Cycle of the Moon: Part Six
It was afternoon by the time the four Neopets arrived at the entrance to the Lunar Temple. The misty white clouds hung thick in the air, poised just out of reach of the city’s outstretched green fingers. Danye led the way into the red building, followed by Xinshi, Yalan, and Ganduo.
The base level was deserted, the ancient Shenkese script on its vermilion walls looking vague and mysterious in the dim light. “Shiru?” called the red Ogrin, walking toward the narrow flight of steps lining the right wall. “Are you here?”
As the other Neopets entered the building, the pale brown Gnorbu appeared at the top of the stairs. His white beard and odd, tufted mustache curled as he smiled. “Hello there,” he called, his clear blue eyes twinkling. “I thought you’d all be down at the pavilion. Come on up.”
Danye and Xinshi led the way as Ganduo trailed behind, carrying Yalan as he had done the night before. They arrived in the upper room where the broad, curved windows let in the light from outside. The box of fireworks had been taken from its space on the bottom shelf of one of the bookcases and placed on the floor, along with three or four dusty volumes. Shiru stood resting with a hand on his wooden question mark, the staff supporting his weight as he waved the Neopets over with his other hand. “How were the preparations?”
“Good,” said Yalan as Ganduo helped her lean against a shelf. “The pavilion looks amazing. Everything was better than I expected.”
“But we do have a question,” said Danye. She hesitated. “Shiru, there’s something going on. We just figured it out today, and we need your help.”
The Lunar Temple master furrowed his brow. “Tell me.”
And so she did.
With every word, Shiru’s wrinkled forehead creased even more and his hand clutched his curved staff with growing strength. When Danye at last finished explaining how she, Xinshi, and Yalan had discovered that they were all deficient in their birth sense, and how Huanyi had been suspiciously interested in Ganduo’s grandmother who shared the same trait, the Gnorbu let out a sigh.
“We just don’t understand,” said Yalan. “We know it can’t be a coincidence, all three of us being invited to be part of the Emperor’s personal party for the festival.”
Shiru didn’t reply; instead, he walked around the round room to the other side of the bookshelves. He returned with the same aged parchment he had read to them last night.
He turned to the final page. “When I was telling you about the ancient beliefs surrounding the Lunar Festival, I didn’t read the translation of this last page.” He glanced at Xinshi. “I had thought it unnecessary to speak about old traditions involving babies born with disabilities.”
The Lutari exhaled slowly. “What traditions?”
Shiru held up the yellowed page, and the other three Neopets could see the columns of ancient Shenkese writing. “There is no drawing on this page, like there was on the others. But that doesn’t mean this section isn’t illustrated.” He touched the red ribbon that bound the thick sheets together. “Long ago, it was believed that a child was born deficient in their birth sense only if there was no spirit residing within them, good or evil. It was an unspeakable shame. Because the babies had no spirit, they were thought not to have a soul. Those infants were dealt with in ways that I will not describe.”
Everyone except Yalan was still standing up. Ganduo put his hand on one of the bookshelves.
“Those customs have not been practiced for a long time. As you know, modern Shenkese culture has blurred the line between tradition and myth, between faith and nonbelief.” Shiru closed the pages of the document and put it away carefully. He walked back to the others slowly, using his staff for balance. “Most Neopets today don’t even know the difference between a spirit and a soul.”
Yalan looked up at him. “What is the difference?”
Shiru’s clear blue eyes met hers. “A spirit is a separate being, one that never was and never will be a Neopet. They are thought to touch a child at birth and guide them according to the sense that they embody.” He paused. “A soul is a part of you, even before birth. A soul is your identity, your life. No Neopet can lack a soul, no matter how evil they or their spirit may be.”
Xinshi closed his eyes and folded his hands over his head. “But what does this all mean? Why would Huanyi care if we lacked spirits or souls?”
Shiru shrugged. “I don’t know.”
Outside, the sky was darkening as evening approached. The white mists had begun to descend, and it seemed that the Lunar Temple would soon be lost among them. Beads of water clung to the outer edge of the windows.
“You four are welcome to stay here until the festival starts,” said Shiru. “I have countless books about Shenkese culture and tradition. You can look through them to see if you can learn anything more. I have told you all that I know.”
“Thanks,” said Ganduo. He turned to begin looking at the titles of the dusty volumes. “I just don’t understand any of this. One minute, we’re all excited about the Lunar Festival, and the next we’re discovering an impossible coincidence.”
“But that’s just it,” said Danye. The red Ogrin put a hand up to her chin. “This can’t be a coincidence. There’s no way that three Neopets without their birth sense could all be picked to be in the Emperor’s party, let alone be put in a group together.”
“And my grandma Vinta,” said Ganduo. “Huanyi was so interested when I said that she was deaf and born in a year of Hearing.”
“There’s something going on,” said Danye, joining Ganduo at the bookcase. “I know that this all makes perfect sense, somehow. I just...” She picked up a weathered volume and stared at it. The title read simply Spirits and there were at least a thousand pages. “I don’t know how we’re ever going to be able to figure it out.”
Shiru lifted his staff and pointed it at the shelves—its question mark shape seemed to multiply, filling the glass-walled room. “The answers are here somewhere,” he said. “There must be something that even I have not yet uncovered in my research.”
“Maybe we already have the pieces,” said Yalan as Ganduo handed her a book, “but we just don’t know how to put them together.”
Shiru smiled wryly. “Well, we’d better get to work.”
As the Neopets each sat down on the floor and began thumbing through the difficult writings of ancient scholars, astronomers, and historians, Xinshi began pacing around the room. His sightless eyes stared levelly ahead as he circled the cluster of bookshelves. Keeping the curving windows ever on his right side, he walked.
Evening came, and the clouds grew thick. Even if Xinshi had been able to see, he would not have been able to look down on the city of Shenkuu, for it was gradually being smothered by the damp white shroud. Shiru had gone down to the base level and lit two paper lanterns; he set them in the center of the small circle of researchers as they paged through the aged manuscripts.
Xinshi walked, and walked—the room was thick with silence—and walked, and—a page turned—walked, and walked—someone let out a sigh—and walked, and walked, and walked, and— “Here’s something.”
Yalan held the yellow page of a thick tome up to the pale light. “It’s from the records of a scribe to the Emperor. One of the older Emperors, I mean.” She read aloud: “‘Yesterday the child of a servant was born blind. As it is a year of Sight, the Emperor’s chief minister proclaimed the infant to be devoid of a soul and brought it immediately to the Emperor. He advised him to keep the child alive and use it to attract spirits, according to the belief that spirits will always be drawn to a Neopet in which one of them does not reside. But when the Emperor saw the child and looked into his white eyes, he ordered the minister to—’ Well, you know.”
Shiru frowned. “You can see how they made no distinction between spirits and the soul at that time.”
“But do they now?” asked Danye. “I mean, I was never taught the difference. I don’t really think about those things.”
“It is possible that some traditionalists may still connect the soul to the spirit of one’s birth sense,” said Shiru.
“And if they do, then they’ll believe that spirits are attracted to... well, us,” said Xinshi. “Since we don’t have souls, supposedly.”
“This isn’t helping,” said Ganduo. “Why would Huanyi, or anyone else, care if you were spirit magnets?”
“I don’t know,” said Danye. She glanced outside, where it was growing darker. “Maybe we’ll figure it out at the Lunar Festival. The sun is going to set soon, and Huanyi told us to make sure we weren’t late to the guest house.”
“I don’t want to go meet Huanyi,” said Yalan quietly.
Shiru leaned down and lifted her chin with his hand, using his staff for balance. “My dear, your friend is right. None of us knows why you were picked to be in the Emperor’s personal party. Perhaps it is because there will be a special celebration tonight for those who would have been persecuted long ago, but now are free to enjoy the celebration of a New Year, a new age in Shenkuu.” He straightened up. “I think you should go. Forget about the past and be grateful that you are alive today.”
Ganduo shrugged. “I think he’s right. Whatever might be going on, I’m sure you’ll find out tonight.” He picked up Yalan and began walking toward the flight of steps. “I’m going to go home first and check on my grandma. I think my parents are probably down at the pavilion already. I’ll meet you guys there.”
Danye and Xinshi followed him down into the wide red room below. “I still don’t think it’s a coincidence,” said the Ogrin. “But you’re right, we’ll find out soon enough.”
“I’ll do a bit more reading while you’re gone,” said Shiru. “If I learn something important, I’ll come find you at the pavilion. Otherwise, you can enjoy the Lunar Festival and wait for the fireworks at dawn.” He smiled as he followed the small group to the door. “As far as I know, they have been lit every year without fail, since the earliest celebrations. No roaming spirits can stop me from keeping that tradition alive.”
“Thanks again,” said Xinshi. “For everything.”
They stepped out onto the path, which curved away into the white mist that covered the city. The sun could barely be seen to the west, making its way toward the horizon, its light pale and weak in the haze.
“Good night,” said Shiru as the four walked down the spiraling road. They descended quickly out of sight and parted ways, with Ganduo heading home and the others walking to the guest house. The streets were slowly emptying as Neopets carried paper lanterns to light their way down to the pavilion, which glowed brightly even through the veil of mist.
To be continued...