Cycle of the Moon: Part Eight
The streets of Shenkuu were difficult to navigate in the foggy night, and Ganduo had to stop his hurried journey several times to make sure he was on the right path. The city was absolutely silent; all that could be heard were the distant, joyful sounds of the Lunar Festival below, beneath the great curved roof of the pavilion which rested at the base of the hills.
The green Lupe could only see a short distance in any direction; the only constant was the full moon, making its slow journey across the sky behind a veil of clouds.
He half-expected to see his grandmother emerging from the mists at every turn, like one of the spirits that would be released as soon as the sun set. All he could think about was the rocking chair and the two gashes scraped on the wooden floor in his home. He should have known better. He shouldn’t have let her stay in an empty house by herself—someone deaf, someone fragile, someone so important. He should been more suspicious when Huanyi had asked him about his grandmother. But now it was too late; Vinta had vanished into the night.
The light of the sun still lingered in the west, but the Lupe knew that Shenkuu would soon fade into blackness. The year would be over, and the good and evil spirits of the five senses would have dominion over the land for several hours.
Unprotected, he knew that they could enter his body as they pleased.
Ganduo thought of Shiru and his books on ancient Shenkese beliefs, and he began to run faster. The old Gnorbu was the only one who could help him now. Perhaps there was something the group had missed that afternoon, some secret that would explain why Huanyi had been so interested in a deaf grandmother born in a year of Hearing. Something that would explain why Xinshi, Yalan, and Danye had all been chosen to be part of the Emperor’s personal party at the Lunar Festival, when all three were deficient in their birth sense. There had to be something...
Ganduo’s feet pounded against the dusty path as it circled the uppermost hill of Shenkuu. The curves grew tighter, and at last he was standing, panting, at the shadowy entrance to the Lunar Temple.
Too out of breath to call Shiru’s name, the Lupe stumbled into the darkness of the building.
His foot came down on a hard, papery cylinder.
Ganduo stepped back and reached for the box of matches that lay on the table just inside the doorway. He lit a candle and held it up, without bothering to conceal it behind the thin membrane of a paper lantern.
The circle of yellow light didn’t extend far; most of the room remained in shadow, the ancient script on the walls hidden in the gloom. Ganduo walked forward slowly, watching as the glow revealed what lay scattered on the floor.
When he had entered, the Lupe had stepped on a small, wrapped firework. Its fuse extended like a small tail from the painted body. The light revealed more of them, of many sizes and colors, spreading out like a fan from a point near the bottom of the stairs that led to the upper chamber.
Ganduo saw the large box where the fireworks had been stored on one of Shiru’s bookshelves. It was turned on its side, a few of the tubes still lying within. The rest had been thrown outward across the cold floor.
Ganduo bent down and righted the box. “Shiru?” he called, peering up the steps into the blackness of the second room.
He saw something resting on one of the lower stairs. The Lupe put his foot on the bottom step and leaned forward.
It was Shiru’s staff.
The curved wood blended into the stairs, but it was vivid in Ganduo’s vision. The question mark remained in his mind even after he took a step back and glanced at the fireworks again. It was there even as he picked up the staff, carefully put the candle inside a paper lantern, and walked outside.
The question mark burned like the countless doubts that plagued his mind.
What had happened to Shiru? They’d only left him a while ago, when the four friends had gone their separate ways. Had the others made it safely to the guest house? Were they at the Lunar Festival now, or had they vanished like his grandmother?
What was going on?
The questions weighed down on him, and Ganduo felt that he would soon need to walk with the curved staff for balance, otherwise he would topple off the edge of one of the swaying rope bridges as he hurried through the darkening city.
There was but one place he could think to go. Huanyi was the only one who knew that the Neopets had visited Shiru in the Lunar Temple, and the pink Kougra was also the one who had instructed Xinshi, Yalan, and Danye to meet her at the guest house.
The sun was touching the horizon, but it had not yet set. There was still time. With the paper lantern held in one hand and Shiru’s staff in the other, Ganduo ran through the streets of Shenkuu, as his questions pressed against him like the heavy fog.
* * * * *
Anyan pulled the grey ropes tight around Sayder’s hands. He stepped aside, leaving the shadow Gelert to be held upright on the column by his own arms. Like Vinta, Sayder was unconscious. Even through his black fur, Yalan could see bruises. Anyan had not taken him gently.
The orange Kougra reached up to adjust his curved hat. Yalan thought about the evil spirits that it was designed to ward off; the striped Zafara herself had no such shield. The sun had sunk halfway into darkness. The night between the years was almost upon them.
“Anyan, you may go.” Weiru stared at the Kougra with his cold blue eyes. “Find your sister and stay out of sight. Don’t return here or enter the palace.”
“Yes, Master Weiru,” said Anyan. Glancing at the full moon that hung in the cloudy sky, he stepped off of the stone platform and disappeared.
“Secure the ropes.” The white Gnorbu looked at the obelisk in the center of the raised pentagon. “They must be tight and straight.”
Rubo gave a small nod. The Kyrii took one of the five long cords that dangled from the stone peak and walked toward Vinta. He threaded it through a silver ring that was set in the pillar just above the Lupe’s bowed head. Stretching the rope, he secured it to a similar ring on Danye’s column.
Yalan watched as the servant did the same with a second rope, stringing it from the obelisk through Danye’s loop and tying it above Xinshi’s head.
When he reached her, Yalan closed her eyes and pretended to be unconscious like Sayder and Vinta. Yet, for as long as they had been bound to the pillars on the platform, their captors hadn’t spoken a word to any of them. It was as if the five captives weren’t Neopets at all, but figures made of stone like everything else.
When Rubo finished pulling the cords tight, it looked like he had woven a web. An unbroken chain ran around the perimeter of the pentagon, and each of the five columns was connected to the point of the obelisk.
The servant went to stand near the steps that led off the platform, adjusting his curved hat nervously. As she stared at it, Yalan felt her heart drop. She was surrounded by straight lines: the obelisk, the pillars, the taut ropes. Evil spirits wouldn’t just have access to the five Neopets; it was as if Weiru had constructed a target.
The Zafara’s head swam. Her arms, bent behind her and supporting the bulk of her weight, felt as if they were going to rip free of her body. Her back ached, crooked because of how her limp legs were crumpled beneath her. And now, as the gravity of the situation began to set in, Yalan grew weak with fear.
It was like a liquid that someone had poured over her head. The chill crept down her spine, dripped down her body, made her shiver in the night. Her body shook as she lifted her head to watch helplessly what was now happening in front of her.
The white Gnorbu had stepped forward.
Weiru stood at the base of the tall obelisk, looking up at the sky; the grey web was framed darkly against the clouds. He gripped his staff with both hands, its upper end held at eye level. The red feather dangled below, dotting the exclamation mark that was pounding in Yalan’s head—and in her shoulders, and arms, and back, and chest.
Weiru muttered something, but the Zafara couldn’t hear the words. They were low, a quick chant, and she wondered briefly if he was speaking in ancient Shenkese. It was difficult to concentrate through the mixture of pain and fear that was brewing inside her, swirling like a sour potion.
“With the blood of the tongue that has spoken,” she heard Weiru say, and Yalan watched him open his mouth. He was standing almost opposite her, and she could see the Gnorbu slide the tip of his pale tongue between his teeth. In a sudden motion, he bit down and Yalan flinched. Weiru touched a finger to the wound and then placed it on the stone obelisk. “I lay this enchantment.”
Yalan’s eyes darted toward the horizon. Only a sliver of sun remained; the rest of the sky was already dark.
When she looked back at the white Gnorbu, she met his piercing blue eyes. “You will do well to stay quiet,” he said, and she realized that he was talking to the captives for the first time. The words crawled out of his mouth and across the platform, creeping up her body and into her ears. Yalan shuddered. “There is no one nearby to hear you, but even if you manage to summon a Neopet to this place, one touch to the stone will end their life.”
Beside him, Rubo glanced nervously at his feet. His hat began to slide down his forehead, and the Kyrii quickly pushed it back into place.
Weiru turned to him. “Keep watch. Do not leave this platform. If you do, the enchantment will not allow you to touch it again.”
Rubo placed his hands together and bowed. “Yes, Master.”
With the aid of his staff, Weiru walked down the steps and out of sight, swallowed by the mists.
Yalan took a shaky breath. Rubo looked at her, and then glanced quickly away.
When the Zafara turned her head again to search for the dying sun, she couldn’t find it. It had departed along with the old year, leaving behind a red stain in the sky which was soon obscured by a layer of cloud.
The night of the Lunar Festival had arrived. Faintly, the sounds of cheering and applause could be heard rising like a wave from the pavilion, far below at the base of the hills. Yalan had nearly forgotten that the entire city of Shenkuu was celebrating so close, and yet so hopelessly far away.
They were safe down there, under the massive, adorned, sloping roof. But here, trapped in a net of straight lines, Yalan had never felt more vulnerable.
Daggers of pain stabbed through her arms and shoulders, but they were nothing compared to the intense shivers that seized Yalan’s body. She tried to calm herself, but she could only think of the spirits that had now been released into the land. She imagined them—invisible yet very real, sweeping down from the sky, searching for a vessel to enter. The good spirits would lazily drift toward the pavilion, attracted by its colorful cheer and lively entertainment.
But the evil spirits would be turned away, foiled by its curves. They would search elsewhere, darting through the cloudy sky, until they saw someone out in the open, someone unprotected, someone to possess.
They would find the target that Weiru had erected. They would follow its rigid lines, from the tip of the obelisk down the grey ropes, and they would arrive at a body trapped like a bug in a web, ready to consume.
Yalan shook so much that her body was nearly out of her control. It was as if she had already been taken over, caught in the clutches of a wild spirit.
She tried to steady herself. Maybe they hadn’t arrived yet. It was only minutes into the night. Yalan slowed her breathing and clenched her teeth to stop shuddering. Maybe a good spirit would enter her instead of an evil one.
Her keen birth sense detected a supernatural presence in the air; she felt it acutely, like a cold blade pressed against her soul.
The Zafara’s heart pounded.
Maybe they wouldn’t find her. Maybe they would go away.
As she became still, Yalan could sense the wayward spirits approaching. Doubt grew like a tumor in her mind, blotting out all resistance with its one twisted, undeniable truth:
They were here.
To be continued...