The Shadow of Takeryuu:Part Six
"Ah, I cannot wait to sleep in an inn instead of on the ground," Wai Ren said.
The four travelers stood on a hill overlooking a village nestled deep in the woods, only two weeks away from the Imperial City. Smoke rose out of holes in rooftops, and reinforced tunnels dug into the nearby hills suggested mining activity here.
"This village must be prosperous," the Kougra continued, rubbing his paws together eagerly in the sunset. "When I become emperor, I must remember to look into their trading activities to make sure most of their bounty is being directed to the capital."
Min snorted in disgust. "Listen to yourself," she said. "Is the capital all you think about?"
"The Kingdom of Shenkuu is great and glorious," Wai Ren said. "The purpose of its subjects is to serve the state."
The Aisha put a paw on her hip. "Sounds like something some emperor made up as an excuse to be selfish. Have you ever asked the subjects of Shenkuu what they think about that philosophy? Oh, wait. You're talking to one right now."
Wai Ren grimaced and cleared his throat, one ear twitching. "It was not my intention to offend you," he said.
"I'm just saying," Min said, "what if the state exists for the people, not the other way round? Have you ever thought of that?"
The Kougra stared at her. "Well—I—" he stammered. With a frown, he shook his head. "Anyway, you are progressing nicely in your combat lessons."
"You're terrible at changing the subject," Min said.
Meanwhile, Ganzorig stood looking at his Naleap mask. He traced the intricate shapes with the paw pad of his thumb, and sighed. "Eunji, why do you think you haven't been able to help me with this mask these past few days?" he asked.
The Vandagyre beside him was so lost in her thoughts that she almost missed what he said. Still, she looked up at him, trying to calm her ruffling feathers and quell the knot in her stomach. "I have a hunch," she said. "While the power of your masks does come in large part from manipulating the flow of energy, I think ultimately they derive their effectiveness from your own special talent. Before you met me, you always trusted your intuition when making your masks, correct?"
"Well, yes," Ganzorig said. "But I suppose that's because compared to trying to fly, the powers my other masks grant me are not that unreasonable."
"Maybe you need to listen to that intuition again," Eunji said. "I am good at reading the flow, but I think I can only take you so far. Now it's up to you to give it the finishing touches."
The Lupe grimaced and attached the mask back to his belt. "I'm not sure if I can," he said quietly.
"I think you can," Eunji said. "I may not be able to help directly anymore, but I can certainly cheer you on. And I think if anyone can figure this out, it's you."
"Thank you," Ganzorig said with a bit of a smile. "I wish I was more sure, myself, but I guess I'll give it a go. What's bothering you, by the way? Your feathers are all bristled and your voice is shaky."
Eunji chuckled a little at how good her friend was at reading her. Her amusement quickly faded when she looked back to the village. "I don't have a good feeling about this place," she said. "Something's gone wrong with the flow here."
"Where hasn't it gone wrong, though?" Min asked as she and Wai Ren approached the two.
"True," Eunji said, "but I'm feeling particularly apprehensive about this village."
Wai Ren rested his paw on his sword. "According to the map, the next closest village is three days' journey from here," he said. "I'd rather not wait that long to sleep in a real bed."
"Well, I trust her," Min said. "Let's just skip this place."
"No," Eunji said, much to everyone's surprise. She took a deep breath. "If something's wrong here," she said, "we should find out what it is and fix it."
Wai Ren groaned. "We don't have time for that!" he said. "I'm not going to go around solving everyone else's problems when I have my own agenda to look out for."
Eunji stood up straighter and squared her shoulders. "Then go on to the Imperial City without us," she said. "I am going to help this village."
"So am I," Ganzorig said, moving closer to her.
"And I," Min said. "Your attitude toward the peasantry is downright deplorable, General."
Wai Ren frowned deeply, but apparently did not have an excuse for this. "Fine," he grumbled. "I will come with you. We will solve this problem quickly, and then we will be back on our way."
"I hope one day you will learn that it's not all about you," Min said under her breath as they kept walking.
The road through the village was strangely deserted. Eunji caught glimpses of Neopets looking at them from windows, but all of the villagers seemed to be afraid.
"Odd way to treat travellers," Ganzorig said. "Although I must admit I am quite intimidating."
"I'm not so sure it's you," Eunji said. "The road was empty when we got here."
"Psst!" a yellow Shoyru hissed from the doorway of a shop. "What are you doing? Get inside!"
Wai Ren turned to him. "Why?" the general asked. "What has you so terrorised?"
"Get over here," the Shoyru said, "and I'll tell you!"
"This had better not be a trap," Wai Ren said as he strode toward the little shop.
"I am not sensing any ill intent," Eunji said as she and the others followed him. "Just fear."
The four stepped into the shadows of the building, which appeared to be an apothecary. The Shoyru sighed in relief and leaned a paw against the drawers of medicine arranged on one wall. "That was close," he said. "You don't want to be out there after sunset. Her phantoms roam the village."
"Phantoms?" Min asked.
"Whose phantoms?" Eunji asked.
The Shoyru glanced from the Aisha to the Vandagyre. "Yes, horrible spooks made of shadow," he said. "If they catch anyone outside after dark, they carry that Neopet away to work in the darkest depths of her mines, never to return." He shuddered. "My own brother is among them."
Min looked over at Wai Ren, who seemed to take a sudden interest in his boots. She rolled her eyes and turned back to the Shoyru. "Why doesn't anyone rescue them?" she asked.
"Rescue them?!" the Shoyru asked with a grimace. "We are dealing with a faerie, here!"
All four of the other Neopets gasped. Eunji was not surprised at her friends' reactions. Everyone knew of the great and terrible magical power that faeries wielded. It was just fortunate for Neopets that faeries had almost never been seen on the face of Neopia since the last fae war, two centuries ago.
"What's a faerie doing down here?" Wai Ren asked, now interested in the conversation again. "According to the histories, they all retreated up to Faerieland when the last war decimated their forces."
"I don't—I don't know!" the Shoyru said. "All I know is that a few years ago, she came to town, took over the mines, and now we're forced to make jewelry for her or else we'll have to go work in the mines, too!" He pointed to a half-strung jade necklace on a workbench.
Eunji took a deep breath. "Well then," she said, "time to set things right."
"Agreed," Min said. "Which mine is she inhabiting?"
"Now, wait just a moment," Wai Ren said, clamping a paw on the Aisha's shoulder. "You can barely fight! This is just like you, always rushing headlong into danger!"
"At least I am doing it for a good cause!" Min said. "Unlike you, you selfish oaf!"
"Please excuse them," Ganzorig said to the bewildered-looking Shoyru. "They fight like this all the time."
The herbalist rubbed his arm. "Perhaps it is not my place to say," he said, "but… if you really would dare to confront her… no one else here can, and…" He took a deep breath. "We are suffering. Please, help us if you can. Please save my brother."
Wai Ren's tail lowered and he looked at the Shoyru for a long moment. Eunji thought that for the first time, he was actually seeing a Neopet as another living being like him, not just a pawn to be manipulated.
"We will," the Vandagyre said. "I promise I will do everything in my power to solve this problem."
"As will I," Ganzorig said.
"And me," Min said. She looked over at the Kougra expectantly.
After a long pause, Wai Ren closed his eyes and cleared his throat. "All right, all right," he said. "I'm in."
"Oh, thank you!" the Shoyru said, clasping his paws together. "Our village will never forget your heroics!"
"I should hope not," Wai Ren said. "Where is your inn?"
"We are too small for an inn," the Shoyru said, "but if you'll excuse me, I'll run and get you some blankets. You can sleep here tonight."
Eunji grinned. "And then tomorrow, we will liberate the villagers!" she said.
As the Shoyru scampered out of the room, Wai Ren watched him leave, the tip of his tail twitching. With a sigh, he turned to his companions. "I had an older brother who entered the military a few years before I did," the general said. "He was my best friend as a cub, and I longed to emulate him in everything. He was a skilled warrior and quickly rose up the ranks."
He turned to look out the doorway at the darkening sky and the growing shadows, his dark eyes seeing something distant in his mind. "Then, one day, he was assigned to a small, out-of-the-way garrison that became caught in a terrible siege. He sent for help, but no one came. That garrison was seen as expendable," Wai Ren spat.
"I'm so sorry," Eunji said.
"Me too," Wai Ren said, pinching the bridge of his nose. "I tried to convince myself that he must have deserved it because he was weak, but... that never sat right."
The Vandagyre stood next to him, watching dusk creep over the village. "I believe that every life is valuable," Eunji said. "That is why I help everyone who needs me."
"In the capital," Wai Ren said, "we are taught that such a philosophy denotes weakness and disrespect of the natural order of things. Now, I am not so sure."
Eunji smiled. It was nice to see him start to come around.
"Here you are!" the Shoyru said, returning with an armful of blankets. Ganzorig reached out to take them, but then a shriek of terror sounded outside.
Eunji wasted no time in ducking out the door, despite the Shoyru's protests. Down the road, an old yellow Scorchio woman struggled against shadows shaped like dark faeries trying to drag her away.
"Help!" she called, beating her wings frantically as the spectres enveloped her like a black veil.
Eunji had seen enough. Flapping her own wings, she pushed off with her feet and shot down the road, pulling her staff from her back. These spectres were made of magic, and they warped the flow of energy in a way that allowed them to influence material objects and Neopets. Letting out a shout, the Vandagyre swept her staff up at them in a wide strike, channeling her will through her weapon.
The bamboo staff moved through the shadows like they were made of water, and when it connected, the faerie-shapes in its path writhed and twisted away into nothingness. The others quickly forgot about the Scorchio and lunged for their attacker.
Eunji spun around and caught them with a horizontal sweep, then took another pivoting step and flipped her staff up at the last one. As the spectre dissipated, Ganzorig came running up to her on all fours, wearing his Blurgah mask.
"Thank goodness you're all right!" the Lupe said.
"I'm just fine," Eunji said. She patted his arm and then knelt next to the Scorchio, who cowered on the ground. "Ma'am, are you hurt at all?"
"N-no," the Scorchio said. Eunji extended a paw and the woman took it, shakily getting to her feet. "I… thank you… I thought I was a goner… I didn't mean to come back from my sister's so late…"
Min and Wai Ren had arrived on the scene as well, and the Aisha put her paw on the Scorchio's shoulder. "We'll escort you home, ma'am," Min said. "Where do you live?"
"Th-that way," the woman said, pointing to a building nearby.
Ganzorig frowned. "We may have to hurry," he said. More shadows had noticed them. Spreading their wings, the spectres wheeled in the air above them, eyes glowing red.
"I'll hold them off," Eunji said. "Let's go get her home!"
"I'll help!" Min said, holding out her pudao. "My weapon is enchanted—it may be able to affect them!"
Eunji smiled at her as they flanked the others. "I'm happy to have you fight by my side, Min," the geomancer said.
Then the faerie shadows pounced. Eunji was ready for them, and she threw out her staff, tugging at their energy to dispel them. Min's hunch about her weapon turned out to be right, and her training with Wai Ren showed as she sliced her blade through the air, turning shadows into harmless wisps of darkness. Ganzorig and Wai Ren tried to help, but the Lupe's claws and the Kougra's blade simply swished through the shadows with no effect, so they concentrated on protecting the Scorchio.
Finally they reached her home, and Wai Ren banged his fist on the door.
"Go away, spectres!" someone shouted inside.
"We are no spectres!" Wai Ren said. "We've brought your mother home!"
A snow Aisha opened the door a crack, and then her eyes widened and she opened it further. "Mother!" she said. "Please, get inside—all of you!"
"Gladly," Ganzorig said, escorting the shaken Scorchio back to her family.
Eunji, bringing up the rear with Min, jabbed her staff at a shadow and then rushed inside, slamming the door behind her. The Aisha and her family hugged the old woman, crowding around her.
"Thank you," the daughter said to the travelers. "I don't know how to thank you. When she didn't come home after sunset, I thought I'd never see her again."
"We love Grandmother!" a young brown Acara said, clinging to the Scorchio's arm. "She makes the best dumplings and she sings me to sleep at night!"
Eunji smiled, but her joy was short-lived. This was only one small victory. They had to get to the root of the problem. She turned to her friends. "I would like to go tonight," she said.
"Me too," Wai Ren said, much to Min's surprise. The Kougra could not tear his eyes away from the little family. "They have suffered enough here," the general said, "and it is due to the negligence of the emperor that they were not aided sooner. I must right this. I must—not allow the past to repeat itself."
Eunji nodded. "Then let's set out," she said. "I'm ready whenever the rest of you are."
"Oh, no, you mustn't go out there!" the Scorchio said. "It's far too dangerous!"
"We'll be all right," Eunji said with a grin. "I think we've all proven ourselves quite capable."
"Well, I'm not sure how much help I'll be," Wai Ren said, looking at his blade, "but I'll do what I can."
Ganzorig clapped a paw on his shoulder. "If nothing else," the Lupe said, "we make for pretty good distractions." Wai Ren laughed.
"Then go out the back," the Aisha said, pointing to the opposite end of the little house. "The shadows don't seem to notice you as quickly if you're not on the main road."
Ganzorig swapped out his Blurgah mask for his Biyako mask. "And this should help matters further," he said to himself.
"Why were you on the main road, then?" Min asked the Scorchio.
"My sister lives just down the street," the old woman said. "I thought I had plenty of time to make it back home, but then my hip started to hurt and I had to sit down and rest. Dratted old bones!"
"After tonight," Eunji said as the four headed for the back door, "you'll never have to live in fear again." It was true that she didn't know exactly how she was going to confront a faerie, but she was going to give it her all. Her conscience would not allow her to leave anyone in such dire straits as this.
"Ah… Wai Ren?" Min asked as they stood on the threshold to the woods beyond. "I'm… impressed by your willingness to help. This is very honourable of you. I'm sorry I've given you such a hard time."
The Kougra glanced over at her and smiled. "Don't be," he said. "I'm impressed that you had the courage to stand up to me. No Neopet has done that in a long time."
Min gave him a lopsided grin, and then they stepped out into the night.
To be continued…