Cycle of the Moon: Part Nine
Danye was one of those few Neopets who was fortunate enough to be able to appear confident even when her insides felt like they had come alive and were trying to escape her body. There was a bitter scent in her nose, and as she opened her mouth to speak it felt like the air had gone sour. The night of the Lunar Festival had arrived, and with it had come the spirits of the five senses, good and evil, to enjoy their few hours of freedom before the new year arrived.
“Sayder?” The red Ogrin peered at the Gelert who hung limply at a column near the stone steps that led off the platform. “Can you hear me?”
“Is he all right?” came Xinshi’s voice—unlike Danye’s, it quavered in the misty night.
“He’s unconscious,” she whispered to the Lutari. “And so is Ganduo’s grandmother.”
“Do you think they’re going to wake up?”
His words hung unanswered in the air; their presence was as tangible as the phantoms that lurked in the white fog. Danye had always known that they came out on this night, but never before had she strayed outside the shelter of a curved roof. Now, she could sense them intimately, gliding through the air, sometimes drawing so close that it was as if a breath of cold air had kissed her cheek.
“Weiru had to knock her out.”
Danye and Xinshi’s heads turned toward the brown Kyrii who was standing at the opposite end of the platform, between the pillars that held Yalan and Sayder. His hands were clasped in the wide sleeves of his robes; his sloping hat was his only protection from the spirits that roamed the skies.
“It was for her own good. She wouldn’t want to experience this.” His words were as unsteady as Xinshi’s; Danye knew that he was nervous.
“Experience what?” The Ogrin kept a level tone despite the uneasiness that filled her as she sensed the spirits lurking nearby. She wondered if they had discovered yet that there were five Neopets available for the taking, or if they were still reveling in their newfound liberty.
“The souls,” said Rubo, and Danye’s blood ran cold. Thinking about spirits was one thing, but when he said souls it gave her fear an even sharper edge.
She remembered what Shiru had said in the Lunar Temple, that Shenkese traditionalists often made no distinction between one’s soul and the spirit of one’s birth sense. The Ogrin had never been taught these things—she didn’t know what to believe. Was she unable to smell because she had never been touched by a spirit, or because she had never been given a soul?
The second thought was so bleak that Danye felt for a moment as if she had been deposited in the deepest, darkest region of outer space, where the light of the moon and stars could not reach, where there was no warmth, no emotion, no hope...
And in the silence of the night between the years, Danye began to understand.
If she could feel these things—warmth, emotion, hope—then surely she had been given a soul. She couldn’t be merely an empty shell. She was someone, and no matter what Rubo or Weiru thought of her, she wouldn’t let them use her as a spectral offering.
“Tell us what’s going on,” she said, and she saw Yalan stop shuddering on her column. The Zafara lifted her head, and Danye’s chest felt a burst of warmth with the knowledge that her words had been heartening. “Tell us what the souls will do.”
Rubo stared down at the base of the obelisk that rose up from the center of the stone platform. “You wouldn’t understand. There are forces rooted deep in tradition at work here.”
“Tell us,” said Danye, oozing grim persuasion.
“Weiru used the palace records to find you five,” said the Kyrii. “Or, four of you anyway. He didn’t know about Vinta until Huanyi told him. But, there had to be five Neopets. Each of them born without their birth sense, one for each of the five senses. In ancient Shenkese belief, a Pet born deficient in birth sense has no soul.”
The tone in his voice indicated that Rubo wasn’t entirely certain of the truth in his statement, but he continued. He spoke in short, tumbling sentences, as if his master’s plans had been kept secret for so long that they were spilling unbidden from his mouth.
“The spirits will be attracted to you more than any others, because you haven’t yet been touched. These ropes, the pillars, all the straight lines are to draw in the evil ones.” He looked around at the grey web. “Weiru wants the evil spirits to stay here in the gardens, away from the palace.”
The fog had been too thick for Danye to realize where they were; all that could be seen were the stone and bits of vegetation clinging to the edges of the pentagon. But now she knew. They were hidden away behind the thick hedge, amidst the flowers and trees that only the royal family had ever glimpsed. The palace was quite near, if only she could see through the mists.
“Why does he want to keep them away from there?”
Rubo glanced up at her, looking like he had gained a drop of confidence, as if it had condensed in the moist air. “I don’t know.”
It was more defiance than ignorance. Danye narrowed her eyes at him, playing the part of a soulless Neopet as well as she could. “With every lie you tell, the evil spirits are drawn closer.”
The Kyrii’s hand absently touched the brim of his curved hat. Danye had no idea if her words had been true or not, and she suspected that Rubo didn’t either, because he said, “Look, I had nothing to do with this. I’m only a servant.” He glanced into the air, pleading his case to the invisible specters that loomed outside the web of rope and stone. “This isn’t the first time that Weiru has done this. He did it for Lunara, and he did it for the next child. Now, the Empress is going to have another. Weiru has gone just now to the palace, where he will assure that the baby is born during this night.”
Danye stared at him, not needing to ask the question.
“It’s because of the birth sense,” said Rubo, growing visibly uncomfortable. The fur on his neck was sticky with perspiration, and he touched his hat again before withdrawing his hands into the sleeves of his robes. “This is the only night where multiple spirits can touch a Neopet. This is the only night when the ones of all five senses are released into Shenkuu. The Emperor wants his children to be blessed with power in all of the five, and he wants only good spirits to enter them.”
He looked around at the five Neopets. Danye watched him closely, and Xinshi stared in his general direction. Yalan was listening but looking down at the ground; Sayder and Vinta were still unconscious. “Don’t you see? You five are drawing away the evil spirits, leaving only the good ones to enter the palace and touch the child.”
Danye shivered, although whether it was because of the cold, or a spirit, or the sudden understanding that had dawned on her, she couldn’t tell. What she did know was that despite the darkness and fog that hung over the city, she was finally able to see clearly.
It was because of the child.
The Emperor wanted his children to be special, to be gifted with more than just one birth sense. And Weiru, who knew the oldest secrets of ancient Shenkese tradition, was going to make it happen. He had gathered five Neopets, each deficient in one of the birth senses, bound them in a prison of straight lines as bait for the evil spirits, and now he was in the palace. He would assure that the Empress would give birth tonight, and that only good spirits would be nearby to bless the newborn.
It was a flawless plan, and for a few moments Danye was silent as she considered it. She had smelled something suspicious in Huanyi, and now she knew why. The pink Kougra and her brother had been working with Weiru all along. The Emperor’s personal party had been a sham—it had only been made to bring Danye, Xinshi, and Yalan into the city. They had probably learned that Sayder had no taste soon after he came from Altador. Then, they had been searching desperately for a deaf Neopet born in a year of Hearing. And when Huanyi had overheard Ganduo speak of his grandmother, her heart must have skipped a beat.
Now, Danye’s heart sank. The roots of her peril ran deep; it had been planned for months. Weiru would have made it impossible for her to escape. Everyone was far away beneath the great pavilion, and even if someone happened to be nearby, one touch to the stone platform would end their life.
They were trapped, the five of them, with no way out. All they could do was wait—wait in darkness, in fog, all the while knowing that evil spirits were attracted by the straight lines that surrounded the platform. It wouldn’t be long before they tried to enter her body.
As Danye was wondering what it might feel like to be possessed, on her right side Vinta reared her head.
The Ogrin turned and watched as the Lupe arched her back, bending her neck backward so that it struck the edge of the stone pillar to which she was tied.
Rubo looked up at the same time, just as Vinta let out a low moan.
“Are you all right?” asked Danye.
The grey Lupe’s eyes were closed tightly, and her mouth was agape.
“What’s happening?” asked Xinshi.
“I don’t know.”
“They’ve found her,” said Yalan, her voice small. Danye glanced at the Zafara, whose slumped position was looking even more painful as gravity worked against her fragile arms and shoulders. “I can feel them.”
Danye felt a sudden shudder, and an unsavory smell burned her nostrils.
Vinta’s body went suddenly limp, and then stiffened again. She opened her mouth wider in a silent scream.
“Grandma!” said Danye without thinking. The chilling presence of the spirits nearby—now unmistakable—clawed at the back of her mind. “Vinta!”
Rubo watched with wide eyes, pressing his sleeved hands together beneath his chin as if he were about to bow.
Vinta’s head snapped to the side, as if she were watching something fly past her through closed eyelids. A groan of dread escaped her lips.
Danye noticed a stench filling the air around the Lupe. The spirits were encircling the pillar, following the straight lines of the grey ropes as they crept toward their victim.
Vinta moaned again, so loud this time that Danye was certain that it could be heard from the palace. Xinshi was staring wide-eyed at her. “I can see them,” he whispered. “But, it’s not seeing, it’s... I sense them with my eyes. They—they’re all around her.”
“I feel it too,” said Yalan. “They’re going to come for us next, I know it!”
“Don’t say that,” said Danye with as much strength as she could muster, but the ability to keep her voice steady escaped her. She could only watch as Vinta convulsed and let out another horrid yowl.
Rubo had been backing away from her, and now he stood with one foot on the second step. He looked from Vinta to Yalan, who had closed her eyes tightly and was now shivering again. “I can’t,” he muttered to himself, and Danye saw his lips move silently, repeating the phrase. “I can’t do this. Weiru never said anything about staying for this.”
The Kyrii took another step down off the platform. Danye’s attention was split in too many directions to allow her to focus. She watched Vinta as the evil spirits infested her, she watched Yalan begin to shudder more violently, she watched Sayder slowly lift his bruised head, and she watched Rubo miss the next step with his foot and fall the rest of the way to the grass.
The servant scrambled to his feet. His curved hat had tumbled from his head, and he frantically grabbed it and thrust it between his ears. He stared at the Neopets on the platform for another second and then turned away and fled into the night. After only a few paces, his silhouette faded into the mists.
“What’s happening?” asked Sayder, squinting up at the obelisk and the ropes that were strung to the five pillars. “Where are we?”
Danye wanted to answer him, but the words didn’t come. Instead, she could only listen to the wails of the old Lupe on her right side, until after a few minutes the Neopet went silent.
Yalan was still shivering, her eyes closed, on her column. With a final, twisting spasm, Vinta went limp.
The surface of the pentagon was silent once more, but the bad smell in Danye’s nose remained.
“Vinta?” she whispered. “Can you hear me?”
The mists churned, and the moon peered down through the veil of cloud, but Danye heard no reply.
“She’s still breathing,” said Sayder. The Gelert had straightened up at his pillar. “Danye, you have to tell me what’s going on. All I remember is that brute Anyan attacking me.”
Danye continued to stare at Vinta for a moment, watching the grey Lupe’s chest rise and fall as she hung by her shoulders. The Ogrin glanced at Yalan, whose shaking had lessened a bit, and then at Sayder.
“I—I don’t know if I can.”
Xinshi had turned to look toward Sayder. The Lutari’s blue eyes were large, but he seemed to have gained the confidence that Danye had lost.
“I will. But when I do, promise that we’ll find a way out of this.”
Danye watched as Sayder’s chest rose in a deep breath.
“We’ll find a way,” he said, but as Danye stared past him into the black sky and thought of the hours that still lay ahead, she couldn’t imagine how.
To be continued...