The cool night breeze coming in from the sea played with the corners of the paper, stirring the black ink that seeped into it. An old Gnorbu looked up from several sheets of charts, resting his brush in a small dish of ink and turning to the sky, a playful smile on his face.
“Not now, I need to finish these charts,” Takumi said light-heartedly, knowing that it was not the wind’s fault that it was restless tonight. If only it did not disturb his charts. Normally, feeling it blowing through his ruff and pale brown fur would even be pleasant. Yet right now, like a stubborn petpet requiring all attention, it distracted him from the work he still had to do. But the wind was persistent, and after a while Takumi decided to oblige it. Looking up into the heavens, his eyes filled with a youthful twinkle as the full moon reflected off them. He was like an owl resting its eyes on a single target.
Picking up the brush and making sure its tip was black with ink, Takumi made a few confident strokes across the paper. Before long, a perfect sketch of the moon sat on the page next to a few notes for his own benefit. The characters were shaky, each little irregularity being a reflection of Takumi’s old age. He smiled and closed his eyes, basking in the cold light of the moon. He never felt the long years he spent studying celestial movements were wasted. The Lunar Calendar and Kreludor were, are and would be his life.
Sketching in another dark crater, the Gnorbu was filled by reverie. He was used to the sensation, as the night brought out many things from beyond the misty mountains of Shenkuu, - but this was somehow deeper, more powerful. Takumi felt it in every one of the hairs in his mane, as if they had suddenly turned into the feelers of a Mootix. His imagination stroked the surface of the moon, a beautiful thing made out of pearl and faerie dust. It must be magical to shine so brightly with such pure light.
Reverently, Takumi traced the curve of the moon in the sky with his brush, slowly putting it to paper and getting on with his work, thanking the bright moon of Kreludor for shining like the sun itself, only gentler, so that he did not need flame lamps which could so easily set the whole temple on fire. Kreludor was a gift, no doubt about that.
He stopped working at dawn, when the glaring light of the sun began to obscure the soft light of the moon. It was a good night’s work on the Lunar Calendar and Takumi smiled, mentally praising himself. It was time to sleep now and get ready for the next night. However, the cloud of dust surrounding a figure on the mountain path alerted him that today something was different. Very few made their way up to the temple in such a hurry. The Gnorbu picked up his cane, hearing his old bones creak like a building that had been exposed to the elements for many long years, and slowly stepped across the silvery paved floor towards the door.
The messenger arrived shortly after Takumi reached the entrance, a tall, agile and young white Shoyru who did not seem to be at all exhausted from the long run up the mountain. As the Gnorbu looked him squarely in the eye, he saw that the Shoyru had covered even greater distances. The sparkling gold of the imperial mark on his tunic was a proof of that: Imperial messengers were sent far and wide.
“Excuse me, are you Takumi, the Gnorbu who looks after the Lunar Calendar?” the Shoyru asked him, reaching for a scroll in his bag. Even from where he stood, the Gnorbu could easily identify the Red and Gold Kazeriu that adorned the Imperial seal on the rice paper. A letter from the Emperor could mean both good and bad news.
“Yes, yes, I am Takumi,” the Gnorbu said, letting out words with great care. The Shoyru then whipped the scroll out of his bag and offered it with an air of discipline masking an almost intolerant impatience. Takumi disliked messengers, how they seemed to take no care in their work beyond the immediate duty they had to perform. His posture became slumped as he took the scroll, the sadness in his heart weighting him down. He didn’t know how anybody could feel so indifferent about their job.
“Thank you,” he said to the messenger, but the messenger only bowed curtly, then turned around and sped off with his heels flashing, clearly in a hurry to get to his next destination. Takumi watched him until the Shoyru was obscured by the slope of the mountain. Without taking his eyes off the place where the messenger disappeared, Takumi broke the seal. The wax came off easily, falling to the floor like an autumn leaf as the message unrolled.
In return for your long years of service, I am granting you time off to spend as you wish on Kreludor. Be ready, a shuttle will come from Kreludor and take you there. Your work at the temple shall be temporarily taken over by novices who need the experience and-
Takumi read the first sentence again, eyes widening in disbelief.
The Emperor offered him a chance to visit the place he revered most.
A magical sensation of a dream coming true swept across Takumi. His smile was as wide as a young child’s who had just unpacked the presents his parents had gotten him for the Lunar Festival.
As quickly as he could, the old Gnorbu hobbled up to his quarters and began to pack. In a few days, a shuttle would come and take him onto Kreludor, that magical world that had captured his imagination for so long. Takumi felt as if he could jump from the joy of the news, of finally being there, seeing the shining surface up close. He wondered what magic it held that spread forth such bright, beautiful light that was softer than a Dandan’s pelt. Nothing but pearl and faerie dust could coat its surface. His mind was still reeling, just beginning to appreciate the great joy that he felt.
The vessel from Kreludor arrived in a few days, and Takumi was ready. He stood outside the temple waiting for the ship, looking out for that silver streak in the sky that would take him to Kreludor. His usual blue robes swirled around his feet in the mountain breeze that was trying to whisk them away. Even the wind was playful today. The Gnorbu laughed a little as his grey mane was lifted by it to look like a streamer in the sky. The wind seemed to think it was a cloud.
The shuttle finally came in, slowing down gracefully as it neared the ground, before settling in the courtyard of the temple. An orange Grundo pilot stepped out and waved to Takumi, a broad smile on his face. He smiled back, his wizened face creasing even more. Without a word, the Grundo pilot stepped down and took the Gnorbu’s two bags, surprised by how light they were. Takumi grinned even more when he saw the pilot’s puzzled expression.
“I'm taking nothing but my scrolls,” he said joyfully. The Grundo chuckled politely. No more words were exchanged between the two as they stepped into the ship. Takumi sat down into a comfortable chair next to the window, testing out its design. It was like nothing he had back at the temple but then again, he thought, the temple and the ship were literally a world apart.
As smoothly as it landed, the ship took off. Takumi gasped as he saw the mountain fall away before him, followed by the rest of Shenkuu. A few pets were making their way up the path and he recognised the bright red robes of novices, coming to relieve him of his work. The ship took a turn, and they disappeared, obscured by the face of the mountain, which in its turn was hidden by clouds. As they got higher, blue sky surrounded him. Takumi watched all this in awe, finally gasping as the ship lifted above the outer reaches of the atmosphere, and the ink black sky filled with a thousand stars that were slowly rotating as the ship was going further and further in gentle spirals.. It was beautiful. Only Kreludor was missing. However, just like back in Shenkuu, it was only a matter of time before it too would appear.
He was right. Like a magnificent queen in all her finery, Kreludor rose over Neopia. Takumi’s eyes could not take in enough of that sight. Every single detail was just as he had imagined it and the moon’s light was brighter, but still somehow soft. One side of it was dark, almost invisible, and it was that side that held Takumi’s imagination. To him, the dark side was an uncut jewel that held wonders to be discovered. Kreludor’s entire surface was even more beautiful from here than it was on Neopia.
As they started the landing approach, however, the Gnorbu saw that the moon wasn’t as perfect as he had thought. Its surface was marked and scarred with deep craters and glowing red lava flows that weaved between rock formations. Kreludor still glowed, but the surface was not as smooth as it had appeared back in Shenkuu. Now it looked rugged and wild.
Takumi’s spirits were still high, despite of this. Of course Kreludor would be rough and rugged; it was a wilderness out in space. Nothing could stop the forces of nature from touching it. He took consolation in the fact that it still shone with the same pearly light that for so many years illuminated his balcony in the temple. The pockmarks did not affect it at all, only casting shadows that at the second glance only added to the beauty, albeit in a rough way.
It is still Kreludor, it is still the thing that lights the temple at night; this is the same moon that you have studied for years, he said to himself, trying to find comfort in the words. Nobody likes admitting that something they'd admired their whole life was imperfect.
“We are almost here!” the pilot called to him and started the descent towards the surface. Takumi felt his heart go into his throat from the sharpness of deceleration. Or perhaps it was excitement. He certainly hoped it was the latter; the Gnorbu doubted that, in his age, he could endure such physical strain for any length of time.
Thankfully, they landed without incident. Takumi stood up. The hatch of the ship opened to a completely different world, a busy spaceport where the air was artificially cold, never stirring in the wind. The noise, brightness and intensity of the place screamed at his senses, used to the serenity of the temple. Nevertheless, the joyful feeling of being here on Kreludor was overwhelming. In the end, it was all that mattered to him.
The pilot took off to deliver Gnorbu’s bags to the place where he was staying, leaving him in the port. His job was done for now.
Takumi was free now and he knew exactly what he was going to do: see the surface of Kreludor.
The surface of Kreludor. His heart started beating faster even as he thought of it.
To his dismay, there were no arrow directions at the exit, only a machine with a glowing screen. It displayed the Virtupets logo. Given no other choice, Takumi touched the screen. The machine suddenly lit up.
“Welcome! Please state your request,” a female voice boomed out, making the Gnorbu jump. He was definitely too old and too used to Shenkuu's isolation to be comfortable with all this technology.
“Um... I wish to go out to the surface... of Kreludor,” Takumi stammered out, feeling a wave of awkwardness pass over him. It was unnatural to talk to a machine.
“You have selected ‘Surface Tours’. Please follow corridor 113 and head down corridor 289 to intersect-” The machine kept talking but the Gnorbu did not catch anything it was saying. The voice was too fast, too mechanical for him to follow.
“Could I have a map please?” he asked when it had finished its drone. The machine hummed a little and produced a simple black and white map, similar to an architect's sketch. The Gnorbu took out his brush and dipped it into the little inkwell he always carried with him, tracing a route from the spaceport to the box marked ‘Surface tours’. Now it was only a matter of following the line. Easier said than done in such a place, but Takumi was undeterred. He set off the road marked ‘Corridor 113’, his heart beating with every step he took, as it lead him closer to the shining surface of Kreludor.
He arrived at a building, where a rather enthusiastic purple Grundo was helping other tourists into their spacesuits. A sign on the building did read ‘Surface Tours’, and it was in desperate need of a fresh coat of paint. Despite a decent number of tourists that were putting on the suits just then, the business was not flourishing. Nobody wanted to see the moon in all her glory, and this stirred deep feelings of sadness in Takumi. It was as if a beautiful palace was left neglected and at the mercy of wind and rain.
“Hey grandpa, want to take the tour?” the Grundo shouted to Takumi, his voice cheerful and enthusiastic but somehow fake. He was just trying to sell the tour to the old Gnorbu. Takumi wanted to run, to get away from this falseness, but he wanted even more to see Kreludor. There was no other choice.
“Yes, I would like to very much,” he said calmly. The Grundo smiled widely and tossed Takumi a space suit, battered but still in good condition.
“Good to have you with us, old man. We’ll be leaving soon, so hurry! Just slip the suit over your normal clothes and put on the helmet, I’ll check it later,” the Grundo said, going off to help a Uni into her suit. Takumi watched him for a few seconds before turning to the suit. It was an old thing, clearly much used before, but clean, so it was alright. Yet, somehow a tight knot of sadness was forming inside Takumi's chest, just because he had to wear it. Kreludor clearly wasn’t good for life. Putting these thoughts out of his mind, the Gnorbu put the suit on. It took a while and some help from the Grundo before he was properly packed. The Grundo, wearing a bright orange space suit, opened the airlock. Takumi took a deep breath and took his first step.
His foot kicked up a cloud of dust.
Takumi gasped, the sound magnified many times by the confines of his suit. His eyes gazed upon a wasteland, devoid of the beauty and majesty he saw in the sky from the temple. The dust settled on his feet as if shaken from old cobwebs, not shining with even the slightest trace of the magical shimmer. There was nothing to suggest that this wasn’t just some wasteland in Neopia, save for the fields of craters.
“Not quite what you were expecting, right?” the Purple Grundo said behind him. Takumi only looked down silently, remaining perfectly calm. But behind this façade he felt empty, knowing that everything that he thought was true, his whole life, was just a lie that he wove himself. Walking on this barren wasteland, he saw every single thread unpicked and discarded into the wind. His mind did not understand what it could do or how it should react to this, going blank. For all his years of study and meditation, he was not prepared for this.
“Are you alright?” the Grundo asked, showing a little concern. Takumi blinked and turned to him, face perfectly still.
“I’m alright, thank you,” he lied, suppressing the sheer disappointment gnawing at him. Giving him a wide grin, the Grundo turned towards everyone else. The Gnorbu followed, preserving his dignity on the outside. Inside, there was just a void, growing with each speck of dust that his feet stirred up.
The rest of Takumi’s visit to Kreludor passed by in a daze as he tried to absorb the fact that everything he ever thought was true, was not. There was the sheer pile of evidence stacked up that was denied to him for so long. Every scholar knew it was impossible to argue against hard facts. Nevertheless, it could still hurt.
He came back home without the zeal that he left it with, empty-eyed and heavy-hearted. The novices were just finishing packing and bowed to him as he stepped out of the space craft, but he only briefly nodded back. They felt something was wrong and left without another word. Likewise, the Grundo silently bowed to him, then stepped into the ship and closed the hatch behind him, leaving only the old Gnorbu and the temple of the moon. The shuttle lifted gracefully, and in a few minutes all that reminded of it was a silvery streak in the quickly darkening evening sky.
First stars flickered above Takumi, but he did not return their cheery greeting, instead turning to go up to the balcony at the top of the temple, engrossed in his own thoughts. His heart was heavy as a rock, as were his feet - they seemed to refuse to climb all these stairs at such a late hour. Even his bag seemed heavy, even though he knew for certain that there was nothing in it but his set of brushes and a few scrolls. Takumi wished he could deny what he had seen, but all the while, the images of that common rock dust intruded in his vision and made him face the facts: there was simply no moon of pearl and silver, just a cratered rock in space, cold, lifeless and devoid of any magic.
As the Gnorbu came out onto the balcony, he was welcomed by the face of the moon. He did not smile at it like he always did. There was nothing different about it, yet somehow, the truth he'd learned changed his perception. This barren rock hurtling through space void could not possibly be the beautiful thing he'd once imagined it to be.
The emptiness within him keened. Takumi looked down, away from the heavens, but the light of the moon reflected off the smooth temple floor, reminding him of the cratered and torn Kreludor above him. His whole life had been dedicated to observing it, but now he did not know what to do. The moon would still move but he would no longer love his work, no longer believe in the moon’s beauty. It was just a piece of rock in an orbit around a planet, nothing even remotely magical about it.
Takumi’s gaze then turned to the mountains. In the moonlight the snow-caps on their tops glittered like the eyes of an expectant crowd. From here, they looked beautiful, but he knew very well that close up they were harsh and treacherous. Yet the Gnorbu still enjoyed their beauty, despite his knowledge of their danger and inhospitability. But with the moon it was different. Its study was his life's work, and the mountains were not.
There was just one thing that he could do. The emperor would not be pleased with his resignation, but there was no other way. Takumi picked up a piece of paper and dipped his brush into an inkwell, about to start the letter. Yet without thinking, out of habit, he began drawing Kreludor. By the time he noticed what he was doing, the rough outline of the moon lay before him, beautiful as always.
There was the sound of footsteps behind him. Takumi turned around slowly and warily. A frightened White Bori in the red robes of a novice stood frozen in front of the Gnorbu. He was holding several scrolls and even more rough notes. He bowed quickly, keeping a firm grip on the paper.
“I’m so sorry, sir, I stayed here late because I wanted to finish what I was working on and ended up occupied longer than I thought,” the Bori said hurriedly, giving Takumi frightened looks. Takumi looked at him, his face blank. The novice did his best to restrain his shaking, but a few shudders got through. Yet to Takumi, this young Bori was certainly strange. His youthful enthusiasm was directed towards something that only fascinated old men like himself.
“What about your friends?” he asked in a kind tone, trying to put the poor novice at ease. The Bori smiled sheepishly.
“I really like my work, sir. Kreludor fascinates me more than my friends do,” was he said without a hint of falseness in his voice. Takumi’s eyes widened in the presence of a kindred spirit. It was amazing, as if for a moment he was free of the gravity of the planet. However, as soon as he remembered the truth, he slammed back down with a heavy force.
“What do you know about the moon?” Takumi asked, not bothering to mask the sadness in his voice. The Bori, thinking this was some kind of test, replied.
“It is a rock orbiting around Neopia but it is essential to Shenkuu tradition as it is the way our calendar-” the Bori began but was cut off by Takumi raising his hand.
“Thank you, that is enough. What is your name?” the Gnorbu asked curiously.
“Hiraku, sir,” the Bori said with some surprise. Takumi smiled.
“Very well, Hiraku. Go now, please,” he said. Hiraku smiled and bowed again before turning around and walking out of the temple.
Takumi looked up at Kreludor again. The silvery rock shone against the backdrop of the night sky, refusing to change. The Gnorbu thought about Hiraku who, even though he knew the truth, did not renounce the poetry and magic of the moon. Takumi wondered why but it only took a few seconds to arrive at the answer; it was still the same beautiful thing he had always seen in the skies. Except this time, he saw it clearer and with a new perspective.
Takumi’s face broke out into a grin. It was good to be back at the temple, in the company of the moon, no matter what form it took.