S1| Ep14: A New Mission (上)
July 4, 2012
(A/N: My apologies for the lateness — and the continuing lack of explanations. 😛 If all goes well though, there are quite a few answers forthcoming in the next few updates. I think. ALSO: Happy 4th to my fellow Americans!)
There is a woman sprawled by the village well. A stringy dark mass of hair clumps against her sallow cheeks, shadowing her eyes.
“Hello? Are you okay?”
In response, the woman lifts her head, but not her gaze. She says nothing. Flies or mosquitoes buzz all around her, but she pays them no heed.
The villagers will be angry. It is a long trek to the nearest spring, and it has been a dry summer, with heat that presses and presses until one can no longer breathe. Dirty water is worse than no water.
Besides, they are not fond of strangers. It is difficult to understand their reasoning, but Granny has explained time and time again: outsiders disrupt the peace. Outsiders bring the unknown with them, and thus danger. Some risks cannot be taken.
It makes little sense, but these are the village rules. Granny’s rules. To break them is to betray the trust they have gifted.
Still, something must be done.
One step. Two steps. A rotting stench lingers in the air, intensifies.
Slowly, painfully, the woman holds out a hand. Closer, she beckons. Closer.
“What is it? What do you need?”
Bend down, lean close. The woman’s breath rattles and squelches. Her lips move, but no sound comes from them.
“It’s not good if you stay here! Let me get Granny! She’ll know what to do!”
But the woman grabs on, her bony grip surprisingly strong. Still her eyes are not visible, but her lips move again, forming unvoiced words in the stillness.
“I’m sorry, I can’t understand you! Let me go get help! Just hold on for a bit, okay?”
Break away, running patter slap patter down the streets.
“Granny! Granny! Come here!”
Hurry. They must hurry. Before it is too late.
But by the time they return, the woman is gone.
Where she lay, only a dark imprint remains.
* * *
Intan blinked, then blinked again. Harsh white light flickered overhead. She sat up slowly, rubbing her eyes.
A dream? How strange that she should dream of Granny now, of all times. And that woman… the stranger who had stumbled across the village five years ago. She had forgotten the incident until now. What had happened after that? The villagers had conducted a search, she recalled. But whether they had found the woman in the end, she did not know.
Beyond a door somewhere, voices rose and fell in what sounded like an argument. Intan closed her eyes again, trying to remember what the woman had been trying to say to her in the dream. She had not made very much progress when the door slid open and she looked up to see the Headmistress stalking in, black skirts swirling about her feet.
“You’re awake,” stated the Headmistress.
“Yes, ma’am!” Intan responded immediately, before realizing that she wasn’t in her dorm room or indeed anywhere she recognized.
Then she remembered the Guardian. Eguzki. The botched ceremony.
She scrambled out from under her covers, swinging her feet to the ground. Her whole body felt light and strange.
Something in the Headmistress’s voice made her obey.
“You are in no state to go anywhere.”
Intan looked down at herself, but neither saw nor felt any sign of injury. She was in her undershirt and her hair was tickling her shoulders, but that was little matter. She had to —
“The others are alive and unhurt. You, on the other hand, have been out of commission for a week.”
The Headmistress strode closer, but said nothing further. Intan glanced up again to find the woman studying her with a strange expression.
She squirmed. A sudden wave of dizziness passed over her. She asked, more from a peculiar, unfamiliar sense of obligation rather than any true interest, “And the king? The ceremonies? The rebels? What happened? Is everything all right?”
“His Majesty has shut himself away again. The rebels have been disposed of, for the moment. The Council has been most upset, but I daresay they shall get over themselves soon enough.”
There seemed nothing more to say to that.
Then, quietly, the Headmistress said, “What did you see?”
“That night. What did you see in the grove?”
The Headmistress’s gaze held steady. “Sunagawa spoke of a monstrous beast rising from the waters,” she said. “Dugu spoke of a shadow, a formless creature with a thousand eyes. The Wystan boy spoke of a blazing skull.”
Intan tilted her head. “Then what about Eguzki?”
“He would not tell me.”
Intan considered this for a moment, then said brightly, “What did I see… Hmm… Nothing much, I guess!”
But even as she spoke, she felt a stab of pain in her chest. Her eyes burned. “Well,” she continued hurriedly, “there was the ceremony, I guess, which was pretty neat, and a lot of talking and singing and stuff, and then that injured guy, I guess he was in disguise, he pulled out a knife I think but –”
The Headmistress held up a hand, as if to say, Enough. Intan clamped her mouth shut at once, wondering if perhaps she should have told the truth after all, if perhaps the Headmistress would know, would understand, the way Granny and the villagers back home would understand.
But the Headmistress sighed and turned away. “I did not think they would be so audacious. After all this time, they still have not learned their lesson yet, I see.”
Despite her cool, measured tone, there was a startling undercurrent of anger to her words. Intan shrank back against her pillow, hoping the Headmistress did not notice.
“The doctors will examine you now,” the Headmistress announced then, voice suddenly devoid of emotion once more, and turned away in another rustle of skirts.
As she left, Intan thought she heard her murmur, “I wonder what he saw in you.”
But then the doctors came, and there was no time left to think.
* * *
The doctors fussed and poked and argued and Intan drifted in and out of sleep. Fragments of dreams jumbled around in her mind, all of them nonsensical and fleeting. She did not know how much time had passed when a familiar voice startled her back into awareness.
“Intan! I’m so glad you’re okay! I was so worried!”
“Hadil?” Intan murmured, head still feeling rather fuzzy.
“You’ve been out for a whole week!”
“We found you lying on the banks, you know — rushed you here right away — they couldn’t find anything wrong with you, but you just wouldn’t wake up — it was scary –”
Intan, puzzled, offered her a sheepish smile. “I’m okay now!”
Hadil stopped and smiled back, but seemed afraid to touch her. “Yep! And you have no idea what’s been going on this past week –”
“Where are we? Where’s everyone else?”
“Oh, we’re at the base — the campus was too far away, y’know, and the facilities here are better anyway — everyone else is fine except I guess the attendants. They were just released, actually, but I think they’re still under surveillance, especially Gisela, although I guess they decided she hadn’t been working with the rebels after all, I’m not too sure of the details… It’s really awesome here, by the way! You’ve gotta let me show you around later! I didn’t think I’d ever get to see this place until graduation –”
Hadil continued to chatter away. Intan found her mind slipping again, back to her strange conversation with the Headmistress and the dream, earlier still. In her head the two images seemed to overlap: the Headmistress, cutting a tall, stern figure against the blinding white walls. The woman, gray and tattered, like a baby bird fallen from its nest and forgotten by its parents, though that wasn’t quite right either. An injured bird was lost, pitiful, but the woman had been neither. Rather, she had been a creature Intan suspected the villagers would have found frightening or revolting, whose existence seemed to lie suspended between two dischordant states.
Still, what had the woman been trying to say? It had seemed so important at the time. There’d been something familiar about her, too, in the dream — a familiarity that went beyond simple memory.
That reminded her, then, of the photographs. The Headmistress had been in them, as had the man she called Captain Mok.
And the woman. The faceless woman at the center of it all. The same…?
The door clattered, pulling Intan once more to the present.
“Oh, Sunagawa,” said Hadil, turning. “I thought you’d gone home already.”
Kikue sniffed and folded her arms behind her back. Her uniform looked remarkably crisp and new.
“Did you come to visit too?” Hadil was saying, in a rather mischievous tone.
Kikue looked straight at Hadil, pointedly avoiding Intan’s gaze.
“No,” she replied shortly. “We have a meeting to attend –”
A flash of understanding. A single moment of clarity. Intan saw the woman’s chapped lips struggling to form words in the hazy heat once more.
Again. Again. Again.
So we meet again.