Hero of Shenkuu: Part Four
I choke back a sob. Not Shirley. Please, not Shirley. I fall against the wall and turn away so that Lio can't see me cry. I'm sick of all the formalities. I want to be able to show my emotions in front of these people, to be amongst them. It's only then that I comprehend what being Empress is supposed to be like.
Unfortunately, it's too late to do anything about how I once ruled Shenkuu. I have to be strong and make do with what crises I have right now. Emotionlessly, I force Shirley from my mind. She's not as important as the rest of Shenkuu, and I can't let my personal feelings conflict with my duties.
"I'm sorry, Lio," I say quietly. He doesn't respond. Slowly, I back away from the room.
Just as I reach the door, he tells me, "Rhi, he has to have them captured somewhere. Once we find him, we can set them free." The way his voice wavers really gets to me. I'm not in this just for me. I'm in this for Shenkuu, and for the sake of saving the people, all of whom I need to care for.
I've never been more motivated to defeat the evil that is Fyth.
Enraged, I shove my way through the crowd of Neopets clogging the hallways. "Wire!" I scream. "Wire!" I spot the wizard on the other side of the hall, hiding in a doorway from the traffic. Squeezing between various Neopets and getting quite a few funny looks, I reach him. "Shirley's gone too."
Wire holds a hand over his heart. "I'm so sorry, Rhi. I've put up protection spells around the castle. They literally just finished a few seconds ago. There's no possibility of the Chosen One penetrating this type of defense." His worn-out face shows many signs of weariness. I wish that I could send him to bed, but I know I can't. We have the people in the temple to take care of.
Locating the chair from my earlier brief speech isn't overly complicated. I stand on it and call for their attention again, and again they listen. "We're safe now, within the temple," I announce, hoping that it's true this time. "I ask my servants and advisers to help set up temporary beds on the ground floor, and to come up with food and drink for every person in here, tourist or not." The contradiction that the servants can't serve themselves and others at the same time occurs to me, but I ignore it, because this is the only thing I can think of. "We're under an official lockdown. No one is allowed to leave until the outside has been cleared. I'm very sorry for the inconvenience."
Some of them look relieved, and some are angered by their inability to leave. I frown. I guess I can't please everyone.
The servants hurry and set up the temporary shelter, and as I see them get sleepy, I take over. I pour leftover stew from yesterday's lunch with the faeries into little bowls and distribute them, though many of the people I have to feed are sleeping. It makes things a bit easier, being in the middle of the night.
I work until my wings twitch from sleep deprivation before curling into one of the few untaken blankets and pillows spread out all over the ground floor of the Lunar Temple. It has been a long, long night.
The next time I wake up, it is nearly midday. Wire has gone out and made sure that Fyth is not anywhere nearby and given everyone the okay to leave. There are a few letters next to me, but I realize that they are Thank You letters and not resignation ones, and my spirits lift up. For now, everything is fine.
I roll onto my side and notice that most of the area has already been cleared of spare blankets and pillows, and that mine is the last one remaining. Carefully, I fold the blanket and place the pillow on top, and it is almost immediately taken away by Cindy, whose eyes are blotchy. They must not have recovered any of the disappeared servants yet.
Shirley comes to my mind, and I try not to think about her. Focus. I need to focus.
Most of my staff is in a very good mood, I observe. It might come from the relief of being over last night. I turn and nearly bump into Lio.
He has a huge smile plastered on his face. Before I can even ask what it's about, he says, "We've got him this time."
I can't help but join in on the smiling. The Chosen One will be gone in a few hours.
"Where is he?" I ask.
"He's near the hill, hiding in a neohome right beneath our noses," he says.
I rub my hands together in anticipation, almost like a Ruki. "I'm going to go to him, alone." It is only right that I do this for my people and for Shirley. I walk away, ready to retrieve my sword, but Lio stops me.
"It's dangerous to go alone," he says. He's not smiling anymore. "We don't want to lose our Empress. I've already sent out some of your advisers for you to handle the job. We don't think he knows about us getting onto him, so the element of surprise is on our side."
I should be excited, but I'm not. I want to do the deed myself. What kind of Empress puts the lives of their people at risk? Without another word, I sprint up the stairs and unsheathe my sword. It's an ancient sword, passed down through generations of mighty warriors of Shenkuu, the kind who used to save princesses in castles. It hasn't been used in a while, but its edges are sharp.
Determined, I head out of the Lunar Temple, bearing the weapon.
No one is there.
I'm confused. People mill about as they usually do. There is no epic battle I'm missing out on, no final stand-off taking place. None of my advisers are here, as far as I can see. The only thing out here is peaceful old Shenkuu, with its grassy hills and ineffable architecture.
Fyth has to be out here somewhere. Lio said he is in one of the neohomes. There aren't many to go through, but I can't just barge in and demand for the Chosen One to come out.
A group of Neopets walk past me, consisting of some of my advisers. They're laughing merrily, and not in uniform. They most definitely aren't on a mission to save Shenkuu.
I sheathe my sword and walk a lap around the Lunar Temple, but nothing suspicious comes up. No screaming Neopets. No fights. Shenkuu is the epitome of tranquility and happiness. I don't get it. There should be chaos as the Chosen One steps forth to face me for the very last time. Instead, there are frolicking Myncis.
Most likely, you can't simply call out the name of your arch enemy to find him, as you would with a friend. So I don't. I retrace my steps back to the Temple.
A horrible popping noise erupts behind me, and I gawk at the group of Neopets my advisers were hanging out with the last time I saw them. Pop, pop, pop. They disappear one by one until only their friends remain in utter shock at the sight before them.
I run. I run deep into the Lunar Temple and hide, surrounded by popping noises. These are the noises I'll hear in my nightmares. I shudder. Nothing good lasts for long. Closing the door of the closet behind me, I stand in complete darkness. I don't understand this magic, or if it can get to me from here, but I feel safer somehow.
The popping stops all at once, and the Lunar Temple is, for the first time ever, completely silent. I open the door a crack. Lio is smiling back at me through that crack. I jump back and hit my head on a bucket.
"We found where he hides all of the servants," he says. His voice echoes off the walls all around me, and I know that the Lunar Temple is wholly empty. "And your advisers, they've done him in."
I'm not sure if I should feel relief, but it comes anyway. My worries are gone, and the people can come back and serve me, their loyal Empress.
But, why is Lio the last one in the temple? Why would Fyth not also have taken Lio?
Before I can respond to him, I am immersed in the noise this time, a sudden whoosh and a bang like a cannonball striking a ship in the middle of the ocean. My ears ring with the noise, and I can't see anything.
When my vision returns, I find myself in the middle of a large ballroom, capped by a dome painted with intricate designs. It's not like any place that belongs in Shenkuu.
Noises return to my ears slowly, and it's the chatter I would normally hear in the Lunar Temple. The people here speak as though they belong to Shenkuu, though we all must be far away.
I register what's going on, seeing the whole thing happen in slow motion. People around me are happy, chattering away, sipping at neocola and eating little snacks off trays. I recognize them as my advisers, my servants, some of the regular visitors of the temple. I come to the conclusion that I'm in whatever place Fyth is harboring my people, but I can't fathom why the environment is so friendly.
Like in a nightmare, their eyes fall on me, one by one, accusing and unloving. I'm suffocating in their hatred, consumed by it. Someone taps me on the shoulder, but I'm wallowing in the hateful eyes of my people now. The Neopet who tapped my shoulder spins me around to face them.
I'm looking up into Lio's eyes, which are malicious. Behind him is an Orange Lenny, dressed in abnormally bright colors. In her wings, she holds an empty bottle with distinct feet and a tail protruding from it.
I step back. Lio is holding my sword. When had I lost it? During the teleportation? I don't want to connect the things I see, but it's apparent that they fit together snug as a puzzle.
"All Hail the Hero of Shenkuu," the Lenny says in monotone. The people around her repeat her words, and they echo off of the circular room like a chant.
I close my eyes. I am done.
It doesn't hurt as bad as you might think. It's more like a sudden piercing pain, and then numbness. Unwillingly, my eyes open, and I see without hearing the cheering crowd around me, enclosing me.
Who was I kidding, this whole time? Who was I to decide who is worthy of ruling Shenkuu? Why had I held onto it desperately, when clearly Shenkuu was much more capable in someone else's hands?
The corners of my vision fade to black, and one thing is very apparent to me at that moment:
There's no chance of me ever being the hero now.