Cycle of the Moon: Part Three
The road to the Lunar Temple curved in circles around the tallest hill in the city, drawing its dusty loop tighter and tighter as it neared the summit where the Temple glistened like a jewel in the fading sunlight. Its red base was wide, crowned with a dark grey roof that curved outwards. Above this was a room of glass, covered in countless windowpanes that overlooked the city. At the very top, another curved roof tapered into a peak where a lone yellow banner fluttered softly in the breeze.
Shiru stood outside the open doorway to let his guests inside. The bearded Gnorbu leaned on his staff, which curled at the top in such a way that it looked like a wooden question mark. He watched with crystal blue eyes as Xinshi and Danye stepped into the dark building, followed by Ganduo, who was pushing Yalan’s softly-clicking chair.
Shiru entered behind them. The waning light from outside trickled into the room, and the Gnorbu lit a candle. He placed it inside a faded paper lantern, which he handed to Danye.
The Ogrin held it up as Shiru moved to light another.
The base level of the Lunar Temple had a bare floor of grey stone. Its red walls were covered with ancient Shenkese symbols painted in black ink, decorated with spindly patterns of vines and leaves. As Danye moved the lantern, its pale glow was cast upon silhouettes of trees covered in cherry blossoms. Nearly every inch of available space was occupied by careful script. On the right side of the room a set of narrow wooden steps led up into the space above, which was shrouded in darkness.
Shiru held up a second lantern. “What do you think?” he asked.
“This is beautiful,” said Yalan. “What does it all say?”
“I cannot read the ancient writings,” said Shiru. “There aren’t many who can. But follow me.” He took a step toward the stairs. “This room doesn’t hold a candle to the one above.”
Danye and Xinshi followed the Gnorbu, but as they began to ascend the steps they heard Yalan say, “Oh, I knew something like this would happen. I’ll never get up there.” The striped Zafara was gripping the arms of her wheeled chair tightly. “And I did want to see the view, too.”
“Don’t worry,” said Ganduo. He raised his eyebrows and gave a slight smile. “I can carry you.”
The Lupe slid one arm beneath her knees and the other over her back, and he carefully picked her up out of the chair. With the pale paper lanterns to guide him, he slowly followed the others up the steps.
When they emerged in the room, all four of the young Neopets stared around them in silence.
It was round, and its walls were made entirely of curved glass panes. Several bookshelves of varying heights were grouped in the center of the space, but it was possible to walk in a circle around them and always have a perfect view of the city outside.
The sun had set at last, and a cloud had descended upon Shenkuu, draping it in a pale white mantle. The river could be seen below, winding its way down through the hills until it vanished into the mist. Neopets were visible on its banks, although the crowd had grown smaller since that afternoon. Many citizens and visitors had returned home to sleep, so that they would be well-rested and able to stay up for the Lunar Festival.
The fantastic network of roads and bridges lay spread out beneath the Temple like the intricate workings of a pocket watch. The green hills reached up toward the sky, dotted with humble buildings; each curved roof cast a long shadow that faded into the darkness of the city as night fell.
Inside, Xinshi turned to Yalan, who was resting with her arms around Ganduo’s neck. “I guess you’re the lucky one after all,” he said.
The Zafara smiled sadly. “Xinshi,” she whispered. “I wish you could see it. It’s the most beautiful sight I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Danye was standing as close to the glass as she could without touching it, for fear of smudging its flawless surface. “I’ve never been this high up before,” said the red Ogrin. “It feels like the world is so far away.”
Shiru stood closer to the bookcases, his weathered features softening as he stared outside. “Look there,” he said, and the young faces turned to follow his gaze. “The moon is already shining.”
Through the windows the sky looked enormous, spreading in every direction. Darkening blues and purples melted immaculately together, and the pale moon could be seen hanging delicately among the stars, which seemed to grow more numerous every moment.
Shiru put his paper lantern down on the floor. Xinshi walked toward him, reaching with his arms until he felt the rows of dusty books and scrolls on the shelves. “What’s all this?” asked the Lutari.
“Many things,” said Shiru as the other three Neopets came away from the windows.
Danye moved her lantern so that its light fell across the volumes. “Some of these look new, but others are written in ancient Shenkese. Are they that old?”
“I have in my possession some of the very first written documents in Shenkese history,” said Shiru. “Those concern tradition, culture, and the earliest mythology. Others are recent texts, to aid me in my studies. They’re about the nature and movement of the moon and stars.”
“So is that your job?” asked Ganduo. He carefully lowered Yalan to the floor, where she was able to lean against one of the bookshelves. “What do you do, exactly?”
“I’m a scholar,” said Shiru as Ganduo sat down next to Yalan. “I educate myself in the laws of the heavens. In practical things, I do my best to predict the weather and supply the Emperor’s aides with the information I gather.” The Gnorbu glanced outside and smiled. “And for the Lunar Festival, I get a very special duty.”
“What is it?” asked Xinshi.
“While the entire city is crowded under the great pavilion, I stay here at the Lunar Temple. As soon as the first rays of the new sunrise appear on the horizon, it is my duty to light off fireworks in celebration of the New Year that has arrived.”
“Oh, it’s you who does that?” said Danye, turning away from the books to look at Shiru. “I’ve watched those fireworks every year since I can remember. I never thought about who was lighting them off.”
“It’s a tradition that has been carried on for countless generations,” said Shiru. He pointed his staff at the bottom of one of the bookcases, where a large box held several unlit fireworks. “I am honored to be a part of it.”
“The Lunar Festival sounds so much more exciting here in the city,” said Yalan. “With my family, all we do is read stories and stay up all night. I never knew there was so much culture behind it.”
Shiru nodded and walked around to the other side of the set of bookcases. He returned with a yellowed stack of parchment, its pages tied together by faded red ribbon. By the glow of the paper lanterns, the Neopets could see its cover page. In thick black ink, the shape of a full moon had been drawn; beneath it were symbols in ancient Shenkese.
“I can’t read this,” said Shiru, “but a more recent document in the common language has provided me with a rough translation. These pages are some of the oldest that I own. They tell of the earliest customs in Shenkuu regarding the Lunar Festival.”
Danye and Xinshi sat down, forming a sort of semicircle with Yalan and Ganduo. The red Ogrin placed her lantern next to Shiru’s, and the old Gnorbu carefully lowered himself to the floor. Holding the parchment carefully in front of him, he turned the first page.
It was quite dark outside now, and the stars were shining brilliantly through the glass. By the light of the twin lanterns, Shiru showed the four young Neopets the pages of the antique book.
On the first, beneath the writing, was a drawing of the setting sun. Shiru said, “The Lunar Festival is a celebration of the ending of one year and the beginning of another. As you all know, each year in the Shenkese calendar is marked by one of the five birth senses. A Neopet is said to have a spirit of that sense residing within them, guiding their heart and their actions. When the sun sets on the night between the years—the night of the Lunar Festival—spirits of all senses are released.”
He turned the page, and the drawing depicted several shapeless, ghostly specters hovering in the air. “Because that night is not part of the year, there is no certain sense. Spirits from each of the five are free to roam the world, traveling wherever they choose. This is why all of the citizens gather beneath the pavilion, or stay inside.” The next page had two curving strokes of ink and several spirits lurking outside of them. “Evil spirits are believed to only travel in straight lines. The curved roofs of buildings and the pavilion keep wicked spirits at bay. On the night of the Lunar Festival, when all of the spirits are out, it was thought to be extremely dangerous to step outside for fear of a bad spirit entering your body.”
Shiru carefully turned the parchment, revealing another depiction of the sun. “At sunrise, the New Year begins, and only spirits of that year’s birth sense can continue to wander the land. The others must return to sleep for another year. That’s why the fireworks are lit, to herald the New Year and the arrival of the new birth sense.”
The next page showed an infant Neopet in a cradle. “Every time a child is born, a spirit of the year’s birth sense enters its body and touches its soul. That’s why birth is so vital in Shenkese culture. If a baby is born with a bad spirit, it may grow up to be evil, or lazy, or cruel. With a good spirit, a child is sure to be guided in the right direction.”
Shiru turned to the final page, which had no picture at all, only several columns of characters in the ancient language. He glanced up at the four young Neopets, who had been listening in silence, spellbound by the Gnorbu’s account of the meaning behind the Lunar Festival. “So, you see now why the festival is so important,” he said. “Not only does it bring in the New Year and the new birth sense, but it is also the only night when all spirits are free to roam. Of all times, it is the one when Shenkese citizens most recall their history and culture.”
“That’s amazing,” said Danye. “I’ve heard stories like this, but I’ve never really had it explained all at once.”
Shiru stood up with the aid of his staff and returned the stack of parchment to its place. “The ancient beliefs are not practiced much anymore,” he said. “Many residents of Shenkuu have left the old traditions behind. Birth sense is kept quiet, and spirits are often thought of as the objects of stories, nothing more.”
“Except everyone still stays indoors or under the pavilion on the night of the festival,” said Ganduo, his lips curling into a grin, just as Xinshi sat up straight and said, “Did you hear that?”
Everyone froze and listened. Xinshi turned his head toward the gap where the wooden stairs emerged. All was silent for a few moments except for the Neopets’ soft breathing, and then: “Hello? Temple Master?”
The voice was muffled but nearby. Shiru stood up and hurried toward the stairs. Danye picked up the two lanterns and followed, with Xinshi close behind. Ganduo lifted up Yalan as Shiru called, “Yes, I’m here!”
The Gnorbu began to make his way down to the base of the Lunar Temple. A Neopet was framed in the open doorway, silhouetted against the night sky.
Danye put one of the paper lanterns down at the foot of the steps and held the other one up to illuminate the figure. The Ogrin blinked. “Huanyi?”
The pink Kougra strode quickly into the room. “I told Sayder to make sure you were back by nightfall,” she said, her voice firm yet not loud. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you three.”
“I apologize,” said Shiru as Xinshi, Ganduo, and Yalan slowly came down the stairs. The green Lupe helped Yalan into her wheeled chair as Shiru bowed to Huanyi. “I invited them here to see the view, and we got to talking about the festival.”
“That’s very kind of you, Temple Master,” said Huanyi with a nod. “However, I believe these three were told to follow instructions, and they haven’t.” She raised an eyebrow at Danye, who was still holding the lantern. “It doesn’t matter much tonight, but what about tomorrow? What will I do if it’s time to proceed to the pavilion and you three are dawdling up here at the Temple?”
“We’re sorry,” said Xinshi. “I promise we’ll follow instructions tomorrow.”
Huanyi’s face softened. “I hope so,” said the Kougra. “Now please come back with me to the guest house.”
Danye gave the pale paper lantern to Shiru, whose eyes reflected its yellow glow. “Thanks for everything,” she said, turning to take hold of Yalan’s chair. “We really appreciate that you brought us here.”
“You are always welcome in the Lunar Temple,” said the Gnorbu with a smile. Danye began pushing Yalan toward the door, and Xinshi followed. Huanyi walked behind them without glancing back.
“I’ll meet you guys sometime tomorrow,” said Ganduo, stepping out into the night with Shiru as the others set off down the curving path.
“Enjoy the festival, all of you,” said Shiru.
The small procession traveled down the spiraling road, fading quickly into the darkness of the night. Shiru watched them for a while before turning to go back inside. The paper lantern vanished from view, just as the lights of the city began to go out one by one, leaving the hills to sleep by the light of the yellow moon.
To be continued...