The Shadow of Takeryuu:Part Three
The Faerie Vandagyre's antennae quivered. 'Come on!' Eunji squawked to Ganzorig as she sprinted in the direction of the scream, toward a mess of frazzled energy she could feel throughout her whole body. She would have flown, but the forest here was too dense and she did not want to risk snagging her delicate faerie wings on branches.
'You're just going to charge on in?' Ganzorig asked as he loped after her.
'Someone's in trouble!' Eunji replied. 'We must aid them!' It was only right.
The Tyrannian Lupe sighed and pulled on his Razumi mask. 'You and your idealism,' he muttered, but Eunji knew he didn't really mean it. After all, it was her idealism that had inspired him to change.
Soon, she began to hear sounds of a scuffle, panicked cries and fierce snorts, and then saw movement in the undergrowth ahead. A pack of wild Pygui were trampling around the trees, angrily attacking something on the ground.
Another cry rang out and a beautiful curved blade thrust upward from the fray—and then a Pygui tossed it away with its tusks.
Eunji sucked in a breath. 'Hey!' she shouted, hoping to get the Petpets' attention. 'Over here!'
Although a few of the Pygui continued to antagonise their target, the majority of them turned to her, heads lowered. These Pygui were not the cute little things that some Shenkuuvians kept as livestock or companions. These were larger, tougher, and did not look happy to see her. Eunji held out her staff in a defensive position, ready to use the energy of the earth to fight.
Then Ganzorig leaped out of the trees and tackled two Pygui at once. That was enough to convince the rest of the herd that he was a greater threat, and they all charged at him.
'Go save her!' the Lupe barked as he wrestled with the porcine Petpets. 'I'll be fine!' Indeed, with his mask on he seemed impervious to their attacks.
Eunji nodded and rushed to the fallen Neopet nearby. She was a tall eventide Aisha with long black hair in a now-disheveled braid, curled up to protect herself, although she also wore a cuirass made of tiles of jade. Her earstalks were huddled tight against her head and she gripped one arm, which seemed to be seriously wounded.
The Vandagyre knelt down to see if the Aisha was still conscious. 'Can you hear me?' Eunji asked. 'Can you get up?'
The Aisha opened one brown eye. 'I—I think—' she stammered.
Eunji put an arm around her and hoisted her to her feet. 'Come on, let's get you away from—' She froze. Two of the Pygui had noticed their original enemy again, and had bounded out of Ganzorig's reach, speeding toward the other two Neopets.
The Aisha cringed. 'Where's my pudao?!' she asked, realising she didn't have it.
Finding the pudao would have to wait. With her free paw, Eunji held out her staff and tugged at Neopia's energy. The ground shifted beneath the hooves of the Pygui, their legs tangled, and they crashed to the ground. That gave Ganzorig enough time to sweep them away with a massive paw.
By this point the herd seemed to have finally had enough. Confused and afraid, they stumbled away, apparently deciding that it was not worth trying to defend their territory against such overpowering forces.
As Eunji's own heartbeat slowed, she heard the labored breathing of the Aisha leaning on her and looked up at the taller Neopet. 'Everything's all right now,' Eunji said. 'We're here to help. Please, let me look at your wound.'
The Aisha swallowed hard and removed her paw from her arm. Gently, Eunji sat her down and pushed away the torn fabric of her sleeve. The injury was bad, but Eunji carried medical supplies in her travelling pack—not to mention she knew how to work with the flow of energy. Slowly moving her paws, she began to untwist the knots of energy around the arm.
'You—you saved my life,' the Aisha said. 'Thank you. I don't know what I did to provoke those Pygui so. I was only passing through this forest.'
'That would be enough to upset them,' Ganzorig said as he plucked the pudao from the ground. 'Pygui are very territorial.' Lifting his mask from his face, he inspected the weapon, running a paw pad along the intricate carvings on the blade, which was also inlaid with jade gems. 'The workmanship on this weapon is incredible,' he said. 'Did you make this?'
The Aisha shook her head. 'It was my grandmother's,' she said, 'and her family owned it for a long time before that. The same is true of this armour.' She glanced down at her arm. 'What are you doing?'
'Stabilising the energy of your arm,' Eunji said. 'It will help the healing process.'
The Aisha's eyebrows rose. 'You're a geomancer?' she asked. 'I've heard of their temples high in the mountains, but I thought the stories of how the acolytes manipulate energy were just exaggerations.'
Eunji wasn't quite sure how to respond to that, so she merely shrugged. 'I'm glad you're all right,' she said. 'By the way, I am Eunji of the Lotus Mountain Temple and this is my friend Ganzorig. Who are you?'
'I'm Min,' the Aisha replied. 'From Saro Village. It's a pleasure to meet you.'
'Likewise,' Eunji said, 'although I wish the circumstances had been different.'
Ganzorig handed Min's pudao back to her. 'What are you doing out here,' he asked, 'fitted as if you are heading to war? And yet you wear the clothes of a farmer underneath your armour.'
Eunji finished soothing Min's energy and began to apply a healing salve to the wound, and the Aisha winced and frowned. 'My village has been taxed heavily by the emperor,' she said. 'He has always levied grievous taxes on the farmers, but these past few years they have gotten worse. We no longer have enough food for ourselves, and we are growing hungry. So I intend to pay the provincial governor a visit and tell him to write to the emperor at once.'
'I hope that helps,' Eunji said. She wondered if perhaps this was the great shadow Master Cheol had seen in his visions. It certainly sounded as though the emperor had recently begun treating his subjects more poorly. But what would that have to do with pulling power from a greater shadow in the east? That sounded like an important detail of the vision, and Eunji still did not know what it might mean.
'If not,' Min said, 'I shall just go to the emperor himself. The jade in my grandmother's equipment is enchanted to protect and strengthen the wearer.'
'I see it's done its job well,' Ganzorig said, lowering his eyelids.
Min scowled at him. 'Well, I wasn't anticipating angering an entire herd of Pygui!' she said.
'Do you even know how to use that thing?' Ganzorig asked, pointing to the pudao. 'You're just a lost little farmgirl in over your head!'
'I figured it couldn't be that difficult to learn!' Min said. 'At any rate, my village needs me! No one else was willing to go!'
The energy around the two tensed, causing Eunji no small agitation as her feathers ruffled from the discomfort. 'Perhaps we can accompany you,' she said, quietly but firmly, trying to signal that the argument was over. Master Cheol always solved arguments between his students so well. Eunji just hoped she could emulate him and not trip over her own words. 'This sounds serious.'
Min relaxed. 'Would—would you really do that?' she asked. 'I hate to admit it, but I would appreciate the help.'
Ganzorig cleared his throat. 'Eunji,' he said, 'what about your quest? Are you sure you should be getting distracted like this?'
The Vandagyre smiled. 'Helping someone in need is never a distraction,' she said. 'Besides, I was tasked with learning the meaning of Master Cheol's vision. It is possible that I will find the information I seek at the governor's residence.'
'It sounds like you've got quite an errand, yourself,' Min said.
Eunji nodded. 'And I cannot help but feel that our paths were meant to intersect and join,' she said. 'Let us continue on together. The journey is always more enjoyable with friends.' Putting her bandages and salves away, she stood up and held out a paw to Min.
The Aisha stared at her and Ganzorig for a moment, and then took the Vandagyre's paw and pulled herself to her feet. 'Then let's go,' she said with a grin. 'Perhaps the governor will give us the answers we both seek.'
The journey to Muyang Brook Fortress would take another week of travel, although for Eunji it was quite an enjoyable adventure. Although Min was inexperienced with life outside of her village, she was eager to learn, a practical sort and a hard worker. Ganzorig grumbled at first, but Eunji soon realised it was more for show than anything else, and he looked out for the Aisha as he did the Vandagyre.
But all was not pleasant on their journey. The earth was troubled. The flow had been disturbed, and it seemed as though everything noticed it from growing crops to streams to Petpets. An unsettling number of wild Petpets had grown aggressive, and the little group was attacked all too frequently by creatures who were more monstrous versions of the Petpets Eunji had read about in her studies.
Thankfully, they were nothing she and Ganzorig could not handle. Min tried hard, but it was clear she had no combat training. Eunji could not help her, not having studied the art of bladed weapons, and Ganzorig only knew how to fight with his claws and teeth. This frustrated Min, but she kept soldiering on, determined to bring justice to her village.
Finally they reached a fortress complex that sprawled across one bank of a gushing rivulet. Soldiers and officials strolled among the grounds, running errands or simply eating lunch in the shade of trees.
'This must be Muyang Brook,' Min said. 'I can see why it got its name.' She pointed to a herdswoman who watched over her flock of Muyang as they greedily drank from the opposite bank.
As the three travellers crossed the wide bridge to the fortress, Eunji began to be nervous. This place reminded her of her temple, very official and important, but at least she knew everyone at her temple. Muyang Brook Fortress was full of strangers, military Neopets who likely did not care much for spiritual matters. And she did not know how kindly they would take to someone trying to figure out what was wrong with their kingdom.
Ganzorig put a paw on her shoulder. 'I'll protect you,' he said with a smile.
Eunji smiled back. 'Thank you,' she said. Whatever might happen, she felt that she could get through it with the help of her friends.
On the other end of the bridge stood a shadow Blumaroo in colourful, elaborate armour poring over a document made of thin slats of bamboo bound together with thread. When she saw the three approach, she gave them a sour look. 'What do you want?' she asked.
'We've come to seek audience with the governor,' Min said. 'It is a state emergency.'
The Blumaroo looked down her floppy nose at the Aisha. 'I'll be the judge of that,' the official said. 'The governor's schedule is very busy. He has no time to be bothered by peasants.'
Min ground her teeth, her tail lashing in frustration. 'He is supposed to be taking care of his peasants!' she said. 'Hundreds of Neopets are starving—'
The official stuck out a paw. 'That is no concern of the governor's,' she said. 'Your farmers have worked the land for ages. If they have forgotten how to grow food, that is their fault.'
Min took a step toward the woman. 'We haven't forgotten how to grow food, you dolt!' she said. 'It's the emperor's tax rates—'
'Be off with you, before I call the guards!' the Blumaroo hissed. 'The emperor will do what he wishes with his kingdom, and—'
'What is the meaning of all this commotion?' a deep voice asked. Striding toward them was a tall, broad-chested relic Kougra wearing even more elaborate armour than the official. A sword with a long tassel hung at his side, and his dark stony hair was done up in a topknot. A deep crevasse ran across the stone of his snout at an angle, a memento from a battle long past.
The Blumaroo did a double-take at him and staggered back. 'G-Governor Wai Ren!' she said, bowing deeply. 'My deepest apologies for the inconvenience, sir!'
Min's eyes widened. '[i]The[/i] Wai Ren?' she asked. 'General Wai Ren?'
Wai Ren turned to her, his tail curling as he looked over the ragtag trio. 'That's right,' he said.
'Who?' Eunji asked, and Ganzorig tilted his head beside her, echoing her sentiment.
'You've not heard of the Kaolin General?' Min asked. 'Tales of his military exploits reach us even in the eastern countryside!'
'I don't really keep up with military exploits,' Eunji said.
'I've been living in the woods,' Ganzorig said. 'That's my excuse. So what's so great about this Kaolin General?'
'He's won countless battles against other kingdoms!' Min said. 'Many states have been absorbed into Shenkuu thanks to him, and he's secured our borders against attackers from the north and south!'
Wai Ren puffed out his chest and narrowed his dark eyes with a smug smile.
'And it's because of his unique ability,' Min said. 'He can create armies from the earth!'
Now Eunji's interest was peaked. 'Really?' she asked the Kougra. 'How do you do that?'
'It is a trait I have possessed ever since I can remember,' Wai Ren said. 'Perhaps it comes of being relic-coloured—perhaps that gives me a special connection with the earth. I can mould it into whatever shape I desire and it obeys my commands. Observe.' He held out a stony paw to the dusty ground beside them. With a flick of his wrist, he turned up his palm and pushed upward, flexing his fingers as he frowned in concentration.
A pillar of earth rose to Wai Ren's height, coalescing as it grew into a form with two legs and two arms. Clay-coloured wings spread from its back as it silently bowed to its general. It was an Eyrie, already created clad in armour, made from the same ground as the Neopet.
'They are not living,' Wai Ren said as the travellers' eyes grew wide. 'They are animated by the energy of Neopia itself.' He walked around the Eyrie, inspecting it, and it stood upright again and clicked its clay heels together smartly. 'They feel no pain. They do not eat or sleep. They can obey simple commands. And I can create thousands of them if I desire.' With a smirk, he looked back at the visitors to his fortress. 'Impressive, yes?'
'That's amazing,' Eunji said. 'I never knew the energy of Neopia could be used in such a way.' She could feel the flow swirling and dancing around this clay soldier, enlivening it, tying it to Wai Ren's energy. As far as she knew, no geomancer had ever tried using their abilities to actually make inanimate material assume the form of a moving Neopet. She wondered what Master Cheol would think of this.
At any rate, being able to create entire armies at will was certainly nothing to sneeze at. Eunji wondered if perhaps this was the threatening shadow her teacher had seen in his dreams. Wai Ren had done nothing yet to earn her trust. But this didn't square quite with the dreams—this was not the imperial capital, it was Muyang Brook Fortress, still quite a way away from that great city. And Wai Ren did not seem to be pulling any power from a larger shadow in the east.
'I've a question for you,' Ganzorig said. 'Governor or general, which one are you? If you're the military wonder everyone says, why are you out here where there's no battles to be fought? Find a sudden liking for paperwork?'
Wai Ren frowned, his ears turning back and his whiskers twitching. With a flick of his paw, the Eyrie soldier collapsed back into earth, swallowed back up by the ground. 'Your friend's manners leave much to be desired,' he said to Eunji and Min. 'It's no business of yours what I'm doing out here.'
'I see I've touched a raw nerve,' Ganzorig said with a grin.
'My apologies,' Eunji said, stepping between him and the Kougra. 'My friend comes from rough circumstances. He is still learning how to act in social situations.'
'Oh, never mind all that!' Min said. 'Governor, or General, or whichever one you are now, I must ask you to send a letter to the emperor at once! His people in this state are starving because of his taxes!'
The Blumaroo official fisted her document and reached for Min's arm to pull her away. 'I told you!' the official said. 'The governor is not to be troubled with your trifling—'
'Hold,' Wai Ren said, nudging her away from the Aisha. 'You say you are displeased with His Majesty's tax policies?' His dark eyes gleamed and his tail swished lazily.
Eunji didn't like his sudden change in demeanor, but Min said, 'Most displeased. I demand an audience with you so that we can set things right as soon as possible. I shall be happy to detail all of my grievances with the emperor's policies.'
Wai Ren smiled and clapped a paw on her shoulder. 'Well, young lady,' he said, 'I would be remiss if I did not hear you out. Let's discuss this over lunch, along with your… friends.' He looked over to Ganzorig reluctantly, his upper lip curling.
The Lupe's ears perked. 'I eat a lot,' he said. 'I hope you've got a feast prepared.'
Wai Ren grimaced. 'I shall be happy to accommodate you,' he said through gritted teeth.
To be continued…