S1| Ep21: Enter the Labyrinth (下)
February 28, 2013
(A/N: Sigh. I’ll try to gradually scooch updates back to Sunday/Monday in March — my RL schedule was thrown into unexpected flux this past month. Sorry for the wait! And on a completely different note: like most of the myths mentioned in the story so far, the one in this update is a “remix” of an actual folktale from our reality, but I’ll leave it to any clever ninjas out there to dig out the original version. :P)
Eguzki sprinted off before the others had a chance to protest. Nor did Intan wait for them either.
Now that they would not come to her, she would have to trust in where the sprites led him.
She could not blame them for abandoning her now. After all, she had not been able to aid them in their time of need…
Then she saw where they had arrived.
A crevice hidden against the rocky slope, much like the one Shulinaq had led them to after the incident at Redmoon Village, only this one was covered in mud and rubble and ripped vines.
Already Eguzki was scrabbling away at the site, tearing away the vines and digging through the rubble with his fingers. Intan joined him quietly.
“This place…” murmured the Hibiscus boy, coming up behind her, followed by Rusli. He, too, joined in their efforts, as did Rusli after a moment of hesitation.
With their combined efforts, the opening to the tunnel soon revealed itself. Eguzki and Intan exchanged a look, then climbed in. Once more, the two other boys followed.
And not a moment too soon.
The earth shuddered. The rubble they had cleared away at the entrance was replaced by more tumbling rocks. Then, with a long, groaning creak, the scaffolding that had been holding up some semblance of a gate or door by the entry collapsed as well.
Eguzki stared. Looked around. Then he swore.
“What reason did you have for bringing us here?” Rusli said, voice carefully controlled.
“You didn’t have to come,” Eguzki replied, voice equally tight.
“But we did,” the Hibiscus boy said quietly as he pulled out a flashlight, illuminating the darkness. “And now that we have, we’ve no choice but to continue on.”
Rusli held Eguzki’s gaze for a moment longer. Then he shook his head. Tried a smile. “I don’t suppose anyone here knows another way out?”
“That wouldn’t be any fun!” said Intan, heading down the tunnel at once with a sense of excitement or anticipation she could not quite place.
Apparently Rusli could not think of any response to that. But Eguzki quickened his pace until he was walking at her side.
“If this doesn’t convince you that they hate me, I don’t know what will,” he said wryly, without rancor.
“Don’t worry!” she replied. “They definitely don’t hate you.”
After that no one seemed in much of a mood for conversation.
It was impossible to tell how much time passed, deep within the earth. Rusli and the other boy had fortunately brought their standard packs with them, complete with emergency supplies. If it took them days to see the surface again, however, it would not likely last all four of them. The flashlights wouldn’t last forever either. Nor would the matches Intan was carrying.
The Hibiscus boy seemed to be calculating and muttering under his breath as they walked. But it was Rusli, not he, who called for breaks and doled out supplies as they continued their journey through the caves and tunnels, and Rusli who chose which paths to take at every juncture they reached. Eguzki had fallen into another brooding silence. Intan, still mulling over all that had transpired since they’d left the palace (not to mention some of what had happened before), was the only one who responded to Rusli’s occasional attempts at lightening the mood, but her answers only seemed to confuse and disappoint him, and at last he gave up altogether.
They had taken about seven or eight breaks and walked far enough that even Intan was beginning to feel grumpy and sore, when Rusli suddenly waved at them to stay back.
“Someone’s here!” he whispered.
Sure enough, Intan could hear footsteps approaching softly from somewhere in the darkness.
They doused their lights. Flattened themselves against the damp walls, waiting.
The footsteps grew louder.
Two silhouettes emerged from the tunnel beyond.
Rusli gasped in recognition. Flicked on his light and flung himself back into the passage.
“Yusaku! You’re all right!”
The tall boy looked startled only for the briefest moment. Then he inclined his head and angled his posture slightly to allow Tuyet past from behind him.
It was Intan’s turn to gasp. “You’re hurt!”
The collar of her uniform was torn, revealing a jade pendant dangling against her chest. Crumbling blood stained its surface as well as the white shift beneath her uniform.
Eguzki stepped forward, frowning. “Let me –”
“Don’t mind me,” Tuyet snapped. “More importantly — those damned rebels — they’re here!”
“Believe it or not, it’s true, Kaneshiro,” she replied, collecting herself. “Wystan and I saw a few of them passing by. Heading deeper into the tunnels.”
“But how did they know of this place?” he demanded, and Intan could tell how agitated he must be despite the wearied resignation in his voice. “How did they manage to get in here? And when?”
Intan thought of Shulinaq and her people, gone into hiding. But their village was some distance from Hadil’s. And whatever alliance they’d had with Mok and his men was surely now broken. It was possible Mok had been informed of these underground networks before that break, but Intan did not think it likely that Shulinaq would have betrayed such a private, secret place to the rebels.
“What worries me is what they intend to do here,” said the Hibiscus boy then, voicing the thought that was almost certainly on all their minds.
“Whatever it is,” interrupted Rusli with a startling grimness. “We’ve got to stop them.”
* * *
“Is it really true, sir?”
The man who called himself Filipe Mok looked up at the small contingent that had just barged into the rocky chamber he had claimed as his own quarters. “Is what true?”
Another man piped up. “That, you know. That there’s a… monster. Hidden underneath that lake.”
“It is an old story,” said Mok. “One that I do not believe you are unfamiliar with.”
The men shifted uneasily, a few of them nodding in acknowledgement.
“But just a bedtime tale, surely,” said the one who had first spoken. “There are no such things as monsters. And even if there were, how could it still be alive after all this time?”
Mok chuckled dryly. “You possess a disappointing lack of imagination.”
The man ducked his gaze, abashed.
“No, no. It is nothing to be ashamed of. I do not fault you for it.”
“Sir,” said the youngest of them then in a meek tone. “I’ve never heard of this tale. Or of anything living in that lake, monster or not. Except for those fish they introduced a few years back, I guess, but that doesn’t really count…” He looked around defiantly, as if expecting the others to jeer at his ignorance. But they remained deadly solemn.
“You were born in the factory town down south, weren’t you?” Mok said slowly, studying the youth, a skinny fellow about Zeke’s age, barely old enough to be counted among their numbers. Perhaps it had been a mistake to bring him here. Just as it had been a mistake to place so much responsibility on Zeke.
Mok lifted the lantern he had left burning in the corner and stepped out into the wider cave where the rest of his men had gathered, beckoning for the boy and his companions to follow. Voices called out to him in greeting, asking for updates on their situation, for confirmation of their plans. But he held up a hand for silence.
There had been no choice but to rely on Zeke, he thought. Kid had been their only connection. Their only lead. Their only hope. Or so they’d thought at the time.
There was a certain unjust irony in what things had come to now. In the identity of the one who had stepped up to fill Zeke’s place. If Mok had known earlier the truth behind their anonymous informant, he would not have made the choices he had. There would have been no need for Zeke’s sacrifice.
Still, there was a certain comfort in knowing he would not regret the sacrifice of Zeke’s replacement now.
By now the entire encampment’s eyes were on him, their attention wholly fixed.
Thus satisfied, he spoke, voice ringing out across the gathering:
“Once upon a time, in ages long forgotten, the people of this island lived at peace with one another. In the fields where they toiled, rice grew thick and tall. In the forests and mountains, beasts and birds ran plentiful and free, and the rivers and seas swarmed with fish.
“But one day, as the farmers were tilling the earth and the fishermen were setting out on their boats, a sound like thunder ripped through the skies. The earth trembled. Shadow fell upon the land. The people of the island looked up and saw that the sun had disappeared.
“‘Oh no!’ they cried. ‘What shall we do?’ But despite their fear and disbelief they had no choice but to help each other stumble home in the darkness, clinging to the vague hope that this unnatural night would soon pass.
“The hours dragged on. Into the darkness crept a silvery light, cold and still as frost.
“‘The moon! The moon!’ cried the people. ‘He, at least, has not yet forsaken us.’
“But just as they were about to rejoice at the arrival of their savior, another thunderous noise shook the heavens, and the moon, too, vanished abruptly from sight.
“From that day, neither sun nor moon came into the skies again, and the world knew only darkness. Crops failed. Beasts hid in the caves, and fish in the icy depths. No birds sang; no flowers bloomed.
“The people despaired. How could they live in a world without light? Without sun, without moon: a world in which nothing grew?
“It was then that a pair of siblings, Brother Ka and Sister Yu, stepped out and said, ‘Things cannot go on like this! We must go and find where the sun and moon have gone! We must learn why they have disappeared, and bring them back before everyone starves to death!’
“Thus they set out, torches in hand, into the forest beyond. For nine years and nine months they journeyed: through the valleys, past the rivers, over hill and mountain, until at last they came upon a pair of mighty peaks. Just past the peaks Sister Yu could see a dim glow.
“‘Look, Brother!’ she said. ‘A great lake lies in the valley beyond these peaks. The sun and moon must be hiding there!’
“‘Yes, Sister,’ replied Ka. ‘You must be right! We have found them at last!’
“Together the siblings ran toward the lake. But when they reached its shores, they discovered, to their dismay, the truth behind the sun and moon’s disappearance.
“A scaled behemoth waded in the lake’s waters, kicking around a ball of fire as if it was a child’s toy. And when it had tired of the ball of fire, it opened its jaws wide and swallowed it, spitting back up in its place a ball of ice.
“Brother Ka and Sister Yu were furious. How dare this monster steal the sun and moon for its own entertainment? Yet they were too afraid of the beast to try and steal them back: all along the shores of the lake they could see the shining skulls and pale bones of others who had arrived before them, and failed.
“At this time, Brother Ka noticed smoke rising from a tiny vent in the mountainside. With all his strength he pried the rock apart, revealing the entrance to a long, damp tunnel.
“Brother and sister stepped into the passage and followed its twisting path through the thickening smoke. At last through the smoke, they saw the red embers of a cooking fire.
“Seated by the fire was a wrinkled elder. The siblings greeted the elder with utmost respect. The elder looked upon them in shock, having not laid eyes on another living being for a great many years, but said nothing. For to this elder the gift of speech had been lost.
“The siblings told the elder the tale of their quest for the sun and the moon, and of the behemoth that lurked in the lake outside, and their intention to defeat it and return light to the skies. But the elder, head shaking, signed to them that it was impossible. The behemoth was powerful and vicious; it would not take any challenge to it lightly, nor could it be destroyed by mortal hands.
“Still the siblings would not back down. Seeing the extent of their resolution, the elder relented at last. Reaching into the fire, the elder drew out a shimmering golden chain and a net of silver. Brother Ka took the golden chain, and Sister Yu, the silver net. They thanked the elder over and over again, promising to return once the deed was done.
“With that they left the elder by the burning fire and ventured back down the long winding passage into the world above. The behemoth was still standing there in the lake, now juggling two balls at once between its tree-like legs.
“Brother Ka whipped out the golden chain. As it flew through the air, the chain lengthened and looped around, chasing the balls’ path between the beast’s leg and up towards its head even as it stretched out its neck to swallow the moon.
“Before the behemoth’s jaws could snap shut, the chain suddenly drew taut, tightening about its legs and neck. It roared in anger and pain, but no matter how it struggled, it could not break free. Instead, the chain cut deeper and deeper into its flesh. Blood streamed down its flanks, pouring into the waters below.
“Sister Yu hurriedly threw out the silver net. The net settled over the behemoth’s body, further ensnaring its limbs. Slowly, slowly, the beast sank into the water, as if a dreadful weight were now pressing down upon it, until at last nothing remained in view but for the sun and the moon, floating upon the surface of the crimson lake.
“‘But how shall we return them to the sky now?’ cried Sister Yu.
“Brother Ka swam out and tossed the two balls upward with all the strength he possessed, but it was no use. Though they lingered midair for some time, they soon toppled back to the lake.
“‘If only we could reach as high as the Old Ones themselves,’ said he.
“His words sparked an idea in Sister Yu. She dove into the water — down, down, down — until Brother Ka feared that she had drowned.
“When she resurfaced, she held out her hands, and in her palms rested the behemoth’s two eyes. Brother Ka took one; she took the other; and together both swallowed the eye they each held.
“Before long, brother and sister began to grow. Their heads raced higher and higher; their limbs thickened and stretched. They became as mountains themselves. This time, they were able to successfully set the sun and moon back on their right course. Light returned to the world once more. Life began to blossom again. And all the people sang and danced in joy.
“As for the behemoth: it was true that it could not be killed or destroyed by mortal hands. But mortal hands had bound it, and mortal hands had sealed it, deep beneath the waters it had terrorized for so long.
“And there shall it stay through the ages, until naught but the sea remains.”