S1| Ep15: Investigations I (下)
August 16, 2012
(A/N: Posting while on vacation, hence the late and super rushed update. Apologies for any typos/glaring mistakes! D:)
Intan was already halfway through the door when she felt a firm grip on her shoulder.
“Do not fear,” murmured the lady passenger.
“But my friends —”
The woman’s grip tightened. “You were not traveling alone?”
Intan shook her head, then realized the woman couldn’t see her. But her mistake gave her a chance to recall her original purpose, and the story she was supposed to be sticking to. “Two others from the orphanage…”
The woman clucked her tongue in a noise of dismay.
“Let us make haste, then! It may not yet be too late. I will show you the way.”
Something flickered to life in the darkness — a pale flame, though Intan could not make out its source. The stark illumination painted the woman’s face with a gaunt, almost skeletal expression. Her eyes were wide and dark with worry.
“What’s going on?” whispered Intan.
But the woman shook her head and held out a thin, bony hand. Intan accepted it.
Together, they strode out of the compartment and down the hall, following the light bobbing through the air before them. Despite the earlier screams, it was now eerily silent, as if a strange mist enveloped them, protecting them from all outside influences.
Intan burned with questions, but the woman’s pace was brisk and unrelenting. Intan could only hope that Kikue had not run into too much trouble, and that the Hibiscus boy had woken up.
They had passed through about three or four compartments when a voice called out from behind a door. As if in response, the light instantly dimmed.
“Shulinaq, what are you doing here? Have you forgotten the plan?” A handsome, dark-skinned man with silvery hair stepped out. Upon noticing Intan, he frowned. “Who is this?”
“Pakka, there are children on board.”
“What! How can that be?”
“We’re from the orphanage!” Intan offered helpfully.
The man’s frown grew deeper. “From the south?”
Intan shrugged noncommittally.
The man threw up his hands in response. “Dammit, Lin. There’s no time left!”
“I know. But we cannot leave them here.”
“Do as you will,” muttered the man after another glance and quick shake of his head. “You know I cannot stop you. I will delay as long as I can.”
“Thank you, Pakka,” murmured the woman in response. “I will not forget this.”
The man waved them off, then shrank back into the shadows.
Intan and the woman continued on their way.
* * *
The bobbing light had grown again. Intan squinted ahead, but still could not make out anything.
“Which compartment were your friends in?” asked the woman, Shulinaq.
“The tenth,” replied Intan.
“A queer omen indeed,” said Shulinaq in a low, troubled tone. “Whether for good or ill, I cannot say.”
They did not speak again for a few more compartments. No one else emerged. All remained silent as ever. Intan quickened her pace, only to find that she was beginning to have trouble breathing.
The mist was real, she realized. No longer just a figment of her imagination.
Her chest burned. Her eyes watered. She began to cough, but that only seemed to make it worse.
Before her, Shulinaq drew to a stop and pulled out a strange mask — one far more grotesque and frightening than even the fiercest Doll faces, with pouches flapping like a moustache beside the mouthpiece, a long trunk from the nose, and glowing insect-like goggles for the eyes.
“Put this on,” said Shulinaq, miming the correct procedure for Intan. “Hurry.”
Intan mimicked her. Almost instantly the burning sensation in her chest stopped. She frowned, pulled the mouthpiece back out.
“What about you?”
Shulinaq smiled, shook her head, then leaned back to the previous compartment to suck in a lungful of breath before continuing down the way yet again.
Intan followed her, wondering how much longer the lady would be able to keep this up, and how much longer it would take before they reached their compartment, and if Kikue had escaped the mist, or if she had even returned to look for Intan after the train stopped.
They passed through yet more compartments. Shulinaq stopped again, gesturing at a door. Intan recognized it as the room where she had been staying with Kikue and Trieu.
But when she slid open the door, no one was there.
Intan wondered if she should consider their absence worrisome or reassuring. But she had no time to wonder further. Behind them, a muffled voice said, “Lin, we’re out of time!”
It was the man from earlier, Pakka. He too was wearing a strange mask.
Shulinaq looked from the empty room, then to Intan. Without another moment’s hesitation, she grabbed Intan’s arm and dragged her back down the hallway. The man followed them with a heavy metal bar in his hands.
Soon enough, they reached a heavy metal door. The man rammed the lock once, twice. The sound was jarring in the silence.
The door swung open. Heat blasted into their faces. The engine room, Intan thought vaguely, but still Shulinaq did not stop.
Two doors later, they burst into the cool darkness of the tunnel outside. The man pulled off his mask; Intan followed suit, gasping for air. Then immediately turned back.
“My friends are still in there! I have to make sure they’re okay!”
“You mustn’t!” said Shulinaq, even as the disembodied light they had been following flickered out completely.
Intan, confused and sick with worry, shook her head and began to put the strange mask back on.
Something rumbled. She tripped. Shulinaq and the man pulled Intan away, into a cramped side tunnel she might have otherwise mistaken for a natural crevice.
And just in time.
The train exploded. Their bodies pressed against the reinforced wall as heat blew past. Beyond them, the main tunnel flared red. For a moment Intan thought she saw a great white snake winding and twisting through the rubble. But then she blinked, and nothing was left but flame and stone.
“Kikue!” she screamed, struggling to run out, but the man held her back. “KIKUE!!”
“I am sorry about your friends,” Shulinaq said hoarsely, and the expression on her face was genuinely pained.
“Why?” cried Intan. “Why do something like this? What good does it do to spill innocent blood in a place like this?”
Shulinaq closed her eyes briefly. “Come,” she said at last. “Come, and you will understand.”
* * *
Intan stumbled blindly after them. They seemed to be following another, smaller set of rails through a different, narrower set of tunnels and caves. Occasionally she saw a rusting cart in the shadows, or tracks dangling over the sides of a cliff. But she did not look for long, could not look for long.
They emerged at last from the mines into a forest and gray skies above. An older man was waiting by an oddly shaped rock some distance away, his forehead creased in anxiety. Shulinaq and Pakka’s appearance did not seem to soothe him.
“There were Dolls on that train!” the man hissed as soon as they were close enough to hear.
Pakka stepped forward. “Impossible! But Mok said —”
Shulinaq placed her hand on his shoulder. As if remembering Intan’s presence, Pakka fell silent. The new man looked from one to the other, then at Intan, then back to Shulinaq.
“Don’t fret,” said the lady. “They must have been corrupted.”
“What shall we do now?”
“We continue with the plan. We have no other choice.”
“And this girl?”
“I will take her to the others. You two go ahead.”
The men, though apparently unappeased, murmured their acquiescence and departed. The lady watched them leave, then turned to another direction.
“Come,” she said again, when Intan made no move to follow. “We are not far now.”
“Where are we going?”
“Home,” replied Shulinaq. “To the village you called Redmoon.”
Intan picked up her feet. Of all things, she had suddenly remembered school protocol.
Complete the mission at all costs.
School protocol, or Dragon protocol? Or something else entirely?
The confusion frustrated her, then transformed into an abrupt, unspeakable anger.
She was not herself. She had not been herself for some time now. It had frightened her at first, but no longer.
Shulinaq’s actions angered her too, but in another way entirely. In a way that grieved her terribly.
To follow or not to follow. The choice had never been hers to make, but she would make it now anyway.
* * *
It was as Shulinaq had said. Within mere minutes of walking, Intan could see rundown houses peeking out from the trees. The village did not seem at all unusual at first glance.
Shulinaq stopped at one of the larger buildings on the outskirts. Intan wondered if it were the chief’s home, but there were other buildings closer to the central area.
“Hello, little ones,” called out Shulinaq, leaning past the entrance. “I’ve brought a new friend for you all.”
A mix of cheers and giggles sounded from inside. Out rushed a crowd of children of all ages and sizes, gathering around Intan, poking at her clothes, asking her questions.
Almost every child was marked with a head of white hair.
“This village…” murmured Intan.
Shulinaq drew close to her, face drawn and grim.
“Yes. It is as you see before you. We are the last descendants of the moon tribes.” The grimness of the lady’s expression softened. “And you, my child, are one of us.”