S1| Ep15: Investigations I (上)
August 1, 2012
(A/N: Good luck to folks participating in WeSeWriMo & Camp NaNo! I will be traveling most of this month i.e. in a different time zone, so I’m not sure when the next update will be, but check back around the 15th/16th as usual!)
It had been many months since Intan last wore something other than her uniform. She had almost forgotten what it felt like to wander around in nothing but tunic and shorts.
Not that she was currently wearing so little. The train compartment in which she currently sat was very stuffy indeed, but outside it was still quite chilly, though the sun was shining bright.
Her only companions, Kikue and the Hibiscus boy, had been glaring at each other ever since they’d gotten on the train. Or rather, more accurately, Kikue had been glaring at him while he pretended to sleep. Intan had found this funny at first, but now, a few hours later, she was beginning to get bored.
A little adventure would clear her head, she’d thought earlier that morning. But of course this was no adventure. It was a mission, and they were to be on their very best behavior this time, “or else.”
Hadil had protested at first. “You’re still not fully recovered. What if you get into trouble? You’re in no condition to fight, much less run away!”
But it was a Very Important Mission, and one far away from immediate trouble. They were to infiltrate one of the small mining villages on the northwest quadrant of the island. One further inland than Hadil’s village had been, hidden somewhere deep in the middle of the forest and the mountains. It was nowhere close to the rebels’ location, according to the Brigadier General, and quite isolated from civilization, but the people there were nonetheless rumored to hold sympathies for the rebel cause. Whatever the cause was.
At any rate, the villagers were supposed to be hiding some important information about Filipe Mok’s plans. Soldiers had already gone to investigate several times before, but without much success.
Now it was the Dragons’ turn to make an attempt, though instead of charging right into the place in an official capacity, they were to infiltrate the place, pretending to be orphaned vagrants searching for work.
Which was why they were currently stuck on this train instead of flying directly over in their Dolls — which had been disguised as cargo and would be stashed somewhere safe in the vicinity, just in case.
The train clattered noisily as it burrowed into yet another long, winding tunnel through the mountains. Hardly anyone else rode the rails at this time of year. Everyone who had gone home to be with family and friends over the holidays had long since returned to the cities and factories where they worked.
Intan bit back a yawn as the walls of the tunnel streaked past. She had been very tired lately. So very sleepy all the time, much like the Hibiscus boy dozing away in front of her — but she didn’t want to take a nap, either. Something told her that if she did, she might not ever wake up again. And at any rate, it was too difficult to relax here, on board this train whose rumbling was so very different from a Doll’s.
Hadil was probably right that she still hadn’t fully recovered, strange as the thought was to her. She’d always been a quick healer before. Never got sick, either, even when the rest of the village was all down with a cold.
More troubling, her memory also seemed to have worsened. She was trying to remember what she’d had for breakfast that morning, for example, but couldn’t quite remember. Porridge? Leftover rice with tea? Preserved eggs? Or had that been the day before? Bits and pieces of images and sounds kept sliding around in her head. Like pudding…
Kikue suddenly elbowed her. “Did you hear that?”
“Hear what?” Intan cocked her head, straining to listen for whatever Kikue was talking about over the sounds of the train.
“Shh. There it is again!”
“I don’t hear anything…” she said doubtfully, and snuck a glance at the Hibiscus boy. Trieu, wasn’t it? But he was still snoring softly, left cheek smushed against the window, the rim of his glasses leaving imprints on his skin.
“There!” muttered Kikue, and leaped out of her seat. She teetered for a moment, apparently having forgotten they were currently in a moving behicle, then slid open the doors of their compartment and peered outside.
Intan got up more slowly after her and took a look as well.
“Don’t see anything either…”
Kikue growled and stomped out into the corridor, looking left and right.
“What kind of noise was it?” asked Intan, curious now.
“Some sort of scratching…”
“You mean like a squirrel? Maybe something accidentally got on board!”
“No!” snapped Kikue. Then, gritting her teeth, she explained, “Too big. Also, it was scratching out a code from the school’s alarm system!”
Intan blinked. Waved a hand before Kikue’s face. “Are you sure you weren’t dreaming?”
Kikue swatted her hand away. “I was not dreaming.” Then she tensed and turned right. “There it is again! You go the other way to make sure it’s not a trap!”
She ran off without waiting for a response.
* * *
Intan peeked one last time at the sleeping Hibiscus boy, then quietly slid the doors shut and headed left down the corridor as Kikue had asked her to. She certainly hoped it was just a squirrel. Maybe they could feed it and bring it with them on their mission. Kikue’d probably be annoyed, but maybe if Intan tried to convince her to use it as part of their disguise…
Odd though. She really hadn’t heard anything. She’d teased Kikue about dreaming up the whole thing, but Kikue wasn’t the kind of person to make a big deal out of nothing. The other girl was far too proud for that. And it really did feel like Intan was missing something after all.
Well, she probably didn’t need to worry too much about it. One of the first things they’d done upon boarding the train was to check the passenger list for suspicious individuals. Nothing unusual had surfaced, though, and Intan didn’t really see how anyone could set a trap for them here when nobody else knew who they were, or what they were here for.
So she continued wandering down the hall, to the next compartment, and the next. She wondered how many compartments Kikue intended for her to check. Or how long she was supposed to look for this mysterious sound that might or might not even be real.
Maybe it would be better for her to head back. Maybe Kikue had found something. Or maybe it had just been a false alarm. At any rate, they would be reaching the village soon. They’d have more than enough to worry about at that point.
Only then, Intan did hear something.
Scratch, scratch, scratch. Far too rhythmic to be a lost animal. And it did sound like one of the school’s drum codes, like Kikue had said (only scratched instead of tapped or beat, of course). But which one?
The scratching sound faded slightly as it moved further down the hall. Intan tiptoed after it, careful not to make any noise that would cover up the sound.
Whatever it was, it continued repeating the pattern it had begun with, over and over again. But it did not seem to be one of the codes Intan recognized. She wondered if Kikue had recognized it, and if that was why the other girl had been so worried. But then again, if Kikue had recognized it, wouldn’t she have mentioned what message it bore?
The scratching paused. Then started up again, this time in the same spot. Intan stared, but try as she might, she could not find the culprit at all.
Like pudding, she thought, and rubbed at her eyes in frustration.
The scratching moved down the hall again. This time, it stopped in front of a closed compartment. The sound grew louder, more insistent. Intan, annoyed, flung open the unlocked doors.
To her surprise, a white-haired woman in pretty blue and yellow robes sat by the window, humming a familiar song. An old, old lullaby, whose words Intan had long forgotten.
The woman broke off mid-verse and turned. Upon seeing Intan, she cried out in shock.
Intan hurriedly backed away. “Sorry, excuse me! I must have gotten the wrong room!”
But the lady shook her head, frowning, and motioned for her to stay. “You… I do not recognize your face.”
“It’s okay, I don’t recognize you either!” replied Intan cheerfully. She took the opportunity to look around the room and search for the source of the scratching, which had stopped the moment she stepped inside.
The lady seemed to relax at that, if only a little bit. “You speak the old tongue well.”
“You do too!”
This made the lady laugh. “You flatter me, my child.”
The scratching still did not resume. Nor could Intan locate any hint of what might have caused it.
“What are you called, little one?”
“My name’s Intan! What about you?”
“I am called Shulinaq in the old way, but most now call me Lin.”
“Are you heading to Redmoon Village too?”
The lady opened her mouth to answer, but before she could, the compartment suddenly lurched. The train screeched and squealed to a stop. Down the hall, Intan heard someone screaming.
And then the lights flickered out.