Cycle of the Moon: Part Eleven
A baby was crying in the other room.
Xinshi felt his grandmother clutch him tighter in her lap as she leaned forward in her rocking chair, which creaked soothingly as it rocked the two Neopets slowly back and forth.
“Do you hear that, Xinshi?” Kaile’s voice drifted to his ears. “That’s your new sister.”
The chair creaked as they moved backward together.
“When can I go in there?”
They rocked forward, and Xinshi held tightly to his grandmother’s arm, which was wrapped over his chest. He was intimately in touch with the awareness of up and down; with no visual cues the young Lutari had to rely solely on his innate sense of balance. He could feel every motion as Kaile pushed them gently back and forth. With every breath she took, her chest would rise and he would be squeezed a little tighter. The rocking chair continued to creak softly.
The baby stopped crying.
“What will she be like?”
Kaile sighed. Xinshi could smell her dry breath. It always reminded him of the herbs that his mother kept in a small cupboard.
“She’ll be tiny and very, very tired. I think your parents may be waiting for her to fall asleep before they let you visit her.”
“Well, she’s just met a mother and a father. A big brother might be too much for one baby to take in.”
The chair creaked as they swayed together.
“I’m never going to see her.”
From the other room, his parents’ voices could be heard dimly through the door.
“Like I see her? No, you won’t. But that doesn’t mean you can’t see her at all.” Kaile clutched her grandson’s hand. “One doesn’t just see with their eyes, Xinshi.”
“But that’s all that really matters.”
“Now don’t you ever say that.” The chair had stopped moving. Kaile lifted him and turned his body so that he was facing her. “Look at me.”
“Look at me.” She lifted his chin, and he stared toward the source of her voice. “Tell me what you see.”
He stared into the blackness, not really even knowing what it meant to see something. He knew what shapes were because he traced them with his fingers. His concept of colors came from his mother’s descriptions of how they’d sound if they could make noise, or how they’d feel if they had a temperature. Faces were contours, not pictures. The mountains and hills beyond the village were the stuff of stories, nothing more.
“I don’t see anything.”
“You’re saying that when you look at me, it’s no different than when you look over there?” She grabbed his face and turned it away from her. “Or there?” She moved his gaze to the other side, and then back toward her. “You say there’s no difference?”
He tried to focus, to grip something solid in his world of darkness.
“I... when I look at you, I know your voice. I smell your breath, and feel your warmth if I’m close. But I don’t see anything.”
“But you know that it’s me? You know where I am? You know how much I care about you?”
“You see enough.” She lifted him again and sat him back in her lap, leaning him against her chest. “That’s all you need, is enough.”
The chair creaked as they began to move once more.
After a while, Xinshi heard the door open in front of him. His father’s voice penetrated the air. “Xinshi, would you like to come meet your baby sister?”
The rocking chair stopped again, and Xinshi hesitated.
“Go on.” Kaile set him down on the floor.
The Lutari held his hands out in front of him, taking a few steps toward the other room. When he was close enough, his father held his hand and led him inside.
He felt the edge of the bed, just below eye level. He could hear his mother’s slow breathing, but there was another Neopet too. He heard softer, wet breaths that reminded him of the air outside on a misty morning.
His father lifted him beneath the arms and stood him on the edge of the bed, so he could look down at his baby sister. As he listened, he could tell that she was lying in his mother’s arms.
“Xinshi, meet Mingmei.”
And as he looked, something lit up his darkness, ever so slightly. It was not a sound, or a feeling, or a smell, or a taste, but something else entirely. It was like passing by the fireplace when the rest of the room was cold. A patch of visible warmth grew and pulsated in his eyes.
He looked away, and it moved. He looked back, and there it was, right in front of him. It was like hearing someone talk through an open doorway—if one moved to the side, the sound faded, but standing right near the opening made it clear.
“I can see her.” He felt a sensation behind his nose, like the feeling just before tears were about to rush to his eyes. “Can she see me?”
“Her eyes are closed. She’s sleeping.”
“I can see something. There’s something there.” He took a step nearer, tripped on a fold of blanket, and landed on the bed.
Mingmei started to cry, and Baiyang scooped Xinshi up off the bed. “Well, she’s awake now.”
“Look, dear. Look, she’s opened her eyes.”
Mingmei wailed and wailed, and Xinshi tried to look at her again from his father’s arms. “It’s moving! It’s going away!” The sight was fading, rising into the air like a wisp of smoke before vanishing entirely. “I can’t see her anymore. I can’t see!”
“Come on, Xinshi.” He felt himself being carried away as his mother tried to comfort the baby. “It’s all right, don’t worry.”
“But I could see.”
He was deposited back in Kaile’s lap, and the rocking chair moved back and forth, creaking softly as Baiyang hurried back into the bedroom. “There, there.” His grandmother held him tightly.
“I could see.”
Xinshi had not sensed anything with his eyes since that day. Not until this night, during the celebration of the Lunar Festival, had he felt the same sensation. Now, as he stared out from his column on the pentagonal platform, it was happening again. And this time, he understood.
It was the spirits. Not the ones in the air, those that had been unleashed and were soaring freely through the hills of Shenkuu—it was the ones that had found bodies. It was the ones that were writhing inside of Vinta and Yalan, making them cry out in pain and fear.
Across the platform he could see a fading presence, where Vinta had at last gone silent. And next to him, on his left, he saw a new darkness taking shape. Unlike the light he had seen in his sister, these spirits seemed to intensify the blackness. They were like shadows that grew and twisted in his vision, sucking the life and warmth out of the world.
Yalan whimpered, and Xinshi whispered, “Yalan, you have to fight it. Talk to me. Please.”
But she had stopped communicating many minutes ago. As Sayder, Danye, and Xinshi waited for Huafen to return with a miracle, Yalan had only begun to shiver more violently, and the darkness around her grew thicker.
There was a distant thud from the direction of the palace. Xinshi could hear Danye draw in a sharp breath from her place on the pillar to his right.
“What do you think that was?” she breathed.
“I don’t know.” Sayder’s voice was tense with worry. “I hope she’s all right.”
“Vinta doesn’t have much time left.” Xinshi glanced back toward the Lupe. The patch in his vision was fading there. “And Yalan is only getting worse.”
“Why is it happening to them?” asked Danye. “Why not us? Are we next?”
“I don’t know,” said Sayder. “We have to stay strong.”
“But what about them?” asked Xinshi, as Yalan started to breathe more quickly. “What can we do?”
No one said anything.
Xinshi closed his eyes.
He had always tried to keep his eyes open, to salvage some sense of being normal in a world of Neopets who could see while he couldn’t. His mother told him that his eyes were beautiful, full of so much blue that they could cover the sky. Even though he had seen something real only once in his life—now twice—Xinshi had vowed to keep his eyes open to Neopia whenever he could.
But now, trying to block out the two black holes in his vision, he closed them.
For a few moments, he concentrated on Yalan, wondering what he could possibly do to help her and desperately hoping that Huafen would come back to them soon. But after a minute dragged by, the only change was a wave of coldness that washed over him as if he had been submerged in water.
The patches that had faded when he closed his eyes now began to take shape once more, but this time they were different. No longer did he see formless shadows. He could see defined borders, true darkness and true light.
His heart pounded, but the Lutari kept his eyes closed. For the first time in his life, he dulled his other senses. Sayder was saying something, but the sound was distorted, as if Xinshi were underwater and the Gelert were speaking from above. The roughness of the grey ropes around his wrists became dull, and the damp smell of the fog faded.
Xinshi concentrated entirely on one thought. And as he poured energy into his eyes, his birth sense was awakened.
He could see.
In the darkness of his mind, four visions emerged. They were equally spaced, and he realized immediately that each of the tiny lights in his mind was inside one of the Neopets tied to the pillars around him.
Like four little candles they stood, two of them solid and unmoving. Another was surrounded by swirling shadow, like a veil that had been wrapped tightly around it trying to smother the weak light that was still shining palely through. And the fourth, to his left, was flickering as wisps of darkness twisted around it like circling predators.
It was Yalan.
Xinshi moved toward her instinctively, and to his surprise, he was able to do so freely. His vision moved like an extension of his body, as if his eyes had detached from his skull and were floating in the air. With only one thought, he drifted closer, drawing nearer to the light that was battered by tendrils of shadow.
As he approached, they seemed to notice him. Their attack on Yalan stopped as the darkness grew still.
He challenged them, creeping closer and closer. He stared at the light of his friend, and then at the gloom that surrounded her.
A sudden pain filled him, and he turned around. Something had been lost. The emptiness was tangible. As he looked around, he could only see three lights aside from his own. Vinta’s candle had been snuffed; he could see wispy remnants rise into the sky before fading out of sight.
He was consumed by one instinct: protect Yalan.
With one motion, he darted forward, and the shadows around her moved back. He spun around, warding them off, suddenly realizing that he had a light of his own. He battled them, fighting off the evil spirits, which backed away and began to circle from a greater distance.
He circled Yalan with them. He guarded her from every side. He shone light wherever darkness dared to come near.
And then, he moved a bit too close to her, and they touched.
For one moment, they were one light, one being, and everything that she had ever known was experienced by him.
The shock made him open his eyes, and like waking up from a dream he was thrust back to the world of sound and feeling and taste and smell.
The lights were gone, and he was breathing heavily.
“Xinshi! Please, say something.”
Danye’s voice came like a gulp of fresh air, as if the Lutari had been holding his breath. “I’m all right,” he gasped. “I’m back.”
He looked around, but now he could see nothing, not even the two patches of shadow that he’d been able to identify before. Vinta and Yalan were as invisible as everything else.
He hesitated. “I don’t know.”
“Listen,” said Sayder. “Someone’s coming. Huafen!”
Two sets of footsteps could be heard pounding across the grass. Xinshi listened carefully as they approached. “Is Weiru with her?”
“No,” breathed Danye. “It’s someone else. Is that—”
“Don’t touch the platform!” shouted Sayder. “It’s cursed.”
Xinshi recognized the voice immediately. “Shiru.”
The green Lupe stared up at the red Ogrin who was looking down at him from her place on a stone column. “Danye, are you all right?”
“What about my grandma?”
She said nothing.
“Shiru,” said Sayder, “there’s no time. You and Ganduo must find Weiru. The curse can only be lifted with his blood.”
The Gnorbu stared up at the obelisk that stood in the center of the platform. “The same blood that runs through his veins,” he said, “runs through mine.”
Everyone watched as the Lunar Temple master lifted his staff. He bit his tongue and touched it to the bottom of the wood. The question mark was dotted with a red stain, just like the feather that dangled from Weiru’s staff.
Shiru hurled the curved stick at the obelisk. It struck dead on with a hollow thud before clattering to the stone platform.
A tiny red smear had been left behind.
Without hesitation, Ganduo ran toward the small flight of steps. He dashed up onto the platform and began to untie his grandmother’s hands. Shiru followed him.
As the Gnorbu began to release the others, Ganduo lay Vinta down on the stone. She was limp and cold.
When her bonds were removed, Danye walked to his side as Ganduo lifted one of his grandmother’s eyelids.
“I could feel it when it happened,” she said softly. “I think we all could.”
Yalan had been laid on the stone as well, and Xinshi was leaning over her as Shiru began to untie Sayder. The shadow Gelert bounded off the platform as soon as he was freed and ran through the mists in the direction of the palace.
“I should have come sooner.” Ganduo took in a shaky breath. “I waited too long.”
“It’s not your fault.”
“Yes it is.”
“I could have run faster. I could have figured out what was going on sooner.”
“None of knew what was going on. Weiru had been planning this for months. There was no way we could have—”
“We could have done something!” He clutched one of Vinta’s hands with both of his own. “This wasn’t supposed to happen.”
Shiru knelt down next to Yalan, and Xinshi looked toward him. “Is she going to be all right?”
“Yes,” said the Gnorbu. “She’s breathing. I think she’s just exhausted. Resisting evil spirits is something no one should have to experience.”
Shiru glanced up at the sky. The clouds were starting to fade, and patches of stars could be seen above. “We need to get inside. It’s still not safe out here, especially not on this platform.”
Yalan opened her eyes. As soon as she saw the two Neopets kneeling over her, she began to cry. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Xinshi, if you hadn’t had to come save me, you... you could have saved her.”
They all turned to look at Vinta. Ganduo was rocking back and forth on his knees, staining her grey fur with his tears.
“It’s not your fault,” said Shiru.
“I was too weak.” She sniffed. “If I wasn’t always so weak, I could actually do something in this world, instead of waiting for somebody to take care of me.”
“Get her chair,” said Shiru as he lifted Yalan’s head and put it in his lap. Xinshi moved slowly toward the edge of the platform, feeling his way with his hands. “You’ve survived a lot. Never say you’re weak.”
The Lutari found Yalan’s wheeled chair where Huanyi had shoved it off the platform. He carefully dragged it back up the steps and helped Shiru slide the Zafara into the seat. She had stopped crying, but she was still breathing heavily and looked very weak indeed.
“Look what I found outside the palace.” Sayder appeared in the white mists, dragging something behind him. It was Weiru.
The white Gnorbu stared up at the Neopets on the platform. “Hello, brother,” he said, smirking at Shiru. “I see you’re just one step behind, as usual.”
“One step too many,” said Shiru as Sayder dragged his brother up the stone steps. “And I have paid the price.” He glanced at Vinta, and Weiru followed his gaze.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” he said, the purring quality in his voice rising as he creased his forehead. “If she had only managed to hold out for a few more minutes...”
Ganduo took in a sharp breath and stood up. “You,” he growled, wiping stray tears from his eyes.
Sayder let go of Weiru and quickly grabbed Ganduo. “It’s over,” he said. “We can’t do anything now.”
“Look,” said Danye, and everyone stared into the mists as another Neopet walked toward them.
“Huafen,” said Sayder. The faerie Xweetok made no reply as she ascended the steps. “What happened?”
“The child is born,” she said, and Weiru smiled. “I pushed Weiru out the window, and I stayed with the Empress.” Huafen looked at the white Gnorbu. “The child is well. I left it with Huanyi and Anyan, who arrived minutes ago.”
“Do you know what those two have done?” said Sayder. “They’ve been involved with this the whole time! They were helping Weiru from the beginning.”
“They took the child and went to find the royal family,” said Huafen. “But the Empress...” She glanced up at the stars.
Weiru’s features turned to stone as he watched her give a shuddering sigh. “It cannot be.”
She looked at him. “A third dose of your methods was too much.”
He gripped his straight staff tightly in both hands. “If you hadn’t shoved me out the window, she would have survived. I know what I’m doing.”
“You had already done enough.”
“This should never have happened! It’s all because of y—”
“It’s because of you!” Huafen dropped to her knees.
“Weiru, look what has come of this,” said Shiru. He stepped toward his brother. “And this, this is the third time. For years I have known that you worked closely with the Emperor, but I never imagined that you would do something so terrible.”
“It is my duty,” said Weiru. “The Emperor wishes for his children to be special, so I make it happen. The Emperor wishes that no one see what must occur, so I disguise it. The fact that you never knew is a testament to my success.”
“You have committed crimes that cannot be undone.”
“My orders come from the Emperor of Shenkuu!” cried Weiru, lifting his staff into the air. The mists were fading, but they still hung thick in the gardens, distorting the light of the full moon as it shone down from above. “Do you dare question the will of the Emperor?”
“Yes,” said Shiru, and Weiru lifted his eyes to the sky.
“You are cursed,” he said, and the purr became a roar. “You are cursed! Defiance of the Emperor binds you to a fate worse than death! Your soul shall never have rest, and suffering will fill your days until the end of time!”
Everyone watched as his arms shook. The Gnorbu held his staff high above his head, the red feather dangling just over his eyes, as if he were trying to catch a lightning bolt that was charging in the clouds above.
He closed his eyes and began to whisper words that none of the other Neopets could understand. They watched with a mixture of fear and awe as he chanted, but Shiru stood firm, leaning on his own staff, eye to eye with his brother.
As Weiru muttered his curse, a new voice arrived on a breath of wind. With a wordless sigh, it washed over them, ruffling fur and sending shivers down the spines of the Neopets as they watched Weiru’s lips suddenly stop moving.
Weiru opened his eyes and looked down from the sky. He lowered his staff and opened his mouth. No words came.
His eyes widened, and he closed and opened his mouth again, but there wasn’t a sound. The gardens were silent.
He dropped the exclamation mark, and it clattered to the stone. His white hands flew to his lips, but still the Gnorbu could not speak.
He stared at Shiru, and in his eyes was a fear so horrible that it spread through the air, making the others grow nervous. Then, he turned and leapt off the platform. Weiru landed on the grass, picked himself up, and ran off into the mists.
The night was still.
Sayder took a step toward the stone steps, but Shiru grabbed his arm. “Let him go.”
“We can’t just let him leave!”
“Weiru has been touched by an evil spirit.” Shiru glanced up at the clouds. “He will speak no more lies. He will cause no more pain.”
The Lunar Temple master glanced down at Vinta. Danye was still kneeling next to her, and Ganduo was standing beside them.
“We should get inside,” said Huafen. “The spirits are still out here.” She stood up and held the back of Yalan’s wheeled chair.
Ganduo bent down and slid his arm beneath his grandmother’s back.
“Here, let me help you,” said Sayder.
Ganduo shook his head. “Let me do this.”
As he struggled to lift Vinta, Danye stood up and grabbed hold of the grey Lupe as well. “I don’t want you to bear this burden alone.”
The two of them stepped carefully down from the platform, followed by Huafen and Sayder as they lowered Yalan’s chair to the grass of the royal gardens. Shiru followed them, and Xinshi trailed behind.
The procession moved toward the palace, and Huafen held the door open for the others as they sought shelter beneath its curved roof.
“I don’t want to stay here,” said Ganduo. “Let’s go to the guest house. It’s not much farther.”
As they made for the front of the palace, a brown Kyrii could be seen standing at the other end of a long corridor. Shiru turned to look at him. “Rubo, servant of Weiru and the Emperor, you should know that your master has been tainted by an evil spirit.” The Kyrii stiffened but made no reply.
As the other Neopets continued toward the door, Shiru said, “Send word to the Emperor that his chief minister has been marked by evil. The proof will be that he is unable to speak. I expect that he will be removed from his position, and perhaps banished from Shenkuu.”
Rubo said nothing, and he quickly disappeared into a stairwell.
Shiru put his hand on Xinshi’s shoulder as they followed the rest of the group. “He will deliver the message. He’ll be too frightened not to.”
They stepped out into the open again, but the mists seemed even thinner than before. It was easy to make their way along the path between the high wall and the hedge that concealed the stone platform amongst the beautiful flowers and plants of the gardens. Soon, they were filing into the common room of the guest house. Ganduo and Danye lay Vinta down on a sofa, covering her body with a blanket, and Sayder wheeled Yalan indoors as her chair clicked softly in the silence.
Danye’s question hung in the air. Shiru leaned on his staff with one hand and stroked his mustache with the other.
Sayder glanced at Huafen. “I want to go back to the palace, actually. We need to make sure that Huanyi and Anyan aren’t going to try anything.”
“And that the baby is safe,” said Huafen. The two of them looked at the other Neopets before hurrying quietly back into the foggy night.
Danye took a seat in a chair by one of the many windows, next to Yalan. Xinshi slowly wandered over to join them.
Shiru remained standing for a while, and Ganduo didn’t move from his grandmother’s side. He sat on the floor in front of the couch, staring at the wall.
They waited, and minutes crept by.
Shiru’s eyes had closed, and it looked as if he had fallen asleep standing up when his eyelids suddenly flitted open and he took a sharp breath.
The Gnorbu glanced out the window. “I’d nearly forgotten,” he breathed. He strode quickly toward the door.
“Where are you going?” said Yalan, but Shiru had already stepped outside.
The three Neopets by the window watched as he hurried off down the path, staring intently into the sky.
They were alone.
No one spoke. No one slept. The four friends simply waited.
As time passed, a warmth could be seen on the horizon. The night was waning. The Lunar Festival was coming to an end.
At last, they saw the first rays of sunlight beam across the sky.
The New Year had begun. The spirits were gone, leaving behind only those of the new birth sense to wander the hills of Shenkuu in hopes of finding a newborn child to touch.
A shrill sound came from outside, followed by a loud crackle. The sky lit up with a yellow glow. It was followed by more noise and lights, and the Neopets soon realized what it was.
Shiru had returned to the Lunar Temple to light off the fireworks.
From the colorful pavilion below, there came a distant, resounding cheer.
To be continued...