S1| Ep13: Day of Renewal (下)
June 16, 2012
(A/N: A gentle reminder that my historical fantasy, The Ghost Tiger’s Lament, has been updating daily over at Wattpad HERE. In fact, it’s about to enter the final stretch, so now is a good time to catch up! Also, if you don’t follow either of us on Twitter, s-girl of Tales of the Big Bad Wolf tweeted some AUSOS doodles a while back: 1, 2 😀 Episode 14 will go live on or around July 1st!)
Kikue was quite fed up with her companions. The engineer girl was one thing (and, she had to admit, tolerable if overly enthusiastic and far too fond of her own voice), but the Rusli heir was irritatingly self-righteous (so very much the model student, that one), and that Intan Aghavni! Words simply did not suffice to describe how utterly frustrating that girl was! Always sneaking around without a care in the world, effortlessly acing all her exams despite napping through most of her classes, piloting Dolls as if they were little more than an extension of her own body… Kikue had thought the instructors were favoring the girl at first, but after all these months it had become clear that even they had no idea what to do with her. And there was no way some clueless nobody from the Wisteria division would be worth cozying up to anyway.
Not that the other, currently missing Dragons were much of an improvement. Creepy little Trieu of Hibiscus and his impossibly aloof facade. Dugu, who was possibly the most frightening person she had ever met. That nutcase Aragaki. Cold and perfectly polished Tanaquil Gushiken, younger half sister of the mysterious Rafael Gushiken whom Kikue’s father was always complaining about.
Kikue had thought she would finally be able to escape all that complicated stupidity when she entered the Academy. She supposed she had, in a way. But in other ways, it had just gotten worse.
Like tonight, for example. In his most recent letter to her, her father had boasted vaguely of all the machinations and secret plots he had set into place, ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice in case anything went wrong. Not that anything would go wrong. He had not said anything of the sort, but he did not need to. Kikue knew very well that he had already assumed that her presence at the ceremonies tonight would serve as further insurance for his success.
Her father was an idiot.
That said, at the moment, she had far more important things to be worried about.
“Where can she have gone off to this time?” the engineer girl whispered for about the thousandth time.
“How should I know?” muttered Kikue, finally deigning to answer her. “You’re the one who’s her friend.”
They had been ordered to get into formation almost an hour ago, but Intan Aghavni, as usual, was nowhere to be found. Rusli, who had been placed in command for this particular mission, was at least disciplined enough not to let his concern show too obviously. But engineers were engineers. Although they were technically cadets too, they certainly were not Dragons, and when it came down to it, their value was not on the front lines.
Even Rusli, however, was beginning to look quite troubled when at last, the soft patter of approaching footsteps disrupted the tense silence.
From the gloom emerged a familiar head of white hair. Rusli visibly relaxed, but did not even bother scolding the girl before he waved her on. The addled fool. Although they were certainly running late and it was reasonable to assume that he would have the girl disciplined later, Kikue doubted Rusli would have been so lenient to anyone else. Besides, what must the other soldiers think?
Kikue was not so forgiving.
“You’re late!” she snapped under her breath as Aghavni passed by, but the girl did not so much as spare her a glance. Instead, she continued walking past in a daze before settling meekly into her place. She did not respond even to Hadil’s murmured greeting.
Kikue was left suddenly feeling quite unsettled herself. But she had no time to contemplate the other girl’s strange behavior as they set off.
By the time they reached the foot of the hill of the sacred groves, a sizeable crowd of onlookers had already gathered. Several of them cheered at the Dragons and soldiers’ approach, but those cheers swiftly faded back into nervous silence.
What did those idiots think this was, one of their rowdy, rustic festivals?
Fortunately, they did not have long to wait before the king himself arrived — a lone rider garbed in the five colors of the gods, surrounded by a white-garbed, incense-bearing procession on foot.
The procession stopped. The king dismounted from his horse with the aid of a servant. Rusli motioned two other soldiers forward with him; Aghavni led two others to the right while the engineer girl went left; the remaining soldiers (but for two who stayed with Kikue) scattered, forming a ring around the base of the hill. They were joined by the majority of the king’s procession, leaving only the king himself and his four chosen attendants, who stepped into place behind Rusli. Kikue then stepped forward with her two soldiers, completing the new, smaller procession.
The crowd parted, allowing them through and onto the trail.
Ceremony and ritual, all of it practiced, all of it pointless. Nothing Kikue had not participated in countless times before, though usually she was among those being protected, rather than one of those protecting. For all the fuss everyone made about these particular rituals not having been conducted for more than twenty years, it was really not so different from all the other meaningless parades and celebrations Kikue had put up with throughout her entire life.
At least everything seemed to be proceeding smoothly so far. After the rebels’ ridiculous attack the previous night, Kikue doubted they would make another move so soon. Even if they did, they couldn’t possibly hope to break through all the soldiers now on watch throughout the region, not to mention the ring of guards by the hill. They had even sent out pilots to keep watch from the skies. They would not be so easily taken by surprise again.
And if worse came to worst, well, that was what she and the others were here for. Even the attendants themselves were not so helpless. Dugu was well-placed in case of any emergencies; despite his sordid history, the medic Kaneshiro was a former Dragon, and would be able to hold his own. She rather suspected Rusli’s lapdog was a plant (though such lack of subtlety was most unlike their Clan’s usual style), and would not be surprised if the braided Bamboo girl was one as well (not her father’s — likely one of Lady Ouyang’s).
Funny, really. Kaneshiro was probably the only one of the bunch who had truly been chosen at random, by the gods themselves.
Or was he? It was not exactly a well-kept secret that Kaneshiro was favored by the Headmistress. His mother had come from the same village or something of the sort… though the Headmistress had never seemed like a particularly sentimental type. More likely she was just using the boy for her own purposes.
Ugh. Now she was beginning to think like her father. Kikue quickly wiped her mind blank, focusing instead on the backs of the attendants and king before her. The attendants were veiled, but if the information Dugu had passed to them was accurate, the east and west positions had been taken by Kaneshiro and Lapdog respectively. Dugu herself had taken the northern position. That left Braids for the south, directly in front of Kikue. Indeed, their heights and builds seemed to match up, with Lapdog towering over them all and skinny Braids limping along like the slightest breeze would topple her over. Must have twisted an ankle or something. And at such an important time as this!
They continued walking for some time. About halfway up the hill, they came to a stop again before a pair of trees whose trunks had been tied with rope.
From here the king and attendants would proceed alone.
Rusli’s group departed first, circling ahead to the north. Then Wong. Aghavni hesitated for a moment, looking around as if confused. Which would not be surprising, consdering the fact that she likely hadn’t paid attention at all to any of their briefings over the past few weeks.
One of the soldiers nudged her to the right direction. But Aghavni still did not budge. Her gaze met Kikue’s.
No. The girl was not confused after all. Rather, her eyes were aglow with desperate determination.
Already the king and attendants were continuing on their way. Aghavni gave her another look, then scurried along on her way. Her two soldiers exchanged a glance of commiseration before following her.
Kikue frowned as her own group positioned themselves by the trees.
After several minutes had passed, she came to a decision and turned to her own pair of soldiers.
“You two, stay here!”
“But our orders –”
She glared at them. “Do you have any idea who you are talking to?”
“Doesn’t matter, you –”
“I shall take responsibility for whatever transpires. Just stay!”
After all, someone had to keep that crazy girl out of trouble.
* * *
Kikue had circled partway to the eastern station when she reconsidered her movements.
They were unclean, forbidden to pass the outer ring into the sacred grove. But she did not doubt that Aghavni had slipped away from her fellow soldiers to watch the ceremony herself, for whatever insane reason.
Still, she hesitated. If the gods became displeased at their interference, or if the rebels took action after all…
Well, whatever. Her father’s men were stationed at the capital and most of the guards at the base were his agents as well. And wasn’t it risky for the king to be on his own anyway?
Better this way.
She stepped past the marked trees, half expecting the earth to open and swallow her whole on the spot. But nothing happened.
Before long, she spotted white hair flitting through the shadows.
“You!” she said as loudly as she dared.
The figure stopped and looked at her. Then broke into a grin.
“Come on!” said Aghavni, and waited for Kikue to get catch up before darting on toward the center of the grove.
Why did things always end up like this?
Kikue sighed and made sure to stick close, lest she lose sight of the other girl.
Then Aghavni skidded suddenly to a stop and ducked down behind some shrubbery. Kikue followed suit.
They had arrived at what must be the center of the grove. A small spring burbled from the rocks. Four small vessels had been placed on platforms at the banks; a fifth, larger vessel stood some distance away, against a wall of painted stone. There the king stood, waiting.
The first attendant — Dugu, probably — strode to the leftmost platform. She dipped the vessel into the spring, then turned and made her way to the king.
“May the eternal heavens bear witness to my offering!” she said in an awkward but passable accent, then poured the water from the spring into the king’s vessel.
Then she set her vessel aside, backed away, and prostrated herself at the king’s feet.
Next was Lapdog.
“May the lord of the night bear witness to my offering!” His articulation, in contrast to Dugu’s, was fluent and precise, almost surprisingly so.
Still, everything was continuing to go smoothly. Kikue snuck a glance at Aghavni and wondered what the girl was plotting, but Aghavni remained still as a statue, gaze trained intently on the scene unfolding before them.
The third attendant approached the king.
“May the lady of the day bear witness to my offering!” Kaneshiro. His accent was even worse than Dugu’s.
Something rustled beside her. Kikue looked and was startled to see Aghavni rising to her feet, gaze no longer directed at the attendants at the spring, but on some shadow farther beyond…
A wolf? No wolf could be so large. And the thing had a horn —
Kikue began to stand as well.
The creature stepped forward. Kikue gasped and sank back down, limbs failing her.
A tall, one-horned deer or goat, with eyes so pale and blue they seemed to pierce right through her very being and coat so black it seemed like living darkness.
“W-what the –” Kikue sputtered.
That daffy girl was singing one of her strange songs under her breath again. No one else seemed to notice the beast’s presence.
Or maybe Kikue was hallucinating. Perhaps the rebels had spread some strange gas through the air.
Then someone screamed.
* * *
The final attendant, Lady Ouyang’s agent, had dropped her vessel. Somehow she had managed to grab the king before any of the others could stop her, but that didn’t make any sense at all. If any of the Clans were to be secretly plotting against the king, it could only be Gushiken —
A knife flashed at the king’s neck.
“Stop!” cried Dugu, ripping off her veil.
“Don’t come any closer!” said the attendant, in a decidedly male voice.
Dugu stopped. Lapdog and Kaneshiro, who had unveiled themselves as well, had already dropped into stances for attack.
Hallucinations be damned. Kikue forced herself to her feet.
But her arms refused to steady.
The king, to his credit, paled, but did not seem otherwise panicked. He raised a hand as if to reassure the others. The blade pressed closer against his skin in response.
“Pray tell, what is the meaning of this?” the king said quietly. “Do you not realize what you have done?”
“It is you who do not realize what you have done, Your Majesty!” replied the attendant.
“How dare you question the will of the heavens!”
“No, Your Majesty! Do you not understand? Do you truly believe this is what the gods desire?”
The king did not respond.
“It is not yet too late, Your Majesty! Please, I beg you — Please reconsider this great folly!”
What happened next, Kikue could not quite be certain.
A great wind surged. The waters of the spring surged. The one-horned deer loomed over them all, and this time, it seemed, Kikue was not the only one who could see it.
More screams. Dugu doubled over and sank to her knees. Lapdog too had fallen to the ground. And where had that idiot Aghavni gone now?
Rusli and Wong would be here soon enough. But by then it would be too late.
Kikue gathered her strength and burst into the clearing, shouting, “His leg! His right leg is injured!”
But perhaps no one heard her, incapacitated as they were. The king, his captor, and Kaneshiro remained standing, unmoving, transfixed by the sight of the one-horned deer.
Kikue noticed then, for the first time, the boils crusted over upon the creature’s flanks. The cuts on its neck, oozing a sickly yellow substance.
“O gods,” the king was muttering. “Forgive me…”
“M-monster…” the attendant stammered, but did not remove his knife from the king’s neck. Nor did the king make any attempt to flee.
Idiots, all of them!
But Kikue could not deny that even now, her knees were still shaking.
No matter. If she did not take action now, then all would be lost.
She charged for the king, ignoring all else…
* * *
She had heard the mountain singing. The voices of sprites mingling in the wind. Eguzki at her side, mere paces away. He too must have heard. Must have sensed the stirring of the earth.
She had thought then that hope still remained after all.
When the ceremonies commenced — she had known.
Now, as the Guardian lowered itself into the waters of the spring, Intan watched on in silence, heart thundering in her chest. Blood and pus flaked off from its coat. The waters darkened. Its rotting tail floated to the surface, a slight green tinge beginning to overtake the brown of decay.
But it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t enough after all. The Guardian stretched its neck out to the skies, keening in a high, terrible voice.
She was vaguely aware of the attendants falling to their knees. Of Kikue shouting. Of the king exchanging harsh words with a knife-wielding outsider. An intruder. A contaminant.
But no, his heart was clear? Where then was the source of this impurity?
Her head was ringing. Her ears were ringing. Everything hurt. As if her flesh were being scraped from her bones.
She had to focus! Her vision blurred, focused once more on a familiar figure.
He turned, expression lost and confused. “You… What are you…?”
Then he raised a hand to his face, as if noticing the tears tracking down his cheeks for the first time.
“We have to…” she began.
“We have to what?”
Even she could not say for certain. Instead, she grabbed his hand, pulling him away from the others, toward the edge of the dirtied spring. The Guardian lowered its head, sensing their approach.
Intan waded into the water without hesitation. Eguzki followed.
The stink of death filled her nostrils. Bile rose in the back of throat.
So close now, Intan saw a slender metal stake buried in the Guardian’s side.
“There!” she shouted. She and Eguzki exchanged a quick glance; Eguzki reached out and pulled. Cried out in shock. His hands slipped. The Guardian screamed and thrashed. Eguzki tried again, arm trembling; this time the stake inched out a little more. Intan quickly grabbed on as well.
It was her turn to scream.
The stake was burning. Intan’s palms blistered. Her skin felt as if it were bubbling and peeling.
Still she held on.
Eguzki looked at her. “At this rate, we won’t –”
She let go one of her hands. Reached instead for the knife at her side. The waves surged, and she choked, gasped for air. Pushed her hair out of her face and fumbled again for her knife. This time her fingers closed around the hilt.
She raised the blade unsteadily. The Guardian screamed again.
“Let me,” whispered Eguzki through gritted teeth.
She nodded and handed the knife to him. His knuckles whitened as he gripped the hilt and plunged the blade into Guardian’s flesh, cutting away the rot surrounding the stake.
Everything hurt. Everything hurt. Intan clasped the stake, fingers tangling with Eguzki’s, and tugged with all her might.
Water crashed into her again. Everything blanked.
The next thing she knew, she was sprawled on her back against solid ground. Eguzki lay prone beside her, unmoving.
The Guardian remained standing before them in the spring, water streaming from its flanks. But something was strange. It was no longer moving, no longer thrashing about.
A voice rang out in the sudden silence.
The Guardian’s eyes glowed red. Its horn snapped and tumbled down into the depths of the water. Its tail lashed out, spraying water through the air.
With a great cry, the Guardian reared up, front hooves kicking out from the churning waves. For a moment it seemed as if it were poised to fly…
Then, with a great shudder, it collapsed.
Softly, soundlessly, its massive body toppled to the earth and crumbled into dust.