The Shadow of Takeryuu:Part Five
Wai Ren was obviously not supposed to be anywhere but the fortress, but thankfully the relic Kougra’s own colouring provided a convenient solution. He created an animated clay replica of himself and ordered it to pretend to be ill. With this effigy of himself huddled under several blankets, by the time the servants discovered the real Wai Ren was gone, he would be too far away.
Having done that, the general hid his ornate armour under a travelling cloak and donned a wide bamboo hat, and then he and his three companions stole away to a side gate to watch the wagons leave.
"You couldn’t have just changed armour?" Ganzorig asked as they leaned against the cool earthen walls.
"This armour is expertly made and enchanted with several protective spells," Wai Ren said. "I would not exchange it for a lesser set. I am sure Miss Min understands well what the value of proper armour is to one who wields a blade."
Min flinched, fidgeting with the strap that kept her pudao fastened to her back. "S-sure," she said.
"Oh, there are the wagons," Eunji said, pointing to the distance. Five Uni-drawn vehicles creaked out of the eastern gate, piled high with sacks of grain and barrels containing other goods. An armoured guard marched on either side of them, blades flashing in the sun.
Min watched them for a moment and then smiled, seeming reassured that they were heading in the direction of her village. "That’s more than I expected," she said. "Thank you, General. My people will be overjoyed." She reached up to wipe her eyes. "My family will finally have enough to eat."
Wai Ren’s smug smirk faded a bit at this sudden display of emotion. For a moment he looked uncomfortable with himself, but then he cleared his throat and placed a paw on the pommel of his sword. "Yes, well, it was part of our agreement," he said. "Shall we set out? We ought to take the southern road, it’s lesser-used."
The first few days passed uneventfully. The group crossed Muyang Brook and travelled along the southern road, which then turned southwest and led them across fertile plains where fields of millet rippled in the wind while clouds sailed along the horizon. It was spring, and everything was full of life and growth, and Eunji reveled in it. Perhaps this was another reason why Master Cheol had sent her away from the temple. Neopia was a beautiful place and she was happy to see it in person.
One night, they sat around the campfire after dinner, relaxing after a long day’s journey. Ganzorig and Eunji worked on Ganzorig’s Naleap mask, while Wai Ren went through a series of exercises with his sword and Min watched him.
"Mm… the flow still isn’t quite right," Eunji said, running her paws over the smooth wood. "Try adding an extra set of spirals here at the cheeks."
Ganzorig frowned as he began to dig a furrow into the side of the mask with his whittling knife. "I’ve never had a mask take so long before," he muttered. "I’m beginning to think it’s not even possible to make something that will allow me to fly."
Eunji sighed. "It is quite a thing to ask," she said. "The flow will have to be utterly precise. But I believe in you, Ganzorig. I think you can do this."
"I hope so," Ganzorig said.
"By the by, what are you two doing?" Wai Ren asked as he approached them. "You’ve been working on that mask every night. When I first met you I assumed you were all simply travelling warriors, but now I’m not so sure."
The Vandagyre smiled. "I am a geomancer," she said, "and my friend here creates magic masks."
Wai Ren’s eyes widened. "You don’t say," he said. "You’re not from the farmlands, are you?"
"No, we’re from the western mountains," Eunji said. "I’m—" The flow around them twisted and cut off her breath. Her feathers ruffled as she took a moment to understand what she was sensing, placing her palms on the ground and digging her claws into the dirt.
"Eunji?" Ganzorig set his mask aside. "What’s wrong?"
"Something’s coming," Eunji said. "It’s—it’s angry and pained—be ready for battle!" Fluttering her wings, she jumped to her feet and grabbed her staff.
"How do you know this?" Wai Ren asked as he held his sword in front of him.
"Geomancer thing," Eunji said. The energy around them was so warped that she was having trouble discerning where their foes would come from.
Ganzorig moved closer to her and put on his Quintilc mask, flexing his claws as his fur bristled. "Min," he called over to the Aisha. "Stay close to me." Min reluctantly joined the group, clutching her pudao like a lifeline rather than a weapon. "I’ll keep you safe," Ganzorig said.
Wai Ren frowned. "She’s armed as well," he said. "Why isn’t she—"
The forest around them exploded into life. The trees swayed and leaned dangerously as the earth beneath them heaved and rose up into misshapen mounds covered in rocks, grass, and long roots that bent outward like sharp claws. Each of them had at least two flat, round stones set into their dirt like large sightless eyes.
Then the mounds opened their maws to reveal teeth made of jagged rock.
"Life elementals!" Eunji squawked. The malignant energy surrounding them was like nothing she had ever felt before.
With a noise like an earthquake, the elementals lunged at them.
Ganzorig snarled and batted one aside with a paw. Utilising the agility of the mask, he vaulted onto another that had lashed at him with its roots, and it flailed about before he kicked away from it and returned to shielding his Aisha companion.
Letting out a shout, Wai Ren sliced his sword through the air at another elemental, although it did not seem fazed by the attack. "What—how do you beat these things?!" he growled, jumping out of its way. "They’re moving dirt!"
"They must have some weakness!" Eunji said. "I’ll try to figure something out!" The energy here was hard to work with now, sticky like tree sap, but she had to try. Thrusting out her staff, she willed the flow to heed her commands, and the ground shifted, carrying away an elemental that had come too close to her and Min.
"And why are they attacking us?!" Wai Ren asked. He lifted a paw and the ground began to tremble, but nothing came of it. "My soldiers aren’t working!" An elemental moved to ram him and he just barely evaded its attack, backing away from two more that had targetted him.
"The energy here must be too unstable!" Eunji said. She and Ganzorig stood on either side of Min, fending off the angry creatures while the Aisha watched nervously. If Eunji could just read their energy, she could figure out a weakness in their flow. But that was proving difficult when she had to fight them at the same time. Still, Master Cheol had trained her in staying mentally acute during such situations.
"Min—do something!" Wai Ren said, sounding rather panicked. The elementals had the Kougra backed against a tree. None of his sword strikes had much effect on them as they drew closer, snapping their stony jaws. Already his leg had been grazed by one of them.
"I—I’m coming!" Min said, dashing away from the safety of her friends.
Ganzorig shoved an elemental away, looked over his shoulder, and realised she was gone. "Min!" he barked. "Get back here!"
With a mighty bellow, Min charged the elementals, swung her pudao at one—and made a completely ineffective strike at the top of the mound. A bit of dirt sifted off and the elemental did not even seem to notice.
Wai Ren’s ears flattened. "You idiot!" he snarled. "Don’t you know to always aim for your enemy’s core?!" Two of the elementals rushed up to cover him in a wave of earth, pinning him to the tree. He grunted in pain as he struggled futilely.
Then the elementals noticed Min, and one of them surged toward her, trapping her foot in an avalanche of dirt and knocking her to the ground. She cried out as she jabbed her pudao uselessly at it, trying to ward off its gaping mouth.
Finally Eunji figured it out. "The eyes, aim for the eyes!" she said. Leaping into the air, she brought one end of her staff down on the eye-stone of the elemental attacking Min.
Instantly the energy around it dissipated and the creature collapsed into an inert mound of dirt and rocks. Min breathed a huge sigh of relief as Eunji helped her free her foot.
Using this technique, Ganzorig swiftly dispatched the elementals he was dealing with, and by then Eunji had dispelled the others that caught Wai Ren. Swallowing hard, the Kougra pushed away from the tree, jabbing his sword at a lifeless stone vindictively.
"Everyone all right?" Ganzorig asked, flipping his mask up from his face.
"I’m fine," Eunji said. "What about you?"
"Just a few scratches," Ganzorig said. "Nothing I can’t handle."
"Still, let me see to your wounds," Eunji said before turning to their Aisha companion. "Min, I hope you were not hurt."
"Just shaken," Min said as she removed her boot to inspect her paw. "I might have a few bruises in the morning… sorry about that."
Wai Ren limped toward them, tail lashing and ears low. "What," he said to Min, "was that pathetic display?"
The Aisha’s earstalks drooped. "I—I’m sorry—" she stammered.
The general pointed to her pudao. "Do you even know how to use that?" he asked.
"No…" Min said. "This—this armour and weapon belonged to my grandmother. I thought if I brought them along it could help…"
"Go home," Wai Ren said, drawing himself up and folding his arms. "I thought you were a warrior, but you’re really just an inept peasant. You’re a liability to this mission."
Min looked as though she was going to cry as she turned away. Then her paw clenched around her pudao and she looked back up at him with a scowl. "No!" she said. "I won’t go home!"
Wai Ren leaned back in surprise. "I beg your pardon?" he asked.
"My village needs help," Min said, "and I left it in order to save it! That means I’m not going back until I know our problems are dealt with!"
"I told you I would lighten taxes!" Wai Ren said. "Now go home and stop getting in the way of those of us who can actually fight!"
Min squared her shoulders. "My whole life," she said, glaring up at the general with her ears pinned back, "I’ve watched the emperor take and take from my family and my village and never give anything back. My whole life, we waited for someone else to take care of it. I cannot tell you how many letters we wrote to the governor, to the capital. I doubt those letters were even read." She ground her heel into the dirt. "So I am going to personally make sure my village gets treated better. And you are not going to stop me, General."
For a long moment, Wai Ren searched her face. Slowly his ears came forward and his expression grew more pensive. Eunji guessed he’d never actually had anyone stand up to him before.
Then the Kougra smiled faintly. "I must admit," he said, "that I am impressed by your resolve, even if your combat skills are lacking. Are all of the Neopets in your village this strong-willed?"
"I have been told my grandmother was," Min said. "She was a mighty warrior who wielded her blade in the defence of our village. I hope to be like her someday."
"I think you are already on that path," Wai Ren said. He shook his head with a snicker. "All right, you can stay, if you’re going to be so annoyingly persistent about it. But I am going to give you lessons with that pudao—I won’t have you causing trouble in a battle again. Be grateful that I am trained in the art of many bladed weapons."
Min’s face lit up. "It’s a deal," she said. "When can we start?"
"Right now—after I get my leg taken care of," Wai Ren said, easing himself to the ground.
"Don’t worry, I wouldn’t have let him kick you out of the party," Ganzorig muttered to the Aisha as Eunji helped him tend to his wounds.
"I’m glad you’re staying," Eunji said to Min. "You are brave. I think your grandmother would be proud of you." Eunji had wanted to leap in to Min’s defence, but something told her to wait it out. Master Cheol said that it was best to allow Neopets to talk about their problems with one another, even if those words were shouted angrily. Only if it seemed the situation was worsening should a third party step in. "Ganzorig, is your Naleap mask all right?" she asked.
"I stowed it in my pack before those things got here," Ganzorig said, patting his travel bag. "What were they, anyway? I’ve never seen anything like them." He reached out and picked up a stone from a nearby pile, now totally unresponsive. "You said they were… ‘life’ something?"
"Life elementals," Eunji said as she finished patching up Ganzorig. "I read about them in the temple library. If they’re here… this is bad." She took a deep breath and moved to Wai Ren to stabilise the flow of energy in his wounded leg.
The Kougra flinched and withdrew. "It’s fine," he said. "I’m a trained soldier—I can patch up my own injuries."
"I can help," Eunji said. "It won’t hurt. I promise. It looks pretty bad—you’ll heal quicker if I do this."
Ears flat against his head, Wai Ren searched her face for a moment, then looked away. "Fine," he said. "You are an odd lot."
"I wouldn’t have it any other way," Ganzorig said as Eunji spread her claws in the air above Wai Ren’s calf.
Steadying her breathing, she carefully called out to the flow, willing it to return from its knotted state. Wai Ren stiffened and shut his eyes, digging his claws into the dirt for just a moment. Then he relaxed, opened one eye, and looked at the Vandagyre. "You’re right," he said, "that didn’t hurt. I… thank you. Don’t worry about bandaging it, I can manage that." He reached for his travelling sack.
Eunji sat back on her heels and smiled at Ganzorig and Min. The Tyrannian Lupe grinned back, and the Aisha chuckled softly.
Wai Ren shot her a stern glare as he unwrapped a roll of bandages. "Anyway," he said, "what’s the matter with these life elementals? Why is their presence here bad?"
"According to the scholars," Eunji said, "elementals only appear when there is a great enough imbalance in the flow of energy. They are an animated manifestation of warps in the flow."
"What’s warping the flow, then?" Wai Ren asked.
"Well, I have a hunch," Eunji said. The look on the Kougra’s face urged her to continue. "The flow is harmonised by goodness and peace among Neopets. It is disrupted by evil deeds and strife." She paused. "I believe Takeryuu’s allying with the Empire has caused both their shadows to lengthen."
The tip of Wai Ren’s tail twitched. "Oh," he said. "Are you so sure it’s that? How could Neopets’ political actions make monsters start to crop up?"
"Because every ripple in a pond spreads," Eunji said. "We are all connected, to each other and to Neopia. No action goes without consequence."
"Hm… sounds like a lot of philosophising to me," Wai Ren said. "I’m not ready to believe you yet."
Eunji stood up and smiled. "I would not force anyone to believe anything," she said. "I am, however, glad that we at least know how to defeat them now. I shall have to be sure to add that to the records when I return to the temple."
"That also explains the Petpets going haywire," Ganzorig said. "Right?"
The geomancer nodded. "Petpets are especially sensitive to the flow," she said. "When it is disrupted, they become agitated and aggressive."
"She’s right," Min said to Wai Ren. "You’ll see. How can you doubt someone who can move the very earth beneath herself and feel enemies coming from afar?"
"Because I have seen those things for myself," Wai Ren said, "unlike her theory that the emperor’s alliance somehow creates monsters in the far-off countryside. It will take quite a bit to convince me."
"Don’t worry about it, Min," Eunji said. "After all, we have far more to deal with. When our mission is completed, then you can argue with Emperor Wai Ren to your heart’s content." She smiled.
"Perhaps I shall," Min said. "But for now, I would like to see what he knows about wielding a pudao."
"More than I have time to teach you even within the span of our journey," Wai Ren said, pushing himself to his feet and refusing Eunji’s helping paw. He winced as he put weight on his wounded leg. "But we might as well make a start so you do not endanger me in our next battle. Or worse, embarrass me."
Min snorted and pushed the haft of her weapon into his paws. "So start teaching," she said.
Eunji’s smile remained as she moved to help Ganzorig clear the campsite. "Good thing they did not reach the fire," she said as she willed the mounds of dirt away. "I would have hated to have fought them in the dark."
"Somehow I think you could manage it," Ganzorig said, gathering up an armful of dirt and tossing it away. He stood looking out at the woods for a moment. "It’s going to get tougher as we go on, isn’t it," he said.
Eunji moved to stand next to him. "Undoubtedly," she said. "But I will press on anyway. I am not one to quit when it gets difficult."
"Neither am I," Ganzorig said. "Just don’t push yourself, all right? You already do so much for us."
"I could say the same about you," Eunji said with a smile.
"I’m worried about Min," Ganzorig said. "She’s a good kid and all, but what if she turns out to be a miserable fighter even with training?"
Eunji glanced over her shoulder. Wai Ren was showing the Aisha the proper stance and gripping positions for the pudao, having her mimic his actions as he explained basic blocks and thrusts. "Well, that remains to be seen," she said. "But she has a fierce spirit. If anyone can start from scratch and learn enough in a month to be a useful warrior, it’s her."
Ganzorig folded his arms and laughed softly. "If only she could fight monsters the way she argues," he said. "Well, at any rate, I’ll protect you both."
"I appreciate that," Eunji said. "I’m glad you’ve come along."
"Me too," Ganzorig said.
Meanwhile, Wai Ren had given Eunji’s staff to Min to use as a practice weapon. Min copied his motions with the staff, but when she attempted an upward strike, she became a little too enthusiastic and ended up losing her balance and stumbling into the general. With his wounded leg he was not as steady on his feet, and he had to plant the tip of Min’s blade into the ground so he would not fall over. As he caught his breath, he looked down at the embarrassed Aisha with a stern glance—and then began to laugh. "I made the same mistake when I was a young man learning this weapon," he said.
Min laughed as well. "Then I am off to a good start!" she said, which made the two laugh even more.
Eunji smiled to herself. Whether or not Min would take to her training, Eunji knew that it was a waste of energy to worry about the future. As long as a Neopet always did their best and had good intentions, Master Cheol said, everything would work out in the end.
Thinking of Master Cheol reminded the Vandagyre of the conversation she had had with her teacher when he had asked her to go on this mission. What if she used her powers for evil on this journey? What if the temptation proved to be too much?
Eunji’s smile faded. Why was it that she could be so optimistic about other Neopets, and yet found it so difficult to turn that confidence on herself? What was the advice Master Cheol had given her? To know herself? Was that her problem?
Taking a deep breath, Eunji tried to concentrate on the task at hand, but worries clouded her mind. How could she know herself? Was that the same thing as having confidence in oneself?
"What’s troubling you?" Ganzorig asked from beside her.
Eunji glanced up at him. "I don’t think I have much self-confidence," she said, "and I don’t know why."
"Well, I can tell you that you certainly deserve to have self-confidence," Ganzorig said. "You are an amazing Neopet, Eunji. I am privileged to call you my friend."
"Thank you," Eunji said. "But… I’m scared. I’m scared of making a mistake. I take my abilities very seriously. I shudder to think of what would happen if I decided to use them for destructive means."
Ganzorig crouched down and looked at her face for a moment. "What makes you think you’d do that?" he asked.
Eunji had to stop and think about this. She hadn’t really considered it before. "I… don’t really know," she said. "I guess it just seemed like a good thing to be scared about. I mean, Takeryuu is powerful and he misuses that power. What if I did the same thing?"
The Tyrannian Lupe put a paw on her shoulder. "Eunji, want to know a secret?" He tilted his head with a smile. "You are not Takeryuu. You do not have power over his decisions, but you do have power over your decisions. Nothing I have seen from you suggests that you are anything like him. Why do you let these baseless ideas bother you?"
Eunji rubbed her arm, ruffling the feathers there. "Fear, I guess," she said, looking away.
"And yet you have confidence that Wai Ren can change, confidence that Min can become the warrior she wants to be," Ganzorig said. "And you had confidence that I could be more than a robber in the woods. Why?"
The Vandagyre looked up at him. "Because… I care about all of you," she said. "I want you to be happy. That is why I believe in you."
Ganzorig squeezed her shoulder. "Perhaps it is a foreign idea for you," he said, "but I think you ought to give that same care to yourself, too. If nothing else, do it for me so I won’t worry about you so much. All right?"
Eunji smiled a little. "I’ll certainly try," she said. "I mean, I promise I’ll try."
"Good!" Ganzorig said. "And remember, if those stupid little worries try to pop up, you just tell yourself that you are the master of your decisions. Sounds like you are overthinking things."
"I do have that tendency," Eunji said, scratching the back of her head. "Thank you, Ganzorig. I needed to hear that."
"That’s what friends are for," Ganzorig said. "Your mission is important, but so is your happiness. Remember what you said about the flow being harmonised by peace? Maybe that means peace within yourself, too."
"Master Cheol has said things like that," Eunji said. "Perhaps that is something I need to work harder on."
"And I’ll be right here cheering you on," Ganzorig said, "and I’ll tell you how great you are until you start to believe it too. And even then I won’t stop telling you."
Eunji squeezed his paw. "I’ll hold you to that," she said. Talking with him about it did help her feel better. For a brief moment, she had a glimmer of confidence and inner peace. She hoped that she could live up to what Ganzorig saw in her, and someday believe in it herself as well.
To be continued…