The Shadow of Takeryuu:Part Seven
The trip to the mines was not easy. Faerie shadows constantly swooped down at them, eyes aglow, but Eunji and Min were quick to dispatch them. Eunji, being faerie-coloured, was especially sensitive to magic, and she let that sense guide her as she led her friends into a dark shaft in the side of a mountain, a hole that looked like a bottomless pit.
Wai Ren held a fire mote in its lantern as they wandered down hewn-out tunnels that led from cavernous rooms to low-ceilinged corridors. Every once in a while, they would stumble upon a faerie shadow or two, and while it would attack them on sight, it was nothing the girls couldn't handle.
Then they started finding rooms that weren't empty. These areas were full of Neopets, their clothes worn, clutching their arms to stay warm as they slept on the floor, guarded by shadow sentinels. These must have been all of the Neopets who were taken away by the spectres, Eunji realised. She wished she could help them, but the shadows there were too numerous for her and Min to take on alone. They would have to keep going to find the source.
Finally, deep into the heart of the mountain, Eunji's magical senses led her to a corridor that glistened with gems still set in their native rock. Around a bend shone a dim purple light, and Eunji's feathers bristled. She looked back at her friends to see if they were ready for this.
They nodded, and Eunji smiled at them. She was fortunate indeed to have such wonderful friends. Taking a deep breath, she stepped around the bend and her eyes widened.
The cavern in front of her was absolutely encrusted with gems and precious metals of all kinds, worked into jewelry and ornamentation that spilled out onto the floor as well. Orbs of purple flame danced on the ceiling of the cavern, casting their light upon enormous bronze mirrors that adorned one wall.
And in the midst of it all was a dark faerie, wearing exquisitely embroidered robes of black and deep purple, her long, silky black hair woven around silver hairpieces that tinkled when she moved. She was busy trying on an onyx necklace and admiring herself in the mirrors with it on, and did not seem to notice the four Neopets.
Min looked about ready to tackle her, but Eunji held out a paw. Min meant well, but the Aisha's brashness did tend to get her into trouble. "Excuse me, Lady Faerie," Eunji said, "but I could not help but notice that you seem to be extorting this village."
With an amused laugh, the faerie turned around. "And there you are at last!" she said. "I wondered how long it would take you to find me! My shadows whispered of your arrival in my village. I must admit that I thought you would be taller."
"I more than make up for what she lacks in height," Ganzorig said as he stepped forward. "Why are you here?"
The faerie laughed again. "Why not?" she asked. "My sisters are fools to stay holed up in Faerieland—the surface world has so much to offer!" She spun around and spread out her arms to the riches around her. "Here I am, Yuezhi, the most beautiful faerie of them all, surrounded by beautiful things! Ah, what a life!"
"You force Neopets to make those things for you," Wai Ren said, "and imprison them in these mines. Have you no thought for anyone but yourself?"
"No, not particularly," Yuezhi said with a smirk. "They are not nearly as beautiful as I. They are only good for labour."
"Would everyone just stop thinking that?!" Min hissed. "Peasants are people too!"
Yuezhi laughed once more. "Are you just going to stand there and argue with me?" she asked. "That gets rather boring. If you're done, my mines could always use more workers." She drew up her hand, and a cluster of faerie shadows appeared behind the travellers.
Eunji stepped toward her. "You are not beautiful," the Vandagyre said.
The faerie blinked and the amused smile faded from her face. "Excuse me?"
"You are not beautiful," Eunji said again. "Your heart is cold and selfish and it reflects in your features. When I look at you, I see a monster."
Yuezhi let out a cry of protest that turned into a growl as she bared her fangs. "How dare you!" she shouted. "You little pest! You dare to walk in here and call me ugly?!" With a flourish of her draping sleeves, she swept up her hand and a wave of shadow rose up to engulf the Neopets. At the same time, the faerie spectres behind them pounced.
"Min!" Eunji called as she thrust out her staff. She wasn't sure what her geomancy could do against so much sheer magical power.
Suddenly a dozen earthen Neopets rose out of the cavern floor in front of her. Silently, they threw up their hands in defensive positions. The spell crashed into them instead of into the Vandagyre. Behind her, Wai Ren still held up his paws, while Min fended off the phantoms with her blade.
"You think those cheap tricks will do anything?!" Yuezhi screeched. Beating her wings, she rose into the centre of the room and raised her hands to prepare another spell.
Something grey and furry launched itself into the air above Eunji. Ganzorig, wearing his Naleap mask, lunged at the faerie. The mask's power carried him much farther than he should have jumped, and Yuezhi wasn't expecting this. Wrapping one arm around her, Ganzorig angled his elbow and sent her plummeting toward the ground.
Moments from impact, Yuezhi shot out a cushion of shadow that she landed on with a grunt. Eunji was already there, moving her paws like mad, trying to undo all of the powerful energy that surrounded the faerie. If she could weaken the flow enough, the Vandagyre thought, she might be able to render Yuezhi's power ineffective, like what she had done to Ganzorig when they first met, but on a much larger scale.
Yuezhi noticed this. "What are you doing?!" she shrieked as she began to twitch, feeling her energy sapped. Curling her fingers, she tugged back at her energy, and it was like she and Eunji were embroiled in the most complicated string game ever.
But Eunji wasn't doing this alone. Ganzorig lifted one of the faerie's enormous mirrors off of the wall, and threw it at her like a tremendous disc. Yuezhi's nostrils flared as she noticed just in the nick of time and threw up a shadow wall to deflect it. Unfazed, Ganzorig threw another mirror at her, and then a golden faerie statuette.
Yuezhi sent out spell after spell to protect herself from her own treasures, and it was obviously taxing her concentration, as Eunji was gaining the upper edge. Then the dark faerie shouted "Enough!" and a shell of magic burst out from her, flinging Eunji away.
The Vandagyre hit the ground, too dazed to tuck into a roll. As she lay there, hurting all over, Yuezhi swooped toward her, still deflecting the objects Ganzorig was throwing. The air in front of the faerie roiled with a vile spell as she prepared the casting, standing over Eunji with a triumphant cackle.
Then two figures stepped between them, blades raised. Wai Ren created more soldiers to guard Eunji, while Min let out a mighty cry and sliced her pudao into the spell. The jade gems set into the metal glowed with a milky green light, and tendrils of the weapon's own magic shot into Yuezhi's dark magic. Her purple energy convulsed and cracked—and then exploded into light.
Yuezhi screamed as the powerful energy threw her back, knocking her into a wall before she collapsed. One of Wai Ren's clay soldiers, a rather hefty Elephante, put her knee on the faerie's back and then looked stoically to her creator for further orders. Wai Ren, strands of sandy hair falling loose from his topknot around his face, leaned against the wall to catch his breath.
"Eunji!" Ganzorig yelped, scampering over to the Vandagyre. He scooped her up and held her close. "I'm so sorry," the Lupe said, ears low and tail curled under. "I told you I would protect you… and I failed you."
"I'm all right," Eunji breathed, hugging him back. "Her spell just… just caught me off guard… but you didn't fail me. If not for you, I would not have been able to weaken her enough for us to defeat her."
"Well, now what do we do?" Min asked. "I don't imagine it's easy to keep a faerie locked up."
"I've heard magical containment vessels can hold them," Wai Ren said as he limped over to them slowly, "but those are hard to come by." Min noticed his fatigue and moved to support him, pulling his arm around her shoulders.
Eunji patted Ganzorig's shoulder. "Let me talk to her," she said.
"Are you sure?" Ganzorig asked as he let her go. "That didn't seem to work the last time."
The geomancer smiled and said, "Well, I think now we have at least proven that we mean business."
As she approached, Yuezhi looked up at her with an expression less angry and more confused. "I don't understand," the faerie said. "You're just random travelers. Why have you helped this village at such great risk to yourselves?"
"Because true beauty lies in caring for others," Eunji said. "It is harmony and love that make Neopia beautiful, and that make our own hearts beautiful." She extended a paw. "You are a powerful being, Lady Yuezhi. Neopets could benefit from your abilities, and you will find your own life enriched as you seek to help them rather than see them as tools. What do you say? Do you want to give it a try?"
Yuezhi bit her lip with one fang, looking away. "I…" She closed her eyes. "I wish my sisters felt the same way… they are all out for power up there…"
"So show them a better way," Eunji said.
Yuezhi glanced back up at her. "You know… I think I became obsessed with my own beauty to try to fill a void in my heart," she said. "But it still always felt empty, no matter how many beautiful things I surrounded myself with…" Reaching up, she took Eunji's paw with one cold hand. "Perhaps it is time to try something else."
Eunji beamed. "You will not regret it," the Vandagyre said. She looked over to Wai Ren. "Release her."
"Are you sure?" the Kougra asked. "You know this could very well be a trap, right?"
"I trust her," Eunji said. "I trust she will make the right decision."
"And if she doesn't," Min said, "remember who's got the enchanted pudao." She nudged the weapon menacingly in the faerie's direction.
Wai Ren snickered, then sighed and made a cutting motion with his paw. The clay Elephante oozed back into the ground.
Shakily, Yuezhi got to her feet, still clasping Eunji's paw. "The Neopets here are free to go," the faerie said. "My spectres are gone."
"What will you do now?" Eunji asked.
Yuezhi began to straighten out her robes and fix her hair. "I am not sure," she said. "I dare not show my face in that village after what I did to them."
"Then how are you going to use your powers to help Neopets?" Eunji asked. "You seem to enjoy jewelry. Why don't you become a jeweler?"
Yuezhi plucked a headdress from the wall and laughed self-consciously. "I haven't the faintest idea how to make these," she admitted. "That's why I got Neopets to do it for me."
"Is there anything you can do, then?" Ganzorig asked. "Besides attack and frighten Neopets, I mean."
The faerie shot him a sidewise glance. "Well… I do have some oracular abilities," she said. "I can divine information through reading the cracks on burnt bones."
Min grimaced and said, "Sounds delightful."
"If that is your skill," Eunji said, "I think you ought to pursue it. It sounds like something that could help many Neopets."
"Yes, perhaps so," Yuezhi said.
"Say, you should come with us to the capital," Wai Ren said. "I'm planning a coup. We could use someone of your power."
Yuezhi looked at her hands, which sparked with wisps of shadow. "Unfortunately," she said, "your friend's weapon has severely damaged my magic. It will take me quite some time to recover." She smiled at him. "But based on what I have seen of you, I think you have what it takes to succeed."
"Thank you," Wai Ren said. "I certainly hope so. And no offense to you, but I think that when I am emperor, I shall set strict regulations on the presence of faeries in Shenkuu. I would not want a repeat of what has happened here."
"I think that is wise," Yuezhi said. "And I, for my part, will keep myself hidden." She grinned, showing her fangs. "I know a spell that will allow me only to be found by those who need me."
"This sounds agreeable," Wai Ren said with a nod.
Eunji patted Yuezhi's arm. "At least come with us to say goodbye to the villagers," the Vandagyre said. "I think you would regret leaving them without an apology."
"Yes, I think so," Yuezhi said.
Outside the mines, a small crowd had already gathered. It seemed that once the Neopets inside realised the shadows were gone, they made a break for the entrance and ran to tell their families. Word spread fast about the four mysterious travelers who had gone to confront the dark faerie, and it seemed everyone wanted to know what had happened.
The crowd fell silent when four Neopets and a faerie emerged from the mine shaft. Many of them cowered in Yuezhi's presence, and her wings sagged, but Eunji shot her a confident smile. "I am truly sorry for the way I have treated you," Yuezhi said, spreading her arms. "I will leave you now and never return."
"Good riddance!" said the yellow Shoyru herbalist, his arm around the shoulders of a blue Bruce who looked quite cross himself.
Yuezhi flinched. "And—and all of my treasures I give to you," she said. "I no longer require them."
"Well, we're the ones who made them in the first place!" someone else said. "Thanks for nothing!"
"Please, do not let your hearts fester with anger," Eunji said, stepping between the crowd and the faerie. "Otherwise you will become as she once was." The geomancer smiled. "Did you know that Yuezhi is an oracle? She would like to use her ability to help Neopets. Do any of you have questions that need answering?"
This new thought seemed to catch the villagers off guard. Slowly their anger turned to curiosity as they murmured among themselves.
Then, the brown Acara who was the grandchild of the Scorchio the travellers had rescued stepped forward. "I have a question," the girl said, looking up at the faerie. "I lost my favourite doll yesterday—I looked everywhere and I can't find her. Can you help me?"
Yuezhi stared at her for a moment and then her dark eyes filled with tears. "Of course," the faerie said, her voice cracking. Taking a deep breath, she composed herself and squared her shoulders. "Of course!" she said again with more confidence. "But I will require a hearth, a flat bone, and ink and a stylus."
"We have those at my house!" the Acara said. "Well, except for the bone."
"I've got plenty of bones you can use!" a Pteri said, raising his wing. "I'm the village butcher!"
The Acara grabbed Yuezhi's hand. "Yay, let's go find my doll!" the girl said, tugging the faerie toward the village.
Eunji grinned so wide that her cheeks hurt.
"They forgot to cheer for us," Wai Ren said quietly as the four followed the group away from the mine.
"I don't mind," Eunji said. "I wasn't doing this for the recognition."
"Neither was I," Wai Ren said in a tone so low it was nearly a whisper, as though it was difficult for him to admit.
Min nudged his shoulder. "Hey," she said. "I'm proud of you. You really showed your true colours back there."
Wai Ren gave her a rare humble smile. "And your battle prowess has increased significantly since I started training you," he said. "I'm very impressed. You really looked like a real warrior back there."
The Aisha ran a paw through her hair with a chuckle. "Thanks," she said bashfully.
The four walked in silence for a while longer, but then it became increasingly evident that Wai Ren wanted to say something and was having difficulty getting himself to.
Finally, he cleared his throat. "I have to come clean," he said. "I've been deceiving all of you. If this coup were to fail, I was planning on placing the blame on you and making myself look like the hero." He bowed his head. "I'm sorry. It was a shameful act on my part."
"Don't worry," Ganzorig said. "We knew the whole time. No hard feelings."
Wai Ren did a double-take at the Lupe. "Wait—are you serious?" the general asked. "How did you find out?!"
"When we first met you," Ganzorig said, "you were practically oozing manipulation." He tilted his head with a bit of a smirk. "Living in the woods doesn't make me stupid."
The Kougra buried his face in his paw. "And yet you went along with it… why?" he asked.
"For the same reason I had you let Yuezhi go," Eunji said. "Like Yuezhi, you have much strength inside of you. You just needed to learn how to wield it correctly." She folded her paws behind her back, across her folded wings. "People can change, General. I had hoped this journey would change you." She smiled. "I am glad to see I was not wrong."
"Me too," Min said.
"I think you will make a great emperor," Eunji said. "One who rules Shenkuu with kindness and fairness. One who puts others before himself, who understands that the kingdom exists for its subjects, not the other way around."
Wai Ren looked out at the villagers. The Acara still held Yuezhi's hand, and several more children had clustered around her. "That is what I am planning on," the Kougra said.
To be continued…