The Shadow of Takeryuu:Part Nine
The throne room was the most lavish place Eunji had ever seen. Crafted out of expensive stone, every surface was painstakingly hand-carved and accented with gold, silver, and precious gems. A few scattered windows let in misty daylight, while lanterns filled in dark corners with a subdued glow. Altogether it seemed a grim room, where no thought was given to happiness or comfort.
It also seemed like a shrine to the occupant of the large, gold-plated throne at the other end of the hall. Relaxing on a cushion there, surrounded by a complement of guards, listening to a Moehog courtier read the latest tax report, was a middle-aged green Acara in a gold-and-black robe. His face was somber and his eyes sharp and shrewd.
Eunji grimaced at the aura he gave off. This was very clearly a Neopet who saw life as a power play and other Neopets as his pawns. It reminded her quite a bit of how Wai Ren used to be. No wonder there was such a shadow hanging over Shenkuu—its ruler had no love in his heart for anything but power.
At the sound of the door opening, both Neopets at the throne looked up. Emperor Takeryuu’s cold eyes narrowed. "General Wai Ren?" he asked, sitting up straighter. "What are you doing here? You are supposed to be at Muyang Brook Fortress."
Wai Ren cast aside his hat and his cloak. "There has been a change of plans," he said. "Takeryuu, you are no longer fit to rule. I shall take your place."
The Acara’s nostrils flared. "Guards, seize this traitor!" he roared.
Only some of them moved—and were swiftly restrained by their fellow guards. Takeryuu leaped from his throne and shoved the courtier away. "Guards!" he called again as he scrambled toward a door to the side of the room.
"Your Majesty—we’re under attack!" a Cybunny yelled from the hallway. "Clay soldiers have invaded the palace and—" He was tackled by a fellow guard, who then turned to clash blades with a third. The sound of shouting and metal against metal grew closer.
"Don’t let him get away!" Wai Ren snarled, drawing his sword.
Eunji nodded. "Right!" she said. Leaping up, she fluttered her wings and took off for the door.
Then the fighting spilled into the throne room. It was mostly guards struggling to subdue one another, but then a number of monochrome Neopets began to mingle in. Wai Ren’s clay soldiers stoically swept through the guards, leaving alone the ones who showed the chrysanthemum, but fighting the rest until the earthen effigies could no longer take any hits and crumbled into rubble. And then more rushed in to take their place.
Eunji only dimly noticed this as she careened toward Takeryuu, who had already opened the door. She glanced over her shoulder to see her three friends caught up in the tide of fighting, a mass of weapons and armour separating them.
"Go!" Wai Ren said as he swept his sword out while Min did the same with her pudao behind him, fending off an attack from the back. "We’ll be right behind you!"
Ganzorig locked eyes with the Vandagyre, and she could tell he wanted so badly to be there with her, but for every Neopet he knocked out of his way, another sprang up.
Eunji swallowed hard and nodded, and turned to follow Takeryuu. Their eyes met for a moment, and she saw the fear and hatred in the emperor’s gaze, before he pulled hard on the door.
Guessing it would lock from that side, Eunji thrust her staff at the doorway, and it caught the door just before it shut. The Vandagyre flung the door open again, grabbed her staff, and darted after the emperor, down a hallway lined with bronze vessels.
As she could fly and he couldn’t, Eunji caught up with him quickly. As she reached for him, she saw the glint of metal in his robes and pushed away from him—a moment later, a sword swiped through the air where she had been.
Takeryuu brandished his blade and charged at her, but Eunji had worked with Wai Ren on how to deal with armed opponents, and she recognised elements of the general’s combat style in the way the emperor moved. With a fierce scowl, Eunji dropped to the floor and ran toward him.
There was shock in the emperor’s dark eyes, but he raised his blade to attack her—and she slipped under his arm. With a hiss of frustration, he swerved around and she pivoted to stay behind him, keeping out of reach of his sword while tugging at the flow to sap his energy.
They spun down the hallway as if in an intricate dance, and Takeryuu’s movements grew more frantic while Eunji grew more confident. The end of the corridor seemed to open onto a terrace, and they were headed in that direction. Eunji thought maybe she could corner him there.
Suddenly Takeryuu reached behind himself and grabbed Eunji’s wrist. Ducking down, he threw the small Vandagyre over his shoulder, toward a nearby pillar.
Eunji beat her wings and kicked off of the pillar, bringing her staff up in time to meet Takeryuu’s blade. The bamboo splintered and bent against the well-tempered metal, and Takeryuu’s eyes lit up with a malicious glint.
He raised his arms for another strike, and Eunji spun around him and took off for the terrace, trying to buy herself just a second of time. The sounds of fighting seemed to grow louder here. She perched on the balustrade and looked down—the plaza was filled with soldiers, both real and clay, embroiled in combat while the rain drizzled down on them.
Eunji forced herself to look away. Instinctively she wanted to find her friends, but she knew she had to concentrate on this fight for their sake.
Takeryuu was just a few steps behind her. As he closed in, Eunji broke her staff over her knee and flipped the two pieces into her paws. Jumping off of the balustrade, she evaded the emperor’s blade and gave him a swift one-two jab with her new weapons. The first strike caught him off guard, while the second flicked his sword out of his paw, and then she followed through with another that knocked him to the wet terrace floor.
Reaching out with one paw, Eunji grabbed his energy and gave it a tug, and the emperor let out a gurgled cry. He struggled to get up, but his limbs gave out under him. "G-geomancer," he breathed. "I thought… the temples lied about their acolytes’ abilities…"
"Why have you misruled Shenkuu, Your Majesty?" Eunji asked. "Your people suffer and you ally yourself with shadow. What do you hope to gain from this?"
Takeryuu looked up at her with a cold smile. "Power," he said. "What matters it to me if peasants suffer? They are merely numbers in my accounts. I am the most important Neopet in Shenkuu."
"Your Majesty!" someone shouted from down the hallway. "Hold on—we’re coming!" There were a few grunts and cries, and the dull ringing of a bronze vessel being knocked over.
Takeryuu glanced at the hall and then back to Eunji. "Join me, geomancer," he said. "Together, we can be the most powerful Neopets in all Neopia! We can contest the Circle of Twelve itself and claim their lands for our own!"
Eunji narrowed her eyes. Was this what temptation looked like? It was so pitiful, so abhorrently stupid. One would have to be an utter fool to fall for such empty, harmful, disharmonious goals. "No," she said firmly.
"Then you will suffer the consequences!" Takeryuu said with a cackle. A dozen guards stormed onto the terrace and rushed Eunji.
"Eunji!" Ganzorig yelled from below. "Where are you?!" The Vandagyre took a split second to register his location. He, Wai Ren, and Min had made it out onto the plaza, surrounded by allies and foes, and Ganzorig used the power of his Blurgah mask to plough through enemies while he searched for his friend.
"Up here!" Eunji cried out as she tried to fend off her attackers. She moved to fly out of reach and a Kiko grabbed her arm.
Ganzorig looked up and saw the fight on the terrace, and froze, his fur bristling. Tossing a Meerca away by the soldier’s tail, the Tyrannian Lupe flung off his Blurgah mask and pulled his Naleap mask from his belt. For a moment he stared at it intently, and then he reached out with his claws and scored a few scratches above the eyes.
Then he pulled it on, let out a bone-chilling howl, and jumped—and didn’t land. Gasps of amazement and fear rippled through the plaza, echoed by Takeryuu and his guards as Ganzorig spread his arms and soared up to the terrace as though he was a faerie.
"Th-that’s impossible!" Takeryuu growled.
Then Ganzorig dove feet-first into the Neopets surrounding Eunji. As they collapsed into a pile, she leaped away and wrenched the energy around them. A Gelert staggered to her feet, wobbled, and fell back to the terrace, utterly disoriented now that the flow had been jammed so badly.
Meanwhile, Takeryuu scrambled for the hallway, but Ganzorig overtook him and slammed a paw onto the emperor’s back, pinning him to the terrace. "You’re not going anywhere," Ganzorig said.
"S-so this is how it all ends," Takeryuu said, his eyes wide with terror as rain dripped from his fur.
Eunji approached them, folding her paws behind her back. "No," she said, shaking her head. "We will spare you, Takeryuu." Ganzorig nodded.
The Acara stared at them in disbelief. "But—why?" he asked. "What have you to gain from that?"
"Nothing," Eunji said. "It does not matter what we do or do not gain. Every life is valuable. No exceptions."
Takeryuu fell silent, and his mouth slowly closed. "It doesn’t make sense…" he whispered to himself as Ganzorig picked him up and slung the emperor over his shoulder. "I don’t understand… I had everything, and yet…"
"And yet you had nothing," Ganzorig said. "Perhaps someday you’ll come around." He looked down at Eunji and his eyes misted over, and the Lupe pulled her into a hug. "I’m so glad you’re all right," he said.
"Thanks to you," Eunji said. "You did it—you flew! You figured out the Naleap mask! How did you manage it?"
Ganzorig put a paw to the wood that covered his face. "I—you know, when I saw you in trouble it all clicked into place in my head," he said. "I realised that I hadn’t been making progress on the mask because I don’t actually want to fly to Tyrannia. I never did. I just wanted to find friends who understood me." He smiled. "And now I have. And protecting them is what drives me to become stronger."
Eunji grinned. "I’m so glad," she said.
Ganzorig leaned over the balustrade. "Looks like it’s over," he said, motioning for Eunji to join him.
Below, the fighting seemed to have died down, in the favour of Wai Ren and his clay army. His soldiers and sympathisers were busy rounding up loyalists who had surrendered, while the Kougra rested an arm on Min’s shoulder. The rain made everything look more droopy and smudged, but to Eunji the scene seemed like a victory nonetheless.
"Let’s join them, shall we?" Ganzorig asked. Eunji nodded, and the two pushed off from the balustrade, coasting down to their friends.
"We did it," Wai Ren panted. "I can’t—I can’t thank each of you enough." Both he and Min had been wounded, but it didn’t look too severe.
"What should we do with him?" Ganzorig asked, clutching Takeryuu by the collar of his robes. The Acara still had a distant look in his eyes, muttering to himself about power and futility.
Wai Ren regarded him pitiably. "We’ll put him away somewhere secure," the Kougra said, "but not where he will be treated ill. It is sad to see him reduced to this. He was once so intelligent and ambitious."
"But those things mean nothing if your heart is cold," Eunji said as she began to tend to Wai Ren’s injuries. "When all else fails, it is only—oh, look out!" A Mynci with a dagger had somehow crept up on the group, aiming his weapon at the general.
Eunji reached out a paw, but Min had seen him first. With a shout, the Aisha swung up her pudao and knocked the Mynci away, stunning him. Two clay soldiers caught him and held him fast.
Wai Ren stared at his would-be assailant for a moment, and then looked at Min with a relieved smile. "You know," he said, "I really am glad you’ve stuck around."
"Me too," Min said, squeezing his shoulders.
"You’ve become quite the warrior," Wai Ren said. "And a true hero to all of Shenkuu." He stroked his moustache. "What are you doing after this?"
Min leaned against her weapon and fidgeted with her braid. "Well, I supposed I’d go back to Saro Village," she said. "If I start out soon, I should make it in home for the soybean harvest…" She trailed off when she saw the disappointed look on the Kougra’s face. "Why do you ask?"
"I mean no offense to your roots," Wai Ren said, "but it would be a shame for a warrior of your talent and drive to spend the rest of her life growing crops. Shenkuu needs someone of your ilk to guard its emperor."
Min smiled. "And not just the emperor, but the country he serves," she said. "‘Guardian of Shenkuu’? I like that title."
"It fits you," Wai Ren said.
Wai Ren’s coronation was a grand production of imperial majesty—and all of Shenkuu’s citizens were invited to attend as honoured guests. The festivities lasted for two weeks, during which time Wai Ren made sure to listen to his subjects’ grievances and suggestions, and with Min’s help began to devise solutions.
One of Emperor Wai Ren’s first policies was to lighten taxes considerably. His next was to end correspondence with the Great Empire, sending them a letter that firmly but politely stated that the Kingdom of Shenkuu no longer wished to involve itself in the affairs of other Neopian nations. Immediately afterward, Eunji felt much better about the capital city than she had in a long time. She hoped Master Cheol’s dreams had turned peaceful again as well.
On the last evening of the feast, she found herself standing on a terrace with Ganzorig, watching the stars come out in the dusk as they nibbled on almond cookies—Wai Ren’s favourite dessert. He had ordered lots of almond cookies for every banquet.
"By the way," Eunji said, "what did you request from Wai Ren as compensation for helping him?"
The Lupe chuckled. "Honestly, I can’t think of anything," he said. "So I just told him I’d hold it over his head forever."
"I’m sure he appreciated that," Eunji said with a laugh. It turned into a sigh as she looked out at the mountains beyond the city. "Did… did you still want to come with me to meet Master Cheol before… before you head out to Tyrannia?"
Ganzorig took a moment to respond, but then he said, "I do want to meet your teacher," he said. "But I am no longer interested in Tyrannia. Perhaps I’ll venture there someday, but… not to stay, and I’d want you to come with me." He grinned. "If I went to live in Tyrannia, I’d miss my friends far too much."
"They’d miss you, too," Eunji said. "Mm—I’m sorry I was such a nervous wreck the day of the coup."
"You had a lot on your mind," Ganzorig said. "But you seem to be doing better now."
The Vandagyre nodded. "You know… I looked temptation in the face and realised just how foolish it is," she said. "I would never fall for something so unlike me. I know the truth, and it’s so much better than the miserable and hurtful lies some Neopets live under."
Ganzorig patted her head and said, "Then it sounds like you know yourself well."
"I think you’re right," Eunji said. A feeling of relief washed over her. Master Cheol would be proud. So this was what it meant to know oneself. "I mean, I know you’re right. Thank you." She stood up a little straighter. She had passed her test. She deserved to feel confident about herself.
"Ah, there you are!" Min said from behind them. "Come on! We’re just about to have a performance on the big set of bronze bells! Wai Ren says it sounds amazing and he didn’t want you to miss out!"
"Oh, let’s go!" Eunji said, grabbing Ganzorig’s paw as the two followed the Aisha back into the palace. The shadow of Takeryuu had faded, and Eunji was sure a glorious morning would follow.