Hero of Shenkuu: Part Three
I storm back and forth across my bedchambers, infuriated by the loss. The next time we locate him, I have to go there alone, and personally see to his execution. It is in the midst of these feelings that I call a meeting, right there in my own living quarters.
Uncomfortably, my eleven advisers and the wizard pile in and take seats on the lush carpet. I'm still pacing furiously as I speak. "I'm paying you more each day than most Neopets will ever see in their lives." They all stare at me absently. They can sense my fury. Good. "I won't ask you to go out again and search for Fyth. I know it's too dangerous. But I need each and every one of you to find someone—anyone—and place each one in strategic locations all over Shenkuu. He's still here, I'm sure of it."
They have the same fear and hatred in their eyes as the rest of my citizens, but it's dulled down because of their paychecks. I smile bitterly. "I'll pay whomever you find, and we'll set them up at the most popular shops. Any Spotted Zafara—any Spotted Zafara—is to be taken back to the Lunar Temple immediately. If they resist, threaten them with my name. Inform me immediately if one of them gets away. We will not stand here while this hazard lives on," I continue. "He is not just a threat to me, but a threat to Shenkuu. Together, we can protect Shenkuu from an unworthy Emperor."
A few of them begin to mutter amongst themselves, but cease at the sight of my piercing glare. "All of you go, and find someone who is strong enough to carry an unwilling victim back to the Lunar Temple." They blink at me. "Now."
The advisers scramble over each other to get away from me, save for two of them. I look into the unwavering eyes of a Camouflage Kougra and a Pink Cybunny, both of whom I recognize as some of the first to step up to raid Fyth's neohome.
The Kougra takes a step toward me. "I am Lio, and this is Shirley." The Cybunny nods in acknowledgement of her name. "We think that maybe you need something a little beyond a group of advisers who you place trust in solely for the reason of money."
"I think you'll find that we're very loyal," Shirley says.
I raise an eyebrow at them. "What do you have in mind?"
"An elite force of just us two. We've been in the battledome a bit, and we know how protective you are over Shenkuu," says Lio.
My hopes lift up a little. Not everyone despises me. And I do feel pretty protective over Shenkuu.
"We'll be your personal assistants, for your most dangerous tasks. We're up for it. You don't have to increase our pay or anything at all. We'll do your bidding and stay by your side at all times. No matter what, we will protect you," Lio says.
They bow in unison, and tears prick at my eyes. The gesture means more to me than they will ever know. "Thank you," I say. It barely comes out as a whisper. "Thank you."
The next few weeks were extremely pleasant. Lio and Shirley became more than just my bodyguards. They are my companions now. I'm not as lonely, with immediately changing staff. My advisers stay the same; not one of them resigns. At the very least, I feel more secure now.
Ten of us converse around the dinner table, including the wizard. Jessica is home visiting her family. It makes me proud to know all their names and their situations as well as I do. Never before have I been this close to my staff.
Lio is the center of attention, as usual. He jokes at the table and lifts up our spirits, as charismatic as ever. Shirley kicks in once in a while with biting sarcasm, but it's a funny kind. All of us laugh as we pass around large bowls of the best-tasting food I've had in a while. I can't remember the last time I was this happy. It's good to be liked again.
I go to bed that night happy and well-fed, without a worry in the world. Shirley and Lio are in the rooms adjacent to mine, and they are light sleepers. If the need comes, they can protect me like they've sworn to. It takes only a few minutes to fall asleep in that sort of comforting atmosphere.
Some time later, I wake up. It's still the middle of the night, and I can't have been asleep for more than a few hours.
It doesn't take me very long to realize what woke me up, because I hear the noise again. A distinct popping noise. It sounds vaguely familiar.
I hurry to the staircase, careful not to make much noise. Most likely, I should have woken up Shirley and Lio, but they need as much sleep as they can get. I grab a candle and head to the ground floor of the Lunar Temple just in time to hear another popping noise, and this time I witness the source.
My servants are disappearing, exactly like the Nimmo and the team of trackers I sent the first time around. Not anyone I'm particularly close to has vanished, but I at least recognize some of the ones who are roaming about, looking confused and worried. A Red Aisha named Cindy cries on the ground, clutching a hat with no owner. I kneel next to her and pat her shoulder. "Is everything—?" I start.
"E-Empress!" she exclaims, standing up so suddenly that it nearly knocks me over. She bows three times. "I'm so sorry, Empress, I didn't mean to—"
"Please, call me Rhi," I say. "What's wrong?" The hat in her hands is familiar.
"Johnny," she says. I can actually pick that one out of a crowd. "And Marshall is gone, and Irene."
I frown. If my servants are disappearing, then could Fyth possibly be...?
Swiftly as I can, I console Cindy and then search out Wire's quarters. His door is locked, and I bang my fist against it rapidly until he unfastens it.
The Pteri is groggy. "How far away do you have to be to conduct magic?" I blurt. He blinks at me and rubs his eyes.
"I'm sorry, M'Lady, you have to repeat that," he says.
I repeat it slower. He considers it.
Finally, he asks, "What type of magic are we talking about?"
"The servants are disappearing," I say urgently. I gesture to the general area of not-his-room as another popping noise erupts from the ground floor. "Four of them are gone now. I don't know what's going on."
A serious expression crosses his face. "We have to get them to higher grounds. He's probably very close. It may not do much, but if he's at a distance from the temple, he may not be able to reach them if they're higher." Wire pauses for a moment.
"What's wrong?" I ask. I seem to be asking that a lot lately.
"Usually to do that spell, you have to be able to see your victims. It teleports them away. He might be in the castle right now." He speaks in a hushed whisper. My body freezes. If he is in the castle, then my doom is set in stone. I gulp.
"I'll ask Gilbert to look out for a Spotted Zafara as he escorts the servants upstairs. Is there anything you can do to protect the temple?"
He nods, though it's not very convincing. I've seen first-hand that his magic has done very little to prevent anything, despite his reputation.
In the panicking crowd, I find Gilbert and give him instructions. He's a very capable Gelert, and the oldest member of my staff. He's reliable enough to protect them all.
I run back upstairs before any of the servants can, fluttering my wings with nervous tension. If Fyth got to any of my advisers... No, if Fyth gets to me, I am toast. For sure, he can teleport me away from the safety of the temple, where he can kill me in isolation just like the coward Nimmo who trained him. I shiver at the thought. Everything had gone so well, and now it is all going downhill. The halls begin to fill with servants and some late-night tourists, and I realize what I must do next.
Hiding my fear and my anger, I go up to each one individually and tell them that everything is going to be okay. Many of them are surprised by this action, though I don't understand why. When the crowd becomes too large to individually console each person, I elevate myself a chair and raise my voice. "Everyone, please calm down!"
The sobbing and shouts convert into a few whispers. Their attention is on me.
"I'm sorry that you have all been woken up at such an untimely hour. A wizard is attacking the temple, teleporting some of us out of here. I have my own wizard working against it, but for now it is best to distance ourselves by staying up on this floor." The chatter starts up again, and people sound panicked once more. "Please don't worry. I'm doing everything I can to protect you all from harm. I'll keep you safe, I promise. If you have any questions, I'll go around answering them."
I step down from the chair, and am instantly bombarded with hundreds of questions. I answer them all as calmly as I can manage. An Empress needs to stay composed in the midst of chaos. I try my best to fulfill this, and I tend to each of their needs individually until I am quite exhausted.
As I press my back against a wall in an attempt to stay awake, Gilbert approaches me. "I saw one Spotted Zafara, though it was a girl, and she was scared. I didn't question her any further. I hope you don't mind."
"Of course not, of course not," I say absently. I don't have high expectations for actually finding him in the temple. For all I know, he is invisible, or in Altador, or on the other side of Neopia, casting his high magic and defying Wire's knowledge of the subject.
Another popping noise hits my ears painfully. It is from nearby, upstairs. The panic sets in again. I go to my bedroom, knowing the general location.
Lio's door is ajar, but no one is there. My heart rate soars. Maybe he's disappeared, too.
Shirley's door is also ajar, but inside, I hear a wail. I hurry to the bedside, where Lio kneels, clenching the sheets with his paws and burying his face into the mattress. I stand behind him, my mouth agape, tears flooding to my eyes.
Fyth has taken Shirley, too.
To be continued...