S1| Ep22: Awakening (上)
March 8, 2013
(A/N: EK just started a new serial over at http://nmtseries.wordpress.com/, an SF story based on Noli me Tangere! Also a quick heads up on my part — although I intended to have Sunday/Monday updates it obviously hasn’t been working out, and my RL schedule has had a complete changeover since January, so updates are tentatively moving to Wednesdays/Thursdays, which will hopefully work out better for me. Sorry for my continued failure at keeping to a consistent update time… D:)
A hushed but urgent argument ensued, which Intan observed with detached consideration as she worked through the sprites’ motives or intentions in bringing them underground at a time like this. Was it just so that they could rescue their friends? Or for some other reason?
Only when Intan understood, could she choose how to act next.
Her companions seemed equally torn. Tuyet was, of course, raring to go after the rebels despite her injuries, much to Eguzki’s annoyance. Rusli, usually the more passive of the two, was on her side. His tall friend remained silent and utterly noncommittal. The Hibiscus boy quietly suggested that it was more important to escape from the tunnels and report to the Headmistress.
“By the time we get out, it’ll be too late!” growled Tuyet. “Whatever it is they’re up to, their plans have almost come to a fruition if what we heard is any indication. We’ve tried to stop them again and again. Tried to unearth them from whatever holes they were hiding in — not realizing we’d have to do it literally. Mok must be here. We’ve got to put an end to this!”
“In your state, no one’s going to be putting an end to anything,” Eguzki replied, voice tight.
Tuyet glared at him. “I’m not like Morikawa,” she said. “I’m tougher than you think. Something like this isn’t going to drag me down.”
If she had thought to goad him into doing something unwise, she would be disappointed. Eguzki’s only response was a gritted, “If we are all killed on some foolish suicide mission here, the rebels will have won.”
Rusli, who had for some reason been staring surreptitiously at Tuyet all the while, interrupted. “I understand your concern, Kaneshiro. But Dugu is correct. This may be our only chance.”
“Forget him, Rusli,” said Tuyet, her face wan and glistening with a slight sheen of sweat despite the comfortable temperature of the tunnels. “He’s no longer one of us. He has… no say.”
“But at least one of us should go,” insisted the Hibiscus boy, stubborn despite his seeming timidity. “Just in case.”
“And I suppose you think anyone here knows the way out?” Tuyet shook her head, collected herself. “Bad idea to get separated after we’ve finally found each other again. It’ll take time for any of us to find an exit that hasn’t caved in, and without getting caught at that. It’s pure luck we haven’t run into any rebel bastards yet. But now we know they’re here, we’re as good as trapped. Might as well get something useful out of the ordeal, in that case. Old Liow’ll be smart enough to figure what’s happened to us when we don’t report in — if she hasn’t already figured it out, considering how long we’ve been gone.”
The matter seemed settled, then, but at that moment Rusli’s friend spoke for the first time.
“Were you listening at all to what I just said, Wystan?”
“I am not one of you either.”
“Yusaku…” murmured Rusli.
“Grasping for an excuse to report to your true master, eh?” Tuyet shrugged. “Whatever. Go. If Rusli the younger here’ll let you.”
Intan watched curiously to see how Rusli would respond. But in the end, he jerked his head once.
“Don’t tell my father,” he said. “Don’t let him know I’m here.”
“Your lord father must be deeply concerned,” replied his friend in a monotone.
“We’ll make it out of here. All of us. I swear. Please, Yusaku.”
After a moment, the tall boy bowed. Then he turned and left.
Tuyet snorted, watching his departing back. “Reached the rebellious stage, have you?”
“My father… he’ll just make things worse.”
“You’ve got that right.” Then, she said flatly, “You really think he’s going to make it out?”
“Yusaku’s no fool.”
The older girl shrugged, as if to say that lack of foolishness was no guarantee of survival.
“You two,” she said, expression softening as she turned to Intan and the Hibiscus boy. “Are you ready?”
Intan and the boy nodded.
To Intan’s surprise, Tuyet looked away again. “I’m sorry. I wish I could let you go with him.”
“Why?” asked Intan. “Isn’t it our duty as Dragons to stop them?”
It was a while before Tuyet answered. “Did you ever find her? The goddess of the springs?”
“Nope, not yet!” Intan replied, puzzled by the question. “It’s okay, though. I’m not in a hurry!”
At that Tuyet laughed, and though there was no mirth in her voice, the set of her shoulders relaxed.
The Hibiscus boy said, “Won’t you at least let Kaneshiro look at your wound?”
“Wystan’s already done what he could,” she replied shortly. “Kaneshiro may follow him or come with us as he wishes. Now, let’s go.”
Still the Hibiscus boy hesitated, even as Tuyet and Rusli moved on.
Intan looked at Eguzki. “Will she really be all right?”
He avoided her gaze. “Forget it. It’s none of my business anyway.”
“You will come with us though, won’t you?” she said, thinking of the sprites.
“I have no choice, do I?” he replied, bitterness leaking through every word.
Intan frowned. Folded her arms across her chest. “There is always a choice.”
“… Sorry.” He took a deep, shuddering breath. “Yes. I mean to see this to the end.”
The end. His words paralyzed her for a moment, and when she came back to herself, the Hibiscus boy was standing in their path, blocking the way forward.
“You’ve changed,” he said, so softly Intan thought she might have misheard.
But Eguzki made no sign of hearing. Instead, he pushed past, forging on into the shadows ahead.
* * *
“I never knew a place like this existed,” murmured Hadil to herself.
Ahead of her, Kikue said, “Are we no longer in a section mimicking the layout underneath the campus?”
“Not for a while.” Hadil had stopped trying to ask where they were heading, or how she could be so sure of their direction. Kikue had refused to answer — Hadil suspected because the other girl was either trying to spare her feelings or was too embarrassed to tell the truth. Either way, it didn’t really matter.
“It’s been about two or three days, you know,” she continued.
“How can you tell?”
Kikue snorted. “I’m amazed we’re still alive.”
The remark seemed utterly hilarious for some reason, and Hadil burst into laughter, startling herself.
Just days in this darkness, and yet it felt like years.
She said quickly, “These look like newer additions to the old mines.”
“How new? Within our lifetimes new?”
Surprised at the other girl’s interest, Hadil replied, “Not that new. The old mines have been around for decades, maybe almost a century. These look like they were built later, but they’re getting on in age too.”
“During the war.”
“How’d you guess? I was about to say. I noticed some equipment set up that must have been used for secret communications. I wonder if it still works.”
Kikue muttered something about irritating little know-it-alls. Hadil supposed it was a reference to someone else. Kikue wasn’t the type to shy away from direct confrontation. And really, she’d been uncharacteristically quiet ever since —
“Aren’t you worried?” Hadil asked. “The ventilation system they built into this place must be pretty impressive, and we’re lucky you brought along supplies, but…”
“There are others down here.”
“Others?” Hadil’s mind flickered to forbidden spaces. Her knees were shaking again, she thought vaguely. And she seemed to have come to a stop, despite herself.
“Those rebels, I bet,” growled Kikue, who either hadn’t noticed or was pretending not to. “This must be where they’ve been hiding all along.”
Hadil forced herself to start moving again.
“Um,” she said. “You don’t mean… all this time, you’ve been dragging me straight toward their secret den? And that we’ve been living off their secret stores? And you didn’t tell me any of this?”
To this Kikue did not respond.
“Hey, Sunagawa. I’ve been wondering,” Hadil said tentatively, after some more time had passed.
“The war. If we had the Dolls, just what exactly did the enemy have?”
For a while the other girl did not answer. Hadil sighed, ready to give up.
But then Kikue said, “Why are you asking me?”
“It’s just… Nobody ever talks about it. You know. The war. But you, your family. I thought you might have a better chance of knowing something.”
“Does it matter?”
They fell silent again, each lost in their own thoughts. Hadil was beginning to get hungry, in fact, when she suddenly caught sight of the faint glow of light ahead.
Kikue had already seen it, apparently, for she was looking back at Hadil, gesturing at her to be quiet. Not that either of them could get any more quiet than they already were.
The tunnel curved and widened. The sound of many people chattering and walking about grew louder and clearer. Kikue glanced around the corner, then whipped her head back and leaned heavily against the wall. Hadil joined her and tried to peek as well, but was stopped by a slender outstretched arm.
“It’s them,” Kikue whispered fiercely.
“What are we going to do now?”
Kikue’s eyes narrowed. Before she could say anything, a shout rose from beyond.
Hadil’s heart leaped into her throat. She exchanged a glance with Kikue. Had they been discovered?
But apparently it was some other person who had been caught sneaking around, for the murmur of action grew more distant instead of approaching. Hadil, unable to resist, leaned over peek at last. Kikue shoved her out of the way to take a look as well. But from their angle, they could see nothing but a crowd of grim, dirty men milling around and yelling at each other.
Still, as they watched on, the crowd gradually parted for a stern, bearded man, looking every inch like an ex-soldier (or at least, the image Hadil had in mind of an ex-soldier). The man held up a hand, and the others backed away even further.
“Why, if it isn’t Zeke’s friend,” he said, with a particular emphasis on ‘friend’ that made it quite clear what he meant. “I feel for him. I knew you were a cold one, but not just how cold. Whatever will dear Bea say when she finds out what her latest protege has done?”
“Don’t you dare act as if you feel a damn whit for him,” replied a sharp, feminine voice.
“My feelings are genuine. Unlike Bea, I do not care for senseless sacrifice. Still, I am glad you have come.”
“You talk too much, old man.”
The crowd continued to shift, and Hadil saw then who had spoken.
She ducked back behind the wall and sank to her knees.
Beside her, Kikue trembled.
“Yes,” said the other girl through gritted teeth. “Tuyet Dugu. Third year, Hibiscus. Our senior.”