the cause of my nightmares.”
Eunji’s energy frazzled as her mouth turned dry and her feathers ruffled. “Me—me, Master?” she squawked. “I mean no disrespect, but… why me? You are far more experienced and capable than I.”
Master Cheol shook his head. “Perhaps I have more experience than you,” he said, “but you possess an innate talent for working with the flow. You are my most capable geomancer, Eunji. I have taught you everything I know, and I can think of no one else who I would rather have on this mission.”
Slowly, Eunji knelt down on the grass beside him, folding her wings against her back. She curled her claws into her palms on her knees and watched the Goldies nibble at freshly fallen cherry petals. After a moment, she said, “I am a coward, Master Cheol. I fear the outside world. I have heard of all of the evil and corruption that runs rampant out there.”
“You are wise to take note of such things, child,” Master Cheol said. “But remember, you are only a coward if you succumb to your fear and let it paralyze you or drive you to unwise actions. It is true that great evil roams Neopia. I need not scare you further by detailing all of the dangers you may encounter.” He paused. “And yet, Shenkuu needs you. You have spent your life hidden here, honing your skills. Perhaps this is the reason why. What do you think?”
For a while, Eunji said nothing. This was Master Cheol’s way of teaching. He would present his students with a truth or an idea, and then ask “What do you think?” Their answers would always foster discussion and further enlightenment as they searched their own hearts.
Watching the Goldies proved to be too distracting, so Eunji closed her eyes. A Naleap chirped nearby and the smell of sweet wisteria perfumed the air. But she could not so easily block out those distractions, so instead she closed her mind to them, focusing on listening to her heart.
She did not have to listen long. Opening her eyes, she looked up at Master Cheol. “I think you are right, Master,” she said. “I will gladly face danger if it will help the Neopets of Shenkuu. I will not put my own well-being above their own if they need me and my abilities.”
Master Cheol smiled, although it was a sad smile. “Then you are brave, Eunji,” he said.
“Thank you, Master,” Eunji said. Suddenly she felt the tug of another energy blockage. On the other side of the pond, a clump of cherry blossoms had become trapped in an eddy in the current. Eunji reached out through the energy-flow and dispersed them.
A thought struck her and she looked down at her paw, flexing her claws. “Master… I admit that is not the only thing worrying me,” she said. “What if I am tempted to use my abilities for evil? If I am as powerful as you say… I have heard too many stories that power corrupts.”
Master Cheol cleared his throat and adjusted his position on the rock. “Power only corrupts if you let it,” he said. “What if you are tempted? What do you think?”
“I should hope I would refuse,” Eunji said.
“It is not enough to hope,” Master Cheol said. “You must know yourself better than that. But I can tell you that from what I know of you, I think you are much stronger than you give yourself credit for, and not just in the ways of geomancy.”
Eunji nodded, at Master Cheol’s advice, not his compliment. Perhaps it was foolish to speak of hoping she would act in this or that way, as though she was another person. She had control over her actions, and now she had to learn to trust herself in a world where so many others let darkness control their hearts.
“When do you suggest I leave, Master?” she asked.
“Spend the rest of today preparing,” Master Cheol said, “and try to get a good night’s rest tonight. I suppose we cannot afford much more time than that.”
“I will leave at dawn,” Eunji said.
Word of Eunji’s mission spread fast around the temple. Everyone was sad to see her go, but they helped her pack supplies and assisted her in her chores so they were done sooner than usual. Then, Eunji took a few hours to wander around the temple grounds and the nearby mountains, letting the happy memories of these places resonate in her. She wanted to bolster herself with as much energy as possible before venturing out to more treacherous locales.
Despite Master Cheol’s advice, Eunji did not sleep well that night. She did not suppose anyone could in her situation. Finally, though, she slipped into slumber, and awoke to a grey-pink sky, the clouds high above already lit by sunlight that had yet to touch the mountain tops.
“You need not put yourself in more danger than necessary,” Master Cheol said as they stood at the steps to the temple, looking out at Shenkuu beyond. “Return to me as soon as you have discerned the nature of the problem.”
“Yes, Master,” Eunji said. She adjusted the strap of the bag slung across her shoulder and clacked her claws against her staff. Who knew how long this journey might take, but take it she must.
“Eunji,” Master Cheol said. He put a paw on the Vandagyre’s shoulder. “I believe you can do this. You are strong and disciplined and wise. And you are also kind, and kindness is a force never to be underestimated.”
Eunji smiled faintly. “Thank you, Master,” she said. Turning to face him, she bowed deeply to him one last time.
He bowed in return. “Harmonise the flow,” he said to her.
“And the flow will bring life,” she finished. The saying, one of the founding tenets of geomancy, was often used as a greeting or parting phrase among the acolytes. Other Neopets used something like “may fortune be with you”, but geomancers did not believe in fortune—they believed in harmony.
Taking a deep breath, Eunji turned and descended the steps that would take her down into a world she had never seen before. She did not look back, but she knew Master Cheol was watching her. The flow of energy between them was strong. She would not let him down.
To be continued…