S1| Ep16: Investigations II (下)
September 20, 2012
(A/N: Yikes. I definitely didn’t mean for the update to be this late. [Back home now, but had a huge pile of things to take care of…] On the bright side, now you only have a week or so to wait for the next update? 😛 Or even less, actually, as I intend to post a non-optional interlude in a few days!)
For a moment Intan grew afraid that what she had been trying to warn the villagers about had come true. That soldiers from the capital had arrived and would burn everything to the ground. But despite Pakka’s words and demeanor, Shulinaq made no move to summon the others, whether to battle or to shelter.
In fact, her face didn’t even flinch as she said, “This is not according to the agreement.”
“Something must have changed on their end,” replied Pakka. “What are we to do? If anything goes wrong now —”
“Nothing will go wrong,” replied Shulinaq. “I will make certain of it.”
Pakka seemed to collect himself, though the cast of his face did not change. “You’d best hurry, then. The man does not look to be in a mood to be kept waiting.”
“Who’s here?” demanded Intan, though she was already beginning to suspect the truth. If not soldiers from the capital, there could be only one possibility… though that did not explain Pakka’s anxiety.
“It is none of your business,” snapped Pakka. To Shulinaq he said, “Do you still insist on your warped sense of justice? Hand the girl over to us! We will take care of her!”
“No. I mean to take her with me.”
He stared at them. “Have you gone mad?”
“Remember who we are dealing with. This child may yet be of use to us.”
“I don’t understand what you’re thinking anymore, Lin. You and your hypocrisy! What is it that you see in this girl? A child to be pitied? A tool to be used? I just don’t understand!”
“There is no need for you to understand. Now go! Our plans, at least, have not changed.”
Pakka gave Shulinaq one last pleading look before storming off.
Shulinaq turned to Intan. “Will you come with me?”
The question surprised her. “Are you giving me a choice?”
The woman closed her eyes, but did not respond.
At last, Shulinaq said, “If only we had met earlier…” She shook her head. “Had we known there were more such as you still out there, among the enemy… But it is too late now.”
“I was with her,” said Intan then, coming to a decision. “With Sita, when she died.”
Shulinaq’s eyes fluttered open. “Were you, now? Fate works in mysterious ways indeed. Perhaps…”
“What you are doing is not right,” Intan repeated softly. “But I want to understand. I want to know the truth.”
“Did she… did Sita say anything?”
This was something Intan had never told anyone. Not to Hadil, not to the Headmistress or Miss Singh or the general who gave them their orders.
She was the only one who knew.
It had never seemed right to tell. And yet now it did not seem right that this should be so.
“She spoke of Ausos. She said that it mustn’t be awakened.”
“I see.” Shulinaq turned, but not before Intan glimpsed the tears glimmering in the woman’s eyes. “If it is the truth you desire, then come.”
* * *
They retraced their steps through the village, down the path Intan remembered the children taking her earlier.
But this time, she knew, it was not the sprites she would be meeting.
By the forest gate, three men and a woman were waiting. All were armed. Intan recognized the man in the front immediately, though he had grown his beard out since she last saw him.
“Captain,” said Shulinaq, eyes dry once more, in a tone that betrayed nothing but the utmost courtesy. “We were not expecting you and your men so early.”
“My apologies,” said Filipe Mok. “But certain issues have arisen that require my attention.” His eyes suddenly narrowed. “Who’s the girl?”
“One of the newer arrivals to our village. She has piloting experience, so I thought to bring her along.”
Mok stared at her for a long time. Intan stared back, wondering what Shulinaq was plotting.
“Too young,” he said at last. “I’m not like Liow. I’ve enough of a conscience left not to use some damn kid.”
Had he truly forgotten her face? Or was he playing whatever game Shulinaq was playing? Intan peeked back and forth between the two parties, but couldn’t figure out much.
“She is older than you think,” replied Shulinaq. “Simply undernourished.”
“Feed her up before you bring her to me, then.”
“Are you not in need of manpower?”
“I’ve more than enough at the moment.”
“Then I cannot imagine what issues could be so urgent that they have brought you here, a good three days before our designated rendezvous.”
“You know what I want.”
“We had an agreement.”
“I think I’ve been quite reasonable, Lin. I have given your people months — years — to come to a decision. But we’re running out of time. The military’s onto us. We can’t afford to wait anymore.”
“And I have told you time and time again that what you ask is too much for us to give. It is no easy decision for us to make.”
Intan frowned as she listened, making herself as still and unobtrusive as possible. Though their conversation went over her head, their postures and voices told her enough.
She had assumed that the villagers were allied with Mok — the Brigadier General had said so during the briefing, and Intan had yet to witness anything to the contrary. Until now.
“We need those files,” said Mok, the urgency in his voice building with every word. “Think of what will happen if the Clans get their dirty hands on them! You must understand the consequences!”
“I do,” Shulinaq replied coolly. “We all do. But there are those of us who question whether that information would be any better off in your hands.”
“Why, you –” growled one of Mok’s men. The others held him back.
Mok said, slowly, “It’s true. I am no innocent.” He held out his hands, studied them for a moment. “None of us are.”
Shulinaq made no response.
“But surely even you must see,” Mok continued. “Things cannot continue this way. We have tried everything. Everything. All is futile. We have no choice left. If things are to change — and they must — then we are the only ones who can bring it about.”
Intan felt a gentle, firm touch on her elbow. Looked up, startled.
“Run quickly,” muttered Shulinaq, eyes still trained on Mok. Louder, she said, “It is true that your goals have always coincided with ours. We have not always agreed with your methods. Still, we have aided you where we could. We have fought and sacrificed for you, just as we once fought and sacrificed for the blood of the Sun. And not once have we complained, for we believed just as you believed that our actions were just.” Suddenly, she raised her hands to the heavens, hair streaming out behind her. “But what you intend now is sheer blasphemy!”
Mok and his people, sensing something wrong, reached for the guns at their sides. But they were too late.
Behind them, the forest rumbled.
A maskless Doll burst from the trees and rose silently into the sky.
* * *
Shulinaq grabbed Intan’s hand. They ran.
The woman with Mok swore loudly and profusely as she fired shot after shot at their fleeing backs. Mok himself snapped orders, urgent but somehow resigned, as if he had foreseen this outcome from the start.
Intan stumbled along after Shulinaq. “What did you — how did you — what just happened?”
“Later. Pakka and the others are waiting.”
“What’s going to happen now? What about the children?”
“They are safe. We have been preparing for this day. For too long we have been preparing…”
In the skies above, another Doll rose. Then another. Each one had no face.
A flare flashed some distance away. Still further, another trio of Dolls — these with the bright and furious masks of Demons — approached from the horizon.
“You said earlier that the soldiers would have come no matter what,” said Intan, knowing that she must ask now, else she would never know. “Why? Is it those files or whatever that Mok wants? Is that what the king wants too?”
Shulinaq laughed bitterly without turning. “It is the key they all want.”
“The key, the secrets of AUSOS. Yes. No one must have them. Never again.”
“But don’t you have it, then?” Intan asked desperately. “Isn’t that why everyone’s after you?”
“The key?” Shulinaq laughed again, more softly this time. “The key was lost long ago… Stolen by one whom we all trusted dearly.”
Gunfire peppered down from above, preventing any further conversation. Intan plunged through the underbrush, lungs aching, limbs afraid to stop. She could hear things exploding behind her, but knew she mustn’t look back. In her mind’s eye, she could see it already anyway. Sita’s rogue Doll collapsing into the water. The train blazing through the darkness of the tunnels.
Gunfire and storms. This was not the first time, she thought.
But before Intan could continue that thought, Shulinaq skidded to a stop. Some small creature skittered past before them.
Heat. A million glittering stars. Something slammed into her. All went white.
When she came to, her fingers slipped through some sticky substance. Her chest felt heavy. The sky, blocked previously by a tangle of branches, spread vast and gray above her, kissed by roaring fire.
Only when she tried to sit up did she realize she was not alone. Shulinaq lay on top of her, unmoving.
Intan could barely understand what had just happened. But she knew one thing, at least. The woman had shielded her from the blast.
“Shulinaq!” she cried, wriggling out from under the woman’s body. “Shulinaq!”
Blood everywhere. And not Intan’s.
Shulinaq’s eyes fluttered open, to Intan’s relief. Her fingers clutched at the wound in her side. Her mouth moved, trying to say something. Trying to shout a warning.
A shadow loomed over them, blocking out the dim light.
One of the Demons.
Whistling, then the sound of impact. The Demon staggered back. In the distance, Intan saw the outline of a familiar Doll, rocket launcher in hand.
Despite the danger, Intan stumbled toward the blaze, trying to get a better glimpse. A second Doll bearing the colors of the Academy hurtled briefly into view, pursuing one of the faceless Dolls.
Behind her, she heard the steady flapping of spinning rotors. She whirled around and came face to face with a boy.
“Right in the middle of trouble as always, I see,” the boy remarked wryly.
Intan stared at him. And stared some more.
The boy frowned. “… You okay?”
Intan opened her mouth to respond. But no words would come to her.
She shook her head.
“Hurry!” she said instead. “My friend needs help!”
“Your friend,” he repeated quietly, with a troubled look on his face. But he followed her nonetheless.
Shulinaq had struggled to a sitting position. Upon seeing them, her expression suddenly darkened. “You…”
The boy stiffened. Raised his hands slightly, as if preparing to counter an attack. Intan stepped forward, ready to… to what? Protect him? Or protect the injured woman before her?
But Shulinaq closed her eyes and raised her head to the sky. She whispered wearily, “What game do the gods play now?”
“It’s all right!” said Intan, relieved. “He’s a friend!”
She could not say how she knew this so deeply, so certainly.
Shulinaq studied them both, then nodded.
“Cover me,” she said, and began scrambling up the hill, over the rocks. Her blood stained the moss and the vines as she climbed. Intan and the boy followed, until at last the woman came to a stop by a small crevice. With some effort she pushed aside a boulder blocking the space. And Intan saw that the crevice widened into a cave. A network of tunnels beyond.
The boy suddenly broke into a barrage of curses.
“You’ve lost!” he said, voice rising steadily into a shout. “The military is here; your village is destroyed! And for what? What more do you want? What do you mean to do now?”
“We will return to the hills and the mountains. We will continue to eke out a living as we always have. And we shall wait…”
“But your wound!” said Intan. “You’ve got to let him check it out!”
Shulinaq shook her head. “I must go to my people.” She took a shaky step back into the tunnels, even as blood continued to leak dark through her spread fingers. Intan tried to approach, to pull her back, but the woman gestured for her to stop.
“Where I go you cannot go,” murmured Shulinaq. Then, with a small, brief smile, she whispered, “Oh blessed child… I am glad I met you.”
The darkness swallowed her.
(Read Episode 16.5, or continue to the next episode via the arrow ->)